Your Ad Here (or “How Product Placement in Films Destroyed the Martini for Several Decades”)

Like a recurring bad dream, a new James Bond film, Skyfall, is filling the theatres and has been getting good reviews. Increasingly, I am measuring my own lifespan according to Bond films, hoping (like Warren Zevon used to) that I merely survive long enough to see the next one. But I probably haven’t actually enjoyed a Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and yet there I am, dutifully watching each and every instalment in the series, like a joyless duty I must perform, the reason for which I’ve long forgotten. A bit like Christmas, which I probably haven’t enjoyed since I was 12, but still solemnly endure time after joyful time. And with each passing year, I wonder whether it isn’t time to just say No.

I hated this new Bond film for all kinds of reasons: the new actor’s scowl and the franchise’s lurch towards “realism”, the new Q, the next M, the depiction of China which is slightly less nuanced than a Tintin comic strip, the tuneless and horrible theme song, the insane and pointless recital of a Tennyson poem as M’s defense of her department against a parliamentary oversight panel (doubtless a moment of hack relief for the writers, letting a bit of public domain English greatness slummily flesh out some idea they failed to articulate), and above all the camped-out, agent-of-chaos villain, whose actions make no sense whatsoever unless he is M’s biological son (in which case, they make a bit of sense). I mean, of course, none of it makes any sense. It’s a Bond film. There isn’t a moment during any of these films during which you’re not asking, “Why are they doing this? Why doesn’t he just shoot him?” And you run the risk of admonishing yourself, “You just don’t get it, do you?” He’s James Fucking Bond, all right? He’s got his reasons for needlessly dragging things out. The filmmakers’ need to advance to the next set piece is greater than your need for logic or expedience. If you want narrative coherence, you’re better off watching the Marx Brothers.

There were two bits that I enjoyed: the drinking scene in the beach hut with the scorpion, and the introduction of the Moneypenny character. Those are exactly what I will retain from this particular go-round. The rest is already a tortuous haze in my mind, almost completely forgotten the next day. I’ll probably also remember the unintentionally funny moment when the Shanghainese temptress tells Bond that something is “inevitable”, which put me in mind of Team America’s Kim Jong-Il.

My special hatred, however, for this particular episode is reserved for its more craven than usual product placement. During his “I’m dead” beach interlude, Bond grimly ingests a post-coital Heineken while lying next to some randomly generated woman. Craig himself has apparently spokesmodeled for Heineken before, so it isn’t entirely a left-field endorsement. Later on in the film, while Q and the actor who played the pigfucking Prime Minister in one of Charlie Brooker’s TV shows try and lure the villain (who is absolutely intent on killing M) towards her location to try and aid him in that objective, they signal the afterhours nature of their espionage by enjoying an at-work Heineken. None of this makes any sense. Okay, listen, it’s very simple. They’re leading the villain to M, up to where she’s hidden in an isolated house in rural Scotland (which happens to be Bond’s childhood home). Anything could happen. The villain really, extremely wants to kill M. And the MI6 guys are drinking Heinekens. But it’s a trap, see. The villain will arrive, destroy the house, there’s no backup whatsoever, and then M, Bond and the old groundskeeper will spring their trap, using an arsenal of two rifles, a knife and some patriotism. It could have been worse. At least the surviving Broccoli didn’t make a deal with Corona.

In this film alone, there is also some kind of placement deal with a watch manufacturer, a brand of nail polish (worn by the Orientalist French actress), as well as with Sony Vaio, a laptop of whose the pigfucker actor uses, which perhaps clears up the mystery of a) why MI6 was so easily hacked and b) why nothing its employees do outstrips the competition.

The Bond franchise got an early start in its brand worship with Dr. No, depicting old Sean Connery gamely slurping on a Red Stripe beer, presumably to get in to the spirit of his Jamaican surroundings. In that same film, Bond demands that his hotel’s room service make him a martini, shaken, not stirred, using vodka. The official partnership with Smirnoff, cemented by the Broccoli clan during that first Bond film, remains into the Craig era.

