Dilettante's Diary

April 14/09

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

Reviewed here: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Movie); Sin Nombre (Movie); Hunger (Movie); Adventureland (Movie); Women's Art Weekend: Wendy Weaver and the Heliconian Club (Art Shows); Mourning Dove (Play); The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Play); Sit Down and Shut Up (Zen Buddhism)

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Documentary) directed by Sacha Gervasi; featuring Steve 'Lips' Kudlow, Robb Reiner, Tiziana Arrigoni, Kevin Goocher, William Howell, Lemmy, Chris Tsangarides, Lars Ulrich

This is one of the rare cases where I actually read a full review before seeing a movie. How did that happen? When I noticed Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker, I sez to myself: there’s no way I’m gonna see this movie, so it won’t hurt to read the review beforehand. (As you know, I’m scrupulous about not letting myself be influenced by reviews and hype.) By the time I’d finished reading the review, though, I was thinking: dammit all, now I’ve gotta see this movie. Mr. Lane had declared that Anvil was nothing less than "The most stirring release of the year thus far."

Apparently, the members of Anvil, a Canadian heavy-metal band, were big in the 1980s. (News to me.) At the beginning of the documentary, members of several more famous bands say how much they were in awe of, and influenced by, Anvil. Although Anvil had released twelve recordings before the making of the documentary, the band has never achieved anything like the success of their first promise. It’s hard to say exactly why. A couple of factors that the movie hints at might be bad management and lousy promotion by record distributing companies. Or maybe it was just a case of not being in the right place at the right time. Or maybe it just wasn’t meant to be that they should hit the big time and stay there.

Now, in their fifties, the members of Anvil are still struggling – as they have been all along – to make a comeback. We get scenes of the band members in their homes with their families, as well as in their day jobs. The movie also follows Anvil through a European tour that’s plagued with things like missing trains and not being able to find their way through the cobbled streets of foreign cities. When they arrive a couple of hours late for a date, the owner of the club refuses to pay them, even though they do their stuff. At another venue with a capacity of 10,000 they eke out a dismal show for a gathering of 174. Having survived the tour and arrived back in Toronto, the band next tries to make a thirteenth record.

Mostly, the documentary focuses on efforts and enthusiasm of Steve Kudlow, the band’s lead singer, better known as Lips. He certainly is one of the most remarkable characters to appear on screen lately, whether fictional or otherwise. A married man and a dad, Lips is making his living, when the movie opens, by delivering for a Scarborough catering company that provides meals for school kids. But the daily slog has never dimmed his vision of artistic achievement and renown. His lack of bitterness about his situation, his energy to keep on trying and his ebullience in the face of setbacks are amazing. At times, he expresses almost a Zen-like philosophy about life, a recognition that the present moment is all that matters, even while he’s working full tilt to get better results for the band. No doubt some of his sayings will soon be famous. A couple of my favourites: "After all’s been said and done, I can say that all has been said and done," and, about their European tour, on which everything went wrong, "At least we had a tour for it to go wrong on."

With his long, scraggly hair and his wide-mouthed, crooked grin, Lips looks not exactly like the kind of boy you’d want to bring home to Momma but there seems to be a kind of purity of intention about him. Not that he hasn’t ever resorted to the shock tactics of the typical rocker. There was a time when he strummed his guitar with a dildo. The opening of the movie includes a publicity shot of him performing stark naked. And yet, he’s the kind of guy who explains that he isn’t able to make any money at a telemarketing job (hawking sunglasses) because he can’t stand lying to the person on the other end of the line: "I was brought up to always be polite."

His main cohort in the band is Robb Reiner, Anvil’s drummer. Mr. Reiner, as hirsute as Lips, but a somewhat quieter, more interiorly-directed man, appears to provide a stable grounding for Lips’ enthusiasms. They’ve been playing music together since they were fourteen. (Both skipping their appointments with the orthodontist, by the looks of it.) Which doesn’t mean that they always function as a frictionless machine. The film exposes raw conflict between them. But the expressions of love and the tears of reconciliation are as searing as the fighting. I can’t think of any other film that shows two men in real life expressing such uncensored feeling towards each other.

With so much to like about this movie, however, it came to me as something of a surprise, about half way through, that I wasn’t loving it as much as the New Yorker review had led me to expect. On reflection, several reasons have surfaced:

- The music. To say that I don’t like heavy-metal would be too definite a statement. The fact is that I’ve never listened to it long enough to say whether or not I like it. What would be most accurate to say is that is has no interest for me. (Surprisingly, though, I wasn’t crawling under the seat during the musical bits, as I had feared might be necessary.) So it was a little hard for me to get on board with Anvil’s hopes of great achievement in the genre. I wish them well, of course, as in the case of anyone pursuing an artistic goal. But the cheering might have come a little more wholeheartedly from me if they were a struggling little opera company.

