Dilettante's Diary

Feb 16/07

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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Reviewed here: Little Children (Movie); Academy Awards 2007 (TV); Eugene Onegin (Met Opera Live HD Broacast to Theatres); Factory Girl (Movie); Me Talk Pretty One Day (Humour); The Lives of Others (Movie); Notes on a Scandal (Movie); Babel (Movie); A Brush With Life (Watercolours).

Little Children (Movie) written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta; based on the novel by Tom Perrotta; directed by Todd Field; starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley

This movie about broken promises requires me to break one of my promises. It will be necessary to discuss some plot details in order to give you a full appreciation of Little Children. When all’s said and done, though, I think you’re gonna be ok with that.

A mom (Kate Winslett) and dad (Patrick Wilson) fall in love but not with their spouses. To ease our consciences, we’re assured that those spouses are horrible. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) lets their kid sleep in the marriage bed, thereby curtailing any other activity. Plus she has the nerve to query his subscriptions to sports magazines. Seems she thinks maybe she has the right to do that since she’s been supporting him, with some help from her mom, while he fails the bar admission exam year after year. And the Winslet character’s husband (Gregg Edelman) is such a creep that he doesn’t know how to dispose of the Kleenex after his private porn sessions. To underline just how momentous is her craving for freedom and for real life, we have a book club discussion about Emma Bovary as the brave new woman.

All of which would be fine if you wanted to waste your time on a soap opera about beautiful people drooling over each other. What made it unbearable for me was a dopey voice-over narration. Apparently, Tom Perrotta loves his own writerly voice so much that he felt no movie adaptation of his novel could be complete without it. If these narrative passages are lifted directly from the book, they represent some of the lamest narrative prose ever published. "Brad was feeling anxious that day...." – that sort of thing. Sometimes the narrator even tells us what’s going to happen before it does. I was trying to appreciate how helpful this would be for people who had never seen a movie and who needed to have it explained to them that what they were seeing on screen was a story -- sort of like in a book. After a while, I began to think it might all be a joke. I was remembering that spoof of an Ingmar Bergman film where you see a young woman leaping over the net on a tennis court and tackling the opposing player in a passionate frenzy, while the voice-over narration solemnly intones, "My sister Inga was feeling strangely restless that day."

But Little Children is apparently meant to be taken seriously. So much so that a subplot about a possible child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) is tossed in. Never mind that it has virtually nothing to do with the main plot. It’s supposed to make everything edgy and contemporary. The worst of it is that this man’s problems actually threaten to become interesting. Bit by bit, he begins to seem like someone whose situation might be worth a movie. Unfortunately, though, even this brief flicker of a good movie within the lousy one succumbs to the film makers irresistible yen for melodrama.

Maybe all of this could have worked in the book where the ridiculousness of it wasn’t so glaringly obvious as it is on screen. Or maybe in a film by a director who had any subtlety. In general, the scenes are directed with ham-fisted clumsiness. In an early scene, some women who seem to be ordinary American moms are chatting in a park while their kids play. One of the moms kisses a man she has just met. The other moms grab their kids and run screaming for the hills. Did I miss something – are these Muslim women who just happened to forget their veils at home? As for the scene when the supposed pervert visits the public swimming pool – I reckon the panic outdoes the hysteria in the scenes from Jaws when the killer monster is discovered. (I’ve never seen that movie.) And the monster in question here isn’t even a genuine pedofile. He’s just a jerk convicted of one count of exhibitionism.

And what happens to the lovers? Glad you asked. ( I was hoping you would, so that I wouldn’t have stayed to the end for nothing.) They plan their big break for freedom and a new life. The guy is running – literally – from wife and kid to the great romantic assignation, and guess what happens: He’s suddenly overcome by a need to try skateboarding – and that changes everything. I’ll bet there are a lot of writers out there in the great beyond who will be kicking themselves when they read this. Who would ever have guessed  that you could end a tragic love story with a skateboarding urge? Shakespeare could have done away with all those potions, asps and poisoned swords. Tolstoy could have scrapped the locomotive. Flaubert could have spared poor Emma the rat poison.

