Dilettante's Diary

May 23/06

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How Fiction Works
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Reviewed here: Flora MacDonald at Eighty (CBC Radio Two); Two Artists at the Distillery (Gill Cameron and Barbara Muir); Eventide (Novel); The No 1. Ladies' Detective Agency (Mystery); Met Opera Joe Volpe Gala (CBC Radio Two); Indecent Secrets (Non-fiction Crime); Brick (Movie); Misquoting Jesus (Scripture Study); Three Artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario (David Milne, Peter Doig, Murray Laufer)

Flora MacDonald at Eighty ("Studio Sparks" CBC Radio Two, June 2/06)

You might wonder how this item fits into an arts journal. Well, in part, because it’s about the art of radio programming. But, more importantly, because of what it says about the art of living.

Eric Friesen, host of "Studio Sparks" interviewed former federal cabinet minister Flora MacDonald on June 2, in anticipation of her upcoming eightieth birthday celebrations. In recent years, we have more or less come to understand that Flora MacDonald is a decent person. Still, it’s hard to erase the memory of a political busybody who did her fair share of partisan posturing. It didn’t help that she happened to be stumping for the wrong party – a bunch of rednecks and reactionaries. So it comes as something of a stunner to find out that she has become an international do-gooder on a colossal scale. Not exactly Canada’s version of Mother Theresa. But certainly up there with Stephen Lewis and June Callwood.

Mr. Friesen took Miss MacDonald on a trek through the highlights of her post-political career as an aid worker. For umpteen different organizations, she has travelled all over the world helping to make good things happen. The interview was skimpy on the details of what she does on these different missions but one gathered that they had a lot to do with setting up hygiene and health education, literacy programs, women’s consciousness-raising and so on. Apparently, Miss MacDonald is a soft touch for any worthy cause that she can fit into her crowded agenda. (She did happen to mention that she pays her own way.) Among the few details that came through, we got a fascinating picture of this sprightly old lady jouncing along in a truck over barely recognizable roads to isolated communities in the remotest regions of northern Afghanistan.

Through the interview about all this, Miss MacDonald came through as this kind, gentle old lady of incredible energy who is constantly amazed and energized at the human ability to overcome suffering and deprivation. As Eric Friesen introduced musical selections from some of the countries she had worked in (South Africa, Tibet, India), Miss MacDonald expressed surprise and pleasure like your grandmother on being given her favourite flowers. Best of all – in this context, the "world music" that the CBC keeps trying to ram down our throats actually began to seem relevant, even likeable!

 

Two Artists at the Distillery (Gill Cameron & Barbara Muir, 55 Mill Street, Building 74, Studio 416, May 31-June 4)

An invitation picked up at a meeting of the Toronto Watercolour Society brought me to the opening of this show in Toronto’s Distillery District. Gill Cameron's "Up Top" won the gold medal in the TWS’ spring show this year and it was proudly displayed (with a red "sold" sticker) in the Distillery show. Most of Gill’s watercolours here are of similar themes: the rocky, wind-swept Canadian shield country. Gill has developed a highly distinctive style with mostly hard edges, where the main element of the picture is the striking composition. The rocks, trees and clouds almost look as though they were cut out and placed to maximum advantage, making each painting an exquisitely crafted gem. Colour is restrained: strong greens and blues for water and sky, the rocks mostly pale. Yet each painting captures the vibrancy of fresh air, tossing trees and sun-baked rocks.

Barbara Muir piles on the colours more flamboyantly. Most of her acrylics in this show feature young women in party dresses. Each woman stands (or sits) smack in the middle of the canvas against a high-key background. Colours dazzle and bounce off the canvas like the high spirits of the women pictured. The drawing of the figures and the faces is well done but, given the similar expressions on many of them, it strikes me that they’re not so much portraits as a collective expression of something about what it means to be a woman in the prime of life. Something along the lines of "I enjoy being a girl"? Not exactly. There’s nothing silly or flirtatious about these females. Their contented glow expresses a deeper feeling: life sure is fun, so let’s grab as much of it as we can!

