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April 27/05

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Reviewed here: Pope Benedict's Big Balcony Scene (tv); The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Movie); The Gondoliers (Theatre); Downfall (Movie); Finding Neverland and Collateral (DVDs)

Ben’s Big Balcony Scene

Can you remember where you were when each new pope in your lifetime was announced? I can. In the recent case, it strikes me that, as a television-watching experience, it merits reviewing among the other cultural events in Dilettante's Diary.

I was on my way to see the movie Donwnfall (about the last days of the Third Reich) at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto but I stopped to buy a sandwich in a little cafe run by Asians. The television was on, high up in a corner, and I noticed a man standing below it looking up intently. Then I saw the CNN banner with the news that a new pope had been elected and that the announcement of his name was expected imminently. It was 12:10 pm on Tuesday, April 19. The election had been announced about fifteen minutes earlier, I gathered.

Taking my sandwich, I went over and sat on a stool at the counter just below the tv. The young man who had been standing there sat down at a nearby table, his eyes glued to the screen. A man of pale complexion, with a blonde brushcut, he was very spiffy and clean-cut. Another young businessman, apparently his colleague and looking to be from the Middle East, was standing nearby. "I don't like watching CNN," the blonde man said, "but they're the best." Meaning, I guess, if you want instance coverage. My choice would have been to switch to CBC but I didn't feel it was my prerogative to do so, even though the remote control was sitting on the counter. At one point, the blonde man used it to turn up the volume.

The tv commentators kept talking about Cardinal Ratzinger as the front-runner and speculating as to whether he might be the chosen one, but they kept hedging their predictions. Presumably, they didn't have much else to talk about.

"Those Vatican bureaucrats are taking their sweet time," I said.

"Fifteen hundred years of tradition, they're not going to rush," blonde man said.

"Yeah, but they're keeping me and the rest of the world waiting," I said.

I kept hoping the announcement would come before my 12:30 movie. How late could I stay? If I planned to miss the advertisements and the previews, could I wait until 12:40? On the other hand, how important was the movie compared to this? I could catch the movie some other time, couldn't I? Whereas this live tv event was once-and-forever. Gradually, as the hands of the clock closed in on 12:30, history in the making won out over history made.

Now and then other people who came into the cafe would come over to the tv for a minute or two, then wander away. Periodically, one of the women who ran the cafe would leave her station and stand with us for a few seconds, wiping her hands and gazing up at the tv with a blank expression.

The wait dragged on. "Maybe they can't find a white dress that's the right size," I said.

A man at a nearby table guffawed appreciatively.

But Blondie was not amused. "The same tailor has been making the vestments at the Vatican for fifty years," he said. "He has been displaying the vestments for the new pope in his store window this past week."

I didn't bother to ask how the tailor knew the right size for the new pope. If he did, weren't we talking about some kind of major scam here? Never mind. I began to wonder about young blonde. He seemed awfully well-informed on papal affairs. Was he one of these ultra-devout neo-conservative Catholics? Maybe I'd better watch my witticisms.

With the constant close-ups of the closed doors on the balcony of the basilica, I kept thinking how exciting it was going to be to see those doors open. And it was. First, the inside curtains were pulled back (the way I remember it), then a few seconds' delay. (Never underestimate the dramatic instincts of the Church.) Then the doors opened. Contrary to my expectations, it wasn't a cardinal or a pope who came out, but a bunch of officious honchos in black suits who proceeded, with a certain amount of flurry, to unfold a huge banner and drape it over the balcony. They reminded me of the kind of dressed-up functionaries you see at events like bullfights. It took them a certain amount of fussing to get the banner hanging properly and that was rather entertaining.

The general opinion was swinging to the idea that the choice must be Ratzinger. Blondie was shaking his head morosely. "This is not good," he was saying. So maybe he wasn't so conservative, after all? But then he said, "That only means we'll have to go through all this again in a few years."

Out came that fat old cardinal. When the commentators has been explaining that he would be the one to make the announcement, I was wondering: how could they be so sure that he wouldn't be elected pope? On seeing him, though, I realized that the fact that he could barely breathe or walk made his election rather a long shot. He sure did enjoy his moment in the limelight, though (knowing it would be his last, I guess). He stood there, his prissy lips looking like they were about to burst with the pleasure of knowing what we were all dying to hear. He finally did speak, expressing greetings in several languages. If you had tested me on the spot regarding this, I could not have sworn that it was a break with historical precedent, but it struck me as a rather nice gesture.

