Dilettante's Diary

Nov 8/06

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Reviewed here: Terrorist (Novel); The Last King of Scotland (Movie); Art Toronto 2006 (Art Exhhibition); Borat (Movie); Of Mice and Men (Play); Open Water 2006 (Watercolour Exhibition); Where I'm Calling From and Cathedral (Short Stories)

You may have noticed that there hasn't been much new stuff on the site lately. That's because we've been busy meeting multiple deadlines in our real life -- the working one. We'll try to keep the site more up-to-date now.
 
 

Terrorist (Novel) by John Updike, 2006

Well, at least we can’t accuse John Updike of writing yet another life of an east-coast American intellectual. (See review of Villages, Dilettante’s Diary, "BOOKS" page.) Here he presents us with Ahmed, a young American-born Muslim,  just about to graduate from high school. The way Ahmed gets turned against America sounds very plausible to me. In the end, the book turns out to be much more "plotty" than you’re expecting. The final section is terrifically suspenseful, even though the ending, which turns on a tricky psychological dynamic, may not be entirely convincing.

For my money, Mr. Updike gets into the mind of the young man very well, although he has cheated a bit by giving Ahmed an Irish-American mother, which perhaps makes him a bit more accessible to some of us. Still, all the material on Islam sounds a bit studied and effortful. This may seem an easy criticism but I think it’s a valid one: Mr. Updike isn’t at his best in the world that departs from the one he has presented so well over the course of his career. When you’re reading about the highschool that Ahmed attends, you can’t help asking: what does Mr. Updike know about what goes on in school halls these days? In particular, the character of one black girl who befriends Ahmed seems off-key, particularly in the latter part of the book.

By contrast, it feels very much as though the writer is on home ground when he describes the life of a school guidance counsellor who is soon to retire. Is it just my prejudice about Mr. Updike’s qualifications or is there truly a more natural, convincing feel to this material? Hard to say. But there’s no question about the fact that one of the best passages in the book is the description of the counsellor’s overweight wife getting out of her easy chair to answer the phone. It takes seven pages for her to haul herself to her feet and, during that time, we get to know a person about as well as anybody we’ve ever encountered in contemporary fiction.

This probably won’t be John Updike’s last novel – he’s only in his mid 70s – so I’m taking this opportunity to scold him about a recurring bad habit in his writing, in the hope that he will amend his ways. If he listens to me, he might just make something of himself as a writer. It’s about those descriptive lists – enough already! Every few pages we get a long list describing the objects making up some scene, whether it be a boy’s bedroom, a back alley or a furniture store. My first reaction to them is the somewhat irreverent thought that without these lists the book would be considerably shorter and the publisher wouldn’t be able to charge as much for it. But I will try for a more charitable interpretation of the author’s motives. Apparently, novelists who do this kind of thing are thinking of themselves as anthropologists noting exactly how our society looks. Maybe they see the role of the novelist as that of the person who has to record it all for future archaeologists just in case everything but the record of written fiction disappears from the earth some day. (In John Updike’s case, this obsession with visual detail may also have something to do with his original intention to be a painter.) Fair enough. But I’m here right now. I know what our world looks like. I do not need the writer to waste my time with these endless lists of things. Just a suggestion will do nicely. Trust me, I get the picture!

 
 
The Last King of Scotland (Movie) directed by Kevin Macdonald, starring Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy

I went to this movie knowing only that it had something to do with Idi Amin. In 1979, when he was kicked out of Uganda, I was just old enough to take some interest in world affairs. There was great jubilation about Amin's downfall, as I remember. It seemed the last of the bad old boogeymen was gone. (Strange how many have cropped up since then.) This movie tells about Amin's friendship with a young Scots doctor who came to Uganda to work on a mission just when Amin came to power. Unwittingly, the young doctor gets sucked into the nightmare of Amin’s reign. The movie becomes a study of the precarious position of the ordinary man who is embraced by The Man. Sleeping with an elephant has its disadvantages.

Forest Whittaker does a great job as the charismatic madman. I’ve seen him in movies where he overpowers his role but no amount of ego could be too much here. As Amin spins his web tighter and tighter around the young Scot, intrigue sprouts on all sides. The movie gets as tense and plotty as a James Bond. I could do without the pounding score but I guess you need that to sell movies to the masses. Still, the movie’s very watchable, with lots of local colour and excitement. And it’s interesting to see the 1970s culture in an African setting – foppish shirts and fat ties, and a black singer crooning "Me and Bobby McGee."

