Dilettante's Diary

March 23/07

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Reviewed here: Blades of Glory (Movie); She Got Up Off The Couch (Memoir); Changes at CBC Radio Two (Radio); The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Movie)

Blades of Glory (Movie) written by Jeff Cox and Craig Cox; directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck; starring Will Ferrell and Jon Heder

Most of my life takes place on such an exalted plane that sometimes I crave something really silly. Having read a review of this movie (one of the rare cases of my doing so before seeing a movie), it sounded like this was it.

The plot is contrived beyond belief. Two male skaters (Will Ferrell and Jon Heder) have been banned from solo men’s competition but they find that there’s nothing to stop them from competing as a pair. Along comes a fanatical coach (Craig T. Nelson) who smells gold. Lots of "odd couple" humour as the obnoxious lout (Ferrell) and the prissy artist (Heder) are thrown together. Much gagging about the physical proximity to each other’s crotches and arm pits that’s required by the skating choreography. Some one-dimensional villains provide plot complications and buckets of slap-stick humour fill in the empty spots in the script.

I don’t think I’m supposed to like this movie but I actually had quite a good time watching it. I particularly liked it when the coach forced the two guys to share accommodation. It seemed like some good inter-personal stuff was starting to develop. Alas, the nonsense quickly took over again. Trouble is, I seldom see anything so schlocky, so I’m really not in a position to tell you whether it’s a good bad movie or a bad bad movie, if you know what I mean.

Certainly, there wasn’t anything great about the acting in the starring roles. I’ve seen Will Ferrell and Jon Heder do much better. To accuse either of them of over-acting here would be like accusing Celine Dion of vapidity. And yet, the Ferrell character’s invincible stupidity did make for some good lines. And there’s some great work among the minor characters. For instance, Nick Swardson is intriguing as a hyper-ventilating fan who is stalking the Heder character.

Being so unfamiliar with this genre, I’m left mostly with a bunch of questions about the movie:

Is it a fairly clever satire on the whole figure skating world? As one person says, in protest against the two guys’ shtick, "Skating is gay enough already." And then there’s that final on-ice performance by our heroes’ enemies doing Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy – she’s popping pills and falling around and he’s picking her up. That’s not exactly run of the mill.

Maybe it’s a satire of the whole going-for-the-gold thing that’s so endemic to our culture?

Or a spoof of "little-engine-that-could" type movies – the kind where the underdog has something to prove? (You know the kind: Rocky Balboa, Billy Forsyth, Steve Carell as the forty-year-old virgin.)

Is the edgy skirting around gay-ness as contemptuous as it looks on the surface or does it hint at an open-minded, liberal approach to the different ways of being male?

Does the movie have something to say about male bonding? Or is the relationship between the two characters just cheap sentimentality?

Does the ending, set in Montreal – complete with batallions of Mounties in scarlet tunics and smatterings of French over the pa system – make Canada look ridiculous or does it point up the outrageous American-ness of the rest of the movie?

I dunno. Go see it for yourself and let me know.

Rating: I would give it a C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing") in terms of my own enjoyment but I think, by any objective standard, it probably merits something more like an E (i.e. iffy, as in the Canadian "eh?")

 

She Got Up Off the Couch (Memoir) by Haven Kimmel (2006)

This is one of those books that I happened to pick up more or less at random from the library shelf. The first page appealed to me, so I brought it home. Apparently, author Haven Kimmel had an enormous success with an earlier memoir, A Girl Named Zippy. As Ms. Kimmel explains in her introduction to the new book, the earlier one prompted many people to ask what happened to her mother who had been pictured as spending most of her life ensconced on a couch with books, telephone and television. In this book, we learn that the mother pulled herself together, lost a lot of weight, learned to drive and acquired a college education with rather considerable distinction.

The mother’s odyssey, and its repercussions in her marriage, provide the framework for the book, but mostly it’s a collection of reminiscences about Ms. Kimmel’s growing up in a tiny town in Indiana. Clearly, the way to turn out a winning memoir is to have a childhood that makes you feel like a bit of a kook. A couple of obvious parallels come to mind: Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner and A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. (Although the Toews book is catalogued as fiction, the personality of the first-person narrator invites comparison to the Kimmel book.) Ms. Kimmel is neither as funny as the other two writers, nor is her writing as polished as theirs. Sometimes the overall theme of a chapter can be elusive and it can be hard to see why some material appears where it does. Still, Ms. Kimmel’s writing is delightful. It would be demeaning to call her charming, though. There is something more than charm here. I’d call it honesty: a laid-back candour that’s enthralling.

