A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Clarence Birdseye born, 1886
On this day in 1886, one of the greats of the modern food industry was born. The man who could be considered to be the real Captain Birdseye came into the world in Brooklyn, New York, the sixth of nine children. Clarence didn’t come from a privileged background and when he grew up he struggled to pay his college fees. He ended up dropping out and in his early 20s wound up being a taxidermist, where the standing problem is how to keep the animal fresh while it’s being worked on. By the age of 35 he was working as a naturalist’s assistant, a job that required him to kill animals and examine them for infectious disease. The same problem – combatting putrefaction – arose, particularly as he was now working in New Mexico and Arizona, hot climates. In 1912, aged 36, he went to Labrador, Newfoundland, where he learnt while fishing with the Inuit that fish that was flash frozen at very low temperatures maintained the flavour and texture of fresh fish when defrosted. This is because the ice crystals that form during flash-freezing are smaller, so don’t burst cell walls, which means the food doesn’t turn to mush when defrosted. Birdseye realised that this technique would revolutionise frozen food production, if it could be applied on an industrial scale. By 1922 Birdseye was making experimental trials. But though his technique was simple and brilliant, his marketing was not and his company, Birdseye Seafoods, went bust. He started another company, General Seafood Corporation, refining his flash-freezing processes and patenting each one as he went along. By 1929 he had sold his company for $22 million, though continued to work for the company, which its new owners called Birds Eye Frozen Food.
The Deep (2012, dir: Baltasar Kormákur)
If you’ve seen the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which Baltasar Kormákur produced and starred in, or its American remake, Contraband, which starred Mark Wahlberg and which Kormákur directed, the theme of The Deep probably won’t surprise. But its tone might. A film about the hard-drinking, rough-edged guys who go out into the icy waters to catch cod, it has the same keen eye for life on board ship that the previously mentioned films had, but it’s a far weirder and much more satisfying film. Centring on Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a lump of meat, beard and lard who embarks one night on a boat heading out into the dark icy night, the film really gets going when the ship goes over, throwing Gulli into the sea, drowning most of his shipmates instantly and soon freezing to death the few who have survived. But not Gulli. In the dark, miles from land and knowing that he’s fish food unless he abandons the scrap of wreckage he’s clinging to, Gulli strikes out for the shore, talking to seagulls, imagining his dead comrades floating in the deep. Until, finally, delirious, exhausted, he somehow arrives back on dry land, where no one can believe he’s swum all night in mortally cold water. Nor can the scientists, who “know” that a human simply cannot survive temperatures that cold for that long. The film takes two more turns – as Gulli is first wracked by the guilt of the survivor, and is then probed by scientists for the special superhuman gift that kept him alive. It is these changes of tone that make The Deep worthwhile. It could have been a film about a man making an epic swim. It could have been a film about a man coming to terms with surviving when everyone else perished. And it could have been the quasi-sci-fi film it always looks like it’s about to become – what is Gulli’s superhuman power? Instead it does all three. And it does them all really well. And then, finally, as if to put the icing on the cake, it throws in a really touching poetic ending, reveals that the whole thing is based on a true, if incredible story and dedicates the entire film to Icelandic fishermen.
- It’s a one-off
- The Icelander Kormákur really has got an eye for life on board a ship
- Ólafur Darri Ólafsson makes a fabulous atypical hero
- Because it really happened
© Steve Morrissey 2013