Dilettante's Diary

Oct 29/14

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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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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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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: Art Toronto 2014 (Exhibition); The Marriage of Figaro (Opera); Gone Girl (Movie) Calvary (Movie)

Art Toronto 2014 – Metro Toronto Convention Centre; Oct 24-27.

My somewhat curtailed visit to Art Toronto this year didn’t allow for the full review of all the work that was possible in previous years. However, I did have enough time on site to make some discoveries, and to renew contacts with old faves. (When possible, I’ve provided links to the artists’ websites or to their galleries.)

My most exciting find was the work of British artist Paul Wright. His portraits in oils have been included in the prestigious BP Portrait Award at Britain’s National Gallery. The heads and faces are perfectly drawn and magnificently molded, but an overlay of slashes of paint gives urgency and dynamism to the artist’s take on the personalities of the subjects.

As I’m always on the lookout, however, for artists who have a special way of conveying the turbulent beauty of our urban surroundings, it was Mr. Wright’s cityscape, "Journey to the Concert," that dazzled me. (The representative of Thompson’s Galleries, in whose booth the work is shown, told me that this is the first time this painting has been exhibited.) The scene appears to be a street of two-storey buildings in a mid-sized town. Under a darkening sky, lights are coming on everywhere, creating an explosion of colour and life. The painting is executed with such broad, daring strokes that it’s bursting with vitality.

Amazingly, Mr. Wright is able to carry off much the same effect with a subject that might be expected to produce a more restrained painting. His depiction of a waiting room conveys not just the reality of the objects – chair, table, lamp, phone – but the lingering aura of the energy of the human interactions that have taken place in that room. www.paul-wright.com

A very different feeling comes through in the paintings of Sara MacCulloch, an artist from Nova Scotia. Her simplified landscapes, reduced to a few significant shapes on different planes, exude a serenity and a calm that draw you more deeply into the artist’s reverence for nature than a detailed, realistic painting could. www.saramacculloch.com

A similar effect of reduction and simplicity is achieved by Tom Hammick in "Past the Narrows," a reduction woodcut. Basically, you have two horizontal bands of blue: a dark indigo blue below representing sea, and a lighter blue across the top representing sky. Intersecting the horizon in the upper left corner is a big white lump, almost rectangular: an iceberg. If you look closely, you see a little boat cutting darkly across the water, giving the iceberg wide clearance. It’s astonishing how such economical means can create a sense of chill, danger and adventure. www.tomhammick.com

Another artist who uses horizontal bands to great effect is the Ontario artist Ron Kingswood. His "First Light" says an enormous amount about a certain time of year simply by the depiction of a dark band representing woodlands and, above that, a yellowish sky with, near the top and to one side, a flock of geese flying out of the picture. www.jonathancooper.co.uk

I was pleased to come into contact again with the work of Simon Carter, whose paintings are meditations on stretches of beach and sea near his home in North Sussex, England. Admittedly, some of these loose, sketchy works could lend themselves to the "my-kid-could-do-better-than-that" type of criticism but, if you take the time, you'll find lots to appreciate in these primitive, child-like paintings. In my view, the simple, gestural approach owes a lot to Cezanne. So much is said with so little. For instance, in some small paintings, you get silhouettes of human shapes standing in cool greys with broken reflections of their shapes below them. It tells you everything you need to know about people standing around in the water on a chilly day.

I find Mr. Carter’s work so intriguing that I did something almost unprecedented for me: I actually purchased a book about his work. Generally, I don’t find academic explanations of art works very helpful but I did like the following from the introduction to the book:

Behind the extraordinary vitality and assurance of these paintings lies an interrogative spirit motivated by forces of experimentation and doubt. Again and again Simon Carter returns to the same landscape motifs, questioning the relative nature of his perceptions and how they can be synthesized into art.

