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Félicitations Are In Order

February 1, 2012

Over a week ago I posted about Philippe Falardeau’s film Monsieur Lazhar and its official-entry status for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.  The next day it was announced that Falardeau’s film is now an official Oscar nominee (félicitations!)  This news is now stale and I apologize for even mentioning it (apparently stale news is ever so annoying to savvy interneters).   However, I feel that I can be somewhat forgiven, since this post is now about giving props to Canadian filmmakers past and present, as it was announced yesterday that another Quebecois film-maker, Michel Brault, will be honoured with the Outstanding Achievement award at this year’s Hot Docs film festival.

Brault (who had a hand in September 5 at St. Henri) has had a long and illustrious career in film-making, a good part of it spent with the National Film Board of Canada where he was instrumental in formulating the “Direct Cinema” style of film that the Board became known and well-regarded for in the 60s.  While Direct Cinema’s aims were to present subjects objectively and truthfully, some of Brault’s best films had narrative elements that combined the real with the fictional.

Pour la suite du Monde is a documentary that follows a group of men from an island village in Quebec who agree to be filmed while attempting to capture Beluga whales by employing traditional methods used by their ancestors.  The scenario is constructed, but the action is not.  It is a fascinating look at a group of men who, through rediscovering their past, are taken on a journey that brings them face to face with progress (they journey to New York to bring their captured whale to an aquarium).   On the other hand, Les Ordres is a scripted drama presented in documentary style and written about an actual event: the October Crisis.  Once again the line between fiction and reality is blurred and the results are stunning.   Les Ordres is probably Brault’s most well-known and celebrated work, and for good reason.

Michel Brault is a pioneer of Canadian cinema, and the recognition of his films by Hot Docs is well-deserved.  His work and the work of others have created a strong foundation for Canadian film that continues to evolve, producing impressive results, as the example of Philippe Falardeau’s recent achievement demonstrates.  I’ll be looking forward to the Oscars, as well as the Genie’s (the Canadian Oscars, if you will) where many of the nominated films this year are pretty durn great.  It’s nice to see Canadian film in the spotlight and I wish all the nominees the best of luck.

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January 23, 2012

The Toronto International Film Festival recently celebrated the best Canadian films of 2011 with their annual Canada’s Top Ten program.  In total I saw five of the top ten films, three of them during the festival.   One of those films was Monsieur Lazhar, a complex story covering themes such as coping with death, the immigrant experience, and the inability to express ourselves as a result of language degradation and fear of demonstrating emotion.  The film is Canada’s official Oscar selection for the category of Best Foreign Language Film (it isn’t yet nominated but is part of a short-list of entries… fingers crossed!) and is well deserving of the recognition.

But this post isn’t really about Monsieur Lazhar or Canadian film, it’s about a book.  The book was featured in Monsieur Lazhar and was read by the film’s title character during his quest to learn more about Quebecois culture (he is an Algerian refugee).  And since learning more about Quebec culture is an interest of my own, I couldn’t resist the temptation to track down a copy of the novel.

Dragon Island by Jacques Godbout follows Michel Beauparlent as he attempts to defeat William T. Shaheen Jr., an American businessman whose company is responsible for constructing Controlled Atomic Dumps in pristine, “poetic” environments.  Shaheen’s company has a record of displacing people from their communities, destroying landscapes that connect people to history and to nature, and offering precarious employment in return for self-sufficiency, and dignity.

First published over 35 years ago in 1976, the novel’s themes seem all the more relevant today.  The proposed Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline projects remind us of the dominance of commerce over the environment, and recent disasters such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown and the BP oil spill serve as sober reminders of the consequences of reckless consumption and blind trust in technology.  While this book’s themes stem from anxiety on the part of post-Quiet Revolution Quebecers about losing their culture, language, land, and identity to outside corporate interests, this book is topical and will resonate with anyone who recognizes that greed and rampant consumerism are leading to a wealth of problems, including environmental destruction, and income inequality.

Interestingly, as I endeavoured to find out more about the book and its author, I ended up serendipitously finding my way back to Monsieur Lazhar.  Jacques Godbout contributed to a 1962 NFB film about the St. Henri neighbourhood in Montreal (a polluted working class neighbourhood described in the film as being surrounded by “the industrial wealth of other men”, demonstrating thematic similarity to Dragon Island).  Hubert Aquin was also a contributor to September 5 at Saint-Henri, and Aquin’s novel Next Episode happened to be another of the books read by Monsieur Lazhar whilst learning about his adoptive culture!  I’ve demonstrated this cycle in the below (hastily-assembled) diagram.

One of the offshoots in the diagram is a “remake” of sorts of September 5 at Saint-Henri called Saint-Henri, the 26th of August, which was filmed in 2010 and shows a gentrifying Saint-Henri; a Saint-Henri where rich live next-door to poor, and where the fate of the poor in the neighbourhood is uncertain.  I have also included in the picture The Tin Flute, a novel by Gabrielle Roy, which portrays a Saint-Henri similar to that displayed in September 5.  While the people of Gabrielle Roy’s novel may have positive attitudes, they do not ultimately control their own destinies.  They struggle to maintain their dignity and look for meaning in religion, the armed forces, degrading relationships, and dangerous work that tears them from their families but in their minds, gives their lives purpose and hope.  That desperation can spur such actions is not surprising, but the portrait Roy paints of a simple, hard-working, well-meaning family and the hardships that befall them through little fault of their own is simultaneously heart-breaking and thought-provoking.

