Dilettante's Diary

Nov 17/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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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, 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: Natural Elements: Water (Art); The Normal Heart (Play) As It Is In Heaven (DVD) The Sessions (Movie)

Natural Elements: WATER (Art) Papermill Art Gallery, Todmorden Mills, Toronto. Until November 25th

Although I’ve previously seen work by some of the ten artists in this show, I don’t know any of them. What the connection is between them, I have no idea, except that they got together to mount this show of paintings about water. To my eye, there’s a vast range in the quality of the painting, but I found things to like in each artist’s work. (Where possible in this review, I’ll give links to the artists’ websites.)

One of the things you might hope for in a show like this is that it would make you see the theme in a new way. And that’s why I’d choose the painting "Waterland #2" by Teodora Pica as one of the outstanding works. A vertical painting, it’s almost an abstract, except that you can definitely see a torrent of white water falling down through the middle of the painting. The surroundings seem to be industrial: darkish suggestions of grid-work, buildings, rocks, some spooky looking squiggles that may suggest something about electricity. Maybe it’s about hydro power. Overall, it’s a stunning work and it makes you see water in a way you never think of it: hard-working, driven. In "Waterland #3", the effect is calmer, the composition simpler. There appears to be a sort of weir across the top of the painting, with sky above and water below but, again, the water has an unusual quality, something eerie, you might almost say. www.teodorapica.com

Another of the most thrilling paintings in the show is an untitled work by Ali Bassidji. It’s recognizably a landscape but it’s done with the barest minimum of representational detail. Mostly, the painting consists of tremendously energetic stabs and slashes, of colours such as you’d find in a field, but extra excitement comes to the painting by way of some bits of brilliant lime green that you don’t ordinarily find in landscape painting. You might wonder what this one has to do with water, until you spot a bit of delicious blue in the foreground at the bottom of the painting, where sky is reflected in a bit of wetland.

It’s hard to describe the wonderful paintings of Donna Andreychuk. Best see them yourself on her website. In the meantime, here’s my attempt... Some of them look as if you took a woodland painting by one of the Group of Seven that happened to be done on wax (encaustic, to use the technical term) and you applied some heat, just enough that the shapes began to wobble and bend, the colours flowing out of control. The ones that I like best, such as "Bare Essentials," are even more abstract. They’re obviously based on the natural world of plant life but you have colours, shapes and vitality, without the attempt to represent anything specifically. And water? You know it’s there somewhere. www.donnaandreychuk.com

In other shows (and on his website), I’ve very much admired the way that Charles Wakefield paints the exteriors and cluttered interiors of places like the Toronto Brickworks. There’s a rough-hewn quality to the work that expresses great affection for such vintage buildings. That could be why the painting by Mr. Wakefield that I like best in this show is "Sunset in The Port Of Cap Haitien:" a conglomeration of huts, shacks and humble buildings on both sides of a bay of water. Of course, there’s no denying the bravura of Mr. Wakefield’s large mural – six and a half feet by thirteen feet – entitled "Evening Series Off Cherry Beach." Showing sailboats skimming across the waters of Toronto harbour, with a tree-lined shore in the background, the painting makes you feel the fresh breeze and the splash from the waves. www.charleswakefieldartist.com

Of the works by Louise Cass, the one that I like best is a large still life showing a table, covered by a patterned cloth, and on the table are a jug, some plants and scattered oranges. What’s best about the painting is a sketchy, unfinished quality that owes a lot, I think, to the light touch of Henri Matisse. www.lcassart.com

An artist identified only as Ian P.L. paints intricately-patterned creatures in the somewhat symbolic style of aboriginal art. The largest of this artist’s works in this show, "Water’s Portrait #1" shows a fantastic beast in black and white emerging from the bluest, most water-like background that you could imagine.

Nell LaMarsh creates works roiling with explosions of pigment that may be abstract but somehow still seem to suggest water swirling and foaming on the seashore. www.artbylamarsh.com

It’s interesting to note that, even though Roksolyana Pidhainy Benoit applies paint to canvas very thickly, with jagged strokes, the style perfectly captures the physical, objectivity of a clear glass pitcher containing water.

