Friday, October 31, 2014

"The Exorcist" on Halloween.

I have had a fairly busy month, one that has made it difficult to spare much time for this blog. There have been things that I would have liked to have written about here (like the outcome of this week's Toronto mayoral election), but I simply couldn't find the time to do so. That being said, I would find it difficult to let this month end without saying something about The Exorcist, a great Georgetown and Jesuit Halloween tradition, so here are some reflections adapted from a post first shared here in 2008.

Georgetown has at least two great Halloween traditions. One of these is the "Healy Howl," a midnight gathering of undergraduate students for the purpose of howling at the moon like wolves. When I was on the Hilltop, the Healy Howl took place at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery on campus, an appropriately spooky setting under the circumstances. As an undergrad, I used to wonder what the Jesuit priests, brothers and scholastics buried in Georgetown's cemetery would make of this yearly ritual. I finally came to suspect that, given their centuries of accumulated experience teaching undergraduates, most of the Jesuits buried at Georgetown probably had good senses of humor and would chuckle amusedly at a superficially transgressive but ultimately harmless ritual like the Healy Howl.

Georgetown's second great Halloween tradition is the screening of The Exorcist in Gaston Hall. Scripted by Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty and shot on and around the university campus, The Exorcist is the Georgetown movie - and in my experience, Gaston Hall viewings of The Exorcist could take on a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show quality, with many students applauding whenever the Georgetown campus appears in the film and some coming in costume and offering shouted responses to the film's dialogue. Hoyas viewing The Exorcist would respond to the film as only Hoyas could: for example, a scene in the film in which dialogue between two characters is drowned out by the sound of plane flying overhead was greeted with uproarious laughter by the Gaston Hall audience for the simple reason that Georgetown students could relate to the experience given that their university sat below the flight path for airliners taking off and landing at Washington National Airport.

The Exorcist is also a quintessentially Catholic film that takes a sober look at the reality of evil and offers a challenging representation of sacrificial love. The heart of the film's message comes in a quiet scene between Jesuit priests Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who have been called upon to perform an exorcism on twelve-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair). Having wrestled throughout the film with a deepset crisis of faith, Father Karras ponders a profound question and gets a sage answer from Father Merrin:
KARRAS: Why this girl? It makes no sense.

MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair - to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.
This exchange was cut from the film's 1973 theatricial release by director William Friedkin, who regarded it as "a commercial for the Catholic Church." Restored to the film nearly thirty years later, this brief bit of dialogue gives The Exorcist a crucial context that is missing from most contemporary horror films. The possession of Regan McNeil isn't a random event, but a contest in a larger battle between good and evil. As Father Merrin realizes, the presence of evil in the world tempts us to deny the essential truth about ourselves - that we are human beings with a transcendent destiny, made in the image and likeness of the loving God who desires eternal union with us. The Christian response to despair is to reaffirm our belief in the loving God and to follow the example of self-sacrificing love offered by Jesus Christ. Father Karras does this in a particularly striking (and even shocking) way, giving up his life to save Regan's.

Faithful to Georgetown tradition, I will watch The Exorcist again this evening at home in Toronto. Though I'm viewing the film on Halloween, I'm conscious that the struggle between good and evil reflected in the film isn't limited to this or any other single day. Though the evils we encounter in the world may tempt us to despair, we must always be mindful of the joy and love offered by the God who is with us even in the darkest hours of night. AMDG.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Penrose Fish and Chips closes after 64 years.

Today's Toronto Star brings the sad news regarding a venerable city eatery, Penrose Fish and Chips, which closes this week after 64 years in business:
"You've gotten good at that," Tim Johnston tells the takeout girl, as she wraps his French fries in newspaper.

Without pausing, she quips back: "A couple thousand times and you’ll get good at anything."

That may be the secret to success at Penrose Fish and Chips, which has been deep-frying filets and thick-cut potatoes in more or less the same way for 64 years. It is now considered the city's best.

And now, it is closing. The north Toronto institution will shut its doors for good on Wednesday afternoon.

The place has been packed since early September when the owner announced it was closing; they keep running out of fish before the day’s out. A visitor’s book near the checkout is filled with handwritten dismay.

"Can't believe it’s my last visit! Thanks for being a big part of my life!" read one message. Another, more pithy: "DON'T CLOSE!!!!!"

But close it must, says owner Dave Johnston. "Forty years of sixty-hour weeks," he says. "It takes its toll."

Johnston inherited the business from his father, a Second World War tank driver who fell in love with fish and chips while stationed in England. His first storefront was at Dundas and Gladstone; the current location, on Mount Pleasant Rd. just south of Eglinton Ave., opened in 1950.


It has been consuming. A police officer bidding Johnston farewell looked incredulous. "You ready for this?" the cop asked.

"Absolutely not," Johnston replied.

However, at 59, standing behind a deep-fryer all day is too much for his bum knee. He plans to sail and travel in his spare time.

There are parts of the job he will miss, though. "It grows on you and wears you away at the same time," Johnston said.

His favourite part? "The people." Well, he adds, laughing, "most of the people."

"You see them grow up and you see them bring their kids in," he said, his eyes moistening. "It's really quite neat."
To read the rest, click here. A bit like Steven Temple Books, Penrose Fish and Chips was a Toronto fixture that I never experienced firsthand. I nurtured hopes of visiting Penrose for a long while, having learned of the place shortly after I moved here and putting the restaurant on my list of places to visit; I never quite got around to it, and I regret that. Having eaten fish and chips just about every week when I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, I still seek them out from time to time and I have a very specific idea of what I like (particularly with respect to the batter, which ought to be brown and crunchy). I have been generally satisfied with the fish and chips that I've had in Toronto - perhaps there is just enough lingering British influence here to ensure authenticity - but I usually get them in pubs and not at old-school fish-and-chip places like the Penrose, which are getting to be hard to find. That being said, the closing of this local institution may strengthen my resolve to visit similar places on my 'to do' list before they ride off into the sunset. AMDG.