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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: The White Ribbon (Movie); Fire Sale (Mystery); A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano (Biography); Killing Floor (Mystery)

The White Ribbon (Movie) written and directed by Michael Haneke; starring Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Burghart Klaussner, Steffi Khnert, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Josef Bierbichler, Rainer Bock, Susanne Lothar

Beforehand, all I knew about this movie was that the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane liked it and NOW’s Norman Wilner didn’t. Also, that it was set in the period just before the First World War, somewhere in Germany.

In a very small village, as it turns out. The Baron and the Baroness preside from their estate. Among other households are those of the pastor, the doctor, the baron’s steward, the midwife and various farmers. It’s all told from the point of view of the young school teacher (Christian Friedel), looking back in later years, as an older man in voice-over narration.

One of the earliest scenes features a harvest celebration with all the villagers gathered for a feast under the benevolent gaze of the baron. But things are not as bucolic as they seem. Strange accidents have been occurring. The doctor was thrown from his horse when it tripped over a wire suspended across its path. A woman worker has died in a suspicious accident. Kids are found tied up and tortured A barn goes up in flames. A pet bird ends up on the wrong end of a pair of scissors. A farmer commits suicide.

The term that leaps out at you from practically every frame is "Bergmanesque". And that’s not just because of the black and white photography. There are the silences and the long, slow takes. The brooding looks from various characters. The ominous mood. The sense that something mysterious and almost ritualistic is taking place under the surface calm. But the most explicit reference to Ingmar Bergman comes in the person of the repressive pastor (Burghart Klaussner). The way this guy manages his children makes Baron von Trapp look like Robin Williams in one of his more clownish roles. The pastor’s kids have to formally kiss his hand and their mother’s before bed each night. When they’ve been naughty, the pastor forces them – both boys and girls – to wear a big white ribbon for a year by way of reminding them of their obligation to preserve their innocence and purity. And, of course, the adolescent eldest son (Leonard Praxauf) needs must have his hands tied to the bed during the night, lest he give in to the temptation to damage those "most sensitive" nerves, against the abuse of which God has placed "sacred barriers".

By which point you’re beginning to wonder if this melodrama, with its Gothic overtones, is some sort of parody of Bergmanesque gloom and dread. If it’s not working for you, that about sums it up. For me, though, the film’s virtues earned close attention.

Several scenes, for instance, stand out as marvels of cinematic art, to my way of thinking. Take the one where a farmer sits by the body of his wife, who is being laid out after being killed in a barn accident. Through the doorway of a room, we see only her lower body and his back and shoulders but we hear his sobs. That’s so much more effective than seeing him face-on. Another scene, shot from the middle distance, shows a funeral cortege leaving a farmyard, with the coffin on a horse-drawn wagon. A man approaches. Before taking his place in the procession, he greets the other mourners one by one. The way each of them reacts to him tells a whole story. We don’t hear any words. The body language says it all.

And then there are the scenes that not only offer fascinating glimpses of the way other people lived at other times but also manage to keep you wondering what the hell is going to happen from one second to another. Like the one where the school teacher is trying to court a young woman (Leonie Benesch) while her seven younger siblings look on from the other side of the table. And then, his encounter with her parents in the formal asking for her "hand": as each line of dialogue unfolds, you’re kept in suspense as to what the next one will be. Same with a drive in the country in a horse-drawn carriage, when the teacher proposes a detour so that he and the young woman can enjoy a picnic by the water. Shy but stubborn, she resists quietly. Will he insist? Will she yield? Will he back down? You’re kept guessing. As for his actual proposal of marriage and the woman’s response, the simplicity and verbal economy reminded me of one of the classics of the genre: that in Louis Hmon’s portrait of French Canadian pioneer life, Maria Chapdelaine.

