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Feb 23/11

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The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Biutiful (Movie); Vodka Painters of Canada 2011 (Art); Monday Works (Art); O Canada (Art); The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem: 1951-1961 (Journals); Nixon In China (Opera); The Fighter (Movie)

Biutiful (Movie) written by Alejandro Gonzalez Irritu, Nicols Giacobone, Armando Bo; directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Irritu; starring Javier Bardem, Maricel lvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernnandez, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin.

The way things are shaping up, Javier Bardem’s performance here appears to be the only serious challenge to Colin Firth’s claim on this year's Academy Award for Best Actor. You might think no two leading male roles could be more different: the one a Prince of the realm and the other a low ranking member of the working (sort of) class who struggles by various means to keep himself and his kids alive. Instead of Buckingham Palace, we have the tenements of Barcelona, where the ceilings are adorned not with gilded molding but with damp mold. The Prince is surrounded with a multitude of minions, helpers and well-wishers but the other man seems to be waging a single-handed war against the evils of the world.

In so doing, though, the Bardem character shows himself to be a kind of prince in his own way. A prince of the streets you might say: he’s so noble, he tries to do right by everybody even though he’s involved in lots of illegal schemes. He has custody of his two kids (Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella), he picks them up at school, he cooks for them and plays games with them at the dinner table. He hardly even shows any impatience with his disaster of a wife (Maricel lvarez). Which brings to mind another kind of prince – the one known as the Prince of Peace. Our guy may not actually be able to pull off any miraculous healings but he does manage to speak with the dead and relay their messages to the bereaved (for a small fee). Surely that gives him a claim on supernatural status, even if it doesn’t put him in quite the same league with the more famous miracle worker,

Perhaps one of that earlier prince’s titles fits even better: The Man of Sorrows. Signor Bardem trudges through the movie with a baleful countenance and hunched shoulders, always looking tolerant and long-suffering, no matter what troubles come raining down on him. And do they ever! The illegal immigrants he tries to help have a way of walking into airplane propellors, so to speak. The cop he bribes for protection of his schemes can’t be trusted. His wife claims to be bipolar but she’s also apparently an addict of some kind, possibly a prostitute and an alcoholic as well. The cemetery wants to reclaim his dad’s grave to build a shopping mall. What makes this especially hurtful is the fact that the dad was a hero of legendary proportions whom the son never knew. And by the way, the son is dying of cancer.

All of which would suggest that my problem with this movie is the one that comes up for me with many manifestations of Spanish culture: narrative overload. Take that wife. Does she really have to be so awful? How could such a good guy have ended up with such a ditz? Oh, I know it happens: in a fit of passion a young person can make an unwise choice regarding a life partner. For me, though, this woman’s over-the-top awfulness is symptomatic of the too-much-of-a-muchness that affects the whole movie. Another example would be the fact that two Chinese associates of the Bardem character happen to be having an illict gay affair (one of them’s a married family man). Did we need that extra complication to add another frisson to a movie that’s buzzing with them like a nest of hornets on speed?

But maybe it’ll all work for you. If so, you’ll probably be entranced by the Bardem character and swept along on the rogue wave that’s his life. You’ll experience it as an immersion in existential dread. Like something from Camus. Apart from a few scenes, though, the movie didn’t engage me emotionally. That could be because it’s so arty and contrived. In many scenes, the camera swings back and forth between what’s actually happening and how it’s being reflected in mirrors. Is that supposed to send some message about reality versus illusion? I didn’t need such intellectualizing of the story.

Speaking of which, the director hardly ever gives it to you straight. It takes ages to figure out what’s happening and how everything fits together. This hide-and-seek style of story-telling seems to suggest that Signor Irritu’s afraid that the material won’t be interesting enough if he delivers it in a more direct way. And let’s not even get into those bodies hanging from ceilings. Two and a half hours of this artistic pretension just to prove that life pretty much sucks most of the time?

