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Apr 23/16

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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: Everybody Wants Some (Movie); In Wonder (Poem); Two Lives (Poem); Anhedonia, Here I Come (Short Fiction); The Assad Files (Article); Henry VI, Parts One and Two (Play); Madama Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro (Operas); The Voyeur's Motel (Article); My Purple Scented Novel (Short Fiction); Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me (Documentary); Finders Keepers (Crime); The Woods (Mystery)

Everybody Wants Some (Movie) written and directed by Richard Linklater; starring Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, Courtney Tailor, Taylor Murphy, Christina Burdette

It’s the fall of 1980 and Jake has arrived for his first day of college. He’s moving into a house shared by the members of the college’s winning baseball team. The chippy, combative welcome from some of his new house mates is a bit disconcerting to the guileless, easy-going Jake (Blake Jenner). But,what the hell, he does his best to blend in.

Which involves a lot of beer, lewd talk, drugs and propositioning girls.

Within minutes, I was thinking of the movie Summer of 42 that came out in 1971. It dared to show that college-age boys had explicit sexual intentions. One guy admitted that he’d thought he was "coping a feel" during a movie but it turned out that he was only stroking his date’s elbow. Content like that made a lot of us see this movie as edgy and ahead of its time. So it was somewhat disappointing, even saddening, to hear the reaction of some older viewers. I think it was Canada’s well-known radio personality, Max Ferguson, who said something like: "If this is what young men are supposed to be like, I don’t want to know them." That seemed a harsh response to what struck most of us as innocent boyishness.

But the guys in Everybody Wants Some made me feel exactly the way Mr. Ferguson did about the ones in the older movie. They look like choir boys compared to the ones here. Repellent is the only word for them. Granted, most of them are magazine-model handsome, with magnificent teeth, beautiful complexions and hot bodies. But they strut around, making a show of bravado; it’s clearly a contest to see who can display the most testosterone. Everything about them is competitive, aggressive and show-off-ish. They can hardly say anything to each other unless it’s formulated as an exaggerated insult, usually with sexual innuendo.

What, then, could explain the fact that this movie’s getting such a rapturous response? Maybe we’re supposed to enjoy the nostalgic look at life for youth in the 1980s: the primitive video games, the record albums. Maybe we’re supposed to look affectionately on the taunting as a male-bonding ritual. And there is, admittedly, a touch of a humorous theme in the way these guys talk about the awful fate of the ordinary guy who knows he has no chance of playing pro baseball. Should we trust that writer/director Richard Linklater, acclaimed for such highly esteemed works as the "Before" triology (i.e. Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) and Boyhood, still has something worthwhile up his sleeve?

I tried. But these jerks made it impossible for me to like anything about the movie. Not because of the sexual jibes or the boozing or the strutting, or the braggadocio as such. My problem isn’t about morals or ethics. It’s about esthetics. Not one of these guys is real. They’re constantly posing, striving for effects. Were guys ever like this? I don’t think so. None of them ever has a moment where he expresses anything genuine. We don’t get a single revelation of anything that isn’t intended to impress other guys or women. It’s hard to say for sure whether the problem is with the script or the acting. Could better actors make these lines sound like they’re coming from humans? Maybe. Maybe not.

In any case, the atmosphere of the proceedings was so toxic that I had to bail after a gruelling fifty minutes. Later in the movie, would the guys – some of them, at least – show themselves as recognizable human beings? There seemed to be a hint of that in the case of one guy, a blonde with long hair and a beard (Wyatt Russell), the resident expert on the art of using the bong to smoke herbal substances. He had a few moments where he seemed content to be himself, not to put on an act of being cool and hip. Possibly, similar breakthroughs in some of the other characters were in store. But I couldn’t stay seated long enough to find out. Never have my fingers itched so intensely for the fast-forward button.

 

More New Yorker Notables

It’s not often that a New Yorker includes two poems that I like. Usually, I have trouble understanding one or both of the poems in an issue. However, one recent edition offers two beauties.