For a more fiery type of drama, there’s a marital battle between the baron (Ulrich Tukur) and baroness (Ursina Lardi) at one of the climactic points of the film. As the argument spins and turns, you have no idea how things are going to land. One of the most unforgettable scenes in this vein would be the one where a despicable man (Rainer Bock) rejects the woman he’s been using for sex for many years. In response to his charges that he now finds her ugly and repulsive, she (Susanne Lothar) says, with quiet dignity: "You must be very unhappy to be so mean." You want to stand and cheer for that woman.

Like the actress who plays that role, everybody in the movie is utterly credible. In their heavy, baggy clothes, they belong to the era so completely that it’s hard to imagine these actors pecking away at their laptops and listening to rock music between takes. Nor do any of these kids look like they’ve heard of video games. At times, I wondered if these child actors didn’t look a little too rehearsed, but then it occurred to me that, since the kids in the story were, after all, controlled by their domineering elders, you can’t fault the actors playing the parts for looking a bit wooden.

So I tend to vote with the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane in rating this film as being worth seeing. And yet, as the evil in the village unfolded, I kept wondering: what is the point of it all? Is writer/director Michael Haneke merely wanting to show us how rotten people can be? And what was the intended impact of the declaration of the war at the conclusion to the movie? Was it a way of showing how huge evils can make us forget lesser ones? Or was it meant to show that all evil – from mean pranks to full scale warfare – falls along a continuum?

It didn’t help that the mystery of the wrongdoings in the village was never fully explained to my satisfaction. The teacher/narrator had apparently decided what had been going on, but his assumption left some questions in my mind. If he was right, the message would probably be that human beings can wage almighty war against evil until they themselves are implicated and then they turn a blind eye. At least, I think that may be the moral. You’re probably smarter than I am, so maybe it will all make more sense to you.

You also may have more luck, early on, in sorting out the inhabitants of the various households. For the first hour, I found it hard to keep track of the characters as the camera jumped from one scenario to another. For somebody who catches on to that stuff more quickly, the movie as a whole might be more comprehensible. The strongest message I could take home was that the one thing those kids desperately needed in their lives was a Julie Andrews.

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

 

Fire Sale (Mystery) by Sarah Paretsky, 2005

A sleepless spell a while back found me listening to an interview with Sara Paretsky from the BBC, as broadcast on CBC Radio’s middle-of-the night programming. The Brit interviewer seemed to think highly of Ms. Paretksy (whom I’d never read). There was talk about her books being of interest to the Obama family, in that Ms. Paretksy deals with the grimy side of life in South Chicago.

Toward the end of the item, the interviewer asked Ms. Paretksy to name some books she didn’t like. The author at first demurred, saying that she only reads what she wants to read. Pressed to come up with a name, however, she cited Saul Bellow's Humboldt’s Gift. In Ms. Paretksy’s view, Mr. Bellow failed to write a good book in that case because he refused to "get his hands dirty" and write about crime as it really is in Chicago. It’s a long time since I read that book but my memories of it, although vague about details, are very fond. So I’m thinking: ok, lady, if you’re gonna diss Saul Bellow, you better come up with something brilliant of your own.

It would appear that Ms. Paretsky has done just that, given the plethora of awards she has accumulated for her much-lauded novels. But this one sure ain't picking up any prizes around here.

Not that it doesn’t start with a bang. V.I. Warshawski, our plucky private eye, gets hurt in an explosion when she’s nosing around a factory. A woman who works there has expressed worries that something fishy’s going on. Ms.Warshawski’s connection to that woman? She’s the mother of one of the girls on the basketball team Ms.Warshawski’s coaching. An old basketball star herself, Ms.Warshawski has been asked by her former coach, who’s now undergoing cancer treatment, to take over the coaching on a volunteer basis. Recognizing that she can’t commit to the coaching fully as well as to her career, Ms.Warshawski’s trying to get the owners of a company, the biggest employer in the area, to come up with funds for a full time coach.

