Room (Novel) by Emma Donoghue, 2010
Having not read the other contenders on the short list, I don’t know whether or not Room was unfairly denied
this year’s Man Booker Prize. The novel certainly deserves some major awards. One that we’ll bestow
on it here and now is this: the prize for the book that proved the most severe test of character for us here at Dilettante’s
Diary. This, you see, was the first book in a long time that tempted me – quite severely – to ignore all my
daily duties so that I could race through the book. Readers of weaker character would probably not have survived the test,
but I hung on (with considerable effort, it must be admitted) and attended to my assigned responsibilities. After completing
the book in my free time on two evenings, I was thus able to reap the reward of a good conscience on top of the pleasure of
a great read.
To fully understand the effect this book had on me, however, you have to realize that here at Dilettante’s Diary
we try to know as little as possible about a book before reading it. That’s because we want to come to the book with
a fresh mind – like a kid hearing a story for the first time. For us, it’s very important to see how an author
hooks our attention and keeps us reading. You can’t get a good sense of that if you know lots about the book already.
So that means that I avoid reviews, commentary and especially cover blurbs. If a book looks like it might be of interest
to me, that's because I’ll have heard something or other about it, possibly the fact that it won, or was short-listed
for, some prize. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve admired the author’s work in other instances.
In this case, it was mainly the book’s being mentioned in connection with the Man Booker that got my attention. Having
finished Room now, I do remember hearing some other details about it a while ago. But I’m at that stage of life
where, thankfully, my mind discards stuff pretty fast. So I had no idea of what was going on when I started Room. Which
made for a rocky beginning. The one thing I’ll tell you here is that the book’s narrated in the first person by
a five-year-old boy. Knowing that might help you to get going. For me, prose that was threatening to get unbearably cutesy
at times made it a bit tough to persevere.
But I did. And the middle section of the book turned out to be as exciting and gripping as anything I can imagine.
About the plot, though, I can say no more. What happens is so unlike anything you’ve ever read that you need to find
out for yourself how it all goes down. My saying any more here would spoil the thrill of your discovering it all on
It must be admitted, though, that the high level of excitement isn’t sustained right to the end. When you’ve
got a story that climaxes in the middle, there’s inevitably going to be some petering out afterwards. That’s what
happens here. New problems do crop up and there’s an extra twist of tension right near the end, but the story doesn’t
race forward with the same urgency.
As for analyzing in detail Ms. Donoghue’s accomplishment, let’s leave that until everybody has read the book
and knows what’s going on. The scholars and academics will no doubt go on at great length about the literary precedents,
like Alice in Wonderland and The Runaway Bunny. Until the time comes for that kind of detailed appreciation,
I’ll just say that Ms. Donoghue has pulled off an extraordinary literary feat in the person of her five-year-old narrator.
Who would have thought that an entire novel could be written that way? Mind you, it helps that this five-year-old is something
of a prodigy when it comes to language and math, but Ms. Donoghue makes the kid’s acuity believable in the light of
the influences he has been exposed to.
What’s more striking, though, is the way the author conveys the state of a kid’s mind. I don’t know whether
she studied kids of her own very closely or whether she consulted at length with child psychologists, but she gives a completely
convincing representation of the way one kid sees things. Just one example: the kid's lying on a bed, knocking his feet against
each other as they try to get accustomed to the strange feel of a new pair of shoes: to the kid, it feels as though his feet
are fighting until they can become friends. My days as a five-year-old are a bit behind me, but Ms. Donoghue made me feel
again exactly what it must have been like to discover the world for the first time in all its scary and glorious confusion.
The Year of Magical Thinking (Play) by Joan Didion; starring Seanna McKenna; directed by Michael Shamata;
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto; until Dec 12.
If you’re a middle-aged Torontonian and you consider yourself an arts and culture buff, this is the play
you have to see – especially if you’re female. After all, what we have here is the personal story of the celebrated
US writer, Joan Didion, brought to life on stage by one of Canada’s greatest actors, Seanna McKenna. Given that combo,
women with a certain knowing look are packing the theatre. If you were too dumb to order your tickets long ago, you’re
going to have to camp out in the lobby and pray that some ticket-holder dies on the way to the theatre so that you can get
What you’ll then be treated to is Ms. Didion’s account of her difficult year following the sudden death
of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as a result of heart failure, in 2003. (The couple had collaborated on several screenplays.)