- There was no indication as to how much booze and drugs figured in the Anvil scene. It would be fair to assume that there was some such ingredient because one of the players mentions at one point on the European tour that he threw out all his drugs before passing through customs. I hope I’m not being judgmental about this; I don’t care whether anybody indulges in drugs and booze or doesn’t. But when we’re confronted with a lot of emotional turmoil, it helps to know whether or not drugs and booze are involved. It changes the way you assess what’s going on.

- These days, a person can’t help being somewhat suspicious about the whole documentary process, what with all those reality shows on tv. Even news reports are full of witness and victims emoting for the cameras. It appears that human beings are evolving into a species, the members of which put on expected expressions when a camera is pointed towards their faces. So you’re put in the position of not knowing for sure whether the emotion you’re seeing in these non-fictional contexts is real or not. In some ways, a fictional situation is preferable; you know the actors are faking, so you can admire the reality of the acting.

- But let’s say that the feelings the guys are showing in this documentary are completely authentic and spontaneous. Fine. After all, they don’t look like the kind of guys who would be putting on airs, at least not intentionally. But we’re still left with this niggling question: how come the camera happens to be around whenever somebody is receiving good news or bad news – whether in person, or by phone or by email? Did the camera operator just happen to know when this particular news (good or bad) was going to come in? Was it just lucky timing? For that matter, how does the microphone pick up the voice on the other end of the phone line? Hmmm....begins to seem that maybe the scene is being re-enacted. So we come back to the question of what is real and what isn’t. If some of it is acted for the cameras, can we trust that any of it’s genuine?

- That insidious and particularly contemporary clich of "living the dream" is getting pretty tiresome. To their credit, the band members themselves don’t spout much of this kind of thing. It comes more from the wives and sisters. Even so, it’s cheesy. It devalues the whole endeavour. Lips himself seems to have some inkling of a deeper truth. He says at one point that what matters isn't success, as conventionally viewed, but your relationships with family and friends, your experiences, the places you’ve been. Good on him, but I’m not sure that the movie itself gets the message.

Possibly the most significant factor, however, in my less-than-thrilled reaction to the movie is that New Yorker review. This could be a case of the old problem wherein some little gem of a work can’t live up to the advance hype. When you discover some such thing for yourself it can be tremendously thrilling. I’ve had that experience with lots of movies, ones from which I was expecting almost nothing. (Little Miss Sunshine, being one of the most striking examples). Maybe I would have had much the same excitement of discovery with Anvil if I’d wandered into the theatre knowing almost nothing about it. And yet, given the subject matter, there wasn’t a chance that I would have wandered into the theatre if I hadn’t read Anthony Lane’s review. So maybe reading a review has to be considered a necessary evil in some cases? Maybe, for the sake of finding out about something, you have to run the risk of having your expectations raised too high?

That seems like the kind of situation that Lips would take with one of his Zen-like sayings. Maybe something like: "The trouble with not hearing about a movie is that you don’t hear about it."

Rating: C (for "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Sin Nombre (Movie) written and directed by Cary Fukanaga; starring Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Kristian Ferrer, Marcela Ferengino, Felipe Castro, Karla Cecilia Alvarado, Rosalba Quintara Cruz.

It takes a long time to get your bearings in this movie. After a while, two distinct story threads emerge. A young woman is emigrating, in the company of her father and uncle, from Honduras, up through Central America, into Mexico and, hopefully on into Texas. Most of their journey takes place among similarly adventuresome migrants on the roof of a boxcar on a freight train. The other story concerns a boy about twelve years old who is forced to prove his capacity for violence by way of being inducted into a skinhead gang consisting mostly of mature men. The two stories come together about half-way through the movie, whereupon some plot developments, especially in terms of new relationships among characters, finally begin to build a sense of drama.

This movie gives you a vivid picture of the hardships migrants from the Third World will endure in the effort to realize their dream of reaching America. It also impresses upon you the extent of the hatred and violence endemic in certain kinds of gangs. You may, in fact, feel that you’re seeing more than you need to see about how horrible human beings can be. On the other hand, the photography of the landscape the train passes through is magnificent. And the glimpses of life in cluttered favelas – the jumble of colours and shapes – makes for wonderful visual compositions.

For the most part, though, I felt detached from the what was happening on screen. Part of that may have been due to the manipulative score. In contrast to the admirably dispassionate, objective look of the film, the relentless music was constantly trying to manipulate my feelings. So they refused to respond. Another reason why it may have been hard to care greatly about the characters is that it took so long to get to know them and to understand what they were doing. Mind you, viewers who could follow the Spanish dialogue without the need of subtitles (which I needed) would have caught nuances that may have helped to create a stronger connection with the characters.

Me, I was left feeling that I’d had a good lesson on some social issues, with a bit of geography thrown in, but not an experience that moved me emotionally.

Rating: C- (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Hunger (Movie) written by Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender; with Liam Cunningham, Stuart Graham, Des McAleer, Helen Madden, Liam McMahon, Lalor Roddy, Brian Milligan

In a way, the one-word title sums up the mood of this stark, minimalist movie. It tells the searing story of the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, but it does so without fanfare, without preaching, almost without politics or message.

