Dilettante's Diary

Jan 19/05

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Reviewed here: Bad Education (movie); Canada-Asia Concert on CBC (tv); The  Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Hotel Rwanda (movies); and Belonging (memoir)

Bad Education (movie) by Pedro Almodovar

In an article somewhere, I read that Pedro Almodovar had been waiting a long time to tell the story of the horrible things that happened to him in a Catholic boys’ school. Lord Deliver us from the projects that artists have been treasuring in their hurtin hearts for years and years. You used to be able to rely on Signor Almodovar's movies for some in-your-face weirdness enlivened with lots of wacky humour. Sad to say, there is not a whiff of humour here. It's all terribly melodramatic and solemn, as underlined by a portentous musical score that leans heavily on heavenly choruses. Even the drag queens seem tired and stale.

The set up is that a guy is going back to his old school to wreck vengeance on an evil priest. At first, we see the victim peddling a story he's written about the experience. Then, apparently, we go to flashback while the events are acted out. But no. After a while, it turns out that we're watching a movie (within a movie) that is being made about the revenge plot. At least, I think so. A bit later, it becomes unclear whether we're watching whom we think we're watching, whether certain people are dead or alive, whether they're gay, straight, or omnivorous. In the end, most of the confusion clears up more or less (I think) but it's all so convoluted and arcane that you can’t feel any sympathy for anybody.

There is such a fevered, cooped-up feel to the proceedings that my heart leapt for joy at the sound of a bird's song coming through a window. I thought: at last, we're going to get a breath of air from the outside world. Alas, common sense set in and reminded me that the sound was likely just a bit of tape supplied by the SFX department and that probably nobody connected with this movie had ever seen a real bird or any inhabitant of the natural world.

Mr. Aldomovar is so theatrical, so divorced from real life, that you have to overlook all kinds of implausibilities. Like choir boys clasping their hands devoutly under their chins when they sing. Any former choir boy knows you can't get full use of your lungs that way. And the fact that the priests' cassocks always look brand new; they never look lived-in. Same with the roman collars: they look like they've been donned for the first time this morning and haven't had time to adjust to the shapes of the wearers' necks. What really killed me was when a priest found a boy misbehaving in the middle of the night, so he marched the boy down to the chapel and made him serve a mass right away. Since when did serving mass in the middle of the night become a substitute for writing lines or 100 push-ups?

None of the actors is at fault. Oddly, I particularly liked the evil priest. I'm talking about both versions of him: the one in the movie within the movie and the one in the movie that is just the movie, if you get my drift. He (or should it be "they") struck me as very credible. A big fat actor playing an enforcer priest was also very convincing. Gael Garcia Bernal is lovely to look at. In fact, watching him is one of the few pleasures this movie has to offer, along with some grungy gay sex if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: E

Canada-Asia Concert on CBC

First, you have to know that I almost never watch tv, except for election nights and Academy Awards. It's not that I'm a cultural snob. Well, maybe I am, but that’s not the point here. It's the commercials that kill tv for me. I can't stand constantly being hit over the head about what I'm supposed to buy. Sometimes on Thursday evenings, though, CBC offers something really good in its "Opening Night" slot -- without commercials. Say an opera, a play or a ballet. Last night the three-hour space was given over to a fund-raising concert for the relief of the people affected by the tsunamis in Asia. The line-up was mostly pop culture, which is not my scene at all, but the array of guests was so peculiar -- from Paul Martin to Ti Domi -- that it looked like this might be a good opportunity to find out what's happening out there in this great land of ours. So what you're getting here are virtually virginal impressions of Canadian pop culture.

To be honest, I didn't watch all that closely. Let's just say that the tv was on. I was upstairs doing some other work and listening to the simultaneous broadcast on the radio. When something came on that interested me, I ran downstairs for a look.

Overall impression of the production as a show: not bad, considering how quickly it was put together. Ron Maclean (the hockey guy, right?) turns out to be a very good MC: relaxed, classy, genial. Rick Mercer also added some nice touches. The mood was up-beat, there were some good spontaneous jokes. The documentary clips from reporters in Asia worked well. As far as I could tell, there was only one noticeable gaff: at one point Mr. Maclean introduced Eric Peterson but it was some other Eric (an actor from a US tv show, I think) who came on screen. I got a little tired of the self-congratulatory tone, the constant reminder of how generous Canadians are. Struck me that it might backfire if I were the average Canadian sitting there on my wallet. But maybe average Canadians are nicer than I.

