How Do You Spell Holiday?

Enfant de Bohème: in conversation with Michel Beaulac

The Opera de Montreal’s venerable veteran Artistic Director, Michel Beaulac, has travelled the world and visited some of its most notable concert halls — Palais Garnier, La Scala, Teatro Comunale di Bologna among them. But his roots as a music lover are planted firmly in the working-class neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles.

“I like that section of Montreal. I have a lot of memories there,” says Beaulac on a phone call during the final weekend before five performances (another was added, by popular demand, on May 16th) of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly close out the company’s 43rd season. “Butterfly is certainly an opera that is always sold out because there is a connection there with the audience. People think it really is about a Geisha in Nagasaki, and her tragic story. But it really is so much more. It’s a denunciation of Imperialism. It’s a denunciation of power.”

Beaulac comes from a financially modest family. “In Pointe-Saint-Charles, that was really the rule,” he says. “Everybody was, not poor, but of relatively meagre means.”

When he was five, Beaulac’s favourite uncle, an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist at Notre-Dame Hospital, who happened to be the preferred referral for touring singers performing in the city, gifted the family a phonograph and a few classical recordings. “The only records we had in the house were those my uncle had given us,” Beaulac recalls. “One was Casse-Noisette. And the others were Werther, and Carmen, with Raoul Jobin, which Raoul Jobin had given him because he had just seen him for throat problems.” Particularly, Carmen first caught Beaulac’s ear — and broke his heart.

“I used to sing the words,” Beaulac remembers, “not really understanding the story. And when Carmen died at the end, I would run over to my mother, because I had a cousin whose name was Carmen. I would always go to my mother and say, ‘Carmen is dead!’ And my mother would have to tell me, ‘no, this is just a story, Carmen is not dead. Your cousin Carmen is not dead.’”

By his mid-teens, Beaulac began attending performances that the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal co-produced, featuring singers like Shirley Verrett and Richard Verreault. And at 18, he saved up enough money working summer jobs to visit Europe’s most storied opera houses.

“That was just such an incredible experience,” Beaulac recollects. “I was still developing that fascination for the voice and for opera and I never thought I’d spend my life in opera. I never really hoped or even thought of it.”

Beaulac’s career took a roundabout path. He taught for ten years, and then studied sculpture and painting, before landing a job in communications at Opera de Montreal. “And that’s where it all started,” Beaulac laughs. “It was such luck. I mean, I began in communications and moved on. I had a good knowledge of space, and structure, and drawing, and colours. One day a set designer dropped out. The director at the time said, ‘we have a production in seven months and the designer just dropped out, do you want to do the sets?’ And I never say no, so I jumped in.”

Since, Beaulac has served as the OdM’s Artistic Director and shows no signs of slowing down. The company is already casting for its 2024-’25 season. “We’re starting to look ahead,” Beaulac says with genuine excitement. “We’re really starting to plan who I could have here in ‘25-‘26. It’s really rolling.”

As other high artforms like cinema, prestige TV, and video games seem to be losing their post-covid appeal amongst younger audiences, opera is gaining a new generation of aficionados. With the OdM’s world premiere of La Beauté du Monde, the composer Julien Bilodeau’s collaboration with Quebec dramaturg Michel Marc Bouchard, and Juno winner Keiko Devaux’s debut at the Darling Foundry in January of L’ecoute du Perdu, Montreal is emerging as the new world leader in a centuries-long tradition.

“Opera hasn’t just survived,” Beaulac affirms, “it has developed. Opera has become this formidable artform that is so complete — that brings art, and architecture, and music, and words, and drama, and dance, and movement. This is what is so fascinating about this artform, and why you and I are so taken by it. It’s a world unto itself. When I hear people in the tech world talk about the metaverse, I think that we had access to the metaverse before they did.”

In efforts to attract younger audiences, the OdM has experimented in recent years with opening up dress rehearsals to the public, showcasing performances in a more informal setting. Still, Beaulac finds that people are drawn to opera’s immersive, transformative potential, regardless of age.

“It’s kind of a magnet,” Beaulac explains. “Opera is an artform that we can express thoughts and feelings that are connected to today’s reality. New works do that. The audience, young and old, wants to be told stories. People love to be told a story. Especially if the music is carrying it. Time slows down. They get to that meditative state where they get into the story. When it’s well put together, and the artists are really communicative, and the story is presented to them beforehand so that they already have a grasp of what they’re going to see, or if they get to look it up on their phones, they love it.”