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

 

Academy Awards 2007 (Sunday, February 25)

It doesn’t matter much to me who wins the Oscars. Long before the event, I’ve made up my mind who are the best actors and which are the best movies, so the decisions of the Academy members are pretty irrelevant. They have their own reasons for their choices and heaven knows what they may be. The quality of the movies may have little to do with it. And when you come to think of it, what do those people really know about movies?

However, you have to admit that an Oscar in hand does make a big difference for a winner in terms of fame and fortune. For that reason, then, I’m willing to take some note of the outcome of the competition. And let me say, in all humility and generosity of spirit, that I’m very happy that certain people didn’t win.

But the main reason for watching the ceremony is that it’s my annual night of television and readers of Dilettante’s Diary will be expecting some comments on the evening in terms of performance values. Last night, I was reminded of the time a few years ago when the pre-show buzz was that the hoop-la would be scaled down in the aftermath of Sept 11. The idea was to show that America had more serious things on its mind, sort of a stern warning to those bad guys out there. But the show opener that year turned out to be the usual over-the-top razzmatazz. Host Steve Martin wryly remarked, "That’ll teach ‘em."

This year it was as if the Academy was really getting serious about the message. Where was the big opening number? You know the kind of thing – those clips of the nominated movies with Billy Crystal inserted into the roles of the stars. Where were the clever, amusing production numbers? We got Jack Black, Will Farrell and John C Reilly singing a belaboured number about how comedians don’t get any respect at the Oscars. (Jim Carey made much the same point a lot more effectively in a brief shtick a few years ago.) We had a bunch of white-robed choristers rolling down the aisles shouting "Hallelujah" in questionable taste. Some tumblers (or were they acrobats? or dancers?) formed some sculpted silhouettes that suggested major motifs of the movies – rather neat, if you could figure out what they were trying to represent.

In some ways, the ceremony has improved. Most of the dresses were pretty good. (We’ll pass over the origami construction on Cameron Diaz.) And the Academy has finally succeeded at keeping the speeches short – at least, the ones I heard. But I do wish the producers of the ceremony would veto two particular themes: 1) Following Your Dream; 2) Thanking God.

Re #1, I’m very tired of the star who, flaunting humble origins, proclaims that his or her great success is proof that you can follow your dreams. What about all the underprivileged kids who followed their dreams and ended up in a dead end? And let’s not forget that those 750 other hopefuls who auditioned with Jennifer Hudson didn’t get the role.

As for the business of thanking God for the statistically improbable luck of winning an Oscar, I think that's offensive to any God worth his or her name. If I were a Divinity, I would be really pissed to think that this particular  twerp had the gall to claim that I had so arranged the universe that he or she could have this moment of glory.

Fatuous speeches aside, Ellen DeGeneres, in jacket and trousers, did her utmost to keep the proceedings low-key. At first, I thought her laid-back style was bombing terribly. But, after a while, it grew on me. I think she made the right decision. The smart, sassy stuff never works, no matter how hard you try. Every host in recent years has been pilloried for not providing the expected dazzle. So Ms. DeG took the opposite approach – folksy, down-home. We saw her trying to peddle a script to Martin Scorsese, then asking Steven Spielberg to take a photo of her with Clint Eastwood. I think the Academy should go further in this casual direction. Surely there is a church basement available somewhere in Los Angeles– at a reasonable rent – for next year’s ceremony? Come to think of it, I know a friendly lady, a gym teacher at my kids’ school, who would make a really nice host.

Such a scaling down would fit with the new social consciousness of the event. It was great to hear Al Gore announce that the Oscars had gone green this year. I’m not sure what that means, though. Maybe it explains why we saw the stars walking on the red carpet instead of being driven right into the theatre in their limousines. No doubt their bicycles were parked behind the crowds of adoring gawkers.

I was a little surprised that the assembled elite of Hollywood seemed to have embraced Al Gore’s message so enthusiastically. It would be nice to think their cheers for him were sincere but I can never forget in these situations that we’re dealing with actors and that the cameras are seeing what they want to see in them. Like all those close-ups of stars in the audience who show just the right reaction to jokes about themselves – surely they’ve been prompted beforehand? Same with the constant mirth. They’re all at the top of their acting game. Either that or they take happy pills beforehand so that they’ll have grins plastered on their faces no matter what’s happening.