 

Eventide (Novel) by Kent Haruf, 2004

At the opening of this novel, we’re following three stories in a rural community in Colorado. Two elderly brothers have taken in a girl who was pregnant and now she’s about to leave for college. A couple of parents who are apparently developmentally delayed are trying to raise two kids. And a boy of eleven takes on responsibilities way beyond his age while living with his crotchety grandfather. The book overflows with incredibly poignant scenes and the way these people twist the English language is a marvel.

So why the creeping feeling of unease? My diagnosis would be an overdose of sentiment. These people are so simple, so ingenuous and – for the most part – so damn good that I couldn’t stop that corny song from sounding over and over in my head: "I love those dear hearts and gentle people that live and love in my home town." The one major exception to the general niceness of the characters is so truly, horribly, very bad that it’s ludicrous. Mr. Haruf had a huge success with Plainsong, an earlier book about these kinds of people, and it feels as though he tried to spin another big hit out of the same themes without enough good ideas.

The most annoying aspect of the writing is that, every now and then, Mr. Haruf abandons the attempt to create scenes and to draw us into them. At such points, he resorts to "telling", as Ernest Hemingway would say, rather than "showing". By making us too aware of the writer at work, this lapse undermines the reality of the characters. Sad to say, their simplicity and goodness begin to seem contrived

 

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Mystery) by Alexander McCall Smith, 1998

It has taken me quite a while to get to this phenomenally popular item. The author’s face has popped up numerous times in my literary clippings. When a paperback copy of the book turned up on the library shelves, I grabbed the chance to find out what all the fuss is about.

Mr. McCall Smith has hit on a great idea: a divorced African woman uses a bit of money inherited from her daddy to found a detective agency somewhere in Botswana on the edges of the Kalahari. There’s undeniable charm in Precious Ramotswe’s puttering around in her little white van, trying to emulate an Agatha Christie heroine. Mr. McCall Smith has created a strong character in Mma Ramotswe as she reflects on her past sorrows, her love for her daddy and her loser ex. She has a deft way of putting down pompous male bureaucrats. And then there’s the exotic appeal of life in a certain part of Africa.

But the material is relentlessly pleasant. It feels like a book you might put on the bedside table when your elderly Aunt Agnes comes to visit because you know there’s nothing in it that could upset her. As Mma Ramotswe goes about solving the (mostly) simple mysteries that come her way, she is unfailingly perceptive and clever. She is one of those detectives who has always been able "to rely on her ability to tell whether a person [is] telling the truth or not..." She never finds herself in serious danger. If she is momentarily discomfited, she invariably finds a neat way to extricate herself from the situation. Nancy Drew (as I recall) encountered more genuine angst than Mma Ramotswe.

Doubts arise: are we getting a white-washed version of a black woman’s life? Has Mr. McCall Smith created a caricature of a black woman who doesn’t have to deal with the vicissitudes of real life the way the rest of us do? Inspite of all Mma Ramotswe’s admirable characteristics, she ends up as a clich. Which, I guess, is what makes for best sellers.

 

Metropolitan Opera Joe Volpe Gala ("Saturday Afternoon at the Opera", CBC Radio Two, May 27/06)

Everything was on hold around here on Saturday afternoon. Had to clear a space for this much-anticipated gala in honour of Joe Volpe, the Met’s general manager who is retiring. (If you couldn’t listen because you were having open heart surgery or something, you can catch tv highlights on PBS on June 1st.) I’d actually considered jetting down to New York to attend in person. Since my quick trip in April, I feel very much part of the Met family and didn’t want to disappoint them by not attending. (For the story of that trip click on "Me in Manhattan" in the navigation bar.) But the $300 (US) lowest ticket price gave me pause. Anyway, I didn’t figure my black running shoes would be up to the occasion