So what’s the point?

At the most obvious level, the movie seems to have no purpose other than to show us, in a matter-of-fact, non-rhetorical way, what went on in the prison. This, then, is the latest entry in the category of what I see as a new genre of film: the it-is-what-it-is movie. The intention is to show something that happened as realistically and truthfully as possible, not dressing it up with any invented drama. One of the first examples of this kind of movie, in my experience, was Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, in which the killings at Columbine High School were shown to take place in the context of utter banality. A more recent entry into the genre would be Steven Soderbergh’s Che (Parts One and Two) (Dilettante’s Diary, March 1/09) which shows the gruesome slog of day-to-day guerilla warfare without any glorification.

But the precedent that came to mind most often during Hunger was the magnificent documentary about monastic life Le Grand Silence (Dilettante’s Diary, July 20/07). That’s because of the extraordinarily detailed photography and the long takes in both movies, often with no dialogue, no voice-over. One of the first signs that Hunger is that sort of movie comes in the opening scene, in which somebody (he turns out to be a prison guard) is having breakfast at the dining table in his home. For several seconds, the camera gloms onto the sight of crumbs falling onto the napkin in his lap. What the hell is this about? you wonder. What it may be about, you eventually surmise, is the contrast between the delicacy, the fastidiousness of the moment and the brutality of what is to come.

At another point near the beginning of the film, we get a long, unbroken take of the same guard (Stuart Graham) smoking, while standing against a stone wall in the snow. No explanation of what’s going on or why. Then there’s a lingering shot of a prisoner toying with a dozy fly crawling in the metal mesh on the window of a prison cell. One of the longest takes shows a prison guard washing the corridor between two rows of cells. While we watch, he pushes his broom, sweeping muck ahead of him, from the far end of the corridor until he reaches the foreground. What is this scene supposed to be accomplishing? Nothing, it seems, other than to show us what life is like in a cloistered place, much in the way of the documentary about the monks.

And yet, the contrast between the contexts of the two movies makes the unique quality of Hunger all the more striking. Le Grand Silence took place in an atmosphere of pervasive peace. There was almost no hint of the struggles involved in the usual business of human life – unless of course, you see the on-going, if unstated, quest for eternal salvation as something of a contest. In Hunger, however, the underlying and inescapable motif is the Republican prisoners’ fierce struggle to liberate Northern Ireland from British rule. Which, of course, translates into lots of violence in the prison. Because these prisoners are claiming political status, which the British government won’t acknowledge, they’re refusing baths and prison uniforms. That makes for rough treatment at the hands of the guards.

Not all of which is justified. Some of the measures taken to put down resistance are vicious. But there are hints that some of the guards have qualms. Like that guy we saw at his dining table: while bathing his knuckles which have become bloody from subduing prisoners, he doesn’t look like a guy who’s proud of his job. When riot police are called in, we see a good-looking young policeman (possibly a recent recruit) egging his comrades on. A moment later, he’s cowering behind a partition, tears pouring down his cheeks, while the blows rain down on the naked prisoners.

While it doesn’t take a huge intuitive leap to feel that the movie is sympathetic to the Republican prisoners’ cause – and to Bobby Sands, in particular – there’s no strident argument on their behalf. Or against the authorities. Margaret Thatcher’s arch tones are twice heard in voice-over, making pronouncements about the government’s refusal to bend to the prisoners’ wishes. While it’s hardly likely that she’s meant to sound like an angel from on high, there is no attempt to demonize her. Her statements, like everything else, are presented just as things that happened.

But the most extraordinary aspect of Hunger is that the only real drama, the only dialogue and relational conflict of the kind that you expect in a movie, takes place during one long scene, approximately in the middle of the movie. Bobby Sands is explaining to a priest visitor at the prison why he has decided to launch the hunger strike. This single take lasts at least fifteen minutes: just the two men seen in profile, staring at each other through a thick haze of cigarette smoke. (Only near the very end of the dialogue, do we get a few shots from other angles.) All the motivation, all the explanation, all the tug-of-war of the opposing points of view takes place in this one scene. The acting is superb. Michael Fassbender gives us Bobby Sands’ determination, his idealism, his stubbornness, even a touch of boyish whimsy. In a marvellous performance by Liam Cunningham, we get none of the sermonizing and the religiosity we might expect from the priest. Instead, we see pragmatism, realism, regret, disappointment and frustration.

Once that scene is over and the hunger strike begins, the movie becomes almost a documentary-like study of Bobby Sands’ appalling physical decline. We see and hear nothing of the other prisoners. No feeedback from them, no discussion of what’s happening. Just a relentless focus on the physical details of Mr. Sands’ deterioration. And, as if to take away any lingering sense of polemics, the depiction of the authorities is even-handed. Their handling of the dying prisoner is shown to be humane. He’s resting in a clean, hospital-like cell. His parents are allowed to bunk nearby in the prison. Almost nothing is said through this part of the movie, but you can see in one doctor’s face his compassion for the patient. An encounter between the failing Sands and a guard who belongs to the Ulster Defense Army conveys an undertone of hostility but even that incident ends on a note of relative decency.