"In Wonder" Poem, by Charles Simic. The New Yorker, April 18, 2106. This fragment of simple, straight-forward musing, just thirteen lines long, starts with a guy remembering that, last night, he was unable to sleep because he was mad about something, but now he can’t remember what it was. (Doesn’t that strike some of us as a familiar scenario!) From there he goes on to marvel at some ordinary things which, thanks to his marvellous imagery, begin to seem extraordinary.

"Two Lives" (Poem) by Carl Dennis. The New Yorker, April 18, 2016. The poet is reflecting on what it might have been like if his father had been killed in World War II and he, the son, had been raised by his mother who, as a widow, had to struggle to make a living. He contrasts this hypothetical life with the comparatively privileged one he actually did live, his father being too old to be drafted into service. This leads Mr. Dennis to some subtle implications about social issues. The most brilliant touch is the way that the poet imagines how the lives of these two different boys might have crossed paths. The last line of the poem is so effective that I’d love to quote it here but that would be like giving away a comedian’s best punch line.

Anhedonia, Here I Come (Short Fiction) by Colin Barrett; The New Yorker, April 18, 2016

At first, this piece -- about a day in the life of a seedy young poet -- looked like one of the worst pieces of New Yorker writing I’d ever encountered. The first column of text contains some ten ly-adverbs in a laboured, wordy description of the subject’s circumstances. However, the piece turns into a poignant picture of a life on the edge. A wry, droll humour emerges, along with some pointed social commentary. So what about the iffy aspect of the writing? Is it, perhaps, an attempt to suggest how the subject, the young poet himself, might have chosen to write about his life?

The Assad Files (Article) by Ben Taub; The New Yorker, April 18, 2016

A long, careful investigation, this article details the work of an organization known as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. The CIJA accumulates documents that have been smuggled out of Syria and that link the atrocities and tortures committed there to the highest government authorities. Founded by Bill Wiley, a Canadian, who completed a Ph.D. in international criminal law at York University, the CIJA is a response to the International Criminal Court’s ineffectiveness at dealing with such issues. Now funded by various government’s, including Canada’s, the CIJA operates from a secret headquarters in Europe. Amazing to discover that such heroic, intrepid work is going on in our times.

 

Henry IV Parts One and Two (DVDs) by William Shakespeare; directed by Dominic Dromgoole; designed by Jonathan Fensom; music by Claire van Kempen; starring Jamie Parker, Roger Allam, Oliver Cotton, Sam Crane, Barbara Marten, William Gaunt, Paul Rider; Shakespeare’s Globe; 2010

As with the production of Twelfth Night by Shakespeare’s Globe, these shows give you an idea of what it might have been like to attend performances in the playwright’s time and in the kind of theatres available to him. (Except that, in these two productions, the female roles are taken by women.) This twentieth-century recreation of the Globe theatre, on a spot close to the location of the Elizabethan original, is open to the sky, with three layers of galleries surrounding a pit and a thrust stage.

These shows continue with all the energy, vitality and rumbustious carry-on that the Globe company displayed in Twelfth Night. The lively music has a distinctly Elizabethan sourness. In comparison to the kind of theatres that we’re more accustomed to, a venue like this does show one disadvantage when it comes to a play like Henry IV Part One. The comic robbery scene, meant to be taking place in darkness, is enacted in broad daylight. This requires a major effort at suspension of disbelief if we’re going to buy into the confusion that the darkness is supposed to be causing. Maybe Shakespeare’s audiences took those imaginative leaps more easily; they didn’t have any choice.

Jamie Parker makes a fine, fit Prince Hal, conveying a balance of the rogue and the noble in his character. But he takes a boisterous approach to the famous "I know you all" speech, in which he first reveals that he sees himself as well above the level of his buddies. I’ve always thought of that monologue as thoughtful and soul-searching. Mr. Parker’s swaggering, tipsy delivery of it, although unexpected, probably does have some validity in the context of the preceding tavern scene. But his bravado makes you wonder whether or not you can believe him. However, the scenes where he apologizes to his father and promises to reform are harrowing.

