Dilettante's Diary

Oct 23/12

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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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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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 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
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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, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews 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: The Intouchables (Movie); Queen Street Stroll (Art); Alone Together (Art); The Master (Movie); Argo (Movie); NW (Novel)

The Intouchables (Movie) written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano; starring Franois Cluzet, Omar Sy, Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clothilde Mollet

Sometimes you wonder whether a movie with a Paris setting needs anything else. The place always makes for enjoyable watching: the sidewalk cafs, the gorgeous patisseries, the swanky restaurants, the boats on the Seine, the elegant buildings. In this case, the autumnal and wintry moods have a special allure, stripping away the touristy prettiness and showing the more skeletal beauty of the place.

But this movie also offers the pleasure of ogling some fabulous interiors: mainly a gorgeous apartment filled with Old World opulence such as paintings, fine china, chandeliers and burnished wood panelling. Your eyes feel like they have to tiptoe through the place.

The owner of these premises is one Philippe (Franois Cluzet). He’s apparently a very rich man, given that he has a staff of at least six or seven people to meet his needs. Mind you, his needs are somewhat special, in that he’s a quadriplegic, having broken two vertebrae in a hang-gliding accident. (His wife died of cancer.) Among the staff members we see are a chef, secretary, housekeeper, physiotherapist and valet cum personal attendant.

The new occupant of the latter position is Driss (Omar Sy), a burly black man who came to France from Senegal at the age of eight. We eventually find out that he’s just served six months in prison for burglary but his ebullient, uncultured, devil-may-care attitude appeals to Philippe. Maybe Driss doesn’t feel any compassion for him, Philippe says, but he doesn’t feel any pity either. That’s what sold Philippe on Driss.

There’s no way that Driss isn’t going to win over the rest of us too. We’re meant to see him as a loveable rogue. His brash, confident sexuality doesn’t even frighten the household women he propositions because you can tell he doesn’t mean anybody any harm. Being a real guy, he balks, of course, at some of the intimate duties required in his taking care of Philippe.

But Driss and Philippe soon become pals who enjoy flouting the expectations of others. Working as a team, they con the cops who stop their sporty car for speeding. When Driss attends an opera with Philippe, we get to laugh along with Driss at the spectacle of a tree singing. At Philippe’s tony birthday party, Driss dispenses with the highbrow fare that the chamber orchestra’s dishing out and introduces hip music that gets all those arthritic aristocrats jiving like teens.

In other words, this movie is evolving along the lines of all those movies where some feisty interloper – be it a nurse, tutor, cousin, neighbour or maid – shakes things up in some staid household. Driss has lots to do in that way, such as straightening out Philippe’s spoiled teenage daughter and her boyfriend, and injecting a bit of real life excitement into Philippe’s epistolary romance with a woman he’s never met. Meanwhile, Driss is juggling problems connected with the complicated extended family back in the high-rising housing project he comes from.

Charming as he is in the role of Driss, I do find Omar Sy guilty of a bit of over-acting at times, especially in some reaction shots. You can almost hear the director: "Ok, Omar, give us surprise!" (or happy, or disgust, as the case may be). Franois Cluzet, as Philippe, looking like an air-brushed version of Dustin Hoffman, is a more laid-back presence on screen. 

It’s all very pleasant  – until it begins to drag on too long (which would be at about the 80 minute point of the 112 minute total). You begin to crave a bit of drama, a bit of genuine conflict, some sort of crisis that you really have to care about, rather than all these minor skirmishes. The trouble is that the movie’s based on a real-life story. That, presumably, inhibits the writers from inventing anything more grabby. I’m glad that things moved along so swimmingly for the people involved in the true-life story. But I guess this is one of those cases that proves that truth is duller than fiction.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): too pleasant


Art Stroll  (Art) Late October 2012

A trip to Queen Street West, to see "Alone Together" at the Triangle Lofts Gallery (see review further down this page), provided an opportunity for a peek into some of the other galleries in the district.