Note:  At the outset of Dilettante’s Diary, readers persuaded me to provide a rating system for movies. But I've finally come to the heartfelt conclusion that such a practice goes against my principles. You can’t compare diverse works of art according to some supposed scale. If I were to give this movie a C or a D, that would imply that it’s somewhat like other movies that received a C or a D. But there’s no such equivalence among works of art. Each one is what it is in itself. Same goes for my personal responses: they’re complex and specific; they can’t be fit into a slot that equates them with my reactions to other movies. Enough, then, of the ratings.

What I’ll give instead is a capsule comment to sum up my impressions. Readers who want a quick verdict can skip to the end of the review to check that comment in lieu of a rating.

Capsule comment for Biutiful: Moody existential angst but too arty and contrived for me.

 

Vodka Painters of Canada 2011 (Art) Etobicoke Civic Centre Art Gallery; until February 24

When friends get together to put on an exhibition of their work, you should do your best to take a look, even if it involves trekking out to the far reaches of Etobicoke. (You can take that reference to "friends" as full disclosure; no point trying to hide my connections to several of these artists.) This group of some fourteen very proficient painters has been organized since 1975. Because they work mostly in watercolour and on location, below freezing temperatures in winter mean that the water used for the paintings requires certain special treatment to keep it flowing. Hence the group’s name. That’s the theory, anyway. Whether or not it applies in practice, it makes for a catchy label.

The group works mostly on miniatures – about five by seven inches. The nearly 100 works in this show meet a very high standard of excellence. (Not all of the members are participating this year). So I’ll comment on just a few.

Many of the artists here express a particular love for the Canadian landscape. One of the experts in that respect is Jake Mol. Two of his paintings "Run Around Lake" and "Fel’s Lake Road West" offer good evidence of what he can do with warm glowing colours to portray sun and shadows on snow, rocks and trees. Carolyne Pascoe, another ardent painter of the Canadian scene, achieves some of her most striking effects in "Winter Vista" and "Valley Skyscape", both works showing a long, distant view, with minimal detail on the land itself and much emphasis on the sky. That’s also one of the best aspects of Don Staples’ paintings. His "Over Yonder", for example, breathes with a light, airy freshness. On the other hand, he can achieve an eery effect of the impenetrability of deep woods by using flat, opaque swatches of greenish pigment. Elizabeth Jaworski’s paintings, however, excel in their pure, brilliant transparency. Her "Tangle" shows birch branches against a background of coloured leaves that fit together like the segments of a stained-glass window. In the same luminous vein, Ms. Jaworski’s "Fall Blaze" creates an evocative autumn scene mainly by the use of large shapes and very little detail.

Pauline Holancin has many fine examples of her expertise with Canadian landscape on display, but her paintings that appeal to me most in this show touch on a couple of her other special interests: "Limoux Poppies, France" shows a gorgeous field of those red blossoms in the foreground against the background of a quaint village, while "Autumn Treasures" captures another of her favourite subjects: a bouquet of what look like branches of crap apples in a vase. Also in the autumn mood, Fred Collins makes a strong statement with his bold foreground against a vague background in "Autumn Splendour"; his "Mikonos Greece", an excellent ink drawing, uses lots of blue and white, with touches of red and yellow to make the scene come alive. It’s uncanny how Elisabeth Gibson manages to convey a feeling of the darkness of woodlands in "Winter Night" even though the painting includes lots of white and yellow. I especially enjoy the implied good humour in Ms. Gibson’s "Neighbours": a marvellously well-executed watercolour showing a conglomeration of family names on signs at a crossroads leading to various cottages. Thelma Likuski seems to specialize in close-ups of the natural world. Her "Flutterbys" mostly in yellows, blacks and oranges, makes a very striking abstract that is apparently based on the wings of Monarch butterflies; Ms. Likuski’s "Ballerinas" captures the charm of flowers, garden and sunlight with mere blotches of pinks, whites and greens.