Just don’t ask Beaulac to select a favourite. “There are so many,” he says, “for different reasons. In the 15 years I have been here, even where I’ve got to pick and choose, there are still too many.”

Beaulac is especially proud, though, of his contributions to the 2014 staging of Porgy and Bess. “We got to work nine months with Trevor Payne,” says Beaulac, “who’s an incredible musician and artist, an incredible person, an incredible soul. We worked with the Montreal Gospel Choir, and that was a real community. And the consciousness of the Black community in Montreal, and the connection that the Montreal Opera forged with the Black community, it was one of the most riveting and fulfilling experiences. It was incredible.”

Beaulac is equally fond of his relationship with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “We did several operas together,” Beaulac says of the Montreal native who is currently Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City. “I gave him his first Bohème,” Beaulac beams, “his first Butterfly, his first Cosi Fan Tutti.” In 2018, Nézet-Séguin returned to lead a co-production with the Orchestre Metropolitain in a triumphant concert version of Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed and mythically regarded Fidelio. “Those are fond memories, Beaulac recalls. “Yannick is a great musician.”

When it comes to contemporary artists, Beaulac is most drawn to the classics, listing off The Beatles, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, before mentioning George Michael as a recent inspiration. I note that Michael is among the 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. “George Michael was phenomenal,” Beaulac approves. “He was very talented. He wrote beautiful music.”

Nonetheless, opera is the be-all and end-all for Beaulac. “I was literally brought up with opera,” a history pressed on albums made right across the canal at the RCA plant in Saint Henri, and spinning out on a gramophone likely manufactured just down the street at the Northern Electric factory in the Pointe.

“Pointe-Saint-Charles is very dear to me,” Beaulac says nostalgically. “Whenever I take my car out, I always go there, like on a pilgrimage. I see where I lived when I was a kid, and see the river, and Boulevard LaSalle. It’s always very moving to see that for me.◼︎

Madama Butterfly continues May 9th, 11th, 14th, and 16th at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

photo: Brent Calis

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2: notes on the Berlin Wall segment

In the spring of 1987, US president Ronald Reagan delivered an address — one which has since accrued exponential renown — against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, that old dividing line between East and West, communism and capitalism, totalitarianism and democracy.

The Berlin Wall physically represented what was more broadly called the “Iron Curtain,” the ideological veil separating opposing ways of seeing and ways of life. At that time, history was bending towards us in the West, with our free-market economies and liberal-leaning societies seemingly leading the way. Reagan famously demanded of the Soviet ruler: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Here in the West, we believed in individualism and freedom, which supposedly supported a democratic and responsible government and fostered economic competition and innovation. The Soviet satellite republics enjoyed nothing of the sort, living under dreary planned economies, deprived of private property, with collective standards outstripping human rights, and a resigned sense of political corruption and impending doom destined to pervade daily life.

The Berlin Wall signified this. And at first glance, it seems that the segment housed in the Centre de commerce mondial’s atrium is evidence. The West side is spraypainted with graffiti and splashed with bursts of vibrant colour; the East side is bleak and bears only what appear to be administrative markings. Obviously, the permissive West was the superior flank, and we assumed simply that freedom would naturally flow eastward with the wall’s dissolution in 1990.

But that hasn’t happened.

What we call democracy was intended to guarantee that governments were responsible to the people who elected them. And yet the world’s two leading democracies, the United States and Britain, have demonstrated that even free choice doesn’t assure the contentment of the demos.

The way democracies are structured in the West ensures the perpetual tyranny of the minority. In the US, the population is more-or-less divided, but in the UK, as in Canada, ruling parties can routinely form a “majority” government with 30% or less of the vote. The UK has endured an undemocratic transfer of power so many times in the past decade that it’s difficult to count. And more than 40% of Americans still don’t trust the 2020 presidential election outcome. Maybe it’s time to admit that this form of democracy we live under has a few flaws.

Communications technologies were meant to liberate us Westerners, freeing everyone from the shackles of space and time and allowing the unfettered flow of information to permeate borders and broaden hearts and minds.

And yet the West’s media are constantly warring with each other over what constitutes important information, and who holds the truth. Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, has such contempt for the media that he has replaced his company’s entire public relations department with an auto-reply message delivering a poop emoji.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, state surveillance of private individuals was considered one of the most heinous transgressions of Eastern totalitarianism. The Oscar-winning 2006 film The Lives of Others depicted the humdrum occupation of an East German surveillance officer assigned to spy on the conversation and communication of ordinary citizens. This cinematic rendering was supposed to look shocking to Western audiences, a revelation of how low totalitarian governments stooped just to collect a little bit of information.

