Dilettante's Diary

December 5/04

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Reviewed this week: Closer (movie); Shake Hands With The Devil (book); Bigger than Jesus (play); Modigliani (art show); The Machinist (movie); Don Giovanni (opera)

Closer (movie) directed by Mike Nichols

     There's only one thing wrong with this movie: the script.

      It's set in contemporary London where two men (Brits) compete over two women (Americans). Lots of sex happens offscreen; what we get mostly is talk, talk, talk. At first, there seems to be an attempt at a kind of quirky repartee but it never really takes flight, being constantly dragged back to earth by its own verbosity. After about an hour of the accusations, recriminations, apologies and reconciliations, I couldn't tell who was telling the truth. What's more, I didn't care who had slept with whom.

     Which is not to blame any of the actors. Julia Roberts deserves a medal for retaining her composure in some ludicrous situations. As for the characters of the two men, it would be hard to decide which is the bigger shit, but they're both well acted: Jude Law as the sensitive romantic with the loyalty of an alley cat and Clive Owen as the ruthless bastard who knows what he is and doesn't pretend otherwise. To me, Natalie Portman comes off best of all. Her ingenuous, off-hand style of acting makes her character seem the only one who has a spark of decency. Maybe her youthfulness has something to do with it. And the script gives her some of the best lines, my favourite being when, as a stripper, she tells a disconsolate customer, "You're not allowed to cry in here."

     In spite of the best efforts of the actors, this is the kind of movie where distractions inevitably crop up. When Julia Roberts and Jude Law are seen in profile while facing each other, you can't help noticing that he has the better nose. And you keep wondering if Clive Owen should sue the dentist who capped his teeth with that glow-in-the-dark enamel.

     Not to mention the attention-seeking music. We keep getting selections from Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti. I first noticed the trio Soave sia il vento as background music when two characters were exchanging extremely gross sexual comments on the internet. Now this is not the first time that that tune, one of the most sublime ever written by the divine Mozart, has been used in a movie as accompaniment to sexual depravity. It was very prominent in the 1998 film Happiness, a movie that bummed me out so much that I had to rush home and play the CD of the trio several times before I could begin to feel human again.

     In this movie, we get more of the opera when Mr. Law and Ms. Roberts meet in a bar at an opera house where the opera is being performed. Ok, we get the point: Cosi shows that even back in Mozart's time, couples screwed around. But do we need the idea underlined so obviously? Well, one mustn't complain. At least there was something beautiful about the movie and it motivated me to get out that CD again when I got home.

 

Shake Hands With The Devil (book) by LGen Romeo Dallaire (2003)

     After a binge of work, I was looking for some escape reading. Something cozy and domestic like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping would hit the spot, I thought. But there were 79 holds on it at the library.

     The "Fast Read" shelf offered General Dallaire's book on his service as commander of the UN mission to Rwanda in 1993-94. On the first page, he says that he never wanted to be anything but a soldier. He describes playing with his toy soldiers on the living room rug as a kid.

     Now, here's something different, I thought. When have I ever read anything by anybody who wanted to be a soldier? On the principle that a change of reading material is as good as a rest, I brought the book home.

     The first couple of hundred pages flew by almost like a James Bond (without the sex). It felt as though you were racing ahead, compelled by the doom that you knew was coming. I found it fascinating to get inside the mind of a general, find out what his priorities are, how he makes his decisions. Mind you, I can't help thinking General Dallaire may not be the typical general: he seems too candid about his feelings. But, then, I haven't read a lot of books by generals, have I?

     The next two hundred pages or so were a lot heavier going. Truth to tell, it was something of a struggle to get the book back to the library within the alloted seven days. In the thick of the atrocities, it's not easy to follow all the political manoeuvring and to keep your sights clear on the good guys and the bad guys, especially when leaders on opposite sides sometimes have almost identical names. I had to refer to the 22-page glossary at the end of the book as many as ten times in the course of a couple of pages of reading. Still, the book is very well put together and I don't think anybody could have done a better job of telling the horrible story -- unless some of the daily details were skipped in favour of an overview.

     But who actually wrote the book? The question is of special interest now that it has won the Governor General's award for non-fiction. General Dallaire credits Major Brent Beardsley, his right-hand man in Rwanda as "the catalyst, the disciplinarian and the most prolific scribe" for the book. Sian Cansfield is dubbed the "shadow author". Various other helpers and researchers are acknowledged. But it doesn't seem possible to me that all these non-professional writers could have put such a complex book together without considerable help from some skilled professionals. And this may be a quibble, but how does a man, nearly a decade later, remember so much detail about the weather, what he ate on a particular night and how well he slept?