For me, some of the most distinctive work in the show comes from Peter VanGils. His "Divine Inspiration #6" depicts what appear to be sheds and warehouses connected with the fishing business (some lobster traps are evident) but the point of the painting is the stunning composition of angles and planes making up the walls and roofs of the buildings. All Mr. VanGil’s other paintings in his "Divine Inspiration" series exhibit a similarly daring approach to composition. Also on the maritime theme, Bill Vincent’s "Dingwal, Cape Breton" demonstrates good drawing skills in its depiction of a collection of boats in a corner of a harbour; his "Scarborough Bluffs" makes a strong, fresh statement about that well-known aspect of the Toronto environs.

The celebrated American artist and author Frank Webb appears to be what might be called an honorary member of the Vodka Painters of Canada. In any case, his three paintings in this show are notable. The one that makes the strongest impression on me is "Gone To Pot": a simple ink drawing of a sprawling plant on a table, a chair in the background, all pink and white, making an unforgettable impact by the simplest of means.

 

Monday Works (Art) Neilson Park Creative Centre, Etobicoke; until March 6

For some time now, I’ve been picking up a positive vibe about the Monday class with the distinguished Toronto artist John Leonard (formerly on Wednedays). This show features work by the artists currently taking the class. Roughly 23 artists have contributed a total of some 40 paintings. Judging by the work here, the emphasis of the class is mostly – but not exclusively – on the nude human form.

One of the best nudes, to my eye, is "At the Window II" by Karen Darling. The depiction of a woman with her arms raised, turning away from the viewer, is very convincing. Another forceful nude is Karen Walker’s aptly titled "Stand" – a woman placed stolidly, with her feet firmly planted on the ground. Brian Smith’s expertly-executed "Haptic Reach" shows a female nude in a crouching position, her arms reaching out as though she’s about to spring into the air, as indeed, the painting itself seems about to do. In Steve Rose’s "Untitled 1" the long white leg of a nude reaches diagonally across a very effective composition of blacks, whites and beiges. Another very successful composition is Lily Yamaguchi’s "Studio Life x 3" in which a grey female form, as seen from behind, perches on an orange stool. In "Edges", Wendy Weaver creates an effective contrast with two figures: the one facing us is vague and blurry, while the one with her back to us catches the light in a way that gives the figure more definition. The brooding quality of the face, and the mood created with light and colour, in Vita Keeling’s "All in a Day Dream" caught my attention. Susan Dain’s "Contained" captures very well the pose of a woman lying on cushions.

Moving away from a focus mainly on the human body, Sue Archibald creates a strong impression of character in "Henry": a scowling face atop a beard consisting of what look like white lozenges. Nobody could help but be moved by Pat Ransom’s "....And Not Heard": a huge closeup of a howling newborn baby's face, all red and furious, with glistening tongue.

A couple of works featuring the inanimate also appealed to me. The simple composition of Marion Wilson’s "Morocco" is dramatic: just some walls of buildings throwing strong shadows on brightly sunlit ground. Rena Sava’s three cityscapes (monotype and collage) make for very pleasing abstract compositions that somehow convey an urban lan.

 

O Canada (Art) at the Neilson Park Creative Centre; until March 6th.

An unexpected benefit of my trip to Neilson Park for Monday Works (see review above) was a chance to see several small paintings from the centre’s permanent collection on display in the hallway. The idea, apparently, is to show a sampling of works from across the country. While many of them do a fine job of depicting fond Canadian scenes, some really stand out for me.

