Dilettante's Diary

Nov 22/07

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
July 10/05
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: This Is England (Movie); Control (Movie); Untold Stories (Memoir); Queen Street Stroll (Art); Open Water 2007 (Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour)

This Is England (Movie) written and directed by Shane Meadows; starring Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson.

England it may be, but not the England of the biscuit box lid – the England of the thatched cottage with the luxuriant garden. This is the north of England in 1983 with its drab council houses and its convenience store run by a man from Pakistan, a forlorn "Church of Christ" like a garage and a glimpse of the sea looking like nothing so much as a big wide stretch of sick on the sand. Oh yeah, and there’s Margaret Thatcher's image looming like an ogre and spreading a hint of menace over everything.

Given the odd premise of this movie, it’s not surprising to learn that it’s based on the childhood experiences of writer/director Shane Meadows. Nobody could sit down and dream up a story like this. You’ll learn more about the plot from other reviews. All we’ll say here is that it’s about a boy, around twelve years old (Thomas Turgoose), who’s bullied at school until he’s befriended by a goofy gang of older kids with nicknames like "Smell" and "Pukey". Some of them are apparently in their early twenties. As a sort of mascot for these weirdoes, young Shaun gets a very different perspective on life.

You keep expecting things to turn very bad for Shaun – how could they not? – and yet the movie keeps pulling back and surprising you. Scene after scene takes you where you’re not expecting it to go. What can you say about a movie that has you recoiling at one moment and makes your eyes fill with tears in the next moment? I can’t think when I’ve seen a movie with such a riveting combination of violence and tenderness.

And artistry. Lingering shots of brick walls somehow bring out a stark beauty in this godforsaken place. A battered red metal fence has the effect of an abstract painting. And a tiny detail like the reindeer prancing across the chest of young Shaun’s sweater catches at your heart-strings.

Not to mention the originality of the characters. When the gang heads off to hunt in the fields, they get themselves up in hilarious outfits. Woody (Joe Gilgun), the group’s leader, adorns himself in a flowered kimono and an umbrella hat. (Of course, there’s no game to be caught in the countryside, so the game becomes breaking into derelict houses and having a ball smashing them up.) A small role of a shoe saleslady (Hannah Walters) becomes unforgettable by the casting of a woman who’s so real nobody could have invented her. Stephen Graham as an ex-con delivers a fascinating mixture of humour, affection and rage. A young woman (Rosamund Hanson) hideously got up in Goth style looks like the kind of person I’d cross the street to avoid but she turns out to have a good-hearted gentleness about her. On the other hand, there’s nothing whatever extreme about Shaun’s mother (Jo Hartley). Her character is so low-key and subtle that you’re convinced she’s the lady you’ve seen at the checkout counter. But you’re wrong if you think you can predict her behaviour.

Eventually, politics come to the fore and you start to fear that the movie’s losing its way. When some white supremacist stuff turns decidedly ugly, you begin to wonder what the movie is trying to say. But you hang in there, trusting that a writer/director who has shown such ingenuity this far must still have something good to offer.

It took sitting through some uncomfortable moments but, in the end, I began to see that the racists’ longing for a return to England’s days of glory was a metaphor for everyone’s feelings of impotence and frustration in a world where rapid changes can leave a person feeling lost and alienated. So the movie's not so much about politics as about human nature. The message seems to be that the best you can say about most people is that they’re a bewildering mixture of good and bad. And it takes a twelve-year-old kid to see clearly just how bewildering that is.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")


Control (Movie) screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh; based on the book by Deborah Curtis; directed by Anton Corbijn; starring Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Toby Kebbell, Alexandra Maria Lara

The black and white previews made me think this was going to be another of those gritty, grungy films about life in working class Britain. Far from it, this bio of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), the lead singer for Joy Division, is Ingmar Berman all over again. The photography has such a glow about it that you feel colour would be not only unnecessary but an unwelcome distraction. Every shot is beautifully framed like a photo in a gallery. Something as simple as a front hall with a table, a window and a door looks like a Vermeer. Even in a kitchen scene, the clutter on the drainboard is arranged with an eye for still life.

Director Anton Corbijn may have accomplished the unimaginable here – a rock star bio with a lugubrious tone. Even though the dialogue is minimal and the main points of the plot are sketched in with great economy, the pace is slow. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the scuzzy, opportunist (Toby Kebbell) who foists himself on the band as its manager. He at least brings some in-your-face vitality to the proceedings. For the most part, the hoop-la and the hysteria of a band’s rise to success are played down as never before. You see the mounting excitement in the band’s audiences but you never feel it.