(I think this was written by Jill Lloyd, but the accreditation isn’t clear.) www.simoncarterpaintings.co.uk

To my eye, there’s something comparable in the compositions of Canadian painter John Lennard. They’re not as loose and free as Mr. Carter’s works; Mr. Lennard’s are more block-like in their construction. But there’s the same tendency to reduce a scene to its most important components as a way of making a bold, declamatory statement. www.robertsgallery.net

Something quite different from my usual taste in paintings was offered by Karen Thomson. Her work in beeswax and oil paint presents a somewhat blurry, indistinct suggestion of a rocky hillside seen across a body of water. The haze of muted colours, with some stretches of greyish white doesn’t seem to mean much until you look at the title: "First Snow." Yes, of course, this is exactly the feeling of that first snowfall in cottage country on a bleak day in early winter! www.beauxartsdesameriques.com

For daring, innovative work, there’s tremendous appeal in the mixed media paintings of Mike Gough. His "Room with Painting," for instance, could be roughly described as a sketch of a room, as seen perhaps in a set design, but with a lot of abstract elements – lines, smears of colour – in acrylic, pastel and graphite, that make for one of those lively compositions that force you to keep looking and trying to figure out what’s going on. www.mikegoughart.com

Among the many examples of complete abstraction in the show, the paintings of Janna Watson impressed me as outstanding. Her vividly colourful "The Witching Hour" (mixed media on panel with resin) was one of those paintings that could be considered a sloppy mess except that, unlike many other artists’ attempts at abstraction, it has a coherence and shape that hold it together. www.jannawatson.com

The same could be said for the abstract work "Floats Like Cement Visuals" by David T. Alexander. At first, the work appears to be a dizzying conglomeration of colours but gradually you realize that you could be looking at something like reflections in a pond. That’s enough to give the painting a stabilizing structure for me. www.davidtalexander.com

As someone who has a fondness for paintings that can express the beauty of flowers in an original way, I take great pleasure in the work of Bobbie Burgers. Her full-blown roses, crowded together at the top of the painting, drip with gobs of paint and artistic exuberance that say: ok viewer, if you want roses, I’m gonna give you roses packed with more rose-ness than any other roses you can imagine! www.bobbieburgers.com

In a somewhat more conventional vein, Philip Craig’s "Library Afternoon," a glowing interior/still life, exudes something like a spell. Call me old-fashioned, but I find the excellence of the composition and the perfection of the execution irresistible. www.pcraig.squarespace.com

A large installation piece at the centre of the showroom was by BGL, the Quebec art group that’s going to represent Canada at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Constructed of materials such as metal pipes and fencing, it consisted of a carousel with about five benches or swings (no horses) capable of taking two or three occupants each. Rather than being mounted on a turning platform, the seats swing from overhead support structures. I guess it’s what you’d call an energy conservation carousel because it was propelled simply by someone’s taking hold of a piece of it and walking around the circle. People who hopped on seemed to enjoy the ride. I suppose it was supposed to have a whimsical charm but I couldn’t see anything brilliant or fascinating about the work.

Another installation was by the Back Gallery Project from Vancouver. About fifteen steps, finely constructed from fresh, unpainted wood, led up to two openings covered with gaily patterned white and black curtains. And behind the curtains? Bunk beds. While I was watching, some young boys seemed to be having fun, hiding in them for a moment away from the bustle of the show. www.backgalleryproject.com

An even better retreat from the "madding crowd" was provided by Toronto artist Thrush Holmes. His work, a rough, plywood enclosure of about twenty-five feet square offered a place you could enter, and take a seat on things like planks and overturned plastic buckets. The unpainted walls were scrawled with graffiti and a few of Mr. Holmes’ wild and crazy flower scribbles. I found that the work made for a very welcome respite from the commercialism, the glitz and glamour of the show. Mr. Holmes seemed to be making fun of the whole thing. Thanks, T.H, I needed that. www.thrushholmes.com


The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by James Levine; direction by Sir Richard Eyre; design by Rob Howell; starring Ildar Abdrazakov, Marlis Petersen, Amanda Majeski, Peter Mattei, Isabel Leonard, Susanne Mentzer, John Del Carlo; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Oct 18/14

This is one of my favourite operas – if not the favourite. And yet, something seemed a bit off about this production right from the start.