One of the first works that caught my eye was a painting by Sara MacCulloch in the window of Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects: a very beautiful, broad landscape of great simplicity, with lots of breathing space and air. On further investigation inside the gallery, I found that Ms. MacCulloch, a Nova Scotia artist, tends to create her landscapes with bold shapes, mostly painted in various hues of soft, warm greens. Very little detail is needed to express everything the artist feels about these restful scenes. What is especially delectable about these oil paintings is that every one, in the sweep of the brush and/or the scrape of the pallette knife, expresses the artist’s tremendous love and respect for the medium.

The artist featured in the main space of the gallery (only until September 21st) was Jonathan Scott, a Scottish artist based in Toronto. As you might expect from the title of the show, his work in "Burn Your Neighbours" isn’t exactly conventional. But his small sculptures and his works on paper don’t express quite the hostility and aggression that the show’s title would seem to promise. Rather, there’s a quirky individuality about the works that makes you wonder what sorts of dynamics are going on in the artist’s mind. A capricious humour would seem to be one of them. Several of the sculptures, for instance, include things like found book covers and scraps of paper, along with more dignified materials like fine woods and 23 karat gold.

As for the works hanging on the wall, one of the ones that interested me most was "The Lecture." Consisting of India ink and pastel on paper, it looked like nothing so much as a smeary black rectangle, with a few white marks at the top like remnants of some sort of graph. A viewer might dismiss it as nothing but an ugly abberation posing as a work of art, but I found it to be something worth pondering in the hopes that it might eventually yield the meaning the artist was hinting at. Thoughts connected with scruffy-looking blackboards at the end of the school day came to mind.

One work of Mr. Scott’s that’s featured on the gallery’s website is "Altta." I don’t remember seeing it at the gallery but I wish I had. In gouache and conte on paper, it looks like a cartoon-ish rendering of a surly old man with hunched shoulders and furrowed brows. The effect is almost of a childish scribble but no child could do any better than this when it comes to expressing fear and loathing for some horrible authority figure.

www.katharinemulherin.com 1082-1086 Queen Street West, Toronto. 416.993.6510

It’s usually worthwhile to see what the Angell Gallery has to offer. This time round (until October 27th) it’s the work of Kim Dorland, one of their star artists. As a viewer, you have to decide for yourself whether or not there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the show’s title, "I’m an Adult Now." Much of the work has a clumsy, child-like quality; it’s almost as if he’s defying you to say that a painting has to be accomplished or pretty.

And yet, one of the works in this show, "Red Forest," confronts you with such a dazzling display of visual pleasure that your eyes hardly know how to respond. An enormous painting, about eleven feet by six feet, it’s essentially a forest of bare trees, all done in a shockingly bright, fluorescent, orange-red. What makes the work so stunning is the contrast between the reddish trees and some small drips of lime-green at the top of the canvas. In the photo of the painting on the gallery’s website, those drips seem to represent a yellow sky in the background but, in the presence of the actual painting, they look to me like daubs of paint that the artist included just for the joy of an electric shock.

Another painting, "Picnic Table," treats a grove of bare trees in a somewhat similar way, but this painting has an actual picnic table in rough wood (in miniature, mind you) emerging from the painting. Again, the effect is so startling that your eyes hardly know what to make of it.

And then there are the paintings showing human figures among the trees, sometimes with a garish sun intruding. The figures aren’t perfectly drawn in the classical style; there’s an awkward, artless look about them. Is this because the artist can’t do figures well or is it because he’s insisting on a somewhat skewed vision of human beings? In these paintings, as in many of Mr. Dorland’s, there’s a stubbornness that seems to say: I’m being a dork here, whether you like it or not!

But there’s no question about the message that comes through in "Grown Ups." A young couple are standing diffidently side-by-side, some sketchy trees in the background. Gobs of ugly paint, centimetres thick, emerge from their faces, as if the artist held the tube of paint up to them and squeezed. The result? Some seriously messed up people!

www.angellgallery.com 12 Ossington Avenue, Toronto. 416.530.0444

At the Propeller Centre, a show on the theme of waiting was featuring works by members of the centre and the Workman Centre. (The show ran until Oct 21st.)

I always love Dominique Prvost’s works that celebrate the transparent quality of watercolour, often in semi-absract landscapes and seascapes. A couple of them are included in this show. Including various strips of paper, they could perhaps be called collages but Ms. Prvost describes them as watercolours "on multiple papers."