From Etobicoke itself, there are: Jeanette Labelle’s classic watercolour rendering of a sunlit house on a hillside; and Marilyn Coulter’s tiny sailboat at the foot of towering cliffs (the Scarborough bluffs, maybe?). On a piece of paper measuring about three inches by four inches, Eve Langlois, from Hull, PQ, captures the essence of autumn woods with a few birch trunks and some blobs of brilliant colour. A semi-abstract in horizontal bands of pale, earthy tones, by June Montgomery (Calgary), packs a lot of feeling about a chinook. An excellent ink drawing with watercolour, by Muriel Rochon (Timmins, Ont), gives a mining site grandeur and nobility. Much as I loathe the effect that the proliferation of Canada Geese has had on our parklands, it was impossible not to admire the excellent watercolour study of two of those pests by Sam Black (Bowen Island, BC). I particularly liked the rough-hewn, quick way, with some drawing and a bit of colour, that Barbara Bunker (Peterborough, Ont.) captures rocky hills, snow and some scrubby pines The most amazing work, for me, is the rendering (in pastel, I think) of the Okanagan Valley at Night, by Katherine Carlisle (Kelowna): hulking dark mountains, the faint glimmer of a river, and streaks of reds, yellows, whites and oranges representing the passing of cars along the mountain roads, in the style of time-lapse photography.

 

The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem: 1951-1961 (Journals) by Ned Rorem, 1966, North Point Press Edition, 1983

It was a New Yorker article that first drew my attention to the American composer Ned Rorem a few years ago. He was being honoured for some reason and the magazine was musing on the fact that, back in the 1950s and 60s, when everybody else was taking up atonal music, he was scorned for the fact that he was sticking to his lyrical style. Now, here he was, back in fashion, and where were the atonal guys?

Around the same time that that article appeared, CBC Radio broadcast an interview with Mr. Rorem. (That was back in the days when CBC Radio did such good things.) What struck me most were the comments he made about two of our most revered composers. Mr. Rorem said the world could do without Schubert. As for Beethoven, Mr. Rorem deplored the banality of much of his oeuvre, for instance, that "Da-da-da-dum" opening of the Fifth Symphony. Well, I didn’t agree with him totally (the world needs Schubert’s lieder) but his comments showed me that you can be a genius and you still don’t have to have the correct opinions on everything. I found that refreshing and liberating.

Ever since, I’ve been keen to read Ned Rorem’s published diaries. This, the first one, covers the years when he was living mostly in Paris, in the 1950s and 60s, when he was in his twenties and his early thirties. He’d apparently won a few contests and achieved some recognition. Much was expected of him. It’s not entirely clear what he was living on; he was always hoping for grants, and often disappointed. A devoted friend, an actual patroness you might say, in the person of Marie-Laure de Noailles, Vicomtesse de Noailles, housed and fed him much of the time, both at her Paris mansion and her summer home in the South of France. The luminaries who passed through his orbit in those days included the likes of: Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Alice Toklas, Man Ray, Paul Bowles, Jean Cocteau, Darius Milhaud, Reynaldo Hahn, Pierre Boulez, Samuel Barber, Truman Capote, William Inge, Edward Albee Jack Kerouac, Gian Carlo Menotti, Francis Poulenc – and Canada’s own (misspelled) "Mortecai Richler."

Apparently the diaries caused something of a furor when they first appeared, not least because of their frank attitude to gay life and the fact that they "outed" some people before the term was even invented. But the diary isn’t all gossip. What comes clear early on is that Mr. Rorem is every bit as much a writer as a composer. The nearly four hundred pages of dense print team with fascinating observations.

Here, then, is a sampling of some of Ned Rorem's aperus on various subjects:

Human Nature and Society (I wouldn’t be surprised if you, like me, hear a strong echo of Lady Bracknell in some of the following)

I don’t know why, but Sex has always been the favorite topic of every intelligently cultured person I’ve known. The favorite topic for every unintelligently cultured person I’ve known is Books, or, what is worse, Music.

And this, regarding the British: "...they are immeasurably more gracious than the French; too bad they’re less attractive."

Further on national types:

I never say what I mean, nor do the French who converse on simultaneous levels and take any side so long as the speech may glitter and rebound like a tennis racket (or as in the case of Cocteau) a silver handball. But Americans take things at face value, which makes them so boring in the parlor and terrifying in bed.