     One expects a personal memoir to be self-serving and this one is, to some extent. But not egregiously so. As far as I can tell, General Dallaire is honest about his own flaws and his mistakes. In fact, one theme of the book is his gradual breakdown, leading to his medical discharge as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, it would be interesting to read an account of the Rwanda tragedy from the point of view of one of the people General Dallaire dumps on fairly consistently, say, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, the Cameroonian diplomat who was the overall boss of the UN mission.

     Throughout the book, General Dallaire deplores the lack of political will in the rest of the world to do something about the disaster in Rwanda. That little African country simply didn't have enough stratetic importance for anybody to care enough to send the resources the UN mission needed to be effective. Everybody tsk-tsk'd about what was going on, but nobody wanted to risk the lives of their own soldiers to stop it.

     In his conclusion, General Dallaire says that we have to address the many problems -- among them, lack of education, poverty, environmental degradation, tribalism -- that fuel the kind of hatred that exploded in Rwanda. If we don't, he says, the overflowing rage could destroy our own way of life. So far so good.

     But then he says that if we truly believe that human lives everywhere have the same value as our own, we have to be willing to have our own soldiers killed to give people in all parts of the world some hope for the future. It seems to me that maybe this is where General Dallaire's innately military way of thinking shows itself for what it is. Isn't this a case of the old "If-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-every-problem-looks-like-a-nail" syndrome?

 

Bigger Than Jesus by Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks (Factory Theatre, Toronto)

     Having read almost nothing about this, I knew only that it was a big hit. Whatever I was expecting, this certainly wasn't it. In fact, it turned into one of the strangest evenings I've spent in a theatre. One of the most uncomfortable too, because it sparked a raging battle between my lingering loyalties to my religious heritage and my openness to theatrical innovation.

     In this one-man show, performer Rick Miller presents what might be called a meditation on the historical Jesus and his place in the modern world -- if you can apply the word meditation to something presented in a comic mode with a wildly manic performing style. We begin with a lecture on early Church history that de-mythologizes the gospels and shows that much of what people take to be the facts about Jesus are merely enthusiastic tales spun by his followers. In this exegesis, though, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John happen to bear a striking resemblance to Paul, George, Ringo and John.

     Then we move on to various skits such as one about a rabble-rousing evangelical preacher. Later comes a scene with Jesus listening to the prayers of the passengers on a doomed airliner. An enactment of the Last Supper with little plastic figurines features Dorothy from The Wizzard of Oz as the prostitute, the Tin Man as her pimp, and Homer Simpson as Judas.

     Throughout, we're treated to lots of puns connected to religious themes, with lines like "I'm your host," and references to drinking "Bloody Mary's". The pope comes in for lots of hits and George Bush takes a couple. Everything is dressed up with lots of flashy technical effects, mainly in terms of video projections.

      Not much of this was amusing or entertaining for me. Jokes about Jesus are so easy that it's hard to see the point of them. Here we have this figure who was untouchable for nearly 2,000 years and in the last 30 years or so he has become fair game for everybody. It seems to me we've heard enough witticisms in that vein.

     Nor did I need to hear the secular-humanist revisionist history Mr. Miller was dishing out. Maybe his apercus were fascinating if you had never thought about these things before. He seemed to be working himself into a celebratory frenzy about having shaken off the constraints of a religious upbringing. His audience (average age about 29, I'd say) seemed to find his message very freeing.

     I couldn't help noticing, though, that the strongest response was coming from young women who seemed to find Mr. Miller a really cool guy. He too seems to think of himself that way. He's cute, he sings and dances like a rock star and he eventually rips off his shirt to display his impressive abs. The subtext of the show seemed to be: I'm a really sexy guy, so come with me on this friggin' religious trip and we'll all have a real good time.

     What was bugging me mostly was the fact that the thread linking the skits is the liturgy of the Catholic mass. Yes, believe it or not, Mr. Miller actually recites most of the text of the main parts of the mass, all quite accurately (except for the response to the reading of the gospel which he gets wrong). An audience member could be forgiven for wondering whether Mr. Miller didn't get enough opportunities to play priest when he was a little boy. Did he have any right to make comic use of these words that are sacred to so many people? Would he get away with using passages from Jewish or Muslim rituals this way? Granted, his treatment of the mass itself was straight-faced but the context was hardly reassurring.