And yet we in the West have shrugged at exposé after exposé of major media corporations — and governments, too — conducting mass-surveillance that would make Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler blush like a nun. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are arguably little more than surveillance networks.

Ultimately, it was concluded to be capitalism, like the pudding’s eating, that would prove the West’s dominance. Open competition in every marketplace would allow everyone, doing anything, the opportunity to succeed, for cheaper, thus providing the best possible goods and services to a free public for the least cost, freeing up more capital for leisure and the pursuit of happiness.

And yet the world’s capitalist economies since 1990 have heaved through at least three recessions — one of them “great” — a financial crisis in 2008 precipitated by the collapse of major lending institutions, and the unprecedented consolidation of wealth into the fewest hands in history. A recent Oxfam report found that the 1 percent, as we have come to accept them, snatched nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020. At $42 trillion, that’s almost twice as much as the bottom 99 percent of us.

What do you buy when you can afford anything? Ironically, the most coveted bauble in the free West is Control.

Capitalism undermines democracy when it becomes possible to purchase political power. And unrestricted communication is compromised when the channels are owned and operated by capitalists for the purposes of surveillance. The free marketplace ceases to be free when capital stomps out competition. And ultimately, the demos — us citizens — lose trust in the system.

That’s what the East-West divide always seemed to be about: trust. If you want for nothing, you can trust your neighbour. You can trust the free media. You can trust the best products. You can trust the most popular politicians. And you can trust fair elections.

Except, as we all know, we can trust none of these things.

Again, it is ironic that the East appears to have won in the trust department, too. You can’t trust Biden or Trudeau or whomever happens to be Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of writing. But you can trust Putin to be Putin. That’s why Trump won — and may again: because, no matter how ridiculous his tactics, America could always trust Trump to Trump.

Our free and liberal democracy has afforded, among other things, what appears to be free and fair choice in all walks of life, including governing authorities, consumer products, and channels of communication. Western life gives us in Montreal the freedom to display a segment of the Berlin Wall as if it’s the spoils of some brutal war in some distant past, as if to say, “job done.” But the job isn’t done. Walls just like it and worse are still being built. And the once shining triptych of democracy, technology, and capitalism has lost its lustre.

On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev warned the world of a new Cold War emerging between East and West, one rooted in the Ukrainian question, and aggravated by what Gorbachev referred to as American “triumphalism.” The West got cocky is what Gorby meant. Instead of ensuring that another wall like it could never happen again, we just decorated it.

First as tragedy, then as tourist attraction.◼︎

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Cheap Essential Scenery: seven ideas to fix Montreal’s short-term rentals

There are no innocent bystanders … what are they doing there in the first place?

―William S. Burroughs, Exterminator!

I wanna see some history
‘Cause now I got a reasonable economy.

—Sex Pistols, “Holidays in the Sun”

In the wake of the devastating fire that tragically cut short seven lives, destroyed an historic Old Montreal edifice, and shattered the entire community, everyone was quick to point fingers, all away from themselves.

The media blamed the owner for allowing the building to violate a multitude of codes, including hosting short-term rentals, which became illegal in 2018 in the Ville-Marie borough. The mayor blamed Airbnb, who was listing the accommodations despite their prohibition. In efforts to appease the city, which has already displayed hostility towards Uber and Lime, Airbnb vowed to crack down on unlicensed listings, something they should have been doing in the first place.

Still, no one has blamed the obvious offenders: the tourists themselves. Because if there were no demand for illegal accommodations, and nobody willing to stay in them — haven’t you seen that video? — landlords wouldn’t find evermore reprehensible ways to list their slummy properties illegally, and Airbnb wouldn’t have to crack down on them. And maybe seven people would still be alive.

Nobody ever said that those travellers should have taken responsibility for themselves; should have checked to see if their Airbnb listings had certification numbers; should have checked to see if their accommodations had important things like windows or escape routes; should have questioned why their stays in Old Montreal were so cheap. In order to save money, each of these people deliberately did not take a hotel, and they unfortunately paid the ultimate price.

