Dilettante's Diary

July 10/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: Son Frère (DVD); Father Joe (Memoir/Biography); The Final Solution (Mystery); 5 x 2 (Movie); Ladies In Lavender (Movie); Uproar's Your Only Music (Memoir and Poems); Head On (Movie)

Son Frère (DVD) (French with subtitles)

Let's say you're a 30-something male school teacher in Paris. Your older brother, whom you haven't seen for a long time, shows up at your apartment. He has a mysterious blood disease and may be dying. Suddenly you're thrown into a world that's unfamiliar to you: hospitals, meetings with doctors, acting as go-between to parents and your brother's girlfriend. Oh, by the way, you're gay and you've never come out to your family.

Well, you certainly don't find yourself in a typical Hollywood movie here. The playing is utterly realistic, almost documentary in style. Take the doctor in charge of the case: no movie star she, just an ordinary, middle-aged professional with problem hair. There isn't much plot and the movie lags a bit, as "existential" French films tend to do, but it's never less than interesting. What really hooked me was the exploration of the brothers' ambivalent feelings about each other. Am I, in fact, my brother’s keeper?

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing)

 

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (Biography/Memoir) by Tony Hendra, 2004

Maybe the most telling thing about this book is the fact that I raced through it in a twenty-four-hour period. At times, I found the writing a little over the top, the prose a little too purple, but Mr. Hendra tells a story well.

Gentle Father Joe Warrilow, a benedictine monk at Quaar Abbey on the Isle of Wight, was, for many years, the guiding light for Tony Hendra, well-known entertainer, editor and writer. The account of the first meeting between the troubled teenager with the kindly monk was so poignant that it brought tears to my eyes. In their many subsequent meetings, I wasn't always convinced of the wisdom and profundity of Father Joe's remarks (as re-constructed years later) but he certainly raised some interesting questions about the mean-spirited satires orchestrated by his young friend. Above all, the story of their relationship shows incontrovertibly what a powerful effect authentic love and forgiveness can have on one screwed up human being.

So how come I didn't finish the book in a glow of spiritual elation? Maybe because of some of my own baggage, but I think it also has something to do with Mr. Hendra's portrayal of himself. The parts about his befuddled teen years make delightful reading but it's harder to be sympathetic to man who has so many great career opportunities (working with John Cleese and Graham Chapman, editing National Lampoon, starring in This Is Spinal Tap) but who pisses his life away in bad behaviour, mostly towards his wife and kids. Am I just jealous of his high-flying success? Could be.

I know the tale of the misdeeds is supposed to work somewhat like an Alcoholics Anonymous "drunkalogue". The speaker tells about his or her riotous past in order to show the long road to recovery: I was so bad then; see how good I am now. Maybe my problem is with the kind of person Mr. Hendra has become. In his renewed enthusiasm for Catholicism, he frequently laments the effects of the Second Vatican Council. He pines for a return to the Latin liturgy. He sounds, in fact, like a ripe candidate for the church of Mel Gibson.

Was the Church wrong to chuck the Latin? I dunno. Certainly the John-Denver-inspired liturgical music lacks some of the splendour of Gregorian Chant. But I sure appreciate the psalms more now than when they were in Latin. And Vatican II did so much by way of opening the doors to important new insights on scripture, social justice and sexuality, just to mention a few areas. Not that Mr. Hendra talks much about all that, but when people go on and on about the loss of Latin, that usually means they're longing for a return to the old style religion in every way. Which is why I'm not exactly ecstatic about the return of this prodigal.

 

The Final Solution (Mystery) Michael Chabon, 2003

Michael Chabon came to my attention some years ago when The New Yorker, in a radical break from tradition, published photos of its star fiction writers. Among the wizened and weathered faces of John Updike, Alice Munro and William Trevor appeared the gorgeous, unlined mug of young Mr. Chabon. Surely, this guy was too hadsome to be a good writer? I mean, God couldn't be that unfair. Alas, Mr. Chabon's short stories turn out to be disconcertingly good. I have also much enjoyed his novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (the ironic title always makes me smile) and Wonder Boys. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay didn't please me as much but I still felt that anything of his would be worth looking into.