Finally, he got to the ages-old Latin formula: "Gaudium magnum nuncio....habemus papam....etc." The fact of the matter is that I got the official notice of the pope's identity a few seconds ahead of everybody. In the long, ornate formula, there was some verbiage between the new pope's first and last names. As soon as the cardinal said, "Josephus" (or was it the "Josef"?), I turned to the group watching and said, "Ratzinger." Like who else could it have been? But the group didn't catch my apercu because they were straining to hear a recognizable last name.

I will never forget the way the Pope Benedict made his entrance. Emerging from the background darkness, he stepped up (apparently the balcony was slightly above the floor level of the room behind) and strode forward into the opening, his hands clasped casually in front of him and a beatific smile on his face. Later, shots from inside showed that they hadn’t bothered with a full white outfit. They’d just thrown a big, loose white surplice on over his red cassock. He did, of course, sport the regulation white skullcap on top. Probably there were plenty of those lying around. You could pick one up in a souvenir shop anywhere on the plaza.

Throughout the whole triumphal appearance (ten minutes?), I couldn't get over how happy he looked. Well, who wouldn't? Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and realizing that you're the most powerful man in the world! (Ok, so George Bush has more physical might at his disposal but he doesn't have as many followers and he doesn't have the job for life.) To know that all those years of scraping and bowing were behind you. To have whatever little anxieties or uncertainties you felt going into the conclave finally resolved -- in your favour. There was no false modesty here. No pretending to quail under the burden laid on you by the divine will. The way he kept raising his clasped hands to the crowd was more than a little reminiscent of a victorious prize fighter. This was clearly a man rejoicing that he had reached the top of his field.

I thought: we're seeing one hell of an image make-over right before our eyes. For the past couple of decades, the very name Ratzinger has been enough to strike terror into our souls. In my circles, the name was like "DDT" or "napalm bombing", terms that produce shudders. And now here was the possessor of that name coming across as this kindly, benevolent, pleasant, grandfatherly man. Something of a miracle, believe you me.

Periodically we got shots of cardinals gathered in the other balconies, smiling down benevolently on the crowd, looking rather smug. It struck me that there was something not quite right about that picture. It's not that they were pretending to show unanimity, not that the losers in the papal race were covering their hurt feelings with sanctimonious piety. What bothered me, it turns out, had something to do with ornithology. Instinctively, one knows that cardinals do not gather in groups like that. A cardinal likes to sit all alone in the top of a tree or on a television aerial where he can show off his solitary splendour to the world. A clutch of cardinals displaying themselves all together seems very unnatural.

I thought it was rather neat that, when the pope raised his arms to give the official blessing, his arm bumped into the microphone, producing an unholy "gffshckfplt" for all the world to hear. I guess nothing’s perfect this side of heaven. And you can’t blame that monsignor who was holding the microphone. It’s not as if he gets to perform that duty every day.

Eventually, it had to end. The pope gave a final wave and went back inside. Our little group of watchers in the cafe had broken up. I was the only one left. I picked up my banana peel and deposited it in the garbage can on my way out, saying thanks to the Asian women who ran the cafe.

That Friday night, on King Street in downtown Toronto, while on my way to meet my wife for a dinner and theatre, I saw Blondie entering a bar, giving a hearty slap on the back to the doorman.

*********

Ok, so you want to know about the other times.

John XXIII: I was in grade nine at St. Patricia's in Sarnia, Ont. It was noon hour. Sister Maureen came rushing out of the nuns’ lunchroom to tell us that she had just received the new pope's first blessing over the radio. She had fallen on her knees right there in the lunchroom, she said. She marvelled at how old he sounded.

Paul VI: Sister Marie Thérèse quietly interrupted our writing of a grade thirteen final exam to tell us that a new pope had been elected. Some things are more important than departmental exams, after all.

John Paul I: At my parents cottage in Sarnia, my father and our neighbour, Tony Perl, the family doctor, were discussing the fact that the new pope's name "Luciani", was almost the same as that of the famous fighter "Lucky Luciano".

John Paul II: Just home from work at the post office, I turned on the tv just in time to catch the announcement.I ran upstairs to tell the British nanny who looked after our son Michael while we were at work. "They've just elected a Polish pope," I told her breathlessly. She responded with polite, puzzled appreciation, much as she might have if I had told her that they'd just discovered that E no longer equaled MC Squared.

