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July 18/13

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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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: How to Do It, Intersections and Think About It (CBC Radio One Programs); Suggestions for International Diplomacy (Humour); The Color of Law (Article); Much Ado About Nothing (Movie); Before Midnight (Movie)

Radio


Given that this website complains a lot about the decline in the quality of programming on CBC’s Radio Two, it seems that I ought to acknowledge that the corporation’s doing some good things on Radio One. In particular, I’m struck by some of the programs that appear to be summer replacements.

Two of them are slotted into what would be the last half hour of "The Current", from 9:30 am to 10 am.

On Wednesdays there’s "How to Do It," hosted by Josh Bloch and Sarah Treleaven. The concept of the program is that they tell you how to accomplish things that might seem rather devious or far-fetched but that you might have wondered about. The first program was a real grabber. It told you how to disappear without a trace. Who hasn’t occasionally thought of leaving everything behind, starting life somewhere new as somebody else? The hosts talked to detectives and they discussed cases of people who had nearly managed their own successful disappearances. (If their attempts had been successful, we wouldn’t have been able to discuss their cases.)

One of the most important things about disappearing, it turns out, is that you have to change your habits. One guy, for example, was tracked down because he still shopped for gluten-free food. You also have to be ruthless; no yielding to sentimental regrets. A would-be disappearer lost his nerve and turned himself in when he learned that his former girlfriend was going to be charged with a crime he’d committed.

I’m not sure that the slightly hokey "How To" format of the program is necessary or appropriate. The hosts present the material as a series of lessons to be learned, as if they were instructing you on how to make an origami swan. The subject matter could be discussed, perhaps, just as effectively without the gimmickry. But the somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner of presentation could be an effective way of catching listeners who are disinclined to stick with anything that sounds too serious.

Hosts Bloch and Treleaven are charming and likeable, but I do think the program could do with more careful oversight from some more seasoned journalists. Maybe that would ensure that some important questions wouldn’t go unanswered, as happened in the first episode. Regarding some cases, the hosts talked about people who crossed borders after they'd changed their identities. How did that work? What kind of identification did they use? The hosts also said that a detective had been able to trace a man because the man had Googled his own name. How could the detective trace that? Did he have friends at Google?

The second program didn’t have as much appeal because I don’t think the task discussed was something that many of us have ever wanted to do: brainwash someone. But the program did run through some interesting issues relating to cults, pyramid schemes, hypnosis and such. If you want to brainwash somebody, you have to prey on their weaknesses. One key question was whether or not it would be possible to program someone, as in The Manchurian Candidate, to become something like a robot who would act against that person’s own will. Probably not, it seems. If the program didn’t particularly enlighten you about something you might want to do, it could be taken as a warning to watch out for something that somebody else might try to do to you.

The program in the same time slot on Mondays is "Intersections," hosted by Niru Kumar. The idea of the program appears to be to examine various issues around the fact that the demographics of our country are changing quickly with people from so many different cultures settling among us. The first instalment didn’t hold my attention beyond a few minutes. It seemed that it was going to be one of those high-minded sermons about how we all have to share the same space and learn to get along. The same old multi-culturalism song. But this week’s episode struck me as very interesting. "Mating and Dating" examined the ways that two partners from different ethnic groups can learn to negotiate the the issues that can threaten a relationship because of cultural expectations. Various couples and a counsellor gave their opinions on how these thorny issues can be resolved.

"Think About It," with host Roberta Walker, airs on Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m. (after Jian Ghomeshi’s "Q"). At first it struck me that this program about our brains was going to hop around, in the style of so many radio documentaries, giving you scintillating tidbits of information, intriguing facts and stats, but never really digging in to explain anything in depth. This week’s program, though, delved into the question, among other things, of how our brains and eyes cooperate to produce the phenomenon of seeing. One of the most arresting facts to emerge is that, as people age, their peripheral vision shrinks enormously, to the point that it’s as if they were viewing the world through the narrow opening in a straw. And yet a person doesn’t notice the change in herself or himself. Obviously, this can have dire implications for functions like driving a car. The good news is that certain video games, designed specifically for the purpose, can help people to expand their peripheral vision and to get better at multi-tasking, in terms of noting various things that require attention during driving. Seems that certain seniors will have to drop their holier-than-thou attitude and admit that those kids with their blased video games are doing something that could be good for a person.


New Yorker Notables

Suggestions for International Diplomacy (Humour) by Cora Frazier; The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013

It’s been a while since one of the humour pieces on the "Shouts & Murmurs" page of The New Yorker really amused me. But this one by Cora Frazier is a standout. It’s a riff on the news that, in 2005, Vladimir Putin apparently pocketed an important ring belonging to a US athlete. The athlete is now claiming that he just meant to show the ring to the Russian president, not give it to him. Now Mr. Putin is saying that he doesn’t remember anything about any such ring but that he’s willing to have a really nice one made in Russia and he’ll give it to the athlete.