This short mystery, set in England at the time of the Second World War, tells the tale of a young Jewish boy, a refugee in England, whose precious parrot has disappeared. And there has been a murder. An old coot, a retired detective, is called in. There is no real detective work involved and a puzzle about the parrot's talents doesn't amount to anything. Only one chapter caught my attention with an unexpected take on the proceedings from the bird's point of view.

All of which would be inoffensive enough, except for the precious writing. Here, Mr. Chabon describes a vehicle driven by a drunk clergyman:

On the whole in its unfitness, shabbiness, and supreme air of steady and irremediable poverty it neatly symbolized, in his own personal view, all that was germane to the life of the man who -- far from professionally sober and caught up in a gust of inward turbulence nearly as profound as that which on this cold, wet, blustery, thoroughly English summer morning buffeted the sad tan Imperia from one side to the other of the London road -- found himself, his foot pumping madly at the hopeless brake pedal, the single wiper smearing and revising its translucent arc of murk across the windscreen, on the brink of committing vehicular manslaughter.

Who wants to read this sort of thing? It strikes me as the kind of fanciful writing exercise that could please only its self-indulgent author. According to the dust cover, this "brilliant" piece won the 2004 Aga Khan Prize for fiction. What, pray tell, is the Aga Khan looking for in the way of reading material these days? Geez, if we put our minds to it, surely we could all come up with something sufficiently fatuous and affected.

 

5 x 2 (Movie) Written and Directed by François Ozon

The movie starts with a couple signing their divorce papers. Then, this being a noir-ish French film, the newly divorced repair to a hotel for grotty, hate-fuelled sex. From there, we flash backwards through various stages of their relationship to their first meeting. Presumably, this is so that we can learn more about them and find out what went wrong.

Do we want to? I don't think so. As the dedicated reviewer, however, I stayed to see if there’s anything worth knowing about these people or their story. Negative. The message: life sucks, love's a bummer, people behave like shits and don't know why. The man is particularly despicable. I think he's supposed to be studly but his mouth is small and prissy. Plus, his finger nails are short and stubby. Come to think of it, his chest (much exposed) is kinda caved in.

There's one beautiful scene: when the drunken groom collapses on the hotel bed on their wedding night, the bride sneaks downstairs and watches her parents dancing out the last few minutes of the party. Apart from that, you never get the feeling that you're seeing real life. None of the normal ebb and flow of quotidian affairs. No mess. No spontaneity. Sets are nothing but stages for the actors to emote the angst that the director demands.

God knows France has given us lots to be grateful for. (Wouldn't a pain au chocolat go good now!) In many ways, the culture of North America lags far behind. But I am getting awfully tired of all the smoking in French movies. Maybe French actors can't feel natural without a cigarette in hand. But isn't it time that French filmmakers clued in? You’d think that one with a name like this man's would be more concerned about polluting the air.

Ladies In Lavender (Movie)  by Charles Dance

A quick scan of the audience showed that men were out-numbered ten to one by women. All the men except me were with women partners. That set me to wondering: what red-blooded Canadian male in his right mind -- unaccompanied by a female partner -- would go to see a movie with such a title? Judi Dench and Maggie Smith may be Academy Award winners, but was I really ready to watch two elderly spinsters clucking over a cute young Pole who washes up on their beach in Cornwall one morning?

Yes, apparently. I loved it. It may be treacle but it made my sweet tooth happy. But, just so you know that I'm a discriminating sucker for sentiment, there were lots of things that made this a very special treacle. To begin with -- the dramatic tension between the two women as they compete over their young visitor. The relationship between the sisters is drawn perfectly: the deep affection and loyalty, the irritability that comes with such stifling proximity to each other and the susceptibility to the slightest fluctuations in each others' moods.

This movie's loaded with the kind of fine details that make gems of many small Brit movies. When a doctor is summoned to deal with the castaway, we see the women standing silently outside his bedroom; the scene is shot through a doorway across the hall. Very dramatic that. For a harvesting scene with a fully operational steam threshing machine, the background music is an unexpected but glorious organ fanfare. Then there's the harvest party where all the characters' faces have an amazing period look. Mind you, I wasn't in Cornwall in the 1930s, but everything looks exactly the way you feel it should. Even the movie cliche of the foreigner learning the local language in three quick scenes is well handled. True, he does pick up some basic English pretty fast, but he's often bewildered by what the ladies say.

