Dilettante's Diary

Feb 21/05

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Reviewed here: The Nelligan Variations (radio drama); The Assassination of Richard Nixon (movie); The Red Queen (novel);  Les Choristes (movie); Drawing 2005 (art exhibition)

The Nelligan Variations, CBC Radio Two "OnStage" (Note: See follow-up to this review on page "Aug 2/10")

This seemed ideal for listening to while lying in bed on a Sunday afternoon, laid low by a mild flu. The Quebecois poet, Emile Nelligan has always held a special spot in my heart. One of my professors in the seminary used to stand at the front of the class and intone Nelligan's poetry in such beautiful French that I still remember some of the lines. And there's a kind of mythic, heroic/tragic aura about this doomed young man who had written all his poetry by the age of 19 and who spent the next 40 years of his life in a mental hospital, dying in 1941.

At first, the choice of La Bottine Souriante to provide the music for this drama about Nelligan's life struck me as wildly inappropriate. Granted, there's the Quebec connection but the sensibilities of the forlorn poet and this toe-tapping kitchen band could not be further apart. Surely Chopin would have been more to the point? Well, we did eventually get a few plaintive Chopin preludes in the background and occasionally La Bottine struck the right note -- for instance when Nelligan was living it up with his buddies -- but the band's presence in the program seemed  yet another instance of the CBC's insistence on popularizing arts programming in some bizarre ways.

Rejean J. Cournoyer as Nelligan chanted his role in a breathy flight of passion, which, arguably, suited the material, but I would have liked his feet to touch the ground now and then. In any case, there was far too much of the purple poetry and not enough of the life. Maybe it's the problem of translation, but the effusively narcissistic poetry was not as appealing as I'd remembered it. Marie-Helene Fontaine and Dennis O’Connor as Nelligan's mother and father cut through all the rhetoric with welcome doses of common sense.

It was a clever and economical device for writer Michel Basilieres to choose to tell the poet's story through just three voices. Except that M. Basilieres didn't tell the story! As I have long understood it, the main reason for Nelligan's incarceration in the asylum was his family's and the Church's horror of his homosexuality. Granted, there were other reasons: he did apparently have some psychotic episodes. But the whole point of the story of his life, as I understand it, is that the conflict over his sexuality was what led to his breakdown and his banishment. M. Basilieres may have felt that other dramatizations made too much of Nelligan’s sexuality; fair enough, but why skip over it so lightly?

In this dramatization, we were left to infer the whole business. (Unless I dozed off at the crucial moment.) There were hints about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and complaints about Nelligan’s spending too much time with his pals. Oh yes, there were his parents’ mutterings about his shameful behaviour and the effect it might have on his sisters. But we are left pretty much to guess what was going on. This is like giving Hamlet without the regicide that launches the tragedy.

Apparently, this is what passes for political correctness at the CBC these days: not to mention someone's sexuality, presumably on the grounds that it's irrelevant. That would be defensible if someone's sexuality were truly irrelevant to the matters at hand, say, in the case of some gay politicians today. But in Nelligan's case, the conflict over his sexuality was very relevant to his tragedy, as I understand it. Maybe the CBC's mandate for revamping everything is to do drama with the drama excised.

 

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (movie)

Let's say you've been finding life far too pleasant and enjoyable lately. You’re looking for something to kick the happy out of you. This could be the movie you need. Based to some extent on actual events, it charts the machinations of one Sam Bicke, a loser-ish, would-be salesman who comes up with a grandiose scheme (check the title) to prove that even "one tiny grain of sand on the beach of life" can have an huge impact.

What makes this story so depressing is that Sam, as played by Sean Penn, isn’t your average wacko. He’s essentially a decent guy – not to say that he’s over-endowed with charm or intelligence – who can’t understand why he keeps losing out on the American dream. There’s a kind of innocence about him. For instance, the thing that gets in the way of his being a good salesman is that he can’t stand the lying. (Mind you that doesn't preclude a bit of larceny on his part.) You can see that he’s still torn apart by love for his estranged wife and kids. The whole movie unrolls in flashback as Sam's narration of his story into a tape that he’s sending to Leonard Bernstein. Why him as confessor? Because Sam finds Maestro Bernstein’s performances of Beethoven so pure.

Sean Penn has some great scenes as this frustrated little guy. The routine that he performs to get a loan from a skeptical bank manager is a virtuoso bit of shtick. His final encounter with a boss who fired him is mesmerizing. And yet, I can never quite forget that I'm watching the great Sean Penn. He never seems to fade into the ordinary guy the script calls for. Maybe that’s because he sometimes seems to be acting a bit too much: too many ticks and mannerisms. That cagey, revealing smile comes just when you think it should, rather than when you're not expecting it.

