Tuesday, December 27, 2011

TV Bites: Q: The Winged Serpent

Papatzules w/Chiltomate Sauce (Warmed Tortillas Stuffed w/Hard-Boiled Egg, Pumpkin Sauce & Tomato Sauce)

Why in the world am I celebrating the New Year (from Rome, mind you!) with Larry Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent? What synergy could there possibly be? Or is there no rhyme nor reason?

Well, here goes. Q, of course, is short for Quetzalcoatl, who was a god of the Meso-American cultures, including both the Aztecs and Mayans. And you know what this new year of 2012 brings with it? You got it! The end of the world as we know it. (At least according to the Mayan calendar - see Background & Context section). Okay, sure it's got the History Channel folks all atwitter, and marketing "geniuses" all ablaze, but I wouldn't sell all your belongings and give away your pets just yet. Besides, I've got Jello Brand Pudding in my refrigerator that doesn't expire until 2013, and you know "Godfather" Bill Cosby would never lie to us.

As for me being in Rome? No reason. Just a whim. But strange as it may seem - especially for someone like myself who doesn't believe in the mystical - today I was at the Vatican (no, the Pope didn't have me over for tea) and after braving the human traffic to see the Sistine Chapel, just before you exit the Vatican museums, there on the right is a small ethnological wing. And what ethnological image is the featured display this month, you ask? Well, I couldn't believe it myself. Yup. A statue of Quetzacoatl himself in all his winged glory. Right there in the Vatican! If I was the Pope, I know I'd be sleeping tonight with one eye open.

Q in the Vatican

But whether you're planning for the return of Quetzalcoatl by year's end or simply taking it easy this New Year's Day trying not to anticipate anything further than what to eat - consider welcoming in the New Year with today's recipe which dates back to the days of the Aztec and Mayan peoples. And it's made with egg, so as you see the giant serpent egg at the top of the Chrysler building in Q: The Winged Serpent, you can imagine how many papatzules you could make and how big of a pan you'd need.

But let's get to it... If you are unfamiliar with the greatest subversive American filmmaker of all time, aka Larry Cohen, this is a nice quick introduction, from a 2003 Fade In magazine interview:

"Larry Cohen wrote and directed such micro-budgeted cult horror pictures as Q, It’s Alive, God Told Me To and The Stuff (about carnivorous ice cream*). He helped launch the blaxploitation cycle with Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem (both 1973). He’s also had a successful TV writing career, writing scripts for Columbo and NYPD Blue, among others, and created two influential TV series in the 1960s: Branded, a Hollywood blacklist allegory set in the Old West, and The Invaders, which marshaled the paranoia of the Communist witch hunts and was a direct precursor of The X-Files. And every once in a while, he lands a million-dollar spec sale which puts him back on the A-list, such as Phone Booth, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Colin Farrell, about a fast-talking press agent trapped in a Times Square phone booth by a psychotic sniper."

[* One major correction: The Stuff is about a yogurt-like substance that takes over your mind, like alien body snatchers - It's not ice cream, and it's not really what I'd call carnivorous though it will eventually devour you from the inside out.]

Speaking of Phone Booth, Cohen originally pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock who was interested, but it didn't happen. Cohen was supposedly inspired by the scene in The Birds (a previous Chef du Cinema pick) where Tippi Hedren is trapped in the phone booth when the birds attacked.

Cohen has skated between the Hollywood machine and guerrilla filmmaking in New York for decades like no one else. All his films are attuned to his particular political/social world-view, but are never oppressive and always entertaining first and foremost. He's worked with great actors (he often gave work to actors who had been forgotten in their later years), and any actor he can get. His output is impressive by any standard.

And how can you not love the guy's attitude. Here he is commenting on the fact that he is still not so well recognized or appreciated by film lovers and critics, but that people keep discovering his films: "I like the fact that my films keep surfacing. They're like people; they have a life of their own. They go out into the world and make friends of their own.... I knew that if I made enough films that would happen; sooner or later somebody's going to see them, someday." Making friends, making films.