I don’t think it was the updating per se. The modernized versions of Traviata and Rigoletto are some of the best Met offerings that I’ve seen in recent years. And I don’t suppose there’s anything inherently wrong in setting Figaro in the 1930s. That gives us lots of upstairs/downstairs hanky-panky in the era when the class system was gasping for life. In the overture, we get a naked servant bolting from a room and running across the stage, clutching her clothes in front of her, while the Count emerges from the same room in his boxers, looking very satisfied with himself. The atmosphere of a bedroom farce is furthered by all those maids running around in crisp white aprons and high heels, their uniforms showing lots of leg, those perky caps on their heads. But all this, in my view, robs the opera of its dignity. On the other hand, the set seems entirely too sombre: a lot of extremely dark woodwork with elaborate carving – like a hunting lodge with Moorish accents. I think that the setting of Figaro, in keeping with the music, needs to be light and airy, gracious and sublime.

Apparently, it was director Sir Richard Eyre’s intention to emphasize the silly side of the proceedings. As Susanna, Marlis Petersen shows a deft touch with comedy but this is the first time I’ve seen a Susanna who is positively goofy. Ildar Abdrazakov makes much of the humourous aspects of Figaro’s character, with his boyish face and his mischievous grin. Since he is one of those big men who can be very light on his feet, his dainty dance steps (even in the curtain call) add charm to the performance.

But I found some of the staging lacking in ingenuity. Too often, the cast members were lined up in a stilted arrangement across the front of the stage. The scene where Figaro is taunting Cherubino about the rigours of army life can lead to inventive business but nothing interesting happened this time, just some horsing around. The Countess’s great aria, "Dove sono," lost some of its effect because of the fact that she was required to pace frantically around a banquet table, in her cocktail dress and heels, looking like a hostess fretting about the guest list. Then there was the problem with the big moment when the Countess suddenly emerges and reveals, with a note of forgiveness, that she’s wise to the Count’s scheming. In the Met’s previous production of Figaro, this was a coup de theatre. In this case, the Countess’s entrance was completely lacking in drama. The Count’s subsequent request for forgiveness did have the requisite solemnity, though.

None of this is to suggest that there was anything wrong with the production musically. It was sublimely sung, in almost every respect. For me, the high point was the Countess’s supremely challenging "Porgi amor." Delivered with absolute perfection by Amanda Majeski while languishing on a bed, it was a wrenching message of heartbreak and despair. As Susanna, Ms. Petersen has a burnished, golden soprano but it lacks some of the youthful brightness you expect in that role. The role of Figaro offers lots of opportunities for bravura singing but I thought Mr. Abdrazakov’s best moment, vocally, was the brief "Tutto tranquillo et placido" where the lush, velvety quality of his voice was most noticeable. Peter Mattei brought all the snarl and snap that you expect of the count to his "Hai gi vinta la causa." John Del Carlo had plenty of bluster and bulk (was that all him or was a fat suit involved?) but his bass voice didn’t have the imposing quality of the usual Dr. Bartolo. It’s always interesting to see how a Cherubino will handle the jewel that is "Voi che sapete." Isabel Leonard started the piece in a stagey, declamatory way, as though that’s what Cherubino thought was expected of him, before getting carried away in the more heartfelt mode.


Gone Girl (Movie) screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name; directed by David Fincher; starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennan, Lisa Barnes

The book version of Gone Girl was one of the best mysteries I’ve read. (It’s reviewed on DD Oct 4/12.) But how could anyone make a movie of it? The book’s structure is very complicated and there’s a big reveal about half way through that would be difficult to handle on screen. Or so it seemed to me.

To her great credit, author and scriptwriter Gillian Flynn has accomplished the task amazingly well.

The story starts with Nick, a fairly nice and reasonable-seeming guy, arriving home from a walk on the beach to find that his wife, Amy, is missing from the house. The front door is open and there are signs of a struggle in the living room, plus possible blood spots here and there. We gradually learn that Nick and Amy had glamorous jobs as writers in Manhattan until the financial crisis of 2008 overturned their lifestyle. They’ve moved back to his home town in Missouri where he now owns a bar with his sister. As the days after Amy’s disappearance add up, it begins to look more and more like Nick is to blame for her being missing, not least because she left behind a diary with some hints in it that things in the marriage might not be hunky-dory.