Some of the actors in smaller parts are terrifically convincing. Jack Thompson plays Sam's boss, a beefy heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, a guy who's not particularly honest or well-meaning, but not an especially bad guy either -- in other words, a very real person. I didn't catch the name of the actor who plays Sam's older brother. He has only one scene but he brings to it a complex but entirely credible bundle of feelings: thwarted affection, regret, and, ultimately, contempt.

The movie re-creates the ambiance of 1974 Baltimore with lots of authentic detail (rotary phones, gawdawful clothes, big-boat automobiles) with a few exceptions. Did people who had very little income actually inhabit such expansive houses and apartments in those days? Also, in the 1970s people had not yet developed the habit of prefacing hostile remarks with "Y'know what...." And the expression "Get a life" had not yet got a life.

Those quibbles aside, you want to give this movie high marks because it's so relentlessly honest and unsentimental. There's no pandering to the Hollywood market here. But it's so damned bleak. With a really great tragedy, you come away feeling that you've learned something, that you've had a healing catharsis. I can't say that happens here. It all feels so hopeless; the violence of the ending is brutal and senseless.

You keep wondering why everything had to go so badly for Sam. Could anything have been done to stop his downward spiral? At one point, his brother says that Sam always was strange. Is that all there was to it? Maybe there aren’t any satisfying answers, but the fact that the movie makes you ask those questions counts for a lot with me.

Rating: C

 

The Red Queen (Novel) by Margaret Drabble, 2004

This sounds like a terrific idea for a novel. You discover the translated memoirs of an actual Crown Princess of Korea who lived about 200 years ago. The first part of your book will be an interpolation and expansion of those memoirs. The second part of the novel will focus on a female British academic who reads the memoirs while on a flight to Korea for a conference. She becomes obsessed with the Princess and visits various locations associated with her life.

Surely the account of the Princess' life will make for exciting reading, what with all the intrigue at court, the arcane customs and the fact that her husband went mad and was killed by his father? Not necessarily. In Ms. Drabble's rendering there are some interesting details about court life but, after a while, the Princess’ voice gets a bit tiresome. She is really not a very good story teller. Maybe she never heard Ernest Hemmingway's "show, don't tell," dictum. For instance, there's hardly any dialogue. Another problem could be that the Princess was, inescapably, rather passive. Given the strictures of court decorum, she could hardly lift a finger to change her fate, so we feel as if we're watching everything from behind a thick glass wall. The story never really engages us.

The second part of the book reads a little better, partly because the contemporary context feels a bit less contrived – except for the hokum the British woman’s being inhabited by the spirit of the dead Princess. Although the book ends with a "life affirming" message, there isn't a whole lot of point to the British woman's wanderings and musings. Maybe some middle-aged female readers will find more to identify with here but, for me, this section of the book reads as not much more than a high-brow travelogue, with a bit of flutter about a brief love affair.

 In a prologue and various notes at the back of the book, Ms. Drabble makes it clear that she was mightily excited on discovering the memoirs of the Crown Princess. Somehow, her enthusiasm hasn't translated very well into a novel. To me, this says something about the process of writing and publishing today. You're a big name writer, you get an idea for a book, a few months later, there's the manuscript, sometime in the next year there's the book, out it goes to the stores and your public snaps it up. Does anybody along the way stop to ask whether the book works or whether it has anything worthwhile to say? Apparently not. All that matters is that it will probably sell well enough because you're a big name.

This is not to dump on Ms. Drabble whose books have given me great pleasure in the past. She is undoubtedly doing her job the best she can; I'm not implying there's any charlatanism involved. But sometimes even a good writer's sincere effort isn't good enough. In this case, thankfully, we don't have to lament the trees chopped down because the book, at least the Canadian edition, is published on paper that is "ancient-forest friendly, 100% post-consumer recycled".

 

Les Choristes (Movie)

Do you believe that bad kids just need an understanding adult to bring out the good in them? If so, this may be the movie for you. For me, the suspicion that we were dealing with something other than reality began with the opening scene. A distinguished, silver-haired conductor in white tie is preparing for a concert before an eminent Manhattan audience. And what does our conductor offer up on this auspicious occasion? A piece of cotton candy from Johann Strauss Jr.

Flash back to rural France in 1949 and a school for incorrigible boys: bogeyman principal, draconian regime, interior décor by Robespierre. Into this hellhole comes a new teacher. Given his chubby, avuncular look, we know he’s going to turn things around. And how does he does he work the miracle? Why, with the touch of song, of course. Turns out all these brats needed was a good tune to turn them into angels.

There are moments when this movie threatens to get real: some business about the private life of one boy's mother; also, the arrival of a really bad boy with a criminal history. Some brutal truths get told in a showdown between the good teacher and the evil principal. (All of this is very well acted.) You almost think the movie's going to have a plausibly bittersweet ending. But cuteness reigns. The elderly ladies in the audience were very gratified but there wasn’t much in this movie for a hard-headed realist like me.

