Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve

Our Patio with the most Snow we’ve ever seen on it

Our patio with the most snow we’ve ever seen on it

You always assume that things will turn out as planned, but sometimes they don’t. Pam and I had all but packed our suitcases earlier in the week for a trip to visit with my brother and his family in Seattle, as well as my parents, who were going to be visiting from Baltimore. Mother Nature had other ideas.

The fact that Canada is enjoying the first coast-to-coast ‘White Christmas’ in 40 years is not lost on me, and it is pretty out there. Pam and I had a nice time walking in the first of the snowstorms, and it looks like storm number three, which started last night, will dump nearly as much on us.

The car is not ready to drive on these kinds of roads. We don’t have any snow tires, as we don’t drive that much to begin with and neither of us use it to get to a workplace (unlike the days when I was working in Burnaby for IBM). Snow tires are not usually needed here.

So, here we are, like hibernating bears in our cave, looking out at the snow. Well, not exactly like bears in one key respect: Hibernating bears don’t eat, and I’ve been cooking like crazy. I roasted a chicken stuffed with herbs and lemon (an old Jamie Oliver recipe that I’ve committed to memory), and yesterday did a large pot roast with carrots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes.  This afternoon I baked a tray of oatmeal muffins (after also baking a bunch of cookies earlier in the week). We’ve also got some steaks in the freezer, and since Granville Market is closed for the next 2 days, we’ll probably eat those as well, along with some of other food in our larder, which we stuffed full just in case the weather did get worse.

The other thing I did, which I do nearly every year, was watch Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  For me, it transcends movie making to become a piece of art, the same way that some Norman Rockwell illustrations do. I keep finding new details in it, the way you do with any great piece of storytelling or music. There’s always some little motif or passage here or there that after the 10th hearing/viewing you suddenly realize is referred to or echoed in some other place. Capra’s film also has a lot more resonance now, when the news reports from the States earlier in the evening eerily echoed (or presaged?) the talk in the movie of people being foreclosed on their homes because of not being able to pay mortgages, runs on banks and acts of charity. How many people might be, this evening, needing to draw upon charity for the first time in their lives, the way that George Bailey had to?

I noticed that a week or so again, Wendell Jamieson of The New York Times wrote a fascinating reassessment of the film, and actually found it to be essentially a big fat lie, something that he first suspected when he was shown the film at school when he was 15 year’s old:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Holy Cow!  Believe it or not, his opinion of the film’s messages actually gets harsher still:

Many are pulling the movie out of the archives lately because of its prescience on the perils of trusting bankers. I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years. Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.

On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

I checked my theory with the oft-quoted Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, and he agreed, pointing out that, of all the upstate counties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Saratoga.

“The reason is that it is a resort, and it has built an economy around that,” he said. “Meanwhile the great industrial cities have declined terrifically. Look at Connecticut: where is the growth? It’s in casinos; they are constantly expanding.”

In New York, Mr. Moss added, Gov. David A. Paterson “is under enormous pressure to allow gambling upstate because of the economic problems.”

“We ease up on our lot of cultural behaviors in a depression,” he said.

What a grim thought: Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.

Well, I’m not sure that the raunchy Vegas-like Pottersville is any better than the Biff Tannen’s alternate Universe town of Hill Valley (which doesn’t get a rename, despite the similar bizzaro treatment) in Back to the Future II.  I’ll bet that a few choice grotesque zooms on the landscape of Pottersville would have horrified the rest of us as much as it did George Bailey rather than thrill him that that his town was less boring with him not in it. Capra perhaps didn’t want to hit us over the head with the message, so it didn’t escape the 15-year old Mr. Jamieson’s cynicism.

Anyway, apt or not, I still find it a great piece of storytelling, even if it teaches us all the wrong things. Jamieson is not alone in his disdain for the film. Besides the fact that the movie was considered a financial flop (too expensive to make, didn’t make back what it cost), Charles Affron on filmreference.com says:

The impetus and structure of It’s a Wonderful Life recall the familiar model of Capra’s pre-war successes. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero represents a civic ideal and is opposed by the forces of corruption. His identity, at some point misperceived, is finally acclaimed by the community at large. The pattern receives perhaps its darkest treatment in It’s a Wonderful Life. The film’s conventions and dramatic conceits are misleading. An idyllic representation of small-town America, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christmas Eve apotheosis seem to justify the film’s perennial screenings during the holiday season. These are the signs of the ingenuous optimism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they function in the same way “happy endings” do in Moliere, where the artifice of perfect resolution is in ironic disproportion to the realities of human nature at the core of the plays.

