Dilettante's Diary

Dec 12/11

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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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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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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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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Shame (Movie); Leaving Maverley (Short Fiction); The Climber Room (Short Fiction) My Week With Marilyn (Movie); Red (Play); Bad Science (Book)

Shame (Movie) written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie

The acting/directing team of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen produced such an astoundingly good film in Hunger (reviewed on DD page dated Apr 14/09) that I was determined to see their next collaboration. But it turns out that Shame doesn’t have the great subject that Hunger did. Instead of a man starving himself to death for the sake of major political issues, here we have a guy (Michael Fassbender) obsessed with his narcissistic sexual quest. A hunky fortyish employee in some glitzy high rise office in Manhattan, he works his way mirthlessly through sexual encounters with one partner after another, including his fist. Not only is there nothing to like about the guy, he’s of no interest at all. He’s taciturn and uncommunicative. We know nothing about him; no reason for his being such a schmuck. One cutesy story about his peeing his pants when he was a kid doesn’t manage to make him all that loveable.

When his kooky sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives on the scene, it looks like she’s going to inject some fun and spontaneity into the proceedings. But then, alas, we have to watch her excruciatingly dragged-out nightclub performance in a listless singing-speaking voice with pauses of about five seconds between every phrase. It’s supposed to drive the audience to delighted delirium but it had me crawling under the seat with boredom. A scene between brother and sister obviously aims for something like the rivetting effect of the celebrated scene in Hunger when Bobby Sands and a priest confront each other – in one very long take – across a table in a prison visiting room. In that case, though, the two men were engaged in a very high stakes tug-of war. Here, the duel between the two interlocutors comes down to banalities like: "You’re my brother; you have a responsibility for me," followed by this zinger, "No I don’t." *

It’s not as if the copious nudity and simulated sex scenes don’t rise to the artistic heights of typical soft core porn. It’s the other arty touches that lower the tones of the proceedings. Every shot of the guy’s sleek, sparsely furnished apartment is composed like a minimalist painting. (I kinda think a metaphor’s lurking there.) There’s no life anywhere. You’d think we’d find it in the streets and subways but people pass by anonymously, like ghosts. Meanwhile, the symphonic lamentation of the soundtrack would make you think you were watching the travails of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. That’s not enough to make me care about this guy, even if he does listen to Glenn Gould recordings – on vinyl, no less! Granted, it’s a great thrill to see Mr. Fassbender’s naked body in various contortions but, given the price of admission these days, I’d expect to see some soul too.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a "rating"): Elegant Ennui.

* Not exact quotes. As you know, I don’t take any recording devices, other than my brain, to movies.


Some Recent New Yorker highlights:

Leaving Maverley (Short Fiction) by Alice Munro; Nov 28/11

You begin to wonder how much longer Alice Munro’s writing will achieve the peak of perfection we’re accustomed to expecting from her. She's eighty now and, as far as I know, not many writers carry on much longer than that. Her short memoir "Dear Life" in the Sept 19/11 edition of The New Yorker was interesting, in a matter-of-fact way, but it lacked the charm and depth of her best short stories. Too much "telling" and not enough re-creating of scenes and characters. At times, that tendency of the narrator to blab on and on threatens to sabotage the short story, "Leaving Maverley". It’s about a girl from a religiously repressive family, who works as a nighttime cashier at the movie theatre in a small town. The local cop walks her home after her shift. The cop’s wife, a semi-invalid, makes wry comments about the goings-on around town. It’s entrancing enough, in the usual Munro way, but.....in the final column, that wily writer brings you up short with a gasp when, with absolute simplicity, she tells truths about grief and loneliness that you’ve never heard.

The Climber Room (Short Fiction) by Sam Lipsyte; Nov 21/11

What I love about this story is that it’s so quotidian, so full of the ordinary stuff that we all slog through: the fleeting feelings, the impressions, the opinions, the grudges, the pleasures. We’re with a young woman who’s working part-time at a daycare. What she really wants is to be a poet. At the top of the story, she’s coping with the tiresome repartee of one of the daycare dads, an older guy who’s obviously trying to get it right with his second family. This woman has sharp insights into guys like him, the kids in her charge, her boss, and a guy who once set her heart aflutter. She’s so right about everything, except when she’s so wrong! Her final monologue, as she’s looking out a window, could serve as the show-stopping aria in an opera about the life of the single woman today.


My Week With Marilyn (Movie) written by Adrian Hodges, based on the book by Colin Clark; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Judi Dench, Zo Wanamaker, Dougray Scott, Dominic Cooper, Derek Jacobi, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt

The title makes you think it’s about some Hollywood hanger-on who had a brief thing with Marilyn Monroe and then tried to parlay that into a bit of fame and fortune for himself. All glamour and glitz and hoop-la.

