Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Like Killing Flies (2004)

While not the original "Soup Nazi" of Seinfeld fame,* Greenwich Village restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, the subject of Matt Mahurin's 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies (the film is better than the title), has been known to eject patrons for arriving in a party of more than four or ordering just coffee. And he shouts a lot--a lot--and scowls and growls. But more than that, he has cultivated a monumentally kvetching persona, a man who has a complaint for every human weakness, real or imagined--and best of all, an ingenious analogy for every occasion. (His comparison of fusion cooking to, shall we say "adventurous," sexual activity is hilarious--and all but certain to ruin your appetite--depending on your appetites, that is).

In the same cramped and cluttered location for over thirty years, Shopsin's offers what seems to be an endlessly inventive amalgam of foods, featuring Dali-esque selections of soups and pancakes. The Shopsin's website provides (aside from links to outré products such as a "Chinese cleavage clamp"--I will say no more) a PDF of its menu--which seems to change with Kenny's mood swings, of which there are many. It's as crowded as his old restaurant (the film documents the change of location after they lose their lease) and features such offerings as duck breast potato curry, pecan chicken wild rice cream enchiladas, ricotta and carmelized banana pancakes, and sandwiches such as the "Jewboy" (BBQ pulled brisket, grilled onions, swiss cheese)--and of course the "Jihadboy" (beef, pomegranate, olive, feta, pistachio, tahini)--and over fifty soups, literally hundreds of offerings.

But this is half the feature, as they say. The real star is Kenny himself, as ready to pontificate as cook, delivering a stream of profane wisdom that he has obviously crafted over the decades, like Louis Armstrong in his prime, into what can only be called an orchestrated improvisation. And despite his nonstop tirades, in the end he emerges as a lover of not only the sound of Kenny Shopsin's voice but of every hungry fool who's ever crossed his path. When he finally gets around to his general view of humanity, he manages to make you feel good that "everybody's a piece of sh-t"--because in Kenny's eyes it's a blessing, an opportunity to admit fault (oh, the cold comfort of this Jewish comfort food) and to feel good about the little good one can do, despite such a scatological shortcoming.

The noise and grime and jangled claustrophobia of Shopsin's is perfectly captured by the visual style of I Like Killing Flies; Mahurin tosses his low-end video camera around the place, cutting and freeze-framing like a caffeinated Scorsese, getting us close--almost too close--to the delicious, vertigo-inducing world Kenny and his family have wrought. At least with Kenny as God, you know you won't go hungry--as long as you're a party of four or less.

*That would be Al Yeganeh, according to Wikipedia.

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