Jack Kerouac and Poutine

Recently, on Twitter, @Audrey_Sprenger tweeted that Jack Kerouac’s favorite snack was “Med rare cheeseburg on Engl muf w mayo & fried onions” because “it reminded him of poutine.” My bullshit detector immediately sounded, and I replied saying so. After a bit of back-and-forth, I backed down, deferring to Sprenger’s expertise, because, as it turns out, she’s a Kerouac scholar and therefore knows a thousand times more about Jack Kerouac than I ever will.

However, my doubt persists. Unfortunately, Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, so there’s no way for @Audrey_Sprenger to provide much evidence, and conversely there’s no room for me to present my counter-argument. Hello Blork Blog!

This really should be a discussion in a hazy bar over several beers, but since it’s 2011 we have to hash this stuff out over the internet. Thus, here in brief, without malice, is why I doubt that Jack Kerouac had much – if any – nostalgia for poutine: the timing simply doesn’t add up.

Before we get into the details let’s take a quick overview. According to Wikipedia, poutine was invented in the late 1950s. As we all know, Jack Kerouac died in 1969. That leaves a ten or twelve year window for him to (a) find out about poutine, (b) get to like it, (c) get nostalgic about it. And that’s assuming he made the statement about his favorite burger in the year he died. What if he (supposedly) said that in 1964? Or 1960?

Let’s drill down a bit. First let’s look at Kerouac and his timing. To begin with, Jack Kerouac was not a French Canadian. His parents were French Canadians. Kerouac himself was born and raised in the United States. Although he spoke Joual before he spoke English, the majority of his cultural influences growing up would likely have been of the red, white, and blue variety. Even if French Canadian culture was very present in the Kerouac home, it would have been the culture of his parents’ generation. His parents moved to Massachusetts before Jack was born in 1922 – his birth being some 35 years before poutine was supposedly invented. Their nostalgia for Quebec would have been for things as they knew it in the first few years of the 20th century, a good 50 or more years before poutine arrived.

Anyone with a map will tell you that Massachusetts is not far from Quebec, and no doubt the Kerouacs maintained ties as close as they could. But there was no internet then. Long distance telephone calls were expensive and working-class people usually restricted them to emergencies or brief exchanges of news. I doubt there were any French Canadian newspapers or magazines in Lowell, and very likely no French Canadian radio. More importantly, by the time poutine was invented, Jack was long gone from the household, living at various times in the 1950s in New York, California, and Florida. How would word of the invention of poutine ever have reached him?

Now lets consider the timing of poutine. If Wikipedia is correct and it was invented (in the form and by the name we now know it) in the late 1950s, how long would it have taken for it to become a Quebec-wide cultural phenomenon? There was no internet in the 1960s. Whereas today a phenomenon can go global in a matter of hours, poutine had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to hurry its popularity. It would have spread slowly, one grease bath at a time, fanning out from Drummondville.

From its invention in the late 1950s, it probably wasn’t before the mid-1960s that it became a regular feature at casse-croutes across Quebec. Maybe longer, but let’s say it was that soon. In the meantime, Kerouac was enjoying literary and pop cultural success, living the “high” life, strung out, drinking, and doing the bo-ho-beatnik lifestyle. Where, in that haze of opium and hash smoke, booze, and poetry, would he have had the time and inclination to find out about an obscure snack in the home of his parents, and to not only know of it, but to try it, like it, and become nostalgic about it?

But then, I’m not a Kerouac scholar. I’m basing this all on logic, a sense of timing, and a pretty clear understanding of how rumours, folklore, and magical thinking spread.

On Twitter I made the mistake of thinking that Audrey Sprenger was just a random Kerouac fan who easily fell for a line of bull (as we all do when we’re fans of something). So perhaps I’m also mistaken with my counter-hypothesis. If someone is able to prove so (or even present compelling evidence) I’ll gladly accept it and will be grateful for the knowledge. But until then, I’m sticking with my gut feeling on this.

To reiterate, my gut feeling is that Jack Kerouac was never nostalgic for poutine.