But he's also got some A-list admirers. "James Cameron's a big fan of Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff; Spielberg gave us an award for God Told Me To when he was a judge at one of these film festivals; and It's Alive got a critics award from a festival that was chaired by Roman Polanski. So although these are B movies, it's nice to run into all the 'A' directors who always talk about these pictures," Cohen noted.

As a fellow filmmaker friend wrote to me when I told him I was going to write about Cohen: "He's the real deal. Kicks Oliver Stone's ass. Challenges all political and religious values in accessible genre movies. Would rather see his J.Edgar movie again than that Eastwood crap." If you get Cohen's films, you're that passionate about them. And speaking of Eastwood's Hoover flick, here's Cohen's 17-page rant (PDF) on how he feels about it, which is definitely worth the read.

Q: The Winged Serpent is available for purchase from Amazon, and is home rentable from NetFlix.


"It won't be the first time in history that a monster was mistaken for a god.... That's why I have to kill it. If I can kill it, it's not a god. It's just a good old-fashioned monster."

Let's start here. The difference between a creative person and a non-creative person (though I believe we all have the ability to be creative) is that when a non-creative person looks at a shoe, for example, he sees a shoe. A creative person sees where the shoe has been, who owns the shoe, the color, the style, and everything else and can tell you a whole story about the person to whom that shoe belongs.

"I always look at that building – it's gorgeous, particularly when the sun hits it in a certain way – it's the most beautiful building in New York," said Larry Cohen of the Chrysler Building.

So in the beginning, there was a building. "I kept staring at the Chrysler Building, and saying to myself, 'Well, the Chrysler Building should have a movie about it. Why should King Kong and the Empire State Building get all the attention, when the Chrysler Building is so much better-looking? [It] definitely needed its own movie," he felt. "I saw all those birdlike gargoyles on the sides of the towers [and] I told myself, 'If a giant bird flew over New York City looking for a nest, it would certainly head directly for that feathered pinnacle that shines so brightly over the city in the reflection of the sun. Wait, wow, great! A giant bird living on top of the Chrysler Building – that sounds like fun....'"

"The next thing was to figure out who the lead character would be: The smalltime crook who knows the location of the nest and blackmails the city," he said. "I decided to create somebody from the lowest depths of the city, who finds himself at its highest pinnacle, at the top of the Chrysler Building below the needle."

I need a reason to make a film. Ideas come to me – a political or social statement and instead of making it a polemic, I make it with suspense and menace and humor,” Cohen said. Q shows "hows how a small time nobody can blackmail a system - how easy it is to turn a ‘nobody’ into a celebrity. This is especially telling today."

From this he started to write the script. Because Cohen is so prolific, he was, at the time, beginning to direct his Mickey Spillane adaptation, I, The Jury but for some reason he was fired after one week of shooting (one theory was that Cohen was over budget in the first week of shooting). Being cut off from a project just as it was starting shooting left Cohen feeling very depressed.

"Then, as fate would have it, I ran into Michael Moriarty in a restaurant on the corner," he recalled.

"I had seen him on Broadway and on television with Holocaust. I also saw him in Bang the Drum Slowly. I considered him to be a superior actor," he said. "One day we were sitting in the same restaurant at adjoining tables and I pointed him out to someone who was with me. I was telling my friend how great an actor I felt he was and Michael overheard all of it. So, he came over and we chatted. I said, 'I’ve got a movie that I’m going to be starting in a week or two. Maybe you’d like to be in it?' I sent him over the script to Q: The Winged Serpent and he said he’d love to do it."

The business about him "starting in a week or two" was complete bull, but when Moriarty signed on, Cohen thought, "Wait a minute! Maybe I can make this picture!"

