Dilettante's Diary

Feb 28/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: Sex Is Comedy and The Door In The Floor (DVDs); Beethoven's Hair (CBC TV); John Clare (biography); I, Claudia; Open Water and Dogville (DVDs)

Sex Is Comedy (DVD) by Catherine Breillat

The title made me think this movie might have a couple of things going for it. Turns out, there isn't much of the one, and none of the other. It starts promisingly, though. A movie crew sets up on a beach to film a love scene. It's freezing cold and threatening rain but the female director's mad at the young actor. She doesn't like the way he's kissing the girl.

The whole movie appears to be about nothing other than the director's harranguing the actor for his reluctance to perform in an upcoming sex scene. I say "appears" because, first time through, I watched it in French without the subtitles and much of the mumbled, slangy dialogue was hard to catch. Afterwards, I checked some key scenes with the subtitles. Appears there might be more a bit more to it: maybe some points about actors' hangups and their relationships to their co-workers.

What killed the movie for me, though, was the character of the director. A good-looking woman, nicely launched into middle age, she struck me as the mature version of a female type that crops up in French movies every now and then: a sensual, supremely egotistical bitch with the social responsibility and awareness of a not very well raised five year old. She can see no further than her own nose, she struts around blabbing the first thing that comes to her pouty lips, everything is about her, the world has to revolve around her, she must get what she wants. Occasionally, if she sees fit, she lets something like a little bit of charm escape from her mask of self-absorption. Apparently we're supposed to like and forgive this woman all her faults because she is so exciting, so elemental. I kept thinking: it's no wonder the young actor can't "perform" for her -- talk about a castrating presence hovering over your shoulder.

On reading the DVD cover, I discovered that the actress who plays the director is Anne Parillaud, and that she played the title role in La Femme Nikita many years ago. That role is exactly the kind of younger person I was remembering when it occurred to me that this obnoxious female character seems to be a recurring presence in French cinema. So maybe we're dealing not so much with a character but an actress?

Rating: E

The Door In The Floor (DVD) written and directed by Tod Williams

In this adaptation of a John Irving novel, Jeff Bridges plays a successful author and illustrator of children's books. He and his wife (Kim Basinger) are going through a trial separation. There's some horrible tragedy in their background. A teenage boy (Jon Foster), who wants to be a writer, comes to work for Jeff Bridges' character as a general purpose gofer.

Up to a point the Bridges character is interesting. A larger-than-life, ballsy sort of guy, he swaggers through life with his automatic pilot set on ego. But after a while I got tired of him and his ice cubes -- either clinking them in a glass or crunching them in his huge jaw. The Kim Bassinger character wanders around in a catatonic state of grief. I suspect that actresses love to play these parts because they're so "soulful" but, man, are they boring to watch. As for the teenager, he's pretty much of a cipher, a mere blank for the others to fill in.

I could not care much about these people and the mess they make of their lives. Watching them shuttle back and forth between their seaside estate and their town residence, I kept thinking: these people have too much money and too much time on their hands. Like, do you really need a full-time, live-in nanny for a five year old kid whose mother doesn't do anything outside the home?

And yet, I kept wondering if maybe I could really get into their scene if I were reading about them in John Irving's original. It's not that their problems aren't real. It's just that the material doesn't translate to the screen very well. It's not dramatic enough. In a book, you could get inside their thoughts more and you could enjoy imagining all the physical details. Somehow, seeing it all laid out on screen has the paradoxical effect of making it seem empty and unreal.

But one detail of the screen presentation really grabbed me: Jeff Bridge's wardrobe. He sports a fabulous straw hat with a brim that must be a foot wide all around. His favourite garb is a loose-fitting gown that I'd call a djeleba. Apparently he's naked underneath; it saves him the bother of dressing. He even wears it to play squash, just hitching it up around his knees. That fabric makes his meaty body look like something Christo's been working on. For me, this is now the ultimate fashion statement for the male writer at home, far out-classing Michael Douglas' chenille bathrobe in Wonder Boys.

Rating: E

Beethoven's Hair  by Larry Weinstein, on CBC TV's "Opening Night"

I'd been hearing so many plugs for this on CBC radio, that I was beginning to suspect something was wrong. Don't know why alarm bells should start to ring when the CBC pitches itself so strongly. It's not that I find it immodest and therefore un-Canadian. Just that, in this case, there seemed something a little too hokey about all the hype.