In a striking composition by Sharon Barr, two human figures – maybe nude, maybe not – emerge from a background of bright colours. It’s one of those paintings that gains extra intrigue from its title: "I Dreamt I Saw You Swimming." www.sharonbarr.ca

One of the charms of a painting by Sjon De Groot, "Belfontein Creek," is that the glowing gold leaves of a tree branch stretching across the top of the painting make a lovely contrast with the brackish waters below. www.sjon-degroot.weebly.com

In spite of all the fine work on display, I can’t help closing with a personal lament: not a single watercolour in this show celebrating water!


The Normal Heart (Play) by Larry Kramer; directed by Joel Greenberg; starring Jonathan Wilson, Jeff Miller, Ryan Kelly, Martin Happer, Sarah Orenstein, Jonathan Seinen, John Bourgeois, Mark McGrinder, Mark Crawford; A Studio 180 production; Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto; until Nov 18th

Last year, Studio180's  production of this 1985 off-Broadway hit met with tremendous critical acclaim. Same for this year’s re-mount. The reviews from all the major sources have been rapturous. Anybody who claims to be interested in theatre is made to feel that there’s no moral excuse for not making a determined push to see the show, even if it means squeezing in a visit during the last few days of the run.

Is it possible for any show to live up to such expectations? Maybe not.

In this case there’s some hard slogging through laborious exposition and speechifying to get to the heart of the matter. There’s a slightly dated feel to the presentation of the crisis of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. (I couldn’t help thinking that maybeTony Kushner’s 1993 Angels In America captured the urgency better.) And the humour among the characters, even though the campy quotient is very slight, has an unfortunate echo of The Boys in the Band. That play shocked and thrilled us all with its in-your-face gay sexuality but it now seems oh-so-1960s.

The Normal Heart, however, does eventually deliver a good theatrical experience. It centers on Ned Weeks, a gay New York writer who’s trying to draw public attention to the dire threat that AIDS poses in the early 1980s. (Author Larry Kramer has acknowledged that the play is largely autobiographical, with himself as the Ned Weeks character and several people he knew as the other characters.) Nobody yet has a handle on all the ramifications of the disease, but a prescient physician, Dr. Emma Brookner, seems to be one of the first scientists to appreciate the gravity of the situation. She’s encouraging Ned to get the word out there: sex is killing gay men. That puts Ned in direct conflict with friends and peers who feel that his fear-mongering jeopardizes the sexual freedom that they’ve fought for so valiantly. Leaders within the gay community who could help to put a public face on the issue won’t speak out because they’re still closeted.

Three decades later, it’s sobering to be reminded that mayors and presidents were loathe to come out publicly with support for research on the disease, for fear of seeming to condone homosexuality. Millions of dollars and much media coverage were devoted to a Tylenol poisoning incident that had killed seven people. Meanwhile, virtually nothing was being done about the hundreds, then thousands, of deaths as a result of AIDS.

Of course, a play isn’t made of political and social issues, no matter how gripping. We’ve got to have relationships that make us care about the big ideas. Here, Ned’s attempt to enlist the help of his older brother, a successful lawyer (John Bourgeois), takes us into their feelings about each other, about their family and about the psychiatric therapy they’ve both received. There are Ned’s interactions with his gay friends and their opposing attitudes to the way their cause should be handled. And there’s Ned’s skittish affair with a potential lover who looks on Ned, somebody who’s never had a partnership, with a certain wry humour. In fact, one of the few scenes that worked well for me in the first act is the one where the two men are on a first date. Ned retreats from every amorous advance with a lot of verbal persiflage while the other man watches with an eyebrow raised ironically.

That man comes across with convincing charm and humour (and later pathos), as played by Jeff Miller. In the role of Ned, Jonathan Wilson may not be the most charismatic actor, but that’s to the advantage of the piece. Because there’s nothing "starry" about him, you can more easily identify with him as an ordinary person, albeit an intelligent and concerned one, who’s battling terrific odds. Among all the other fine performances, one that stood out for me was that of Sarah Orenstein as the feisty doctor who’s frustrated with the establishment’s intransigence in the face of incipient tragedy. Ryan Kelly, as one of Ned’s pals on the activist committee, has one of the production’s best scenes when he flips out over the stress and confusion. Perhaps what helps to make his acting so touching is the fact that, until then, this character has seemed like a pleasant, mildly jokey fellow; we never guessed at the turmoil that was brewing inside him.

With all that going for it, the show still bugged me in a couple of fairly important ways: one having to do with the text and the other with the production.

