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Feb 11/12

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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: A Separation (Movie); Citizen Conn (Short Fiction); Los Gigantes (Short Fiction); The Story of a Suicide (Article); Coriolanus (Movie); All in the Timing (Play)

A Separation (Movie) written and directed by Asghar Farhadi; starring Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Sarnia Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi

An odd choice of title, this.

Yes, there is a separation. An Iranian woman (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate so that her eleven-year-old daughter (Sarina Farhadi) will have a better future. But her husband (Peyman Maadi), the child’s father, doesn’t want to emigrate and he doesn’t want to let the child go. So the wife stages a sort of trial separation, moving in with her parents. But the bulk of the movie isn’t about the separation. It’s the catalyst that starts everything, it’s there in the background throughout and it comes back into focus at the end, but it isn’t the main concern. Naming the movie for the separation is a bit like giving Hamlet the title The Poisoning of a King.

What the movie’s mostly about is the hassle the husband has in the wife’s absence. He has to get someone to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s, while he, the son, is at work during the day. The woman he hires for the care-taking job (Sareh Bayat) is a very devout Muslim from a somewhat disadvantaged milieu. It might not be going too far to say that she seems a bit simple. When the elderly man in her care soils his pants, she has to phone a religious consultant to ask whether it would be a sin for her to change him and wash him. She continues to make bad decisions. Although you can never be quite sure whether she’s guileless or scheming -- as is the case with many people who seem unsophisticated -- things deteriorate rapidly. Soon the son of the old man has one hell of a lot of trouble on his hands.

That brings up intriguing themes about honesty, religion, law, familial obligations, honour, unemployment, education, health, elder care, marriage and parenting. These motifs swirl around in torrents of invective. Boy, do these people emote! The first rule of discourse in this culture would seem to be that you shout and wave your hands at the slightest hint of disagreement. The vehemence of the repartee makes David Mamet’s disputatious characters look like Tom and Jerry.

Not that the dialogue here is particularly inventive or original. Certain phrases keep cropping up: "You have no right...!" "This has nothing to do with...!" "I swear by our martyrs...!" "You should be ashamed....!" In spite of those belaboured-sounding accusations, the drama begins to take on biblical proportions. Basic stuff is being thrashed out here. There’s also a Roshomon-like quality to the different versions of the narrative: did this happen or did that happen? There’s a lot of the "Yes-you-did" versus "No-I-didn’t" kind of argumentation. It even comes down to subtleties like: "Did he know or did he not know?"

It’s dizzying – an effect that isn’t ameliorated by the hand-held camera. But this is one of those cases where you can’t get any relief by looking away from the screen. You have to follow the rapidly-changing subtitles to keep up with the story. And just when you think that they can’t possibly spin out the complications any further, along comes another plot twist that sends things hurtling forward with fresh momentum.

All of which could get really tiresome if there weren’t a core of truth and authenticity underlying the proceedings. You feel you’re seeing real people in crises that are very real for them. Not one false note creeps in. A certain medical issue did seem a bit iffy to me. But the question about the plausibility of that issue turned out to be a key point in the plot. All of the characters are completely convincing; you never get the feeling that anybody’s acting for a movie. I did have a question about the daughter, who looked older than eleven to me (but how much experience do I have in judging the ages of girls in headscarves and thick glasses?). It bothered me that she seemed somewhat impassive at times, almost a cipher. So it was a relief, in a kind of scary way, to find that she had a few things up her sleeve.

Not the least of the satisfactions that the movie offers a viewer from the Western world is the feeling that you’re learning a lot about what life is like for many of the residents of a contemporary Iranian city (Tehran, I presume). The cars and the cell phones are there, of course. But there’s a different look to the apartments: the decorative tiles, the chintzy wallpaper in the bathrooms. The kitchen appliances have the colourful aspect – a green fridge, for instance – that was in vogue in North America is the 1970s. Although much of the technology seems up to date, apparently video games aren’t ubiquitous: one scene shows a family having fun around a table-top soccer game that involves those little figures of players mounted on long poles that you control by twiddling handles.