That could be because the film’s subject is seriously detached from it all himself. Near the end, the Curtis character says something to the effect that it feels like it’s all happening to somebody who looks like him, somebody who has borrowed his skin. Apart from a few comments like that, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with him. For a guy who pours out his soul in his songs, he can be damnably taciturn offstage. With the result that the weakness of the movie is the fact that we never come to know Curtis very well.

Not that we don’t get some insight into his problems. As with any rock star, there were the hazzards of stardom that jeopardized home life. On top of that, Curtis had one major problem that wasn’t of his own making – a medical condition that required heavy-duty medication. Even so, we don’t really understand why it all came apart for him. Was he just too sensitive, too moody to cope with the pressures of success? If this were fiction, you’d demand answers from the scriptwriter. Given that this is the account of what happened to a real person, maybe you just have to accept that his fate was, on some level, inexplicable.

The movie's strength lies, then, no so much in its interpretation of Curtis’ ultimate tragedy as in its portrait of a troubled marriage. (Bergman, again?) Some of the scenes between Curtis and his young wife (Samantha Morton) will haunt me for a long time. They were married virtually as childhood sweethearts, right out of school. In a few short years, their relationship had devolved to a stand-off. One scene, where he remains mute the whole time, says everything there is to say about that wrenching business where one still loves absolutely and the other isn’t sure any more.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly Worth Seeing")


Untold Stories (Memoir) by Alan Bennett, 2005

It’s ironic that this review should have to begin by identifying Alan Bennett for the benefit of North American readers. Although less famous than his cohorts from the original Beyond the Fringe (the others being Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller), Mr. Bennett could be said to have contributed more than any of them to the world of entertainment and culture, particularly in terms of theatre and film. Among some of his film scripts are The History Boys and The Madness of King George, both based on his successful stage plays. He has also adapted works for film, such as Prick Up Your Ears, the biography of Joe Orton. In addition to appearing often on stage and on British television, Mr. Bennett also contributes regularly  to UK papers and journals on cultural matters.

In the introduction to this book, he says it’s meant to be taken like one of those boys’ magazines that were popular when he was a kid – a cornucopia of all kinds of reading: stories, information, puzzles, jokes, etc. So here we have, among other things, essays (some long, some short), journal excerpts, introductions to his published plays and what look like scripts for tv documentaries. The essays make for the best reading, particularly the lengthy one that opens the book, in which we find out all about the author’s parents and extended family. (I have the distinct impression of having read some of this somewhere else but I can’t find any acknowledgment that it was published in any forum where I would have encountered it.)

The journal excerpts aren’t quite as entertaining, partly because many of us North American readers don’t know a lot of the people he’s gossiping about. Still, the entries offer plenty of amusing anecdotes about the people we do know: Gielgud, Smith, Bates, Olivier, Guinness, et al. Even when we don’t catch all the references, the cumulative effect of the journals is somewhat hypnotic. In spite of yourself, you keep wanting to find out what happens next in the author’s life.

Mr. Bennet has a decidedly self-deprecating take on things. I suppose he would call it being shy – which makes his point of view on the British theatre world all the more valuable. You feel that you’re getting an eye-witness account from somebody who was right there in the midst of it all but who wasn’t so caught up with his own ego that he couldn’t report clearly on what was going on around him. Paradoxically, his playing hide-and-seek with the reader makes you all the more curious about his character; trying to figure out who Alan Bennett really is becomes the main quest of your reading.

For all I know, the self-effacement could be a literary pose; those who know him intimately might think of him as a pompous ass. But I doubt it. How can you suspect the sincerity of somebody who’s honest enough to admit that he gets annoyed when someone else’s play gets a good review? I suspect that the best indicators of his character come in observations that are almost parenthetical. For instance, the thought that often comes to him when looking at paintings of the crucifixion: why, he wonders, didn’t Jesus’ relatives and followers who were gathered at the foot of his cross take a few steps to one side and offer some words of comfort to those other poor buggers hanging nearby? One of my favourite entries in the whole book concerns the aftermath of an incident where Mr. Bennett had to call the police to deal with a druggie collapsed in his doorway. After the addict had been bundled off, one of the cops voluntarily stayed behind to clean up the mess on the doorstep. Mr. Bennet, who isn’t exactly a law-and-order type of guy, reflects on how kind that was of the policeman. I figure anybody who can look at the situation that way must be a pretty nice person himself.