Now it would be a shame if you got the impression that your reviewer is naive but there’s no way out of this other than full disclosure. Throughout the movie, the only thing that was bothering me was that it all seemed a bit far-fetched. How could such a wet-behind-the ears young Scot find himself in that position? It’s not just that James McAvoy seems too young for the role. His situation vis a vis Amin seemed somewhat implausible. But a notice at the beginning said the movie was based on fact so I just sat back and accepted that it must have all happened, fantastic as it seemed. And what a good movie the story made.

At the end of the movie, we get subtitles telling us what happened to Amin in later years. But no mention of the Scottish doctor. Then in the credits, we read "Based on the novel by Giles Foden." Ok, I get it. The doctor was a complete fiction worked into some historical stuff about Amin. That gives me a very different view of the movie. If it’s just another "what if" historical thriller that’s fine, but that’s nowhere near as intriguing as if the movie were a true story. So it drops one full degree in my rating system. Sorry, but when you don’t read reviews beforehand this kind of disillusionment is bound to occur now and then.

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

 

Art Toronto 2006 (Art Exhibition, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Nov 10–13, 2006)

You can count on this show for some pretty good art, since most of the upscale galleries from Toronto (and elsewhere) bring their favourite artists’ works. With about 90 galleries in attendance this year, there must have been at least 2,000 pieces on view. So your reviewer can hardly be expected to produce a comprehensive appreciation of the whole scene. What you’re getting here is just a sample of what caught my attention during a visit lasting two and a half hours (including a 15 minute tea break).

Given that watercolours are my first love, artistically speaking, I always seek them out. Sometimes in a big show like this that takes some doing. But not in the case of Alf Lohr’s work (broadbent gallery, London, England). His huge (one of them is roughly 8 feet by 4 feet), wild, exuberant watercolour abstracts proclaim loud and clear that the art form is alive and well. At the other end of the scale, was a tiny watercolour on a page torn out of a Greg Curnoe notebook – a semi-abstract landscape with strong colours ($3,500 Wynick/Tuck, Toronto). Towards the back of one booth (Miriam Shiell, Toronto), I spotted a delightful little abstract by Jean Paul Riopelle, painted in 1946 – swirls of mostly oranges, yellows and blacks – which I liked better than the huge watercolour and ink piece from his later period that was more prominently on display. Willy Ramos (Odon Wagner, Toronto) does big, loose, sketchy plants and still lives somewhat reminiscent of Picasso and Matisse. It was a pleasure to see one of Mary Anne Ludlam’s carefully designed landscapes, with patches of watercolour fitting together almost like segments of stained glass (Roberts Gallery) but I was sorry that the gallery hadn’t brought any works by Ming Zhou, one of the big stars of my watercolour firmament. Ron Bolt’s meticulously-detailed pictures (Christina Parker, St. John’s) appealed to me mainly because of the subject matter and the composition: clutter -- stones and junk -- found on shorelines.

At first, I thought that Tom Wesselman’s works (Galerie Van Der Planken, Belgium) were watercolours but it turns out they’re "liquitext", which I’m told, is a form of acrylic: big, bold, cartoony compositions with vivid, flat colour. Jennifer Norman (le, Toronto) does small charming works that, although mixed media on mylar, have a watercolour effect: blobs of vivid colour mixing and flowing, with the suggestion of some industrial grid in the background.

As for other media, I was quite taken with the nudes of painter Alex Kanevsky (Galerie de Bellefeuille, Montreal and J. Cacciola, New York). The attendant at G de B told me Kanevsky is Russian but, according to the web, he appears to have acquired his art education in Lithuania. His oils on canvas are rather pale and cold, with the paint smeared on roughly. The bodies are beautifully molded but the overall effect is blurry and indistinct. In one case, a man’s face is actually wiped out. Don’t ask me why, but portraits in which the personalities seem rather uncertain of themselves appeal to me. (Galerie de Beaufeuille is hosting Kanevsky’s first solo show in Canada Nov 23 to Dec 4.) For excellence in pure painting technique in classical style, you can spend a long time in front of Leon Belsky’s stunning spray of white flowers floating on a dark background, light shining through them (Loch, Toronto). After admiring Ernestine Tahedl’s large impressionistic landscapes for several years (I know her from Toronto art circles), I was glad to see some smaller and more affordable of her delightful works (Trias, Toronto). I loved the geometrical design element in Renee Van Helm’s gouache paintings of modernist interiors (Birch Libralto, Toronto). I always like to see what artists can do with the city, so Jonathan Johnson’s painting of an overpass against a low horizon and a sulfurous yellowish sky caught my attention (Wynick/Tuck, Toronto).