At the time of Mr Dunne’s death, their recently-married daughter was hospitalized in a state of septic shock because
an untreated flu had turned to pneumonia. Although the young woman seemed to recover well from that episode, other major medical
crises occurred to her in the following months. Those problems led Ms. Didion to think that if she somehow kept close watch
on their daughter, Mr. Dunne would come back. Not that Ms. Didion didn’t accept his death on the rational level. But
some barely conscious instinct kept suggesting that his death wasn’t real. She was prepared to dispose of his clothes,
for instance, but she couldn’t get rid of his shoes because she somehow felt that he might need them some day.
Through the telling of this bizarre experience are woven stories about the family’s holidays, their arguments,
the happy memories and the sadder ones. We also get a lot of medical lore, given that Ms. Didion has something of a steel
trap mind when it comes to such facts. We also come to see that she’s a controlling, retentive, obsessive, verbose and
domineering person who insists on trying to manage everything and everybody in the attempt to make the world a safe place
for her loved ones. Those qualities are conveyed in elaborate, spinning sentences, with effective use of a kind of "hesitation
step" narration: the speaker keeps interrupting herself for long digressions, then returning to the main topic. Seanna McKenna
delivers all this with superb skill. One wonders what the play would be life with a somewhat softer, more sympathetic note
now and then, but it’s likely that Ms. McKenna’s edgy, aggressive energy is required to propel the play through
the ninety minutes to its conclusion.
No actress, however, could completely overcome the inherent weakness in this play. It’s a hazzard of many one-actor
shows: we often get an actor on stage talking at us, telling us a lot of stuff, but there isn’t any dramatic action.
As I see it, for a play to show the theatre at its best, there needs to be something happening to a character (or characters)
that causes conflict on stage; we need to witness a change in process. At the end of the play, we need to feel that the characters
have arrived at a different place from where they were when we first saw them. Having felt that we were involved in their
struggle, we should come out feeling that we too have changed, if only slightly.
This play delivers little of that satisfaction. Near the end, a couple of intense moments make you feel there has, after
all, been a kind of emotional arc to the proceedings. Ms. Didion has learned something about her controlling attitude to life.
But any feeling of our being engaged in her struggle comes so late that it almost doesn’t matter. For most of the ninety
minutes, we’ve been subjected to a lot of information about the woman. So she thinks, on some level, that maybe her
husband could come back? That’s interesting but not the stuff of drama.
And yes, the prolix speechifying shows tremendous verbal dexterity, but you end up marvelling at the writing and the
actor’s delivery rather than getting caught up in what she’s saying. Much of it wouldn’t be out of place
in the self-help, inspirational genre. The kind of thing you might hear coming from the couch on Oprah: how I survived
my terrible, awful ordeal. As with any such personal account, if you took this material as the basis for a fictional play,
you’d want to make all kinds of changes to produce a really effective piece of theatre. Just to say that it’s
true, that it actually happened to somebody, doesn’t make it a good play.
But maybe the point for many of the eager theatre-goers is that it happened not just to somebody but to Somebody. We’re
getting a look into the lives of the famous, glamorous and successful. References abound to the films and books worked on.
Much talk about flitting back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. The impulsive trips to Paris and Hawaii. The homes
here and there. Maybe I’m envious but I found it all a bit off-putting. Same with the many references to US institutions
(hospitals and universities) and locations. Call me provincial, but they don’t help me to identify with the character.
Not that the tone is lah-tee-dah. On the contrary, it’s chummy. You get the feeling that we’re supposed to catch
all Ms. Didion’s references because we’re expected to know all about her life. (That kind of thing may be easier
to take in the more intimate circumstances of a book. Which is how this material first appeared, I believe) The theatrical
context makes it feel as though the actor’s addressing a bunch of girlfriends.
Which is how many in the audience were responding: lots of titters and chuckles at the little pleasantries and ironies.
Nothing worthy of an actual laugh, as far as I could see. The appreciative vocalizing gave me the feeling that people
wanted to show that they were on the writer’s side. Or maybe they were just determined to have a good time for their
$40? Fine for them.
Rachel Ovadia (Solo Exhibition) Gallery 133, 1260 Castlefield Ave, Toronto. Until Dec 2nd. www.gallery133.com
Lots of invitations to art shows arrive here at Dilettante’s Diary. I’m able to follow up on very few
of them. Sometimes it’s a question of accessibility, sometimes a question of time. But it struck me that there might
be something special about this show by the distinguished artist, Rachel Ovadia, at Gallery 133. For me, that venue is
a bit off the beaten track but it was well worth the trip. It’s a beautiful, expansive space with lots of room for exhibition
And then there's the quality of the work on view. Many abstract painters throw paint on the canvas with abandon
and exuberance. What you get is a feeling of fun, play and creative verve. Rachel Ovadia’s large mixed-media paintings
(most of them approximately four feet by five feet) are quite another matter. There’s something eerily intellectual
and spooky about them. Very often you get a background of broad, sweeping strokes in various shades of one colour, with a
few accents of another colour. That establishes a predominant mood. But then there are thin lines – often black –
twisting and turning through the painting in a loose, snaky way, almost in calligraphic style. It’s as if they’re
trying to tell you something. What could they possibly mean? You stand there trying to tease out their message.