You can always count on Peter Barelkowski to offer some mind-teasers with his odd humanoids in strange situations. In this case, a bare outline of a person’s upper body (what would probably be called a bust in sculptural terms) occupies most of a large, white surface. Hanging around the person’s neck is a tray and on the tray we see huddled a dark group of little people. The only colours in the work are a daub of red on the lips of the tray carrier and a strip of red extending from that person’s head, at eye level, plus a few touches of yellow here and there.

I almost missed Michael Morbach’s work, passing by as if it were just a fixture in the wall having something to do with the mechanical functions of the room – a temperature, control, say. But the work was well worth a closer look. It consists of two small, rectangular panels within one frame, the larger panel white and the smaller one grey with a black surround. Are we looking at a grey door and a white room? The title "Death" suggests lots of interpretative possibilities.

Pat Dumas-Hudecki’s painting, "Time Out," shows a little boy sitting on a chair in the corner of a room but the boy, with his blank face, appears to be made of colourless plastic and everything around him – the room, the linoleum on the floor, the wall tiles, the curtains, the clock on the wall – has a chilly, foreboding artificiality about it.

It’s not often that a photograph exerts such a curious spell that it can stop me and make me wonder what the heck’s happening. But Frances Patella’s "Waiting" does just that. At first glance, it looks like a casual snapshot (enlarged) but, when you consider it more carefully, you begin to sense a very strange atmosphere. Two women are pictured in a wooded glade. The woman who’s further back is sitting in full sun, dressed in light colours, looking at something in her lap. The woman closer to the camera is standing, partially shaded by a tree, dressed in dark blue. She appears to be pondering, in a troubled way, something at ground level. I’m still wondering what mysterious drama is unfolding there.

An entirely different mood is conveyed in a photograph by Tony Saad. Called "Crazy Street," it combines many urban elements – traffic signs, street lights, neon signs – in a frantic swirl which would seem at odds with the show’s theme of waiting. But maybe the artist’s point is that waiting – especially in the midst of the city’s turmoil –  often has a maddening effect on a person.

If there were a prize, however, for the work that best expresses the theme of the show, it might well go to Mark Belvedere’s photograph of an elderly parishioner at a church in St. Catherines. The man, wearing an old duffer’s sweater, is sitting on a piano bench, his back to the instrument. High up on the institutional-looking wall of concrete blocks beside him is what would appear to be a kindergarten or Sunday School poster reading "Jesus Loves Me." The look on the man’s face, with its half-smile, is neither delighted nor forlorn. What it seems to express most of all is....well....waiting!

www.propellerctr.com      984 Queen Street West 416.504.7142


Unfortunately, I didn’t hear about this show at 129 Ossington on time to include it in my visit to the area. But I’ve looked at the work online and find it interesting enough to merit mention here. Rob Croxford paints posters with a retro flair. They have the look of comic book art from the 1940s or 50s: lots of busty women and square-jawed men. With a droll sense of humour and sly political awareness, many of the works in this show address aspects of the Toronto Transit system as it might have been promoted by hucksters in its early days, as if to say, for example, that the really glamorous Torontonians get their thrills by riding the TTC’s street cars. The show runs till Oct 27th.



Alone Together (Art) at the Triangle Lofts Gallery, 38 Abell Street (across from the Drake Hotel on Queen West); Oct 19th -  25th, inclusive. www.alonetogetherblog.com

A good idea this: eight very fine artists from the Toronto area, fed up with costs and hassles incurred in connection with big, fancy shows, find a gallery space and put up their own joint-show.

Several of these artists have probably been mentioned at one time or another on this website. Since I’m not sure about that, however, it could be that I’ll be repeating previous comments here. However, I do know that the work of some of the artists has developed in significant ways since my last viewing.

One of them is Gordon Leverton. I’ve often rhapsodized over the way he finds beauty in geometric compositions featuring the roofs, eaves and upper windows of houses (not to mention the negative spaces between them!). Now, however, he has started to show some works based on highrise buildings: the same geometrical interest but with suggestions of balconies and shadows therefrom. Some of them almost reach abstraction, in a pure, clean way that I find very exciting.