There were far too many gorgeous semi-abstract landscapes to take them all in. Ditto with the true abstracts. But one I liked very much was in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s booth. Michael Davidson’s "Horrid to My Nurse" in oil and wax on cavas is mostly a large white, rough surface, with some colourful patches that suggest something like a kid’s sled being hauled by a fanciful reindeer. Artists hate it when you find actual things in their abstract paintings but in this case, it’s partly the artist’s fault, because that title invites you to see something child-like in the picture.

I went to this show hoping for something that would blow me away but, as you can see, I’m still here. However, by way of something new and odd, I did like Robert Youd’s light boxes, (Diaz Contemporary, Toronto). They’re about four feet by three feet and six inches deep, glowing with beautiful colours, mostly soft pinks and mauves, spring greens and yellows. Mr. Youd has placed objects inside the boxes so that the light from behind creates compositions in shadows and outlines. Kathleen Vermeir’s "still vidoes" held my attention for several minutes (Galerie Thrse Dion, Montreal): two men, on separate screens, each in profile, looking out a window with a modern, clean cityscape in the background. At first, you think the pictures on screen are high definition stills. But then you notice that one man’s hair is stirring in a breeze. Then a collar lifts ever so slightly. Then one of the men turns his head a fraction. Then the other. Eventually, they’re staring straight at each other from their separate screens, their expressions blank and deadpan. The overall effect is powerfully sad and silent. I was also impressed by Camille Leberer’s work on steel (Erhard Witzel Gallery, Wiesbaden). Portions of the metal have been left bare and scrubbed in streaks so that the light comes off them at different angles while bright paint has been applied to the rest of the steel in rectangular patterns.

As for the ineviable bizarreries, there were lots of goofy photos, gizmos that responded to a wave of the hand or the sound of your voice and life-sized sculptures of ugly, naked men and women. But the prize for the most "out there" work, in my books, would have to go to Stephane La Rue (Galerie Roger Bellemare, Montreal). What you get in each of the works, encased under glass and nicely framed, are a couple of sheets of mylar loosely held together with a few fragments of masking tape at the edges. You could think of a field of snow with some wheat sheaves along the border. Or you could think of the futility of art today and the impossibility of saying anything new. Or you could think that the artist is a jerk and is trying to con you. Me, I haven’t decided.

 

Borat (Movie) starring Sacha Baron Cohen, directed by Larry Charles

Now and then a reviewer who spends most of his waking hours pondering sophisticated, intelligent fare needs something crass and sleazy. This movie fills the bill. As you probably know, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, a klutz who’s making a documentary about America for the folks back home in Kazakhstan. Essentially, the movie is a very thin travelogue with as many gross jokes as you can think of tossed in. Borat is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Jewish – politically incorrect in every way imaginable. (A comedian can get away with a lot when his character doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying. Charlie Farquharson comes to mind.) The two twenty-year-old guys in front of me were in convulsions of laughter through the whole movie. Probably the mirth was all about the delight of hearing things said out loud in public that they’d only ever thought about in the privacy of their minds.

So, apart from the vulgarity, was there anything to appeal to the more cultured tastes of your devoted reviewer? Well, yes. I was thinking about the long and respectable tradition of clown work in which the unsuspecting doofus doesn’t realize how awful he is. Mr. Cohen does the shtick very well. And the movie provides some intriguing glimpses of what certain aspects of life in North America might look like to a naive outsider: Gay Pride, women’s consciousness-raising, dinner party manners, born-again Christianity, etc. I admired the deadpan way that all the supporting actors in the movie fall into the documentary mode, coming across as very real, ordinary Americans.

In the end, though, the movie disappoints. It doesn’t have enough of a plot pay-off to feel really satisfying. The story is bare-bones thin, not much more than a bunch of sketches – pretty much all on the same note – strung together. So you don’t feel that you’ve got much of a bang from spending your time with this guy. By contrast to Borat, the awful Eastern European character Alex played by Eugene Hutz in the movie "Everything Is Illuminated" had a much stronger impact on me. (See Dilettante's Diary "Dec 12/05"). That could be because Alex was embedded in a better script. So art wins out over sleaze after all -- at least for this reviewer.

Rating: C minus (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Of Mice and Men (Play) by John Steinbeck, directed by Dennis Garnhum, Canstage, Toronto, until November 11.

Entering the theatre, I noticed some renovation going on in the lobby. Then there was pounding and hammering while we were sitting in the auditorium waiting for the show to begin. Could the noise be meant to set the mood for farm work in the play? Apparently not. The hammering continued, with no connection to the action or the dialogue, throughout the opening of the play. You had to try to force yourself not to hear the din. I was simmering: the management takes our money and doesn’t have the decency to tell their workers to stop during the performance so that we can have an adequate experience of the play. Half an hour of it was as much as I could stand.