About friendship:

Why must we know so many people? Because any single person has his limits. One will begin to repeat himself after ten minutes, another after ten days, a third after three months, and a very sly one after a year. Sooner or later we know them all, and all their secrets. Each goes in his orbit, a cycle of subtleties which are our own and which we have known since the age of two. Each of our clichs becomes new insofar as we expose it to a new person. But we stay the same. Therefore no two people on earth are sufficient unto themselves.

Regarding one friend in particular:

Lenny Bernstein has been once more to talk to me of me, and, though I know no one more astute, I cannot feel close to him because he plays at being close to one, plays at being "the real thing"; his reality’s unreal; I like true unreality (hate reality);

This exchange at a social occasion struck me as particularly entertaining:

So at the liquor tray near which I’m standing demurely in a pink bow tie given me by Bill Inge, Jack Kerouac approaches and, with a twick, undoes the tie, saying, ‘You’re a doll." "So are you." "Yes, but I like girls." "Well, that’s your problem."

Music and Artistic Creation

"Music is a mystery. To understand music is to love it less."

"Works of art do change; not because we become more intelligent but because we grow older."

"A composer isn’t necessarily profounder than 'real' people, but what profundity he does have he necessarily communicates."

On the value of the rough draft:

A first impression or sweet recollection can be wrecked by reworking...A ballet rehearsed on an empty stage, an unfinished poem, seem often more expressive than a final product, for in them we perceive the honest labor procedures which artists later hide.

One of the most interesting passages about Ned Rorem's own work concerns Leonard Bernstein’s conducting of the world premiere of Mr. Rorem’s Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. The composer talks of hearing sounds he hadn’t known he’d placed there. A critic, Mr. Rorem notes, wrote that it was all about being young and loving it, whereas the symphony was actually composed as a lament for a lost love. What’s perhaps equally ironic is the fact that the first rehearsal under Maestro Bernstein coincided precisely with Mr. Rorem’s appointment for an interview with a government official about having his Unemployment Insurance renewed.

On Himself

Some of these observations remind me of the kind of searing honesty -- the ability to stand back and look at oneself with ruthless skepticism -- that I first encountered in Markings, the published diaries of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjld.

"As always, I was terribly flattered, but affected a matter-of-factness, which, if I could see it from afar, I would find despicable...."

A friend of his, says Mr. Rorem, tells him that "superficially I strike him as everything a good mother would not want her son to grow up to be!"

"It’s not that I’m more self-involved than other people, I’m just more free about showing it. Exhibitionist: that has the ring of a dirty word. Yet an artist is an exhibitionist by definition, and an artist cannot be dirty." And: "I am less sure of myself than most, but I admit what others hide."

Looking back on the satisfactions of his life, having got mostly what he wanted: "...from the very start I was a spoiled child..." And: "I have nevertheless always had my cake and eaten it."

When people ask me if psychoanalysis did me "any good," I say: "How can I know really? Since I was a year older at the end." Was it analysis or the passing weeks that changed me (if I changed)? I’m a new person with different problems every day.

"I drank [at sixteen] to be grown-up – and the word alcoholic had a ring of glamour; I wanted any and all to know I drank: it was 'interesting,' romantic to be a lush!"

"Write a piece containing as much as possible of the hate I have for the world, for you, all you, of how alone I feel, how alone, yet how the aloneness will not be reduced by being less hateful."

About a dubious encounter in a bar: "Now I ask you, is this the proper company for America’s tenth most-played composer?"

One aspect of Mr. Rorem’s self-involvement has to do with the question of his appearance. We probably all care more about our looks than we're willing to admit. So it's not often that you get the published thoughts of a man – or a woman for that matter – about the fact that he or she is considered very good looking. If the photos of the era, are to believed, Mr. Rorem was: statuesque, with well-chiselled features, magnificent skin and a luxuriant head of wavy hair that topped him off in splendid fashion.

"Appearance has never fundamentally helped me. Those who have been most useful are people I’ve never met."

How, sometimes, could I not compare myself to some god come down to earth when I look at those about me? Suppose it were true but that the knowledge for some reason were denied me: would this keep me from suffering any the less in a contest for my life? Is the trial of a god like any other when the judges are blind?