When I first saw Laura Culic’s work, she was doing mostly landscapes in a representative, if moody and sombre way. Now her imagination has taken flight and she’s producing whimsical abstract encaustics with titles like "Map of New France" and "Swim in Superior." One slightly more representative work, with a title referring to the classic children’s book Paddle to the Sea, is surely based on that well-loved tale.

Janice Tayler’s unmistakable style has been mentioned several times here. She creates homages to Canadian landscapes in which the natural features are rendered in an angular way, as though consisting of shards of broken glass. In this show, however, Ms. Tayler also has some small, intriguing paintings based on what appear to be mechanical principles, with titles like "Bearing Weight."

What first drew my attention to Brian Harvey’s work in previous shows was the charm in his little studies of such overlooked items as the gas regulators on the outside walls of stores, just above the sidewalks. There’s one of those in this show but the rest of his work consists of splendid, excellently-painted street scenes. (And these, judging by the sales, appear to be what visitors to this show like best!) One large one, a view of Queen Street West in winter, stops you in your tracks, it captures the exhilaration of the scene so well. A white van, gleaming in the cold winter light, makes you feel the chill and the thrill of the day.

Susan Avishai creates large works in what might be called a collage or mosaic style: many small pieces, some of them with pictures on them, arranged in pleasing patterns. The one that I like best reflects the theme of the show in its title: "Let’s Be Alone Together." A cool composition in greys, whites and blues, and showing what could be the shapes of a few rocks or pebbles on a white-ish background, it conveys a distinctly calm, contemplative mood.

Mark Kellett’s abstracts, in warm colours, have a rectangularity about them that might bring Mondrian to mind, although the effect in Mr. Kellet’s work is softer, not as rigid. In case you might think he was locked into some sort of grid mentality, however, he has included one work in this show that fairly flies off the wall with fluidity and freedom.

The abstracts by Laurie Skantzos often consist of large circular blobs as the focal points of bold, declarative statements. One particularly pleasing one, though, is "Out of the Clearing": a composition that has a gentler, more subtle style and a seductive movement of the various components in the painting.

Jennifer Lawton creates some very striking works by painting over photographs. One of the most successful, in my view, is a close-up of rocks under water. The ripples of paint added to the image, especially the blues, make the piece shimmer just as if you were looking into water. But don’t forget to visit one of the washrooms, where another work of Ms. Lawton’s, "Pigeon Spikes," creates something of a cross between abstract and op art with its dazzling array of urban elements.


The Master (Movie) written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Madisen Beaty

The title almost begs you to call this one a masterpiece. My impression of the reviews (without actually reading them) is that many of them are falling in line, hailing this as a great work of art. For me, that’s always a bad sign. On the other hand, the movie stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, two of the best actors on screen these days. Maybe, then, it’s one of those movies that you have to see, even if you’re a bit wary.

Mr. Phoenix plays Freddie, a sailor who has been discharged from the US navy at the close of the Second World War. It could be in honour of Freddie that the term "loose cannon on deck" was invented. Sex-obsessed and often drunk, he’s famous for concocting a certain killer drink – literally, it would appear, in some cases. One of the secret ingredients of the drink may be paint thinner. If he doesn’t burst into a violent rage in an awkward situation, he’ll toss it off with careless laughter. His father has died and his mother’s confined to a psychiatric hospital, or as Freddie would probably put it, a "looney bin." There are indications that that may be where he belongs. He has some credibility as a portrait photographer but his impulsiveness and his bad temper tend to wreck any job he takes on.

Somehow or other (Freddie’s not too sure how it happened and neither are we), Freddie wakes up one morning and finds himself on a private yacht. Commanding the vessel is one Lancaster Dodd, who, along with family and friends, is celebrating the marriage of his daughter while they’re sailing to New York. Lancaster Dodd – now there’s a name for an American titan if ever there was one – turns out to be something of a mystery man, given to portentous comments and invasive questioning of people.

An hour into the movie (I clocked it exactly), we find out what’s going on. And you’ll have to forgive me if this appears to be a revelation of plot, contrary to our policy at Dilettante’s Diary. There really isn’t a plot, just a situation, and you have to know about it to understand anything about the movie. Dodd, we now learn, has devised a revolutionary type of therapy which is supposed to take us back trillions of years to the origins of our individual entities (the world has only existed for billions of years, but never mind). This, Dodd accomplishes by a process that he calls, duh, "The Process." It looks a lot like hypnotism but Dodd claims it’s the opposite. Instead of making you forget, as hypnotism tries to do, this therapy enables you to remember everything, right back to the Big Bang, it would seem. This will cure you of all your ills, even leukemia, claims Dodd, a sort of cult-like hero to his loyal followers. (L. Ron Hubbard may come to your mind too.)