At first look into the show, it appeared that my worst suspicions were going to come true. Too many corny shots from old black and white movies, with Beethoven stumbling around like a tormented Frankenstein. (None from Gary Oldman's performance in Immortal Beloved which I had liked very much.) And shots of things like a party with a bunch of silly Americans singing "Happy Birthday" to Beethoven. Add to that a hyper-kinetic style of film-making that seems aimed at people who suffer from attention defecit and the prospects were not looking good.

Gradually, though, the film settled into a thorough and informative re-working of the popular (not to say invalid) idea of Beethoven as the misunderstood genius who suffered terribly. And the saga of the lock of hair that was clipped from his head the day after he died proved genuinely intriguing. It took us through some incidents of the Second World War that were news to me -- such as the hiding of some Jews in the attic of a church in Denmark.

One of the high points of the film was when the elderly American who is one of the current owners of the lock explained why Beethoven is so important to him. Apparently a very wealthy man, yet gentle and soft-spoken, he played part of a recording of a favouite piano sonata, where a few bars of sublime music expressed tremendous consolation for him in the face of a central tragedy of his own life.

The other high point was the clip of the charming young American scientist who analyzed the hair. He recalled that the extremely complicated procedure, using ridiculously expensive equipment, had been taking all night. Time was running out. In the last few minutes came a finding: lead poisoning. The young scientist recalled how strange it felt to suddenly know what had killen Beethoven. Furtively wiping away a tear, he said, "I'll never forget that night." Me either.


John Clare by Jonathan Bate (biography) 2003

I love reading about a time when you had to walk five miles to the post office to pick up a parcel. (Did you know that in the early 1800s in England, it was the recipient, not the sender, who had to pay for a piece of mail?) I love to immerse myself in an era where there is lots of time to walk the fields and the passage of the hours is marked by the village church bells, not by the roaring of jets overhead. A large part of my soul seems to be stuck in the bog-trotting footsteps of some great-great-great ancestor.

So this biography of poet John Clare (1793-1864) was an unmitigated pleasure. Clare was very well known in his time but he never ventured further than about 100 miles from his Northamptonshire home; he made a couple of visits to London but he wasn't part of any literary celebrity set. You'd wonder how a biographer could spin out such a quiet life for some 559 pages of main text, not to mention another 80 pages of notes and appendices, but Clare's story held my attention throughout.

In his day, Clare was hailed as the "peasant poet". His publishers introduced him to the world by cannily emphasizing his unschooled, rough-hewn qualities. It's true that he hadn't had much education but the publicity machine, such it was in those days, conveniently overlooked the fact that he'd taught himself a great deal about literature through his voracious reading. The publishers' ploy worked. Clare's first book of poems, published in 1820, sold some 3,000 plus copies. By comparison, the same publisher was able to sell only 500 copies of the recent work of another upstart working-class poet -- John Keats.

Although Clare's poetry got better and better in his next books, none of them sold anywhere near as well as the first one. It seems the novelty appeal of this rustic genius had worn off. Also, for various reasons, the poetry market was drying up. Readers were turning to -- can you believe it? -- novels! Still Clare soldiered on, scribbling poems in the corners of fields, or wherever he happened to find a spare moment, using the brim of his hat for a writing desk, if necessary.

It was apprently the custom in those days for the gentry to set up a trust fund for such an impoverished artist. Clare enjoyed the patronage of several distinguished aristocrats but falling interest rates meant that their provisions on his behalf were never enough. So he had to slog it out in the fields as an ordinary labourer much of the time. (It wasn't all smelling the roses.) As he aged, he became increasingly subject to physical and mental torments but, through it all, he kept siring children, seven of whom lived beyond infancy. Fortunately, his wife Patty was a strong and capable woman. (If your vocation is to be an indigent artist, you should choose your spouse wisely.) His mental anguish did eventually ovecome him, though, and he spent the last several years of his life in asylums.

Sometimes a focus on a minor player can provide fascinating glimpses of the great and mighty. That happens here in terms of the world of English literature. Robbie Burns looms large as a model for Clare; in fact, many felt Clare was England's answer to the Scottish bard. But Clare's original backers took great pains to make sure that he would not ruin his reputation by dissolute living, as Burns was thought to have done. John Keats and Clare took a friendly interest in each other, although they never met. Keats' brother George took a copy of Clare's poems to America to try to stir up some interest there. One asylum where Clare was confined had also hosted Alfred Tennyson as a patient.

And there are surprising revelations about the world of publishing as it was then. Apparently, the sacredness of the author's text was an idea whose time had not yet come. Clare's publishers and editors took it on themselves to make extensive revisions of his poems; even a copyist felt free to make whatever changes suited him.