Even so, the character of Hal is hard to read. Why does he turn so suddenly and harshly against Falstaff in the end? Perhaps that was simply the way it had to be for Shakespeare: you couldn’t end up with a monarch who didn’t make a complete break from his dissolute past. An acceptable stance politically, perhaps, but a harder one to understand in human terms. Thus, a difficult role for any actor to pull off. Mr. Parker does it as convincingly as anybody could.

It’s not surprising that Roger Allam won the 2010 Olivier Award for best actor in his role as Falstaff. Mr. Allam is obviously a skilfull comedian, a totally theatrical creature. If the response on the DVDs can be relied on, he had audiences eating out of the palm of his hand. And yet, there was something about his performance that didn’t endear me to the character. For one thing, Mr. Allam looks too noble; he’s too handsome. In spite of his wily tricks, his craftiness, I could never believe that there was anything of the genuine scoundrel about him. The most serious fault I could find with the man was that he was such a poseur – always striking attitudes, playing to the peanut gallery. His long paean of praise to sack, his favourite drink, was clearly timed for the build-up to the inevitable applause. However, this stagey quality of the performance may have been less noticeable in the Globe theatre than on screen.

I also had a problem with Sam Crane in the role of Hotspur. Mr. Crane, too, is an excellent actor; no complaint on that score. But he didn’t strike me as the right person for Hotspur. Mr. Crane has plenty of temper, vigour and spite – all requisite for the role. But there is a sensitive look to Mr. Crane. It may be just a question of his physicality: trim and willowy. It seems almost unfair to criticize an actor for the way he looks but Mr. Crane’s appearance, or his personality as conveyed by his demeanour, made it implausible that he could be the macho warrior who would rail against the art of poetry.

Many other roles were, of course, excellently performed by this company of highly-trained Shakespearean actors. Some that stood out for me were Barbara Marten as Mistress Quickly and Paul Rider as Bardolph: two vivid and amusing characters. In the cases of both actors, it was something of a shock to discover, on studying the cast list after seeing the shows, that they had been double cast in quite contrasting roles: she as Lady Northumberland and he as the Archbishop of York. I was also completely charmed by the doddering and loveable Justice Shallow as played by William Gaunt in Part Two.

That play strikes me as vastly inferior to Part One. It appears that Shakespeare fell into what we now know as the sequel trap. Responding to popular demand, it would seem, he greatly expanded the roles of Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and the tavern gang, to the point that their shenanigans seem almost completely disconnected from the more serious part of the play. (In fact, Prince Hal’s role in Part Two is much smaller than in Part One.) As a result, the work as a whole doesn’t have much dramatic impact. People stand around speechifying far too much. Granted, the feeling of not being very engaged may be partly due to the fact that it’s difficult for a casual viewer to follow much of the political/military machinations of the plot. Something about a rebellion – what? Maybe that material was fresher in the minds of Shakespeare’s audiences. Or maybe the play’s themes had special resonance in their times.

 

Madama Butterfly (Opera) by Giacomo Puccini; conducted by Karel Mark Chichon; production by Anthony Minghella; starring Kristine Opolais, Roberto Alagna, Maria Zifchak, Dwayne Croft; puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Broadcast, April 2, 2016

Madama Butterfly is one of those operas that stays in your mind so vividly that you sometimes feel you never need to see it again – unless something draws you to a particular production. Such as this one by Anthony Minghella. I’d been hearing raves about it since the show premiered at the Met in 2006 but this was my first opportunity to sample it.

The set is extremely minimalist – just some panels that slide back and forth across the stage by way of suggesting something like a Japanese cottage. The zooming of these panels in and out make for dramatic effect, even if I couldn’t always see any rationale to the movements in terms of plot or domestic arrangements. Other than the panels, the stage was bare except for a few chairs and a ramp stretching across the back of the stage. Many characters – Butterfly and her female cohort, for instance – entered by climbing up the back of this ramp, so that we saw their heads first, then walking down the ramp to stage level. Behind the ramp, a scrim was flooded with one solid colour – red, orange, or green, for example – according to the mood of the moment. This was one production where lighting was everything.