     In fact, his flippancy towards matters that were once very important to me annoyed me so much that I was strongly tempted to leave. But I hung on in the hope of finding out whether his guerilla tactics served any purpose. Occasionally, there was a hint that he might have something other than irreverance up his sleeve. At one point, a bible was handed to him out of the darkness and, in the light glowing on his face from the bible, he read the beatitudes. It was a beautiful moment. Gradually, it was dawning on me that his message might be: most of the stuff you heard about Jesus was crap but there's some good stuff too.

     At the "consecration" of his pretend mass, he wisely switched to the traditional latin so that the words would not have quite the shock effect that they would have had in the vernacular. He turned his back to us and, standing at an altar that had appeared upstage, he slowly donned beard, white robe and wig, which turned him into the classic representation of Jesus himself. Then he came downstage and, with arms outstretched in a loving gesture, delivered some of Jesus' most tender words of farewell as recorded in John's gospel.

     This evolved into one of the genuinely funny moments of the show. Jesus, finding he'd run out of things to say, started groping for words of wisdom like "Listen to your parents," and "Dental hygiene is important." I couldn't help asking myself whether it was any more clever than lots of the Monty Python takes on Jesus. Still, the acting and the comic timing were superb.

    The ending of the show was stunning and unexpected: reverent, silent and solemn, with an amazing visual effect. The young audience leapt to its feet. The general feeling seemed to be: you're a great guy Rick, wer're all nice people, Jesus was a great guy too, it's a damn shame what happened to him but we can all go home feeling good about ourselves.

     I did.

 

Modigliani (Art Gallery of Ontario)

     In the pantheon of my artistic gods,  Modigliani's halo has never shone the brightest. However, when the esteemed Art Gallery of Ontario mounts a major show of his work and tells us that it's worth seeing, I dutifully trudge down and take a look. Admittedly, the burden of the duty is considerably lightened when a friend unexpectedly pays for my admission.

     The show raised more questions for me than it answered. Maybe they would have been dealt with in the commentary available on casette but we didn't bother with that because it would have prevented our chatting with each other. Besides, I think it looks geeky to walk around in public with an electronic device plastered to one side of your face.

     Let's get this over with right off the top: all that distortion in Modigliani's work really bothers me. I like people's faces to be nicely formed and modelled more or less as intended by the Good Lord (or Charles Darwin, as the case may be). Expressionism, impressionism, abstraction -- fine, bring them on. But all those elongated necks, the razor-edge noses, the blank eyes -- they make me damned uneasy. No doubt that says more about my character defects than about any deficiencies in the paintings. But there it is.

     First question: is there any difference between what Modigliani is doing and ordinary cartoon caricature? Well, maybe. Caricature, it seems to me, merely makes fun of a subject's physical characteristics. Modigiliani, on the other hand, could be said to be trying to bring out the inner character. He's showing that you can do this by dispensing with the need for exact physical resemblance and manipulating the traits. At least, I think so.

     And I can imagine how the textbooks would say that he wants to prove that painting shouldn't any longer try to duplicate what the photograph can do. Fair enough. But would you really want to live with one of these paintings? Well, that's rather a moot point in my case since I don't see any couple of million dollars in spare change lying on my dresser.

      One painting that might make it into my collection, lack of cash not withstanding, is the one of Max Jacob. (I think that's the name but I wasn't making notes and didn't buy a program.) On one side of the room in the gallery you have a huge photo of the man with his buddies on a park bench and across the room hangs the Modigliani portrait of him. I can see how the painting reveals something of the character suggested in the tight, rather enigmatic smile that's also there in the photograph. The enlarged head makes the subject in the painting look brainier, I guess. I'm getting some of the affection that Modigliani felt for him that you don't get in the photograph.

     But then there's his girlfried (the one who killed herself just after he died). In the photographs, you can see that she's possessed of a dark, sultry beauty: full, sensuous lips, huge eyes. So what's with those paintings of her with the elongated head, the fireman's pole of a nose and the twisted little lips? What do they say about her? Nothing, as far as I can see, unless that the artist considered her one  hell of a drag.

      Then those paintings of one of his rich lady friends, three or four of her in the same room. All but one of them have rich, glowing colour, several layers showing through to give the life-like effect of human flesh. In the other picture, her skin is flat and dull, more or less one consistent colour. How come? Was it a cloudy day? Was he running out of pigment?

