Dilettante's Diary

June 28/09

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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: The Proposal (Movie); Running Away to Sea (Travelogue); 12 Edmondstone Street (Memoir)

The Proposal (Movie) written by Pete Chiarelli; directed by Anne Fletcher; starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds; with Betty White, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Malin Akerman, Oscar Nuez.

This is one of those movies where the preview gives you so much that you wonder whether the movie itself has anything to add. Before you’ve even bought you ticket, you know that Sandra Bullock is an ambitious, bitchy boss in Manhattan and that Ryan Reynolds is her mild-mannered assistant. To save herself from being deported to her native Canada (gasp!), the Bullock character announces that she and the Reynolds character – to his surprise – are engaged. This means they’re forced to spend a weekend with his family in Alaska, pretending to be madly in love.

Seems like it could be a great set-up, with lots of comic potential.

Especially, given the chemistry between the two stars. Sandra Bullock pulls off the role – particularly the physical stuff – with the comic flair of some of our greatest screen comediennes. (For some reason, Eve Arden kept coming to mind; maybe it was the long skirts and high heels.) We may not ever feel that she’s truly bitchy but that may be because we know that, underneath all the venom, she’s Sandra Bullock, after all. She’s particularly good at showing an icy niceness towards people when necessary, all the while seething inwardly. As pretty much the straight-man of the piece, Ryan Reynolds does well in the Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart style, except that neither of those stars would ever have appeared as an assistant to a female boss.

But the script doesn’t supply the Bullock-Reynolds partnership with enough clever invention. In great comedies (Shakespeare, Moliere), where people are pretending to be something that they’re not, the writing percolates with enough ingenuity that you don’t stop to question the plausibility of the premise; it may be outrageous but you want to play along just for the fun of it. One device the film makers have introduced to try to sell us on this story is the introduction of a snarky US immigration inspector who’s dogging the young couple to make sure they’re not committing fraud. But certain dead spots give you time to reflect that the premise is preposterous. You start thinking that nobody would go along with the fake engagement, even though the script tries to show that there are pay-offs for the Reynolds character.

Instead of clever developments, we get lots of slapstick, each incident requiring an elaborate set-up. Audience members around me were laughing ecstatically but I was hoping for something better. Instead, we got scenes like the one with a male stripper (Oscar Nuez) that was horribly painful to watch. And then some ludicrous business with Betty White as a ninety-year-old grandma dancing around a campfire – a ritual learned, supposedly, from aboriginal ancestors. Up to that point, Ms. White had been doing a nice turn as a certain type of gracefully ageing lady but there couldn’t be any actress in the US who looks less likely to have Indian blood in her.

Perhaps because the creative team ran out of fun ideas, the script takes a serious turn concerning troubles with the Reynolds character’s parents (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson). The melodrama never felt like it belonged with the rest of the movie but some good points were made, in the end, about love among family members. Ms Bullock gets to make a touching speech at her character’s moment of truth and you’ve got to give the scriptwriter credit for the fact that there are times when you actually think the movie might not end the way you think it’s going to end.

Even when the end comes, there’s another surprise. Some clips accompanying the final credits feature brief shots of the various characters being interviewed by that US immigration snoop. Inspired bits of off-the-wall humour and non-sequiturs go flashing by.

Rating: C- (Where C = "Certainly Worth Seeing")

 

Running Away to Sea: Round the World on a Tramp Freighter (Travel) by Douglas Fetherling, 1998

An announcement about the paperback re-printing of this travelogue caught my attention because a fond fantasy of mine is about escaping on a tramp freighter. Imagine my disillusionment, then, on learning (on page two of the book) that my secret wish is one of the most common among middle-class North Americans.

Oh well, the book had lots of appeal, even if I did have to share the adventure with all those middle-class escapees crowding the cabin in my mind.

At some point in the 1990s (the precise date’s difficult to pinpoint), the noted Canadian writer, Douglas Fetherling, set out from England on a tramp freighter across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific to Tahiti, New Caledonia and New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and back to England. The trip took about four months. Some twelve passengers were on board for most of the voyage.

While it was mainly the very idea of the trip that carried me through the book, the smooth writing made for pleasant sailing. Mr. Fetherling is at his best, I find, in describing the technical aspects of shipping and the history of the places visited en route. I learned that the vagaries of travelling on a tramp freighter mean that the itinerary can be unpredictable, at best, given that the ship noses its way from port to port, picking up whatever cargo might be available.

Sometimes the background material on certain spots Mr. Fetherling visited has a boiler-plate sound to it, as though cribbed from assorted brochures but, when he really likes a place – for instance, Luganville, in the Republic of Vanuatu (1,570 kms northwest of New Zealand) – the description comes to life. We also get enjoyable vignettes of various passengers, such as the woman nick-named "Seagrams" for reasons that aren’t hard to guess, and the passenger who was given to malapropisms along the lines of saying that she was suffering from "heat prostitution."