It immediately became apparent why this stark setting works so well. The story of the opera is so simple, it’s such a classic of our culture, that you don’t need the distraction of a lot of bric-a-brac and scenic detail. Without all that, the symbolism, the hard human truth of the piece, the fact that it tells a timeless story, stands out more clearly. One of the most striking moments of imaginative interpretation came in the love duet at the end of the first act. Instead of the usual starry sky, we got white Japanese lanterns bobbing in the darkness, forming various conglomerations that suggested some kind of non-verbal, inchoate joy. (The lanterns were manipulated by black-clad, veiled dancers who could barely be seen.)

The symbolic effect of the production was never more striking than in the portrayal of Butterfly’s little boy by means of a puppet. It was uncanny to see how this inanimate object, with careful handling by puppeteers, could express more poignancy, more heart-breaking pathos, than some cast member’s nephew garbed in a mini kimono and trying to keep a solemn face. The effect of the puppet was all the more startling – to me – in that he was rather an ugly tyke: bald, with tight, strained features almost like a fetus. Maybe that look is a feature of the traditional Bunraku Japanese puppet theatre that the production was chanelling.

One of my reservations about attending this show had to do with the casting of Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. I was afraid that Roberto Alagna would be unsuitable, at age fifty-two, not just for the portrayal of the rambunctious character, but more worryingly, for the heroic singing required. To my delight, Signor Alagna proved himself perfectly fit for the challenge. True, he didn’t look like a twenty-something, but he conveyed the freshness and vigour that the role called for. Best of all, his voice, if it did sound a bit harsh occasionally in the lower register, soared with effortless grace and brilliance to the height of the score’s demands.

On first hearing Kristine Opolais’ voice from offstage, it struck me that this was the sound of a woman too mature for Butterfly. Ms. Opolais sings beautifully; her voice is rich and full but it doesn’t have the brightness, the timorous excitement that you expect in a Butterfly. As for her acting, she did manage to convey the sense of a demure young woman but she seemed to belong to contemporary  Western culture. I don’t know whether it’s racist of me to say this, but there was no sense of the Asian woman's highly-trained deference to men that makes you feel her betrayal all the more keenly. Maybe the Met’s not emphasizing the Asian qualities of Butterfly was in keeping with the counter-racist policy that had them casting a white actor, Alexandrs Antonenko, as Otello, without putting him in blackface. [reviewed on DD page Oct 29/15] But Ms. Opolais served the work well, she got the story told. Maybe that is what matters most of all.

After the curtain calls, some elderly women sitting behind me were having trouble getting to their feet. One of them said: "I just want to sit here and have it start all over again." Not me. I almost never want to see another Butterfly. At least, not for a long time. Too emotionally wrenching.

 

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Jordan de Souza; directed by Claus Guth; starring Josef Wagner, Jane Archibald, Robert Pomakov, Helene Schneiderman, Emily Fons, Russell Braun, Michael Colvin, Erin Wall, Doug MacNaughton, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Sasha Djihanian, Uli Kirsch. Canadian Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Four Seasons Centre, Toronto; Feb 25, 2016

Some updated settings show operas in a new light that gives them a certain significance that you don’t get from traditional productions. The Met’s recent productions of La Traviata and Rigoletto are outstanding examples. But I’ve yet to see a modernization of The Marriage of Figaro that satisfies me. The Met’s new production, set in a baronial manor house in the 1930s, strikes me as too sombre – all that dark wood panelling. [reviewed on DD page Oct 29/14] To me, that robs the piece of some of its glory. Figaro seems to need a golden-lit aura, an airy elegance, even if the Count's palatial abode is getting a bit tattered.