So what are we to take from it all? Was Bobby Sands a hero? A fool? Was he right or wrong? The movie chooses not to decide. It presents his story simply as one outstanding example of some of the bad stuff that goes down among humans.

Rating: B+ (Where B = "Better than most")

 

Adventureland (Movie) written and directed by Greg Mottola; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Matt Bush, Margarita Levieva, Bill Hader, Jack Gilpin, Wendie Malick.

This movie can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a farce or a gentle drama about relationships. It doesn’t succeed as either, but it comes closest to scoring, in my opinion, with the relational stuff.

It’s 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent college grad in literature, looks forward to a summer in Europe. But his parents suffer a financial setback, which means he’s stuck working at a dorky amusement part named "Adventureland" in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

When we learn that James hasn’t yet lost his virginity, I’m like: oh no, not this again! But the character becomes interesting in spite of that shopworn theme. He’s a sincere, ingenuous, intelligent guy – the kind who cites one of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a factor in his decision not to have sex with a certain girl – which postponed deed he needs must refer to as "intercourse". Another of his problems is his compulsion to tell girls the truth about his sexual history (or lack thereof). If you were to read this character’s part in a script you might imagine some total goofball but Mr. Eisenberg makes the character likeable and believable.

A few other cast members also make good impressions. Kristen Stewart, as the co-worker whom James falls for, conveys a combination of mystery and complexity that shows he’s in over his depth. I also liked Martin Starr as a scrawny Jewish intellectual who is able to voice some searing truths – mostly about himself.

But pretty much all the other characters are jerks and buffoons. The getting stoned and drunk and puking and crashing cars don’t have much charm for me. James has a repulsive friend (Matt Bush) who keeps punching him in the crotch for no reason. The two sets of parents are grotesque. The owner/manager of the park (Bill Hader) is weird in a way that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t. Regarding two girls who work in the park, we’re told that they won’t have sex because they’re Catholic. One I might buy, but two? Looks like the writer is throwing in what he thinks is a neat plot device but he’s revealing his ignorance of the mores of the era. It's not the 1950's, after all.

And yet I hear that lots of people liked this movie, even some friends of mine. Maybe this wasn’t the right flick for me that day. Maybe it’s a question of mood. But it seemed to me that the inane carry-on of his peers kept subverting what might have been an engaging story about an awkward young man’s attempts to form a relationship.

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

 

Women’s Art Weekend:  Wendy Weaver at the WAA and Paintings by Acclaimed Helicionians at the Heliconian Club;  Toronto, April 17-19

For us, the weekend of April 17-19 turned out to be an excursion into the world of women’s art. Alas, both of the shows I saw were open only for the one weekend.

First, a friend took me to his friend Wendy Weaver’s show at the Women’s Art Association on Prince Arthur Ave. Ms. Weaver, a charming and vivacious graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, was showing about forty large paintings in the elegant setting of the old home that houses the WAA. The paintings were so interesting that it took some time to appreciate the overall effect of the show.

The work fell into roughly four or five categories. Apart from some traditional figures and nudes in classical style, there were several modernistic figure paintings, some of them fragmented in a Picasso-esque style – all of them bursting with vitality. One of my favourites, a female nude lying on her back, with lots of red tones, featured a raised thigh in the foreground that was thrilling in its sculptural vividness. Another very interesting figure barely emerged from a misty swirl. Then there were non-objective paintings that seemed to be based on interiors – arrangements of furniture – but abstracted to the point where the compositions were mainly about shapes in dark and light tones. One of the best of these, to my eye, was "The Lion’s Den": strong, earthy colours roughly representing a bed, a table, a cupboard and so on. The most recent paintings, again in earth tones, were somewhat amorphous abstracts where vague but intriguing shapes emerged from murky backgrounds. Not quite as adventurous perhaps, but having a special appeal for me, were some smaller still lives with vases, flowers and fruit painted in a realistic but impressionistic way. I particularly liked the treatment of a bird’s nest with two eggs, surrounded by an intricate conglomeration of greens representing leaves.

Not surprisingly, sales of Ms. Weaver’s paintings were brisk.

Unfortunately, I had missed the show at the WAA the previous weekend by Mary Lou Payzant. (Her husband Geoffrey Payzant, now deceased, was the well-known organist and University of Toronto philosophy professor who wrote a famous book on Glenn Gould). But the gracious and friendly Ms. Payzant welcomed us to her third-floor studio at the WAA where we got a glimpse of her work, some of the most interesting examples of which are large paintings based on smaller collages.