My own happy face was sagging pretty badly by about 11 pm. The song from "Dreamgirls" was my signal that bed was beckoning. I’d already endured that number once during the movie. Besides, the plethora of advertising had pretty well worn me down by then. In that respect, I find, commercial television has not improved since my last look at it during the 2006 Oscars.

 

Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Il’ych Tchaikovsky: Met Opera Live HD Broadcast to Movie Theatres conductor: Valery Gergiev; Starring: Rene Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ramn Vargas, Elena Zaremba (Feb 24, 2007)

As you will recall (see Dilettante's Diary, Dec 27/06), the historic first-ever broadcast from the Met to movie theatres was a great success, as far as I’m concerned. But that was the beloved Magic Flute by the divine Mozart. So I wondered what the broadcast to theatres would be like with a less familiar, less beloved opera.

Truth to tell, Tchaikovsky is far from being a favourite composer of mine. He wrote a few good dance tunes, but other than that....??? For the first part of this opera, I kept thinking it wasn’t much more than a play set to an orchestral background. Tchaikovsky seems to have lavished all his attention on the instrumentalists. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. I’m sure there are very interesting things happening in the pit. Me, I’m more interested in the singers and they weren’t getting much of a chance to really soar.

Until Tatiana’s letter-writing scene. It turns out that the whole point of a Tchaikovsky opera – at least for the singers – is the impassioned monologues. Onegin is worth this one scene, if nothing else. Especially when you have Rene Fleming on hand. Her voice is perfect and her acting is exquisite. Not to mention the fact that the camera adores her gorgeous face. You know that she’s well beyond the sixteen-years-old that the story calls for, but it doesn’t matter because she is so lovely in every way.

While the letter-writing scene may be the highlight of the opera, this production makes sure we don’t forget about Onegin. At the beginning of each act, we see him through a scrim, looking moody, reading letters or something. You get the impression that he’s looking back on his wasted life long after the events portrayed in the opera. After the scene where he kills Lenski, he comes downstage and several be-wigged valets proceed to dress him for a ball, while other footmen arrange the next scene upstage. When the dressers got down to Dmitri Hvorotosky’s bare torso, I suddenly understood why he has lost so much weight since I last saw him. He now looks very much the romantic hero with his svelte figure and his shaggy silver hair. Of course, his singing is as glorious as ever.

Ultimately the focus on Onegin pays off in theatrical terms. His character is an interesting variation on the Don Juan theme. You come away wondering about him. Why did this famous rake reject Tatiana in the first place? Was he being noble? Or was he simply not interested? And, in the end, does he truly love her or is he just, as she accuses him, attracted to her new-found wealth and social status?

Apart from that, the piece doesn’t impress me much as a play. The stagecraft is lousy. You have people coming going with no motive other than the fact that they have to make room for the next bit of business. In the penultimate scene, for instance, the dancers who have been kicking a storm decide that they have to adjourn to another room for the cotillion. Then there’s the stupid business of the duel. I suppose you have to try to accept it in the context of the times. What I really don’t think we needed was the repetition of verses of some of the songs – such as the French teacher’s tribute to Tatiana and her husband’s ode to the joys of married love. Both numbers went on twice as long as necessary.

Maybe it helps if you remember that Onegin was written for students at the Moscow Conservatory. My impression is that it was first presented almost as a chamber opera. I think the intimate setting would help to make the awkwardness of the stagecraft a little less conspicuous. And this production’s very spare set helps to retain the feeling of simplicity. It seems to suggest that what we’re looking at isn’t really supposed to be realistic. For the first act, we have nothing but a bare stage strewn with autumn leaves, three or four mottled poles to indicate the trunks of birch trees and a backdrop bathed with glowing yellowish orange to suggest the endless distance of the Russian steppes. My only problem is with the towering, unrelieved side walls bathed in the same yellowish orange. They give the impression that the action is taking place in a box and I’m not sure what purpose that serves. Maybe the effect works better in the theatre than on screen.