As for the Canadian Opera’s production (first created for the Salzburg Festival), you could call it the surrealistic version of the piece, one that seems to be intent on bringing out the Freudian interpretations of the goings-on. People pop out of trap doors in the floor and, for some reason or other, dead crows keep turning up. A winged cherub – who doesn’t appear in traditional productions – appears to represent the spirit of Eros or some such deviltry. The performer in this role, Uli Kirsch, is a nimble dancer or acrobat who flits about the stage, seeming to cast spells on people. The intention seems to be that, when he’s involved, people reveal aspects of themselves that they would otherwise keep hidden. One of the most bizarre effects occurs when Figaro’s singing one of his arias: a door opens upstage and we see a man, clearly Figaro’s double, hanging upside down in the door frame and replicating Figaro’s gestures. Hard to say exactly what that means but it does hint at things that wouldn’t come to mind during a typical Figaro.

In modern dress, the show is largely a black and white and grey and silver affair. It struck me as delightfully ironic that the peasants, when expressing their loyalty to the Count and Countess, instead of appearing in colourful rustic apparel, came on in drab garb and stood rigidly like members of the Red Army Chorus or the Salvation Army Band.

At first, I didn’t find Josef Wagner a friendly or engaging Figaro. Rather business-like in his approach to his troubles. But he did warm up towards the end of the show. Russell Braun didn’t provide quite the snap and bite that you expect during the Count’s bravura aria "Hai gia vinta la causa...." but maybe no singer could have done his best if that winged cherub was sitting on his shoulders for the first part of the aria, then dragging him across the stage as he continued singing. One thing that I particularly liked about this production was that Marcellina (Helene Schneiderman) wasn’t an old hag. She was, rather, just une femme d’un certain age, i.e. someone who’s past her prime, a bit prissy and fussy, her apparel a bit dated, but not the ludicrously comic character you often get in this role. This made Marcellina and her situation vis a vis Figaro more believable.

For me, the highlight of the production was Emily Fons in the role of Cherubino. When she first appeared on stage, Ms. Fons looked so boyish, with her short hair and her athletic stance, that I hadn’t realized who the character was; I’d thought it was some boy whose part in the piece I couldn’t recall. But then she opened her mouth to sing, revealing that she was a soprano. So this was Cherubino, someone who actually looked exactly like a teenage male!

Some of that effect could be attributed to the fact that Ms. Fons, with her lean physique and her sharp features, may look a bit like a tomboy offstage. But the success of her interpretation wasn’t just about the look. She had the body language of this boy down perfectly. There wasn’t a moment when her gestures didn’t express the authentic teenage male. Usually, sopranos in this role stomp their feet and try to appear boyish in stereotypical ways. Not Ms. Fons. She was all male in the subtlest of ways. On top of which, she had one of the most beautiful voices in the show!

Being very tired on the night, and having approached this production with some skepticism, I was prepared to leave at the intermission. The proof of the production’s power was that it kept me in my seat right to the end. I did think that it was going a bit too far when one character drew Cherubino’s blood while taunting him. But I came away thinking that, if the production didn’t show all the beauties of Figaro in the way that pleases me most, it certainly was worth seeing. Mozart, being a pre-Freudian, might have been somewhat nonplussed at what was happening, but I think there may have been just enough of a kinky streak in his character to make him appreciate the show for its weirdness.

 

New Yorker Notables

The Voyeur’s Motel (Article) by Gay Talese, The New Yorker, April 11, 2016

You don’t often get an article that packs a wallop like this one.

Author Gay Talese tells about a man who, years ago, made an astounding confession to him. The man had bought a motel and installed vents in the ceilings of the rooms so that he could spy on guests while he crouched in the attic. Mainly, it seems, the man’s motivation was sexual. He’d been a self-confessed voyeur since he was a boy. As a motel owner, he justified his voyeurism by writing extensive notes about what he saw, not just about the sexual practices, but also about other interactions that revealed much about the relationships of couples. The man justified his hobby as important sociological research. Since his subjects weren’t aware that they were being watched, he claimed that his findings were more valuable than those of sex researchers whose subjects were knowingly being observed. The man justified his intrusion on his guests’ privacy on the grounds that no harm was done; it’s not as if he was posting videos of them on the Internet.

