30 November, 2018

You Must Remember This (Scene 3, Take 1)

(Over the past couple of days this blog has been discussing the impressive number of drinks poured in  Casablanca, whilst outlining their fates. Few of which involve actually being consumed. If I drank the way these characters do, my liver would be the size of a thumb-drive. Anyway, let's try to wrap up this discussion today.)

Not a bourbon I drink...
(Wikimedia Commons)
Rick's big solitary drinking scene includes, besides the classic "Of all the gin joints..." line, this wonderful exchange:

RICK: Sam?
SAM: Yes, boss?
RICK: If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
SAM: Huh? My watch stopped.
RICK: I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America.

There's a scene-within-a-scene here, a flashback montage of Rick and Ilsa's romance in Paris. A lot of champagne is poured in this flashback, and we actually see Rick and Ilsa drink some, at the beginning and at the very end. (As far as I can tell, the one sip Ilsa takes in this sequence is the only drinking the character does in the entire movie. As if to symbolize her attitude toward drink, Ilsa closes the scene in the Cafe Belle Aurore by knocking over a full glass of champagne.)

When the flashback ends, Rick's glass is empty and the bottle has only an inch or so of bourbon in it. When Ilsa intrudes on his misery, Rick pours himself another shot. He downs nearly the whole thing in one belt, too: that's how unhappy he is. Rick hardly touches a drop before this scene; for the rest of the movie, nearly every scene he's in he's holding a drink. (Incidentally, this scene ends with Rick downing another shot of bourbon, a shot we haven't seen him pour.)

The next booze shot (so to speak) takes place next morning at the Blue Parrot, the cafe owned by Signor Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet). Ferrari offers Rick a drink, to which Rick responds, "I never drink in the morning." Ferrari pours him a drink anyway, from a fresh bottle. Scorning Ferrari's hospitality, Rick walks away without touching the drink. (Ferrari doesn't have much luck with his guests; immediately after Rick leaves he makes, with his own hands, a cup of Arab-style coffee for Ilsa―who sets it aside without even inhaling the aroma. She does thank him for it, though.)

Back at the bar, a couple of extras down drinks while Rick and Louis sip cognac―once again, Louis leaves his drink unfinished. More cognac is poured (and some actually drunk) by Karl and two extras in a comedy-relief bit. Rick finishes the cognac he began drinking with Louis, then sets out to help Bulgarian refugees Jan and Annina Brandel (Helmut Dante, Joy Page) win at roulette; Victor and Ilsa appear at the club and order cognac, apparently tired of all the champagne they didn't drink the previous evening.

Of course they don't drink anything.

After the roulette incident Rick pours himself another cognac (his third of the evening), but only has one sip before Victor drags him away from it. Regardless of the purity of his soul and his politics, this guy sure is a killjoy. At contemporary prices, he and his wife waste several hundred dollars' worth of perfectly good alcohol during the course of the film.

At this point the action starts moving fairly aggressively and the drinks stop flowing. After Rick and Ilsa become lovers again there are a bottle and full glasses of champagne on the table in front of them as they talk, but neither drinks (though Rick does toast Ilsa, one of several times he says "Here's looking at you, kid" to her). The noble Victor does finally stoop to taking an honest swig of elixir, however: after cutting his hand while escaping from the police, he allows Rick to pour some cognac into him. It's only one sip, though, and clearly For Medicinal Purposes Only. (It's no wonder Ilsa prefers Rick to this bloodless shmoo.) It's ironic, I suppose, but Victor is the last person to drink alcohol in the film.

(Tomorrow we'll wrap all this up with some overall thoughts about Casablanca as a movie and as a cultural artifact.)

29 November, 2018

You Must Remember This (Scene 2, Take 1)

(Yesterday this blog began reviewing the history of the various cocktails and other alcoholic drinks pouredthough seldom consumedin the movie Casablanca. Today, both the decadence and the Good Guys proliferate.)

After Louis abandons his expensive cognac untasted, another Bad Person takes the stage: Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) of the Third Reich. Major Strasser shows how decadent he is by ordering an entire bottle of Veuve Cliquot '26 and an entire (large) tin of caviar. Just for himself. What's more, we actually see him eat the caviar (it looks wonderful, and he actually scarfs down big clumps of it with a fork)―though we don't get to see him drink any of the champagne. (There's a continuity gaffe in this scene: Strasser picks up his fork for the first time twice.)

The purest of the Good Guys is also the most profligate of the whole cast in terms of wasting good booze (and bad, for that matter). Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) starts off by ordering Cointreau for himself and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). No sooner are these delivered than they are sent away, untouched, by Louis, who makes a gift of a bottle of the bar's best champagne. Though we don't actually see the champagne delivered, there are soon three full glasses on Victor's table. Whereupon first Louis and then Victor leave the table without touching a drop.

