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June 27/10

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Here's our NEW SYSTEM for Dating Pages: The date above will be the date of the most recent postings. As usual, though, the newest reviews will appear towards the top of the page, the older ones moving further down. When the page is archived, the items on it will be indexed according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Letters to Juliet (Movie); La Danse (Documentary); The National Gallery of Canada (Art); Ajami (Movie)

Letters to Juliet (Movie) written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan; directed by Gary Winick; starring Vanessa Redgrave, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, Franco Nero, Oliver Platt.

Do we really need another "Italian movie"? You know the kind: picture-postcard shots of sun-drenched vineyards, mountains, twisty village streets. A woman of a certain age seeking romance. Much emphasis on the delectability of a certain type of Italian male. Not to mention the food.

By way of a storyline for this one, somebody has glommed on to the fact that there’s this house in Verona that the local tourist board has declared to be Juliet’s home. (I presume you know who they mean.) Maybe because of the pretty balcony. People write letters about their problematic love lives and leave them for Juliet on the outside wall of the house. Besides being love-lorn, these people must be exceedingly stupid, given that Juliet never existed and, even if she did, she’d be several centuries dead by now. Oh, I know, people leave letters for saints at shrines. But saints can read letters miraculously because they’ve got an in with God. Nobody has ever claimed any such status for Signorita Capulet, have they?

Never mind. This cohort of Italian women sneaks out when nobody’s looking, collects the letters, sits down and answers them. Sophie, a young American woman on holiday in Verona, gets involved with them and finds a fifty-year-old letter hidden in the stones of the wall. Written by a fifteen-year-old Brit named Claire, the letter tells how she has run out on her Italian lover. Wouldn't you know, Claire happened to include a return address. So Sophie decides to answer the letter. That brings Claire back to Verona, her grandson in tow, to try to find her lost lover.

Which is more plot than we like to reveal here at Dilettante’s Diary but the same setup in the movie itself takes ages. What evolves is pure romantic fantasy. Coincidences and implausibilities abound. Time and money seem limitless for all concerned – in an extended romp near Siena, every hotel room boasts gorgeous bouquets of fresh flowers.

If the jaunty music meant to carry you from scene to scene doesn’t send you running for the door, your reward for staying will be Vanessa Redgrave as Claire. The woman has such magnetism on screen that she dis-arms all your powers of resistance. What is it that makes her so entrancing? Not beauty, exactly, although her blue eyes are mesmerizing. Something more like dignity, combined with authenticity. You feel this is a real person, worth knowing. Mind you, she seems too sensible for that letter-writing nonsense but, maybe we can believe it of her fifteen-year-old self.

Not that the movie’s only about her. Grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) needs must inter-act with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). What soon develops is one of those screwball road comedies where you have a man and a woman, obviously intended as romance partners, but hating each other from the get-go. I like Ms. Seyfried’s way of telling this prick to shove it, in the unequivocal way a contemporary young woman can, without losing her female allure. But I had big problems with Mr. Egan as the guy. His take on the anal, priggish and conceited Brit makes a Prince-Charles-type look like a hippie. Some of the character’s archness is the fault of the script but I kept wondering whether another actor could have made him believable. Mr. Egan’s accent seemed so ridiculously posh that I assumed that he was a US actor faking it. Turns out he’s Australian. Maybe it’s an even bigger stretch for one of them than for an American to do the Brit upper class thing.

Still, the formula for this kind of movie’s pretty well fool-proof by now. It can’t be scuttled by one iffy performance. So you get pretty much what you’re expecting -- if you're the kind of person who expects anything from this kind of movie.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

La DanseLe Ballet de l’Opra de Paris (Documentary); directed by Frederick Wiseman

You might think monks and ballet dancers wouldn't have much in common when it comes to lifestyles. This documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet might make you think differently.