In terms of customs, you pick up a few pointers on the practices surrounding the wearing of head scarves, veils and full chador – for women and for children of various degrees of religious observance. You notice that people keep telling children – or women – to leave the room during certain discussions. An elaborate dance of politesse surrounds the beginnings of all meetings, until the fury erupts.

And that leads us to the courts where we get a good look at how the judicial system works. Litigants gather before someone who appears to have a status somewhere between what we would call a judge and a justice of the peace. He presides from his desk in a crowded cubbyhole where the most prominent symbol of authority, if it can be considered that, is an electric fan. A sort of secretary, whom you barely notice, sits squeezed onto one of the chairs, apparently taking notes on what’s going down. Meanwhile, the official stares at papers that he shuffles back and forth, while the disputants shout and argue, until he threatens to have one or the other of them arrested. In this case, the official (Babak Karimi) is being called on to exercise a wisdom that would tax Solomon’s abilities, but the most he can do, it seems, is to keep staying proceedings to another day so that a further witness can be rounded up to bring in yet another version of events.

When the camera does sometimes settle down, you get some very striking images. At one point, in an apartment scene, you simply see, through a door, the elderly father’s bare feet on the end of his bed. To me, that says much about his state in life. The editing is elliptical. Scenes end before you expect them to. Sometimes that’s a strategic narrative device: what you haven’t seen turns out to be crucial. Moments of grace, although few, sometimes flash through the chaos. In the tumultuous but dismal courthouse, prisoners shuffle through the crowd, handcuffed to stern young policemen. When one of the young cops who’s handcuffed to a prisoner reacts to a silly mishap, his smile lights up the screen with a blessed feeling about humanity.

Capsule comment: Hard on the nerves but very good.

 

New Yorker Notables:

Citizen Conn (Short Fiction) by Michael Chabon; February 13 & 20, 2012

My relationship with Michael Chabon, as reader to writer, could be described as rocky. My first impression of him dates from the time, some years ago, when The New Yorker, in an earth-shaking decision, took the veil off its writers and showed some photos of them. (As I remember it, this was in the early years following William Shawn’s departure from the magazine, when all kinds of previously unthinkable innovations were being introduced.) There in a lineup featuring venerables like John Updike, William Trevor and Alice Munro stood the impossibly youthful Mr. Chabon, looking like a Renaissance princeling with his flawless skin and his curly dark locks. My first thought: this guy is too beautiful to be a good writer.

But I soon came to appreciate that his short stories in The New Yorker had a lot to say about the confusing lives of young folk like himself. And I loved his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburg. (The movie didn’t do it justice but you can see my review of that on DD page dated May 10/09.) Same with Wonder Boys. But some of his subsequent works left me feeling lukewarm or indifferent. Sometimes it seems that the milieu is too exclusively focussed on one culture, as in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (See review on DD page dated June 4/08.) The Final Solution (review on DD page dated July 10/05) struck me as an exercise in fancy writing. In the case of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (not reviewed on DD), I just couldn’t care about comic book culture as much as Mr. Chabon seemed to want me to.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached this recent New Yorker story, in that the illustration made it clear that we’re dealing again with comic book lore. It’s about two artists who pioneered certain very successful comic book series. Do I care? However, the narrator of the story is the woman rabbi in residence at the seniors’ home where one of the guys now lives in his dying days. When she’s visiting him in his room, he offers to make tea and she gives us this:

Naturally, I wanted to reply that he ought not to bother, that he should just sit down and rest and let me put the kettle on for him. But over the years I had seen enough of the assiduous cruelty of children and grandchildren, in suppressing old people’s vivid hunger for bother, to know better.

I figure any narrator who can make an observation like that is worth paying attention to. And how so! Take this thought, later on: "But then, I reminded myself, there was no reason for this old man to have a clearer idea of the tragedies going on around him than anybody else did."