     And what about those pencil drawings? In some of them, the anatomy is inept, no other word for it: shoulders grossly out of proportion, hands like primitive claws, genitals....well, I guess that's why some people call them the "unmentionables". And yet, in the same room, you have an exquisite black and white portrait in a style that I'll call cross-hatch, although I don't know if that's the term exactly. And some "fragmentary" pencil portraits in the same room struck me as marvelous: bits of a face, with various suggestions of limbs and hands, all disjointed but very expressive.

     And then there are those lush nudes in the last room. Who couldn't live with one of them? Ok, that would be too much to ask. But how about a couple thousand francs for an hour or so?

     The sculptures -- are they beautiful? If you like the spooky effect of African masks rendered in stone, then I guess they are. Word is that Modigliani used to put lighted candles on top of them. I could go for that.

      All theory aside, I can't help suspecting that Modigliani and his ilk were just "cocking a snoot" (to use an expression that was probably current across the channel at the time). Weren't these guys, Modigliani and Picasso and their pals, just egging each other on to see which one could be more outrageous than the others? Weren't they pretty much like the artists today who try to shock by making art with elephant dung and rotting carcasses?

     I kept going back to the photographs of Modigliani and his cohorts around the bars of Montparnasse. Almost as if the life was more interesting than the work. Look at that garret where he lived and worked; it looks likeone of those slum workhouses,  a deathtrap like the places where women would have spent their lives bent over sewing machines. Can you imagine any warmth in one of those places in winter? Talk about la vie bohemienne. Not much Puccini in the air there.

     And that gorgeous mug of Modigliani's. Wasn't he too studly for a serious artist? Could that be why he disparaged physical beauty in his portraits? Maybe he experienced his own beauty as a curse. So what was life really like for him? Was it all drugs, sex and alcohol? What was really going on with him? Did he paint a self-portrait? Now there's something I'd like to see: a glimpse of the inner man as seen by the artist himself. 

     

 

The Machinist (Movie)

     My scant knowledge of this movie gave me the impression that it was a gritty, noirish bit of realism that might suit my mood on a late November afternoon. Had I known that it was about a psycho, I might have declined. Movies about nut-cases don't interest me much; it's too easy for actors to pull out all the stops in those roles. I find it more interesting to watch actors handle the far more difficult challenge of creating believable, ordinary people on screen.

     Christian Bale plays a grotesquely skinny factory worker who claims he hasn't slept in a year. Apparently, he hasn't eaten either, although he orders pie at a lunch counter after work every day. Weird things are happening in his life:  unexplained appearances, suspicious accidents, ominous portents. As the movie unravels,  the psychological and artistic subtlety of the script reflect the sophistication of a moderately talented boy in grade eight. So why did I stay to the end? Guess there's something of the grade eight boy in me.

     But I've seldom experienced such a distancing effect while watching a movie. In fact, I spent much of the time studying the other two people in the audience, wondering why we were sitting in the dark looking at those flickering images on the screen. What were we hoping to get from it? A little diversion from our everyday lives? A bit of a story?

     It might have worked on that level, pubescent psychology not withstanding, if everything hadn't looked so hokey and amateurish. The script groans with cliches and fakery. The kibittzing of the co-workers at the factory sounds contrived from the get-go. When someone promises to tell a waitress a secret, she looks around warily to make sure the bogeyman isn't watching. A man laboriously writes post-it notes to himself:  "Buy bleach", "Pay utilities". Why would anyone, except a character in a very melodramatic movie, bother with those verbs "buy" and "pay"? Mr. Bale's character takes a young boy on a ride through a house of horrors at a fairground; the trumped-up disasters in there are more convincing and more entertaining than anything else in the movie.

     Special mention should be made of the horror of Mr. Bale's acting. I've not often seen such a bad performance in a major role. He's constantly over-acting, exaggerating and mugging. In almost every scene, you can see him striving for effect. It's as if his model of acting for the camera comes from the era of the silent movies.

     In this midst of this debacle, Jennifer Jason Leigh acts as a kind of oasis, a touchstone with reality. As a hooker who offers solace to Mr. Bale's character, her performance is note-perfect. She provides all the authenticity that the rest of the movie lacks. Makes a person want to give her a call and see if she can help a guy save what's left of a November afternoon that's rapidly dwindling into oblivion.