On exiting, I learned from the management that the construction work was in the adjoining building. The carpenters refused to stop during the matinees. The theatre said there was nothing they could do about it. But couldn’t they at least have informed us? Couldn’t they have posted a notice at the box office where you bought your ticket? Sometimes that kind of annoyance is easier to endure when you know what it is.

I hadn’t been enjoying the play much anyway. Guys shouting at each other in that cornpone dialect: "I ain’t got.....We wuz." Trying to make us believe they’re depression era rustics. All that laborious exposition – what happened yesterday, what’s supposed to happen to day. The whole play’s dire outcome foreshadowed in the first few minutes. Smart management to put on a such an eminently "teachable" play to draw those busloads of high school students. But it really isn’t a very good piece of theatre, as is often the case with fiction transferred to the stage.

The set in this production is lovely – lots of hay dust in golden light – but why should we care about these people? Maybe it was a thrill for the first Broadway audiences to see these supposedly rough-hewn characters on stage but I found it all fake, almost to the point of kitsch. (No fault of the actors who were striving mightily to bring it to life.) And one final beef -- There may be a good play or movie with a main character who’s developmentally delayed but I’ve yet to see it. Usually, it comes off as a cheap trick to get our sympathy and the effect is nearly always cloying and cutesy.

 
 

Open Water 2006 (Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, John B. Aird Gallery, 900 Bay St -- Macdonald block, main floor just off the lobby, Toronto, until November 24)

 

As is our usual practice in the case of a show in which we are an exhibitor, we have turned the reviewing duties over to our dear Aunt Agnes to ensure complete impartiality.

Let’s not kid ourselves about why my nephew Patrick asked me to review this show. He wants you to know that he has been selected to appear among this elite group of very distinguished watercolourists but he wants to pretend to be too humble to brag about it himself. He certainly is in very good company this time. You could say that this annual show by the CSPWC shows the best watercolours from across Canada in any given year. Not just Canada, though. The show is open to submissions from around the world. This year, entries came from the US, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Canada. From over 300 entries, the jurors selected just 39 pictures.

Many of them are stunning, especially the prize-winners. Take Micheal Zarowsky’s "Sunlit Hillside" (Yes, that’s the way he spells his first name.): a snowy expanse with blue shadows and brilliant sun on some bare bushes. Patrick tells me he has been admiring Mr. Z’s paintings after discovering them last year and this one really takes the cake! First prize in the show went to Jennifer Annesley for "Diocletian’s Palace" – it’s an unusual look upwards (as if you were craning your neck) at a sort of gilded dome in an ornate setting, with light pouring through a window. Patrick says it’s the odd angle of the composition that makes it such a striking picture. Another prize-winner, Vivian Thierfelder paints luscious red and orange fruits with drops of dew on them so real that you want to lick them off.

Among the other prize-winners, I love Bett Fairbanks’ "Swingdance" – a great big picture of bright red high heels on a zebra-striped background – reminds me of when I used cut a pretty fancy tango myself. David McEown (he won first prize last year) won another prize this year for his awe-inspiring picture of iceburgs rising up out of a fjord. Patrick thinks Mr. McE’s loose, wet style serves the subject much better than those stiff, surrealistic Lawren Harris things. Angelis Jackowski has created a very striking composition with big green leaves in various shapes and hues, with just a tiny touches of red and yellow fruit. Ellen Catherwood's glass teapot has bubbles of condensation on the lid that you really have to see to believe. A well-deserved award for figurative work went to Jiri Ustohal for his composition of native fishermen gathered around a boat. And a note to Doug Mays regarding his prize-winning "European Light": if your painting goes missing, I can give the police a few tips because a certain person I know was making very envious remarks about your style and saying that he would like to figure out how you do it!

Lots of other painters could have won prizes, in my mind. Josy Hilkes Britton shows a dazzling ice-covered tree stretching up into the sky. John Hyslop’s abstract take on "Superbowl" – some football helmets in swirls of lovely pinks and turqouises – makes me think I might actually like that game after all. Stephanie Quainton Steel has made a very dramatic picture of a wet, shiny road curving around the edge of a formidably rocky cliff. Americo Del Col’s street scene captures the life and colour of Verona. Gary Zhouguang Chen makes a delightful composition with the bright colours of the clothing on some sporty types heading out in the snow. And when it comes to exquisite drawing and complicated composition, you couldn’t do better than the sun and shadow on the chairs and potted plants in Xiaochang Zhang’s patio scene.