The studios in the building knocked me out. Some nine of them can be found along a warren of corridors in the upper reaches of the building. They look like the classic artists’ studios where there’s ample room to expand and explore without any worry about clutter or mess. Ms. Payzant’s studio looks south over Bloor Street and the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, while Ms. Weaver’s looks north over Prince Arthur Ave. (It was formerly the studio of William Sherman, a distinguished Toronto artist and past president of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour.) Apparently, any member can apply for one of these studios (to my surprise, men aren’t excluded from the club). But vacancies seldom occur because, as Ms. Payzant noted, occupants tend to hang on to their studios for dear life. (Glad I hadn’t voiced my thought that a person would kill for one of these studios.)

Then it was on to the Heliconian Club for "Paintings by Acclaimed Heliconians." The purpose of the club, which is marking its hundredth anniversary, has been to celebrate professional women working in art, drama, the humanities, literature and music. This event in the year-long celebration featured paintings by members who have passed away.

The stand-out of the show for me (and maybe that’s because of my love for the medium) was a watercolour painted in 1937 by Jean Nasmith, who died in 1999. Titled "Still Waters", it dazzled with the simplicity of its depiction of rocks, trees and water in a composition where the light radiated a glorious tranquility. Another favourite was the oil portrait by Marion Long (d 1970) titled "Yeoman of the Signals, 1943". The fair-haired young sailor who looked out at you from under his cap had a candour, even a sweetness of expression that made you stop and stare. Also among the outstanding portraits was "Portrait of Ann Grotian in a Greek Costume" by Faith Wood Brech (d. 2005) in which the light on the subject’s face was magical.

Two smaller oils by Ms. Long showed views of Bay Street and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto in 1926. Although the vehicles were vintage, the overall impression of the canyons of buildings was remarkably similar to what you get in that part of town today (department of plus a change....) Rody Kenny Courtice (d. 1973) painted a small oil of a Quebec village in the colourful, lively way that has come to seem the quintessential expression of that part of our country in art. Another unique aspect of our country was well captured in the Newfoundland fishing village (1955) by Kathleen Daly Pepper (d. 1994): a splendid foreground composition of rocks and docks, with buildings in the background. Edith G. Coombs (d 1986) expertly conveyed the contrast between tumultuous rapids and bulky rocks in her 1948 painting "Hidden Falls #2, Neghick Lake, Magnetewan".

A contemporary urban feeling came through in Helen S. Sewell’s (d. 2001) luminous view from her Yorkville studio (1967) where a large tree with yellow leaves loomed over small shops. Another miracle of light, a view of snowy hills in Caledon by Jane Champagne (d. 2008) featured the almost unearthly glow of pastel colours that is so familiar in that part of the country in winter. Quite appropriately, one of the most contemporary and daring of the paintings in the show was featured quite prominently: a large, lyrical semi-abstract – "Whale Song #9" by Anne Meredith Barry (d. 2003).

Would it sound condescending to say that it was amazing to have one’s eyes opened to the amount of excellent painting that Canadian women have been producing in the past century? Maybe not, because, after all, that’s the kind of epiphany the show was meant to bring about. As I was leaving, one of the elderly members told me, regarding the club’s involvement in the various arts: "People need to know that Canadian women were producing excellent, professional writing before Margaret Atwood was even born!"

 

Mourning Dove (Play) by Emil Sher; directed by Liza Balkan; featuring Steve Cumyn, Colin Doyle, Vickie Papavs, Kimwun Perehinec; The Ark Collective; Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto; until April 19.

A guy’s pottering around in his workshop. Seems he’s making a replica of Noah’s Ark. A younger man, who is developmentally delayed, keeps bounding in and out. Gradually, we learn that they’re preparing a puppet show of the biblical story to entertain the older man’s severely disabled daughter. On a more sombre note, the child's harried-looking mother shares her fears with the dad about a dangerous operation their daughter is facing.

This is one of those cases where I was very glad not to have known anything about a play before seeing it. (So you’re not gonna get any more plot details from me here.) Had I any inkling what this one was about and where it was headed, I’d have been reluctant to attend. In my state of innocent ignorance, however, the effect of the events as they transpired was nothing short of harrowing. An unforgettable experience of theatre that I would not want to have missed.

A large part of the credit for that effect goes, in my opinion, to Steve Cumyn in the role of the dad. There was something about his sensitive, quiet, strong character that had me on the edge of tears most of the time. You could feel so keenly the complexity of the guy’s situation. He was trying hard to be pleasant and cheerful and yet you could see clearly the strain on his face, his patience wearing thin. The poignancy came through most strongly in his interaction with the developmentally delayed friend. The good humour and the benevolence of Mr. Cumyn’s character were abundant, but occasionally there was the all-too-understandable flicker of exasperation.

Contributing further to the feeling of authenticity about it all was the relationship between the mom and dad. You felt they were a genuine couple whose nerves were frayed by their difficult family situation but who could still – occasionally – get in touch with the happiness and the love that had brought them together. In the role of the mom, Vicki Papavs balanced very credibly on the edge between ironic resignation and defiant anger.