Champagne cocktail
Victor goes to the bar and orders a champagne cocktail. He doesn't drink any of this either, though he touches the drink to his closed lips twice―at which point Louis reappears and orders him a second champagne cocktail. We don't see what happens to this drink, because the scene shifts to Ilsa and Sam (Dooley Wilson) serenading each other with "As Time Goes By." (A second bottle of champagne has been delivered to the Victor-Ilsa table, but the waiter stops halfway through opening it.)

When Rick and Ilsa finally meet, darned if Louis doesn't appear and order yet another round of drinks―more champagne, as if there isn't enough at the table already. No sooner are the drinks delivered than Louis (remember, he ordered them) announces that it's curfew time, and everybody gets up and leaves.

The big drinking scene―the one that inspired our fantasy portrait―comes next. When the scene opens Rick has already knocked off about half of a bottle of bourbon. He's holding a ten-ounce tumbler that's a third full of straight bourbon, and as the scene progresses we actually see him drink most of the contents of the glass. This scene contains some of my favourite dialogue in the movie. Which I will write more about tomorrow.

28 November, 2018

You Must Remember This (Scene 1, Take 1)

French 75
(Wikimedia Commons)
(This year [2018] marks the 80th anniversary of Everybody Comes to Rick's, the play on which my favourite movie of all time, Casablanca, is based. Over the next few days I'd like to spend some time on a rather unusual exploration of the movie.]

Hanging on a wall in our house is a pen-and-ink sketch: a fantasy portrait of me and Lorna, a wedding present from the late Bob Doyle and the artist, the still-extant George Barr. The sketch is based on a scene in Casablanca: the scene in which Bogart is sitting, drinking and flashing back to his Paris romance with Ingrid Bergman. (This scene contains the classic line "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.")

Casablanca is my favourite movie and has remained so for decades; and as I have watched it over and over (and over), one thing has gradually stood out about this movie: for a picture set in a saloon, there is an awful lot of drinking not being done. (With all due respect to Connie Willis's Remake.) During one of my recent rewatchings, I decided to keep track of the fates of the various drinks ordered by the characters in the film.

The first drink we see being served is a gin-and-tonic, delivered by Sasha the Russian bartender to an obviously English customer. As the main raises the glassor, rather, the straw (!)―to his lips, the scene cuts to "Professor" Karl, the waiter played by "Cuddles" Sakall, delivering a tray of drinks to a table. Nobody picks up these drinks.

The first person to actually take a drink is Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Perhaps to indicate that he's a Bad Person (and shortly to come to a Bad End), Ugarte orders a second cognac before he's even taken a sip of his first. One sip is all we see him take, though by the end of his conversation with Rick (Humphrey Bogart), Ugarte's glass is a little over half empty. The scene ends with Ugarte picking up his second drink and just leaving the first one on Rick's table.

The first person to actually finish a drink is Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick's sometime girlfriend as the picture begins. She is obviously a Bad Person, because she tosses off an entire cognac in one gulp. When she tries to order a second, Rick cuts her off and sends her home in a taxi. This scene segues into the first of many scenes shared by Rick and Capitaine Louis Renault (Claude Rains), prefect of police.

This scene is a wonderful example of what I'll call bibus interruptus: no fewer than three times before he actually takes a drink, we see Louis lift his glass toward his lips, then stop. Fortunately there is consummation: Louis not only takes a sip, he actually drains his glass. Of course, when he and Rick get up, Louis leaves a nearly full bottle of cognac on the (outdoor) table.

Rick and Louis progress into Rick's office, where Rick pours Louis a fresh cognac from his own private stock (a particularly ugly Art-Moderne cut-glass decanter). Once again, Louis teases us, lifting and lowering his glass without actually drinking. Eventually Louis gets up and leaves the office, abandoning the drink without even sampling it.

Tune in tomorrow, cocktail fanciers, when another Bad Person takes the stage and the decadence grows.

27 November, 2018

"Truth in the Service of Our Lies"

I was fully expecting to disagree, possibly violently, with Steve Brust's Philcon speech about the philosophical approach to truth as it pertains to fiction. I'm glad now that I actually read the transcript rather than simply relying on Cory Doctorow's summary on BoingBoing. The problem I had wasn't with Cory's summary, of course: it was with my reading of it. I probably need to be better about paying attention...

Anyway, even though I profess to belong to the school of a good story, well told, I found a lot to think about in Brust's text and will perhaps try again to wrap my poor brain around philosophy. Once it's recovered from my last attempt to understand Existentialism. That did not end well.

On one point I might disagree with Brust―a point of historical fact, rather than interpretation. I've always been fascinated, in a horrified way, in the role anti-intellectualism plays in American life. My recent reading on the seventeenth century leads me to believe that this approach did not originate in the US, and certainly not in the period following ratification of the constitution.

I've found plenty of evidence of opposition to intellectuals and experts in the United Kingdom of the early seventeenth century: puritan Protestantism is, among other things, a wholesale rejection of any potential role to be played by expert mediation in anyone's affairs.