So now he gets Candy Clark interested and then calls his friend David Carradine, who at that moment was in Cannes trying to promote a film he had just starred and directed in, Americana.

"I got [David] on the phone," Cohen recalled, "and said, 'Listen, I'm going to start making this picture in a couple of days, and I've got Michael Moriarty and Candy Clark, and I've got a part for you.' He says, 'What do I play in it?' I said, 'Do me a favor, just come on back here and do the part. I promise I'll write you some good stuff; I'll write you some funny scenes. Just come back and do it.'"

"I went out and got the money, which took about two weeks. So about three weeks after I was off I, The Jury I was shooting Q," Cohen said. "[S]ix to eight months later both pictures opened in New York on the same day on opposite sides of the street. Fortunately for me, Q did three times as much business as I, The Jury, so I was vindicated.... Q might not have been made otherwise, and certainly not with Michael Moriarty at that particular time. So it all happens the way it happens."

This would be the first of four pictures Cohen did with Moriarty. Moriarty reflected on working with Cohen, calling it “skin-of-your-teeth filmmaking.” He explained that "Larry tends occasionally not to look ahead. But genius is what you do with the mistakes, and nobody was better with mistakes than Larry Cohen.”

Some may call it mistakes, Cohen sees it as a chance to improvise, and one of the benefits of working outside the Hollywood system. On the first day of shooting, "[W]e were on the set and in between takes [Michael] was sitting around listening to a Walkman," Cohen recalled. "I said, 'What are you listening to?' and he replied 'I'm listening to these songs I wrote.' I said, 'Let me hear them.' I put it on and I said, 'That's good, and I like the one about an Evil Dream. I'll tell you what we should do; this guy shouldn't just be a little street punk, he wants to be better than that. He wants to be a singer, he writes songs, and he wants to get a job playing the piano in a club. We'll make up a scene where he goes to a club and tries to get a job, and they reject him. Then he'll go along with the robbery.'

"So we can see that if only they had given him the job, he would not have gone on the robbery! He would not have been up in the Chrysler building, he would not have found the nest – none of this would have happened if they'd just given him that job! But they don't. And he gets rejected in a very insulting way when the guy turns the jukebox on."

"So I said to the production guys, 'Go get me an empty club or a bar, and let's go down there and shoot it tomorrow,'" he continued. "So they went out and found this place in [Greenwich] Village in New York. If this had been a regular studio picture, I couldn't have done that. We would have had to get approval from the front office. You would have had to write the scene, send it in and have it budgeted, and 55 people would have been involved in the decision making process. I was down there the next day shooting what I wanted to shoot, and it worked out great. There was even a dog there, so I put the dog into the scene. I didn't bring that dog down there. There he was. So, I put the dog in there. Let him growl at Moriarty while he's playing the piano.

"And then Carradine showed up there halfway through the scene. He just came in from the airport from Cannes. He'd never read the script. He had no idea what the picture was about. I said, 'Sit at the bar and say this and say that.' And he did his part, but he had no idea what he was talking about or what this whole picture was about. But so what? They all do what they're told and everything works out in the end."

Later, after principal photography was done on the film, Cohen recalled, "[David] told me, 'I had never worked in a situation where I didn't know what I was doing beforehand. I didn't know what my character was or what I was supposed to be doing in the picture. I didn't know what the story was, I had never read the script, I had just gotten off an airplane from Europe, I had no idea what was happening. I go down there and you tell me to say these lines. As soon as I did the scene I was so upset I went out in the street and threw up!' I said, 'Well, you never would have known it – you did fine.' He said, 'Well, I liked Moriarty playing the piano – that relaxed me. But I still didn't know what was going on.' It was wonderful that he was a good enough friend to come all the way over and do that for me on faith."

Another major change in the story happened as filming started which he also credits to Moriarty's talents. "[I]n the original script the Moriarty character gets killed by that zealot at the end," Cohen said. "But that would have been a disaster, particularly as he turned out to be so lovable. So I had to improvise that scene with the prayer in it. But when I first wrote the story, I had no idea this guy would turn out to be such a lovable character."

