By Erin Sherbert
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To understand Peter Moody's basement is to understand Peter Moody. There, in his Lower Haight home, he's building a martini lounge. In one corner, there's a retro leather couch that's pure Dean-Martin-at-the-Copa. In another, an as-yet-unused aquarium with a martini-patterned stand. There are martini posters. There are martini glasses. And in the corner, a metal-wire table shaped like a martini glass.
"I'm a pretty easy person to shop for," Moody says with a laugh, wearing a sweater with a martini-glass pattern on it. His mother knitted it for him 10 years ago.
That sort of affectation is risky in today's San Francisco, where retro went out of style some time back. But Moody, 40, was way ahead of the hipster game. He picked up his interest in the martini during the chardonnay '80s, inspired by regular trips to the Persian Aub Zam Zam bar near his home. In the years since, he's pursued a constant love affair with the martini, collecting paraphernalia, reading books, watching movies. And, of course, he was investigating. Finally, at long last, the end is near.
Moody works in the local film industry as a location scout (he's now working on Matrix 2,but he's sworn to secrecy -- sorry, dude). He directs on the side, though it's a small oeuvre he's got, consisting only of the video for the Camper Van Beethoven song "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and Olive or Twist, a 70-minute film about the history and meaning of the martini that's half fact, half fiction, and 13 years in the making. The film is all but finished, but lacks a distributor, so earlier this month Moody went to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to attend the International Film Financing Conference, a networking event for independent filmmakers. The conference's highlight is an afternoon of pitches, where directors and producers -- whose names are picked at random out of a fishbowl -- get to explain their great idea to a panel of steely-faced industry executives and an empathetic audience. Everyone was warned beforehand that your typical TV and film exec is probably going to say no to just about every idea -- which they did, politely shrugging off each concept tossed at them.
Except when Moody got called up and talked about his "happy-hour-length docu-dramedy." The star: his bartender. The chosen subject: "The history of the United States from the Industrial Revolution through the present day via the martini." The title: Olive or Twist.
"So it's a documentary?" one panelist asked, confused.
"No," explained Moody. "A docu-dramedy. It's kind of a cross between Ken Burns and American Movie."
Everybody in the room laughed, including those steely-faced execs. Instead of having to buttonhole every movie-industry type in the room, Moody immediately found himself awash in a sea of business cards.
Olive or Twist's star is Moody's friend Paul Arensburg, who works as a bartender at Fior d'Italia in North Beach. In the film, he plays Nick Martini, private detective. With a trench coat, fedora, and precious little acting ability, he goes searching for martini lore and winds up finding an odd assemblage of people: among others, local restaurateur Ed Moose, Library of America publisher Max Rudin, ubiquitous bon vivant Barnaby Conrad III, the late gumshoe Hal Lipset, neo-swing fans hanging out at Bimbo's 365 Club, and Moody's wife, Mara, who understandably asks, "Did I marry a man or a martini?" The martini shot -- Hollywood parlance for the last scene a director shoots before wrapping a film -- comes courtesy of Allen Daviau, five-time Oscar nominee and cinematographer for films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Bugsy. For five hours, he slaved over the perfect shot of a martini -- with a lemon twist -- bathed in a halo of light so perfect and beautiful you'd think you were watching God play bartender.
"I think it's the first documentary about a cocktail," says Moody. "Is there anything about beer? I could be the Ken Burns of mixed beverages."
For all its artful dopiness -- there are scenes of Moody at an Oakland A's game enjoying a martini in a chilled Styrofoam cup and crashing the Black and White Ball dressed as a martini -- Olive or Twist does thoroughly investigate the century-old squabble in the Bay Area about the drink's invention. Across the bay, Martinez lays claim to creating the drink; the city's official Web site relates the unconfirmable tale of a Gold Rush miner hitting town in 1849 and receiving a gin-vermouth concoction called a "Martinez Special," an event commemorated with a downtown plaque. San Francisco, for its part, argues the "Martinez Special" was first created in 1862 at the Occidental Hotel for a tippler who was going to Martinez. In 1983, a San Francisco mock court took on the matter and -- after the presiding judge polished off the evidence -- ruled in San Francisco's favor.
Moody's film doesn't bother making any strong conclusions on that end, but it has great fun with the inner meaning of the drink as it tracks its history: rising after Prohibition, falling in the '50s thanks to the blender drink, rising again with James Bond films. "I think [the martini] had a very important impact through literature, politics, James Bond films," says Moody. "Whenever you wanted to be glamorous, they gave you a martini. It's the icon of class and sophistication that our society is slowly losing."