Which raises an odd issue that cropped up in my reading of this book: bad language. You get used to thinking of Mr. Bennett as a refined, sophisticated kind of guy. So it’s jarring when he uses four-letter words. My being bothered by this surprised me. Am I becoming a prude? No, I think it’s just that the swearing seems inconsistent with the tone of the book as a whole. Granted, it appears to be a factor of Mr. Bennett’s casting discretion aside at this stage of his life. There’s some indication of this new-found freedom in his willingness, after many years of silence on the subject, to discuss his homosexuality. He seems to be saying: what the hell difference does it make now if people know? There’s a letting-one’s-hair-down feel about it all. Fair enough. So why shouldn’t he use whatever language he pleases? Well, I can only say that, while the bad language might sound perfectly natural if you overheard him talking with his buddies, it doesn’t look quite right on the page. Bad language can be tricky to pull off in writing: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a hard call for a writer.


Queen Street Stroll (Art)

Due to reviews of art exhibitions on this website, many artists send me invitations to their shows. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for me to see most of them because of the heavy responsibilities of my busy life. (You have no idea how stressful it is trying to keep the neighbourhood cats away from our bird feeder.) But I made a special point of trekking down to Ossington Ave, in Toronto, to see David Brown’s recent show. His semi-abstracted Canadian cityscapes and landscapes, as illustrated on his website (www.encausticcollage.com) and on his invitation, appeal to me very much.

It was, however, somewhat disconcerting to discover that his works are encaustic. (The reference to the medium on the invite must have escaped my attention.) Much as I love Mr. Brown’s strong sense of design and his bold colours, it would take me a while to get used to having one of his thick, dripping wax pictures hanging on my wall. The flat, smoothness of his gicle prints, based on the encaustic paintings, is more congenial to me. But I was very glad to see for myself what Mr. Brown’s doing and maybe I’ll get caught up in the encaustic craze enough to want to own one some fine day.

Being in the legendary area of west Queen Street, I decided to look for more of the cutting edge art that one’s always hearing about down there. I found Cota Dvorezky’s works at the Engine Gallery (1112 Queen West) very impressive. His large paintings of nudes, as well as those of clothed figures jumping, leaping and diving have a blurry, impressionistic quality that gives them vitality, supported by an underlying strength in the drawing.

In Loop Gallery (1174 Queen West), I was charmed by Liz Parkinson’s "After Paradise": a collection of about 100 cookie tins mounted on four black walls. The lighting and the spacing of these colourful containers create a very contemplative mood. It almost seems like a sacred space where these lovely remnants of our past lives are preserved.

One thing you have to say about Kent Monkman’s rather elaborate installation "the triumph of mischief" at The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (952 Queen West) – it holds your attention for a while. On the wall are paintings that look like early Canadian landscapes by Victorian-era painters. One of them, covering nearly a whole wall, looms almost as large as Rembrandt’s "The Night Watch". When you look closely, though, there are some strange goings-on among First Nations’s people and Europeans: lots of naked or near-naked men, with some erect genitals flapping around. Two short films in flickering silent-movie style seem to be turning sexual and ethnic stereotypes on their heads. For instance, an Aboriginal character named "Miss Chief Eagle Testickle", with eye-liner, feather headdress and platform heels, professes anthropological fascination with two white men who want to emulate the habits and customs of first nations men. Apparently, the shtick is meant to be quite hilarious but, in effect, it seemed to me not to have much point beyond its appeal to a certain camp sensibility.

To my taste, there are too many galleries on Queen West showing grotesque, monster-like creatures that look like the work of adolescent males who have, admittedly, a certain proficiency when it comes to drawing and a certain skill in the handling of paint. But the results of their imaginative efforts strike me as pretty juvenile. Besides, who would want to buy such things?

Of the new work that I saw on my stroll, the paintings that excited me the most are those by Thrush Holmes in his gallery/studio "Empire" at 1093 Queen West. According to his website (www.thrushholmesempire.com), he’s just twenty-eight years old but he appears to have packed a lot of wild and crazy creativity into those few years. In several of the works on show now, the artist has incorporated rods of neon light in the paintings. But his works that I like best are the ones where he has taken insipid landscapes in the 19th century tradition – they must have been found in junk shops – and painted over them in great big gooey gobs in such a way that you can barely see the outlines of the original scene. In my favourite of these, a scene of a water fall on a stream in the countryside, the globs of added paint still convey some of the effect of falling water and moss and rocks, but it’s as if the artist has said, "Let’s rip the veneer off this nauseatingly bland scene and show the turbulent essence of nature churning and frothing underneath." These works are mounted on light boxes and little holes have been punctured in the picture to form letters so that a message such as "new pretty" shines through in tiny glowing dots. I’m not utterly sold on this business of adding text to paintings but it must be admitted that the pinpricks of electric light do add a certain punch to the pictures.