I know abstract artists hate it when you try to assign specific meanings to their paintings. Worse still when you claim
that you can decipher representational shapes in the work. However, the only way I can convey some of the effect of Ms. Ovadia’s
paintings is to put into words some of the things they suggest to me. One of the paintings that has the most immediate and
obvious impact is entitled "Moonlight": mostly shades of blue, with little bits of white and some black lines. To me, it doesn’t
seem presumptuous to say that what you’ve got appears to be very close to a representation of the dark, hulking shapes
of ships on water at night, with a few bright reflections of moonlight and some mooring lines. But it’s all much more
evocative and emotional than a realistic image would be. "Spring Tale" features soft greens, blues and yellows, with a shadowy
shape like a fish near the bottom. It seems to me this could be the artist’s response to the teeming life of wetlands.
A painting called "Venice" – all blue, white and grey – looks vaguely like a collection of ice floes. But a faint
suggestion of architecture in the background suggests that this could, indeed, be an artist’s unconventional take on
one of art’s most hackneyed themes. "Biosphere" is mostly white, with splotches of red and black, plus some loopy black
lines. The overall effect is, at once, both airy and scary.
That same motif of black, white and red recurs in some smaller works on paper. They’re some of my favourite works
in the show. There’s a particularly fresh, clean feel about them, as well as a feeling of spontaneity. In their simplicity,
they express – as do many of the paintings in the show – the Japanese influence that Ms. Ovadia cites in the artist’s
statement accompanying the exhibition. www.ovadiaart.com
127 Hours (Movie) written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy; based on the book by Aron Ralston; directed by
Danny Boyle; starring James Franco; with Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn
It’s 2003 and this gung-ho guy’s hiking through the caverns and hills of the badlands of Utah. He
hasn’t told anybody where he’s going. He doesn’t have a cell phone. Misjudging a leap, he falls into a crevice.
A huge boulder falls in with him, pinning his arm to the wall of the crevice. He’s stuck there for five days.
Since this is based on a true story and since there’s a well-known book about it, you probably know how it turns
out. So yes, to answer your question: there’s some grisly stuff to sit through. (At least, I think so. At certain points,
I couldn’t watch too closely.) But we can’t say anything more about that here, since, as you know, we don’t
reveal crucial plot details at Dilettante’s Diary.
Especially when there’s only the one plot line. This is what you call a really linear movie. It moves relentlessly towards
that one point, no sidetracks or diversions. No subplots. How, then, do you fill an hour and a half of screen time with one
immobile guy struggling with that one problem the whole time?
You use a lot of flashbacks, plus you take your viewers into his imagination and his hallucinations. Thus, a couch
shows up in the desert and members of the guy’s family, along with other people from his past, appear on the couch to
watch him. Glimpses of a relationship with an old girlfriend get replayed in his mind. Another thing that helps to fill
the time is that the guy has a video camera. He’s using it to record a sort of last will and testament to his family.
Being a somewhat inventive guy, he also uses it to record whimsical fantasies about himself appearing as the conquering hero
on a talk show.
So much for the relatively straightforward narrative elements of the movie. Then there’s the psychedelic photography
which drenches the movie in surrealism, not to mention the music that mixes things up in its own way. In the opening scenes,
where the guy’s heading out on his big adventure, we get split-screen, with multiple images flashing at us kaleidoscopically
and relentless rock music screaming at us. Every time the guy stops to take a digital photo, a sample of the photo jumps
into the movie in a flashy, digital way. When he’s drinking from a bottle, we’re looking into his mouth from inside
the bottle. The sensory overload is nearly intolerable.
Is director Danny Boyle pumping up the adrenalin to see us through the long stretches of silence and solitude coming up?
Maybe. But I gradually began to accept the jazzed up style as essential to the work of art that the film turns out to be.
Even the music makes a more significant contribution than the usual background score. When it gets very symphonic, I began
to think of the movie, not so much as a typical drama, but a kind of tone poem with painterly visuals, such as a storm rushing
overhead in speeded-up time, same with a sunrise, or the eery darkness of night in the canyon.
And the theme of this majestic tone poem – or you could call it a landscape painting on a very broad canvas, with
sound – would be something along the lines of: how significant is one puny human body vs the vast, inhuman forces of
nature? how much does one man’s life little count in the overall scheme of things? what must a person do to prolong
that life for as long as he can?
