Sometimes I imagine how it would feel to discover an episode of, say, Sex and the City, that I’ve never watched before.
Now I don’t have to because a couple of days ago I learned of a Kenneth Branagh-directed movie co-starring Emma Thompson that I’d never heard of and let me tell you, it felt great.
The discovery took place just after dinner with the Beast and his good friend Nick. Nick, who lives in L.A., is home for the holidays and he and the Beast have been working on a film project together for their other friend, Natalie, who is a producer.
It’s brought me great joy to come home from work and find the two of them in the dining room laughing and writing.
And thanks to the time that the holidays afforded me, it’s been very satisfying to pull a beef and mushroom pie out of the freezer and heat it up, or to throw together some meats and risreeses for pre-dinner snacks. The Beast has also contributed: little cucumber and cream cheese crustless sandwiches and a sublime chicken and orzo soup. He even made the stock.
I think my sense of satisfaction has been pumped up because of Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which I just finished reading yesterday. Brown is responsible for bringing the Conde Nast magazine back to life. Key to her success was treating “low” subject matter–think celebrity news and gossip–with gravitas, placing them side by side with hard-hitting pieces of investigative journalism, and getting the best editors and writers in the business, culled from both the old guard and undiscovered talent, to package it all up.
Also paramount was the dinner party. Many of the books’ most memorable moments happen around the dinner table–both hers, political and literary giants, and New York billionaires. Guests were owners of television networks and newspapers and their brightest stars. They included Norman Mailer, Robert Hughes, the Kissingers, the Carsons, Jackie Onassis, Joan Didion, John Dunne, and Katherine Graham.
If she hosted, Brown would calculate who sits where to ensure optimal conversation. If she was a guest, she’d often sit back and take the temperature of the times, observe the swinging pendulum of the cultural and political zeitgeists, and then make use of the intel to keep Vanity Fair fresh and relevant. Plus, the dinner table was not only where friendships were fostered but also where deals were brokered and the genesis of professional relationships and opportunities were born.
I’m no Tina Brown–and I’m not friends with world leaders or royals–but it was a reminder that ideas are rarely born in vacuums; conversations with interesting people, whether they be entertaining, difficult or both, can change the course of your life. This, coupled with the fact that her library also doubled as her dining room, like ours does, resolved me to host more dinner parties, and to always be prepared for spontaneous ones.
Speaking of which, I can’t actually take credit for the most recent, where I discovered the Branagh film. The Beast had whipped up a lentil soup using ingredients from the pantry that was TDF (to die for.) He fried up some onions, carrots, celery and bacon, added a little ground turmeric and chilli flakes, a can of good plum tomatoes, some lentils and couple of bay leaves and we three had an impromptu dinner.
Their notes and research material had been pushed to a corner of the dining table. After I’d cleaned a second bowl of the soup, I casually leafed through a collection of Pauline Kael film reviews and and another of Roger Ebert’s. That’s where I came across Peter’s Friends.
The 1992 film is about a group of friends who worked in a comedy troupe together, separate and grow up a bit over the course of five years, then meet again for New Year’s at Peter’s countryside estate. It sounds like The Big Chill, but Ebert, who gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four, said he liked this group of friends, which includes Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Immelda Staunton, and Branagh himself, better. “Perhaps because they seem to like each other more,” he said, “or perhaps just because they’re more amusing.”
After Nick left, we dialled it up. I think Ebert must’ve been in a very generous mood when he awarded it those stars. I kept saying: “This feels like a play and they just brought out a camera to film it.” The Beast said: “I’d pay great amounts of money to be present the first time that comment was ever uttered as praise.”
We both agreed it was a very average ’90s film with great performances and good intentions that ended in the cheesiest of ways, like so many of my favourite films from decades earlier–Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Breaking Away, An Officer and a Gentleman–with a freeze frame.
(We actually called this last frame like sports casters on the couch: “OMG it’s going to be a freeze frame isn’t it, it’s coming, it’s coming, wait for it…steady..and WHOA it’s a grand slam!)
Still, it didn’t feel like wasted time. Unlike reading Saturday’s National Post did.
I think good ol’ Rexy, aka Rex Murphy, has officially lost it. His most recent column was making fun of those who believe that climate change exists, I think. It’s hard to know because it’s largely incoherent. How did it pass through editing? How can Conrad Black still write almost every week about indigenous affairs (as though he’s an authority on the matter) and why his good friend The Donald is doing a great job? How does Christie Blatchford, a fantastic crime and court reporter who nevertheless refuses to accept that the courts need to evolve when it comes to victims of sexual assault, among other frustrating things, write what felt like 10 columns in a row on the Laurier debacle? How does Robert Fulford, and god bless him, get carte blanche every week to write about anything he wants, regardless of whether it has a news peg or not?
When Natalie found out that we were subscribers, probably after Simon was complaining about the paper, she was mortified. And she’s right. It’s terribly off-brand of us. We subscribed originally because it was super cheap and I need to read a daily paper, along with coffee, to poop every morning. I also told myself, it’s good to read points of view that aren’t your own because it helps shape and focus your arguments against them. But the columnists rarely have a point of view these days, and if they do, it’s never illuminating or instructive, even for counter arguments.
Writing a column is not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest professional thing I’ve ever done. In fact, I had ideas turned down, and columns killed because they were bad. Editors, who I trusted–thank god–told me so. It feels like there are no editors telling columnists NO. It feels like they’ve just given up, save for the art department because it’s still the prettiest paper in town.
What’s frustrating is that they have real talent there: Richard Warnica, who could write entertainingly about watching toast burn, is brilliant. Jen Gerson is sharp and smart. And this weekend there was a great piece on Joshua Boyle (I can’t wait to see the movie!) But then Jonathan Kay writes about Albert Schultz and sexual harassment in the work place. Why did they ask him? Or why did they accept the pitch instead of saying, “Jon, maybe sit this one out. I think we’ll ask someone else–maybe even a woman?–to give us perspective on this one.” Why, why why?
When you think of what it could be–and what it was even five years ago!–it feels like such a wasted platform. Perhaps the blame can be laid on cut budgets, lack of resources, poached talent, talent being stretched too thin, frustrated talent whose hands feel tied by powerful publishers.
I’m sure The Why is all very complicated. But maybe a dinner party would help. Imagine all the old NP editors and columnists are seated in between undiscovered editors and writers of a variety of economic backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities who are hungry to do better and brighter things. Arguments are had between entertaining and difficult people. Maybe some ideas are born.
The Beast wants to cancel our subscription. And, maybe with the money we save, we can chip in a bottle of bubbly to get things started.