At first, the man – who had contacted Mr. Talese because of the author’s known interest in sexual habits in our society – had pledged the writer to secrecy. But now, in old age, the man wants to be known for his findings. I’ve seldom encountered an article that raises so many disturbing questions about legality, privacy and self-justification regarding what seems flagrantly immoral.

 

My Purple Scented Novel (Short Fiction) by Ian McEwan, The New Yorker, March 28, 2016.

Given the fact that Ian McEwan has written so much excellent fiction, anything of his is worth taking a look at – even if it seems a bit unpromising at first, as this one does. It’s a prosaic narrative, a bit plodding, with lots of explanation and hardly any dialogue. It proceeds in a matter-of-fact style, in one man’s voice, with few embellishments or literary flourishes, just facts, events. Ultimately, it’s about something momentous that occurred between two writer friends. It could be considered a kind of morality tale. On one level, there’s a great simplicity to it; it’s barely more than an anecdote. And yet, in the end, you realize that it has been carefully plotted, leading you unsuspectingly to the astonishing conclusion.

Is it a sign of great strength in a story when it leaves you angry? I think so.

 

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (Documentary) directed by James Keach; with Glen Campbell, Kim Campbell, Ashley Campbell, Ronald Petersen and many others; 2014

In 2011, as Glen Campbell was about to embark on a cross-country tour, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Campbell and his family decided to go ahead with the tour. What’s more, they allowed a documentary team to tag along, making a record of how the star and his entourage were coping with his debilitating condition.

Seem a bit ghoulish? A bit exhibitionistic, even for a big star? Maybe. But it’s a legitimate subject for a film. As far as I know, we don’t have any documentary record of how a famous person, in real life, is affected by Alzheimer’s. The matter is of genuine interest. It was courageous – almost altruistic, you might say – of the Campbells to agree to the filming.

The film, completed in 2014, gives fascinating glimpses into Mr. Campbell’s plight. We see interviews with his doctors, in which he makes jokes about his failing memory. A banjo duet with his daughter Ashley shows that he is still a fantastic instrumentalist. (I hadn’t realized he was so talented in that respect.) Tributes to his significance in popular culture come from the likes of Bill Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Steve Martin. As the Campbell troupe’s rolling stock travels across the country – racking up over 100 concerts – there are moments of frustration and confusion, times when Mr. Campbell flails helplessly in the middle of a concert, unable to find his way with a song. At home with his wife, Kim, there are moments of bad temper. But there’s also a tremendous amount of affection and happiness on display.

Catching up with Mr. Campbell at this point in his life was intriguing for someone who hadn’t followed much of his career in the past few decades. In my memory, he has always stood as a symbol of something beautiful that was happening back in the 1960s. Who couldn’t have been touched, in the spirit of those days, by his "Try A Little Kindness"?

But, all the goodwill and positivity of this film notwithstanding, certain aspects of it bother me. First, there’s the sense of the "Great Man" whom everything revolves around. I suppose this aura is inevitable, given the situation, but the adulation becomes cloying. You wish for moments when somebody could say something that would restore him to the level of an ordinary human being. There are passing references to dark periods of his life. His drinking too much, for instance, and the hint that his wife, Kim, helped him to quit. Also, it appears that she’s his fourth attempt at matrimony. Without wanting to be judgmental, you can’t help wondering what that’s about. But this film isn’t going there.

Just as well, maybe, in that it’s too long. Some of the commentary by Kim could have been cut. Her prevalence is one of the things that I find hardest to take. She’s apparently a loving person who’s good for her husband but she looks like one of those fifty-ish women who’s still trying to convey the image of a cheer leader. Maybe that’s expected in the showbiz culture that she inhabits. To a viewer like me, though, it tends to add a cheesy note. Another thing that seems to be essential to the Campbells’ culture is the sentimental, knee-jerk reference to God. That may be authentic to the family and the hangers-on but it comes off sounding a bit superficial. You crave some investigation into the subject. What, for instance, was the role of God in those failed marriages, in the drinking binges?