This is the most cold-hearted niche take yet. But the upshot is that everyone is to blame for this cascading disaster: the landlord for listing illegal short-term rentals in an unsafe building; Airbnb for not double-checking their listings; the city for not enforcing our bylaws; travellers for their reckless disregard; and the community as a whole for allowing this building to exist in such a dangerous state. This fire reveals a deficiency in Montreal’s tourism industry: with nine million visitors expected to make Montreal their destination this summer, we need better, safer, more affordable places to stay.

CultMTL called for the all-out ban on Airbnb’s, but that is unrealistic and the city has already signalled that they are satisfied with Airbnb’s response. The extra tourism that Airbnb attracts is too lucrative to turn away. This likely means Airbnb’s and their particular sort of budget travellers are here to stay, at least for now. Yet there are seven things that Montreal could do to create the kind of accommodations that keep travellers comfortable and safe — and in turn, could render Airbnb obsolete.

The first is to diligently hold Airbnb to its commitments. If the company vows to crack down on unlicensed listings, follow up and make sure that they do. When asked point-blank why the city isn’t shutting down illegal Airbnb’s, the Executive Committee Vice Chairperson for the Commission de l’habitation et de la cohésion sociale of the Communauté métropolitaine and Sud-Ouest borough mayor, Benoit Dorais, offered three words: “It’s really difficult.” No. It’s really easy. All the city — or anyone — has to do is search on Airbnb. Every listing that is not located near Saint-Catherine Street between St. Mathieu and Amhurst is illegal.

Number two: encourage an Airbnb alternative. Montreal is home to some of the world’s most talented tech workers. With so many job cuts in that industry over the past year, there must be an abundance of idle hands just waiting to code the next made-in-Montreal app capable of doing what Airbnb does, but better. Montreal created the Bixi program and not only does it make Lime scooters and Jump bikes unnecessary, it has become the global bikeshare model.

Third: make it understood in buildings known for illegal rentals that they are not allowed. I live in an Old Montreal apartment that has frequently hosted illicit Airbnb’s. Our residents, with the assistance of the condo board and management company, have fought hard to ensure that they are not welcome this summer, installing a sign in the lobby and charging fines for violators.

Number four: equip bylaw enforcement with better tools to find offenders. If Airbnb skirts the bylaws by obscuring the addresses of accommodations, pass a bylaw that makes it necessary to disclose those addresses. No hotel would ever attempt to hide its geographical location. So why should Airbnb? Uprooting illegal listings and keeping guests safe is more important than the privacy of a few Airbnb property owners.

Five: convert disused city properties into mixed-use short-term accommodations and regular rentals. The city could lease or acquire office space that has gone vacant since Covid and remodel those buildings into living spaces for the city’s travellers and residents who need it most. With the recent announcement of the remodelled Eaton Centre restaurant, it is clear that these sorts of retrofits are a popular idea.

Six: license Casa Particular-type B&B accommodations in which travellers can stay with people willing to open up their homes. That would encourage responsibility from hosts and guests alike and relieve the city of some of the supervisory burden over companies like Airbnb. This manner of tourism is popular in Cuba, for example, and offers an authentic local experience for both budget travellers as well as owners monetizing their properties. Montrealers serve as the best ambassadors to Montreal.

Seven: as seasons change and news cycles move on, let us not forget this fire’s victims. Let us remember Dr. An Wu, 31; Dania Zafar, 31; Saniya Khan, 31; Nathan Sears, 35; Charlie Lacroix, 18; Walid Belkahla, 18; and Camille Maheux, 76. Maheux was a resident of the building for over three decades and did not deserve to have her life end this way. None of these people did.

If lawsuits arise against Airbnb, they should see trial and not be settled out of court. Settlements prevent the justice system from administering justice. By design, they also keep these incidents out of the public eye. Usually accompanied by some form of non-disclosure agreement, out-of-court settlements limit what victims are allowed to do and say. More often, the defendant accepts no guilt or responsibility. So when it comes time for cities to regulate, Airbnb can honestly claim that they were never technically found guilty or responsible for terrible things, even though they plainly paid their way out of admitting guilt or accepting responsibility for terrible things. Airbnb has a long history of buying itself out of calamities. Don’t let them.

On Friday, March 24th, on a neighbourhood walk after a long week, I took a cup of tea and headed down St. Paul. I found myself standing on the corner from which the building’s skeleton was still visible. It was a bright, crisp afternoon, not quite springtime, not yet tourist season, but almost. I thought of all the excited visitors Montreal will be welcoming this summer. And I thought that their vacations will sadly take place in this tragedy’s long shadow. The site was still marked out with danger tape and an SPVM officer was busy returning to his patrol car. As he approached, I saw tears in his eyes, because not all cops are bastards, but all capitalists are.