First, the text. All that talk!!! Several of the characters – but especially Ned – have a tendency to fly into pages and pages of rhetoric. The words circle round and round and you never know where (or when) they’re going to land. A speech will feel like it’s heading in a certain direction – i.e. making one point – but it will suddenly veer and you’ll be getting a whole bunch of other ideas thrown at you, without a clear connection between them and the previous ones. There are some comments in the script about Ned’s tendency to talk too much – that dating scene, for example. Is it possible that playwright Larry Kramer is hinting that he knows that he, too, has the problem? It’s virtuosic writing but it all feels so damned theatrical.

Which brings us to the production. Director Joel Greenberg certainly keeps things moving; I've seldom seen a play in which the scene changes worked so briskly and efficiently. But the downside of this approach is that everybody’s always in high gear. Lots of shouting. There’s almost no opportunity for any of them to dial down the energy in order to establish anything that seems like genuine intimacy or casual conversation. I don’t think the script needed to be played that way. I kept imagining what actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix could do with material like this, provided they were given a chance to be real rather than stagey. Granted, real-ness is easier to achieve in movies, but a play doesn’t need to abandon it completely.

Another of the over-blown aspects of this production is the explosions. More of them in a couple of hours than most people would witness in a lifetime. No opportunity for fireworks has been missed. (Is it just a coincidence that the rectangular playing area, surrounded by seating on four sides, brings to mind a boxing ring?) Does Mr. Greenberg think that Toronto audiences can’t come away from the theatre feeling that they’ve had a good time unless they’ve been smacked with a jolt every minute, as in blockbuster movies and tv shows these days?

I’m not saying that everything should be played like Chekhov but please don’t tell me that the days of subtlety and nuance in theatre are gone for good.


As It Is In Heaven (Movie on DVD) written by Anders Nyberg, Ola Olsson, Carin Pollack, Kay Pollack, Margaretha Pollack; directed by Kay Pollack; starring Michael Nyqvist, Frida Hallgren,

I approached this 2004 offering from Sweden with some trepidation. That title (a quote from The Lord’s Prayer, in case you didn’t notice) made me wary of religiosity and preachy-ness. Not qualities I welcome in a movie. To make the situation worse, the movie was recommended as one that’s often used in discussions of religious values as expressed in film. I tend to steer away from that kind of thing. If I want religion, I’ll look elsewhere. But the movie was offered in the context of a gathering of friends, so I had to give it a chance.

It’s about an internationally renowned conductor in his forties who, because of heart trouble, is forced to withdraw from the concert circuit for a while. He retreats to his home village where he purchases, and installs himself in (for no reason that I could discern), the old schoolhouse that he attended as a kid. His parents have since died. He finds himself reluctantly advising, then conducting, the village choir. Hopeless as the task might seem, he begins to think it could be an opportunity for him to make a kind of music he’s always dreamed of: one that speaks directly to the heart.

Much like Babette’s Feast – also a Scandinavian offering and another favourite for discussions of spiritual values – this is about the outsider who shakes up the stodgy locals. Here, they include the standard types: the bitter spinster, the mentally challenged boy, the doddery old lady, the feisty and nubile younger lady (Frida Hallgren), the alcoholic wife-abuser, the boisterous guy who wants to boss everybody and, the most blatant clich of all, the killjoy pastor right out of Ingmar Bergman.

There are almost too many stories going on among these people for one well-focused movie. But what makes it watchable – and enjoyably so – is the excellence of the acting. There’s a spot-on real-ness about all these characters. Clearly, none of them has ever heard of Hollywood. The way the conductor, as played by Michael Nyqvist, relates to all of them is especially believable. Most of the time, he stumbles through it all with a kind of stunned look on his face.

Unlike many recent movies from this part of the world, this is a sun-drenched Sweden, not the gloomy, noir-ish ambiance we might be expecting. And yes, there are some heart-warming, very positive values expressed. There’s also some unnecessary symbolism: somebody slams a door angrily, causing a crucifix to fall to the ground. But there’s not enough moralizing to sabotage the pleasure of watching the movie. It’s a relief that not everything is resolved in a final burst of sweetness and light. And you get to hear some gorgeous singing, especially near the movie’s end.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Enjoyable in spite of its uplifting message.


The Sessions (Movie) writer and director Ben Lewin; starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, Annika Marks, Ming Lo, W. Earl Brown, Rhea Perlman

This movie’s based on the autobiographical writings of poet and journalist, Mark O’Brien, who lived in Berkeley, California and who died in 1999. Because of childhood polio, he spent most of his life inside an iron lung; when he was outside it, for just a few hours at a time, he was supine on a gurney. He wasn’t exactly paralyzed; it’s just that his muscles were so weak that he couldn’t use them for much.