This scenario gives author Paretsky plenty of opportunity for discussion of the social ills facing under-privileged kids on Chicago’s south side. We’re treated to pages and pages of high-minded discussion about the importance of the girls’ finishing their educations and avoiding teenage pregnancy. Worthy issues to be sure, but do they belong in a mystery? Maybe they’d be tolerable in this context if any of the dialogue or any of the characters had any plausibility of any ring of true life. Ms. Paretksy paints low class bickering parents with such crude strokes that they don’t even come off as human. She doesn’t do any better with the upper class characters. In the rich family that she’s pitching for donations, the conflict between the right-wing capitalist owners and their ingenuous grandson comes off as contrived and stagey. And the capitalists’ contempt for jobless people exceeds all bounds of believable human expression.

As for the mystery, when Ms.Warshawski’s skulking around that troubled factory looking for clues with her flashlight, it’s impossible to shake impressions of the intrepid Nancy Drew. Ms.Warshawski does not inspire confidence as a professional investigator. Her bewildering way with words also causes some concern. As, for example, when she says that a certain sight "caused hackles to rise from my crown to my toes." (Last I heard, crowns and toes didn’t have hackles.)

It wasn’t until about page 150 that anything made me want to keep reading. At that point, a kid disappeared and Ms.Warshawski was asked to track him down. At last, some intrigue, was my reaction. I also liked the sassy way that Ms.Warshawski talked back to the kid’s rich relatives who were trying to boss her around. But pretty soon, we lapsed back into more amateur-style sleuthing and more preaching about social issues. Figuring I didn’t need to be convinced of the importance of education for inner-city kids or of the problems of teen pregnancies, I spared myself another 200 pages of tedium and abandoned the book around page 180.

 

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano (Biography) by Katie Hafner, 2008

Sometimes you enjoy a book very much but you can’t help wondering whether other people will.

The first reason for my liking this book is that I’m a great admirer of pianos. To me, the piano is humankind’s most splendid invention. You can have your sports cars, your jet planes, your plasma tv’s. The fact that a piano – such a beautiful artefact in itself – can produce such exquisite sounds absolutely sends me. Of course, I’m talking here about a really fine piano. They’re not easy to come by. Hence my identifying with the great Canadian pianist’s quest (not that I identify with him in many other ways).

But even an excellent piano is only as good as its tuner. And that’s the second reason why the book interests me so much. Glenn Gould’s tuner for most of his recording career was the stellar Verne Edquist. In this book, he plays the major supporting role, if not a co-starring one. And it so happens that Mr. Edquist was also my piano tuner until his retirement about ten years ago. He often told me stories, albeit discreetly, about his most famous client, so it was fun to learn here more about their interaction.

One of the things that this book makes very clear is the enormous repertoire of skills that a good piano tuner brings to the job. To the afficionado, it’s not just a question of making sure the piano’s at pitch. Other very complicated issues, such as tone and voicing, enter into the overall effect. For the most part, Ms. Hafner elucidates the process very well. Will other readers follow the technicalities with as much enthusiasm as I did? I'm not sure.

Yet, there may always be an audience for more books about one of Canada’s most eccentric contributions to the world stage. What comes through in this portrait is the fact that he could put on the persona of a clever, articulate sophisticate, with even a generous measure of self-deprecating humour, while a very troubled person lurked beneath that veneer. I, however, am not one of the Candians who can’t get enough about Mr. Gould. Yes, he was an exceptionally gifted artist with a unique take on some kinds of music. (The way he treats Mozart should be illegal, in my opinion.) But that doesn’t make him an endless source of fascination.

Still, Ms. Hafner does come up with some details that intrigued me. For instance: the fact that Mr. Gould didn’t love pianos in themselves. "You know, the piano is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such," he told a reporter. "I have played it all my life and it’s the best vehicle I have to express my ideas." Apparently, the important thing about music for him was the idea of it and no instrument could adequately convey the music as he heard it in his mind. The piano, then, was just a means, albeit the best one available, to an end. So maybe Mr. Gould and I don’t have so much in common, after all. Which may explain why recording companies aren’t falling over themselves to sign me on.