Not all of the singers were in best voice – which is understandable. It’s not easy to walk out on stage and sing a dynamite aria with no chance to ease into it gradually. And the presence of opera’s aristocracy would have made it all the scarier. But the point of the thing is not so much the perfection of the singers’ performances; it’s the fact that they're all here in one place. Sort of like the excitement of the pope’s funeral where you get all those world leaders sitting side by side. Where else could you hear practically all of the world’s great singers on one program: Fleming, Domingo, Diego Flres, Pape, Morris, Croft, Dessay, Heppner, Hvorostovsky, Hampson, Mattila, Ramey, Te Kanawa, Von Stade et al?

Musically, for me, one of the best moments was Ren Pape’s "Amor per me non ha" from Verdi’s Don Carlos. This singer has made history by becoming the first bass has ever to appear in my pantheon of favourites. For a bass, his voice is so bright and clear, not to mention the shiver-inducing low notes and the charismatic performance style. Another unforgettable moment was an aria from Rossini’s Semiramide by tenor Juan Diego Flrez. Not many tenors today can do that light, acrobatic, very flowery (pun intended) singing. The piercing high note that came from out of nowhere near the end of the piece was electrifying. It was interesting to hear Rene Fleming leaning on the lower part of her voice for a darker sound in one of Leonora’s arias from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Is there no repertoire that this woman doesn’t sing?

For sentiment’s sake – and what is a gala without sentiment? – Mirella Freni spoke from the stage. When she told about Robert Merrill and Richard Tucker bringing flowers to her dressing room for her Met debut, you suddenly realized you were in the presence of living history. Her fractured English was charming and she even sang a phrase of Puccini, but she presumed too much on her prima donna status in rambling a little too long.

In the filmed tribute to Mr. Volpe, Teresa Stratas’ appearance got particularly warm applause. Ms. Stratas told how Mr. Volpe would always knock on her dressing room door and ask, "Teresa....are you ready?" Then he would walk her to the stage, give her a big hug before she went on and stand there watching her perform.

That story struck a chord for me, because it was almost the same phrase that I heard when wandering around the Masonic Temple in Detroit one spring in the 1960s during the Met’s tour. I saw a heavy lady in lots of makeup and a dressing gown knocking on a door and saying, "Teresa, let me know when you’re ready." It suddenly struck me that the fat lady must be Eileen Farrell, who was singing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and that she was speaking to Teresa Stratas, who was singing in Pagliacci. I blurted out to my mom, "That’s Eileen Farrell!" An orchestra musician who was passing said, "Naw, it’s her grandmother." Mom and I started to walk away but he called to me, "Hey kid! D’ya wanna meet her?" And that’s how my teenage career as a stage door johnnie began.

Margaret Juntwait, the regular host for Met broadcasts for the past two seasons, was joined in the booth by Elliot Forrest. It took a while for Mr. Forrest to relax into a natural-sounding delivery. He was using laboured phrases like, "That’s right, Margaret" and "You know, Margaret," as though reading from one of those scripted interviews from the stodgy old days of radio. (Glenn Gould used to do them with Ken Haslem, every breath and comma having been orchestrated by you-know-who.) You almost expected Mr. Forrest to come out with, "I’m glad you asked that question, Margaret."

The most surprising aspect of the whole program was the new material written for the occasion by composer Ben Moore. His satirical songs posed no threat to W.S. Gilbert in terms of singable lyrics (or to Sir Arthur Sullivan for tunes to sing them to) but it amazed me that the Met condoned such edgy material. In one song, Deborah Voigt mentioned the time that Mr. Volpe won the "Battle" by firing a certain nameless singer. There was reference to Pavarotti’s cancelling about fifty percent of the time. Then Ms. Voigt, she of the fracas at the Royal Opera about a costume that wouldn’t fit, noted that some critics have the gall to mention a singer’s weight. In another number by Ben Moore, Susan Graham sang a tribute to the audience members, especially all those men who attend without their wives and who always come backstage "but never ask me for a date." Lots of laughter from the upper galleries on that one.