Open Water 2007 (Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, Market Gallery, St. Lawrence Market, Toronto, until November 25)

Here’s a riddle for you: I submitted pictures to this show. They were not rejected by the jurors. But I’m not in the show. How come? See below for the answer.*

The fact that I’m not in this prestigious show this year means that I’m free to say what I like about the pictures; the reviewing duties don’t have to be handed over to Aunt Agnes McGrath, as done last year. You should know, though, that several of the artists mentioned below are acquaintances of mine and I might go so far as to claim that some of them are friends.

This show of the best watercolours submitted from Canada and around the world includes, as often happens,  many meticulous watercolours that demonstrate an obsession with what might be called photo-realism. A less erudite critic than I might be tempted to say that we don’t need watercolours that reproduce photos since the photos would suffice. I’ll allow that execution in watercolour brings special qualities to a composition, no matter what it’s based on. However, I don’t feel these paintings represent the most expressive ways in which watercolours can be used.

When I complain about the predominance of photo-realism in shows, people tell me that the paintings selected for the show always are a reflection of what has been submitted. I suspect, though, that the predominance of these careful, fastidious works has to do with the fact that they can’t help but impress a viewer. Even a skeptical juror is going to be wowed by the amount of work and skill that goes into them.

Which is all the more reason to rejoice that the A.J. Casson medal for the best painting this year went to Joanne Lucas Warren for her semi-abstract "Thtre en Plein Air". Loose and imaginative, this marvellous watercolour presents what might be a rural or a semi-industrial scene, but you’re not sure. The main thing is that you get a wonderful conglomeration of colours and shapes that intrigues and holds your eye for a long time.

Another abstract that appeals to me very much is Helen Hadath’s "Genesis", a composition in high-key colours that I suspect are comprised mostly of gold, orange, yellow and raw sienna. And it’s a pleasure to report that Bianka Guna’s abstract, consisting of some enigmatic blobs of dark colour on a rich greenish background, won the award for a first-time exhibitor in the show.

Some of the painting that I love for their demonstration of the special qualities of watercolour are Dorothy Blefgen’s still life with fruit and Elizabeth Jaworsky’s geraniums as seen through an icy window. These paintings have the lightness and transparency of watercolour at its best. Richard Kalmin’s painting of sailboats on choppy waters also fits into this category. And when it comes to clear watercolour with exquisite composition, you cannot overlook Mary Anne Ludlam, whose painting of wooden chairs stacked outside an antique store exhibits the best qualities of her work.

In my humble opinion, there are several good – but not notable – landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits and interiors in this show. One seascape that stands out, though, is "Storm" by Kai-Liis McInnis: a swirling tumult of water and spray over rocks, with gulls hovering in a dark blue patch in one corner. I also love juror Margaret Squire’s landscape of the Killarney area in Northern Ontario – just a series of bright, coloured lines and patches that the eye puts together to make a satisfying composition. Yaohua Yan has conveyed the bleak feeling of winter fields in Canada with minimum fuss and with a panache that lets the weave of the paper show through. As for still lifes, a favourite of mine would be Barbara Sutherland’s painting of the clutter on a shelf in an artist’s studio. Not exactly an original subject, but it’s done with appealing boldness, strong colours and what I detect to be a welcome note of humour.

Although I tend to prefer the looser, less fastidious work, there are some pictures that must have taken painstaking months to complete and which must be mentioned because the results are dazzling: Micheal Zarowsky’s winter scene; Marion Blumer Cochrane’s close-up of pine branches laden with snow; Josy Britton’s view looking up the trunk of an ice-covered tree; and Lynn Shwadchuck’s branch of willow over-hanging a surging stream.

Some cityscapes that I admire: Elisabeth Gibson’s fresh, charming street in Belgium; Jeanette Labelle’s award-winning moody, dark city trees with glowing light behind them; Linda R. Goldman’s sunny front porch on Brunswick Avenue; and Virginia May’s starkly geometric window view of inner-city Toronto.

For my money, one of the best paintings in the show is the award-winner by Alan Wylie. A scene in a market place, this painting features a rough-hewn man on the left side of the picture staring – atypically – out of the frame. Behind and around him, a rich tapestry of goods and products creates a sort of funhouse for the eye to roam in. Another painting that is stunning for its stark simplicity is Henry Vyfvinkel’s "The Shadows Have It". In the upper part of the picture are bits of timber that look like the remains of the hull of a boat and the rest of the picture consists of the shadows of those pieces of wood cascading down a bright background.

* Answer to the riddle: My pictures were returned with a note saying that I had (inexplicably) missed the deadline.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com