Or maybe that’s just my peculiar reaction. It could be due to the fact that the very first shots – gorgeously photographed still lives of things like coils of rope and  empty corridors – reminded me of the mood of the documentary Le Grand Silence about the monks of Chartreuse, in the mountains of France. (For review see Dilettante’s Diary, July 20/07.). But, as La Danse continues, the dancers themselves begin to seem somewhat monk-like in their dedication and seriousness, their total concentration and their avoidance of distractions or diversions.

That's because this movie’s totally about the difficult discipline of ballet and how it is accomplished. We see nothing of the dancer’s lives off stage or out of the studio. No hints of where they live, the friends they hang with, the tv programs they watch. Apart from a few shots of L’Opra de la Bastille, the company’s satellite venue, it all takes place within the splendiferous temple of the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera ballet’s main home. The grand theatre comes off looking very much like a cloistered monastery ensconced in the heart of Paris. All you see of the city are views from the opera’s rooftop.

So the movie leaves something to be desired in terms of getting to know the dancers as individuals. Forget Chorus Line. Here, the dancers perform pretty much as functionaries at the bidding of their coaches and choreographers. But what functionaries! Probably no other movie or documentary has offered so much spectacular dancing of different kinds. Cumulatively, it amounts to a testament to the amazing feats the human body is capable of.

All this comes mostly by way of rehearsal sequences, although there are some excerpts from finished performances on stage. For me, the studio scenes are the more interesting, perhaps because, when it comes to the final performances, you don’t get the whole story or the context; much of the time you don’t even recognize the music. So you tend not to feel as involved as you would when attending a full ballet.

In the studios, though, you get fascinating input from instructors. It surprised me to discover that they hover over the dancers, critiquing every little twist of the head and bend of the arm. I’d always thought that choreographers just told the dancers what to do and the dancers went out and did it. But it seems that every turn and twist is minutely analyzed for maximum effect.

Mind you, it’s a bit frustrating not to be able to follow all the explanations. If we were dealing here with singing or acting or playing the piano, there’d be a better chance that I could appreciate the instructors' advice. However, being a klutz who doesn’t know the difference between the First Position and the Heimlich Manoeuver, I couldn't catch all the nuances in the dancers' moves. But I did find it very interesting when one coach was telling a dancer something along the lines of: "It will depend on what you are feeling at the time." He seemed to be saying that the expressiveness of the dancer’s movement couldn’t be dictated beforehand; it would come from her inspiration of the moment – as with an actor.

We see chorus rehearsals, solos, duets, trios. One striking sequence shows a woman alone in a studio, silently working through some furious moves. We’re seeing her in a fragmented way, in the different sections of mirror on the studio wall. She struck me as a Lady Macbeth type -- which was pretty much on the mark because the piece turned out to be about Medea. Astounding as some of the acrobatics of the modern pieces were, though, the points where my soul soared were the moments when a pair of dancers would suddenly take flight in a dazzling defiance of gravity while a piano plunked away on some chestnut from the classical repertoire.

On the management side of the business, we see meetings with a choreographer who’s trying to choose a cast, a dancer who feels that her workload’s too heavy, a meeting with the whole company to discuss the government’s proposals regarding pensions for the artists. Another meeting revolves around plans for a gala event to be attended by hoped-for American benefactors. In all of these transactions, the key figure is artistic director Brigitte Lefvre. The only person in the company whom we come to know to any extent, she appears to be a woman with a charismatic leadership style and an inclination to spew a great many words without coming to a definite point.

Which, in a way, reflects a problem with the movie. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it feels as though it could have conveyed its message somewhat more succinctly. Still, those monks in Le Grand Silence took only fifteen minutes more of our time to give us a taste of eternity. So maybe 159 minutes isn’t too much to devote to dancing that’s out of this world.

Rating: C+ (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Someone must have mentioned at some point in the past twenty-two years that Canada had acquired a new art gallery in Ottawa. But the enormity of the news somehow never registered. However, a recent trip to Ottawa on family matters gave me a chance to discover that our capital boasts a magnificent palace to art.