Part of the secret to it, I think, is the tone of voice. Ms. Kimmel sounds completely natural and unaffected. She has a way of letting her sentences run on, sometimes using "and" to tack on a non-sequitur that can have an amusing effect. In fact, my inner English teacher kept docking marks for unwieldy syntax such as this sentence in a description of a visit to an old friend: "Olive appeared, her finger to her lips to indicate Orville was napping or doing whatever Orville did, which was nobody knew what." Or this conclusion to a piece about trying to lift the metal handle of an ice tray: "It didn’t move and it didn’t move, and then it slammed backward and pinched a piece of my hand completely off and I still had a scar but who cared, I liked scars."

The slangy, conversational style beguiles us into not noticing that we’re being drawn into deeper and deeper territory. One night after an evening of reading this book, I found myself dreaming about my sisters. I think that must be because Ms. Kimmel conveys the inner life of a girl more convincingly than anything I’ve ever read. In a section about her passionate friendships for other girls, I found myself saying: ah, so that’s what it’s like! I also found dim memories, barely discernible impressions, from my own early life swimming up to the surface of my mind: textures, smells, tastes. Why? Because I think Ms. Kimmel was stirring up murky corners of the unconscious that had lain unnoticed for decades. And that’s one of surest signs of great writing. Marcel Proust himself said that the measure of a book is not so much what it says but what thoughts it stirs up in the reader.

 

Changes at CBC Radio Two

Clearly, the CBC is trying to draw in a younger, hipper audience with the new programming on Radio Two. The evenings are pretty much a wasteland now as far as classical music goes. We seem to be getting mainly jazz and cross-over stuff – a mish-mash of the modern, innovative, folky, pop and international.

Undoubtedly, old-timers like me are expected to kick and scream violently as we are dragged unwillingly into this new era. So I will resist any such theatrics about the new regime and will simply state, with my usual dignity and restraint, that IFUCKENHATEIT!!!

That should give you some inkling of where I stand.

So let’s move on to the details. The shorter – almost non-existent newscasts, for instance. Shall we call them "news blurbs"? The CBC is playing a dangerous game here. Over many decades, it has conditioned us to think that we need to hear about ten minutes of news every few hours. Now, however, we’re getting much closer to the truth: there seldom really is any news. That is the fact of the matter. Most days, there isn’t much going in the world that you need to hear about. The news industry just tries to make you think that there is. The CBC seems now to be admitting this. Is this wise?

We are advised to visit Radio One for more detailed news reports. Never mind the inconvenience of switching back and forth on the dial and the implication that perhaps that first ten minutes of music on Radio Two at the top of the hour might not be worth listening to. The real issue is that we might eventually become comfortable with the idea that there’s no news worth hearing. Our skepticism might spread through the population. The whole news industry could come crashing down. It might be good for our peace of mind. But would this be good for the CBC?

The only really worthwhile aspect of the news, as far as I’m concerned, was the weather. And let it be said here that I’m not one of these people who constantly gripe about the inaccuracy of weather reports. I have consistently found the forecasts on CBC Radio Two to be easily 95 percent accurate. I say that openly, generously, unabashedly and without reservation. Now, however, we get no weather reports on Radio Two. The one aspect of the radio programming that could be said to had have a practical, helpful application to life is gone. Even those red-necked taxpayers who complain about the artsy-fartsy irrelevance of CBC would have to admit that the weather reports had a real impact on daily life. Without them, how am I supposed to know whether or not to take an umbrella when I go downtown? How am I supposed to know whether or not it’s safe to plant the tomatoes? Most importantly, how can I know whether or not to hang the laundry outside? (There are still some of us who don’t rely totally on energy-wasting driers.) Am I just supposed to stick my nose out the window to get my take on the weather? Is the CBC thereby training me for that fateful day when the entire system collapses and I’m going to have to live my life without any help from technology or science at all?

And what about those commercials for other programs that have started interrupting the flow of the program you’re listening to? Tom Allan or Jurgen Goth, say, will just have established a cozy ambiance, then suddenly – WHAM! – up pops some twerp announcer who sounds like his voice has just changed and we’re hit with a fatuous promo for one of these upcoming shows. Talk about a mood-ruiner. Doesn’t it occur to the decision-makers at CBC radio that if we wanted to hear commercials, we would listen to commercial radio?

Forgive me for this inference which may be unwarranted, but I get the impression that my favourite hosts are somewhat off-kilter with the new deal. There’s a slight flatness to the delivery, a not-very-convincing attempt to drum up some kind of enthusiasm. I particularly miss the kibitzing between Tom Allen and Joe Cummings on the now-defunct "Arts Report". The gab between the two of them used to strike me as a rather corny attempt to ape the inane blather that dominates the morning air-waves on other stations. To my astonishment, though, I now find that I miss the Allen-Cummings version of it.