But no. It’s 1956 and Marilyn has come to England to film a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier. (It became The Prince and the Showgirl.) She’s totally out of her element. It’s so non-Hollywood. That’s what makes it so charming. It’s like one of those well-crafted old gems from Britain’s Ealing Studios. (eg. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Lady Killers.) The narrator is Colin Clark, a wet-behind-the ears twenty-four-year old, a son of the landed gentry. By sheer stubbornness and determination, he's finagled his way into a job as a third-assistant-director on Sir Larry’s film

As the big star, Michelle Williams doesn’t, of course, live up to the original. Who could? We’re talking about Marilyn Monroe! Her magic was of its own kind. Ms. Williams may lack a certain ripeness of figure and her voice may not have that seductive whisper, but she comes close enough to make us willing to suspend our disbelief. Anyway, who is to say whether the Marilyn that we carry around in our minds ever actually existed? The Marilyn character in this movie actually says at one point that her suitors always abandon her when they find out she’s not "Marilyn Monroe."

But let’s assume that we’re dealing here with the Marilyn that most of us think we knew. The movie doesn’t exactly give us a new take on that character. She’s impulsive, unpredictable, lonely, vulnerable and misunderstood. What makes her emotions especially precarious at this point is that her new hubby, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is already beginning to suspect that the marriage was a mistake. If, at times, she seems implausibly dense, you have to remember that one of her American handlers (Dominic Cooper) says they keep her on drugs as much as possible to make her more controllable. But she has a sense of humour, especially when it comes to parodying herself. On a tour of Windsor Castle, she hams it up for the staff who’ve gathered to gawk.

When it comes to actors not being much like the original, Kenneth Branagh, now that he’s become paunchy and puffy-faced, is so not Sir Larry that it takes some getting used to. But the qualities of a great actor are there, and that’s what matters. Some of the most fun in the movie revolves around the contrast between Sir Larry’s disciplined technique and Marilyn’s instinctive approach. Tremendous exasperation on Sir Larry’s part results from Marilyn’s lack of discipline, her tardiness and her constant need for soulful self-searching. Somebody says at one point that the trouble is that Sir Larry’s a great actor wanting to be a film star and that Marilyn’s a film star wanting to be a great actor. One of the most poignant moments comes when Sir Larry confesses that he’d hoped that working with Marilyn would make him feel young again. But looking at the rushes, he despairingly finds that he looks old, almost dead, compared to her luminous vitality.

How closely the movie adheres to the narrator’s published memoirs of the time, I can’t say. And heaven knows whether they were faithful to the facts. But it doesn’t matter whether or not the movie's a confection. What we have here is a very entertaining romp, especially if you love movies about showbiz.

One of the nicest touches is Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike (who was playing Sir Larry’s mother in the movie within the movie). She shows the British theatrical aristocracy at its best: always trying graciously to smooth over the conflict between the two stars, trying her damnedest to bolster the fragile ego of the American movie goddess who’s so intimidated by the Brits. By contrast to all of them, there’s Zo Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s mentor from the famous Method Acting studio in New York. You can see how Ms. Strasberg’s interference enrages Sir Larry and yet I felt a sneaking admiration for the woman’s implacable loyalty to Marilyn. Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), who played on stage the role that Marilyn’s playing in the movie, tries to be very magnanimous, admitting that she’s now far too old to play the part on film. But she rushes out of the screening room in tears on seeing how beautiful Marilyn is on screen. And Eddie Redmayne couldn’t be more convincing as Colin Clark, the ingenuous third-assistant-director who looks terrified to find himself falling in love with the most famous woman in the world as she turns to him for friendship in her moment of need.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): A sparkling show-biz show.


Red (Play) by John Logan; directed by Kim Collier; starring Jim Mezon, David Coomber; design by David Boechler (set, costumes and props) and Alan Brodie (lighting)

This is the kind of theatre that sends audiences home thinking they’ve heard some great ideas and learned something about art. They also feel they’ve seen something different and amazing on this visit to the New York studio of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. It’s the late 1950s, and an eager young would-be artist arrives to work as Mr. Rothko’s assistant. Through five or six scenes, representing the passage of a couple of years, Mr. Rothko spouts his theories about art and bullies the kid. Whenever the neophyte dares to speak up, Mr. Rothko points out, in voluminous tirades, how wrong the youngster is.