As for the representatives of the kind of culture I'm more familiar with, it was fun to see people like Margaret Atwood and June Callwood, brief though their appearances were. Ms. Callwood seems to be vigorously defying predictions of immanent death as reported in The Globe and Mail a while back. For my money, Ms. Atwood's blonde hair is a mistake but I guess a literary icon has as much right as the rest of us to mess around with her look. Appearances from actors like Mike Myers and Dave Thomas were welcome. Gordon Pinsent was at a disadvantage because he seemed to be reading a prompter somewhere around the level of his knees, which meant that he never lifted his eyes to us.

The main thing that struck me about the performances was that we have an awful lot of cute young male singers in Canada. Many of them have horrible voices and sing off-key, but never mind. Where are the young women singers? Is this dearth of young women performers typical of pop culture in every country? If so, somebody probably has come up with the reasons but I couldn't begin to fathom them.

It was amusing to see the famous Barenaked Ladies at last, although they looked more like dads than the young hooligans I was expecting. My wife and I agreed that they're probably too musical to appeal to young people today. I was interested to see Bruce Cockburn because I used to hear a lot about his Christian beliefs (not the evangelical kind, I think, more the left-wing kind). His guitar playing is formidable. Someone's attempted rude joke about his name didn't go over very well; seems we nice Canadians weren't in the mood for that kind of thing on a night when we had altruism on our minds.

Don't think I've ever seen Celine Dionne before, unless she appeared once on the Academy Awards. (Wasn't there a song about the Titanic?) She was the only one who threatened to go a little over the top with her "heart-broken" comments about the tsunamis. Apparently we were seeing part of her Las Vegas show, with an item specially prepared for this occasion. She seems to sing nicely but you could hardly tell, the number was so over-produced. But it was interesting to see what a Las Vegas show would be like these days as there is probably no other way that I'll ever see one.

Virtually the only singer in the whole lineup who was familiar to me was Ann Murray. They saved her to the end, for a duet with Bryan Adams. I know he's a really big name. And she treated him like an old pal so I guess he really is somebody. Ms. Murray looked lovely and sounded good. In terms of my personal cultural history, it really was the most amazing moment of the evening. There used to be this young, sprightly blonde gym teacher who would get up there and croon about some snowbird and now here's your pleasantly plumpish, middle-aged aunt up there being groovy.

What is happening to the companions of my youth?

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (movie)

The previews did not look promising: all very droll and deadpan, goofy in a fey sort of way. Hard to get much of a handle on it. But there are times when the soul tires of the meaningful, the serious, the uplifting works of art. A person sometimes longs for the off-beat, the unpredictable, the non-formulaic.

So here's the setup. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a sort of Jacques Costeau character, makes documentaries about his underseas explorations. Seems a "jaguar shark" ate his colleague and best friend, so Steve has vowed revenge. If that makes you think of a certain classic American melodrama, believe me, there the resemblance ends.

Nothing dramatic or classic about this one. The emphasis is on the low-key, the laid-back, the off-the-wall. In the opening sequence, Captain Steve is showing his latest film to a gala audience. Afterwards several people come up to speak to him. Each actor in these tiny roles does an amazing turn as a unique, fascinating character. From my point of view, things were looking very good at this point.

In terms of character and dialogue, this high quality holds throughout the movie. People are constantly saying strange and unexpected things, the kinds of things that people might say if they really spoke their minds. A guy asks a woman, "Please don't make fun of me; I'm trying to flirt with you." Another guy tells the same woman, "I think maybe my heart is being broken here." When a guy's is desolate about the death of his cat, a friend who wants to commiserate, asks "What kind of cat was it?" The bereaved answers, "Who gives a shit?" A woman explains that she is trying to learn to stop swearing before her baby is born; she also reads Marcel Proust aloud to her unborn child. Perhaps my favourite non-sequitur of all: a man tells his illegitimate son, "I'm sorry for not acknowledging your existence; it won't happen again."