Ms. Frazier goes on to imagine that Mr. Putin might be accused of filching various other American things. They’re all delightfully ridiculous. But the main thing about the piece in my view – what makes it a superlative piece of writing – is the way Ms. Frazier has captured oh-so-Russian sound of the president’s English in his attempts to apologize, to sound magnanimous and conciliatory, meanwhile managing to do nothing but boast about Russian superiority. Just one small sample to give you a taste of this delicious fare:

I don’t know what is a Model T. You tell me it is an old car, but why would I steal an old car? We have many kinds of cars in Russia, including old ones. What use do I, President of Russia, have for such a thing? It is without logic.

 

The Color of Law (Article) by Louis Menand; The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013

With reference to various books on the subject, Louis Menand looks back at the struggle for civil rights in the US the latter half of the 20th century. One point that I found especially interesting was that it was the Cold War that motivated people like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to move ahead on civil rights. They didn’t want Nikita Kruschev to be able to scold them about the deplorable state of affairs in the US on that score. Mr. Menand focusses mainly on the frustrating efforts of African Americans to get registered as voters. It’s harrowing to read about the many instances of the murder of innocent people – including women and children – as a result of peaceful protests for civil rights. In many of these cases, the authorities either colluded with the killers or turned a blind eye to what was happening. It’s chastening to remember that, meanwhile, we Canadians of a certain age and social group were enjoying our university lives, riding the wave of student power, blithely convinced that any serious trouble in the world was taking place far away, not right next door among our neighbours to the south. Is it any consolation to think that all such strife is ended now that Barack Obama has achieved the presidency? Not exactly. We hear about much the same sort of killing going on all around the world today.

 

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (Movie); adapted and directed by Joss Whedon; starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Ashley Johnson, Riki Lindholme, Spencer Treat Clark

A bunch of actors get together at a director’s house to shoot a black and white adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The director’s biggest contribution to the screen prior to this was an action-thriller. Most of the actors have worked mainly on various tv shows. Their take on Shakespeare wraps in 12 days, on terms that could only be considered extremely low-budget by today’s standards.

What are you going to get – something self-indulgent and embarrassing?

Hardly.

All of the acting is superb. Alexis Denisof, as Benedick, has a slightly aggressive, toothy smile that contributes to the combative dynamic between himself and Beatrice. In that role, Amy Acker is not an un-loving, bitter person, rather a very contemporary-seeming young woman who, weary of the pretension and posturing of certain men, can’t prevent a sarcastic remark from escaping from her lips now and then. The more mature men, Leonato (Clark Gregg) and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) have a suave, warm humanity about them that comes across very well on camera. By way of contrast, Sean Maher’s cool, detached performance as Don John is a startling example of male beauty used to sinister effect.

The black and white photography is so lush, the lighting so sensitive, that you quickly realize that colour would be an unwelcome intrusion. The only slight flaw in the entire project – the only hint of the movie’s economical makings – might be a certain matter of editing or continuity. Sometimes, one shot doesn’t follow seemlessly from the previous one, in that there may be a tiny shift in the angle of an actor’s head or the position of the body.

At first, it’s a bit difficult to get used to these Americans in suits and ties, high heels and strapless dresses, wielding martini glasses and guns as they spout the classic lines. Maybe that’s why it can be hard, if you have only vague memories of previous productions, to catch all the plot developments. Why are some guys arriving at the party in handcuffs? What makes Don John so evil? Why does he think that subverting the marriage of Hero and Claudio will somehow get revenge on Don Pedro, John’s brother?

But then there comes a point where none of those questions matter. You get so caught up in the drama that you forget any quibbles. That point is the confrontation scene, where Claudio, on the morning of his intended marriage to Hero, accuses her of being promiscuous. The scene is searing. At this point, it occurs to you, of course, that you’re in the hands of a playwright who, for damned good reasons, has a pretty good track record.

I think another reason for the effectiveness of the scene is the authenticity of Fran Kranz in the role of Claudio. At first, I found it hard to see why he was cast. He doesn’t look as young or innocent as you expect Claudio to be. There’s something a bit hard in him. But that makes his outrage in the confrontation scene all the more convincing. Before the big reveal, you can see him struggling to hold his anger back. His rage, when it does explode, is so harrowing that Claudio no longer seems the gormless twit that he often appears to be in other productions.

This scene is enhanced as well by something that I often complain about – a kinetic camera. In a lot of movies, a camera swinging back and forth, especially if there’s no reason for the hyper activity, makes me nauseous. But here, the quick cutting from one point of view to another, the rapid shots from various angles, make the fiasco much more dramatic than it could ever be on stage.