"My latest affectation is to leave my hair its natural color."

This, in his early thirties, when he feels that he’s getting too old to be attractive: "People don’t turn to look at me as much as they used to."

On Diaries

While the somewhat scatter-shot style of the writing can occasionally make it hard to follow the train of thought in these journals, excerpts like the following help a reader to accept such stylistic idiosyncracies:

A diary has impact only through the accumulation of unlimited observations (of which many are obsessive and recurring), never through the development of themes (for then it would no longer be a diary). Works of art must have a plan; beginnings and ends. A diary necessarily has no form beyond the accidental one of improvisation; hence, though it cannot be a work of art (improvisation precludes this), perhaps it can be a masterpiece.

...I began this diary devoted in part to musical notations, in part to alcoholic reporting on hallucinations and all they imply. Now the word, once written, is infallible to the gullible, and I felt, with depressed reasoning, that I could allow anything so long as it was in systematic narration. This started a period of self-indulgence maintained here ever since.

And why do I keep on writing this journal? Probably nobody else will ever read it, and when I do there is no chronology to keep interest nor have ideas been helpfully clarified

Fine writing

Any quibbles about Mr. Rorem’s writerly abilities, however, fade to nothing when you’re confronted with passages like the following. The first one comes as Mr. Rorem’s response to what he calls the "old romantic banality" that fear drives everything, that birth is a traumatic shock:

What of the frisking newborn colt? Or the throbbing cocoon from which a near-finished butterfly strives to emerge, a tiny rainbow, and fly far off? Or the mass of eggs bursting together into the yellow contentment of perfect chicks? Maybe the infant makes a screech of joy from his successful effort to escape the black unfragrant womb. In all the universe natural life seeks light. The joys of being born.

Then there are these dazzling descriptions of spring in two cities:

Paris for a week has become radiant in an early spring; we can walk out in shirtsleeves, buds seem to spurt shiny before our eyes, and we too in the vernal jerking feel we’re being born again – a terrible urge to say the same old words of love, but to new people.

Still ill as a dog, sinus infection, high fever, wandering about watching the quick flame of spring fertilize Manhattan, which bursts each moment into hot emeralds, all suddenly more close and precious, as always, now that I’m so soon leaving. The great heats, jonquil orgies on Park Avenue, and Central Park’s again a cathedral of green lace over croaking kids and whining frogs in crocuses which strike at the heart like rattlesnakes, and the sky has a cloudless yellow smile as I’ve grown fond of someone who aches at my leaving and will be glad when I return next fall.

As for Mr. Rorem’s elaborate description of a gay steam bath in Manhattan – like one of the lowest cauldrons of a Dante-esque inferno – all I can say is that it’s a good thing word didn’t reach Southwestern Ontario back in the 1950s that this is how refined, cultured men spent their time. Many a small town mother would have done everything possible to steer her son away from a life in the arts rather than propelling him fondly in that direction. Same could be said about the possible repercussions of Mr. Rorem’s account of a mescaline trip:

....the effects increased and were not all pleasant. Manmade insertions into this scene were outrageous: a slash of paint on bark, a bridge, strips of barbed wire seemed contradictory as death. Autos on the landscape were ridiculous, even indecent: all human indication was a blotch of blood. Blood everywhere: the wooden fence was a tree skinned alive, and a poplar whose low branches had been hacked off seemed really to gasp. Nature weeps, and though vegetation is not human we experience the lacerations of fruit or leaf as though they were ours. For all outdoors is flesh, even the wind.

Love and Sex

While Mr. Rorem professes to believe that a diary can’t be a work of art, his diary abounds with plenty of the narrative momentum of a novel. For instance, there are his repeated attempts to get with the Alcoholics Anonymous program. You keep wondering if it’s going to work for him. As with most novels, though, the main thrust has to do with the pursuit of love. At one point, for instance, it’s beguiling – in a way that Mr. Rorem probably never expected it would be – to watch him trying, like an eager kid, to learn Italian for the sake of a new Italian boyfriend.