And yet, and yet....... quirky dialogue and interesting characters can't do it all. Much of the movie takes place on Captain Steve's ship where not much happens. When you throw the time-tested movie formulae overboard, you're hard pressed to replace them with something that will make your movie work. No denying that this movie gets becalmed at midpoint. At attempt to liven things up with a bit of highseas adventure doesn't help much.

The oddest aspect of the movie is that much of the action on the ship is shown in a cut-away. In other words, the ship is sliced open down its length and we see the actors moving from room to room as if we were watching characters in a child's dollhouse. Why was this done? Was it to emphasize the artificiality of the whole thing? It certainly doesn't help to pull us into the story and make us believe it on that level.

In fact, it tends to make the whole thing look like an exercise in clever acting. Which there is lots of. Bill Murray has pretty well patented the role of the bemused, stoic, middle-aged man with the dreams of a child. He's fine here but not as funny as in Lost in Translation where the script gave him more to work with. Owen Wilson adds another degree of perfection to his persona of the sweet, ingenuous and stupid young man. Several others turn in good work as odd characters: Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum. It's interesting to see Angelica Houston looking her age and not apologizing for it. I had a problem with Cate Blanchett. Sorry to say, she seems a bit too theatrical, not quite real. Her arch style doesn't suit the tone of the movie.

Near the end, Captain Steve comments on an unflattering article that a reporter has written about him. He says something like: "Yep, that's true. I did all that shit. I made those mistakes. I can live with that." It struck me that this might sum up the spirit of the movie. It's not perfect, it has lots of flaws, but it's trying to do something interesting. That speech hinted at depths that the movie might have plumbed if only it'd had the nerve to go beyond its cool superficiality.

A movie worth seeing, but only for those who appreciate a fascinating but not entirely successful attempt to do something out of the ordinary.

Rating: C

Hotel Rwanda by Terry George (movie)

This movie does a good job of establishing the context of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990s. We get the fact that the Tutsis had been favoured by the Belgian colonial powers, but when the Hutus took over at independence, the Tutsis fled. Now some of them are coming back and trying to reclaim their land. The Hutu radio station openly promotes extermination of the Tutsi "cockroaches". The Hutu militia, comprised mostly of young thugs, is running wild, probably with the complicit approval of the government which claims to be unable to reign them in.

The movie focuses on the true story of a Hutu man who is left behind as the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali when all the whites have fled for their safety. He has to deal with the hundreds of black people who have sought refuge in the hotel from the carnage in streets. Among them are some Tutsis, including his wife. The man has to constantly bribe the militia to buy groceries to feed his "guests", and, more importantly, to buy time until they can be spirited out by the UN. It occurred to me that there are biblical proportions to the man's heroism but I couldn't think of the exact precdent. Moses, maybe? In terms of more recent references, he's a real "Schildler's List" kind of guy.

But the movie doesn't have as powerful an impact as you’d expect. If you want to make a work of art for a good cause, you shouldn't scrimp on the artistic side because that will compromise your message. What sort of compromises are we talking about here? Well, small ones, to begin with. Editing for example. Reaction shots come just a fraction of a second too late. In outdoor scenes, the rain machines are pouring buckets but you can see in the background that it's actually a sunny day. Am I just being picky? Maybe. But the fact is, these kinds of things get in the way of my being completely caught up in the story.

At more than two hours, the movie's too long, by my bum-numbness meter. That might not matter much but for the fact that the momentum doesn't build steadily to the end. There is a faltering in the pace; that jeopardizes the impact of the climax.

And one thing that really undermines a movie for me is lame dialogue. Here, the script stumbles through junk lines like "I have this from a reliable authority" and "This will all soon be over" and "Cut the bullshit." (Not exact quotes; we're relying on my head-held recorder here, not my hand-held one.)

It may be because of the dialogue, but Don Cheadle in the starring role always sounds a bit too formal and precise. His diction is too meticulous. He looks very noble, quite the picture of the decent man, but he never relaxes into ordinariness.

That could be why the intimate, family scenes aren’t as moving as they could be. It could also be because they look too staged, too scripted. There’s a lack of the realistic, casual detail that you get in an expertly done movie. As a result, the overall impact of the tragedy is diminished.