Those guys up there sure love their Wagner. It struck me that the program was rather heavily tilted in his direction but I guess that’s what the die-hards want most. Such roaring at the end of those arias that you can’t even hear the applause. Gives me enough of a kick to think that maybe someday I too will get Herr Wagner.

 

Indecent Secrets (Non-Fiction Crime) by Christina Vella, 2006

On a hot summer day in 1902, Count Franceso Bonmartini was found dead in his Bologna apartment, a gaping knife wound in his sternum, and his throat slashed. The subsequent murder investigation and trial kept Italy enthralled for years. Ultimately five people were tried for the crime.

Christina Vella’s account of the staggering and bewildering amount of evidence reads very well – up to a point. Ms. Vella, a PhD in history, gives us a fascinating look at Italian society at time when modern and feudal worlds clashed. And we get an up-close view of a legal system very different from the one that we’re accustomed to. Apparently the Italian courtroom at the turn of the 20th century was not so much a place for ascertaining truth on the basis of logic as it was a theatre for the worst kind of carpet-chewing. The idea seemed to be that the more you shrieked and sobbed, the stronger your case would be.

Eventually, though, I got tired of these hysterical, prevaricating people. I wish Ms. Vella had exercised more authorial control over the material so that we didn’t become completely lost in the thicket of lies. Her summing up of the characters of the accused at the end of the book struck me as spot-on but I was taken aback by her confident assertion that the jury was one-hundred percent correct in all its decisions. Who is she to say? Other than the murderers and their victim, can anybody – even a PhD in history – know for sure what happened?

 

Brick (Movie) written and directed by Rian Johnson

Can’t remember what I heard about this movie or where I heard it. Something  created  the impression that it might be the sort of odd little movie that I would like. It starts with Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a California high schooler, finding the murdered body of his friend Emily. Flash back a couple of days to a troubled phone call he received from her. Not the most original premise but there was something chillingly real and unsettling about that phone call.

Which was the last good scene in the movie. Brendan’s not going to contact the police. He’ll avenge the crime himself. I think he’s meant to be a knight in shining armour because a helmet of curly black hair comes down over his eyes, leaving us with nothing to look at but a slit of a mouth which never changes its stern expression. Brendan’s pretty much a ninety-pound weakling but he gets his brains bashed, his nose broken and his jaw dislocated on a regular basis without suffering more than a few bruises. Amazingly, his glasses come out of these assaults intact.

Brendan's only accomplice is a pal who is clearly brainy because he wears coke-bottle glasses and fiddles with a Rubik’s cube. The two of them spout long paragraphs of tough-guy lingo that sounds like it was lifted from Mickey Spillane. You can only get every fourth word because the actors lack the vocal skill to make the speeches intelligible. For no discernible reason, people arrange secret assignations in the middle of a football field. All the high school girls wear cloppy high heels.

This movie feels like a 12-year-old boy’s fantasy of being the big guy: he wrote the script, asked his teenage brother and his brother’s friends to act in it, got Grandpa to finance it, and persuaded his cousin in art school to direct. (If you can ignore the content, there’s a certain flair to the look of the movie.) Is it a parody? Nobody’s laughing. After a while, the only reason for staying is a desperate urge to find out if there’s any point to it all – which feels like a man crawling through the Sahara looking for water. The hero’s final declamation to the villain – where the many questions about the plot are supposedly resolved – goes on for about a page and a half. But the big question remains: who is Rian Johnson and how did he get a distribution deal for this movie?

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Scripture Study) by Bart D. Ehrman, 2005

If I ever die and go to heaven, the first item on my to-do list will be to meet the guys who wrote the gospels. (We may be safe in using the masculine there, but not sure.) How those stories evolved and came to be written down is one of the great mysteries for me. You start with somebody who lived a real life and within a generation you have these incredible tales. How does that happen?