Now, in case you think that entertainment is a harmless confection which contains absolutely no real-world repercussions for your life, think back to Dr. No. This seemingly innocuous and completely eccentric command to a bartender, who would have been within his rights to respond, “Look, I’ll make your drink however you like, mister, just don’t call it a martini, okay?”, has done more to destroy and warp the pre-eminence of the greatest cocktail of the 20th century than prohibition and the film Cocktail combined. All through the 1990s, bartenders taking bartending courses were taught how to make a martini: put some vodka and vermouth in a shaker with a bunch of ice and shake it as hard as you can and as long as you can, until your hands can no longer stand the freezing pain. Now, see those little flakes of ice floating around in the glass? Well done. You’ve made a perfect martini, just like James Bond, but ‘90s style.

And we are just now collectively waking up from this hangover today, in the second decade of the 21st century, knowing that a martini is nothing but gin and vermouth, in variable quantities, stirred in a shaker with ice (for about 40 seconds to a minute). Finally, we have our drink back.

The sheer greed of it is not the only reason that product placement in films is horrible. There is also the matter of insulting the audience. The film’s director, occasional social critic Sam Mendes, insists that he doesn’t know what the fuss is about, that these deals are a fact of modern filmmaking reality. Even the audience, he implies, is savvy enough to resign themselves to it. So, the next time you see a tiny, shrunken Sam Mendes in your cereal bowl, clinging to a Cheerio as if it were a life preserver and begging you for help, just know that neither he nor the Cheerio are there by accident. It’s only a bit of placement. Scoop him up and crunch him down, like the insect that he is. If you don’t, you’re sending the wrong message to filmmakers.

And the next time you order a martini and the bartender reaches for the vodka, think of that first James Bond film and just say No.

An Open Letter to Noilly Prat

It’s so long ago now that I don’t remember how Noilly Prat vermouth came to be the other ingredient, along with gin, that I use to make martinis.  But it has become indispensable.  I have never been one of these Churchill/Buñuel martini drinkers who talk about letting the light pass through a bottle of vermouth to infuse their gin.  It’s a charming idea, but that drink is not a martini.  It’s straight gin.  Now, to reinforce the slogan that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, Noilly Prat began disappearing from store shelves (in my part of the world, at least) in May.  And now the shop keeps a hole on the shelf where it used to be with a sign underneath that reads “Disponible sous peu”, rather than replacing it with something else.  I check the empty spot every time I go in and occasionally ask an employee, what’s up with Noilly Prat?  No one seems to really know.

Eventually, I found out from a blog on the internet (rather than any official source, which is baffling) that Noilly Prat is re-introducing its old-old formula sometime this autumn.  The story of the different formulas is a little confusing.  However, what frustrates and engages more than that saga is that the company simply decided to let its old supply run out months in advance of the new supply arriving, leaving nothing in the shops in the meantime.  So from May until roughly September (I think that’s their deadline), no Noilly Pratt, which has sent me trying out every other type of vermouth with very high and very low and extremely mixed results.

In capsule, the story of Noilly Prat’s changes involves switching out the New World formula for the Old World formula, which I noticed happening back in 2009 only because the shape of the bottle had changed.  I thought it was just a cosmetic uplift, and then eventually noticed that the colour and flavour of the vermouth had changed (for the better).  Now they’re going back to their old formula, in which it’s one vermouth for North America and another for the rest of the world.  The American formula was always cleaner and less characterful than the European, which was slightly golden in colour and could credibly pass for a fortified sipping wine.

I have to say that I’m going to miss the old Noilly Prat.  And now that I’ve had a few months off from its flavour, we’ll have to see how it stacks up against the sickly sweet likes of the Martini brand and its cousins.  It will have to win back its crown from Dolin vermouth, which is easily the most pleasant vermouth I’ve had to drink in the meantime.  Noilly Prat must be bargaining that its loyal customers will return, even after a long absence and the substitution of a “new” product for something that we’ve now had a couple years to get used to and enjoy.  I hope the risk they’re taking will merit the reward.