The role of the developmentally delayed friend puzzled me a bit. What age was he and what was the range of his intelligence? Clearly, he had passed puberty but his enthusiasms were very childish. And yet he seemed quite clever when it came to things like word play. In any case, his presence in the play added an intriguing element. He had an uncanny way, with his guileless manner, of asking questions that nobody else would ask, raising issues that other people would rather avoid.

When it comes to the role of a developmentally delayed person, there’s always a question about whether it should be played broadly or subtly. Colin Doyle opted for broad – a loud voice and a goofy grin. I kept wondering what effect a more under-played interpretation would have had but that’s not to denigrate Mr. Doyle’s accomplishment. I found him completely believable – and loveable.

There’s no question that, in addition to the fine work by the actors, Liza Balkan’s very thoughtful direction has much to do with the impact of this show. (Disclosure: Liza and I worked together on a Fringe show a few years ago.) She managed to steer the cast towards just the right combination of light and dark, fun and sorrow – while maintaining a firmly grip on the realism at all times. Which is not to say that this was kitchen-sink ordinary. In some fascinating moments it seemed as though time had stopped. You had to wonder: what the heck’s going on?

Just one thing about the production bothered me. The dad’s marvellously cluttered workshop (set by Victoria Wallace) was presumably in a garage, a basement or a shed. And yet his disabled daughter appeared to be lying in the next room. We didn’t see her but the others were speaking to her and looking towards her from time to time. (The ominous sound of her struggle to breathe was provided by Kimwun Perehinec.) It struck me as odd that the child’s room opened onto this grungy workshop, but never mind. Later, it seemed that the arrangements had changed. Were we outside? In some other room? The signals for the change, if any, weren't clear to me.

The only reason for mentioning this trivial matter is that the confusion interfered somewhat with my being totally in the moment of the play – which seems a pity in production that was so authentic. Except for that niggling issue of the layout of the house, the production caught me up and held me through every moment of it’s gripping reality.

 

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Play) by Stephen Aldy Guirgis; directed by David Ferry; starring Philip Akin, Aviva Armour Ostroff, Abdu Bedward, Adam Brazier, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Ted Dykstra, Richard Greenblatt, Zorana Kydd, Diego Matamoros, Morris Panych, Louise Pitre, Janet Porter, Jamie Robinson, Shaun Smyth, Christopher Stanton. At the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District, Toronto, until April 15.

The hype would make you think this was the theatre event of the year. Advertisements have been trumpeting the fact that Birdland Theatre’s previous mounting of the play (2005) won five Dora awards. Somewhere, I read a boast to the effect that, this time out, the production features several of Canada’s greatest actors. At first, that sounds a bit much, but, when you look at the cast list, it’s admittedly astonishing to see so much theatrical clout gathered in one production.

All the major cast members have formidable resums but there are stand-outs like Diego Matamoros, possibly Toronto’s favourite classical actor, and such distinguished actor-director-playwrights as Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra (authors and stars of Two Pianos, Four Hands, one of one of the most successful Canadian plays ever). Then there’s Morris Panych who’s no slouch in the writing, directing department (The Overcoat, Vigil etc.) and Louise Pitre, star of Mamma Mia! for two years and winner of several US and Canadian acting awards.

So how could a person stay away without feeling like a complete chump? For various reasons, though, the show had to struggle to win me over.

First, there was the difficulty getting a ticket. There’s no phone number for finding out whether or not tickets are available. The only way to order a ticket beforehand is through T.O. TIX, but their website wasn’t working properly, which meant that I had to haul my ass down to Dundas Square to buy a ticket in person at TO-TIX. But the agency turned out not to be selling tickets for the matinee that day, so it was a further schlepp over to the theatre itself to see if a ticket would be available.

One was. But then there were my reservations about this kind of show.

We’re in Purgatory. A trial is taking place to determine whether or not Judas Iscariot got a bum rap. The judge is a blind, lollipop-sucking hillbilly. The prospector is a fey fellow in a fez and the defense counsel is a slick career woman. As if to prove the in-your-face quality of the play, virtually every speech contains the words "bitch," "shit," and "ass". Roughly every other page includes the term "mother-f----er". Along with the expected witnesses (Peter, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas), we get Sigmund Freud testifying as to whether or not Judas was sane. Mother Theresa is called as an expert on faith. Saint Monica, a foul-mouthed hipster, visiting Judas in his jail cell, taunts him with puns about hanging out and being hung up.

Given all the buzz, I was expecting something better. The idea of putting biblical stories in contemporary context and sprinkling them with current slang doesn’t thrill me. It’s not that I’m offended. Quite the contrary. Most of these supposedly historical people are really just cultural symbols, so there’s no shock value in seeing their images roughed up this way. And let’s face it, in recent years we’ve had a proliferation of shows that try to make New Testament material hip: everything from Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell to Bigger Than Jesus. The novelty has, frankly, worn off.