But the main thing to report is the great success of the broadcast as a whole. The Met has hit on a winning formula. Take just the close-ups, for instance. During the Frenchman's song, we got three beautifully contrasting close-ups: Tatiana was trying to hide her impatience under a gracious demeanour, Onegin was practically puking with boredom and Lenski was brooding jealously. The shots worked so well that you’d have thought the singers had been coached for them. If it were a DVD, you’d assume that the close-ups were edited in from several takes. But the fact that this was live made you appreciate the performances all the more.

And the intermission features were great. So great, in fact, that I worried that it wasn't going to be possible to take a washroom break. First, we got Beverley Sills interviewing the two principal stars just as they came offstage; you could see the stagehands working in the background. There stood Ms Fleming and Mr. Hvorotosky, each with a microphone in hand, making charming and interesting comments. It strikes me as perhaps cruel and unfair to expose performers to the extra pressure of this kind of an ordeal during their break but I gobbled up the spectacle as greedily as any viewer.

Then came a documentary showing conductor Valery Gergiev in rehearsal. I loved seeing the singers – in street clothes – rehearsing bits of business that we were going to see in performance a few minutes later. Maestro Gergiev made fascinating comments about the music. Appropos of his appearance, I took note of the fact that apparently it’s ok now for men of a certain age with sparse, fly-away hair to look as if they can’t afford a comb and to go around with two or three days of whitish stubble and still be considered sexy and elegant.

Finally, we got a shot of Ms. Fleming coming from her dressing room in her ball gown for the second act. Some minion followed her, holding up the back of her voluminous skirt, presumably so that it wouldn’t catch on any debris lying around. And it’s not as if that were a remote possibility. They walked through what seemed miles of corridors jammed with scaffolding, cranes, equipment and bric-a-brac of all kinds until they finally made their way to the stage. I don’t know why such behind-the-scenes glimpses give me such a kick. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the glamorous with the tawdry. In a way, it seems to sum up the thrill of theatre.

And then, mercifully, the Met management gave us ten minutes for washroom business before the second act began.

 

Factory Girl (Movie) written by Captain Mauzner, Aaron Golub; directed by George Hickenlooper; starring Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, Hayden Christensen.

In case you don't remember her, Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), the eponymous Factory Girl, was the young socialite whom Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce) made briefly famous through his movies. "The Factory" where they made them was the legendary hot spot for craziness in 1960s New York. You have to understand that my reason for seeing a movie about that scdene has nothing to do with sex, drugs and rock and roll. My interest is purely sociological. In the time when The Factory was happening, I was locked up in a seminary, studying for the priesthood. So my seeing the movie is merely about filling a lacuna in my knowledge of American culture.

The reviews haven't been great, I gather. Which may mean there's something wrong with me because I liked the movie -- sort of. It was interesting to get some sense of that New York pop art scene -- the celebs coming and going, the paparazzi, the parties and all that. And who ever gave a thought to Andy Warhol's home life -- as if he had one! It turns out to have been quite different from what I'd have imagined. As for the scenes of him in the confessional, one can't help wondering how the script writers knew what went on. Never mind, the scripted confessions are hilarious.

More importantly, Edie's story touched me. I felt a lot of sympathy for the effervescent rich girl who became nothing but a burnt out shell when her iconic mentor dropped her. The fact that she's telling it all in flashback from the context of an attempted rehabilitation makes it all the more poignant.

Still, the movie isn't totally satisfying. It feels somewhat like a documentary with the main events sketched in rather than fully developed. Maybe the problem is that the Warhol character is so lacking in emotional connection with anybody or anything He says at one point that New York is a lot more fun since he met Edie but you'd never know it; he never shows any such feeling. For a real drama that will engage you, you need more of a tug of war between the characters. With him on the scene, the drama is pretty one-sided. It disconcerted me to see him looking like such a villain. I'd always thought there was something kind of heroic in his diffident shrug but the movie would have you believe that apathy like his can be criminal.

So I came out with something to think about. But the movie somehow made The Factory look dull, its infamy not withstanding. The sex and drugs and rock and roll were't nearly as exciting as I was hoping.