 

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Movie)

Oh for the life! Jack lives with his lovely teenage daughter on an island somewhere. Lots of shots of bees foraging in blossoms, rolling waves, luminous clouds. Jack and Rose have a loving, jokey relationship. It makes you a bit nervous when they cuddle up on the couch and he tells her fairy tales but Daniel Day Lewis is so sweet and charming (check those dimples) that you feel sure it must be ok.

Of course, the idyll can't last for our Prospero and Miranda. We know that. Trouble is, the movie gyrates wildly in terms of tone. At times it's quite funny. Just a domestic comedy? Then you wonder if it's turning into one of those backwoods gothic horrors. Both Jack and Rose have a tendency to reach for the loaded shotgun. Not to mention introducing lethal copperhead snakes into the equation. And did I mention that Jack is dying? Meanwhile, Rose gets weirder and weirder. Is she developmentally delayed, naive or just horny?

Writer/director Rebecca Miller has some vague, romantic idea of Jack as the rugged individual up against the powers-that-be but the story lacks a firm grasp on reality. Even though you want to love Jack for Daniel Day Lewis' great acting, Ms Miller has made the character too much of a muddle to be believable. I mean, you invite a flakey woman and her nerdy teenage sons to live with you and your nubile daughter (you and the woman have never met each other's kids), whadda ya think's  gonna happen, man? After a while, we stop listening to what this guy says by way of explaining himself because it becomes incomprehensible, and not just because of the Scots burr.

Beau Bridges, with his pink baby face and his innocent blue eyes, does a star turn (just two scenes) as a smarmy developer who oozes all the right phrases. Claiming that he wants Jack to feel "comfortable" about houses being built on wetlands, he maintains that it's quite common for environmental laws to change "according to the needs of the community." I came away from the movie, not exactly liking this guy, but respecting him and understanding him as a human being, more real than poor, befuddled, dying Jack who has his head up his ass most of the time.

Rating: D (D = divided, i.e. some good, some bad) 

 

The Gondoliers Conductor: Derek Bate; Stage Director: Guillermo Silva-Marin. Toronto Operetta Theatre (Jane Mallet Theatre, Toronto, until April 30)

I think a person should always go to The Gondoliers. It and The Mikado mark the all-time high point of operetta writing. My opinion as to which is the best vacillates but I have a special afffection for The Gondoliers because it's the first G & S that I saw. I was eleven years old and it was a production by the D'Oly Carte company at the Savoy (so there!).

This production by the Toronto Operetta Theatre soars musically. The soloists are all excellent (with the exception of one person who seems somewhat insecure in one of the smaller roles.) My partner said the sopranos didn't make their words clear but, when you've had the words by heart for some 40 years, it's kind of hard to assess that. The ensemble singing is especially good. When the chorus lined up on stage and let go, it took me back to the thrill of sneaking into church and standing behind the altar to hear the full-throated, glorious harmony of the adult choir at the Sunday solemn high mass.

No such thrill to be found in the staging of this show. I know the TOT doesn't have the financial resources of say, the Stratford Festival, but it's not as if we're paying church basement prices for our tickets here. Things pick up a bit as the show gets rolling and there's a nice visual surprise at the end of the first act. The cachucha dance in the second act manages to whip a certain amount of excitement but nobody can ever see that number now without fond memories of the dazzling Stratford rendition with all the rag dolls.

The fact of the matter is that those Brian MacDonald productions of G & S have spoiled us. He raised the art to a whole new level, making the fusty heirlooms look as fresh as anything from Second City. In this TOT production, a couple of references to Conrad Black just don't do it. Without some new, imaginative approach to a production, much of the dialogue sounds laborious and the wit leaden. The thought kept running through my mind: "I guess this was real thigh-slapping stuff in Queen Victoria's day."

Some of us will drag ourselves out to see these museum pieces as long as we have breath in us. But what about the future of G & S when we're no longer around to keep the fires burning? Well, maybe there’s hope. From time to time, I heard the tiny sound of little kids laughing delightedly, like the tinkle of a triangle sounding above the orchestra.

 

Downfall (Movie) Starring Bruno Ganz

I've always been curious about the last days of the Second World War. At the time, I didn't have a very good picture of what was going on over there. Call me self-centred, but I was rather pre-occupied in Sarnia, Ont., trying to adjust to the first month of my life outside the womb.

So this movie about Hitler's final days in his Berlin bunker had a strong attraction for me. But it took a while to get to the movie. It's not every day that I'm in the mood for such a grim subject. Some friends were saying it was very good but I gathered that the reviews hadn't been all that favourable. Apparently there has been some controversy about its portrayal of Hitler and his cronies as "too human".