Except for the singing. Amazing what that teacher accomplishes with those ragamuffins. They start off like crows and within twenty minutes they sound like they could have the Vienna Choir Boys on the ropes. While they were singing, I wanted to believe the whole fantasy. Made me think of the guy who married a soprano because he fell in love with her voice. The wedding night didn’t go so well and next morning at breakfast, he said, "For god’s sake sing!"

That’s more or less how I felt about the whole movie.

Rating: D

 

Drawing 2005 (Aird Gallery, Toronto, until Feb 11)

First the disclosure: a picture of mine was accepted into the juried Drawing show at the Aird Gallery last year. This year, I didn't have time to prepare or submit anything. This is so that you'll know my remarks have nothing to do with the sour grapes syndrome (I hope).

I'm trying to get used to the fact that this show typically has little to do with beautiful drawing or technical expertise. This year, there's even less of the gorgeous classical work (portraits, nudes, landscapes) than last year. The show’s mostly about what’s shocking, startling and unusual. There's a strong art college whiff about the proceedings. You can imagine the recent grads standing back and exclaiming, "Far out, man!" (If cool dudes still say that sort of thing.)

Another thing you have to get over when you're dealing with a show like this is your preconception of what constitutes a drawing. For example, a "wallcloth" with little tufts of tissue-paper-ish flowers attached to a fabric that has tiny flowers painted on it. I tend to go with the sense of a drawing as "marks on paper" but I guess, from both the jurors' point and the artists' points of view, when you’re trying to decide what’s a drawing and what isn’t, it's hard to know where to draw the line (pun intended).

So, to the winning work: two small untitled pictures by Heidi Yip. One features a girl with a bent arm (actually she appears to have three arms), half of a dog peeking out from behind her and a face hovering overhead. The label says that it's ink on paper but I'm pretty sure it's pencil, apart from a couple of blood red splotches which are probably ink. Not sure what they signify but I think they spell trouble for that poor kid. The second picture is an ink line drawing of a naked woman sitting. Another female (child? adult?), has her face in the sitting woman’s crotch. As the Frenchman says, "V a fait reflechir, hein?"

The second prize went to Oscar Camillo de las Flores for his large conte drawing, "War, When Reason Falls Apart": many figures and faces, all contorted, twisted and nightmarish-looking, crowded into a sprawling scenario. The plain fact is that I do not like this kind of work and there is lots of it in this show. There is skill involved in drawing these kinds of pictures and I respect the sensibility of the individual artists but I don't share it. To me, this kind of thing is too much like the stuff that boys filled the covers of their notebooks with at the back of the classroom when they were indulging their feverish daydreams instead of paying attention to the teacher.

I do not know what to say about Rob Kenter’s the third prize winner "Dog Hours": a cartoonish dog wearing human clothes, with several strings from his body attached to a bar above, in a puppet-like effect. The colours are bold and simple, the design striking – but….?

Some pictures I did like. Claudio Ghirardo's rough drawing of a carpenter, in a scribbly style, mostly in primary colours, has great energy and strength to it. On the other hand, Gene Chu's picture of swarms of flies, while gag-making in its subject matter, is meticulously executed and beautifully designed. Daphne Gerou offers an excellent graphite drawing of Beatrix-Potter type bunnies, entirely soothing and cuddly in its mood except that the bunnies are brandishing guns. I liked David Gillanders' simple line drawing of a landscape with another landscape underneath showing dimly through the paper. David Griffin's large picture -- mostly black, white and grey -- of roundish objects (maybe rocks?) is very well executed. Rundi Phelan's two pictures of brassieres (unoccupied) demonstrate very effective use of washes and different values to convey the effect of fabric. Andrew McPhail's spiral of Christmas tree bulbs on a wire, a very simple composition of mostly green and yellow, makes you think of one of those minimalist New Yorker covers. One of the biggest pictures in the show, Wing Yee Tong's "Reading", a semi-realistic representation of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, has great impact when you stand back and take it all in.

Moving into the weirder territory, there is Andreea Scarlot's "Red Marks" -- some smears that seem to suggest a partially destroyed house and something intriguing but unidentifiable over it. A tiny graphite work by Robin Hesse, something like a globe or a planet floating in haze, has a powerfully evocative effect. Gillian Iles' "Backyard Pool" includes a strip of well drawn furniture at the top but the picture is dominated by a gaping swimming pool at a somewhat disorienting angle. Robin Baker's twisted human figures hint at a good feeling for anatomy.

On the way home from this show, I happened to walk through Yorkville, past the Thomas Kinkade "Signature" gallery. Having never noticed this place before, I stopped for a moment to look through the window at the sentimental, pretty pictures. As we all know from publicity about him, Mr. Kincaide has made a fortune and established an industry for himself by foisting this kitsch on people who think they’re adorning their homes with quality art.

Ok, point taken. In retrospect, the work of those wild and crazy artists at the Aird gallery looks better and better.

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