Jonathan Bate relays all this in competent, workman-like prose that does the job without any flights of brilliance. Occasionally there is a little more detail than we need. For the most part, though, Mr. Bate manages to avoid the two major pitfalls of most biographies these days: burying the subject in a plethora of detail or trying too hard to squeeze all the facts into some grandiloquent theory.

Mr. Bate is at his best when he gives the facts without attempting to interepret and theorize. When he does occasionally venture an opinion, even though he does so modestly, he doesn't always sound convincing. For instance, his analysis of Clare's mental problems doesn't have the ring of authority. Mr. Bate makes the silly mistake of equating schizophrenia with "split personality".

Nor, sad to say, does Mr. Bate convince me that Clare really was the genius he was taken to be. No question that there was a tremendous verbal facility to Clare's writing; all the poems cited have a lovely lilt and flow. But the point is constantly reiterated that Clare portrayed nature as it really was, with closely observed detail, rather than the idealized version that upper class poets had been promulgating. For my taste, though, Clare's poetry is far to fussy, with too many apostrophe's to nature, along the lines of "O, thou upon whose beauteous breast...!" (Not an exact quote; I made it up, but you get the idea.) It's hard to see how this stuff could have seemed fresh and amazing when it came out. In any case, the vast majority of the pieces quoted are mainly descriptive. For me, descriptive poetry, no matter how beautiful, does not constitute the highest form of the art. However, in some of his later poetry (largely neglected during his lifetime) Clare seems to be approaching a concision and concreteness that are very modern in feel. Some poems written in the asylum make me think of W.H. Auden and "A Vision" anticipates Emily Dickinson.

But even if if I'm not sure about Clare's place in the literary pantheon, I'm grateful to Mr. Bate for allowing me to spend several enjoyable evenings in the company of the man.


I, Claudia (DVD), written and performed by Kristen Thomson

Around this time last year, I had a ticket to see the stage version of this work during the last week of its run. I couldn't go because I got very sick that week. It killed me to miss the show because everybody had been saying how great it was; it appeared to be one of those unanimously acclaimed must-see rarities.

So I was very glad to receive this filmed version of the piece as a gift. Ironically, though, I chose to watch it on an afternoon when I was again suffering a kind of flu (recurrent fever, chills, depression, etc.) The emotional wallop of the work was really too much; I will watch it again some time when I'm feeling stronger.

Nothing that I'd heard about it could have prepared me for this. I knew it was about a girl, around 13 years old, who is feeling the pangs of her parents' divorce. With the use of masks, author and performer Kristen Thomson portrays four characters: the girl, a school janitor, the girl’s grandfather and her dad's new wife. The minute the little girl opens her mouth and starts to talk she grabs you with her unique personality: her combination of precocity, intelligence, childish giddiness and geekiness. You wonder: where does a character like this come from?

In the supplementary material on the DVD, Ms. Thomson explains that when she was preparing the piece, she was embarrassed about showing the script to anyone because it was so strange and intimate. Sometimes that is the mark of a great work of art: it comes from someplace so deep in the author that the exposure can be frightening. Here, it marks the piece with an authenticity that is rivetting.

The adaptation to film, directed by Chris Abraham, works well, what with the flexibility in terms of cut-aways, voice-overs, different locations and so on. But I'm not sure what you end up with. It's certainly not a movie in the usual sense: not something you'd pick up at the video store when you want to be entertained by a story on a Friday night. It's more something you'd watch if you were a connoisseur of tremendous acting. In this sense, then, it strikes me as something of a performance video.

In the DVD version, there are some scenes with puppets, done as silent movies with a sort of Grimm's fairy tales theme. I don’t know whether these were part of the stage version and I'm not sure that they add very much to the overall effect. Also, it must be said that the characters of the janitor and the grandfather feel sidelined here.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Ms. Thompson made me feel great empathy for the ditzy new wife. She's not a nice woman; you wouldn't want any of your relatives or friends to be married to her. But you begin to understand her pathetic desire for a little happiness in her own narcissistic way and the pain of it tears you apart.

Rating: B

Open Water (DVD) by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau

The premise of this movie intrigued me: a husband and wife on a scuba diving trip accidentally get left behind by their guide boat and they're stranded in the water for who-knows-how-long. I missed the movie when it was in the theatres; perhaps it wasn't around for very long. On the DVD, there is much self-congratulatory material by the husband and wife team who made the movie on a shoestring. They express ingenuous delight and surprise that their movie got good reviews in Variety and was picked up at the Sundance festival for major distribution.