It turns out that the co-creators of the comic series have had a falling out over business matters. Now, one is trying to win back the favour of the other, without any success. Some secret hurt seems to be at the basis of his refusal to reconcile. When we eventually find out what’s wrong, the answer is so subtle that you almost have to read the meaning between the lines. (Except that, you being smarter than I, will probably twig to it more quickly.) As the impact of the story gradually sinks in, it's more and more touching.

 

Los Gigantes (Short Fiction) by T. Coraghessan Boyle; February 6, 2012

We appear to be in some Latin American totalitarian regime where the supreme ruler has decided to create a race of super warriors by conscripting very large and powerful men to mate with large women. The men are kept in a compound where they’re well fed and allowed to take their leisure in various ways, as long as they perform their copulatory duties with the women who are brought to them two or three times a day. The narrator is one such male conscript. His flat, detached, matter-of-fact tone covers the proceedings with a thick layer of stoicism that almost, but not quite, disguises the outrageousness of the situation. Occasionally, just a hint of very dry, laconic humour peeks through. The story could be taken as a warning to all men who think that being kept for stud service would be a dream come true.

 

The Story of a Suicide (Article) by Ian Parker; February 6, 2012

This lengthy piece lays out, in great detail, the very sad tragedy of Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University, who killed himself in 2010, after his roommate, Dharun Ravi and a friend of his, by means of a webcam, had surreptitiously watched Mr. Clementi making out with another man and then told other students about it. After that first incident, Mr. Ravi had tried to set up another session for various students to watch Mr. Clementi by webcom but that attempt was foiled. The article explores the very important issues of bullying, harrassment and invasion of privacy. While the legal charges against Mr. Ravi have not been resolved, the article makes it clear that questions about the extent of his guilt, and indeed of the causes for Mr. Clementi’s suicide, remain.

What struck me most about the article, though, was its exposure of the Internet world in which so many young people seem to live now. I’ve heard of that phenomenon, of course. I saw The Social Network; after all. I know who Mark Zuckerberg is. But it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized the extent to which some people, especially young adults, it would seem, are immersed in this business of tweeting back and forth to each other at all hours of the day and night, spreading gossip and snide innuendo. This practice comes to light because much of the case against Mr. Ravi involves what he said or didn’t say to various contacts on the Internet. Transcripts of many of these exchanges are included in the article. Even before he got to Rutgers, Mr. Ravi was searching for all the information he could find online about his prospective roommate, then sharing the findings with pals. They were digging deep into various sites and finding comments that Mr. Clementi had posted years ago, then making all sorts of insinuations about his sexual orientation and his social status. I had no idea that such insidious carry-on was rife in the lives of so many people today. Scary!

 

Coriolanus (Movie) based on the play by William Shakespeare; screenplay by John Logan; directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain.

First, a few words about the story. (I’m assuming the play may be as unfamiliar to you as to me.) Although the setting of the movie is contemporary, the play is set in ancient Rome. Caius Martius, a super-brave general, has a shot at being made a consul and given the new name of Coriolanus. Except that the citizens have to approve and our guy has what might be called a major public relations disability: he refuses to pander to the people. He won’t even stoop to show them the wounds from his recent hand-to-hand combat with the leader of Rome’s enemies, the Volsces (Gerard Butler).

Meanwhile, some competitors among Martius' peers are stirring the people up with threats that he’ll take away their liberties if he’s made consul. A fair accusation? Well, there was some trouble during a grain shortage when he fended off people who were storming the grain silos. But he stood firm because that’s what a leader’s gotta do. As he sees it, a leader the people liked wouldn’t be any kind of a leader at all.

You can see why Ralph Fiennes went to the trouble of getting the movie financed and directing it, with himself as star. It’s a fabulous role. What a mensch this Martius! Who can imagine a leader in our times who wouldn’t curry favour with the voters? In these days of Twitter, Facebook and tv debates, it’s almost impossible to think of a politician who wouldn’t stand on his head and spit nickels if that’s what the voters wanted. Mr. Fiennes, on the contrary, plays this singular, strong-headed man as somebody who seems to have a deep-seated suspicion of popularity and admiration. It’s as if he sees nefarious intent behind any words of praise. You wonder what happened to him in his childhood that made him that way. We never find out. Maybe that makes Mr. Fiennes' portrayal of this guy all the more memorable.

