Having Fun While Me

Big house, great sound, respectful audience, super popcorn, and MOVIES! (photo from Playback magazine)

[4-minute read]

Sunday night was Double Date night – no second couple, in this case, but just my bride and I bopping from one Ottawa cultural heartthrob to another. After a light and early supper at home, we were off to the Mighty ByTowne cinema (yes, kids, it’s back!) for a mouth-watering bite of history. Then we hopped on our pony and bustled to the western edge of downtown for a Writers Festival event (yup, pardners, they’re back, too, in Three Entire Dimensions!).

This was my fifth or sixth Return to the ByTowne since its new ownership re-opened that grand old videodrome in the fall. All my fears of it having been blandified (or turned into condos, he shuddered) have been dispelled. Many of the familiar staff faces are back, the popcorn hasn’t been meddled with, and the slate of movies remains rich, diverse, international and occasionally quirky. The Power of the Dog with Cumberbatch and Dunst, C’mon C’mon with Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffmann, are both still bouncing around my brain days or weeks later. Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, strangely current even all these years after his prime and then his passing, had me sobbing repeatedly. (Vonnegut does this to me regularly, but I was still surprised at how hard this loving documentary tribute punched me. Hi ho.)

We were there Sunday for Julia. For anybody over, say, 40, who has been around American television shows, filling in the last name might be easy as omelettes. Julia Child was a towering presence in popular culture, especially from the 1960s through to the ‘90s – and not just because she was 6’3”. Her monumental first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent presence as the “French chef” on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) made her an icon. Julia tells her life story in lavish detail, and with stunning re-creations of many of her most famed recipes, and shows not only her fame and cultural impact – yes, her show was parodied on Saturday Night Live! — but also “how important she was, is, will be”, as one of her admirers puts it.

On set in 1978: Julia Child, TV star, at 66. She was far from finished. (Wikipedia)

She was the first person to make cooking on television attractive, in spite of her plainness and age. I had thought Meryl Streep’s voice for her in Julie and Julia (2009, another Child-focused film I hadn’t expected to greatly enjoy, StreepLove aside) was a bit clumsy and overdone — until I saw Julia, that is. I hadn’t connected her to the rise of real attention to good eating in America, but she profoundly influenced young chefs and helped spawn “foodie” culture. The silly, materialistic extremes of that movement don’t undo the value of eating good food, lovingly prepared, which was Child’s essential oeuvre. I also wouldn’t have thought of her as a feminist icon, for example, and in hindsight I’d have been wrong. Julia involves some time travel, painting a vivid (black and white) portrait of the life of one unusual woman in the first half of the 20th century and her flowering, in her mid-50s, as an ambassador of French cuisine. The film is funny, informative and absolutely delicious to look at; the gorgeously framed contemporary food-prep sequences are big-screen-worthy, even for a culinary primitive like me.

We raced from the ByTowne, skipping the end credits (gasp!), to Christchurch (Anglican) Cathedral, the most common recent venue for the live events of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. We went from one local arts treasure to another, and from an American TV icon to a pair of Canadian ones. Linden McIntyre is a Nova Scotian journalist (most famously hosting The Fifth Estate, and then famously retiring to save one younger person’s job at the beloved and beleaguered “Mother Corp”, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Also a novelist (he won the Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man), he was our laconic and charming interviewer for a younger Maritime star, Newfoundland’s comedic genius Rick Mercer. Once the “angry young man” of Canadian comedy, He has written something longer (and mildly less angry) than the 90-second “rants” and other satiric slices that have made him beloved across the country. Talking to Canadians is a memoir that my wife and I will read with delight.