Batty as all this may seem, it’s presented with utmost seriousness. The photography is beautiful and painterly. The music – apart from some irritating calypso-style drumming that keeps emerging – is sublime, including samples of such genres as symphonic, chamber and 1950s crooning. We’re shown lavish lifestyles in settings that are truly impressive. There’s some suggestion that Dodd may be a charlatan and we see signs of sexual decadence but he manages to sustain an impression of wisdom and benevolence. As Dodd’s wife, Amy Adams maintains a steadfast – no, let’s say, a rigorous – devotion to Dodd, echoing his ideas and urging him on with an intensity that makes an ironic contrast with the child-like innocence of her wide eyes and perky nose.

My response to all this: lucky for director Paul Thomas Anderson that he got his old pal, Mr. Hoffman, to play Dodd. I couldn’t imagine any other actor making the character’s fatuous lines sound like they’re coming from the mouth of a living, breathing, red-blooded human being. In spite of the great acting, though, the cant kept nudging me towards the nearest exit. Almost nothing ruins a movie faster for me than gobbledy-gook disguised as lofty thinking.

In this case, though, one thing was holding me back: something intriguing about the connection between Dodd and Freddie. Their bond develops to the point that Freddie’s propensity for violence erupts most often when anybody challenges Dodd’s prestige and authority. Not that the relationship is all sweetness and light. At a point when they’re raging at each other, Dodd yells: "I’m the only person who likes you!" That line really strikes home. And then there’s the time when Freddie has escaped from Dodd’s control but Dodd tracks him down by a phone call. Almost crying into the phone, Freddie asks: "How did you find me?" During a portrait sitting, Freddie steps from behind the camera and gently re-arranges a lock of Dodd’s hair. There’s something shockingly intimate, almost homoerotic, about the gesture.

But what is it all about? What does it all add up to? What are we supposed to take away from the -- admittedly -- intriguing proceedings? It’s all so weird, so other-worldly almost, that there’s nothing quotidian or ordinary to give you a handle, to make you feel that there might be something here that applies to your world.

Unless perhaps it’s about a lonely man's search for a father figure? But I kept wondering why Freddie would stay with Dodd. The guy exercises almost a demonic control over poor Freddie, subjecting him to humiliating rituals. When Dodd summons Freddie back after a break, Dodd and his wife don’t exactly welcome the return of the prodigal. Instead, they harangue him: "Why are you here???"

As in that instance, there’s too much about the movie that isn’t clear. I kept hoping to find out that this inchoate turmoil was excerpted from some huge novel where it all made a bit more sense. Apparently not. We’re subjected excusively to the woolly musings of Paul Thomas Anderson, as the sole author. It’s one of those cases where the vision of an artist doesn’t quite translate to the screen; we’re stuck inside the artist’s head, as in a dream that doesn’t make sense. In some of his movies, though, Mr. Anderson manages to convey his quirky ideas effectively.The idiosyncratic aspects of Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love had lots of charm. This one has more of the pretentiousness of There Will Be Blood (reviewed on DD page Jan 30/08 ), although The Master has more going for it than that insufferable saga.

But you can see why people like The Master. It’s so non-Hollywood, it’s unusual and arty; it manages to be both enigmatic and grandiose, and it has an intellectual veneer. The one certain thing the movie gave me – apart from the great acting – was compassion for Freddie’s tortured soul, as Mr. Phoenix shows it to us. You can see how the loss of a hometown sweetheart (Madisen Beaty) could well have blighted his one hope for happiness. And it must be admitted that, thanks to some great scenes, the two hours and nearly twenty minutes passed more quickly than I expected. But the movie as a whole didn’t engage me. In one scene, where Freddie and Dodd were on a quest in the desert, it was Dodd’s outfit that interested me. He was wearing a really cool hat and it was amazing to see how those baggy linen trousers could make a fat man look good.

