Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mark Twain, Lewis Lapham and Scrooge

I finished Ron Powers' biography Mark Twain on Christmas Eve, then watched Lewis Lapham's film The American Ruling Class before dissolving into the midnight showing of Scrooge on CBC. A more enjoyable mix of media I could not imagine.
First Twain. I'd read Justin Kaplan's biography of Twain in 72, when I was under deadline to produce a radio play before exiting my brief sojourn to LA for real life in Vancouver that fall. If there were ever going to be a better bio of Twain, I couldn't imagine it until this one. Powers doesn't write like a contemporary of Twain, or even someone who knows what it's like to have lived in the 19th century. He constantly refers to present events and people to bring Twain to life for our century, the 21st. Having lovingly read Twain as a child, unfortunately I hadn't reread anything of his since the bio in 72, except The Innocents Abroad which I read during my first trip to Europe in 80. Having Twain as a companion, even if only one that fits in your pocket on a long voyage, is guaranteed to make that voyage shorter and far more enjoyable. I never wanted Powers' bio to end. Thankfully when I turned the last page, there was a DVD I'd rented the previous day, knowing nothing about it. I thought it was a Quebec flick. I was wrong.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Twain's old income source Harper's, and American's 2nd best essayist (after Gore Vidal) just sounds like someone whose company Twain,would have enjoyed. I don't know if Lapham had mentioned his flick in his mag. I have no idea why this immensely enjoyable film hasn't been a topic on Air America Radio, Salon or any of my other usual web sources. You would think a flick that gets James Baker on film explaining why America avoided rescuing the victims of genocide in Rwanda, and now Darfur would be at the top of any American leftist's list of things to talk about. Much like Twain, Lapham can hang out with the ruling class as an equal, then mock them in his prose, and finally, in images. As an apprentice film maker, I think Howard Zinn's explication of American History on a Boston bus is the single filmic moment, the best use of technique I've seen, and the one I'd most like to emulate. "Anyone" can theoretically do "anything" with realatively cheap software on film nowadays. But not quite.
Although the film's plot, Lapham as mentor to two Yale grads, works better on paper than with real actors, there are moments, such as Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich and lastly Pete Seeger that give one hope for the future of film as teaching tool (see Farenheit 911), and the future of our species.
My parents got thier first TV in 1956 after we moved to LA from Yorkton, Saskatchewan. I don't remember any particular programme from that year, except Scrooge, which we watched on Chrsitmas Eve of that year. This time (the 50th?) I was more intrigued by the cinematography, the lighting of the stair cases and the hagiographical lighting of Tiny Tim and Scrooge's nephew's wife than any other factor of a film I've seen more than any other and expect to watch more than any other film made in the rest of my life. When the film ended, I thought back on the 3 stories, Twain, Lapham's and Dickens as interpreted by Alistair Sim and the best and brightest of the British film industry circa the year I was born, and found one story as told by 3 story tellers. Wealth corrupts. You can grow rich telling that story, but that doesnt make it false. Scrooge remains watchable after 50 times, unlike any other film I've seen or am likely to, watchable in the same sense that opening your eyes for the first time brings forth the idea of sight. Scrooge isn't just reborn from his encounter with death (his own, etc), so is the viewer, and that's where great acting and lighting come in. Is it easier to tell a great story or to act or work the lights so the audience is enlightened by its greatness? I'll never know. But I live in a cinemized world, not the world of my grandfather, a contemporary of Dickens. Lapham went from the dominant essayist of his time, acknowledged as such by friends and enemies alike, to a foreign milieu, the Film, a place where words are peripheral, at best. That ain't easy to do, trust me. Although I disliked most of the music of The American Ruling Class (except for the Nickel n' Dimed musical set piece that accompany's Ehrenreich's gloomy epiphany), it never interfered with my enjoyment of the flick. Perhaps I spent too many decades as a teacher, but I think presenting a message in one's "art," if it's a necessary message, is at least as important in the art's acceptance as the skill of a good cinematographer at one's service. Yes, Scrooge is a better flick than Lapham's. It'a a better flick than ANYBODY'S. Great as he was in The Avengers, Patrick Macnee never did a better tale. One should bathe lengthily and luxuriously in the words of Twain before reading About him, but Powers book is a great place to begin that afterjourney. And if you finish Powers' bio, then watch Lapham: The Flick, then watch Scrooge, well, how much sheer pleasure can you withstand in one day? It's worth finding out.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