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

 

Me Talk Pretty One Day (Humour) David Sedaris, 2000

I've become a David Sedaris fan through his writing in The New Yorker, but his books are seldom available at the library. Apparently, I'm not his only fan. So it was a delightful surprise when this book turned up on the shelves of a close relative I was visiting in Paris recently. Some back problems provided a perfect excuse to lie around reading the book one day instead of going sight-seeing. What made the circumstances even more serendipitous was the fact that much of the book talks about Mr. Sedaris' sojourn in France. The title of the book is an English translation of one of Mr. Sedaris' forays in fractured French.

Might as well say it outright: David Sedaris is the funniest writer alive. We could leave it at that. Since, however, you're paying to read this (well, you're paying me the compliment of giving me your attention), I should offer something more.

It amazes me that Mr. Sedaris can raise so many laughs with his persona of the "innocent-at-large", the ineffectual doofus who can barely cope with the exigencies of ordinary life -- and that he makes himself rich and famous in the process. So there must be more to this guy than the bumbling idiot he portrays in his essays. For starters, he's one hell of a good writer. His prose ripples along like the clearest running stream with nary a rock or a log to block the way. Clarity is all. Either this means that Mr. Sedaris is hiding one very intelligent practitioner of the writing craft under that blundering exterior -- or he has much better editors than his competitors.

After a while, you can't help feeling that Mr. Sedaris is, while pretending just to rattle on about his life, drawing on some of the talents of a very gifted novelist. Some of the people he talks about are unforgettable, particularly the members of his family: his sister Amy with her fondness for practical jokes bordering on the cruel, his sweet little brother with the sewer-mouth and their father whose multiple oddities could never be summed up in one epithet. We all know that humourists exaggerate the flaws of their family members -- a great source of material, after all -- but they usually end up sounding like caricatures. The people in this book, in spite of their strangeness, feel like flesh-and-blood humans as rendered by an artist.

And that fullness of character development extends to the author himself. Sometimes when reading such delightful material, you can't help thinking -- somewhat naively -- what a likeable guy the author is. But Mr. Sedaris occasionally lets the mask of the clown slip to reveal another side. For instance, he's an unrepentant smoker. Sociologists tells us that these days it's permissible to be contemptuous of only three groups of people while maintaining your political correctness: the overweight, pedofiles and smokers. So Mr. Sedaris' admission of the tobacco habit makes you a little wary of him.

And in some places he reveals a downright unpleasant side. His tales about abuse of drugs and alcohol don't make for very amusing reading. In one chapter, he nakedly shows his hostility to a couple of American tourists in Paris. Admittedly, they're pretty awful but it's a bit scary to come up against such unmitigated hatred in his reaction to them.

The book would have been more attractive without those elements. But if they had been removed, I suppose it would be a less honest impression of life as Mr. Sedaris experiences it. I think his including these elements is his way of fending us off, his way of telling us: hey, you really don't want to marry me.

 

The Lives of Others (Movie) written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; starring Ulriche Mhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck.

Given the general reaction to this movie, you’d think that an intelligent, discerning movie-goer like me would be raving about it. The fact that I’m not may at least mean that you’re getting a candid gut reaction here rather than an opinion that’s shaped by the taste-makers of the day.

The movie puts us in East Berlin before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Stasi have installed spying technology in a playwright’s apartment. He’s thought to be a model Socialist, but some of the higher-ups have doubts about him. The nightmarish world is very convincingly created. Everybody is suspicious of everybody else. Everybody is watching out for their own career at the expense of anybody they can betray to the authorities.

For me, the movie began to get really interesting when one of the people involved turned out not to behave quite the way you’d expect. The scene where the discrepancy first turned up gave me a genuine frisson. (I’ll just refer to it as the "inspection of the bedroom" scene.) This character's mysterious behaviour became, really, the whole point of the movie. I’m not sure that I ever did fully understand him but he sure made for a fascinating study in human nature.