The Sphinx of Drinks

I’ve probably drunk about 10,000 martinis.  Somehow the drink found its way to my heart as a young man, and it’s stayed there all this time.  From the whole wide world of cocktails and drinks (wine, beer, Old Fashioneds, Gimlets, Sidecars, whatever), the clean, bracing blend of gin and vermouth is the only thing that I consume on a daily basis.  I’ve never gotten bored with it.  Whether I’m coming to the end of a long, dreary day or celebrating the end of an exceptionally good one, it’s always the right way to while away the last hours.  I don’t know exactly why this is.  It’s a simple drink, and therefore hard to talk about.  It’s a complex drink because of its simplicity.

It’s like if you walk into a room (a room in an art gallery, let’s say) where there’s a Mark Rothko painting on the wall.  Even better if you don’t know the painting is there in advance.  You can tell what you’re looking at, even out of your peripheral vision.  There’s something ecstatic about it.  The pleasure of it is derived from its purity.  It’s a stern kind of wonderful.

Although I’ve loosened up a little over the last few years in my attitude towards different types of drinks (the Old Fashioned, for example), my loyalty to the martini remains paramount.  Sugar in drinks is something I’ve always kind of relegated to borderline children’s post-dinner cordials, figuring that any drink that had fruit or sugar in it was no better or worse than a Shirley Temple.  I still keep the martini at the top of the cocktail pyramid, but I now acknowledge at least that there is a pyramid.  The contrast with other drinks has helped me realise why it’s so difficult to talk about the martini.  With an Old Fashioned, there’s stuff to latch on to, stuff you can talk about.  With a martini, it’s like trying to talk about light.  It’s like trying to talk about being.

It should go without saying, I know when I’m drinking a bad martini, but I prefer to drink a good one.  How a bartender puts a martini together has become the barometer by which I measure the bar.  If the bartender hits me with a bland martini, I’ll order beer, or maybe wine, for the rest of the night.  Drinking an inferior martini is not the end of the world, but something close to it.  Some of the best bars in the world have failed me on this count, so it stands to reason that my local might let me down occasionally.  It’s a miracle that my local sometimes surprises me.

First consideration, a martini is a cocktail composed of gin and vermouth, pure and simple.  No amount of vodka or any other ingredient comes into it (excepting garnish, which ought to be as minimal as the drink itself).  I’ve felt pedantic on this point when, for example, a proofreader friend of mine, in the interest of verifying some source for a text she was working on, asked me, “How much vodka is in a martini?” I replied with a flustered shake of the head, like I couldn’t answer the question in English.  Vodka?  No.  “None,” I answered.  “There is no vodka in a martini.”  She laughed and patted me on the shoulder, like you would a pouty child.  It was at this moment that I knew that I had a more or less emotional attitude towards a drink that is so iconic that I feel like I am the only person in the world looking out for its interests.  Why do I care about this? it occurred to me.  Is there no one else?

Cocktails are of four varieties.  The martini is that “strongest” of varieties.  There is no sugar, no herb, no water, no citrus.  It is stupefyingly simple.  And for such a simple drink, it’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.  I argue that a minimal amount of vermouth is needed.  Winston Churchill claimed that it was enough to wave the cork from a bottle of vermouth over top of a glass of gin.  In other words, he was a fan of drinking straight gin.  That’s a cute story, and he was a first-class drunk, but that is not a martini.  I go for the 4 oz.-1/2 oz. gin-vermouth ratio, poured over ice in a pitcher or shaker, stirred, then strained over top of a good olive or two in a martini glass.  If you haven’t chilled your glassware (let’s say you forgot to put it in the fridge earlier in the day), the cold of the booze should be enough to at least establish a frosty condensation on the outside of the glass.  This is because you keep gin in the freezer.  Two of these are the greatest way to end any day.


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965