I will leave room for the following possibility: I know that towards the end of his young life Kerouac was suffering from a number of problems, including an identity crisis of sorts. That identity crisis might have lead him to investigate his French Canadian heritage (I think I’ve read something to that effect, but I can’t cite it) and in doing so he might have heard of this new-fangled poutine thing. He might even have taken a road trip to Quebec in order to try it. And he might have mentioned it a few times, which under the circumstances would not qualify as true nostalgia but as a type of cloak-wearing, not unlike what we saw in that famous episode of The Sopranos when Tony and the boys go to Italy to attend to some business, and Paulie Walnuts finds himself being more Italian than the Italians even though he gets it all wrong and can’t even speak the language.

But that’s all just speculation based on how things go when people start questioning who they are and look to their heritage for answers. I have no idea if Jack Kerouac did that, but it would provide an explanation for a poutine reference, if indeed one exists.

Footloose Remake

Some Hollywood studio is remaking the 1984 movie Footloose.

I hated the original Footloose. OK, let’s be reasonable; I “didn’t like” Footloose. At the time, I thought it was about the dumbest movie I had ever seen. (Red Dawn wouldn’t come out for another six months.)

If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the movie, here’s a quick rundown: in a random small town in middle America, the local preacher has succeeded in banning dancing. Into town rolls a teenager (Kevin Bacon) with his single mother. Bacon is an urban tough guy who likes to dance. As a result of the ban on dancing, he ends up smoking angrily a lot, does late night acrobatics in the barn, and drives his VW Beetle very fast. He ends up challenging the preacher and his dancing ban, but not before getting hot for… wait for it… the preacher’s daughter! Because he is Kevin Bacon and not a frumpy town preacher, he wins.

I knew from the premise that I’d hate the movie, but everyone around me was chirping about the dancing. “But the dancing! The dancing!” This was a year after Flashdance, so there was a huge buzz around movies with dancing in them. But watch the trailers for Footloose and Flashdance and you can tell that they are very, very different movies. I knew I’d hate Footloose, but I went anyway because everyone – including my then girlfriend – was all hopped up on “the dancing.”

There wasn’t much dancing. After all, this is a movie set in a town that has banned dancing. What little “dancing” there was, was more like second-rate circus acrobatics made dramatic with lots of backlighting and angry smoking.

Then there was that whole “urban kid comes to a small town and shows them townies how it’s done” thing. As someone from a small town, who at the time was living in a smaller town, I resented that. Most egregious was the idea that there was a tough guy who likes to dance. When I was in high school there could not have been two things more mutually exclusive than “tough guy” and “likes to dance.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that Footloose was set in my home town, at the high school I went to. It would have gone down something like this:

Tough city guy who likes to dance rolls into town. As soon as he opens his mouth somebody yells “fag!” and a bunch of guys beat him up. High school “dance” carries on as usual, which is to say there is no dancing and it is entirely concerned with drinking, smoking, and trying to make out with girls.

Things are different nowadays. In the era of wall-to-wall So You Think You Can Dance, it’s OK for a fella to like to shimmy about and bust a few moves. Heck, I assert here and now that So You Think You Can Dance is one of my favorite TV shows. It’s a whole new world, where farm-boy yokels like Kent Boyd (from Wapakoneta, Ohio!) can magically develop world class modern dance technique while baling hay and shucking corn. But that begs the question; if the premise of a town banning dancing was absurd in 1984, how is it going to seem in 2010? And will there actually be dancing this time?

Against HDR

June 26th is International HDR Day. HDR refers to “High Dynamic Range” a style of photography in which several different exposures of a single scene – usually one under-exposed, one normally exposed, and one over-exposed – are combined into a single image that supposedly shows all the shadow detail without any blown highlights. The software that creates the combined image uses the darkened highlights from the under-exposure, the lightened shadows from the over-exposure, and the normal tones from the normal exposure to create the resulting “high dynamic range” image. If left there, this technique has some potential to be interesting. But most people making HDR images can’t leave it at that; they have to add a heavy dose of tone mapping to exaggerate the effect. Most of the time the result looks something like this:

(cc) Slack12 on Flickr.

Many people really love these HDR images. Similarly, many people love paintings on black velvet. I know what I’m about to say will insult and enrage many people, but it is my opinion that  HDR photographs are the black velvet paintings of our day.

Unicorn Comb-over, as seen at the Velveteria.