Louis-Philippe Lacroix, father of Charlie Lacroix, one of the 18-year-olds killed in the fire, stoically said: “This happened, there’s nothing we can do, now do everything you freaking can to avoid another story like that.”

There are a few freaking things Montreal can do.◼︎

Report an illegal tourist home to the Ville de Montreal through this portal.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Meet Your Maker: notes on (not) drinking bourbon

There is an old joke about two buddies, Frank and Jim, who go out for after-work libations.

Frank proceeds to get blind drunk and vomits all over his own shirt. He laments that his wife will be infuriated when she sees him in such a state. Jim, being a generous and ingenious pal, tells Frank to tell his wife instead that it was Jim who got bombed and barfed on Frank’s shirt. To corroborate this story, Jim instructs Frank to plant $10 into his shirt pocket, from Jim, to pay for the estimated dry cleaning.

The last drink of alcohol I ever had was Maker’s Mark bourbon. To be pedantic, the last drink of alcohol I ever had was an entire bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon. It all started with one shot. Then another. Then another. I was at home, alone, and you would think that you can’t get into trouble drinking at home alone. But no.

I vaguely remember that the police arrived, then departed. More bourbon shots followed, which I do not recall. Yadda Yadda Yadda, and I found the bottle upside down in the sink the next morning. Of course I’m Yadda-ing over the worst part.

I don’t know why I was drinking. Perhaps it was the extreme loneliness of the pandemic. Perhaps it was the frustration around the extreme loneliness of the pandemic. Somehow the pandemic had something to do with it. But if I’m being honest, the pandemic was just another excuse, an easy target, like the solution to a 1930s social problem film. The real motive was the spirit in the bottle.

The reason they call spirits ‘spirits’ is because there is a powerful spiritual essence in there. It can take any form, any gender, any identity — it is fluid, after all. The spirit can be charming, clever, courageous, affectionate, amorous. But the spirit can also become impetuous, angry, even violent. And there is a point at which the spirit in the bottle can and will completely take over the spirit in the human being. The spirit assumes one hundred percent control, leaving behind nothing resembling that person, and the spirit will do whatever it will. Fundamentally, its will and our will are out of sync. No one ever says, ‘I’m glad I did X while drunk.’

I am not absolving myself of any responsibility here. It was I who invited the spirit into my life in the first place. I’m the one who drank the bourbon. And I drank everything that I ever drank leading up to the bourbon. But once that particular bourbon entered my bloodstream, I knew to whom its mark belonged. It was not the bourbon’s distiller; the “Maker’s Mark” was of the alcohol’s apposite creator. You know, that guy, from south of the border. (Hell, not America.)

I was invited earlier this month to an exclusive event at the brand new Hyatt Centric hotel in Old Montreal. A pre-Christmas tour of the facility was announced, and abruptly cancelled, for media personnel ostensibly covering the travel industry for various publications. I emailed the Hyatt to find out if the tour had been rescheduled and discovered that there was indeed a visit that very night, if I’d hustled to the property, followed by a tasting of a batch of Maker’s Mark bourbon produced especially for The Burgundy Lion’s sister restaurant, Cartier Arms. I was under the impression that journalism was dying. But it’s encouraging to see how many people consider themselves journalists when someone is administering journalists free bourbon shots.

The Hyatt Centric, the majestic, off-kilter, white cube that looms high on the horizon over Montreal’s most historically rich neighbourhood, seemed a fitting venue for the Maker’s Mark unveiling. Because of its architecturally anomalous design, its hallways appear to veer sideways. It is undeniably an admirably built edifice. But there is something Death Star-ish about it. Maybe it’s the fact that it is perpetually under construction. Or maybe it’s the fact that this Hyatt represents another giant corporation planting its flag in the heart of Montreal, thus marking yet another slide down the world’s slippery slope of ultimately toxic inclinations.

Toby Lyle, the restaurateur, and the aptly named Lindsay Wood, Maker’s Mark’s diplomat, were on hand to give their respective spiels describing this niche bourbon blend, called Adrianna, after Lyle’s daughter. They regaled the audience with details about how the bourbon is made, about how Maker’s Mark distillery boasts its own water source, about how bourbon needn’t be manufactured in Kentucky, but has to be blended using a minimum of fifty-one percent corn to be considered bourbon proper. Lyle divulged to the crowd that he’d planned to gift his daughter a bottle of her bourbon on her eighteenth birthday. I hope Adrianna respects the spirit that is now her namesake. I pray she understands the potential curse bottled therein.