Our local entertainment rag, the Georgia Straight, in its Best of Vancouver edition a few weeks ago, listed Parkside as the most underrated restaurant in Vancouver. I had to go there. When Krista and Dino suggested a restaurant meal (my first since Bit's birthday with her friends 2 monthes ago, at always reliabe Zen), I mentioned Parkside. Turns out Dino had been there and was happy to go again.
While waiting at the bar for Fumiyo to park and our friends to show up, I ordered the Italian Job from the cocktails menu. Labelled "Muddled lemon and orange, limoncello, orancio and prosecco" it was absolutely delicious. Flashed me back to the great lemon drinks I had in Sorrento in our Europe trip in 02. Dino said Parkside is noted for its great cocktails. Deserves the note.

We studied the menu for awhile. I was tempted by the Jerusalem artichoke soup, which Fumiyo also considered. She ended up ordering the smoked sockeye salmon, warm potato galette, horseradish creme fraiche with French bean salad as an appetiser as did Dino. I went with the veal ravioli, truffle and sage butter pictured above. Fumiyo warned me it was veal, a meat I rarely attempt, and indeed it was most meaty, but I was able to deal with it thanks to a splash of the red wine Dino and Krista had ordered.
For my main course, whenever tuna is on the menu, its gravity almost always captures me. This seared rare ahi tuna, raisin (1 raisin?), capers (thankfully more than one), anchovy, pine nuts in blood orange jus was spectacular. Its hard to figure out any of the other things mentioned aside from the tuna, but they were all great. Thankfully some white wine appeared after the red for me to savour the tuna appropriately.
Fumiyo went with the wild mushroom risotto for a main course, which she found very intense. I had a bit of mushroom and my taste buds went spinning off into the forest of its orgins in appreciation.
Dino ordered the breast of guinea hen with Parma ham, stuffed morels, choucroute, Riesling sauce, chive spraetzle, and my taste of the hen was just as good as my tidbit of wild mushrooms.
Krista, who'd had angel hair pasta as an appetiser, went with the roast rack of lamb, saffron arancini, grilled trevisio, asparagus in rosemary jus. I didn't have any but it sure looked good.
The eggnog pannacotta with rum raisins and ginger snaps looked good on the menu and tasted even better when ordered. Sort of puddingy. Went superbly with a B-52 coffee. Fumiyo had the trio of house made citrus sorbets and their fruits, very refreshing after her risotto. The wait staff was endlessly helpful. Anyone who underrates Parkside shouldn't be allowed to rate a restaurant. The food was inventive, satisfying and intriguing. It's rare you can use those 3 adjectives in a restaurant review.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hat Tricks for the Headless

At least once in this blog I've mentioned the pianist Vince Guaraldi as the author of something rarely performed in art or any other space, the hat trick: 3 perfect things. Most people don't get the opportunity or possess the talent to do one very good thing in their lifetime. In his short life, Vince produced a perfect single (Cast your Fate), the best album ever recorded (Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral) and a sound track (A Charlie Brown Christmas) so good that everything else compared to it makes you seriously consider deafness. The only parallel performance I'm aware of is Gaudi's Best of all Possible Churches (Sagrada Familia), Parks and Houses. So when I learned that Vince's son was releasing new work from his long dead dad, I was enthralled. The above is now playing on my CD player. Listened to his newly remastered Charlie Brown Xmas and Suite last night. With considerable chagrin.
I've been to enough concerts over the decades to know musicians are uneven in playing their standards. If they weren't, they'd probably die of boredome before taking the stage. Alternate takes of Cast Your Fate, which I agree with my piano teacher is a perfect song, would natuarly be less than. Vince, his producer, record company or someone with serious taste decided the version he released as a single was the best. Now hearing this perfect song take 2, 3, etc, I cannot help but feel chagrinned at the variance from the perfection. Some of the Peanuts tunes also suffer from comparison with the recorded perfections. But overall, listening to North Beach is being in the presence of a working musician. Not a genius, not someone so high up in the sky you need a large telescope to view his fingers, just a guy who got paid for playing the piano, and enjoyed that fact. I'm now listening to North Beach for the 2nd time (first mostly in a car, great accoustics but attention must be elsewhere) and it's more enjoyable than the 1st. It is not the 2nd coming, but it's more good music, and we can never get enough of that.