But that, as Mr. Brust says, is a tale for another time.

20 November, 2018

The Widmerpool Problem

The figure of Time in Poussin's,
A Dance to the Music of Time [selection]
I am in general inclined to agree with those who claim that Kenneth Widmerpool* is "one of the more memorable characters in 20th century fiction", but I have to attach a large caveat to the assessment.

Widmerpool is the antagonist, if the term is at all applicable, in Anthony Powell's roman-fleuve A Dance to the Music of Time, one of the great achievements of English fiction. He is one of the few characters to appear in all twelve novels making up the cycle. And for much of the cycle he is an astonishing creature indeed, rising ever-higher in both status and infamy despite being an utterly boring and inconsequential person.

The problem alluded to by the title of this post is one that applies to any multi-volume piece of writing that attempts to use a single villain throughout its full length: the villain has to continually top himself if he's going to remain interesting over the course of the story.

Powell doesn't quite manage this with Widmerpool. The character reaches a peak of despicability during the trio of novels covering the second world war; as a viciously officious military bureaucrat he casually condemns several other characters to death while persuading himself he's done no such thing. But how do you top this?

Powell tries to top it by introducing an almost unbelievably horrid female character, Pamela Flitton, and then marrying Widmerpool to her for no readily apparent reason. Then he turns Widmerpool into a successful Labour politician and peer who betrays his country to the communists (specifically to a country never identified but quite clearly Yugoslavia), a betrayal for which he is never punished. And hard as this is to stomach, the Widmerpool arc in the final two novels becomes utterly preposterous.

So Widmerpool's destruction in the final novel does not feel like just desserts. It is, rather, a colossal letdown. It's almost as if Powell realized he'd let the story go on too long, had got himself trapped, and couldn't find the way out.

Lesson learned: keep your villains within the range of human believability.

*Until I heard the name spoken I had cherished the hope that "Widmerpool" would turn out to be one of those wonderful Britishisms like "St. John" or "Worcestershire" and would be pronounced Wimple or something like that. Alas, it is pronounced precisely as written.

16 November, 2018

NaNo What, Now?

Made it halfway through the month before I realized this is NaNoWriMo. I have never really paid attention to this, because I have never really needed a motivation to write. Occasionally I have run out of time, but never motivation. (I plan to post something more about this soon...ish.)
The realization prompted me to do a back-of-the-envelope assessment. so far this year I believe I have written in the vicinity of 215,000 words of fiction: a little over 40,000 words revising my second novel, A Tangled Weave (no pub date yet for that, but sometime in 2019), 80,000 words of a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Japan (no sale) and 90,000 words of the first draft of a new science fiction novel. I've also thrown out 43,000 of the latter, but in gross terms (no comment) it still counts. The remaining words in the count come from short fiction.
This isn't to brag, or even to humblebrag; it is just to show how much work one can get through if one is writing full-time and doing so every day.

13 November, 2018

Great Moments in Canadian Broadcasting

I was going through some old papers the other day (How old? Let's just say that the package in question predates my departure from a management position at CBC, back in the late Triassic) when I came across something I had clearly meant to be used somewhere. At any rate, I did a quick search and what follows does not exist anywhere on the internet save for a Google Books scan of a biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. And it's just too good to let disappear.

The great moment in question happened during the 1939 royal tour in which George VI and Elizabeth visited Canada. One of their stops was Winnipeg.

The mayor of Winnipeg in 1939 was John Queen, who had earlier been imprisoned for his role in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. He was on hand to greet the royal couple when they arrived in his city, accompanied by the Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. The following verbal meltdown, courtesy of a Winnipeg radio reporter, was thankfully transcribed by a reporter for the Globe and Mail:

The King, the Queen and Mr. King have arrived at the city hall, and Mr. Queen is on the steps to meet them. ... The King is now shaking hands with Mr. Queen and now the Queen is shaking hands with Mr. Queen, and now Mr. King is shaking hands with Mr. Queen. ... And now the King and Mr. Queen and the Queen and Mr. King are moving and into the reception hall. ... And now the King and Mr. Quing, I mean Mr. Keen and Quing, I'm sorry, I mean -- oh, shit.
(Interestingly enough, the version of this story in the biography scanned by Google Books does not include the final two words.)

12 November, 2018

We Shall Not Sleep...

Essex Farm Aid Station, Belgium (photo 2004)
I grew up with Lt-Col. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields." There probably aren't too many Canadians who didn't. But it wasn't until yesterday's one hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War that it occurred to me there was a second meaning in the final stanza of the poem:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

I imagine the rest of you knew all about this, but it wasn't until yesterday that I realized that as a doctor McCrae would of course have understood the connection between poppies and sleep.

The photo shows the site of the aid station, in the Ieper (Ypres) sector, at which McCrae wrote the poem. The bunkers post-date the poem; when McCrae wrote (during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915) the aid station was mostly trenches and dugouts.