Dilettante's Diary

Jan 7/12

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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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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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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: Young Adult (Movie); Police, Adjective (DVD); Metraville (Novel) What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Short Fiction)

Young Adult (Movie) written by Diablo Cody; directed by Jason Reitman; starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Collette Wolfe, Elizabeth Reaser

Let’s say you’re single, living in the city and lonely. People think you're leading the glamorous life of a writer. Actually, you're just the ghost writer of a series of "Young Adult" novels (which, from what we hear about them, sound more like drippy romances for thirteen-year-olds who wanna be high school prom queens). You’re struggling to crank out the last installment because the series has been cancelled. Your life not being all its cracked up to be, you drink too much. But suddenly an unexpected email from your old flame back home announces that he and his wife have just become the proud parents of their first baby. What’re you gonna do? Naturally, you pack up and head home to see if you can win him back again.

Well, maybe you wouldn’t do that. Me either. Nor would you or I be interested in anybody who’d do such a thing. Unless, maybe, it was Charlize Theron as Mavis, the girl who does it. Ms Theron has such edge to her that she almost manages to make every moment on screen interesting. Her escapade could hold our attention, then, if only the script didn’t let her down.

Once she gets back home, see, there’s not much for her to do except wait for meetings with the ex. So she shops. She runs into her parents, whom she’d rather avoid. Ditto a cousin. The sagging pace gives us time to wonder if maybe we're having a fair bit of trouble getting on board with this ditz. Her encounters with the ex (Patrick Wilson) don’t pull us in because the drama is so one-sided. He has no role to play, other than the nice guy who tries to be obliging for old time’s sake.

The only interest in all of this is has to do with a fat guy Mavis runs into in the bar, one of her peers from high school. Patton Oswalt, who plays the guy, will no doubt be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role – if for no other reason than that the kind of character he plays, one with a particularly timely back story, doesn’t often appear in films. He and Mavis have a catchy way of sparring with each other. In these two characters, scriptwriter Diablo Cody, who had a great success with Juno, shows again that she has a knack for getting some very contemporary-sounding types on screen.

Another one is the fat guy’s sister (Collette Wolfe), who manages to dish out some home truths that lead to the tale’s pat ending. Along the way we twig to the fact – I hope this isn’t revealing too much – that, in the novel Mavis is working on, she’s been re-living her high school affair with her old flame. When she sorts that out, the novel’s done.

Capsule Comment: Not good enough.


Police, Adjective (DVD) written and directed by Corneliu Porumboiu; starring Dragos Bucur, Irina Saulescu

When this movie from Romania was playing locally, the word was that it was one of the best ever cop/crime flicks. (It came out in 2009.) So, having missed the run in the theatres, I kept asking about it at my neighbourhood video store. They’d never heard of it, but were intrigued by the strange title. Lo and behold, it recently appeared on the shelves.

I was expecting something extremely gritty and realistic, lots of violence and gore. Sort of an Eastern European "Mean Streets." Well, it’s realistic but violence and gore are conspicuously absent. In fact, it's so mundane in its realism that it reminded me very much of another Romanian beauty, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (reviewed on DD page dated July 8/07). But Police, Adjective takes the true-to-life approach even further. The movie’s so low-key in its narrative style, that it could be considered an experiment in trying to see if you can make a movie out of almost nothing. Not that there isn’t drama and tension – there is a conflict simmering throughout – but there’s no attempt to ratchet up the excitement with a new plot twist every 60 seconds.

What little story there is revolves around Christi (Dragos Bucur), a young cop who’s tracking some teens suspected of dealing dope. His superiors want him to set up a sting operation to nail the kids. He doesn’t see the point of it. Sure, they smoke dope but he doesn’t think they’re dealers. The laws against pot will eventually be loosened up. So why ruin the kids’ lives just so the cops can score a conviction? His bosses keep trying to get him to change his mind.

And that’s it. Period. Back and forth Christi goes, following the kids to school and home again. He writes laborious reports on his tailing operation and submits them to his superiors. Meanwhile, he’s involved in trivia with other cops and his wife (Irina Saulescu). Much of the time, nothing’s said. We’re just watching and waiting. As, for example, when Christi eats an entire meal alone at the kitchen table – all in one take. Or when he’s sitting in the waiting room at his supervisor’s office, while a portly, middle-aged secretary pecks at her computer – again all in one take. The movie-makers seem to be saying: this is what most of life is about, just sitting and waiting, so suck it up people! If you want a movie that reflects life as it really is, then this is what you’ve got.

All of which can be trying to your patience at times. You wonder just how long some of these static scenes can last without your jumping up and screaming for relief. Obviously, such a movie’s not a grabber for the mainstream crowd. But it’s fascinating for anybody seriously interested in the art of film-making. The style of the photography emphasizes a very bleak sort of beauty in every scene. The inner-city cops in Romania apparently can’t afford much in the way of fresh paint or decorative touches. Their computers have those bulky monitors that now look like they belong to the Stone Age of IT. When a bowl of plastic fruit is introduced into a scene in an office in the police station, the mesmerizing colour of the fruit makes a comment on the drabness of every other scene.