Maybe I should have just watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer instead.

Acrobats at the PNE

Thanks to a really cool gift from my parents, a Flip Ultra Video Camera, I’m thrilled that now I’ll be able to add not only photos, but now videos of my own to my blog, and plan on doing that from time to time.

Here’s something from the first day I got to use my new toy, at the PNE. We went with my parents and had a great time. Once again, the highlight of the day for me (and for the rest of our group, I think) were the Beijing Acrobats. We saw them last year, and were thrilled to see them again. Here’s a short video I did of some of their routines. The lighting is not ideal, but most of the time I think you can get the gist of what they are doing. Not bad for a first try, I hope:

Filmed In Front of a Live Audience

Before my working weekend, Pam and I were lucky enough to be able attend an event that was, at least as the comedian Simon Rakoff and ‘Master of Ceremonies’ described, the first time something like this had happened in 10 years in the Vancouver area: the filming of a Sitcom pilot in front of a live studio audience.

Because of an email from the CBC that I answered (I don’t know how I ended up getting it; probably from having signed up at the CBC web site at some point), at about 5:15 on Friday, Pam and I found ourselves shivering in line at twilight in front of what looked like a nondescript business office, at the corner of First Avenue and Gilmore Avenue in Burnaby. We had both just come from work nearby, so we were fortunate that it was easy to get to. The concession truck was feeding chili to the actors and crew (and it smelled good), but soon we were ushered in to a messy collection of sets, cameras, and bleachers inside. After a few minutes, Mr. Rakoff handed out tickets for a bunch of drawings for door prizes that would go on as the evening’s filming progressed, and explained our duties for the evening. “People watching TV aren’t too smart, he said, “so we want you to help out, and laugh so you can show them where the jokes are. Your laughter is an important part of the process of bringing this show to life.” OK. Bring on the jokes. But first, the setup.

The name of the show was ‘All the Comforts’. That much we knew already. Here’s the gist of the sitcom that we were to see, created for us the first time that evening:

The Bunion family is headed by Mac and Brenda, who, in their retirement years, are hoping to take off with their new motor home to celebrate their golden years alone together. Unfortunately, their plans are thwarted by their daughter Susie, a ditzy 20-something who has never left the nest, and the recent return of their always optimistic and timid but ne’er do well son, his pretty but abrasive wife and their 2 kids (2 typical precocious and cute sitcom children). Mac is a grouchy rubber-faced Jackie Gleason type who just wants to be left alone to enjoy his massager/recliner, his sandwich, TV and bottle of Snapple in peace. Solitude and space is to not be found. Through a series of physical gags, jokes involving aging and child-rearing, the cranky old guy eventually apologizes for yelling at his grand-kids and may even admit that there are advantages to having them around (one of them discovers and turns on the ‘auto adjust’ button on his hi-tech chair, ending his 4-year quest to find ‘the perfect setting’). While they aren’t a perfect happy family, they may just make it, although Mac will still be thrilled the day that all of his kids finally do leave, and he and his wife can hit the road together.

Before I get into any critical appreciation, it was just kind of fun to see how you shoot a sitcom. This was a four camera show, with director calling cuts and camera angles, 3 different sets (including the motor home), and a large crew, including a stage director, cameramen, sound man, grips, key grip, clapper, a bunch of writers doing rewrites of jokes down to the last moment, and bunch of other people (who I couldn’t tell what they did). This was as close as we’ve gotten to the filming of a real TV show, and it was a great education about how this is done these days.

As for ‘All the Comforts’, it sounds like pretty typical sitcom fare, doesn’t it? On this evening, what the writing of the pilot lacked, the actors made up for in professionalism and energy. They made the material far funnier than it deserved to be, but will it be enough for this pilot to catch on? That’s hard to say. The theme of the return of kids living with their parents far into their 30’s is something that many of us are uncomfortable with, to be sure. It used to be a stigma, but is becoming so widespread that it is clearly going to have to be re-evaluated. Discomfort often leads to humour, so this might have a chance. On the other hand, if it just becomes another collection of sitcom gags…

  • Mac attempts to return a stolen xxx before discovery of the theft … Hilarity ensues.
  • Susie is given the position of responsibility she can’t handle … Hilarity ensues.
  • Brenda, tries to change her physical appearance through an xxx … Hilarity ensues.