But perhaps the biggest challenge was that which generated the idea in the first place - the Chrysler Building. Even though in Cohen's mind it was always going to be set in the Chrysler Building, he didn't want to write that in the script, afraid that if he couldn't get access to the building, the film's financial backers would squawk. Cohen said he went to the management company about sixteen times to convince them to let him film up on top. "I think the building was in trouble and it needed the money. I think we gave them something like $18,000 or something." And elsewhere added the only reason he still managed to get it was, "They didn't know we would bring actors, cameras and crew all the way up those ladders into that skinny little needle at the top of the building, and that we'd have helicopters flying around, and guys firing machine-gun blanks off the building."

And off they went... 88 floors to the top.

"I couldn't build that set, so we really had to shoot it at the very top of the Chrysler building, in the very needle of the building," Cohen explained. "The only access up there is a little ladder that's about [a foot and a half] wide, and you had go up that rickety little ladder. So I said, 'These crew people are never going to follow me up there. They're never going to go up there because, it's crazy. Who's going to climb up the top of the Chrysler Building, 88 stories above the street, with the wind blowing and everything? Who's going to do that?' But I went and they followed me. And I'm not so great with heights, but when you're directing a movie you always have to climb something. So I went up there and they followed me and I pretended I was fine with it. And I was, because the adrenalin was running. And then we had to hoist up all the lights, and all the equipment, and all the cameras had to be brought up on cables. And then we had to bring in a bird wrangler with the pigeons because there were no pigeons up there and I wanted pigeons picking over the dead bodies up there.

"And there were no railings. When you get up on top of the Chrysler Building it's triangular. All those little openings you see [in the film], those little triangles – there's no glass in there. It's all open. It's space. You just step right forward and you fall 88 stories down to the street. So I had a stuntman, his job – he had no job except to stand behind me and hold the back of my belt to make sure I didn't fall off because I'd be saying, 'Now we're going to go back and....' I'm backing up and he's saying, 'Larry! That's it! Don't move anymore or you're gonna fall off the Chrysler Building.'"

"When we got up there they were doing repairs," he continued elsewhere, "so there were these little metal baskets hanging off the building that steeplejacks work in. We got the idea of putting the police with machine guns in those baskets. We hired the steeplejacks, dressed them up in police uniforms and taught them how to fire guns, because no normal people will go into those baskets and hang off the side of the Chrysler Building. Even the stunt people don't want to do that – it's really scary."

Apparently, the stunt people weren't the only ones who got scared.

"They fired the machine guns, and of course the [sound of the] shots carried – unfortunately – down into the streets," Cohen said. "The Daily News building is down the block, so the [they] sent a camera crew and photographers and put a big headline in their paper that said, “Hollywood movie crew terrorizes New York!” Then they wrote an editorial saying: “It's time we stop allowing movie companies to come in from Hollywood and frighten our citizens." They said people were running for cover and that old ladies were terrified. Of course it was a total lie. I had a camera crew down on the street to try and get footage of people's reactions in case there really WAS a panic, but no one ran away!"

The New York Film Commission got all kinds of criticism and they had to apologize publicly, and the Mayor had to, as well. The Film Commissioner told Cohen: "You can shoot in New York, but no more gunfire or anything. You can't even shoot off a pistol. Nothing."

But Cohen's banishment didn't last long. "I've been back since," he said. "The lady who was there is not there anymore.... [and] the guy who used to be chief of the Police Liaison Squad left the police department and became an assistant director."

As the opening quote from the movie points to, Q also allowed Cohen to explore his thoughts about religion.