As the man at the centre of those questions, James Franco succeeds admirably at winning our attention and our sympathy.
We come to know him as brave, yet vulnerable, somone who’s as weak as any of us, but stronger in some ways than any
of us could imagine ourselves being. He wins us over so completely that if the ending doesn’t squeeze a few tears out
of you – and this is where the music really comes into its own – then you’re one cold, calculating bastard.
Rating: C+ (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")
Down Terrace (Movie) written by Robin Hill and Ben Wheatley; directed by Ben Wheatley; starring Robert Hill,
Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Tony Way, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley
For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of watching this movie was the process of trying to figure out what
was going on. So I don’t want to provide too much explanation here. Best if you find out for yourself the way I did.
Let me, then, just set the stage with a few particulars. Nearly all of the movie takes place in a cramped row house in
some town in England, near the sea. Living in the house are a middle-aged couple, Bill and Maggie, and their thirty-four-year-old
son, Karl. Various cronies of Karl’s and Bill’s drift in and out. Everybody looks ordinary to a fault. Not a movie
star within miles.
In one of the early scenes, they’re celebrating somebody’s birthday. Bill’s talking about the old days
when he was involved in drugs. He says everybody except himself and Timothy O’Leary was making money in the business.
For Bill, though, it was all about idealism, about a supposed revolution. When not reminiscing in this vein, Bill tends to
strum quietly at his guitar, reprising gentle 70s folk songs. And yet, there are mumbling references to prison.
One of the guys takes Karl aside and shows him a gun, just purchased. Is that leading to anything? Or, could this be just
some British soap opera about the lower classes, one of those movies that glories in kitchen-sink realism?
Well, a plot line does emerge – sort of. On that, however, we can so no more. What we can say is that you’re
going to be treated to an experience unlike any delivered by the typical Hollywood product. The attention to human beings
as the flawed creatures that they are is so intense and respectful that it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that the
work of Ingmar Bergman comes to mind.
Which is not to say that the movie apes the master in any way other than in terms of integrity and honesty. In fact, one
of the most distinguishing things about this kind of quiet, low-budget movie is that you get situations unlike anything you’ve
ever seen on screen. Such as the scene where Karl’s cooking dinner at his home for his former girlfriend (Kerry Peacock)
who says she’s pregnant with his baby. He’s shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table,
trying to smooth things over between this woman and his parents who resent her.
Then there’s the business with an Irishman (Michael Smiley) who arrives at the house, apparently in the capacity
of a hit man. Not having been able to line up a baby sitter, he’s had to bring along his three-year-old son. When Karl
starts playing with the kid, the dad, a guy whose speciality appears to be dishing out violence, insists that Karl stay
in sight and not kiss the kid, presumably out of fear of any sexual abuse being inflicted on the kid.
When it comes to originality, though, one scene stands out over all the others. In fact, you wouldn’t believe that
it could happen until you see a middle-aged mother lying with her son on his bed and singing him the lullaby "Tell me why
the stars do shine...."
In the expected British fashion, the actors deliver fine ensemble work, all of them inhabiting their characters fully as
authentic, believable individuals. But the most remarkable accomplishments in this regard come from the three members of the
central family. Bill (Robert Hill) gives us a hardened man who may or may not still want to be seen as a caring, sensitive
father. As the mom, Julia Deakin is haggard, thanks to the family’s peculiar stresses, but your pity for her may not
survive your discovery of the extent of her involvement in what’s going on. As Karl, the son, Robin Hill (also
the co-author of the screenplay, with director Ben Wheatley) strikes you as something of a bland, negligible character –
until you begin to appreciate his attempt to show some responsibility towards his unborn child, his struggle with his mood
swings and his need to show people, especially his dad, that he’s not a weak person.
These actors take you through a bleak tale by means of short scenes that often end in abrupt blackouts. (Disregard all
billings of this movie as a comedy. It ain’t!) Not every detail of what’s going down comes clear, but you
get the general idea. You may not feel that things need to end the way they do here, but you’ll probably admit
that you’ve learned something: that terrible things can be running under the current of lives that look unexceptional.
In other words, evil can have a very banal mein. It’s kinda humbling to discover that the people involved are so like
you and I.
Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")
Due Date (Movie) written by Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel, Todd Phillips; directed by Todd
Phillips; starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis; with Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride,
Jon Cryer, Charlie Sheen
The buzz on this one was both good and bad. I wanted to believe the good. Maybe it was the previews that got my hopes up.