Much as it pains me to be curmudgeonly about this, I have to say that the movie doesn't seem to me to be worth all the fuss. You have two people stranded in the water for a very long time and that's about all there is to it. I'm not demanding that every drama have the complexity of a Shakespearean tapestry but, as single-thread story lines go, this one is ridiculously thin. There just isn't enough to hold our attention. There are some skirmishes with sharks, but essentially there is nothing the young couple can do. They just have to wait. Maybe Samuel Beckett could have done something with this. Here, however, we get dialogue like "This really sucks" and "I'm gonna kill those fuckers." Realistic yes, interesting no.

As their ordeal in the water dragged on, I kept thinking of irrelevancies like the line in Bill Cosby's sketch where God asks Noah, "How long can you tread water?" The ending wasn't quite what I expected and that made me re-consider what had gone before. Maybe there was more point to it than I realized? But not enough to keep the project afloat, as far as I'm concerned.

Rating: E

Dogville (DVD) Written and directed by Lars Von Trier

The reviews for this movie when it came out were not encouraging (as I remember them) but friends have been telling me that it's worth seeing. It tells the story of a mysterious woman who turns up in a tiny town in America in the 1920s (or 30s?), a dead-end place with only 15 adults and a few kids. It's all about how the townspeople deal with said mystery woman. This may or may not have made a viable piece. Some precedents for this kind of Americana come to mind: Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and Carson McCullers' The Ballad of a Sad Cafe.

The catch here is that the whole thing is done as an arty exercise. The movie takes place on a stage, with the outlines of the town's buildings simply drawn on the floor. There are minimal props, minimal realism. So far so good. Even the editing doesn't attempt to be realistic. Sometimes camera angles shift in mid-speech in ways that don't match. Shades of Andy Warhol.

But this movie is excruciatingly boring. At nearly three hours long, almost intolerably so. The pace is glacial. My finger has never been so itchy to hit the fast forward button. The reason it didn't is that I wanted to take it like a man and see it through to the end. I guess this kind of self discipline comes from things like Lenten practice when I was a kid. If you gave up candy for Lent, you didn't want to give in before reaching the finishing line on Easter morning. So I hung in there, grimly, for the whole three hours. (Also, our DVD player has been acting up lately and sometimes if you fiddle with the controls, it goes wonky on you.)

Nicole Kidman as the newcomer strolls through her part with a breathy-voiced, wide-eyed pose that never once suggests a real person. The caterer must have laced the refreshments with heavy doses of valium. Everybody mumbles quietly in a method-acting way. Yet, the dialogue has ludicrously high-brow touches. An unlettered farmer asks, "Why do you find me repugnant?" Words like "copious" and "augury" spring to the lips of these hicks like birdsong. They talk about "community" in that sanctimonious way that didn't come into popular usage until about 1980.

Worst of all, the proceedings are fatally bogged down by an archly literary voice-over narration with long, complicated clauses and phrases. You can practically hear the commas and semicolons as the narrator (a posh British voice) spins out his pompous observations and interpretations -- in case we've never seen a movie before and can't figure out what's going on.

You can understand how several elderly and accomplished actors (Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, John Hurt, James Caan) would have jumped at this chance to do something really different with a distinguished director. You can picture them drooling at the thought that they were going to be able to sink their teeth into meaty parts and do some quality work with each other. They may have been thinking of the movie Vanya on 42nd Street. That production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, filmed onstage in an old theatre in Manhattan, made no attempt to cover up the artificiality of the setting. It was the final result of the actors' working on the text for a long time just to polish their craft. In that case, they were working with great material. In the case of Dogville, nobody seems to have asked: how is this going to come across to people who have to watch it? Isn't there a chance that it will amount to nothing but a lot of pretentious twaddle?

For a while I was thinking that maybe the point of the movie is that people sure are horrible. (Surprise!) Then I remembered Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves and his apparent fascination with waif-like female figures who become badly abused sexual slaves, yet retain an angelic innocence through it all. That fantasy surfaces here and it strikes me as a most repellent form of male prurience. In the end, though, the thematic ambitions of this piece are much grander. It's nothing less than a summary of all that can be said on innocence and guilt, forgiveness, evil, revenge, love, sex, violence, community and the individual. Did I leave anything out? Oh yeah, the meaning of life.

For me, the only really pertinent question this movie raises is: how much are you willing to let an artist try your patience in order to make his point? Not this much.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com