Rating: F (see "Movies" page for an explanation of rating system)

 

Don Giovanni by Mozart (Opera Atelier, Toronto)

     This is a sad story. Read it and weep.

     For some years now, I have been trying to figure out whether Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro is the crowning jewel of the operatic repretoire.I tend to lean towards Figaro but maybe that's because I've seen it many more times. So I pounced on this opportunity to see Don Giovanni again. Figuring that this investigation was worth considerable expense, I plunked down my $100 for a really good seat and settled in for three hours of total immersion in Mozart.

     For most of that time, I floated on a cloud of pure bliss. The music was excellent. At first the orchestra sounded a little pale and restrained but that could be because most of my opera these days comes blasting at me from earphones. The singing was fine all round. If one must find something to fault, one could say that Michael Chioldi's voice was a bit uneven in the Don's Deh, vieni alla finestra with the result that it wasn't as silky or seductive as one would wish. Since there is, inescapably, a competitive aspect to public performance (pace Glenn Gould), I'll say that the best singing consistenly came from Nathalie Paulin as Zerlina, especially in Batti, batti. The fact that this aria didn't get the ovation it deserved could be due to several factors: a) Toronto audiences don't know good singing; b) Zerlina didn't strike them as a starring role; c) they were offended by the aria's political  incorrectness. (Yeah, like they really pay close attention to the words!)

     As for the non-musical aspects of the production, who ever knew Don Giovanni was a comedy? The first production I saw was a touring company from the Met with Leontyne Price. I think she must have been playing Donna Anna because she was traipsing around all in black, topped with a memorable black lace mantilla.  I was far too young to know what was going on but it was clearly very serious business.

     Opera Atelier gives us a frothy romp in 18th century style. We get a Leporello outfitted like Harlequin. The  acting is broad and buffoonish. The rococco set drips with flowers and vines. Ballet dancers pirouette like music-box figurines. The women show lots of decolletage; some of the men too. I always think of the peasant chorus as a smelly, grungy bunch but these people came skipping out in their pastel ribbons and bows looking like concoctions from the window of a confectionary shop. Masetto, the groom, was particularly fetching in his white high heels.

     I found myself thinking: why not? Opera's a pretty artificial genre at the best of times. Might as well play up that aspect of it. This is probably the way it looked when Mozart was doing it. Better, to my way of thinking, than the chains and leather you get in some modern productions. I kept wondering, though, how the Don's ultimate conflagration was going to fit into this context. It didn't. For a few moments, everything went all lurid and surrealistic.

     By the time of the Don's dispatch to the netherworld, however, I had fallen into a huge black pit of my own when it gradually dawned on me that we were not going to get Il Mio Tesoro or Non Mi Dir, arias which come near the end of the show. Now these are not just any two arias. Il Mio Tesoro is literally one of those stop-the-world-and-listen arias. Back in the late 1960s, I was driving on Prince Edward Drive in Vancouver, listening to CBC on the car radio, when along came Il Mio Tesoro sung by the hot new Met sensation, Placido Domingo. I parked the car and sat there in a trance. Ever since, I've considered that aria the Mount Everest of the tenor repretoire.

  Donna Anna's aria Non Mi Dir is a more recent discovery, the result of a gift of a complete recording of the opera on CD. Not only is the melody up there with the greatest of Mozart's output, but I've fallen in love with the actual words: Non mi dir, bell'idol mio, que son io crudel con te. Say that over and over to yourself. Wouldn't you love to have a gorgeous soprano purring that into the ears of you, her "beautiful idol"?

    But no, I was not going to get that pleasure. Nor Il Mio Tesoro. The black disappointment swallowed up whatever joy I'd taken from the experience until then. I came away from the opera feeling as jilted as one of the Don's victims. Seduced and abandoned.

     Subsequent attempts get an explanation or some sort of consolation from the management of Opera Atelier have proven largely unsatisfactory. A lot of talk about budget, time constraints and musicians' unions. Don't you think those things could have been resolved without sacrificing two of the best arias in the opera? I protested that it was like doing Hamlet without "To be or not to be" but the management scoffed. One is left with dire suspicions as to what the real cause of the cuts could be.

     It's customary to notify audience members when a singer is indisposed or when an understudy is taking a role. I think patrons paying premium prices should have been warned that significant parts of the opera would be missing. That would at least have mitigated the awful shock and disappointment of discovering the omissions the way I did. Don't you think that if you book a tour to Niagara Falls you should be informed beforehand if the falls are not falling that day?

 

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