This book doesn’t go back quite that far. Bart Ehrman starts with the written works and shows how they were changed, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, as they were copied from century to century. There’s a lot of guesswork and conjecture involved but Mr. Ehrman makes a pretty convincing argument that changes were made to reflect political realities (the role of women, hostility to Jews, pagan antagonism) and to make the gospels more consistent with conventional wisdom about Jesus.

One of the most fascinating examples of the latter is the case in Mark’s gospel (1:41) where a leper tells Jesus, "You can cure me if you want to." In most translations, Jesus responds with compassion. But some ancient texts say that Jesus got angry. Mr. Ehrman thinks that’s probably what the evangelist originally wrote.

One of the principles at work in this assessment was enunicated by the German biblical scholar of the 18th century, Johann Bengel. Herr Bengel said that, usually, the more difficult reading is the most authentic. In other words, if you find a reading that strikes a discordant note, it’s probably the right one. That’s because, if they were going to make changes intentionally, the scribes tended to smooth things over, to make them more acceptable. We all know that Jesus was compassionate don’t we? So who would think that he could be angry with a poor leper? It’s not likely then that a scribe would introduce such an element if it wasn’t in the original. (As to the reason for the anger, Mr. Ehrman speculates that it may have been because unfortunate leper was tactless enough to use the conditional "if" – which seemed to indicate that he doubted Jesus’ goodwill.)

For Mr. Ehrman, who started his scripture study as a fundamentalist Christian, the question of changes in the scriptures posed a wrenching problem. What did it mean to say the scriptures were inspired by God if there were so many discrepancies in the versions that it was impossible to know for sure what the originals said? This was also a thorny problem for several Protestant scholars, given the pre-eminence of Scripture in Protestantism. When such questions began to arise around the 17th century, though, the Catholics were sitting pretty because they’d always maintained that the authority of the Church was supreme, not scripture. Mind you the troubled Protestants usually comforted themselves with the thought that a benevolent and omnipotent God would surely not have allowed important errors to creep into scripture. And it must be admitted that most of the changes have not been very substantial. Still, there are some sticky ones touching on rather basic issues such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

Mr. Ehrman, who chairs the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conveys this complex material with admirable clarity and concision. He comes around to the position that the scriptures are very human documents and that the meddling scribes were interpreting the stories in their own way just as anybody does when they’re reading something. He also points out that each of the gospels tells a unique story about Jesus which is quite different in many respects from the picture of him in the other gospels. We make a mistake if we try to meld the four of them into one coherent whole. To arrive at this understanding involved quite a journey for Mr. Ehrman and his passage through it reflects on some exciting developments in the history of Christianity – real events that are truly fascinating, unlike the far-fetched imaginings of some biblical best-sellers. Some movie star whose career is lagging could do a lot worse than opt to play Bart Ehrman.

 

Three Artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario (David Milne, Peter Doig and Murray Laufer)

You had to ignore an awful lot to enjoy a much-hyped show like the recent David Milne watercolours at the AGO (ended May 21). Other viewers kept getting in your way and making  pretentious comments to their friends. The docents shouted over the noise of the crowd to make you feel you were learning something. Not to mention the fatuous explanations of the curators posted on the wall beside every picture. I wish there were some way of seeing the work without these pilgrimages to shrines that include every relic the great artists ever touched including the rags that they wiped their brushes on. For heaven’s sake, these were just guys who frittered away their time making marks on paper.

So I suppose the only way to get something out of such shows is to try to forget everybody else and see whether or not the paintings do anything for you. On that score, I find that Milne’s works fall into fairly distinct groups. First there are the early works and the New York pictures from around the turn of the 20th century: brilliant colours and tiny brush strokes creating the dazzling effect of light. Impressive as they are, I find these pictures a bit mannered, a little too calculated in their debt to the Impressionists.