The impression conveyed was that, as usual, Robert Downey Jr would add a touch of class to the proceedings. Here, he plays
a suave architect who has to get from Atlanta to his home in LA because his wife’s scheduled to have a C-section to
deliver their first baby in a few days. For reasons too complicated to go into here (but they’re no more implausible
than the setup for most comedies), he’s stranded without money or ID and he’s therefore forced to accept a ride
from a collossal doofus, a would-be actor, in the person of Zach Galifianakis.
There’s lots of good stuff happening. It’s hardly an original comedy premise – two people who can’t
stand each other are forced to get along – but there are some neat takes on it here. Mr. Downey is especially good,
with his deft touch at deadpan humour, as the sophisticate who struggles mightily but can’t always hide his repugnance
for the companion forced on him. Mr. Downey could trademark that mirthless smile. It’s nice to see Jamie Foxx giving
his all in a small role. To me, there’s something generous and self-deprecating about a big name actor’s doing
that. Maybe I’m naive, but it helps me to feel less cynical about the business. And while it’s not exactly a new
trope, it was fun to see yet another example of the shtick where a hopelessly bad actor suddenly turns out to be a very good
Some clever script writing turns up, as in a scene where somebody makes an elaborate prologue to a heartfelt confession,
then dishes up some trifling pecadillo; after the inevitable forgiveness spreads sweetness and light all around, the same
offender follows up with a whopper of an unforgiveable sin. Another example of good writing: when a character is told that
he’s a worthless bag of shit and that every cell in his body is loathsome, he responds: "I’ve been told that before
and I’m working on it." In a eulogy to a deceased parent, a guy says: "Dad, you were like a father to me."
Other audience members were chuckling contentedly all through this. So why, even though the strident rock music was striving
to convince me that I was having a good time, was I beset by a sinking feeling?
Not because of the episodic, slapstick nature of the thing. I was willing to accept that a movie like this is bound to
be filled with things like car chases, a handicapped veteran who whups a leading man, a drug dealer with obnoxious kids, vomiting,
car chases, border cops feeling their cheerios, a masturbating dog, car chases, somebody constantly getting stoned on medical
marijuana for his "glaucoma", cars flipping over and cars being demolished.
No, it was something else that was bothering me. Two things, actually.
First, the lack of a sense of urgency. The movie’s packed with incident but there isn’t much momentum. So the
Downey character has to get home for the C-section – so what? Either he gets there or he doesn’t. If he does,
fine; if not, life goes on. Maybe part of the problem is that Mr. Downey doesn’t do touchy-feely all that well; you
don’t get the message that he cares a whole lot about what’s going on in the obstetric department. Or it could
just be that there was nothing written into the script to make the situation all that compelling. In spite of periodic phone
calls from the mother-to-be, it’s nowhere near as edgy as the situation in The Hangover where you’ve
got a bunch of guys who are trying to find a missing groom while his bride is getting dressed and the wedding guests are assembling.
But the bigger problem with Due Date, I think, is the Galifianakis character. In comedy teams where a sophisticate
is paired with a goofball (Martin and Lewis, anybody?), you don’t necessarily have to like the jerk; you don’t
even have to find him believable. But I think you need to want to think that he could be believable. Which you can’t
in the case of this guy. He’s just too stupid. How stupid? He thinks the Hoover Dam was constructed by the pilgrims.
When he hears about Shakespeare, he says the name was actually Shakesbeard and he was a pirate. In this guy’s world
view, a child of a black father and a white mother could turn out like a zebra. As if he’s William Blake discovering
the world in a grain of sand, he announces in a hushed voice that rest stops on the highway have the nicest showers. He’s
so impressed with the profundity of this insight, that he repeats it immediately.
Could any actor have made a human being from this material? Mr. Galifianakis doesn’t. One of the worst aspects of
his attempt is that he occasionally adopts a haughty, faggy walk: head held high, swinging shoulders, wiggling bum. It’s
completely at odds with the character’s slob side. Presumably, the walk is meant to show that he’s trying to maintain
some dignity in spite of all the odds. Far from achieving that, the result is that you end up with something that looks like
a caricature made up just for the sake of a movie, a caricature that has nothing to do with a real person.
Which raises the question of Mr. Galifianakis’s being cast in the role. You have to wonder if the success of his
oddball character in The Hangover gave somebody the idea of building a movie around such a guy. It may have
looked like a good idea but I think Mr. Galifianakis should be wary of ever accepting a role like this again. Due Date
ends with his character appearing in a sitcom. He merely walks in and the canned laughter gets cranked up as if he’s
a scream. Which only emphasizes how un-funny he is. Not a great impression to leave us with.
Rating: D minus (Where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)