A number of recent studies have concluded that, contrary to popular belief, there is no healthy amount of alcohol for humans. Nada. Zero. Zilch. All of the positive effects previously associated with booze — decreased blood pressure, antioxidation — can be better achieved with many other safe and effective methods that do not involve intoxication. We might have normalized alcoholism in modern society, but statistics suggest that young people are consuming far less alcohol than previous generations, and soft drink industry efforts to entice young consumers back to habitual boozing by introducing alcohol are both indicative of those trends, as well as proof of capitalism’s pure evil.

So, what was the worst part of my last drink?

When Frank arrives home, his wife is predictably enraged and immediately rebukes him. Frank, though, proceeds to unravel the alibi concocted earlier — that it was really Jim who had drunkenly vomited on Frank’s shirt. Frank implores his wife to check inside his pocket in which she will find $10, from Jim, for the dry cleaning. She inspects his pockets, but instead finds $20. To which Frank replies, “Well, he took a shit in my pants, too.”◼︎

Help is available if you or anyone you know is suffering from addictions.

Imbibe Adrianna exclusively at Cartier Arms, where there is also a selection of delicious virgin cocktails.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Heart Like a Wheel: notes on the Fancy Free Corvette

America in the late 1950s must have been an incredible time and place to be.

It was an historical sweet spot between two world wars and Vietnam, after rock n’ roll but before the British Invasion, still Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan and not quite The Beatles. You could go for burgers and malted milk at the drive-in, twist your bobby socks off at the hop, and if you had the means, you might even be able to afford one of the finest and most beautiful automobiles ever produced, an upstart little sports coupe called the Chevrolet Corvette.

In 1958, General Motors produced 9,168 of these babies. But only one was known as the “Fancy Free” — a stunning metallic olive coloured prototype, all curves and chrome, upon which Ruth Glennie literally cut footloose. Glennie’s one-of-a-kind Corvette is part of an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts entitled Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design, celebrating the contributions that women have made to the world of design, industrial and otherwise.

Glennie was among nine women working for GM, part of a unit known as the “Damsels in Design.” The corporate thinking at the time was that women drove most of a nuclear family’s expenditures, consumer durables like automobiles, furniture, musical instruments, and home appliances.

A number of the Damsels were allocated to Frigidaire, a GM subsidiary, to imagine the Kitchen of the Future. But Glennie worked on the ‘Vette, conceiving of features such as seasonal seat covers, retractable seatbelts, and of course a strategically placed ashtray. Glennie mightn’t have made the fenders nor the motor, but she designed an interior fit for a life of leisure, a pleasurable place to travel, sat comfortably in America’s second home — the passenger seat.

Everyone knows that the fossil fuel industry is rapidly destroying the planet. Our world has a significant oil problem that’s responsible in large part for deadly international conflicts and climate change among other catastrophes. Nonetheless, I have a cheesy bone in my body for classic American cars, those engines of internal combustion. It’s like alcoholics say about booze — we’ve got a problem with this stuff, let’s just finish it up.

I drove a Corvette only once. It was the plaything of an ex-girlfriend’s father, an unremarkable 1990s model, sadly, made of plastic and fiberglass and as unlike the Fancy Free as possible. But the first and only car that I ever owned was a 1968 Chevy Camaro, white with blue interior, the kind of automobile you might imagine the baddie driving in a Steve McQueen movie, definitely designed by dudes, as fast as the Devil himself, and yet with a trunk spacious enough to hold several dead bodies.

The Corvette and the Camaro had a common option: the Powerglide transmission. This was a racing gearbox with two speeds: go, and go faster. Although there was actually a secret “low” gear as well that I only discovered when a golden yellow 1970s model Chevy Nova Super Sport pulled up alongside me, its driver shouting out the window, “kick ‘er down, buddy!” I had no idea what “kick ‘er down” meant, until I shifted the centre console into “low” and felt the chassis shudder like an airplane in takeoff mode.

I blew off a Porsche in that car. Granted it was only a 928, but still. And I can attest that ladies loved the interior, too, especially the backseat, a crucial omission of Corvettes. The Camaro had a 327 cubic inch engine. The Corvette possessed a more modest 289, because no one man should have all that power. It’s only right that at least half of it should belong to the fairer sex.