I hope that they reach for plots and character development that’s better than these stock situations. Pam and I have both become real fans of Corner Gas, a CBC Sitcom that consistently provides a big laugh at least once in an episode. I suspect that it’s the writing staff, although that sitcom also has very good acting. So far, ‘All the Comforts’ is no Corner Gas, but perhaps it could be. I’m hoping it does, because to have been in the audience at the pilot could be a bit of history, if it is a hit.

The September Arts and Events Flood

Amitai Marmorstein and Celine Stubel in Legoland

Amitai Marmorstein and Celine Stubel
in Legoland
“Mormons are creepy.”

I don’t know what it is about September. Pam and I have dutifully tried to keep up, but there’s just so much going on! I’m way behind in postings, so here are a few things just to get caught up.

The Fringe
We went to three plays (just a fraction of the number presented), including Darren Barefoot’s charming romantic comedy Bulloxed. Bulloxed, as you can read from the blog about the play (but I include here so you don’t have to go hunting for the blurb) is:

Set in Dublin, Ireland, at the height of the dot-com boom, Canadian computer programmer Jack is struck by love and a God-awful pain in his ‘bollocks’ at precisely the same moment. While he may have found the woman of his dreams, discovering the source of testicle pain is, well, more sensitive. Will a clash of cultures and the nagging feeling that things just aren’t right kill the romance for good?

Is it possible to have a romantic comedy about testicle pain? As it turns out, it’s not only possible, but Pam in particular (perhaps because she felt less empathy?) found it extremely funny. It’s a shame that some subjects are so ticklish that the censors would never let them through for a standard sitcom or even movie, unless it were an independent film. After all, pain in the groin area is something that many of us guys have experienced at one time or another. While the whole testicular agony thing was the ‘hook’ for the play, the play is more of a dating dance, between a fiery Irish girl and geeky Computer Programmer. I felt particularly proud as a newcomer to Canada to get the joke when Jack and Aoife enter into a scene singing the theme song to ‘The Littlest Hobo’, which I learned out about via a “Corner Gas” episode only a few short months ago. While I felt the whole story could have gone on a bit further, the fact that I wanted more was probably a good sign. Perhaps Darren will write a bigger play next year.

A few nights later, we caught short but intense monologue called ‘Troia’ about the internment of Italian Canadians during World War II (not dissimilar to what went on in the US with the Japanese during the same time period). Again, I felt it was too short, and perhaps even could sense a screenplay in there somewhere. (My pitch to the producers: Think Snow Falling on Cedars meets Moonstruck and set it in Ontario).

Finally, our favourite play(and picked as one of the best of the festival and repeated this weekend): Legoland. Legoland was the name given to the outside world by two home-schooled children on a BC Commune (their parents get imprisoned for growing pot, wouldn’t you know), Penny and Ezra Lamb. Their story was part cautionary tale (part of Penny’s ‘Community Service’), part kaleidoscopic American Road trip, and part ode to every outsider kid you’ve ever known (or ended up being). It was a scream, and as we left the theatre, we knew that we’d seen something really extraordinary. The actors, Amitai Marmorstein as Ezra and Celine Stubel as Penny, were so perfect for their characters that if someone ever turned the play into a movie, they would have to cast them in the same parts. Next year, perhaps we’ll triple our number of plays attended again. Nine plays in 10 days? Well, some of them really are just 20 minutes long.

The Blogger Meetup
Last week was the September Vancouver Bloggers Meetup. Several of us spent a few hours on a rainy evening chatting, eating and drinking, in about that order. While we talked about a range of subjects, including how to blog about your someone without them knowing about it, are religious people actually dangerous (in these days of suicide bombers and Christian theocrats, not a trivial question), how to make a living driving traffic to web sites, and how we all make decisions about our lives. I think that Isabella Mori, our Meetup Leader, found a really nice meeting place in Century, an old bank that is now converted to a restaurant and bar on Richards (about 2 blocks from where I work). The place is both cozy and impressive . That may be hard to imagine from the sound of it, but the high ceilings, leather furniture and dim lighting, along with friendly staff, a well-stocked bar and tasty food (I had crepes filled with BBQ Duck, Oaxacan cheese and herbs – a lot of fresh tarragon, I think) all made it a winner in my book. It was a little noisy, but I’m happy to have found a new place to meet and take refuge on those dark and wet nights that will be on their way here soon.