I have read or seen all of these works and love that there are all of these connections among them.  The works themselves each provide a look into a specific time and place and present their own themes and ideas, but taken together they tell an even bigger story about the human condition that transcends boundaries.  The specific becomes the universal.  Our world-view changes.  Art illuminates life.

Maybe this post isn’t about a book, afterall.

After receiving my copy of “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef,” one of the first things I did was write down a list of not-too-intimidating recipes to tackle.  The first undertaking was Lentils Like Baked Beans, a scrumptious and simple side-dish that I was happy to eat with dinner, and as leftovers for two weekend breakfasts.  Satisfied with my first Joe Beef experiment, I decided that Spaghetti Homard Lobster would be next.  After watching several video interviews, and in particular, this demonstration, it was clear that I had to try what seems to be the quintessential Joe Beef dish.

St. Lawrence Market

St. Lawrence Market

On Saturday my husband and I made a shopping list and headed out to St. Lawrence market to pick up the required ingredients.  We cheated and purchased pre-cooked lobsters, which is very un-Joe Beef of us, but I hope we can be forgiven.  I could make a ton of excuses (lack of a pot large enough for cooking lobsters, desire not to transport live sea creatures on the streetcar) but instead I’ll just promise to do it right next time.  Although, doing it wrong turned out deliciously, so there really isn’t much incentive to change our approach.

Homard Lobsters

Homard Lobsters

After making one last purchase of way too many cheap Brussels sprouts we lugged our bounty home and immediately disassembled the lobsters and began work on the cream sauce.  While it was reducing, we watched a couple of episodes of Montrealer Chuck Hughes’ program Chuck’s Day Off on foodnetwork.ca.  Then, somehow, without really even trying, we ended up with a beautiful and absolutely spectacular-tasting meal that we ate while watching the Canadiens take on the Leafs.  Unfortunately the game didn’t turn out in Montreal’s favour, which would have been a fitting end to the day even if it would have made for one very unhappy Toronto fan.  Perhaps things turned out as they should have, then, depending on how you look at it (or who you ask.)

Sauce Ingredients

Sauce Ingredients

Over the course of the rest of the weekend, we made a cheese curd sandwich and Oeufs en Pot à la Joe Beef.  Now we’re recovering from cheese-cream-bacon overload and will be taking a short break from JB’s tasty temptations.  While I’m dying to try the Hot Delicieux Sandwich, I’ll just have to be satisfied with quinoa and carrot sticks for a little while…

Spaghetti Homard Lobster

Voila! Spaghetti Homard Lobster

Inspiration: it is something I am constantly stumbling upon rather than seeking.  It comes from people, art, events, and nature, but more than any of these I have found that places have a profound ability to stir excitement.  Perhaps it’s because places contain the characters, the experiences and the connections of life, or because they offer a unique perspective on even mundane activities that they have such a huge impact.  Going to the market or eating a meal in a new environment can be elevated to the level of the sublime when the experience connects you to the people, the history, and the soul of a place.  For me, nowhere is this more likely to occur than in Montreal.  My regular visits to the city are usually a week or more in duration, but even a couple of short days are enough to both satisfy and further pique my curiosity.

Eating and shopping in Montreal... magnifique!

McAuslan Brunch at Au Pied de Cochon and Jean Talon Market

Recently, I purchased a copy of the “cookbook of sorts”, “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.”  In the pages of this book (which I have read from or cooked from every day since receiving it) I find kindred spirits in the proprietors Frederic Morin and David McMillan.  Their love of food, drink, trains, nostalgia, history, simplicity and humour, not to mention the city of Montreal, exceeds my own; this is not an easy feat, either in itself or for me to admit.

Yours truly, atop Mount Royal

Yours truly, atop Mount Royal

The Joe Beef philosophy is my philosophy, but before reading this book I didn’t even know it was a philosophy.  To say that this book has inspired me is an understatement.  It is the reason I am writing this, and the reason I want to continue writing about what inspires me.  What I jot down may not resonate with anyone, or it might, but either way, I look forward to reflecting on the experiences and influences that leave their mark on me.

Travelled by train from Halifax to Montreal this summer.

On board the Ocean, the oldest continuously-operated named passenger train in North America.

So what can you expect to see here?  Expect to see ramblings about food.  Expect a lot of gushing about Montreal.  Expect the odd rant about politics or the environment, and expect to be surprised.  I’m all about connecting dots in the hopes of there being a somewhat discernible picture in the end.  Right now, things look a bit scattered, but I’m confident that the more dots I find or create, the clearer everything will become.  Maybe one day my own philosophy will materialize, but for now, Joe Beef will be my patron saint and source of inspiration.

Joe Beef receipts, photos, and mementoes

Memories of past Joe Beef experiences