Corvettes were classier, not driven by deviants and film villains. Glennie’s Fancy Free harkens back to a simpler time, when American modernity fostered optimism rather than cynicism. There was a sense in the ‘50s that the future was bright and full of possibility. In those halcyon days, the Mad Men might have appeared in control, but women were in charge by design.◼︎

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design runs 18 February – 28 May 2023 at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

NYE @ Tbsp.

I was relieved to discover that the “Boogie Night” New Year’s Eve event at Tbsp. in the W Hotel has little more than disco and a ‘70s motif to do with the 1997 movie Boogie Nights.

That film contains a disturbing New Year’s Eve scene that anyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s pièce de résistance porn-comedy-cocaine-tragedy will doubtless vividly recall. Something has always bothered me about that scene. But it’s not what you might think.

The action plays out in one long take, an homage to Martin Scorsese’s notorious Copacabana nightclub entrance in Goodfellas. Although rather than a happy couple laughing to Henny Youngman’s one-liners, Paul Thomas Anderson’s iteration ends with William H. Macy’s character murdering his wife and her lover, and then turning the gun on himself. It signifies the beginning of the 1980s, and an horrible new era in Boogie Nights’ hellishly heartrending plot.

The scene is acted, shot, and rendered masterfully. Though one thing about it never ceases to niggle away at me. In that segment, the camera follows Macy as he attends a New Year’s Eve party, which Burt Reynolds’ porn-director character hosts. Macy walks from his car to the house, mills about from room to room and mingles with other guests, gets a champagne coupe, and inquires as to his wife’s whereabouts. He eventually finds her in a bedroom having sex with another man, and calmly proceeds to go back to his car, placing his champagne coupe on its roof, retrieving a pistol, returning to the house, opening fire on the lusty couple, shoving the weapon in his own mouth, and pulling the trigger.

What bothers me about this is not so much the murder-suicide, but the fact that he leaves his champagne on the roof of his car. It’s just a little detail. But it’s the kind of thing that obsesses someone as OCD as me. Did the actor intentionally leave it there, thinking that his character might have been so engrossed in murderous rage that he would scarcely remember to take the champagne? Did Macy, in the heat of filming the scene, plumb forget that he was initially carrying a glass? Is it a deep-inside film-nerd joke — as in, “take the gun, leave the champagne?

At any rate, it is one of the most shocking pieces of 1990s cinema, up there with Quentin Tarantino’s infamous ear-cutting exploits in Reservoir Dogs, and approaching Scorsese’s Goodfellas descent into the mob inferno’s ninth circle. It snatches our attention.

But back to the W Hotel’s Boogie Night party. This isn’t that. Their New Year’s Eve celebration, ringing in what will surely prove a more pleasing epoch than the 1980s, is called Boogie Night because a DJ named Pat Boogie will be spinning dance platters until the midnight countdown and beyond. A five-course tasting menu, oysters, and champagne at the witching hour accompany the price of admission.

I enjoy hanging out at the W Hotel. Its vibe is more Wong Kar-wai than Paul Thomas Anderson, more hypermodern than retro chic. Local company Les Entreprises QMD completely revamped its interiors in 2015. Hotel lobbies and their adjacent restaurants and bars have enjoyed a resurgence in all-around hipness in recent years. Woody Allen’s 2019 film, A Rainy Day in New York, features the Carlyle Hotel’s iconic Bemelmans murals as exemplary of a more romantic age. The New York Times declared in its Where To Eat newsletter, “The Hotel Lobby Restaurant is Back.” There is also the Hennessy Sound Box happening at the W, and it’s actually worth doing.

Another unlikely film has come to accompany the holiday season in all its depravity, and that film is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It’s become a seasonal classic simply because it takes place at Christmastime (although, for my money, I’d rather watch The Apartment.) Still, I think a lot of people miss the story’s moral.

Most of this picture’s vocal proponents point to its depictions of libidinous women, its empowerment of the fairer sex, and its candid characterization of feminine desire. Throughout the film, the real-life and on-screen married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are tempted at every turn with opportunities for infidelity. Cruise surreptitiously attends a ritualistic orgy; an intoxicated Kidman flirts with an Hungarian impresario and, later while stoned, recounts a sexual fantasy that she indulged in with a stranger on a family holiday.