Speaking of the seasons, fellow blogger MJ mentioned that she had read and partly agreed with my characterization of Vancouver’s pendulum-like swing between the city of the mind (fall,winter) and city of the body (spring,summer). She did point out, however that not everyone can completely go all-mind in winter and all-body in summer, particularly those like she who are fans of winter sports like skiing and snowboarding (how could I forget that stuff?). So I guess the city does not split the year so neatly. Nevertheless, this last weekend we got to…yet another Arts Event:

The Word on the Street
On Sunday late morning we headed over to the Library, for ‘The Word on the Street’, their annual book and magazine fair. Booths around the library (and in that sort of mini-mall on the inside) as well as ‘The Word Under the Street’ in the basement hosted all sorts of literary and literacy organizations, writers, poets, and other speakers. Pam and I were lucky enough to hear ‘The Hockey Sweater’ (a story that is so central to Canadian culture that an excerpt of it is actually printed on the 5 dollar bill!) read by the warm and funny author of the tale, Roch Carrier, who is also one of the most celebrated Quebec writers in Canada. It was made into an animated short in 1980 (with M. Carrier narrating) and is now considered a classic of Canadian literature. Pam was very touched by this cute story (no spoilers here – go and read it yourself!), and we both felt like we had gotten one step closer to being Canadians. We also collected a ton of stuff, including books, pads, free magazines and various tchochkes.

In a few days, Pam and I are going to take a little break, via a trip up to Whistler to take in some more of those BC vistas that put us (and our now more active minds) more in perspective. Man does not live by plays, conversations and books alone.

PS: One of the reasons this post is really 3 is the fact that I’m spending a fair amount of time getting ready to move this blog. Yes, I managed to get the domain ‘loudmurmurs.com’, and am thinking about making the leap to WordPress, which I installed and worked to customize a little earlier today at that domain. It seems none too soon, as I’ve been having a really hard time posting this – Blogger has been incredibly flakey and slow lately.

If all goes well, I’ll be moving to the new URL and blogging platform in October. Stay tuned for a new look and new location!

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

September has always been my favourite month of the year, and not only because it is the month of my birth. When I lived in the Northeast, it was always the time of lots of blue skies, crisp, cool air, and that spectacular fall foliage. It was always a serious month, dealing with the end of things, and perhaps even thoughts of mortality. My mother has always vehemently been a Spring person, associating her birth month with rebirth, new blooms, the end of winter, more comfortable weather (although often not quite yet), and longer days. Nope, not for me. I’ll take a Fall walk in Vermont with the smell of wood fires over a muddy trek through a garden that’s maybe getting ready to get going.

These days, I can’t say that I love September quite as much. Vancouver doesn’t get those flashes of color in the trees and the air isn’t all that different, although you do have to start wearing a coat again. Instead, what’s in evidence is the switch back to the city of the mind from the city of the body. I’ve talked about Vancouver’s yearly pendulum swing between the hedonism of the spring and summer months and intellectual and artistic pursuits of the fall and winter months. This is not unique to Vancouver; my parents, who spend a lot of time in Paris, talk about ‘la rentrée’ (From the web site understandfrance.org):

For the French, the year does not begin January 1st! It begins in September and the beginning of the year is so unpleasant that it ruins the Summer vacations (no wonder the French need so much vacation during the rest of the year). It is called “la rentrée”, like in schools. Just imagine : in September, you receive the tax bill, kids start school and it is the period of the year where, traditionally, many strikes take place, particularly transport strikes (train, metro, etc.). It takes a few months to recover, then Christmas comes (nothing spectacular) then the “soldes” (sales, more interesting), then February vacation (very appreciated), then Easter vacation and the wonderful month of May, with its “bridges”. Then it is time to plan Summer vacation.

I’d say for Vancouver, it’s more like ‘le réveil’ (the reawakening); a time when you no longer spend the long afternoons that stretch into the evening at the beach or sitting in the park (or hiking up Grouse). Even though the summer did have some theatre, including the successful ‘Bard on the Beach’, there are now several festivals and concert seasons that are all set to begin. This past weekend, we made another short visit to the PNE (hardly big brain food, but after all, we were just getting started). I think I’ll always think of the PNE as a sort of farewell, to summer. After that, The Vancouver Fringe Festival, which includes 10 days of entertaining and sometimes challenging evenings of theatre, mostly on Granville Island stages, starts in 3 days. Just 11 days after that, the 25th Annual Vancouver International Film festival, including some 300 shorts and features from over fifty countries (and a quarter of the films this year are non-fiction – which I guess means Documentaries in most cases). At the end of the month, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra opens their season with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. So as you can see, everything starts up, and not quite in the way that the French do it.

I’m a big culture vulture, so I’m thrilled that this is all happening, and if it is in part because it’s not going to be so nice out and the sun is going to set earlier and earlier, then, so be it. My mind is tired of being on vacation.