So much for backstory. To talk about this movie in any significant way, we have to jump in about fifteen minutes past the beginning. With the blessing of his broad-minded parish priest, Mark embarked on a series of sessions with a sex worker, in the hopes of ridding himself of his virginity. The movie enacts the sessions. In that way, it falls pretty much into the category of movie where we’re hoping for our hero to: take the crown, win the title, finish the race, etc.

Because the goal is so narrowly defined here, the progress of the campaign is slow, steady and somewhat predictable. Granted, Mark earns our total sympathy and there’s a certain interest in the clinical details of his situation. But there isn’t a lot of very gripping dramatic engagement between the two main characters, the patient and the therapist. Eventually, some complicated personal dynamics do arise, but they’re late in the movie and rather perfunctory.

The main reason, then, for seeing the movie is the performances by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in the two starring roles. Mr. Hawkes doesn’t have much to do except lie there looking winsome and wistful but he does it well. He’s certainly a much more endearing character than the scary weirdo that he played in Winter’s Bone, the movie that first brought him to my attention. Ms. Hunt is just what a woman in this role should be. A married woman with a teenage son, she explains the difference between herself and a prostitute: a prostitute wants your repeat business but a sex therapist like herself wants to help you, then let you go. Ms. Hunt strikes the perfect balance of professionalism and kindness, with a touch of hardness that doesn’t exclude some vulnerability.

Still, the relationship between the two people doesn’t stray far from the path that you’d expect. Maybe that’s why I found something unexpectedly engaging about Moon Bloodgood as one of Mark’s personal attendants. At first she seems diffident, not a particularly caring person but, gradually, she shows herself to be a more complex, fully-rounded character. A friendship develops between her and the clerk at a motel where Mark has some of his sessions. (The clerk is played by Ming Lo.) The interaction between these two minor characters is like one of those grace notes from a piccolo that can strike you as more intriguing than what’s going on in the orchestra as a whole.

As for William Macy in the role of the priest, you can see why the producers wanted somebody with a warm, kindly face, but Mr. Macy smiles far too often in an effort to show just how very nice he is. Maybe he’s feeling a bit adrift: the priest’s role, once he has given the go-head to the sessions, doesn’t do much to move the story forward. How exciting can it be to watch a player reporting back to a coach on the sidelines?

Such flaws notwithstanding, watching the movie would have been mildly enjoyable if it weren’t for the audience. The showing I attended was nearly ruined by the helpless laughter of elderly people at every mention of genitalia or sexual function. Clearly, these people have never seen any explicit sexuality in a movie or even glanced at Don Savage’s sex column in NOW magazine. It was extremely irritating to the rest of us to have them treat a movie that was meant to be sensitive and sincere as one prolonged dirty joke. Or was it embarrassed laughter? Then such people should be warned to stay home.

The one thing about the movie itself that bothered me a lot was the lack of authenticity on some fronts – particularly the Catholic one. Never mind that William Macy’s cassock hangs limply on him like something off the hanger at the nearest costume shop, not like something that a guy has lived in for any length of time. Or that his thick, shoulder-length locks – even a headband at one point! – look too much like an attempt to do a late 1980s liberal priest thing.

 What’s completely ludicrous is that every pep talk between the priest and Mr. O’Brien takes place in front of the altar in a church. The poor man’s lying there on his gurney, votive candles flickering in the background. While he elaborates his sexual fantasies to the priest, faithful parishioners in the pews are praying ostentatiously and doing elaborate and very phony looking genuflections and signs of the cross. Didn’t this priest, like every other priest the world has ever known, have an office for consulting with people? The priest even makes one visit to Mark’s home for a private visit. Then why the repeated meetings in front of the altar? Because, I guess, the film-makers couldn’t resist the delicious combo of sex talk and devotion, no matter how ridiculous the situation.

A few other notes struck me as iffy. Pole dancing in the 1980's? I’m not sure about; that. But I’m pretty confident that people (especially priests) in those days didn’t toss out expressions more typical of today, like "I’m here for you," and "Go for it."

It’s not that I mean to be picky. If producers want us to buy into a real-life story, they should be more careful about details. The glaring inaccuracies undermine the point of the exercise.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Not as engaging as it wants to be.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com