Much of the production’s impact is due to the design. The set is a soaring warehouse of dirty brick walls and smudged windows. A cornucopia of artists’ junk – cans, pots, canvases, brushes – is strewn around ever so artfully. One brilliant coup de theatre occurs when the two men jointly tackle the base painting of a huge canvas, jockeying back and forth to cover its surface in a dance choreographed to the sounds of boisterous Mozart. Other composers’ works add to the arty tone according to the mood of any given moment. Between scenes, massive panels, at right angles to each other, slide out to screen the stage and we see projected on them something like the swirling and dissolving of paint in microscopic detail. All very showy.

But is it a good play, the 2010 Tony Award not withstanding? Call me a stick-in-the mud, but I expect a play to show some sort of development of relationship between characters, some dramatic movement, some sort of progression. Mostly what we get here, instead, is constant bombast from Mr. Rothko and ineffectual squeaking from the kid. Far be it for me to tell the Canadian Stage audiences that they’re not seeing something new and original, but this motif of the great old man berating the young helper has been around for quite a while. I’m thinking most notably of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. Even Christopher Plummer’s haranguing of the off-stage prompter in Barrymore relies on much the same device.

In Red, though, the connection between the two men never really convinced me. Why was this young fellow putting up with so much abuse from this ogre? And when the kid does eventually get mouthy, why would Mr. Rothko listen to him for more than a few seconds? About half way through, the kid has a poignant moment when he tells about a ghastly incident from his past. But this monologue doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on. It’s just a blatant pitch for our sympathy.

The more chronic problem with the piece, from my point of view, is that there doesn’t seem to be any point to all the bombast. Are we to take all the ranting about colours as a metaphor for what’s going on in Mr. Rothko’s soul? After all, colour theory doesn’t make a play. Colour as a key to somebody’s inner life might be an interesting dramatic premise but it doesn’t emerge clearly here.

None of this is to denigrate the work of the actors in this production. Some of the best of the fine acting comes when one of the actors simply stands and listens to the other one. It takes a lot of know-how to do that with aplomb. But Mr. Mezon’s voice suffers from a lack of richness and variety. It seems stuck in a rather high pitch, which makes his delivery somewhat monotonous after a while. I can't say for sure that the Rothko character’s lines would be more stirring if delivered with sonorous vocal power but when you start wondering about the possibility, it seems that something may be missing.

Mr. Coomber, as the newcomer, catches an appropriately ingenuous note but he seems too preppy to me. The piece might work better with a guy who seems more like a typically grubby art student. On the other hand, the role is so under-written that it's hard to say what this kid is supposed to be like.

In the last half hour of the show, we do come to see the point of the piece: an old artist who’s being pushed aside by the new generation refuses to go gently into that dark night. And we finally get some dramatic sparks between the two men, some genuine conflict that has at least a chance of being two-sided. A long speech where the kid  puts the old guy in his place brought waves of applause from the teens packing the balcony. It was good to see that they could be this excited about a piece of live theatre. But I do wish the audience had not started applauding so soon at the final curtain, thereby ruining the sublime effect of Mr. Rothko’s standing alone in a darkening light while the majestic strains of Sarastro's "O Isis und Osiris" from Mozart’s The Magic Flute well up around him.


Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Pig Pharma Flacks (Science/Culture) by Ben Goldacre, 2010

This book appears to be a spin-off of columns that author Ben Goldacre, a doctor, has written for The Guardian in Britain. One gathers that the gist of his column is to flag what he considers to be invalid, if not downright fraudulent, claims relating to health, nutrition and pharmacology. His scrappy, in-your-face style makes for lively reading. At the outset, you get some idea of the tone in the book’s ironic dedication: To whom it may concern. Further evidence of a certain attitude on the author’s part crops up in snarkey quips such as: "It would be wrong to assume that the kinds of oversights we’ve covered so far are limited to the lower echelons of society, like doctors and journalists." One of Dr. Goldacre’s most bitingly sarcastic comments comes in his indignant discussion of the opposition to the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccination:

After all, as any trendy MMR-dodging North London middle-class humanities graduate couple with children would agree, just because vaccination has almost eradicated polio – a debilitating disease that as recently as 1988 was endemic in 125 countries – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.

In his battle against these deluded campaigns, one of Dr. Goldacre’s main points is that we should be very careful reading the results of scientific studies as reported in the popular press. When hot topics about science surface, editors invariably do not send their well-trained and appropriately educated science reporters to cover the stories; they’re handled, instead, by generalists who can make the material more grabby for the average reader. Thus, the frequent misinterpretation among readers of results of studies and experiments.