"Don't be on the roof when Quetzalcoatl's flying by!" he said. "That's the whole thing. People go to church and they're making a mistake. They say, 'Hey God! Look at me! Hey, it's me here! Sam! I'm praying!' And God says, 'Oh... Sam, I'd forgotten about him....' Don't call attention to yourself when you're dealing with God; just keep a low profile and maybe he'll go away. I just think it's not so much 'God help me,' but 'God, leave me alone!' Q was just like all the other gods – indiscriminate and brutal.

And we'll wrap this up with one final word from Mr. Cohen as he helps us to understand how that bird egg got to the top of the Chrysler Building: "Originally, we were going to have a whole scene about bringing an egg up in a truck from Mexico and putting it up there, but I dropped it. I said, 'Listen, if anybody wants to know how this fuckin' egg got into the top of the Chrysler Building, they can figure it out for themselves, 'cause I don't know the answers to these things.... The mystery is what makes it interesting."


Considered to be one of the most, if not the most beautiful bird in the world, the Quetzal. Allen Christenson wrote (PDF) in the preamble to his translation of the POPOL VUH, Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People:

"The male quetzal’s tail feathers were highly prized by Maya royalty for their beauty and size, often reaching three feet in length. The unique coloration of the bird carried profound religious significance for the Maya. Its predominant blue/green feathers represented sky and vegetation, both symbols of life. Its red breast represented fire, the force that quickens life. Kumatz is a general term for 'snake' or 'serpent.' The serpent was a common Maya symbol for regeneration or rebirth because of its tendency to periodically shed its skin to reveal a newer and brighter one. The combination of an avian lord of the skies with a serpentine lord of the earth and underworld gave this god power over all levels of the Maya universe. He is undoubtedly related to the well-known god Quetzalcoatl (Nahua for Quetzal Serpent) worshiped by the Aztecs of Central Mexico."

The myth of Quetzacoatl didn't end with the fall of the Mayan or Aztec, either. Apparently, some Mormons believe: "The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being."

But now to tie this to why Q is this New Year's edition of Chef du Cinema is that for some reason, there are people who believe the Mayans prophesized that this is the last spin around the sun for us. The calendar runs out and so do we. Hasta la vista, baby.

So what's all the hubbub about, bub?

Well, one thing for sure, those who are seeking to predict the future disagree amongst each other. Which, I personally believe is encouraging and reassuring. It just goes to prove the old Moroccan saying - which is my thought about any future predictions, be they religious or financial in nature - "He who foretells the future lies, even if he tells the truth."

But be that as it may, there are some who claim by year's end it's Mad Max time. Then you have folks like these, quoting from an article in USA Today:

"Journalist Lawrence Joseph forecasts widespread catastrophe in 'Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization's End'. Spiritual healer Andrew Smith predicts a restoration of a "true balance between Divine Feminine and Masculine" in 'The Revolution of 2012: Vol. 1, The Preparation'. In 2012, Daniel Pinchbeck anticipates a 'change in the nature of consciousness,' assisted by indigenous insights and psychedelic drug use."

"The Maya are viewed by many westerners as exotic folks that were supposed to have had some special, secret knowledge," said Mayan scholar Sven Gronemeyer. "What happens is that our expectations and fears get projected on the Maya calendar."

"For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle," Sandra Noble of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies said. To suggest some kind of apocalyptic or cosmic convergence will happen, she added, is "a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in."

We'll all find out soon enough....


About a year ago, the Culinary Institute of America opened their San Antonio campus and had an open house with lots of food and cooking demonstrations. So I went down to check it out.

If you didn't know the CIA had a San Antonio campus, it was created thanks to a $35 million dollar pledge from Kit Goldsbury, who was the head of the Pace Foods company. He stated: “I believe Mexican cuisine should take its rightful place among the fine cuisines of the world” and that “Latin chefs should lead the movement.”