Merely to walk up the long ramp, from the foyer at street level to the next floor, is to have an uplifting experience that’s something like a meditation in a cathedral and a visit to a space station. The lofty, three-storey windows on the south side let the sun pour in, illuminating the concrete pillars and arches in a way that’s both serene and exciting. Once you've arrived at the top of the building, you can look down on a couple of courtyards from three storeys up. These calm spaces – one of them planted at floor level with rows of yellow flowers and the other featuring a rectangular pool – manage to convey something that’s both classic and contemporary. And the view from the cafeteria has to be one of the best in the country: looking out over the wide Ottawa river, you see the soaring peaks of the parliament buildings in the middle distance and the green landscape far to the west, all of it graced by an elegant elm in the foreground.

Maybe it was the modernity of the building that prompted me to spend most of my visit with contemporary art. Or maybe it was just a desire to have my impressions shaken up a bit. Or maybe it was a feeling – inexcusably smug, to be sure – that the more traditional art had no new insights to offer. In any case, my time with the more recent art in the gallery offered lots of interest and fascination. Is it because the work was so absorbing that, somewhere along the way, I lost eight pages of notes taken up to that point? Maybe. On the other hand, it may have been just a question of losing my grip on things in general. Because of the loss, however, the following comments will lack some specifics (like artists' names). Some of the info was retrievable from the Internet, but not all of it.

Let’s start with the work of the French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois (who died just a few weeks ago). Ordinarily, sculpture doesn’t interest me much, so maybe the fact that these works did is an indication of a certain open-mindedness on the day of my visit. Or it might just be that a person could hardly avoid Ms. Bourgeois’ mammoth spider on the plaza outside the gallery. Towering about forty feet in the air on its spindly legs, it radiates an ugliness that makes you want to scurry by as quickly as possible, without lingering under an abdomen bulging with something that looks like whitish eggs. But when you find out that it’s called "Maman," you gotta stop to think about it for a moment or two.

Another work by Ms. Bourgeois that had an arresting effect on me was a construction set in an open space by one of the soaring windows inside the gallery. A circular cage constructed of metal mesh, about ten feet high and ten feet across, it contained a spiral staircase with various items like balls in blue glass, plus bits of yarn and wool suspended around it. Seen against the backdrop of the blue sky and white clouds outside, the piece seemed to say something about an elusive joy that might sometimes be attainable in our lives on this earth.

While appreciating that work, I was vaguely troubled by an ominous rumbling nearby. We weren’t that close to the airport, were we? Or a subway? (No, Ottawa doesn’t have one.) A train station then? Or was the building falling down?

The sound turned out to be coming through the open door of a dark screening room. On screen, the members of an orchestra were laboriously working their way through an extremely sombre, threatening score. Shot in brooding chiaroscuro, and mostly in profile, the musicians emerged from swirls of mist. Occasional cutaway shots showed the looming high rise buildings of a city skyline lighted up at night. There were also glimpses of rows of blank-faced spectators, in glistening rain gear, watching impassively. It was all so scary that I didn’t want to enter the room and sit down. If somebody snuck in and tapped me on the shoulder, it would be heart attack time.

But suddenly, the screen brightened as if it had been wiped clean and we were looking at massive icy fiords in the Antarctic. A lone zodiac started cutting across the waters. Then we saw two or three people in yellow survival gear tromping across the frozen wastes. Then masses of penguins. Now the humans were erecting lighting fixtures around the bay where the penguins had congregated. Then it was back to the dirge-like orchestra and the watching people.

This turned out to be Pierre Huyghe’s "A Journey That Wasn’t." The musical component, as performed on a damp night in New York’s Central Park, was intended as the re-creation of the mood of the Antarctic expedition. That connection was most evident in the blizzard sequence, where the orchestra whipped up tremendously wintry sounds. Given the title of the piece, it’s apparently up to each viewer to decide what did or didn’t actually happen in terms of the expedition. It all struck me as some sort of comment on the contact between human beings and nature at its most extreme.