Capsule comment (instead of a "score"): Some great scenes do not add up to a satisfying movie.


Argo (Movie) written by Chris Terrio; based on the article by Joshuah Bearman; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bish, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina

I may not be the best judge of this kind of a movie, since I see very few action/thrillers – which, I think, this one can be classified as. But the opening gave me the feeling that it was going to be very good.

After a short lesson on the history of Iran, by means of story boards and voice-over narration, we jump right into the November, 1979, storming of the US embassy in Tehran. Tremendous excitement and tension are created very quickly. Americans inside are worrying about whether the windows are bullet-proof. A nervous woman on the phone is trying to describe to someone what’s happening outside.

As a breach of the embassy’s gates begins to look inevitable, the boss starts ordering everybody to destroy all sensitive documents. There’s a lot of rushing through corridors with wagons full of papers, and stuffing them into the furnace. When it gets too hot, shredders are put into action. Panic reigns. And yet, some of the most effective shots show the Iranians who are sitting quietly in the embassy’s waiting room where they’re applying for US visas. They’re fearful but very calm; some of them are tolling their worry beads. The contrast between this scene and the tumult in the corridors makes the terror all the more convincing.

At the time that this was actually going on in 1979, six US diplomats escaped from the embassy by a back exit. The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, welcomed them into his home after they’d been turned away from other doors. This movie’s about the CIA’s plot to liberate the six. (As you will remember, the other embassy employees were held hostage in the US embassy.) The trick was to come up with some cover story for the six, so that they would not be shot when it was discovered that they were Americans escaping. CIA agent Tony Mendez came up with the ruse that the six would be Canadian filmmakers who’d been scouting locations in Iran. The movie they were supposedly planning would be a crapola sci-fi thing, named "Argo," ostensibly to be filmed in Iran’s mountains and deserts.

As the movie – the real one, not the fake one – unrolled, it became clear that my first favourable impressions were on the mark. The only place the script lets us down a little is in the scenes featuring the six Americans while they’re living in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Because there needs be some conflict, one of the six is balking at Mr. Mendez’s plan. The refusenik says they’ll be shot before they can board the escape plane. Of course, the others have to try to persuade him that this is the only chance they have at fleeing. Undoubtedly, some such contention did arise in the historical incident, but the script doesn’t present it with any flair or originality. We’re not in David Mamet territory.

But that hardly matters. What the movie’s best at is pacing and plotting. The suspense gets nearly unbearable (for a wuss like me) by means of cross-cutting between the planning on the part of the would-be escapees and the scheming of the revolutionaries who are beginning to close in on them. One would like to know whether the split-second timing towards the end of the escapade is true to the actual historical events, but it would be hard to determine that without resource to other materials. But who cares about absolute accuracy? It’s a movie, after all.

One that reminds me, in many respects, of All the President’s Men. As far as I know, that was the first movie in which we got lots of harried guys in white shirts and ties scurrying around stream-lined, modernistic offices. That’s the ambiance in Argo's version of the CIA headquarters and other US government offices where people are tracking the operation in Iran. That late 1970s, early 1980s, atmosphere is further created by the bouffant hairdo’s on the men, the clunky phones and computers, the fuzzy tv coverage, the teletype machines clattering out telexes as teletype machines were wont to do back then, and all the indoor smoking – in meeting rooms, offices, restaurants – as if humans thought that was part of normal living.

In contrast to the dull dialogue among the six American guests of the Canadian ambassador, there are almost too many "scripty" sounding lines among these CIA guys. Somebody says that arranging an escape is like an abortion: you don’t want to be in the position of needing one, but if you do, you shouldn’t do it yourself. One of his bosses tells Mr. Mendez: "The whole world’s watching you; only they don’t know it." You get the impression that the scriptwriter’s trying just a bit too hard for effect.

But some of the gallows humour among these cynical secret agents works well. As Mr. Mendez is leaving for the plane for Iran, he and his immediate boss, played by Bryan Cranston, are discussing the likelihood of Mr. Mendez’s getting caught. He says: "I wish I’d thought to bring some books for prison," and the boss says something like: "Don’t worry. You’ll be dead before you could turn a page." [Not an exact quote.] On the subject of the fact that this operation has to be kept completely secret from the US public, the boss tells Mr. Mendez: "If we wanted applause, we’d have joined the circus," and Mr. Mendez says: "I thought we did."