On finally seeing the movie, I didn't have any problem with that. Presumably they were human beings, all the evil that they wrought notwithstanding. I think it's appropriate to see them as real rather than the heel-clicking marionettes they usually seem to be in movies. We need to know that terrible deeds can be done by people who otherwise might seem quite decent.

They nay-sayers may have a point, though. Until nearly the end of the movie, there's hardly any sense of the horror that these people unleashed on the world. If you didn't know otherwise, you might think they were just misguided people who happend to make some wrong choices. Hitler does, in one of his darkest moments, say that the one thing he's most proud of is the fact that he rid Germany of Jews. Period. You can't help wondering if any movie can responsibly skip over the Holocaust so lightly.

If there is any justification for doing so, it's that the movie is told, for the most part, from the viewpoint of a young woman recruited to be Hitler's secretary in the bunker. At the end of the movie, there's a clip of an interview with the actual woman who fulfilled that role in real life. She claims that she didn't know the full extent of what had been going on. With what seems like genuine candour, she wonders whether or not her ignorance was culpable. But clearly, the treatment of the Jews was not a subject that was much discussed in the bunker.

We do get plenty of evidence of the Nazi's depraved thinking, though. At one point, Josef Goebbels says that the beseiged and suffering German people are only getting what they deserve. He says something to the effect: we didn't go looking for this trouble, they gave us the mandate. When surrender is suggested in order to save the people of Berlin, Hitler rants on and on about how it's survival of the fittest, so the weak and cowardly German people deserve to die for not supporting him strongly enough.

Bruno Ganz certainly captures some of the bewildering range of Hitler's character, gyrating wildly from the gentlemanly, fatherly figure to the raging tyrant. My problem is that we see none of the brilliant, charismatic leader. Hitler is portrayed as such a basket-case, both physically and emotionally, that it's hard to see how he inspired the tremendous following that he did. But maybe no actor (or script) could make the full complexity of such a monster intelligible.

At two and a half hours, the movie's much too long for my taste. There's a sort of epic quality to it, with too many stories to follow out in the streets of Berlin. It's hard to see how some of the characters connect to the main ones. And there are about ten minutes too many of mortars exploding, fire clouds billowing, severed limbs raining down. A little of that stuff makes the point quite nicely, thank you.

Rating: C+

 

Finding Neverland and Collateral (DVDs)

Thank God for videos (or DVDs, as the case may be). Who would want to go back to the bad old days when you could only catch a movie while it was playing in the theatres? Say your weekly allowance from your wife was running out and you wanted to catch that special movie before it left town – the one that the pastor was thundering about from the pulpit – you’d have to steal from the kiddies' milk money. Or, take the case of a movie that people say is good, it stars some of your favourite actors, but you're afraid that it's probably too sweet and sentimental. Should you go or not? It comes down to the fact that you can't bring yourself to pay $10 to see it in a theatre. Maybe you'll catch it on DVD one day.

Which brings us to our viewing one rainy April weekend. Finding Neverland: yes it's sentimental and sweet. And no, I'm not enthralled with finding out that J.M. Barrie got his ideas for Peter Pan while playing with a family of fatherless boys. But there are other plot elements -- marital discord, illness, death -- the sorts of things that make a movie really enjoyable for me. And I love any movie that has to do with the process of putting on a play, though we get only a smidgen of it here.

Then why did the movie leave me feeling depressed? Maybe it has to do with the depiction of an era when children were ever so polite and well dressed. They were interested in relating to adults, not just video games. Their little rebellions were expressed with the utmost civility and impeccable diction. As for the adults, they bore up beautifully under suffering, like Kate Winslet. And men with liquid brown eyes like Johnny Depp's knew exactly how to establish perfect rapport with kids. Even a wicked witch was actually Julie Christie. Everything was beautifully lit and the decor was over-the-top tasteful. Talk about Neverland! But then, as Johnny keeps telling one of the skeptical little boys who resists the magic: You've got to believe! Yeah, sure.

Rating: C

You probably know the premise of Collateral. Jamie Foxx plays a taxi driver who is forced to chauffeur a hit man (Tom Cruise) on his assignments around Los Angeles one night. I loved the first hour of the movie: clever dialogue, amusing situations, surprising twists. But all that suddenly stopped and all we got from then on was violence and blowing up and chasing. It felt as though the filmmakers had been thinking of me for the first part of the movie but then they remembered that guys like me don't typically provide the boffo box office for Tom Cruise movies. (So not everything's about me, you say?)

Rating: D

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