Two telling vignettes hint at what Mr. Rorem might accomplish in the short story genre:

Two lovers (desperately, intimately in love), on saying good-bye in the morning make a date for that evening. But during the day they unexpectedly meet on the street. What can they say to each other now? What, out in the busy world where both are pressed for time?

On the Boulevard des Batignolles last Sunday night was a bicyclist who (walking) turned three times to look at me, then vanished. For my part this was a love I will never forget. Unhad love is sweeter.

Some of the most striking comments on the subject of romance:

"When in love I oblige everyone else to love my lover too, and hate them for it."

"Like god, made in our image, we endow those we love with imagined timeless qualities which they neither possess nor (usually) want us to think they possess."

"I’m the image of love, not the thing itself, and can’t be slept with more than statues, though one takes statues to bed with faces impassive and shoulders stony."

I grow confounded by the intimacy of such acts where two bodies strive so tragically to be one, and the empty-stranger post-orgasm abyss. It happened last night: the frenzied pathetic joy of a child before his birthday cake, followed by the tears of abandonment when the last guest is gone. I’m ready for the calm assurance of a single person, the thatched hut, a cabbage patch.

This to a former lover: "You never especially pleased me physically, love seldom can."

In fact, it’s a long diatribe directed at an ex-lover that forms the hot central core of this volume of the published diaries:

It’s the first morning of spring and I wish I were dead. Got up at noon to see a sticky sky and one season leaking into the next as though the earth had stopped in its tracks, as though the hate and veneration which ooze into love were an eternal repetition of those tears which won’t stop flowing, not to purify, but to insult the mud. Oh, I’ll get over it! Meanwhile nights are sleepless or if I drop off it’s to a recurrent dream in which you take me back, and I’m filled with joy, and wake up to the hard truth that everything’s over and done, done, done, and the day’s started hopelessly like yesterday, like last week and the week before. Sexual tension’s been horrible: there may be pleasure with others, but they don’t exist when I think of what I liked from you, and you in me, and I catch fire and can’t put it out.

Fickle as fairies who break each other’s hearts more easily than peasants twist geese necks..... You must never learn how indispensable, irreplaceable you’ve become, how I seek you in nightmares, and by day pitifully in the features of others, in wet places, bars somber and stuffed, or rainy streets or public baths, bottles of gin, or slimy mouths offered risibly. You resent what I’ve been able to keep of you in me, the you of yesterday who is no more and whom you’ve forgotten

Reading this diary is like spending long, quiet hours with a multi-faceted friend. But a friend who can be irritating. Some of Mr. Rorem’s attitudes (to handicapped people, for example) would not measure up to today’s standards of political correctness. He doesn’t, in fact, come off as a particularly nice person at all times. But who among us would, if the complete truth be told? In any case, Mr. Rorem’s candour goes a long way towards earning our respect and interest, at least it does for me, even if we can’t approve of everything he says or does. I’m quite willing to give him another hearing. So it comes as good news to know that there are lots more diaries published, along with reminiscences, letters, etc. Maybe they’ll answer the questions he was asking back in 1961: "What remains between this moment and my death? How will I grow old?" On the other hand, he may not be ready to address those matters yet, given that he’s only eighty-seven. Still, it should be fun to find out what he’s been doing while waiting to get old.

 

Nixon In China (Opera) music by John Adams; libretto by Alice Goodman; starring James Maddelena, Janis Kelly, Russell Braun, Robert Brubaker, Kathleen Kim, Richard Paul Fink; production and direction by Peter Sellars; choreography by Mark Morris; set design by Adrianne Lobel; conducted by John Adams; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, Feb 12

We’re not total stick-in-the-muds here at Dilettante’s Diary. We try to be open to new things, even new operas. (See my review of Doctor Atomic on page dated October 27/08) Hence, our interest in this, John Adams’ opera about Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. Since its debut in 1987, the opera, Mr. Adams’ first, has come to be known as the most successful contemporary opera in the repertoire. Our approach it is seasoned with a large measure of curiosity: how do you make an opera out of a political event? There’s no love story, nobody’s dying of consumption, no executions, not even any battles.