Most of the other actors do well. Some of the huge black men who play the thugs have amazing presence on camera. I was impressed with Joaquin Phoenix's small role as a scruffy photographer, mainly because he seemed so real and believable, so non-movie-star-ish. It struck me, though, that Nick Nolte was an odd choice for the head of the UN mission in Kigali. This is presumably the General Romeo Dallaire role, although the character is not so identified. Maybe the problem is that the script didn't give Mr. Nolte much character to work with, but he looked like he would be a lot more comfortable kicking ass than trying to keep the peace.

My favourite actor in the piece was the woman who played a Red Cross worker trying to save children. (Haven't found her name yet.) With her scraggly blonde hair and her slight overbite, she conveys an authenticity and a decency that strike right to the heart of the matter. If your children were in danger anywhere in the world, she's the kind of international aid worker you'd want to have on the scene. You know she'd do everything humanly possible to rescue them.

My rating for this movie is more about its documentary aspects and its humanitarian message than about its artistic achievement.

Rating: C

Belonging (memoir) by Isabel Huggan, 2003

My wife's sister mentioned that this book was coming up for discussion at her book club and that it might be of interest to me. Knowing nothing whatever about the book or the author, I assumed this was going to be one of those well-written books by a British author (the school of Drabble, Lessing, Murdoch et al.) in the vein that I call literary-domestic. Turns out that Isabel Huggan is a Canadian, raised in southwestern Ontario, and her book is mostly memoir and travelogue. Chapters of reminiscence about her childhood are interspersed among chapters about far-flung places where she has lived. The author mentions more than once that she teaches creative writing and that she jets around the world to represent Canada at international literary gatherings, so three samples of her short fiction are included at the end of the book.

It would be simplest, and perhaps kindest, to say that I didn't like the book very much and leave it at that. But I so didn't like this book that it becomes something of an event, a landmark in my reading life. I want to explore the reasons why I didn't like it, to see if it clarifies for me what makes a good book as opposed to what doesn't. I also want to ask how a book like this gets published and whether there is a burgeoning market for this kind of thing among women's book clubs. If this book were published by some small regional press, or even privately published, there wouldn't be much of an issue. But the publisher is Knopf Canada, which is no small deal. And the author apparently enjoys considerable prestige in literary circles. So what gives?

First, let me say that some parts of it are good. A chapter on life in Nairobi held my attention with interesting characters and fascinating details about local life. Passages about life in the Philippines work well enough as travelogue. A description of the devastating flood in the south of France in September 2002 makes a strong impression. Ms. Huggan seems to be at her best when she reports facts and events, letting them stand on their own. It's when she starts inserting her "creative-writerly" touches that trouble arises.

Much of the book tells about life at the farmhouse in southern France which Ms. Huggan and her husband bought and started renovating about ten years ago. Passing over the question of whether the world needs another book about North Americans discovering the joys of life in France, I will note that much of this writer's contribution to the subject is pleasant in a mild way. But there doesn't seem to be much point to it; this writer seems to have no edge to her. I'm not saying you have to be as ornery as Paul Theroux, or as funny as Bill Bryson, to make a good travel writer, but it helps.

There is a stultifying "niceness" pervading everything here. The careful, measured prose has a decidedly yawn-inducing effect. Ms. Huggan talks about herself tromping around the property in wellies and men's cast-offs, but the tone of the writing gives you an impression of someone sitting under a plane tree and jotting in a leather-bound vellum journal with mauve ink. The idea seems to be that this woman is going to explore her thoughts and feelings and it doesn't matter where they take her, it doesn't matter whether or not they are worth reporting, we are supposed to be grateful for her sharing her inner journey with us. We're constantly subjected to woolly thinking and unanswered questions. It seems as though anything that happens to her, any thought that passes through her mind, should be worthy of our attention.

A quick review of some of the banalities on display:

At one point the author walks with a friend through a field of flowers that leave yellow pollen on their trousers. She notes that the pollen could be used as a clue in a detective story. Is that supposed to be an interesting comment?

In one of the short pieces of fiction, a woman mentions that her husband wants her to refer to their "terrace", not their "porch". Our heroine reflects that happy marriages are made of such compromises. As far as I can tell, there is no hint of irony here.