His reasoning was that in every restaurant kitchen in Norte America, the lingua franca of the guys doing the work is Spanish, but the head chefs guiding them are all degree trained. If only these cooks could become chefs, and be encouraged to showcase the cuisines of their homes south of the border, and somehow have it affordable for those wishing to study, that would be a good thing. And that's exactly what he did with the school's El Sueño program.

So at this open house, which was connected to their annual food conference, that year being Latin Flavors (no surprise), I watched Ricardo Muñoz Zurita demonstrate and talk about the history of this dish. Muñoz is a cookbook author, CIA & Cordon Blue trained chef, Mexico City restaurant owner, and wrote an Encyclopedia of Mexican cuisine. He said the recipe for patatzules (sometimes spelled "papadzules") seems to go back thousands of years to both the Aztecs and Mayans, as I mentioned above. The word translates to "food of the lords." Apparently, the Mayans in all their wisdom mistook the Spanish invaders to be gods (but were in fact, not gods - just "old fashioned monsters" to tie this to our movie). But the recipe has evolved over time, so this may not be exactly what the original worshipers of Quetzalcoatl may have had for breakfast. And they are still a popular dish today in Mexico.

And I was watching, eating, and listening to him, I thought: "Oh, this would be perfect to go with Q: The Winged Serpent!" And so a year later, here we are. Happy New Year.

And as always.... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Papatzules w/Chiltomate Sauce (Warmed Tortillas Stuffed w/Hard-Boiled Egg, Pumpkin Sauce & Tomato Sauce)
adapted from a cooking demonstration by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, at the 2010 CIA/San Antonio Latin Flavors conference (PDF).
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6

3 ounces pumpkin seeds, raw
1 1/3 cups water
30 epazote leaves (if you can't get epazote you can use about a 1/2 bunch of chopped cilantro)
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste for sauces
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
9 regular-sized corn tortillas (or 18 small ones)

For Chiltomate sauce:
1 habanero chile, whole
2 pounds Roma tomatoes
1/4 cup white onion, diced
1 cup water

cilantro, for garnish

Dry roast pumpkin seeds in skillet until slightly golden. Be careful not to burn them. Cool and grind in spice grinder, small food processor, or by hand. Reserve.

Bring water and epazote leaves to a boil, and then let steep for 5 minutes to infuse flavor of the epazote in the water. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. You can either discard all the leaves or keep about half of them to blend. Reserve.

Combine the chopped hard-boiled eggs with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Reserve.

In a blender or food processor, combine ground pumpkin seed with epazote-infused water until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Warm the pumpkin seed sauce on low heat - do not boil.

Heat the tortillas (either in dry pan, comal, or microwave) until pliable but still firm. Using tongs or preferably your hand, pass the tortillas through the pumpkin sauce one by one. Use hands and then rub in sauce, then dip again. Put on plate and stuff each with egg. Roll to form tacos.

Spoon some more pumpkin sauce over tortillas, then spoon some Chiltomate sauce (don't smother it), as well. Garnish with cilantro. Serve immediately.

For Chiltomate sauce: Dry roast tomatoes and habanero in skillet. The habanero should almost be black. Process tomato and onion (NOT PEPPER) in a blender until smooth. Pour sauce in a saucepan, and add the whole roasted habanero (do not cut or break pepper). Add 1 cup of water and cook until sauce thickens. Season with salt to taste.

Larry Cohen, by Tony Williams @ Senses of Cinema
Larry Cohen introduces a screening of God Told Me To @ New York's Lincoln Center
Larry Cohen Interview @ The Horror Society
Larry Cohen Interview @ Films in Review
Larry Cohen: The Survivor, by Amy Wallace @ The New Yorker Magazine
Michael Moriarty Fan Page
The Official David Carradine Website
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies

Q - The Winged Serpent DVD
Q: The Winged Serpent Resin Model
A Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses, by Clara Bezanilla
Aztec, Inca & Maya (DK Eyewitness Books)
Mayan Cuisine: Recipes from the Yucatan Region, by Daniel Hoyer

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