HDR technology – which has become easier to use in the past few years due to Photoshop plug-ins and other inexpensive software – has the potential to be very useful in photography. Experienced photographers understand how hard it can be to work in high contrasty situations like an afternoon at the beach or mid-day at the medina. You have to choose between showing the sunlit parts and having the shadow areas lost to blackness, or showing the shadowy parts and having everything else lost to whiteness. We are forced into this dichotomy because of the limited dynamic range (the range of light in which we can see details) of film and digital camera sensors, and of the human eye.

Along comes HDR to solve that! Now you can can show that sunny beach and see the beauties hiding in the shadows of their umbrellas. You can show the sunlit streets and colorful awnings of the market and see the grinning vendors holding up their wares. And while you’re at it, why not crank up the tone mapping so it ends up looking like you were on acid and over-dosing on neon highlighters while you’re at it? It sounds wonderful in theory, and in some cases (such as when the tone mapping is skipped) it works in practice. But those cases are rare.

I’m certainly not opposed to photographic manipulation, particularly when it comes to nudging and tweaking exposure and contrast to make the image look its best. But I don’t like it when the effect becomes stronger than the image itself.

Overdoing it much?

To apply HDR processing to a photograph is like putting on makeup. It’s very easy to go too far, to put on too much. If an actor were to step off a Broadway stage and head out into the afternoon light still wearing their stage makeup, they’d look like a freak. That doesn’t stop some regular, non-actor folks from painting it on with a roller and presenting themselves to the world like that. And we all gawk. Aside from Broadway, the purpose of makeup is to enhance and bring out the person’s natural beauty. If you see the makeup, then the person is wearing too much. If you see the HDR effect, then the photographer is Photoshopping too much.

As well as the over-processed look of most HDR images, I’m also annoyed by the fact that so many HDR practitioners hone in on a very narrow and highly clichéd catalog of subjects. Typically, an eye-popping HDR image shows:

  • A beach scene with crazy swirling clouds overhead.
  • A super wide-angle view of the facade of a building, receding towards the horizon, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle view of a decrepit old car, truck, or bus, often in tall grass, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle close up of a shiny motorcycle (no room for the crazy swirling clouds).
  • A cityscape, often at twilight, usually under a dark blue sky marked with garish halos around the tall buildings.

There you have it. The standard HDR repertoire. Not unlike the standard black velvet painting repertoire of Elvis, Jesus, naked ladies, and unicorns.

Then there are the technical problems I see with most HDR images (and by “technical” I mean purely visual elements that have nothing to do with the subject matter). These are:

  • The highly exaggerated color saturation effects are phoney-looking, garish, and ugly.
  • The light and dark halos that you see around any edge where light meets dark – such as where a roof meets a sky – make the images look weird, distorted, and phoney. It screams “too much makeup HDR!”
  • Tone mapping often makes the image look like a processing error has occurred. Why are you showing me a reject?
  • When you look at HDR images up close (for example, if you look at the “original size” version on Flickr) you often see an a lot of blur, weird chromatic aberration effects, and overall technical ugliness.

If you don’t read much on photography, you might not be aware that there’s a bit of a battle going on between those who favor HDR and those who are against it. I hereby plant my standard on that battleground; I am against HDR.

Not against all HDR, but decidedly against the HDR images that suffer from the problems I’ve mentioned. That means about 98% of HDR images.

(cc) Paulo Barcellos. This HDR image is gorgeous (and rare!). Not over-processed, and not tone-mapped to death. Click here to see it larger on Flickr.

I am not against the technology or the technique; they provide a mechanism for coaxing both high- and low-range detail out of a single image, something that’s been very difficult to achieve in the 150 year history of photography. My problem lies in the way that most practitioners of HDR become too enamored with the technology and go too far with it. They apply too much HDR effect to otherwise good images, and they seek out images (oh, those old buses and cars!) where they can crank up the HDR whether they need it or not.

I should end by adding that I’ve actually seen black velvet paintings that I liked. They were good despite being painted on black velvet, not because of it. And I’ve seen some HDR photos that were spectacular. But few. Very, very few.

Further reading:

What is “Montreal Culture?”

Way back in 2001, Quebec’s then Culture Minister Diane Lemieux commented that she felt Ontario had no real culture. Everyone in Quebec snickered. Everyone in Toronto got huffy. The debate raged across Ontario with various ministers of this and that standing up in their respective legislatures and declaring that Ontario does, indeed have culture. Lots of culture! They would trumpet the various symphonies, theatres, and museums to be found in and around Toronto as irrefutable evidence. In Quebec we just rolled our eyes.