Then come the pictures from the Great War, with excellent composition and drawing, but with much less colour. From around this time also come the beautiful landscapes, pictures of woods with reflections in water – some of the most familiar "Milne’s". No wonder he didn’t fit into the Group of Seven; these works are too serene, too contemplative, none of that burly machismo. From this period, a stark picture of the outlines of tree trunks against a barren landscape strikes me as way ahead of its time.

In the 1920s and 30s, Milne focused more on interiors and still lives: shelves beside a stove, the main room of a cabin, a few dishes on a table. Here, the drawing is the main point; there’s hardly any colour. This is where I began to find the work really exciting, mainly because of the  dramatic composition.

Milne really hit his stride – for me – in the 1940s. His still lifes with flowers now express the essence of watercolour: scribbly outlines of the subject where the main point is the flow and blur of the watercolour. These works are as fresh and contemporary as if they were done today.

The final pictures, done in the early 1950s bring the perfection of watercolour almost to the point of abstraction. Using the "wet in wet" method, Milne produces wonderfully moody skies with just blurs of colour to suggest land and reflections in water. Breathtaking!

****

The works on paper of Peter Doig in an adjoining gallery (until June 18) make a interesting juxtaposition to Milne’s, although I think the curator’s attempts to link  the later artist’s works to the earlier one’s are a bit too cerebral. With a contemporary artist like this (he was born in 1959), it takes a while to figure out how you feel about the work as a whole. Luckily, there was hardly any traffic in the large room where most of the paintings are hanging, so I was able to sit and look around the room for quite a while.

Inevitably there are the ones you hate – like "Purple Jesus": a bearded figure sitting in profile looking at a rainbow. His robe is pinkish, his skin brown, his hair and beard greenish and the rainbow yucky. Worst of all, his eye is drawn as though we were looking at it full on instead of in profile. Roughly what a grade five pupil might turn out on a bad day. Is the artist just having us on?

Lots of the works show that he can do it right when he wants to. The composition and drawing in pictures of camp buildings and cottages would please fairly conservative collectors. One of his favourite themes seems to be the solitary man in a landscape. Often the man is dragging something behind him or bogged down. I wonder what this says about the artist’s conception of himself? One such picture in a Caribbean setting is stunning from all the way across the room: entire darkness in the background except for the brilliant light on the fronds of a palm tree in the upper part of the picture and, down lower, the figure of the bedraggled man.

Moving into more edgy territory, there is the watercolour portrait of two men whose faces are partially wiped out in a blur, as are their elaborate headdresses. The artist would seem to be somewhat ambivalent about these men. An interior (seeming to be the view of a ceiling in a loft or a chalet) is mostly rectangles with one strong diagonal. This is the one picture that, for me, somewhat resembles Milne’s work, specifically his interiors of the 1920s and 30s. Another Doig watercolour with a title dedicating it to a woman looks like it might have been a fairly traditional scene of a country house and a garden. But the upper part of the picture is mostly washed out, leaving a lot of runny pinkish-yellowish colour down below. To me, that suggests something sad about what might have been a romantic theme.

And the longer I sat there, even that goofy Jesus started to get to me. Poor guy with his wonky eye and his mildewy wig, it looks like he has the cares of the world on his shoulder and nobody gives a damn.

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Just down the hall, in the "Swing Space" for contemporary art,  the AGO is featuring the work of Murray Laufer (to July 30). Whether or not Mr. Laufer intended the connection, the "Body Worlds" show, seen recently in Toronto, inevitably comes to mind. Two sculptures hanging from the wall are larger than life human bodies, one male and one female, made with layers of plastic and other synthetic materials, exposed in a nightmarish state of semi-evisceration. In the sculpture of the woman, what would presumably be the womb bristles with chopped up bits of brooms, wires and other junk. Looking at the visceral crap in this mother figure gives you a decidedly uneasy and creepy feeling. Which must mean that Mr. Laufer is accomplishing something.

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