And Ms. Hafner does show a more reasonable aspect to some of Mr. Gould’s seemingly outrageous behaviour. Take the incident where he sued the Steinway company because a friendly Steinway technician had slapped him on the shoulder, leading to a month's convalescence in an upper body cast. Granted, doctors did diagnose a pinched nerve or some such condition, but one can’t help thinking the root cause of the trouble wasn’t so much the technician’s touch as the pianist’s touchiness. But the issue was resolved with surprising equanimity. Although initially claiming $300,000 in damages, Mr. Gould eventually settled for about $9,000 to cover his medical costs. The astonished Steinway representative noted that the pianist was gentlemanly and cordial about the negotiations.

Entertaining as I found the book to be, it’s not a literary gem. The prose could only be rated as serviceable at best. While one feels Ms. Hafner’s interest in the subject throughout, one never gets a sense of an inspiring passion behind the book. One area in which the writing lacks flair is the depiction of Verne Edquist’s involvement, especially the account of his initial service call to Glenn Gould’s apartment. Verne refused to kowtow to the great artist and defiantly announced that his beloved old Chickering wasn’t worth working on. A stubborn prairie boy at heart, Verne had to put honesty first, even though he knew it could lead to being fired from his job as head tuner at Eaton’s. Instead, it led to decades of work with Mr. Gould. Ms. Hafner gets the story right, as far as I can tell, but it had more oomph when Verne told it to me.

 

Killing Floor (Mystery) by Lee Child, 1997

Having recently become a fan of Lee Child’s books featuring Jack Reacher, I was pleased to find this, the first of the lot, in a pile of pulp fiction on offer during a recent holiday. However, it didn’t thrill me as much as some of the later Reacher novels. Often, a reader finds that a series starts strongly with the first books and gradually peters out. On the basis of my experience with the Reacher books, though, I’d say it took Mr. Child a while to figure out how best to handle the remarkable character he created.

Not that there aren’t plenty of the Reacher qualities on view here. It’s easy to see how this character’s debut appealed to a world of readers encountering him for the first time. The yarn starts:

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

And there we have it: Jack Reacher, the terse loner, the stranger who appears in town out of nowhere, a magnet for trouble. We learn that he’s wandering the US after thirteen years in the army. Having arrived in this small Georgia town on a whim, he finds himself fingered as a possible suspect in a murder. Thrown into jail for a couple of days, he comes into contact with a local citizen who obviously does have something to do with the crime. In spite of himself, Reacher gets involved.

The guy’s impossibly tough and self-reliant. And yet the writer does a fair job of making the character just about plausible. That army training after all: as a military cop, he had been responsible for solving murders and tracking fugitives. Hence, his ability to psych out bad guys. Another thing that makes Reacher believable and real is his habit of calculating everything before he makes a move. He always knows just how many seconds it will take to do such-and-such and he plans every tactic accordingly. Lee Child is at his best in this kind of writing. He also offers up lots of interesting detail, when explaining what the criminals are involved in, about a certain feature of our civilization.

But the book’s dragged down by features that have become too familiar, I find. Most notably, the placid small town that’s seething under the surface with evil. And you don’t get many points for guessing who the baddies are. The dialogue is flat most of the time and none of the characters is notable, except for a few humble black people who leap off the page with surprising vitality. The staccato, monotone narrative in the first person – short, simple, declarative sentences – verges on self parody in a way that it doesn’t in later Reacher mysteries.

One of the weakest aspects of this one would be the fact that the romance shapes up too easily. It’s far too obvious from the get-go that Reacher and the woman are going to become an item. And yet, the ultimate resolution of that part of the story proves to be one of the most interesting and thoughtful aspects of the novel. Best of all, it establishes once and for all one of the key characteristics of the Reacher that we’re going to meet in the subsequent novels.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com