(If you’ll allow me one quibble –  I wish the purveyors of popular culture would learn that the pronunciation of the name of Monica’s famous son is not ‘Augusteen’ but ‘Augustin’ – rhymes with ‘disgustin’. All you have to do is phone St. Augustine’s Seminary in Scarborough [416-261-7207] and see how they answer. Does this matter? Am I merely indulging in some Catholic one-upmanship? Maybe I am, but the problem is that, when you’re hit with a mispronunciation like this, you can’t escape the impression that the actors don’t know what they’re talking about. Puts a bit too much stress on the old suspension of disbelief.) [Later: I'm told that the "Augusteen" pronunciation is common in Britain. Ok. But I thought this was a Canadian purgatory.]

Still, there may be a point to all this re-working of biblical material if it does eventually dish up some good ideas. And this play does. One of the first bits that kicked my thinking mechanism into gear was Mother Theresa’s disquisition on how opting for despair could be a way of creating your own hell. And I gradually began to see that the question running through the whole play is whether or not anything is too terrible to be forgiven. Is any person beyond redemption? Is love enough to redeem someone who has sunk as low as Judas did? The play also airs the understanding the Gospels were construed to make the Jews look as guilty as possible.

Things take on a topical edge at certain points. Pontius Pilate appears in military fatigues, talking about the difficulties of governing an occupied province. Jesus, when he finally appears (in a neat theatrical ploy) tells us that he is present in places like Kandahar and Darfur. And, by way of an update in scriptural scholarship, the play eventually does get around to acknowledging that the historical basis for some of the details about Jesus’ passion is shaky at best.

No matter what a person might think of the play’s ideology, there’s no question – and here the production does live up to its publicity – that this piece offers some fabulous opportunities for bravura acting. It would be hard to say which of several scenes and performances were the most powerful but here follow some of the candidates.

- Philip Akin does a terrific turn as a sexist, leering Pontius Pilate trying to beat down the female defense counsel.

- Diego Matamoros proves yet again his astonishing mastery of the stage with a Satan who is calm, confident, stylish and funny – in the first act, that is. In the second act, he blows his cool with a bitterness that’s scarifying.

- Ted Dykstra, who plays the sleazy judge, does a brilliant about-face when he appears as the quiet, stooped, elderly high priest Caiaphas who doesn’t lose his dignity in the face of the defense counsel’s righteous onslaught.

- A tussle – literally – between Judas (Shaun Smyth) and Jesus (Jamie Robinson) on the question of love, with some inescapable homoerotic elements, proves very moving.

Among other bits I enjoyed were Aviva Armour Ostroff’s droll, matter-of-fact Mother Theresa who stands her ground well against the feminist defense counsel’s browbeating. Richard Greenblatt offers a striking contrast between a pompous Freud and a laid-back apostle Thomas. Adam Brazier does sensitive work in the monologue that wraps up the play. This speech, addressed to Judas, about the human tendency to screw-up, might seem self-indulgent on the part of the playwright but I think the moment was earned.

Janet Porter, in the daunting role of the ambitious defense counsel, provides one of the strongest links holding this potentially unwieldy play together. (Disclosure: I directed Ms. Porter in a workshop production of a play of mine eight years ago, when she had just graduated from George Brown Theatre School). Since her early days on stage, Ms. Porter’s voice has matured and filled out with the result that, given her very striking presence, she has become one of our most impressive young women actors.

The renowned Morris Panych was amusing as the prosecutor whose personal quirks kept interfering with the requirements of his job. But the accent adopted for the role made some of his lines difficult to catch. Which raises the question of the venue, wherein the acoustics were not always ideal.

The fermenting cellar is a big, empty space, with grungy stone walls, bits of equipment and machinery from the distillery days still hanging around. Rows of chairs on risers face into the corner where the performance takes place. This makeshift ambiance suited the play well, as did the rapid scene changes that had the actors rushing to move furniture while the lights whirled crazily. At other times, the only lighting was by flashlights that the actors trained on the significant action. The overall effect was somewhat Brechtian: we’re just a bunch of people horsing around here in Pugatory (i.e. an abandoned distillery). We’re not pretending that any of this is real but we’re gonna see if we can shake you up all the same.

But other aspects of the production and the venue didn’t work so well for me. The play opens with the actors carrying Judas’ body in a funeral procession, all of them bearing lighted candles. The frequent recurrence of such spooky effects gave the impression that some sort of spell was supposed to be cast, but it wasn’t working for me. That could be because, this being a matinee, daylight from outside was leaking through cracks in windows and doors.

Even so, the atmosphere was murky enough when you entered the ‘theatre’ because it was lit mainly by vigil lights, as Catholics call them (i.e. little fat candles in glass cups). One elderly gent with a cane, tottering through the gloom towards the seating area, was grumbling, "Break your fucking neck in this place." The management’s approach to safety seemed a bit cavalier to me, but the old guy’s swearing helped set the mood for the play.