Another commentary on our relationship to nature – as it seemed to me – came in a video by Tom Sherman, an artist originally from Michigan, and one of the recipients of this year’s Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. "Shark Fest" shows some sort of festival focussed on the catching of sharks. We see these huge creatures being hauled out of boats, hoisted on weighing hooks, gutted and so on. All the while, there’s a happy chatter on the sound track. With the sunlight and the blue sky, it all has the blithe feel of an episode of CBC’s The Beachcombers. Except for what is being done to the sharks, whose organs are hanging out of them obscenely. Whether or not Mr. Sherman intended to make us recoil, I don’t know, as I couldn’t bear to watch long enough to make sure of his message.

"Half Lives", another of Mr. Sherman’s videos, showed the faces of some hesitant young people involved in ineffectual phone calls. Others of Mr. Sherman’s videos featured long, self-absorbed monologues while he was sitting in a chair or making coffee, rambling on about his health, his hopes and fears. Do they constitute art in any sense? I’d have to watch/endure all of them to see whether or not some significant points are being made about what it means to be a human being.

No question, though that the films of Andr Forcier, another GG’s award winner, teem with lively scenarios capturing some of the more kooky aspects of human affairs. A small item in the room featuring the GG winners caught my attention as a lover of watercolour: Terry Ryan's wondrously blurry, watery evocation of craggy, bleak tundra and snow. On the other hand, GG winner Ione Thorkelsson’s installation made for a rather beautiful statement about the interaction of technology and nature: a stand of several graceful tree trunks (from actual trees) that had been cut in such a way that halogen lights behind frosted glass had been inserted into their lengths.

Cacophonous sounds from another viewing room caught my attention. It sounded like a raucous teenage disco session. With not much expectation of pleasure, I investigated, finding that the film was about sculptures that had come to life and were conversing with each other. The noisy part was where the sculptures decided to go out on the town. When the ruckus subsided, one of them breathed, "Ah, you can hear the time passing." That spoke to me, so I stayed and watched.

It only took about twelve minutes to cycle through the piece. It turned out to be entitled "Drama Queens" and I believe its creators were a Norwegian and a Danish artist. (Here’s where the loss of my notes begins to be felt most.) I gathered that these six or seven sculptures were famous works, given that a couple of them looked familiar – for instance Alberto Giacometti’s "Walking Man" – a gaunt, ragged, emaciated figure. I was pretty sure that I’d also seen pictures of Jeff Koon’s cartoony bunny rabbit, the apparent instigator of the sculptures’ party. One rounded, bulging figure with a somewhat suggestive projection looked something like a Henry Moore sculpture. A boxy construction, similar to a Leggo assembly, spoke in a gruff, macho voice.

On one level, you could say there wasn’t anything very original about the concept – just another version of the "toys-in-the-workshop-come-alive-at-night" scenario. If you listened, though, something special was happening. It was the voice speaking for a tall, rectangular pillar that hooked me: a slow, quiet, world-weary tone in a German accent. I found myself thinking: this squarish piece of stuff really is a character!  Then I became entranced by the way the sculptures moved and spoke in such distinctly characteristic ways. Some of what they were saying proved to be a witty commentary on the art world. One of them, for instance, told another "You’re just trying to live up to your press." When a Brillo box dropped down in the midst of them, you couldn’t escape the Andy Warhol connotation. Indeed, one of the more staid sculptures found the Brillo intrusion rather "queer".

Among some of the other contemporary pieces that made an impression on me was a conglomeration of crystal and silver chains, mesh, ropes, etc – all piled into a construction somewhat resembling a galleon in full sail. The artist was South Korean, as I recall. Dazzling, without quite being beautiful. If it said anything to me it was by way of posing a question: how much glitter is too much?

In a more sober mood, there was the room filled with the installation by Toronto’s General Idea collective (AA Bronson, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal): "One Year of AZT." Hundreds of enlarged capsules of the drug lined the walls in neat rows, each of them pure white except for a blue band around the middle. Five such capsules, but much larger (about three feet long and two feet high), sat side by side in the centre of the floor. I couldn’t help thinking of the white crosses "row on row" in Flanders Fields. Yet, these white capsules were a testament not to dying, but to the struggle to live. The impression conveyed, then? A rather austere, clinical beauty. The message, if any? Something about the progress that contemporary science has made in fighting back some of the bad stuff in life, but at a somewhat de-humanizing price.