But some aspects of the writing made the book less satisfying than it could have been.

About those passengers, for instance. We’re nearly half way through the book before we get much feel for the inter-action among them. In that respect and others, shipboard life does not come through very vividly. At one point, the writer mentions that the toilets were out of commission for two days. Wouldn’t you think he’d tell us how everybody coped during that time? He doesn’t even tell us anything about his cabin, apart from a passing reference to the fact that his bunk was too short. For a reader trying to imagine himself curled up in there for months on end, that lack of detail about the cabin is a serious omission.

I also had to question some aspects of the writer’s portrayals of people, including himself. Regarding a certain amount of bickering among the passengers, most of whom were from Britain and the US, he says, at one point, "...the two nationalities generally do despise each other." Oh really? Not in my experience. Or is the writer’s comment supposed to be the worldly-wise cynicism of a traveller far more sophisticated than I?

About himself, he makes occasional references to the fact that his marriage was in trouble. Some attempts to communicate long-distance with his wife during the voyage don’t go very well. Apart from noting that he feels bad about that, he tells us nothing about his inner life that would make us sympathetic to his troubles. In fact, it's hard not to react along very unsympathetic lines: what kind of dolt would think the way to patch up his marriage would be to jump on a ship and phone his wife from half way around the world?

One theme in the book that puzzled me was the author’s apparent contempt for anthropology. He expresses this particularly with regard to the situation in Papua New Guinea where, he seems to feel, anthropologists run amok. He seems to view them as little better than gawking sight-seers. What gives? I always thought it was worthwhile for researchers to find out what they can about human nature by studying primitive societies and comparing their customs with those of the more developed world. On the other hand, maybe I’m not up on the latest trends in political correctness when it comes to such matters.

Quite apart from the book’s literary merits or flaws, there’s a matter of packaging. The book is replete with competent watercolours (printed in black and white) depicting various characters and scenes along the way. As far as I can tell, though, there’s no attribution for the artwork. Are we to assume that the author is also the artist? I would have appreciated some information about that.

But the most disappointing thing about the book is the endnote: it’s all a pastiche. Maybe that explains the uncertainty about the date when all this happened. Apparently, the ship that the author has been calling The Pride of Great Yarmouth is a conflation of various vessels. The passengers are composites too, the author now admits. So maybe there wasn’t any "Seagrams" or "Mrs. Malaprop" after all? Are they just fabrications of the author’s imagination?

Call me a diehard literalist, but my appreciation of the book had a lot to do with the sense that I was reading a factual report of a real voyage. A novelized version of a writer’s experience can be enjoyable, but I want to know beforehand that that’s what I’m reading.

 

12 Edmonstone Street (Memoir) by David Malouf, 1985

For some reason, Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with this author a couple of months ago on Writers and Company (CBC Radio) sent me scurrying off to the inner reaches of the library system for this memoir. The slim volume by the distinguished Australian writer did turn out to be worthwhile reading, but not quite what I was expecting.

In the first place, it’s not a continuous memoir. The book consists of four short pieces, apparently written for separate occasions. Only two of them deal with childhood. The first describes in loving detail the strange Brisbane home that Mr. Malouf was raised in around the time of the Second World War. Much of family life took place on the large, expansive porch. One incident that stands out was the time when a pregnant woman who had fallen in the street was brought up to the porch to recover. When she dared light a cigarette, the women of the Malouf family lit into her. It was one of the author’s first intimations that there are people in this world who don’t do the kinds of things that we nice people do.

The other childhood story concerns a train journey, the first one that took the youngster beyond the known world of his neighbourhood. The main point of the story is the achingly poignant relationship between the child and his not-very-communicative father. A moment in which they view some Japanese prisoners of war being transported in a truck has haunting resonances.

A section about a Tuscan village that the author visits as an adult seems, at first, not much more than routine travelogue – until he begins describing some of the village characters with great relish. It develops that a tv crew is on hand to film a documentary about the author. The proceedings, largely because of the involvement of the locals, become very entertaining.

In a passage about his first visit to India, the author makes some cogent remarks about the relationship between tourists and beggars: "To walk on blindly as if no need existed, or as if all this were mere theatre, is to be in one moral predicament; to react puts you immediately in another. And of course to be concerned with moral predicaments at all is an indulgence, if all it involves is the desire to be in the right."

While the book may not be strong on narrative or chronology, it offers the pleasure of savouring some very fine writing. As in this passage about a pause in the long-ago train journey with the dad:

It was a clear cold night and felt excitingly different, fresher than I had ever known, with a clean smell of dark bushland sweeping away under the stars to the escarpments of the Great Divide. People, some of them in dressing-gowns and carrying thermos flasks, were bustling along the platform. The train hissed and clanged. It was noisy; but the noise rose straight up into the starry night as if the air here were thinner, offered no resistance. It felt sharp in your lungs.

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