And then there’s the response of the fans. Why do hundreds of thousands of people around North America turn out to see a star in serious decline? What are they expecting from these events? They claim that they cherish the opportunity for one last encounter with the legend. It’s all supposed to be heart-warming and uplifting. But maybe it says something a little less noble about human nature. Maybe it’s about the human craving to watch a train wreck happening.

Whatever their motives for attending, those audiences were huge and wildly enthusiastic. And that raises the question that looms largest as the unexamined issue about this tour. Everybody’s hailing Mr. Campbell’s heroism in undertaking the project. Nobody acknowledges the obvious fact that, yes, the show must go on because it’s such a great money-maker for the family and everybody involved.

 

Finders Keepers (Mystery) by Stephen King, 2015

If you begin to get a feeling of dja vu while reading this, there’s a good reason: you may in fact, have read it before – or some of it, at least.

Stephen King opens this book with a focus on one of the victims of the violence that launched his previous book, Mr. Mercedes. No one who read that novel could forget the scene of a vicious man driving his car into a line of people waiting to get into a job fair. We’re now looking at a man, a husband and the father of two kids, who was seriously injured in that crime. Having been left severely handicapped, he has been struggling ever since to make a living and his family is facing some very hard times.

Flipping back to some twenty years earlier, we witness the grisly murder of a celebrated writer, John Rothstein, who created a famous character named Jimmy Gold. The Gold character sounds like a soldier of fortune, along the lines of Lee Child’s "Jack Reacher" but Rothstein seems to have been more in the league of someone like John Updike. The arc of the life of Rothstein’s fictional character sounds, if not in its details but in the sense of a life unfolding, something like the arc that Mr. Updike sketched out in his novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. In Finders Keepers, the murderer killed Rothstein out of sheer anger that he had allowed this brave, inspiring character to settle into a humdrum career in advertising.

Also, the murderer was hoping to gain access to some moleskins in which, according to rumour, Rothstein had sketched out further glorious escapades for Gold, even though there was no intention to publish them. Having obtained the moleskins from the writer’s safe – along with a fair bit of cash, although that wasn’t the main point – the murderer buried them and the money in a trunk on a river bank, whereupon he was thrown into jail for many years as a result of a brutal rape committed in an alcoholic blackout.

Returning to present day, we see that Pete Saubers, the young teen whose dad was so badly injured by the Mr. Mercedes crime, happens to find the buried trunk. Could this treasure possibly provide the solution to the problems the kid’s family is facing?

Mr. King, as we know, is a terrific story-teller. He knows well how to build suspense and to keep us hooked. He can also throw in the unexpected twist, often in terms of some particularly malicious – but believable – psychological quirk on the part of a character. About half way through the book, he introduces us again to Bill Hodges, the retired cop detective who was so sympathetic and effective in Mr. Mercedes. I did find it a bit odd, though, that Mr. King brings in elements of real life, such as references to the writer Michael Connelly. Near the end of the book, there’s a protracted discussion about an article that’s being written for The New Yorker. There’s talk of how much the writer’s going to be paid. A real-life New Yorker editor is mentioned. Nothing wrong with these touches, I suppose, but I find them slightly jarring. Is Mr. King having a bit of fun in tearing down the "fourth wall," to use the theatrical term? The final scene in the book, which takes us back to a character from Mr. Mercedes, involves a bit of surrealism, or what you might call a paranormal phenomenon. That’s not the sort of thing I enjoy but Mr. King can be forgiven for indulging in it just a little.

One of the more problematic aspects of the book, for me, is the dialogue among the teen characters, particularly the conversations between Pete Saubers and his younger sister. Their corny lingo makes them sound like supposed hep cats from long ago. But the greater problem regarding this boy is the fact that he and the bad guy who murdered Rothstein both happen to be obsessive fans of his. For the plot of the book to work, it’s necessary that these two guys, separated by twenty or more years in age, are driven to extremes in their devotion to this same writer. Such fanaticism might be possible in the case of one character but I find it implausible that both these characters are afflicted by the same syndrome. I’m not saying that couldn’t happen in real life, just that it doesn’t convince me here.

