December 30, 2006 -- “I Like Killing Flies” is a very low-budget video portrait of an eccentric New York City cook and his no-name restaurant that has become an institution in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village. In 1982 Kenny and Eve Shopsin turned their corner grocery store into a small restaurant. Ever since then, the unusual menu has been growing to the point where it now lists nearly 1,000 items, and there are plenty of items not on the menu that regular customers order, like “tomato soup the way Sarah likes it,” or “Abigail's chow fun.”
But this low-budget documentary is not about the restaurant so much as it is about Kenny and Eve, their family and customers. Kenny is one of those characters who has opinions about everything and is not afraid to express them. A creative genius in the kitchen, Kenny, like many artists, feels that entitles him to run roughshod over people at times and that he doesn't have to adhere to normal standards of behavior. He is loud, foul-mouthed and abusive to his customers, particularly those who don't follow his rules. One of his rules is that you don't walk into his place and ask for a cup of coffee. Parties of more than four people are prohibited. It is also not allowed to order something because it looks good on someone else's plate.
A good example of Kenny's rules is the rule against groups of five or more (quoted from the menu on the above web page):
“You could put a chair at the end or push the tables together but don't bother. This banged-up little restaurant where you would expect no rules at all has a firm policy against seating parties of five, and you know you are a party of five.
“It doesn’t matter if one of you offer to leave or if you say you could split into a party of three and a party of two or if the five of you come back tomorrow in Richard Nixon masks and try to pretend that you don’t know each other. It won't work:
“You're a party of five even if you're a beloved regular, even if the place is empty, even if you bring logic to bear, even if you're a tackle for the Chicago Bears. It won't work. You're a party of five. You will always be a party of five. A hundred blocks from here, a hundred years from now you will still be a party of five, and you will never savor the soup or compare the coffee or hear the wisdom of the cook and the wit of the waitress or get to hum the old-time tunes among which you will find no quintets.”
Why does Kenny have these strange rules? He doesn't have to explain himself, Kenny says. It's his place. It's his rules. If you don't like it, leave.
A good example of Kenny's abusive, unforgiving nature is one scene were he berates a young man for forgetting to put money into the parking meter for Kenny's vehicle. He heaps on the abuse and keeps it up. There is no letup, no apology. He just keeps hammering the point long after there is any reason to, as if the kid had just killed his dog. Kenny is quick to anger and slow to forgive. He also waxes eloquent on the meaning of life. One of his pearls is that the definition of a civilized person is one who treats others with respect, even when they don't deserve it. Too bad he doesn't follow his own advice. Another is that everybody is full of crap (only he doesn't use the word crap, but a cruder four-letter word). He said he thinks if more people were aware of that fact, they'd be a little less judgmental of others. Again, it is a viewpoint he doesn't seem to take to heart.
Despite Kenny's faults, I found him to be a fascinating character. I have always liked characters, especially quotable ones. Kenny's opinions may be crude, but they are interesting. One of Kenny's more interesting soliloquies concerns his cooking, and how it may be a product of his psychological problems. He says he is the most calm, the most relaxed when the restaurant is at its busiest. Kenny's theory is that his culinary creativity is somehow an expression of his deep inner anger, and maybe it is also a kind of therapy for him.
A good portion of the film, which spans a period of several years, covers the move of Kenny's restaurant from its old location to its new location a few blocks away. One memorable scene has two restaurant workers wheeling the huge kitchen stove down the street on a dolly from the old to the new restaurant. In one remarkable scene, Kenny is shown arguing with someone who apparently represents the owners of the new building. After some cutting remarks from Kenny, the owner explodes with rage, forcing Kenny to apologize, the only apology I heard him utter during the entire film. Tellingly, it was also the only time Kenny was not in a position of strength. He was talking to someone he actually needed to get along with.
I found this a very interesting documentary. As for the photography, editing and technical details, it was crude (apparently, it was student film project), but the subject was fascinating. I suspect viewers will either like it, as I did, or hate it, based on Kenny Shopsin's abrasive, but fascinating personality. He is the sort of person you either find fascinating or unendurable. There is no middle ground with Kenny. This film rates a B.
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