So how come I didn’t enjoy the movie more? Well, it’s all so damn bleak. I was going to say that it’s all very George Orwell. And then it occurred to me that the first part of the movie is, in fact, taking place in 1984. Maybe that’s the point: Orwell’s vision came to reality in some parts of the world just as he said it would. But it doesn’t make for really fun watching. It’s not just the overbearing presence of the Stasi that makes everything so dreary. That Soviet decor leaves everything to be desired. Something about the way it’s photographed gives the whole movie a flat, monochromatic look. And there’s nothing flashy or exciting about the film-making technique. It’s all very conventional, even stodgy in the narrative department. Not to mention its length, at more than two hours. I could have done with less. You almost get an echo of the exhortation that comes with some European books and movies that are meant to be taken seriously: this is good for you so you damn well better sit there and endure it!

However, some neat plot twists late in the day sort of lightened the gloom and gave a satisfying ending. So maybe I’ll come to appreciate this movie more in retrospect. No question that I’ll be thinking about it for quite a while.

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

 

Notes on a Scandal (Movie) written by Patrick Marber; directed by Richard Eyre; starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy

People were spouting such conflicting opinions on this movie that I decided to see it myself and settle the question for once and for all. As one glimpse of the previews will tell you, Judi Dench plays an older teacher who gets the goods on a younger teacher (Cate Blanchett) who is involved in some bad stuff. The Dench character tries to parlay this knowledge into an emotional bond with the guilty one.

To give the nay-sayers their due, there’s lots not to like about this movie. Several implausibilities, right off the top. Why would a school staff meeting be held in the gym? These days, what older female teacher – even if she is a self-confesssed battle-axe – could stop a fight between a couple of ruffians with just a word? And what teacher could be so smug with the put-downs in the staff room? And has there ever been, in anything other than a farce, such an over-acted role as the principal in this movie?

And then there’s the constant voice-over reading from a diary. Voice-over narration always strikes me as a lame way of structuring a play or a movie -- all the more so when the voice is describing stuff that we see enacted in flashbacks. But I concede that the title includes the words "notes", so I guess diary readings would seem to be the obvious narrative device. But haven’t diaries become a rather an outmoded literary clich? I mean, would even a fusty old teacher actually sit down and confide everything to a diary these days – in fountain pen, no less?

But the worst thing about the movie is the constant reaching for melodramatic effects, particularly in the accompanying score. Such crashing and banging! At the denouement of the movie you have so much sturm and drang pounding away in the orchestra that you’d think you were viewing the Siege of Leningrad. At the same time, a hoarde of paparazzi harrasses the two women with such exaggerated frenzy that it becomes ludicrous.

The Cate Blanchett character isn’t particularly well written. It’s hard to know why she does what she does. But I did eventually feel that she was the fey type – she with her wan beauty, her unruly hair and her lanky ways – who could get herself into that kind of a mess. Not that I ever was completely convinced of the situation. In terms of plot, it’s a bit iffy.

When it comes to Judi Dench, though, all of my quibbles about the plot or the style of the movie amount to nothing. She turns the movie, flaws and all, into a mesmerizing study of a very complex woman: a pillar of rectitude and intelligence who has a hidden side to her that not even she can see for what it is. It’s a marvel to watch her flipping back and forth between her true self and the self she presents to the world. Or is the self that she presents to the world actually the true one? Is she kidding herself about the other person she thinks she has inside her? The fascination is endless. If you’ve never seen a person scheming and conniving and telling herself it’s all about love and kindness, then you really owe it to yourself to see this movie lest you die without knowing just how subtle human deviousness can be.

I don’t know how Judi Dench does it. In Casino Royale she was all spit and polish but here she’s frumpy and pathetic. You’d swear that both characters are the real Judi Dench. The camera finds infinite varieties of thought and feeling on her face when she doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Maybe Ms. Dench is not an actress at all. Maybe she is just some sort of evil enchantress who casts a spell on cameras and forces them to see whatever she wants them to see when they focus on her?

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

 

Babel (Movie) written by Guillermo Arriaga; directed by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu; starring Brad Bitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garca Bernal, and some other people.

I’d been resisting this movie because it sounded to me like it was based on a director’s idea. There’s nothing that puts me off an movie more quickly than a hint that a director wants to show us how clever he or she is. But so many people were talking about the movie that I eventually felt forced to see it.