The other great role – and it’s a huge one – is that of Coriolanus’ mother. It might sound facetious to say that it’s almost worth the price of admission to see the scrawny, elderly Ms. Redgrave in military uniform (pants, tunic and beret), snapping to attention and saluting. But that’s not meant in a derisive way. Considering the hundreds of roles Ms. Redgrave must have played over the years, that of military granny is surely a first, but she grabs the role and delivers it like a scud missile. In her last big scene, she’s forced to go through an ordeal requiring equal parts of fiery pride and abject humility. That showed me, somewhat to my surprise, that this must be one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles for a woman.

However, if you’re going to adapt Shakespeare to modern times – or if you’re going to change the setting of any classic – you should be able to offer something in exchange for what you’ll inevitably lose. I’m not sure whether there’s a net gain here. Granted, when they talk about the possibility of Coriolanus’ tampering with people’s liberties, the contemporary setting means that you can’t help thinking of certain regimes that have been in the news a lot lately. But I don’t think Shakespeare’s writing profits from the barrage of firepower that we get in the first half hour of the movie. Armoured tanks, flame-throwers and bombs don’t quite fit with all the "Thee’s" and "Thou’s" and "Fie’s" and "Nay’s". And, for a viewer who’s fighting off nausea due to the wild gyrations of the hand-held camera, long sections where you hear nothing but the rhythmic firing of automatic weapons doesn’t make a very good substitution for the rhythms of Shakesepare’s poetry.

In other respects, though, the adaptations John Logan made in his screenplay do work well. The over-lapping and inter-weaving of scenes, for instance. And the way dream fragments can recur as they couldn’t on stage. The behind-the-scenes political scene is very convincing: guys in suits smoking, swilling booze and scheming to bring about Coriolanus’ downfall. On the other hand, there’s Brian Cox, as a very believable political veteran who happens to be on Coriolanus’ side. In a stage production, the characters who are commenting on the developments would be just bystanders but here they turn out to be pundits on tv panels.

Coriolanus’ decisive confrontation with the public takes place in what looks like a studio for a daytime tv show. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the citizens gathered around bring to mind those blood-thirsty audiences for shows like "American Idol". (A nice touch: a bit of microphone feedback puts Coriolanus on a wrong footing from the get-go.) And maybe there’s another contemporary touch to this media-dominated inquiry into Coriolanus’ case. I’m thinking of the hearings for appointments to the US Supreme Court.

In the end, though, the contemporization of the piece makes for plot problems. The Volsces are now attacking Rome and the terrified Romans have sent out delegations to plead for mercy from Coriolanus, who is now leading the attackers. (Sorry about that plot spoiler, but it couldn’t be avoided.) Why would a city cringe at the prospect of one man’s leading a charge against them? Isn’t warfare nowadays all about superior weaponry? No question that the Volsces are a formidable bunch – you can smell the testosterone oozing from their tattooed hulks – but wouldn’t the city of Rome have enough ammunition to give them a decent fight? It’s not as if the Volsces had nuclear weapons in their pockets, as far as I could tell. The climax of the movie, then, leaves you feeling somewhat less involved than you might have been in a traditional production where one fearless leader’s position at the head of your attackers might actually give you something to loose sleep over.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a score): Some great acting and ideas but not entirely successful.

 

All in the Timing (Play) by David Ives; directed by Jonathan Geenen; starring Benjamin Clost, Alison Deon, Madeleine Donohue, Michael Spasevski; Down n’ Out Productions; Campbell House, Toronto; January 28 to February 12 (except Feb 4th and Feb 8th); 416-597-0227 ext 2; info@campbellhousemuseum.ca

We’ve all heard the premise many times: if you had enough monkeys tapping away at typewriters for long enough, they’d eventually produce a masterpiece like Hamlet. An argument about statistics, creativity or probabilities? I can't remember. Suppose, though, you looked at the proposition from the point of view of those monkeys in their cages tapping at the typewriters. What might they have to say about the process? How would it affect their images of themselves?