Which just goes to prove the old adage that you never really appreciate what you have until you lose it. Is this – God forbid! – going to be the epitaph for the entire Radio Two that we have known and loved?

Footnote: In the Give-Credit-Where-Credit-Is-Due Department

A car trip to Ottawa during the March break enabled us to hear almost all of Eric Friesen’s interview with Murray Perahia. Now that was a couple of hours of superb radio! Eric asked all the right questions, even touching on Mr. P’s problematic thumb. The piano-playing was fantastic. You really could hear the difference  Mr. Perahia's singing tone makes. His playing of Bach’s "Italian Concerto" was probably the best I’ve ever heard. He told wonderful stories about Vladimir Horowitz, Peter Peers and others. And here’s something truly remarkable: the man does not think with his mouth open. There was not a single "...ah...." or "....um....". Every sentence was tied up and delivered in a neat grammatical parcel – all the while maintaining a friendly, conversational tone and never sounding pedantic. What a treat!

 

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Movie) written by Paul Laverty; directed by Ken Loach; starring Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney

For the first half hour of this movie, I was thinking: who needs it? We all know the trouble in Ireland in the 1920s was horrible. The British were brutal. The rebels weren’t much better. As one character puts it, it was a question of meeting "savagery with savagery". So why revisit it all at this point? What’s to gain? The movie presents it with so much screaming and shouting and shooting and torture and bloodshed that I was seriously thinking of bailing out – in spite of all the gorgeous scenery.

But then things started to get more interesting. For instance, an execution unlike any I’d ever seen on screen – let’s call it an execution with sensitivity and affection, if that isn’t oxymoronic. And the movie started delving into the differences of opinion among the rebels about the kind of Free Ireland they envisioned. Would it be a socialistic state with equal opportunity for all or would it be a capitalist society much like the British one? Ultimately, the movie has rather a down-beat, inconclusive feel that appeals to the realist in me. It seems to say that maybe there are no winners. Certainly, the ending isn’t the glorious triumph that you expect in a story about such bloody conflicts.

For some reason, though, the movie never really grabbed me. It’s well made and watchable; the scenes are beautifully shot, with effective fade-outs where one scene seems to linger on your retina for a second before the next one appears. But I was never really drawn into the proceedings; it felt like I was watching it all from a distance. That could be because there’s so much skulking around in the dark where it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Or what the characters are saying. Given the thickness of their brogues, half the time you can’t tell whether they’re speaking English or Irish (and my comprehension of Irish is nil).

The relationships aren’t very clear either. A young woman provides some love interest but I could never quite get a fix on her and her rebel man. Their affection for each other seemed so tentative that, for a long time, I thought they were siblings. As for the central conflict of the story – the division between two brothers – the dynamics between them weren’t developed enough to make me care very much.

As one of the brothers, Cillian Murphy makes a credible rebel soldier – which is saying a lot, considering that I was having a hard time getting rid of the memory of him as the transvestite prostitute in Breakfast On Pluto [see Dilettante’s Diary Jan 11/06]. Padraic Delaney, a hulking, manly actor, as the Murphy character's brother, made rather a stronger impression on me. In fact, the men as a group offer a spendid gallery of Irish male types.

In a way, those many faces along with the details of Irish life in a certain era provide the most pleasure in the movie. All those floppy tweed hats and jackets -- perfect for a tromp through the gorse. In a movie theatre, a prim, middle-aged man plunking away at a tinny piano as accompaniment to the news reels. And, in the countryside, a toothless crone in a lacey bonnet, like the ones Queen Victoria used to wear. After her house has been torched by the British, this stubborn peasant announces she’s going to clean out the chicken coop and live there. And who could not love the kid who arrives on his bike to deliver an important message (a striking lack of cell phones in 1920 Ireland!) but finds, after turning out all his pockets, that he’s dropped the message somewhere on the road?

The credits at the end of the movie indicate that it's a co-production of Ireland, Britain, Germany, Spain, and I don’t know where-all-else. Maybe the fact that all these countries could co-operate to make the film is the most important thing that can be said, in retrospect, about the kind of conflict it depicts. Coming away from the movie reminded me of visiting a cemetry. At one time, an open grave is the focus of tremendous grief and pain – the scene of such torment. But later the site is peaceful and green – just like the money that now blankets a prosperous and contented Ireland.

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

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com