The question of the diary was one of the big challenges for the film adaptation, I figured. It’s handled effectively here, mostly through voice-overs, as we see Amy’s hand jotting down a few words every now and then. I’m resistant to voice-overs when they look like a lazy script-writer’s way of avoiding the difficult job of dramatizing something. But the voice-over is appropriate and effective here, especially when it comes to the big reveal.

The only drawback to the movie version of the story is that, because movie-goers aren’t going to sit through pages and pages of diary, we miss a great deal of detail from Amy’s depiction of their marriage and their past lives. The movie’s flashbacks give only the skimpiest idea of what their life in New York was like. The biggest loss is that we don’t get the delicious irony in the contrast between Nick’s take on their marriage as he sees it now and Amy’s view of it as described in the diary.

Apart from that, the book makes it pretty well intact to the screen – as far as I could tell. (There may be some new ingredients towards the end of the movie but I’m not sure about that.) Even if you’ve read the book, the movie keeps your attention. At slightly more than two and a half hours, it never lags; every scene leaps at you with the promise of something new. What helps is that a dual structure kicks in after a certain point; every two adjacent scenes give alternating points of view on the story.

As Nick, the man at the centre of the turmoil, Ben Affleck has achieved a new level of excellence when it comes to portraying the ordinary guy – nothing starry about him – who is besieged by trouble big time. But Mr. Affleck, being such a good actor, can convey feelings and thoughts in a more meaningful, more touching way than the guy next door might be able to. Take the moment when Nick responds to his sister’s comment about Amy’s disappearance: "The fact that I don’t want to be around her doesn’t mean that I don’t care about her." The look on Nick’s face is an encyclopedia entry about ambiguity and mixed feelings.

Flashbacks give us Rosamund Pike as Amy. There’s something a bit odd about her stone-faced, statuesque beauty. It’s as if there is something too edgy under the polished exterior. But that turns out to be appropriate as the story unfolds. There’s also something slightly weird, almost creepy, about Neil Patrick Harris as an old boyfriend of Amy’s. I don’t think this guy had that quality of strangeness in the book but it helps to give the movie a slightly more ominous spin.

Most of the other characters, though, excel in the normal-as-baked-beans department. Kim Dickens, as the detective who leads the search for Amy, has that unpolished, plain-speaking-gal quality that I’m inclined to trace back to Frances McDormand’s cop in Fargo, although I suspect that there have been plenty of tv versions of that character since. In a similar vein, Carrie Coon comes on strong as Nick’s twin who is very loving but so candid that she cuts through all the surrounding bullshit like a blast from the north pole. Another interesting casting choice is that of the cop who accompanies the detective in most scenes. His role is obviously that of the "bad" cop, as opposed to Ms. Dickens’ "good" cop, but the fact that Patrick Fugit has a rather sweet, innocent face makes the character more interesting than if a typically tough-looking actor were cast in the role.

Ultimately, Gone Girl takes more than one turn into the bizarre. In the process, it becomes not so much a whodunnit as something of a Hitchcockian psychological horror story. Things become so weird that I’m not sure that the story has any meaning or significance, other than providing a couple of hours of good viewing. Admittedly, there are some good points made about the public’s knee-jerk response to the prevalance of the media in contemporary life. And you do find yourself marvelling at the fact that it can be awfully hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t when you’re seeing things from different characters’ points of view. It’s possible that the movie does get a person thinking about relationships and the strange ways in which they can go wrong – or right, depending on what you’re looking for.


Calvary (Movie) written and directed by John Michael McDonagh; starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, David Wilmot, Aiden Gillan, Gary Lydon, Owen Sharpe, Orla O’Rourke, Dylan Moran, Michael Og Lane

If you’re planning to see this movie, you’ve got to catch the first scene.

Father James, (Brendan Gleeson) is sitting in the confessional. A man (whom we don’t see) arrives on the other side and starts talking to him. This person isn’t actually making a confession. He’s talking about some terrible things that another priest did to him when he was a child. He ends by making a dire threat against Father James. I can’t say anymore than that without giving away the main plot of the movie, but my reason for saying this much is that you have to see Mr. Gleeson’s face through this five minutes of screen time. It’s a superb example of subtle acting that conveys a wide range of emotions experienced by a human being in a very difficult situation.