The movie’s so realistic that it doesn’t even occur to you to comment on the performances. People just are who they are, so you don’t think about their acting. Which means, of course, that their acting is superb. Given the little that these characters have to say to each other, I couldn’t help thinking of a comparison to Shakespeare. Try to imagine Hamlet without a lot of talk. Impossible! The drama’s all in the words. And yet, despite the scarcity of them in Police, Adjective, the movie turns out to be all about words: what they mean and how they function in our lives. We get the first taste of that theme when Christi argues with his wife about what he sees as nonsense in the metaphorical lines of the sappy songs she likes. Then there are the droll banalities of his written reports to his superiors where dull, simple words prove so inadequate to represent people’s lives.

But the theme really comes into its own in the penultimate scene, a very long interview with Christi’s boss – again, all in one take – in which the meanings of words like ‘conscience,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘law,’ are explored, with the help of a dictionary. That’s where the relevance of the awkward title comes in. Christi looks up the word ‘police’ and finds dictionary formulations like: police: adjective, as in police state, police action, police station.

The blurbs on the DVD cover call it a great comedy. Not that I can see. Granted, there’s subtle humour. But it’s way too dry to be called comedy. More like extremely wry commentary that you can savour more in retrospect than when you’re first watching it.

Capsule Comment: Fascinating for connoisseurs of movie-making but not for general audiences.


Metraville (Novel) by Jamie Popowich, 2011

This brilliant – and baffling – novel made me think about the relationship between a writer and a reader. Sometimes you’ll be reading a book for pages and pages but nothing much is clicking  for you. You can follow the story. But you don’t get why the author’s telling it to you. If you’re going to keep reading, then, the writer has to engage your attention, at some point, by making you feel that he or she is saying something relevant to you. Maybe it’ll be just a small detail that sparks your interest. Or some catchy wording. Gradually you may begin to trust this writer, to believe that the writer might have something to tell you.

With Metraville, it took some time for that to happen for me. For a while, I was wondering if this weird novel about the kooky inhabitants of a place called Metraville was dishing up some sort of stoner humour that just wasn’t palatable to me. (To tell the truth, I might not have persevered if it weren’t for the fact that the author is the son of a friend. You can take that as full disclosure.) The disjointed structure of the book didn’t help to pull me in. Some passages are very short, less than a page; others extend through several pages. Some characters reappear; others have only cameo roles. Some of the entries are photocopies of what look like jottings from the author’s notebook about incidents witnessed in the streets.

Some of them may be commonplace, some bizarre. Mostly the latter, which gives a kind of absurdist, comic book sensibility to the proceedings. (Think of Robert Crumb.) The first item in the book is about bananas. They’re all over town. People use them for curtains, for condoms, for bras. Then we come to an entry about a cat that started scratching her owner and ended up eating the owner’s eyeballs while the owner was heavily medicated. I’m like: Huh?? What am I supposed to get from this??

But then I came to a passage where two people are enclosed in a dark room. They don’t seem to know where they are or what to do. They don’t want to waste their last match but their flashlight batteries are dead. They have a box of lightbulbs but the bulbs got crushed. They start to have breathing problems. They begin to think they should exercise. They agree to stand up but neither of them will be the first to do so. Instead, they decide that each of them should state an opinion, if only they could decide which one will go first....

At this point, I’m beginning to think of Samuel Beckett, particularly his Waiting for Godot. As the book goes on, more and more comparisons come to mind. Given the illogical aspect of much of what goes down in the town of Metraville, you can’t miss the resemblance to Alice In Wonderland. At certain points, Franz Kafka’s influence looms large. Sometimes, the cozy friendships among the oddball characters remind me of The Wind in the Willows. But the reference that seems most apt to me is T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. It's as if we're following another Tiresias, the disconsolate seeker wending his way through the world, making observations about strange manifestations of human behaviour. And once you’ve brought Tiresias onto your mental stage, you’ve got to acknowledge Leopold Bloom and his famous stroll through Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Some of the things these guys note on their perambulations might be called "found dialogue", bits of conversation picked up like scraps of litter. Here, two friends are talking:

- Have a good night, Tavis. Don’t work too late.

- I wasn’t going to.

- Yeah. I know you weren’t. I was just saying.

- Do you think I work too hard?

- Relax. It’s just something people say.

- I don’t say it.

In this one, an ornery adult has refused to fetch a stray ball for some kids:

– But we’re only children.

- That’s your problem.

- Are you mean because you’re a lesbian?

- No, I’m a man.

I find something particularly authentic in the sound of these lines, in spite of the somewhat off-the-wall quality.

Among the more continuous elements in the book, there’s an astronaut who has been to outer space but whose return to earth has proven problematic, to put it mildly. Not all of his adventures engaged my attention but I found the following passage fascinating. He’s talking about a "speck" that he brought back from outer space on his baby finger.