We don't have to dwell on the stellar acting of Dames Maggie and Judi. Dame Judi (who has the slightly more prominent role) will surely be nominated again for an Academy Award. In case you're not convinced of her prowess as an actor, compare this performance with recent ones like Queen Elizabeth the First and Lady Bracknell. Those old girls were all spit and vinegar but here she's a puddle of vulnerability and tenderness.

One thing kept bothering me. Didn't this young Pole have a life? I know  things moved more slowly in the 1930s but what normal young guy would be willing to shack up with two old ladies indefinitely? On the other hand, where do I get off talking about "normal"? Me, I'd have settled in for the duration: those breakfasts in bed, all those endless cups of tea, the toast rack filled with thick, buttery chunks of toast, the nifty new outfits, not to mention the view of the sea from the window.

But the grin on my face began to fade in the last twenty minutes of the movie. Things got too plotty. Characters started having to jump through hoops, with a loss in plausibility. However, a bittersweet ending pulled it all back to the realm of the believable where I feel much more comfortable.

Rating: C+ (C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Uproar's Your Only Music (Memoir and Poems) by Brian Brett, 2004

On hearing about this book, I couldn’t not read it. Mr. Brett, a poet who lives in British Columbia, has had a peculiar life to say the least. He was born in a sexually ambivalent condition (get the book for the clinical details) that was eventually diagnosed as Kallmann's Syndrome. Because of an errant gene, his body had no male hormones. Come puberty, some doctors thought he was a hermaphrodite. He eventually took shots of testosterone, which gave him a hairy, adult male body but caused him endless emotional problems. Two pictures on the back of the book show him at different times. In his teens, he looked like Jacquie Onassis, now like a biker.

In the intervening years, Mr. Brett suffered all kinds of torments dished out by a society ignorant of his condition and a medical profession that prodded and gawked with little compassion or understanding. He fought with his family and teachers, ran away from home, lived on the road, went wild on drugs and booze, and was sexually abused by anybody who could get their hands on him.

Mr. Brett is relatively frank about all this; he tells a story well and the portraits of his relatives are especially good, but you finish the memoir part of the book (just 72 pages) wanting more. You wish he could have fleshed out the anecdotes a little more. Doesn't he remember enough detail? Or is he reluctant to tell all? You're grateful to Mr. Brett for sharing as much of his story as he has, but you resent his insisting on some privacy. And you feel like a jerk for feeling that way.

Mr. Brett introduces the poems as mirror images of the memoir. At first, I couldn't see that. The poetry mostly speaks of his great love of nature and his relationships with various women, his concern for the environment and his thoughts about death. Gradually, though, I realized that these are love songs to life from a man who considers himself lucky to have survived long enough to enjoy it so much.

 

Head On (Movie) Written and Directed by Fatih Akin

This virginal Turk chick who lives in Hamburg wants to bust out and have lotsa sex with lotsa men. A suicide attempt fails to persuade her family to remove her shackles. So she hits on a novel scheme to get out of the house: a sham marriage. The guy she picks for "husband" is a sleazy drunk, twice her age, who lives in a pigsty. No prob. He's Turk, so chances are her family will accept him.

Sounds like a set-up for a totally ridiculous farce, doesn't it? Surprisingly, the movie begins to get very interesting. I kept getting the feeling that I was learning about real people and how they would behave in unusual situations. The meetings with the girl's family are fascinating, especially when the "husband" is forced to fraternize with the male "in-laws". The relationship between the man and woman becomes intriguing as they each reveal unexpected sides of themselves.

And so it goes -- for about ninety minutes. Then the movie loses its tight focus on the domestic situation. Violence gets piled on, we fly to Turkey, years pass. What is it with these self-indulgent filmmakers who start out with a good little story that they want to turn into some sort of Dr. Shivago type saga? After another forty-five minutes, the movie staggers to its long drawn-out conclusion. The behaviour of the characters has long since become incomprehensible and my patience has flown the coop.

Note to filmmakers: if you expect me to watch your work for more than the ordinary 90 minutes or so, you better be extraordinarily good.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" -- some good, some bad)

Send your response to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com