If you can imagine that scenario, you’ll have a good idea of the kind of zany fare on offer at this year’s Winterlicious dinner/theatre package at Campbell House in downtown Toronto. Down n’ Out Productions, a troupe of keen young actors, has made something of a name for themselves in their performances of The Dining Room at Campbell House, the past two years. The company’s 2010 production of the Broadway hit from the 1980s and the re-mount last year were hugely successful, the 2010 version capturing a Dora nomination for best ensemble acting.

This year, the company has taken a somewhat different turn, with their presentation of five wacky short plays from the collection All in the Timing by the brilliant American author David Ives. As well as the monkey business, we get a scene in a bar where a guy’s trying various pick-up lines on a female who’s sitting alone. Every few seconds, a bell rings and the two actors take different approaches to the situation. Strange truths and inadvertent revelations pop out in the rapid exchanges. Then, there’s a scene wherein Leon Trotsky, an axe embedded in his skull, discusses with his wife an encyclopaedia entry about how he has – or hasn’t – died on this very day. Another playlet features a guy who’s having a terrible day; he can’t get anything he asks for, until he realizes that he’s stuck in a sort of reality-warp which means that he has to ask for the opposite of everything he wants. Finally, there’s a young woman who presents herself for help in overcoming a stammer but her therapist turns out to be a weirdo who insists on teaching her a gobbledy-gook language.

Director Jonathan Geenen has coached the actors to present this hilarious material with maximum gusto and pizzazz. Having seen them in many productions (there’s an obvious familial connection), I’d have to say that the work they do here is some of the best they’ve ever done. Given that the production moves from room to room in the grand old mansion, the actors have had to develop a high level of skill that includes maximum doses of aplomb to enable them to pull off splendid feats of acting in settings so intimate that audience members are practically breathing down their necks.

To cite just a few of the highlights of each actor’s contribution to the evening: Michael Spasevski’s monkey leaps around with such simian grace and agility that you figure he must have spent hours of preparation at the Metro Toronto Zoo; Madeleine Donohue outdoes herself as Trotsky’s prissy wife who collapses in peals of hysterical laughter at grisly puns on the subject of how her husband died; Alison Deon, in the role of the client who’s seeking speech therapy, manages the unexpected feat of pulling at your hearstrings in the midst of all the absurdity; and Benjamin Clost, as the supposed speech therapist, serves up a tour de force of comic acting, spouting reams of jibberish completely straight-faced and with varieties of sincere expressions that make the mumbo-jumbo very nearly intelligible.

That near-intelligibility is helped by the emergence occasionally of recognizable words and names in the stream of nonsense. For instance, "Tom Stoppard," "Joe DiMaggio" and "John Cleese." The latter mention seems especially apt, since there's more than a hint of Monty Python in the writing of these dazzlingly clever sketches. One of the main pleasures of savouring them in retrospect is an appreciation of the fact that the works as a whole, in spite of the tomfoolery, make some intriguing suggestions about our use of words and our ways of communicating.

****

And speaking of savouring – a note on the dining part of the package, provided by La Carte catering in the elegant dining room on the lower level of the historic mansion. Astonished guests were greeted with an abundance of appetizers, about eight as I recall, all of them served to every diner. For main courses, there were choices of braised lamb shank, grouper or a baked eggplant dish. We chose the lamb and the eggplant, which were excellent. The only discordant notes of the experience came towards the end. Two desserts – a mousse and a pudding – were served to everyone and, although very tasty, they were accompanied by tiny plastic spoons. Worse still, the chocolate mousse came in a little plastic cup. And herbal tea was presented as just a tea bag with a cup of hot water. It was disconcerting to have the tone of the event drop with such a sudden crash at the end of the meal. Tone, after all, is everything.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com