Some of Patrick’s friends from the Toronto Watercolour Society have also been chosen to appear in this show. Alejandro Rabazo’s magnificent study of sailboats in their winter cradles won a prize, as you might expect. Liz Gibson has painted a semi-abstract exuberant impression of wild flowers. Barb Fostka’s sympathetic portrait of a senior citizen knitting warmed my heart for many reasons and Eliza Chau Luhur has painted an evocative portrait of a statuesque lady in a bathing suit.

As for Patrick’s picture, "Fresh Produce" – I take it that he wants us to see it as the entrance to a green grocer’s with fruit stalls or flower bins on the sidewalk in front. Or maybe it is supposed to be a market scene. Actually, it looks sort of like what you’d see walking through a market if your glasses were steamed up. Or if you forgot them at home. Everything is blurry. The lines are not straight. But the colours are nice, I suppose.

 

Where I’m Calling From (1989) and Cathedral (1989) (Short Stories) by Ramond Carver

A while ago, I read this in some literary article : "How can you claim to be interested in modern literature if you’ve never read Raymond Carver?" And I went: gulp. Raymond Carver? Didn’t Robert Altman make a movie Short Cuts based on Raymond Carver’s stories? But I couldn’t remember reading anything of his. At my next birthday, these two collections of Carver stories landed on the table. It took me a while to crack the books, though. Short stories are not what I look for in my usual reading. Mostly I like book-length reading because my obsessive mind wants to mull it over during the non-reading times of the week, with a view to getting back to the material every evening.

"Nobody Said Anything", the first story in Where I’m Calling From, has a boy about 13 years old telling about a day skipping school and going fishing. I’ve never seen a young teenage boy come off the page with such an in-your-face reality. It’s all there – the bravado, the self-aggrandizing, the crudity, the sibling hostility and the hidden sensitivity. A couple of stories into this collection, the thought hit me: what the hell have I been reading all these years? What have I been wasting my time on when I could have been reading this stuff? I think of some of the writers I’ve been enjoying: Trevor, Munro, Updike, Roth, Drabble, Murdoch, Pym, Spark, Beatty. All good writers to be sure, and their books are interesting. But Raymond Carver’s another story.

It’s not that the people he writes about have never been written about before – dead beats, losers and people who are barely hanging on. Ordinary people who’ve screwed up and who aren’t happy but they don’t know why. Usually they’ve been married a few too many times, they drink too much, they don’t have any special talents or abilities. Most of them have very hum-drum jobs – if any. When other writers turn to these kinds of people, the stories are filtered through literary sensibilities. In Raymond Carver’s stories, it sounds like these people are writing about themselves. He presents his people with no artifice, no literary touches. His writing is so natural and inevitable that it makes Ernest Hemingway’s writing look affected. With Carver, it doesn’t feel that there’s a writer at work at all. Here’s how one narrator describes sex with his wife, "I started in." It’s as if some guy comes up to you in a bar and says: listen to this. Or somebody sitting next to you on a long bus trip. He has this tale that has to get out and he tells it with such directness and in such a plain-spoken way that he holds your attention for the duration.

Mind you, he’s a guy who notices one hell of a lot and who is very attuned to the undercurrents of feeling in people’s boring lives. One story may be simply about a guy who wants to sleep at night while his wife insists on talking. Another’s about a divorced guy who’s nearly sinking under demands for money. A middle-aged couple’s idyllic reconciliation comes unstuck when the house loaned to them is taken away. An alcoholic decides to phone old friends from his drying-out establishment on New Year’s Eve (the title story). One story is essentially nothing but a woman’s venting at her ex. The main point of another story is just that a guy feels creepy about being left alone with his wife’s blind friend.

One of the things I like most about these stories is that you almost never know where they’re going. At the end, you say: well, I don’t know what I was supposed to learn from that but it sure felt like a slice of real life. Very few of the stories give any obvious hope or optimism. What matters is that these people have had their stories told – attention has been paid to them – and that in itself confers some sort of dignity, of meaning, on them. In one of the few that might be described as offering a ray of hope, a divorced dad seems to find courage when a very motherly babysitter listens to his troubles. Most of the stories are so uncompromisingly blunt that you wonder how the same writer has produced a tender story about the early years of a very loving marriage. Of course, that story’s told from the vantage point of many years later – when the sweet marriage is history.

The stories have such a sweaty, gritty feel that I keep thinking: Raymond Carver couldn’t possibly have invented any of this, he must have lived through it all. Ok, so maybe it would be impossible for any one person to live through all this trouble. Still, you get the feeling that he must have lived hard. How could such a life leave offer any opportunity for writing? Does the stuff described here give any hint as to why he died at the age of 50 in 1988? Who was Raymond Carver?

 

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