On leaving the confessional, we follow Father James on his daily rounds in Sligo, Ireland (It looks like this is a village or small town in Sligo County, not the city of Sligo.) Apart from that ominous confessional scene, this appears to be shaping up like one of those soap operas along the lines of Coronation Street or Heartbeat, where we visit various colourful local characters. There’s a feeling of "set pieces" as Father James has genial chats with one parishioner after another: the boy who’s painting a seascape, the old writer who wants to die, the young man who can’t get laid, the woman with a suspicious bruise around her eye.

We discover that Father James was once married and has a daughter. (He became a priest after his wife died.) The daughter (Kelly Reilly) recently tried to commit suicide and she’s now visiting him in what seems to be a kind of convalescence. Also, the info is dropped in our ears that Father James was once known to be a bit too fond of drink. He even swears if the occasion calls for it. For the most part, though, he’s a laid-back, cordial guy, who has a knack for dispensing a few words of wisdom, often with a touch of wry humour – even when deflecting antagonism aimed at him.

Since I tend to be keenly alert to errors in the Catholic details in movies, books and plays – and since that can sometimes prejudice me against those works – let’s get my beefs on that score out of the way right now:

  •  I find it highly unlikely that, in the 21st century, a priest would roam about town in his black cassock – even in Ireland.
  • I’ve known many priests and have been in recreational contexts with them often. I don’t think any priests in private, friendly conversation would ever address each other as "Father," rather than by their first names.
  • I have no problem with the idea of a widower priest with a daughter but I think it would be quite improper and – what’s more, unlikely – for him to hear her confession.
  • No two priests that I ever knew would discuss someone’s confession in a way that could identify that person.

And why do these quibbles matter? It’s a question of verisimilitude. If the writer/director can’t get these details right, why should I trust him to have a genuine understanding of human nature as portrayed in the situations he’s presenting? Many of them here – whether or not you’re bugged by the slip-ups re Catholicism – are far-fetched. Rather than being one of those charming villages in a BBC soap opera, this place is a hell hole. Everybody has a grudge against the church or against Father James personally. People are constantly taunting him and insulting him. People accost him with tired old arguments about the existence of God and complaints about the Church’s wealth.

Granted, Ireland’s economy has taken a downturn and I suppose that partially accounts for the bitchiness that prevails in this village. But Father James encounters only two nice people in his rambles and neither of them is Irish. Three characters, in particular, are some of the most outrageous, over-the-top creations that I’ve ever seen on screen: an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) who is viciously bitter; an adulteress (Orla O’Rourke) who vamps it up like she thinks she’s Mata Hari; and a nauseatingly flamboyant gay hustler (Owen Sharpe) who acts as if he’s modelling his shtick after one of the "Sharks" or the "Jets" from West Side Story. As far as I can see, the only reason for this character’s presence in the movie is that writer/director Mr. McDonagh wants to show that contemporary Ireland is so "with-it" that the village's male cop can have a gay boyfriend.

And some of the situations are preposterous. Why would a priest stand and watch somebody urinate on a valuable oil painting? Why would a village in Ireland, a country noted for its old stone churches, have a wooden church perched at the top of the cliff, looking like it belonged in Muskoka cottage country, unless the script demanded it as an obvious target for an arsonist? The final scene, although very dramatic, is not one that any sensible person would consent, as Father James does, to take part in.

Given such a freak show, it would hardly be fair to accuse the actors of being hammy. A few of them, though, actually manage to spark some interest in their characters. Dylan Moran, who plays a rich guy who lives alone in a castle, at first appears to be nothing but an arrogant s.o.b. but he gradually becomes more interesting. And Chris O’Dowd, an actor whom we’re accustomed to seeing in nice-guy roles, is intriguing here as a more ambiguous character. As for the Father James role, if any actor could give a credible picture of such a man when saddled with such a ridiculous script, Mr. Gleeson is the man. He’s always fascinatingly believable and watchable in spite of the nonsense going on around him. For his sake, the Academy Awards should come up with a new category: best performance by an actor in a movie ranking as one of the worst.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com