In other scenes, the humour’s laid on so thick that it almost upsets the balance of the movie, although the comedy was greatly appreciated by the audience at the showing I attended. Most of the yuks come in the scenes between John Goodman and Alan Arkin. They are playing, respectively, the roles of the make-up expert and the producer who were recruited from Hollywood to provide the appearance of a production company that was supposedly going to make this movie "Argo," – which in fact was never going to be made. That gives almost too many opportunities for satiric comment on the fakery and vapidity of Hollywood’s endeavours. Almost every time Mr. Arkin opens his mouth, out comes some sardonic – but mordantly witty – comment about it all.

Quite apart from my unfamiliarity with the genre, there’s another reason why I may not be the right person to give an objective view of this movie: my nationality. There’s a lot of reason for Canadians to be especially pleased with the watching. After all, it was our ambassador who took in the six stranded Yanks when their knocking on other doors got the response that there was no room at the inn. If the movie doesn’t give a full account of Canada’s efforts on behalf of the six, I don’t consider that a flaw; it's about the CIA’s actions, after all. At the end, there’s a note to the effect that the CIA mission was complementary to the efforts the Canadians were making. And we even get some historical footage of Flora MacDonald, at the time our Secretary of State for External Affairs, speaking to the media about Canada’s intentions towards the guests in the embassy.

On the whole, I’d say, Canada comes off looking very good and there are what might be considered some affectionate nods to Canadian ways. When Mr. Mendez is rehearsing the six on their assumed Canadian identities, one of the guys tosses off his fake name and adds, "eh?" at the end for special Canadian effect. One of the women announces her pretend birthplace as "Toronto" and Mr. Mendez corrects her: Canadians never pronounce the second ‘t’. That the producers have cast a Canadian actor, Victor Garber, in the role of the Canadian Ambassador could be taken as a sign of special regard for Canada. At least, I take it that way.

What I  liked about the six Americans in Ken Taylor’s house was that, my comment about their dull dialogue not withstanding, they look like very ordinary people, not at all like movie stars. Same could be said for director/star Ben Affleck, in the role of Mr. Mendez. In fact, the thought kept running through my mind that Mr. Affleck lacks star quality. He doesn’t have the good cheekbones and the strong nose that any decent action hero ought to have. Mr. Affleck’s gleaming black whiskers only emphasize that deficiency, meanwhile obscuring the sexy cleft in his chin. He does have wide shoulders, though, and a narrow waist. And he includes one semi-naked shot of himself to let us know that he has a very manly torso – well muscled, with just enough hair. Apart from his luminous dark eyes, though, he’s a bit of a bore. He wanders through the movie, brooding and intense, without giving us much of anything. But maybe we don’t want someone in the role of Mr. Mendez to have charisma that leaps off the screen. He’s a secret agent, after all. Maybe he should be a bit blah, character-wise.

By way of a little melodrama to tug at the heartstrings, should any viewer have brought some with them, there’s a minor theme about Mr. Mendez’s long-distance relationship with his young son who lives with his mother in Virginia. The dad’s only contact with the kid seems to be via phone. Because of the mission to Iran, Mr. Mendez even misses the kid’s birthday. At the end of the movie, though, there’s a scene with the dad and the kid cuddling on the bed in the kid’s bedroom. The camera pans to the figurines of all the fictional action heroes lined up on the shelves. That amounts to what I’d call a combination of cornball and irony, if there could be such a thing. But it’s one of those emotional moments that’s well-earned even if it does seem a bit contrived.

The same could be said about many aspects of the movie. The mournful, wailing sound of middle-eastern singing comes on just when you need a haunting, ominous mood. At other times, the thunderous roar of jet planes gets your pulse racing. In many respects, then, this movie may not be a whole lot better than the average action/thriller – except for this important fact: that it all actually happened – sorta.