Another fictional character reflects on how exciting it is to walk the streets of a village made famous by having been painted by various artists. Are we supposed to find a person who could utter such a cliché worthy of any further attention?

One piece of fiction starts off with a young man reading Shakespeare's sonnets to his mother. The boy is caught in the middle of a divorce between his parents and he's seeing a therapist, all of which sounds very promising. But Ms. Huggan abandons the intriguing young man and wanders into a cornball reverie about the history of the rocking chair the boy is sitting in.

Moving from the trite to the puzzling:

The author speaks of her paternal grandmother as a hard, unlovable woman. Yet, the few details Ms. Huggan gives make the old lady sound pretty good. If the writer is going to tell us that the grandmother was difficult, why not show it? Even worse, Ms. Huggan mentions that, now that her father has died, she cannot go to visit the house where her parents lived because she is estranged from his widow, her step-mother. This means that Ms. Huggan is cut off from all the mementos of her mother's life. And there the matter is left. Now why would a writer raise such a thorny issue without giving some further explantion? Apparently Ms. Huggan has never heard of one of the most basic rules of good reporting: never raise a question that you can't answer.

Not answering questions seems to be the modus operandi of the book. Ms. Huggan does a long treatment of Tasmania, trying to find out why she loves it so much and how she's going to write about it. Conclusion: she doesn't know, on both counts. She engages her sister in long and expensive telephone conversations to try to nail down some truths about their mother. They don't. We're left with inconclusiveness, inchoate groping.

What makes the book even more maddening is that the blandness isn't even consistent. Every now and then a wildly divergent note comes winging at us out of nowhere. In one short story, a woman notes that her marriage was beginning to unravel when her husband started importing crafts from Guatemala with all dire political implications that entails. Excuse me? Was I dozing off when the car turned off the mainstream and headed into left-wing, radical territory? The final installment of the memoirs tells about a horrible accident during a Girl Guides meeting. The author acknowledges the unintentional note of macbre humour in the story but she doesn't seem to appreciate how off-putting it is to the reader.

Perhaps my problems with this book could be summed up by saying that the writer hasn't managed to achieve a convincing narrative voice that earns my trust and makes me want to hear more. Sometimes you have to know a writer and what they're trying to do in order to appreciate their work. This can be true of any artist, composer or performer. It can take a while to catch their voice, to know their personality. Maybe Ms. Huggan has a group of loyal followers somewhere. She mentions the fact that her letters from abroad used to be published in the Ottawa Citizen. Maybe she built up a following that way.

The author's picture on the jacket of the book gives the impression of a friendly, unassuming person. That's probably what she's like. Her strongest epithets run to "Golly". No doubt that's why she makes a popular teacher of creative writing. Undoubtedly, she's very positive and encouraging; she seems utterly lacking in a critical perspective.

Perhaps if you know her, you can enjoy going along for the ride on her personal journey and you don't ask for anything other than the pleasure of her company. If this book had been written by a friend of mine, I would say something along the lines of: "Thanks very much for sharing your experiences, I admire your sense of adventure, your openness to new things." And I could, of course, enthuse about the few chapters I liked. As someone outside the circle of friends, however, I can't help but mourn all the trees that bravely gave up their lives for this cause when they might so much more happily sacrificed themselves for my own unpublished masterpieces.

My worst fear -- and I'll admit that it sounds blatantly sexist -- is that this represents yet another installment in a genre of touchy-feely "women's books" which are published and bought not because they're particularly good in terms of content or style but because they express something about the politics of the moment, something about women finding and celebrating themselves. What alerted me to this trend was the fuss surrounding the death of Carol Shields. People kept telling me that it didn't matter that much of the writing was mediocre. The point was that Ms. Shields was such a fine person; people championed her because she was getting attention for women's voices. Fair enough. Probably most books get bought and sold for other than purely literary reasons.

But what’s new about women finding their voices in literature? Centuries ago we had women writing pillow-books that were crammed with scintillating thoughts. What about Mme de Sevigny? You can't get any more interior than Emily Dickinson. What about our own Emily Carr? These were all women of wit, acumen and great skill. Most of all, they had something to say that could interest somebody who never thought of himself as an un-reconstructed male chauvinist but who may in fact be one.

 

Want to respond? Send an email to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com