Which is not to say that the reading of the book isn’t thoroughly enjoyable – just that it would have had more impact, it would have carried me along more grippingly, but for my doubts about its central premise.

 

The Woods (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2007

This reminds me of the type of mystery that Ruth Rendell used to write under the pseudonym of "Barbara Vine": partly a whodunnit, but more of a what happened? and how?

What we do know, in this case, is that a multiple murder happened many years ago in a woods near a kids’ camp. Two teenagers, having sneaked into the woods to make out, were found dead, their throats slit. Two other teens, who’d accompanied the others on this romp, were also presumed to have been killed. Their bodies were never found but fragments of their bloodied clothes were caught in tree branches. Now, twenty years later, a guy turns up recently murdered, and it appears he’s one of the teens that was thought to have been killed in the woods but whose body was never found.

The cops immediately focus on Paul Copeland, a prosecuting attorney, because the recently murdered guy’s pockets contained newspaper clippings that had appeared at the time of the original murders in the woods. Those clippings made prominent mention of Mr. Copeland, who happened to be one of the counsellors at the camp. In a way, the slaughter was his fault because, instead of standing guard duty that night, he’d been indulging in a bit of snogging with his sweetie. And one of the teens thought to be murdered, although her body was never found, was his sister.

Lots of material there for intriguing attempts at re-structuring of the past.

But one of the most interesting aspects of the book is a case that Mr. Copeland, or Cope, as he’s known, is prosecuting here and now. It involves two frat boys accused of brutally raping a stripper/prostitute named Champagne. She had previously been hired to perform at a party in the guys’ frat house. On the occasion when they allegedly misused her, though, she’d been invited as a guest. But Champagne seems to have the wrong names for the two guys. How could that be, if her accusation is legit?

And then there’s the fact that she has launched a civil suit against the frat boys. Champagne makes a fascinating witness on the stand. Cope astutely asks whether she’s hoping to cash in on this alleged assault. Yes, of course, she answers candidly, who wouldn’t hope to pick up a bit of cash in her situation? Cope does a good job of explaining how a woman like Champagne has to struggle to make a living in her own sordid way, unlike the privileged frat boys. For a while, I was wondering whether this case of Cope’s was just a way of filling the book with more material. But, through the agency of the frat boys’ parents, who are pressuring Cope to settle the case out of court, it does eventually have an impact on his attempt to solve the mystery of the killings in the woods long ago.

Other elements in the book didn’t have such a convincing connection to the main story. In particular, the introduction of the past history of Cope’s Russian father struck me as melodramatic and over-cooked. The tough-talking Russians who act as Cope’s informants regarding his father’s KGB connections strike me as clich villains. And, in spite of the generally high quality of the writing throughout most of the book, there’s too much falling back on autonomic responses as a convenient way of expressing emotion: heart hammering, jaw dropping, chest being ripped open, head spinning. I also find that Mr. Coben’s too fond of a stalling technique: too many statements like "You don’t understand" and "I can’t talk now." That sort of delaying tactic can work to create suspense and heighten the sense of mystery but, if used too often, it becomes obtrusive. And when we get to the final explanation of everything that went down in those woods long ago, there’s too much complicated analysis of motives, along the lines of: if X had done this, then Y would have thought that, which would have led Z to conclude such-and such. To me, the best mystery writing doesn’t require such mental acrobatics by way of explanation. I prefer an solution that accords with human nature as we know it in a more straight-forward way.

Still, the book has many pleasurable touches of good writing. Cope has charm and humour. When reuniting with an old girlfriend after many years apart, they ask each other how many outfits they tried on before the meeting. And Mr. Coben slides in some keen social commentary: e.g. "Doctors are even more arrogant than attorneys." If you had a male relative employed as a security guard you might cringe at the observation that a young man in such a job was likely to be: "....that most dangerous of muscle-heads, the cop wannabe....if a guy sets his sights on being a cop and doesn’t make it, there is often a reason, and it wasn’t something you wanted to get anywhere near."

 

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