The upshot of the film, though, is that they don’t fuck around. They could. But they don’t. An alternate subtitle could have been, Eyes Wide Shut or: How I Learned to Keep it in My Pants. This philosophy might have saved William H. Macy’s wife from untimely death, and Macy from self-induced demise.

In the summertime, I was walking through Square Victoria when I came upon an empty champagne flute resting on a bench. I thought it must have been some boozy W Hotel guest who had snuck it outside in the park for a clandestine tipple under a starry Montreal sky. But it also at the time made me think of Boogie Nights, and I hoped to goodness that it wasn’t forgotten in a fit of jealous rage — or any rage, for that matter. The Times declared 2022 the “year of rage,” and no doubt, a pandemic, war, and all the other challenges we faced together have made us more than a little upset.

But New Year’s is a time for rebirth, a moment to reflect on what just happened, and an opportunity to make concerted efforts to incrementally improve ourselves and the world. New Year’s Eve is the only night of the year when we can collectively start anew, all at once. Let’s take a page from Kubrick’s playbook rather than Paul Thomas Anderson’s, and boogie sensibly into 2023, whilst shedding some of that misplaced indignation, with eyes wide open.

I believe, more than Boogie Nights, the theme for this New Year’s should be, “Love the one you’re with.” And if you can’t, at least remember to bring your glass inside.◼︎


How Do You Spell Holiday?

Sound Box by Hennessy, W Montreal

Everyone is familiar nowadays on social media with the meme format, “You can only keep three.” These rubrics are attempts at producing miniature best-of lists for the products or media forms in question: for example, you can only keep three HBO series, video games, chocolate bars, or potato chip brands. It’s as if we were all preparing imaginary time capsules of our most important cultural artifacts, to preserve, to protect, to define who we really are.

Hennessy’s Sound Box installation, now on at the W Hotel, is a gesture in that direction, a sort of fantasy Hip Hop Desert Island Discs—but boozy. The concept is uncomplicated: you can reserve a private VIP lounge decorated to resemble a plush baller’s living room on MTV Cribs circa 2002, and furnished with a selection of coffee table books, a turntable, a stereo, and a handful of Hip Hop’s most defining albums. Three Hennessy cocktails accompany the cost of admission.

Hennessy—otherwise known as the ‘H’ in the enormous Paris-based luxury goods holding company, LVMH, which also carries Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, Dior, Tiffany & Co., Givenchy, Fenty, and many more objects of desire under its gilded aegis—organized this unique installation to highlight the relationship between the cognac brand and the musical genre.

Indeed, Hennessy bubbles up in many of rap’s iconic tracks, notably Tupac Shakur, who wrote an ode to his “role model in a brown bottle,” and rhymed in the song “Thug Passion,” “I’m going to turn this Hennessy into a robbery.” On Wu-Tang Clan’s now-classic 1997 double LP, Wu-Tang Forever, the opening number, “Reunited,” features RZA boasting, “[We] spread like plague, we drink Hennessy by the keg.” Ever since, everyone from Snoop Dogg to Drake has drizzled Hennessy into their lyrics, as a marker of social status, of financial success, and now as an homage to Hip Hop’s history.

There are other records available for listening here, too, by Eminem, a Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, and more contemporary artists like The Weeknd and Nicki Minaj. The Montreal designer Madame Bombance decorated the Sound Box in swanky furniture, mood lighting, and curated the space with paintings of the Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah, Nas, and other of rap’s most recognizable visages. Is it kind of cheesy? Yes. It is also fun? Yes! There are beautiful publications to leaf through, including a photo book of Hip Hop’s more photogenic artists, a bound history of Hennessy, and a collection of Ricardo-Cavolo Amarillo’s psychedelic Simpsons-inspired artworks. It is a cool and comfortable space to spend two hours in. Plus, they serve those delicious cocktails.

There is a bit of a dark side to consider here, however. Some of the artists represented suffered from drug and alcohol abuse and even succumbed to overdoses. Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mac Miller are just two that come to mind. What level of cynical irony is pouring one out for the talent that was lost to addiction in a room sponsored by a major alcohol purveyor?

Nonetheless, as an ex-drinker myself, the W Hotel staff happily served me mocktails instead. So you can still have a great time in the Sound Box even without hitting the Henny. There is more than enough in this little Hip Hop time capsule to take in—the ageless music to appreciate, the fascinating literature to pour over, and a cozy niche to reunite with a fine beverage.◼︎

Reserve Sound Box by Hennessy on Open Table.