A large, clear plexiglass cube (about two and a half feet square), its inside walls beaded with drops of condensation, induced a sense of wonder. Not just in terms of admiring the minimalist beauty of it but in raising questions about how it was achieved and how the droplets were maintained. What you might call a collaboration of science and art. An installation that might fit into somewhat the same category was an arrangement, in a room all by itself, of two electric fans, about ten feet apart, blowing towards each other. In the turbulent air between them, two large circles of black magnetic tape, about six feet in diameter, spun around and around, dancing and shimmering, entangled with each other.

The elaborate display of the work of photographer Angela Grauerholz, one of the gallery’s feature shows, impressed me with its moments of stillness and tranquility – for instance, a black and white photograph of a woman standing, her back to us, in a garden of dense foliage that surrounds and threatens to engulf her. The eery wistfulness says as much or more than some of Monet’s garden pieces.

In the midst of all this modernity, one of the most poignant pieces was one that made a statement about the recent past, albeit from today’s perspective. A partial recreation of a US gas station, perhaps from some small town or rural setting in the 1930s or 40s, it featured two life-size men in white plaster posed among the grubby oil cans, tires, a battered coke dispenser and wooden boxes filled with those old greenish coke bottles. Something about the blank submissiveness in the faces and postures of those two ghostly men seemed to say: "Life was here once but it passed us by."

In some ways, though, the works that interested me most were the children’s pictures hanging in one of the hallways. Maybe this says something hopeful, not just about the future of art in our world, but also about my becoming more open to unconventional forms of artistic expressions. As far as I could tell, no information was provided about the provenance of the works. Were they culled from Ottawa schools or were they the result of kids’ art programs at the gallery?

No matter. They enchanted me. Take the one entitled "Northern Lights" – just a few colourful lines and squiggles. That says Northern Lights to me. What more could you need? Among the portraits, one showed a person with a torso like an insect’s carapace. That tells you everything you need to know about how the artist felt about that person. Some of the depictions of spring caught the mood of the season just about as succinctly as anybody could, using bright, lime green pipe cleaners as blades of grass and stems of flowers.

A collage, apparently done by a mom and her two young sons, consisted of circles and squares of coloured paper, some of them not quite sticking to the underlying surface, but curving up at the edges. Due to the sun pouring in from above, those loose bits threw a pattern of marvellous shadows over the picture. Did the artists intend that effect? Who cares. Everybody knows that some of the best touches in the works of the masters stem from happy accidents rather than careful planning.

 

Ajami (Movie) written and directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani; starring Fouad Habash, Nisrine Rihan, Elias Saba, Youssef Sahwani, Abu George Shibli, Ibrahim Frege, Scandar Copti, Shahir Kabaha, Hilal Kabob, Ranim Karim, Eran Naim.

I wasn’t expecting this movie to offer any burst of optimism about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – just a sense of what everyday life was like for people caught up in that ordeal. And that’s more or less what the movie delivers. But not without considerable confusion.

Most of the action takes place in the Ajami neighbourhood of Jaffa, with some scenes in Tel Aviv, the Palestinian Territories and a few other places. We start with an incident wherein a member of a Bedouin gang demands protection money from a restaurant owner. The restaurateur shoots the Bedouin, wounding him seriously. Subsequently, the restaurateur is shot and badly hurt by the Bedouins. (Along the way an innocent neighbourhood youth is shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity.) Now the restaurateur’s nephew, an eighteen-year-old named Omar, becomes the de facto head of the family. As such, his life is in danger. A Muslim judge, called in to settle the dispute between the two groups, decides on payments that must be paid by each party in order to achieve peace. But Omar’s family doesn’t have the money to pay.