The issue has popped up again. None other than MacLean’s magazine, so very much a Canadian institution (which is to say, it is 90% from and about Toronto), has issued the results of some surveys and resulting rankings of cultural activities in various Canadian cities. Lo and behold, Montreal ranked quite low, which raised a lot of eyebrows and prompted MacLean’s to toss this nugget up on the web, complete with a photo of rioting Habs fans, as if to underscore just how uncultured we are here in Montreal:

MacLean's Article

What MacLean’s doesn’t get — which is the same thing that all those barking Ontarians didn’t get in 2001 — is that Montreal culture is not about symphonies, theatres, and museums. The famous Montreal culture is the stuff that happens every day, with regular people. It’s about the extent to which regular folks here are engaged in cultural activities as a normal part of their lives. How so many people know how to play — and actually do play on a regular basis — musical instruments. The way regular folks go to small-budget movies and neighbourhood theatre productions (regular people, not just faux-ho hipsters). It’s about how regular people think it’s completely normal to read a lot of novels and to be able to talk about writers and literature outside of the Twilight and Harry Potter series. It has to do with the extent to which people are aware of the small acts of music, literature, and theatre that happens every day all around them.

We’re not all like that. There are plenty of tight-assed people in Montreal who can think of nothing more interesting than their jobs and their daily commutes. People who haven’t read a piece of fiction in 20 years and who parade themselves off to a fancy restaurant every Valentine’s day and pay big bucks for good seats at the Basilica Notre-Dame’s performance of The Messiah every Christmas and are glad when it’s over because they’re off the hook for another year.

But many, many people are culturally engaged. I think of the first impressions I had of the people I’ve worked with over the years (I’m an office drone). At first many of them seem pretty dull, but then you get to know them and you discover that this software geek does salsa and tango dancing on weekends. That project manager plays clarinet in a neighbourhood klezmer band. The engineer in the corner has a fine arts degree in ceramics. On and on.

Of course there are people like that in Toronto too. Toronto, which, as urban legend has it, was declared by UNESCO to be the world’s most ethnically diverse city*, is jammed with people just like that; people who cook for passion, who publish small chapbooks of poetry while scraping out a living as a bookkeeper or bank clerk. People who saw on fiddles at night and sing in amateur choirs on weekends.

The difference is this: the predominant attitude about culture in Toronto is still highly influenced by its old, white, Presbyterian “Hogtown” past. That’s a tired hold-over from the days when Toronto had no ethnic diversity to speak of, and was composed primarily of a bunch of working class stiffs and a handful of rich Scots and Englishmen. (By the way, the only difference between Toronto and Montreal back then was that Montreal had more of those wealthy anglos, and its working class was 80% francophone.)

In that way of thinking, “culture” is indeed defined by symphonies, theatres, and museums. And lets not forget opera. In other words, “culture” is something you look at, not something you do. Spectator culture. More specifically, black tie spectator culture. If you don’t have to buy an expensive ticket for it, it isn’t culture.

That attitude prevails in the arguments by those indignant white collar stiffs back in 2001 and in the orientation of the MacLean’s surveys and reports. Well, I hereby declare that culture is alive and well in Montreal, but it is a participatory culture that you don’t need an expensive ticket or a tuxedo to be part of. It happens every day with the choices people make with regard to how they divide their time, how they amuse themselves, and how they pursue their interests.

And it happens in Toronto as well. Toronto, that city of neighbourhoods. That city of ethnic diversity where every street is like a little tower of Babel. But those old Presbyterians up there in their stuffed white-collar shirts, those parliamentarians and editors, are stuck in 1932. As for the rest of us, we can pretty much ignore those fools and get back to our books and guitars.

* UNESCO never said any such thing. From what I can gather, it started with a University of Toronto professor who used UNESCO data to arrive at that conclusion according to his own criteria. This was picked up by the mayor’s office and touted as a UNESCO finding. The press then ran with the story based on the mayor’s declaration. [Source 1: CERIS Policy Matters # 11, Oct. 2004, “The Anatomy of an Urban Legend: Toronto’s Multicultural Reputation(PDF), Source 2: to.ronto.ca/demographics]