Capsule comment: (Instead of a "score"): Very entertaining


NW (Novel) by Zadie Smith, 2012

In my comments on a piece of short fiction by Zadie Smith in The New Yorker (see DD page dated Aug 26/12) I surmised that the material was probably excerpted from a novel. This is it. But figuring out the connection can be a bit confusing at first, because the novel begins with the characters as adults. Later comes the excerpted section, which deals mostly with their childhood and teen years. The New Yorker selection consisted of 67 short paragraphs taken from about 160 such items in the relevant section of the book. I didn’t have time to read all of the extra ones in the book but I read enough of them to see how they rounded out the story and to confirm that this was, indeed, an original and very effective style of narration: short, trenchant fragments that force you to make the links for yourself, without much explanation from the author.

The first section of the book is quite another matter. It deals largely with the same two characters, Leah and Natalie (the latter being the person who was called Keisha in childhood), and the episodes, rather than consisting of brief paragraphs, usually run for at least a couple of pages. But they’re even less easy to comprehend than the quick blurbs in the other section. The dialogue often comes in disconnected fragments and scraps. It can be difficult to tell who’s talking. Many scenes pass without your being able to figure out who the characters are. It’s all taking place in Willesden, in Northwest London, an area that seems blighted by poverty and is populated to a great extent by immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. One the first scenes – as you gradually catch on to it – has a crack addict pleading for help at Leah’s door. Leah’s attempts to provide some sort of help to the woman, and her brushes with the woman’s crime-ridden scene, make for a kind of thread running through the book.

The next section takes a much more conventional approach to narrative. It tells the story of one day in the life of a man, another resident of Willesden. He starts off with his female partner in the morning, then he goes to visit his Rastafarian father and eventually pays a call on a girlfriend, a very eccentric and flamboyant person, to whom he tries to explain that he wants to end their relationship. This section of the book makes for much easier reading. The speech of the various characters is so vivid and lively that it jumps up and grabs your ears. I don’t know if it was mainly for that reason that the writing here made me think often of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The memory jog could also be due to the fact that, like Joyce’s novel, this section tells about one man’s journey through a city on a fateful day. I was often reminded, as well, of Samuel Beckett’s plays, in that lines occasionally come zinging at you out of the blue and you’re not sure what to make of them except that they seem to resonate with some kind of inchoate meaning.

Then comes the part of the book from which the New Yorker excerpts were taken. After that, the fragmented, discontinuous style of the first part of the book brings it to a conclusion. By now, though, the reading isn’t quite as difficult. I’m not sure whether that’s because the author’s taking it a bit easier on us or because we’re getting used to her tricky style. But the question about a book that’s so challenging can’t be avoided: is there any literary justification for writing that makes such difficult reading? Couldn’t the author have told her story in a more accessible way? Well, maybe not. I’m thinking of the work of other modernists. Could Picasso have conveyed the same message in his paintings if he’d adhered to a more traditional style? Hardly. What about musicians? Could Olivier Messiaen or Igor Stravinsky have made such important contributions to culture if they hadn’t strayed from the usual way of doing things?

So, yes, there could very well be a good reason for Ms. Smith’s writing her book the way she has. I think the effect is to convey the chaotic, jumbled world of her characters as they experience it. Often people really don’t understand very much of the overall scene. Let’s face it, none of us is the omniscient author of our own lives. Most of the time, we get just a tiny corner of the real story. That seems to be the way it is with Ms. Smith’s characters. As they grope their way through the muddle, Leah and Natalie pull themselves up from their scrappy beginnings into middle-class and even professional standing. Through it all, you get the sense of people who, despite a lot of shit that happens, are trying to bring about some good in small ways, to inch matters in the direction of justice and the acceptance of civil responsibilities.

And you also get the impression of a very intelligent writer watching over them. Take this passage, near the end of the book, where Natalie’s trying to help Leah with a problem:

With what was left of clarity she offered her friend a selection of aphorisms, axioms and proverbs the truth content of which she could only assume from their common circulation, the way one puts one’s faith in the face value of paper money. Honesty is always the best policy. Love conquers all. Each to her own.

She spoke and Leah did not stop her, but Natalie was wasting her time. She was in breach of that feminine law that states no weakness may be shown by a woman to another woman without a sacrifice of equal value being made in return.

Many passages throughout the book are as startling as that. Which leads me to think that Zadie Smith could very well be one of the most brilliant and cerebral novelists of our time, even if she doesn’t provide what you could call an easy read.

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