The one thing I can say for the movie is that it’s watchable. There’s a whole lotta narrative going on; you keep wondering what’s coming next. (I only checked my watch twice.) And it offers the pleasures of travelogue: samples of life in such disparate locations as Morocco, Mexico and Japan. Which is to say that Babel is ok if you like this sort of thing – a bloated, contrived concoction. If you do, then good for you. If you want to find out why I don’t, then read on. Otherwise, stop reading and be happy with your own impressions of the movie.

Contrived? A Mexican nanny is going to make a very unwise decision, so first we have to see how extremely nice and kind she is. A husband and wife and going to experience random violence, so first we have them quarrelling and grumpy so that we can see how the bad luck pulls them together. And when tragedy strikes the tourists accompanying them have to turn out to be egregious jerks; otherwise there wouldn’t be enough tension. Whenever the proceedings don’t look grim enough, we add a bit of wind howling across the microphones. And, of course, the hand-held camera jumps in and mixes things up whenever the movie needs to feel more chaotic. Not to mention the times when the sound goes off suddenly just so that we get the idea of what it’s like for a deaf mute person.

Bloated? We get at least ten minutes of a psychedelic druggy scene when 30 seconds would have been more than enough. Ditto the ten minutes or so of a Mexican wedding. And speaking of pointless scenes, what’s with that Arab boy scampering off to a hiding place and masturbating? What was that supposed to prove? That Arabs boys will be boys (in case we didn’t know)?

So what about that director’s idea? You mean the fact that we have three stories here taking place in widely separated areas of the globe and that the people in the stories are all connected in some way? Is it supposed to be news that we’re all one big human family? Whoop-dee-doo! And if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon jungle, maybe the government of France will fall! Are we supposed to be profoundly amazed at the fact that bad stuff is happening to two little kids in Mexico because of something that happened to their parents in Morocco and that it all relates to something that a Japanese guy did years ago? Is this making some kind of philosophical statement? Is this what they call Existentialism? Actually, I think the ancient philosophers had a saying for it: shit happens.

Really, the only point of the combining of these three stories is that the writer/directors didn’t have enough material for one story. Each of the stories in itself is minimal. The characterization is skimpy. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have a few good moments; a Japanese cop is kind of interesting. And a Moroccan dad. Apart from that, we don’t get much insight into anybody.

In fact, one young Japanese woman, a deaf mute who can’t seem to keep her clothes on, is totally incomprehensible. And not just because of her inability to speak. Her behaviour is unfathomable. So what does her repellent presence in the movie say? That being a deaf mute sucks? No, because some of her similarly-handicapped friends seem well adjusted. In the last shot of the movie there may be an intended tip-off to what's bugging her. By that point, I didn't want to know. The fact that the young woman in the role is an inexperienced actress doesn’t help to make her sympathetic. You can actually see her brain going: now I’m supposed to look surprised, now I’m supposed to look sad, etc. One further observation arising from this role: I would hate to curtail employment opportunities for deaf mute actors but screen writers should be told that having someone passing notes back and forth does not make for very scintillating dialogue.

On the way out of the movie, I noticed an ad for an upcoming Sandra Bullock movie. The black-and-white poster features a barren tree. But when you stand back a bit, you realize that the twigs and the branches form Sandra Bullock’s facial features. See -- you've got to discern the pattern! When you do, you say "How clever!" Just like Babel!

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

 

A Brush with Life Paintings by Jenny Reid, Workshop Gallery, 1018 Coxwell Ave, Toronto, until Feb 28.

I was glad to be able to attend the opening of this show of paintings by Jenny Reid, a friend in the Toronto Watercolour Society. Jenny’s show in the Workshop Gallery, a bright, attractive space that opened recently, includes about 25 paintings. (The gallery is located on Coxwell at O’Connor.) Lately, Jenny’s work has tended towards human figures in landscapes and in marketplaces. My favourite picture shows two tiny human figures hiking among the towering rocks of Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park. The light on the rocks is stunning. A picture of some women lunching in the grounds of Spadina House in Toronto produces a lovely effect of light and shade. One strikingly simple composition shows a little girl standing on a doorstep in the sun. In addition to several Georgian Bay scenes, the show includes lots of landscapes painted in Europe – mostly on location. And, in my opinion, they’re all underpriced – in case you’re looking for a bargain!

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