In the country that managed to put a man on the moon, why is it so hard to find a decent cappuccino? In this feature-length personal essay one American woman's lifelong obsession with ...
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In the country that managed to put a man on the moon, why is it so hard to find a decent cappuccino? In this feature-length personal essay one American woman's lifelong obsession with finding the perfect cappuccino pushes her to question her community, her country, and her entire way of life.Written by
The Perfect Cappuccino - a film by Amy Ferraris - is a great investigation into the slipshod quality of coffee production in America and its implications for chronic imbibers. Cafe Rationale received a copy of the documentary today (I'm celebrating our first piece of official mail) and I'd like to share a few of my thoughts after the first watch.
About fifteen minutes into the film (this would be about the time I finished the stiff demitasse of Dominican coffee I'd pulled for myself on the stovetop) I realized something important: this is an intelligent piece of work. The front half of the research was funded by Ferraris' one-year grant from the Fulbright commission to study the history of Italian cafe culture. In the course of the film, she consults with professors of history and literature, representatives from Italy's oldest espresso roasters, former Starbuck's CEOs, and intellectual property rights lawyers. With an MFA from UCLA's film program and an obvious knack for assembling a coherent narrative, Ferraris brings a touch of academic heft to a subject matter that would appear hopelessly superficial in other hands.
Ferraris' penchant for broad contextualizing is manifest almost immediately: it is not long before we realize that the scope of her inquiry transcends the mug's rim, that her search for the perfect cappuccino is as much practical as it is metaphorical. And she doesn't pull many punches either.
In just a few steps, we see the damning juxtaposition between Italy's cafe culture and our own. We bounce back and forth between shots of thick, dense cappuccinos served in pristine white ceramics and soapy, spit bubble hogwash that's been dumped into recycled paper to- go cups. The cause of the deficiency? Americans' toleration of the corporate juggernaut, Starbucks. Her point is a subtle one. It's not so much that Starbucks is bad, predatory, and imperialistic; rather, the fact that any of us actually put up with this raises some serious questions. What does it say about us as consumers that we continue to vote with our money by spending it on subpar slop? What does it say about our palates? our aesthetic sensibilities? our commitment to go-it-alone Americanism?
The film succeeds in that, in a weird way, it gives Starbucks a fair hearing. Ferraris takes a few pot shots at the java giant, but not merely because it's an easy target: the point is that the American coffee retail industry and Starbucks are - very nearly - one in the same. This is cause for some concern and most of the film is spent in speculation about Starbucks' ability to successfully draw in so many people with a product of such poor quality and with the promise of such patently false mantras (individuality! sophistication! community! fraternite! universitas!) It is a call for responsible consumerism just as much as it is a cry for better coffee.
The Perfect Cappuccino also fairs quite well when stacked up against what had previously been the standard for coffee-based film, Black Gold. The latter film tackles the coffee industry from the supply side and, in this sense, Ferraris gives us a balanced counterweight: although she dabbles in economic talk from time to time, she's mostly concerned with what happens to the beans once they get to first-world consumers. This allows the film to be both more uplifting and more introspective. Whereas Black Gold ended so dismally and with so few answers put in place that I had to think twice about ever drinking coffee again, The Perfect Cappuccino ends on a high note with its coverage of the "third wave" of coffee retail pioneered by such industry innovators as Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Blue Bottle. The great thing about Ferraris' message is that it's personal and immediate: tomorrow morning I can go to Kaldi's Coffeehouse instead of Starbucks and begin to affect a change. And, if I'm lucky enough to have found a local roaster that sources its own beans, I might also be moving toward rectifying some of the problems presented in Black Gold.
If the film lags at all, it's when Ferraris' search for the perfect cappuccino becomes a small cafe owner's fight against a trademark infringement lawsuit instigated by a team of Starbucks lawyers. But even here, the message is handled well. Ferraris makes explicit for us a problematic juxtaposition. There is something uniquely American about the solo guy who can run his own coffeehouse from the ground up. On the other hand, the powerful American business venture is also ubiquitous in the narrative of the United States. While sitting around the cafe with its regular customers and dwelling on this comparison, the viewers slowly realize that the search for the perfect cappuccino is this place - the small, communal cafe with a passionate staff and an appreciative clientele. Having stumbled into java nirvana almost accidentally, a viewer of the film might sum up its moral in a word: authenticity. The perfect cappuccino is equal parts taste, feel, aura, sight, sound, perception, and intangibility. Sounds too hard to pin down? Believe me, you know it when you see it.
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