From that scenario we skip rapidly through several others. There’s Omar’s tentative romance with the daughter of the guy who seems to be the boss king of the neighbourhood. An illegal worker tries to scrape up enough money for an operation for his desperately ill mother. Drugs are around and bungled attempts are made to sell them. An Arab’s relationship with an Israeli girlfriend causes major trouble in his family. An Israeli soldier goes missing. An Israeli cop, in moments of respite from the street scene, enjoys episodes of domestic sweetness with his little daughters.

All very interesting. Truth to tell though, I found the unfolding of the stories very hard to follow. Maybe this is the time to reveal the secret of my stupidity about some things – "Where’s the news in that?" you’re asking – especially things like complicated plot twists in unfamiliar settings. For me, watching this movie felt a lot like skipping through the highlights of one of those gritty tv shows, "The Wire" for instance, without having seen any of the programs in the series. It was almost impossible to sort out the characters and their connections to each other. Which makes it hard to care enough about the people to feel involved with them.

To give myself a break, it could be said that my disorientation was at least partly attributable to the fast-paced, elliptical style of the movie. Scenes end abruptly, often inconclusively. Not much effort is spent explaining things or smoothing out the narrative bumps. Having to follow subtitles doesn’t make matters any easier, perhaps because the translations are a little too cryptic to convey the amount of information that would be helpful. Sometimes, the only clue to who’s speaking is the indication, in the subtitles, that the words are in either Hebrew or Arabic.

Even so, I’d like to think a person can learn a lot about life in such circumstances without necessarily being able to follow every turn of the plot. Especially in the case of a movie as superbly made and expertly acted as this one. Since it focuses mostly on the Palestinian men, I was struck by several apparent features of their culture. Often, households seem to have an elderly patriarch tucked away in a back room, incapacitated either physically or emotionally. Coming, as I do, from a culture in which piety is often seen as women’s business, it was interesting to note the tremendous religiosity of the men. They bracket almost every utterance with references to Allah. On the other hand, the young ones taunt each other about genital matters exactly the same way youths do in Western culture. The expressions of physical affection among the males – the kissing and the hugging – strike a distinctly non-Western note, though. I particularly enjoyed the way they like to trick each other with pranks. One incident sees some guys rush in and tell the illegal worker that he needs to escape from the house because the cops are coming. He climbs up to a trap door, scuttles across the roof to another dwelling, drops through an open window and there discovers a birthday party waiting for him.

Other common features of life would appear to include things like street brawls that break out over the slightest provocation, usually ending in violence. One such tragedy is about nothing more than the fact that an Arab’s sheep has been disturbing the sleep of an Israeli neighbour. Several times, we get scenes in which someone who’s struggling to reach the body of a killed or injured loved-one is being restrained by the authorities. No wonder somebody’s always muttering "I feel something bad’s going to happen."

In a more benign vein, it’s interesting to see a Muslim mother praying over a young son to calm his fears as he tries to sleep. Most of the border guards appear to be relatively decent and low-key, not at all the kind of ogres you might have imagined. The scene in which the judge arbitrates the dispute between the two families – while the members of both bicker back and forth – is especially enlightening in terms of the ways of cultures that may not be familiar to many viewers. Although the romance between Omar and the Christian girl makes for a very small part of the movie, it provides some of the few moments of charm.

And then there are the fascinating glimpses inside homes, restaurants and discos, the shots of the highrises of Tel Aviv, the views of the countryside, the bleak villages. A final replay of a previous scene, with added info, helps to make sense of one of the major issues. But many puzzles remain: why is the worker illegal? It took me until nearly the end of the movie to understand that the obstacle in the way of Omar’s romance is that his beloved is a Christian. And why did that Israeli soldier end up as he did? Yet, it’s all so well done, with a documentary-like feeling of authenticity, that I’d like to give the movie a high rating. Even the fact that such a film could be made, with obvious cooperation from opposing sides in the conflict, is an achievement worth celebrating. If only it weren’t all so confusing.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

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