Much is added to the scene by someone in one of the minor roles – the friar. Here, he’s a pleasant, round-faced priest in a roman collar who looks like he wants nothing more than to tuck into the marriage feast. (I can’t find the actor’s name!) But when things start to go awry, there’s an authority to his voice that manages to prevent everything spinning off into utter chaos. Another actor who impressed me with her presence in a small role was Ashley Johnson, as Margaret, the servant girl who willingly participates in the skulduggery that causes so much trouble. She looks very much like another maid in the household – both of them blonde and luscious – but with this difference: something sly and just a trifle louche about Margaret lets you know that she’s the kind of girl who would very well go along with the proposed chicanery. Nathan Fillion in the role of Dogsberry, the constable, delivers the comedy in such a dry manner that, at first, you can barely see the fun of it. But the way he responds when called an "ass" is delicious.

It’s a marvellous invention, of course, to have him and the other constables ensconced in the basement of Leonato's house as security guards, watching the action on video screens. Many other contemporary adaptations are equally inspired: having Benedick recite one of his soliloquies while jogging up and down the garden stairs during his morning workout; the stuffed animals filling the shelves in the women’s bedroom; a scene in the swimming pool, complete with snorkel equipment.

Leonato’s California villa becomes a character in the movie. With so much back and forth from room to room, upstairs and down, the expansive views of the garden from the windows, the movie makes you see that this play is more about a house than you ever realized. You come away from it with a memory of so much domestic detail: setting the tables, arranging flowers, chopping veggies in the kitchen, primping in the bathroom. And does that serve the text, you might well ask? Well, yes I think it does, but in a way that Shakespeare could not have anticipated. It helps to show you that this brouhaha is very much an internal thing, something taking place within a closed group of people. That helps to make it more intense than it could ever be in a stage production.

My main impression on coming away from the movie: it’s wonderful what actors can do when they’re free to practise their art without the contraints of commercialism.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): miraculous.

 

Before Midnight (Movie) written by Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan; directed by Richard Linklater; starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior

For those of us who were introduced to them in two previous outings, this was our chance to catch up on the winsome Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). We’d first seen them (Before Sunrise 1995) as strangers who met on a train in Europe and spent a night talking and flirting in Vienna. In Before Sunset (2004), while Jesse was on a book tour, they spent a day wandering around Paris and talking about their friendship. Now they’re married and living in France. They have twin girls about five years old (Charlotte Prior and Jennifer Prior). Jesse’s now a famous writer and the family has been spending an idyllic summer on a Greek island, as guests of an intellectual (Walter Lassally) who opens his house every summer to a distinguished writer from elsewhere.

At the opening of the movie, Jesse’s saying goodbye at the airport to his ten-year-old son from his first marriage (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who’s been spending the summer with him. Obviously, Jesse’s conflicted about seeing the son go back to his mother, who is, to put it mildly, not very well disposed towards Jesse. In the car on the way back from the airport, Celine tells Jesse that she’s received an offer of a dream job. They toss around the question of whether or not she should take it. That, and the issue of Jesse’s guilt feelings about separation from his son, provide some hint of a plot but most of the drive consists of jokey bickering. For instance, her razzing him about his being so selfish as to finish an apple that one of the twins, who’s now sleeping in the back seat, had been eating. No doubt this razzmatazz is intended to show just how loving and well-adjusted Jesse and Celine are as a couple but not one minute of it seemed authentic to me. It seemed like the two were constantly performing for each other.

The charm becomes even more cloying at an al fresco dinner with the host’s extended family that evening on the terrace by his seaside villa. Apparently the cutesy bug is contagious. As the talk burbles on and on like an irrepressible stream, everybody’s going out of their way to be scintillating, amusing, witty and affectionate. To make the proceedings seem a bit edgy, there’s a lot of explicit joking about racey stuff – penis size and virtual sex, for instance – but the overall mood is of one of those sun-drenched Mediterranean idylls. It’s all so enchanting that it made me want to barf.

Fortunately, things take a turn for the worse with Jesse and Celine. They decamp to a luxury hotel where they’re going to be spending their last night of the holiday. A call from Jesse’s son back in America, regarding a science project that he forgot to take with him, brings up Jesse’s guilt about his relationship with the kid. Out comes all the ugliness that the couple’s cheery banter had been covering up. Things now begin to seem a bit more real, but the grudges are overly familiar and the anger seems trumped up. Apart from the occasional good line, nothing new or interesting comes up. The same old stuff: the man accusing the woman of being irrational and emotional; the woman accusing the man of not helping enough with the kids, of being too obsessed with his career, his celebrity status. On top of all that, it turns out that he’s boring in bed.

It’s all pretty trite but there’s nothing wrong with the acting by Mr. Hawke and Ms Delpy. The one noteworthy thing, in my view, is that Ms. Delpy gradually begins to seem older as the night wears on. Her remarkable forty-year-old beauty starts to fade before your eyes. You can see how the effort to maintain the facade of the ebulient, sexy wife has worn her down.

Capsule comment: If you’re gonna base a movie on talk you need Edward Albee to write it.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com