 

Sit Down and Shut Up (Zen Buddhism) by Brad Warner, 2007

My review of Brad Warner’s first book Hardcore Zen (Dilettante’s Diary: Feb 26/08) ended with a promise to review his next book soon. If you’ve been waiting anxiously all this time, my apologies. Maybe your forgiveness will come more easily on learning that I’ve read Sit Down and Shut Up twice, the second time very slowly, some parts of it more than twice. Some chapters, I’ve studied with a pen and paper, to try to follow the thought development more closely.

Fact is, Sit Down and Shut Up is a much more difficult read than the breezy, accessible Hardcore Zen. This time round, Mr. Warner has chosen to give us an explication of Shobogenzo, a book written by Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen master of the 13th century. As Mr. Warner sees it, Dogen’s book conveys the true understanding of Buddhism better than any book before or since. While this may be true, the master’s thoughts aren’t easily grasped by a 21st century North American reader trained in the Aristotelian/Thomistic world view.

Which is not to say that Mr. Warner’s friendly, irrepressible self is absent from the text. As in his previous book, we get lots of jokey asides and footnotes -- a few too many for my taste. I appreciate that Mr. Warner wants to show his readers that a spiritual guy – a guru, if you like – can be earthy, even raunchy at times. In my opinion, though, the effect might work better if he confined his jokes to the really good ones.

But nothing really can make the slog through Dogen’s thoughts easy. When that guy’s pen starts scratching across the paper, memories of fingernails on blackboards come to mind. Here follow some examples of his prose – as rendered in 21st century English. (Trust me, there are no typos in these passages. I checked ‘em many times!):

- "If the idea of not falling into cause and effect is mistaken, the idea of not being unclear about cause and effect must also be mistaken."

- "Remember, if ignorance is the One Mind, then action, consciousness and so on are also the One Mind. If ignorance is cessation, then action, consciousness and so on are also cessation."

- "Here is beyond the brain, is beyond the nostrils. Because it springs free from ‘here,’ it has already arrived here and it has never been here before."

- "Because in life-and-death there is buddha, there is no life and death. Again we can say: Because in life-and-death there is no ‘buddha,’ we are not deluded in life-and-death."

- "To understand that we move from birth to death is a mistake. Birth is a state at one moment; it already has a past and will have a future. For this reason, it is said in the Buddha-Dharma that appearance is just non-appearance. Extinction also is a state at one moment; it too has a past and a future. This is why it is said that disappearance is just non-disappearance."

If that doesn’t cause you severe brain pain, you must have been raised in a Zen monastery. Granted, my unfamiliarity with the kind of thought and the style of expression make comprehension hard for me. Suppose I had never heard of Christianity or its concepts and somebody started saying things to me like "Blessed are the poor" and "The meek shall inherit the earth." I might be just as bamboozled by those pronouncements as I am by many of Dogen’s sayings.

Sometimes Mr. Warner’s explanations of Dogen’s words help. But not always. In some instances, paragraphs split into different topics, the connections among which aren’t obvious. Maybe what’s required is a better writer. Or a smarter reader.

Or maybe the problem is that Mr. Warner is trying to do too much in one short paperback. What we have here is a broad overview of a philosophy that must take years of study to understand thoroughly. Readers who have been sitting at a Zen master’s feet for decades would probably find this book much more understandable than I do, in the same way that I can digest a book on Christian spirituality pretty quickly, given my familiarity with most of the references and allusions.

Still, I’m not going to give up on Mr. Warner. Let’s hope his next book, now that he has paid due obeisance to Dogen, will expound his own ideas about Zen. Many of them seem absolutely right to me: the self is an illusion, we are all one, the present is all we have, ultimate reality is here and now. Other concepts remain total enigmas. For instance, the promise that I will eventually see that truth has been staring me in the face all this time and that I have always known it. Sure doesn't seem like it now! But maybe these notions will someday make as much sense to me as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

In the meantime, there’s only one point on which I want to take issue with Mr. Warner. Throughout his books, he seems very open minded. He often says, quoting the Buddha, that nobody should accept his authority, that we should question every supposed truth, every teaching, on our own terms. About one thing only does Mr. Warner come across as a bit tight-assed: he insists that Zen meditation cannot be done in any posture except sitting on the floor in the lotus or the semi-lotus position.

Now I’m willing to accept that he sees that as the best way to meditate, that he feels it’s the way that most effectively leads to the full fruit of meditation. I can understand that the proper alignment of the body in such a position helps the mind to concentrate. But to say Zen meditation can’t be done any other way? Take some geezer, one with terrible arthritis in knees and hips – I’m not talking about anybody you and I know – and suppose it was impossible for this guy to sit on the floor in the lotus or the semi-lotus position. What if he was very keen to practise Zen Buddhism? Would Mr. Warner say: "Sorry pal, no Zen for you"???

 

 

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