A case in point would be reports on studies involving high cholesterol. A headline will shout that you have a 50% greater risk of suffering a heart attack if you have high cholesterol. Sounds pretty bad. But you have to know that out of, say, 100 men with normal cholesterol, four will be expected to have a heart attack anyway, whereas out of 100 men with high cholesterol, six will be expected to have a heart attack. So that’s just a 2% increase. If you compare the 2% to the 4% it looks like a 50% increase. But it’s only a 2% increase compared to the whole group studied.

Dr. Goldacre says that if there could be a t-shirt slogan for this book it would be "I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that." Nowhere does this apply more aptly than when it comes to nutrition.

The most important take-home message with diet and health is that anyone who ever expresses anything with certainty is basically wrong, because the evidence for cause and effect in this area is almost always weak and circumstantial, and changing an individual person’s diet may not even be where the action is.

In the context of nutrition, Dr. Goldacre spends a lot of time lambasting nutritionists’ claims that their supplements will boost health. He shows that, for the most part, there’s no solid evidence that the things they peddle will have beneficial health results. While reading this material, I kept thinking that he must be using the term 'nutritionist' in a rather different way than it’s used in North America. To me, a nutritionist is somebody like your cousin Cathy who works in a hospital kitchen, or a school cafeteria, to ensure that the meals served meet the needs of the people they’re intended for. But Dr. Goldacre seems to use the word ‘nutritionists’ – and maybe this is a British thing – to mean people involved in an industry that keeps trying to tell you that ordinary, fresh food isn’t good enough and that your body needs the something extra that they’re selling.

At times, Dr. Goldacre’s book enters territory covered by Leonard Mlodinow in The Drunkard’s Walk (reviewed on Dilettante's Diary page titled "Summer Reading 2010"). We hear about the regression to the mean, whereby some bad situation often reverts to a more normal status and that the supposed cause, be it pills, therapy or whatever, may have nothing to do with the change. We learn about randomness and the human propensity for finding patterns where there really aren’t any. Unlikely combinations of events will always happen, somewhere, sometime, entirely by chance. "Drawing a target around them after the fact tells us nothing at all." (One thinks of Susan Nelles, the nurse who was falsely charged with murder just because several infants were thought to have been poisoned during her shifts on a ward in a Toronto hospital.)

When it comes to research, Dr. Goldacre reminds us of the cardinal rule of statistical research: you cannot find your hypothesis in your results. Rather, you need to have a specific hypothesis to test before going to the data. "If your hypothesis comes from analyzing the data, then there’s no sense analyzing the same data again to confirm it." In a similar vein, it’s pointed out that exceptional cases always attract more attention than statistics. Then there’s the problem of "cherry picking" studies. This seems to happen a lot, according to Dr. Goldacre, in the homeopathic industry, where practitioners tout studies that are flawed or very selective, while setting aside ones that disprove the homeopathic claims or render them dubious. Even more scary is the case of studies that simply don’t get published because of a bias against the findings of the studies. And yet those studies, in the case of certain pharmaceuticals, could have warned of trouble ahead. Toronto researcher Nancy Olivieri is cited for her courageous decision to publish concerns that arose during her clinical trials of a drug in spite of threats of legal action by the company manufacturing the drug.

One chapter in the book wasn’t included in the British version (published a few years before this one) because the subject of the chapter was suing Dr. Goldacre. The suit was eventually dropped, but not before costing The Guardian more then $770,000 to defend Dr. Goldacre, of which the plaintiff, Matthias Rath, has paid only half. Mr. Rath, a vitamin pill entrepreneur, has made a name for himself by claiming, contrary to all reliable scientific evidence, that antiretroviral medications are foisted on Africans as an attempt at domination by white Westerners, that these medicines are killing AIDS patients and that the vitamins Mr. Rath sells are the answer. The effect of this kind of thinking on Thabo Mbeki, who served two terms as the president of South Africa, and his Health Minister, Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang, is blamed for thousands of unnecessary deaths: as many as 3443,000 between 1999 and 2007.

While, it’s harrowing to think of Matthias Rath promulgating theories and treatments that have been so harmful, Dr. Goldacre seems to think of it as nothing but venal greed on Mr. Rath’s part. A question occurs to me, though. Could it be that Mr. Rath, deluded as he may be, actually believes that his remedies work as promised? It doesn’t take much psychological smarts to know that the prospect of huge financial gain can convince anybody that the course of action they’re promoting is the right one. But that’s not quite the same as saying that somebody is hypocritically and maliciously perpetuating a fraud for the sake of personal gain. Granted, it might be hard to see any mitigating factors in the motives of somebody whose unfounded charges against you have incurred such expensive defence. In any case, such nuanced consideration of an opponent’s character could reasonably be considered to be beyond the purview of this book, if not utterly alien to Dr. Goldacre’s feisty nature.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com