Full disclosure before I start talking about Old Fashioned: I love supper clubs. I’ve visited a bunch of them in Wisconsin, and I love the old-school charm, the professionalism, the atmosphere, the consistency, the community and sociability of them. I bought the DVD as part of a planned excursion up to Arthur’s in Spring Green that I’ll be making with my partner for her birthday. As much as I can be in the bag for the subject of a documentary film — at least, one that isn’t specifically about me (and let’s get on that, grad students with digital cameras) — I’m in the bag for supper clubs.
That said, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club is still a movie, and as a movie, it’s as subject to critical analysis as anything else that I’m not completely a mark for. Directed by newcomer Holly De Ruyter, the film occupies a curious position in the flood-tide of feature documentaries we’ve seen since the explosion of digital technology made the medium accessible and cheap. There’s always been a fine line, especially for artists and celebrities, between documentary and hagiography and, for that matter, between hagiography and flat-out advertisement; Old Fashioned blurs that line in some unexpected ways.
This isn’t a 90-minute commercial, though, like Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, nor is it a largely unquestioning cheering-section celebration like any number of musician documentaries. It’s more like an ongoing commercial for an entire lifestyle, and what saves it from being that is the fact that, unlike a famous department store or a nationally known performer, it’s a lifestyle that very few people outside of central Wisconsin are ever likely to experience. The supper club concept was invented in Hollywood and once existed everywhere from coast to coast, but it’s almost extinct outside of a 100-mile radius outside of Madison. For most viewers, it won’t be anything they’ll ever get to visit, and so the utterly uncritical and celebratory nature of Old Fashioned never seems overdone.
And, really, when you think about it, what possible critical approach could De Ruyter take? Supper clubs are wonderful. Even if you approach them from a position of post-everything irony, they’re not remnants of a false nostalgia or artifacts of a rose-colored vision for something that glossed over anything ugly. They’re architecturally interesting restaurants, owned by successful small businesspeople, serving unadventurous but hearty American food and classic cocktails, and featuring a local conviviality that has all but vanished in the era of interchangeable corporate dining and the disappearing third space. It’s not for nothing that these clubs retain a ferocious degree of customer loyalty; they fill a space in the community that no other business truly can. If one complaint could be leveled against them beyond the overuse of dairy products, it’s that they’re almost exclusively white, although not by exclusion; honkies have their folkways just like everybody else.
Aside from an examination of the aesthetic and culinary properties of the supper club, Old Fashioned has a few historical treats. The intensely Germanic nature of Wisconsin immigration is discussed, an its impact on the specifics of the supper club experience, from the Catholic influence on Friday fish fries to the concept of gemütlichkeit. The origins of the supper club in Hollywood and certain aspects of East Coast resort culture are discussed; there’s some mention of Googie architecture and the postwar boom in novelty-themed restaurants; and the vast impact of car culture on the rise of these essentially exurban establishments is touched upon. Certain quirks really stand out, usually from the personalities of the owners; one unfortunately provincial fellow expresses a hilarious skepticism that a bartender in Miami would know how to prepare the titular cocktail, and manifests withering scorn for the unnamed cocktails currently in favor with “the young people”. (Further disclosure: I am not a fan of the Wisconsin supper club old fashioned, which, being made with brandy, is generally far too sweet for my taste. Most of these places, however, will mix you up a fine martini.)
If there’s a real fault in Old Fashioned as a sociological document, it’s that it’s documenting what is essentially a dying lifestyle, and while there’s some mention made of this — the usual ‘time is passing us by, but we can’t imagine the world without places like this in it’ spiel — it’s not examined in any depth. The status of the supper club as a place for both dining and dancing is a bit glossed over, but it is a clear casualty of the death of a once-rewarding profession as cheap canned music overtook expensive live bands as the source of musical entertainment. The quick fade of the local dance band deserves a documentary all its own, but a bit more about it wouldn’t have been out of place here. The same day I watched the film, I read on a local website of how a supper-club-‘style’ restaurant was coming to a tony Chicago neighborhood, the kind of upscale craft-cocktail joint that the kind of people who eat at real supper clubs couldn’t really afford to go, paying the kind of rents that are driving actual family businesses underground. It’s an all too familiar iteration of the way economics drives a vicious cultural cycle, killing off a once-popular thing and then reifying after death for a younger elite equipped with irony and money.
But Old Fashioned isn’t a socio-economic treatise, nor would it be much improved if it had tried to be one. It operates perfectly well for what it is: an enormously fond account of an immensely likable phenomenon that isn’t accessible to everyone (and, increasingly, grows inaccessible even to the people for whom it was once commonplace). It’s full of what can only be called good cheer, and in that, it mirrors the very restaurants it is attempting to document. If you want to see an up-close and utterly charming account of a world of appealingly quirky restaurants with friendly owners and a strong whiff of the Way Things Used To Be, you could do a lot worse than watching it. And if you’re ever at the Roxy in Oshkosh, martinis are on me.