Consider the martini. That just what Peter Moody has done with OLIVE OR TWIST, a kitschy 55-minute valentine to that most persistent and evocative of cocktails. Standard references will give you facts, figures, and the twisted history surrounding Martini’s origins, but only Moody will also give you the ambiance, the gestalt, and yes, the cult of the drink some preferred shaken not stirred.
To fully express his devotion, rather his obsession, Moody has created a new form, the docudramedy. Interspersed among the usual stock film footage and talking heads, many of them more stylish than the ones we usually get, there are mini films noir, wherin trench-coated gumshoe Nick Martini (co-writer Paul Arensburg) investigates all things Martini. Some of those segments are shot in an exquisitely glossy black and white that is perfectly suited to the sophisticated mystique evoked by the cocktail.
There is something sophisticated, too, about the Martini folk, albeit somewhat off-kilter. The passionate devotees are a breed apart, living in a world that is not quite the one we inhabit, but one that seems to be a lot more fun. There is Mr. Rick, who lives a life steeped in an art deco aesthetic giddily showing off his custom-made Martini-themed cowboy boots, the ones that are not only sporty, but are also suitable for wear with tuxedos, and in which he wants to be buried. There’s socialite and martini anthropologist Barnaby Conrad, who explains the proper way to enjoy a Martini with a sleek sangfroid worthy of James Bond. There’s Bruno, the legendary bartender at San Francisco’s Persian Aub Zam Zam Room, who suffered fools not at all, fools being defined as, among other things, anyone who didn’t order a Martini when coming into his bar. And then there’s Moody himself, who adds his own piquant spin to sophistication with a Martini-centric lifestyle that included a Martini-shaped wedding cake. His wife and his parents appear in pithy vignettes that annotate the degree his devotion and the, well, antipathy it inspires in them.
Moody serves as our host, sometimes behind the stylish bar in his home, sometimes while wandering the streets of San Francisco dressed as a giant Martini, his head, painted green, playing the olive in the drink. He provides the bookends to each whimsical segment, some of which tackle such controversies as vodka versus gin, shaken versus stirred, and, of course, just where did this iconic libation originate? Other points to ponder are more provocative. Did Martinis help lubricate the Tehran conference between Stalin and Roosevelt? Were the designs of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings based on Martini shakers? Are there health benefits to the well-made Martini? Those ideas may well fall into the category of things that ought to be true even if they aren’t. More’s the pity. Espionage in the form of tiny microphones in Martini olives, on the other hand, is more credible and Moody produces the inventor of same for a primer on how it’s done. He even ventures where few have thought to go, into the spirituality inherent in the ritual of mixing the perfect Martini.
It is virtually impossible to hold a Martini glass and not at least skirt the shoals of serious coolness. There is a reason, after all, that businessmen used to enjoy a three-Martini lunch instead of, say, a three-Manhattan repast. It’s much the same reason why wine coolers and Harvey Wallbangers went the way of the Pom Pom and the Fluffy Ruffle while the Martini, a much earlier creation, has remained a standard in the bartender’s reparatory. With OLIVE OR TWIST, Moody succeeds in infusing the audience with his loopy delight in the whys and the wherefores of his favorite concoction, and, by extension, how a simple drink rose to transcend the sum of its ingredients to become a genuine piece of Americana. Not to mention a darn fine drink.