"He saw his speck. The speck existed. He cupped it in his hand under bright lights, marvelling at his find. Here was proof that he’d been to space....The speck was his truth. His speck."

I find the philosophical and symbolic implications of that passage – not without sly irony – far-reaching. And how about these further philosophical ponderings:

"Anyone out there? Anyone at all?....Come on. You know what I’m discussing here. Being there. Being here. Being home. All those being cards shuffled ecstatically."

"A question for the ages that keeps audiences guessing – what what. But what what of who who? Disagreements have surfaced about the validity of who who, but if put to the test, who who is what what we’re always asking. Examine. Who who is on the phone? Who who am I dating? ...Dig deep who who. Dig deeper who who. Where where is who who? What what has who who done?"

Some choice samples of existential angst come through in telephone calls. In one of them, somebody’s struggling with a butcher about some order. It’s not clear what’s being ordered but the customer’s running into all kinds of hurdles. Eventually the call devolves into a discussion about what the customer has to do to get on a waiting list for a certain product. Wacky as the circumstances may be, we feel we’ve all been there. Another phone scenario features a conversation between a salesperson peddling a luxury cruise and a guy who’s anxious about upcoming surgery. When the caller asks if the guy wants a vacation, the guy responds: "Sure I do. I’d love one right now. Can you give me a vacation from myself." But the caller, not getting the point, keeps yammering on about the details of the luxury cruise, while the sick guy pours out his deepest worries to this unseen stranger.

Then, of course, there’s a lot of social commentary, perhaps the main thrust of the book. One page makes the simple observation that people who work in cigarette factories say, "Well people have to relax," and workers in missile factories say, "Well, we need a strong defense." Bureaucracies and institutions come in for their share of satire. It’s announced that new police procedures for Metraville require that cops can only rough up a suspect after they’ve asked "if he was having a good day and if he could spare a minute (the difference being that these were sentiments they actually meant now)." As for municipal affairs, we get this:

The scavengers were too clever, too needy, too desperate. Frankly, the scavengers were just too damn too. And when anything is too, the popular thinking went at city hall, well, then, throw that fight. With all the budget cuts the city was having, it’d never be strong enough to beat anybody who was too.

In the latter half of the book, much space (about 40 pages) is given over to a trial involving an eccentric judge who runs a very unconventional courtroom. Among the many strange developments, a young accused named Julian walks free but his mother gets exiled from Metraville. This sequence may be meant as some sort of comment on the arbitrary workings of the judicial system but it’s hard for me to see what, precisely, the author’s getting at. After the trial, however, Julian, goes on a freaky bus trip that constitutes my favourite part of the book. It’s not clear where the bus is going or why but apparently Julian feels forced to ride along with a cast of crazies. The bus driver is one of the most colourful of them. He tells Julian: "I want a break from everything. You know I have constant pain in my legs? Can you appreciate that? Can you appreciate my pain?" Julian has dumped all his cash into the fare box but the driver claims he’s a dime short. Julian disputes that but the driver hits him with this zinger: "Part of the fun is that you’ve got to trust me."

After a while, the gems that turn up in this book prove so numerous that it’s impossible to mention more than a few of them in a short review. We learn that three percent of the air contained in a person’s yawn is poisonous and that anthropologists therefore believe that the development of the practice of covering your mouth when yawning was a way of avoiding a charge of murder. A comment on something as simple as pockets may leap out at you: "You can’t be nonchalant about a thing like pockets. Trust me. Once they’re gone, you realize they were your first love. Imagine trying to warm your hands unrequited."

In all of this, much of the appeal of Mr. Popowich’s writing has to do with his original wordings. A few oustanding examples: "I got left feet for brains." And this: "... if you throw a hole in front of me hoping that I’m going to fall in, I’m going to find a way to leap over it." And "His feet never felt at rest on the floor of the Nervous System." One of the most striking wordings, though, is an echo of another one. Near the end of the book, we’re following a couple of losers who are drifting towards what appears to be a sad separation. Mr. Popowich has somehow managed to suggest a certain plangent quality that permeates the partings at the end of a work like Winnie the Pooh. But the sentence in this section of Metraville that really hit me was the statement from one of the two guys: "Then our games would end." That brought me smack up against one of the final lines in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: "Our revels now are ended."

When some passages in a book have so much resonance, it begins to look as though some re-reading is in order, to see what you’ve been missing in other sections. This may be one of those cases where a new author's voice is so original that it takes you a while to get the feel of it. Only then can you fully appreciate the writing.


From The New Yorker

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Short Fiction) by Nathan Englander, Dec 12, 2011

A reunion between a middle-aged Jewish couple in Florida and two friends who moved to Israel and became ultra-Orthodox. What I love about this story is that it takes you to places in the human heart that you couldn't image. Part of you is asking: how does a writer think of such things? And yet, you have to admit that what he's telling you is absolutely true to what you know about human nature. 



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