You might have heard the echoes of his (in)famous “Talking to Americans” segments in that book title. Among the many irreverent stories he told

Striding down Canuck streets, ranting.
(from the Globe and Mail)

at Christchurch Cathedral was of the genesis of that thoroughly Canadian project; it is something of a national sport to enjoy Americans being foolish. (Thinking they can beat us at hockey, f’r’instance.) While Mercer was filming in Washington, D.C., a passing American public servant was savvy enough to determine that the “Canadian Broadcasting Corporation” printed on an equipment case meant that Mercer must be from..…(wait for it)…..“Canada!” It was a gift to a young satirist there on other business: Guv Guy was completely gullible about the absurd name Mercer gave to Canada’s Prime Minister (“Benmergui”, which true CBC-lovers chuckle at as a reference to former radio host Ralph), but was quite prepared to explain the concept of “alphabetical order” on camera when Mercer pretended, to this pompous ignoramus, that Canadians weren’t familiar with this clever new method of organization. From his sudden starburst on the national scene, to his membership in the This Hour Has 22 Minutes¹ crew, to The Rick Mercer Report to his current return to stand-up comedy and whatever comes next, we all got to be spectators as MacIntyre prodded Mercer into story after story, and even his closing punchline “I’ve been glad to be that prick.” (Had to be there, folks!)

Jay and Diana went out on a date, and an icon-fest broke out. And that’s why Ottawa isn’t “the town that fun forgot”! ²

¹ Such a CBC-centric occasion, in so many ways. True dévotées will remember not only the show, but its sly naming echoing an ultra-serious 1960s CBC TV news magazine called This Hour Has Seven Days. 
² As I am wont to do, I refer here to the acerbic and ever-living Allan Fotheringham, who described Canada’s capital in this unfair and fairly accurate way, depending on your definition of fun.

The Dulling of One Shining NCAA Moment

It’s possible, just possible, that I may be growing up. (And I’m not sure I like it.) Maybe it’s because I was by myself. I hadn’t loaded up well on munchies. The couch was a bit substandard, as was the amount of suspense – it was over before it was over. But I think it’s mostly me. I didn’t enjoy the NCAA final, the April dénouement to a March of Madness, like I used to in the good ol’ days…

…when Duke or UCLA won…
…when I loved Billy Donovan as a player (before disliking him as a coach)…
…when Billy Packer seemed to offer actual insights into the game…
…when players celebrated a good play with their teammates rather than by themselves, hoping for face-time and 15 seconds of micro-fame…
…and maybe, just maybe, before my extended adolescence finished its 20-year run.

It’s getting harder and harder to stand the commercials. (Especially when Coach K is prostituting his coaching art to hawk cars. Coach, how do you talk about leadership and trust to players who can finish the spiel for you? Absolutely, Coach. That’s why Chevy is the best-selling brand in America!) Except for sport, I don’t watch much network or cable TV, so the firestorm of selling sneaks up on me at times. I suppose, television being one of my most fertile plots of pessimism, that we’re not going to have fewer commercials. But surely the NCAA could reconsider whether teams should have the same number of timeouts available when there’s one coming every four minutes of PT anyway! The live experience of a nationally televised game must be numbing. (It must be like watching an NBA game, with lower sideline production values.) Two thirty-second timeouts per game, one full TO for the last two minutes. Other ‘n that, coaches, you’re at the mercy of the network! (Aren’t we all?)

I’m also finding it harder to ignore the “student-athlete” hypocrisy. Joakim Noah actually mentioned studying in a post-game interview, and my eyes brightened. Wow! You don’t hear that often! I was obviously grasping at an idealistic straw, since he was saying he wouldn’t be doing any. (Still, doesn’t that imply that he does sometimes? See the good, buddy. See the good.) It’s getting harder to enjoy Dick Enberg’s truncated and oddly desperate halftime essay. (Was it your heart that wasn’t in it, Dick, or was it mine?) Stubborn loyalist (doomed addict) that I am, I stayed glued right through the traditional tournament summary “One Shining Moment”, though its clichéd collection of super-hyped images and sentimental pop hasn’t moved me in years. I was hoping.

(See the good.) But at least until the game was over and the microphones came out, it was very hard not to like Joakim Noah. He’s one of the most gifted, interesting and intelligent players I’ve seen in a long time. I hope he and his buddies stick around for another year. I hope UCLA’s guard duo, Farmar and Afflalo, does the same. Come next March, God help me, I’ll almost certainly be watching again.