What you do have, it turns out, is a meeting of two contrasting cultures, a rapprochement between old enemies. But that runs the risk of amounting to not much more than a historical pageant – a type of spectacle that barely deserves to be called theatre, in my opinion. Granted, there’s something more than pageantry here – the characters do express emotions and inner conflicts – but the piece doesn’t go anywhere. If you think of it as a play, sans music, you see how barren the concept is, apart from themes and ideas. There’s nothing pulling the piece forward. Just a series of grand occasions.

Admittedly, Mr. Adams’ music certainly stirs up a sense of occasion. The orchestration is fascinating, provided you don’t mind the repetition of those constant rhythms: chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga. When Mr. Adams finds a phrase he likes, he rides it like a kid on one of those grocery store mechanical horses, whipping it til he runs out of quarters. The singers don’t have so much fun, though. I read an interview in which the composer said he hadn’t written for the voice before taking on this opera. That’s all too obvious. The voices rise and fall in a way that has no rhyme or reason to it. I guess this is what you might call singing for people who hate music. However, with all the affirmative action regarding disabilities these days, I suppose we should have operas that cater to the tone deaf now and then.

As in Doctor Atomic, part of the problem is the banality of the lyrics: "Did you have a nice flight?" "Yes, it went very smoo.....oooothly."* The coloratura frill on the last word makes it inane in a way that ordinary speech wouldn’t be. On the other hand, there are the long stretches of political and philosophical platitudes, as in the official meetings among the leaders. That kind of speechifying is hard enough to sit through when spoken, without having it drawn out musically to the point of great tedium. Occasionally, we get a quiet moment in which a singer has an opportunity for a thoughtful monologue with poetic touches, but none of these solos comes anywhere near the power of the John Dunne aria in Doctor Atomic.

Nevertheless, the performers in Nixon In China do what they have to do in order to earn their pay. James Maddalena shows that he’s mastered the Richard Nixon character to perfection in the twenty-three years that he’s been playing it. We get the social awkwardness, the forced bonhomie, and the insecurity underlying the braggadocio. Mr. Maddalena’s singing, however, suggests that the twenty-three year gig has run its course. The voice sounds diffuse and unfocused. Janis Kelly, as Pat Nixon, is lovely, both vocally and visually. She conveys a poignancy, an undercurrent of sadness in her character’s gracious charm. But the libretto never tells us where that plangent note is coming from. I assume, we’re supposed to have read biographies of the woman. Or maybe we’re just supposed to know about Pat’s troubles from the tabloids. That’s not good enough for a theatre piece, in my opinion. Same for Pat’s long aria in the second act. By the look on the singer’s face, the number has taken her through some sort of emotional arch, or, to use the popular jargon, she seems to have been on some sort of inner journey. But neither the music nor the words make it clear what that was all about.

In the role of Premier Chou En-lai, Canada’s Russell Braun catches the stoic melancholy of a man with one foot in the grave (the Premier was dying of pancreatic cancer). Thankfully, Mr. Braun’s singing here doesn’t have the emotive throb that often makes him sound affected; I guess the music is too strident to allow for any throbbing. To me, the best singing comes from the person we hear the least from: bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink in the role of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s right-hand-man on the China visit. Mr Fink’s voice is clear and ringing at all times.

That Kissinger role, however, highlights one of the most problematic aspects of the production. In one scene, the Nixons are forced to watch a ballet that appears to be about the abuse of a poor peasant girl by a sleazy landlord. We get some beautiful dancing here, but the scumbag tyrant is played by the Kissinger character with devilish eyebrows added. Lest there be any doubt about his identity, Pat Nixon comments: "He looks like you-know-who." What is the point of casting Mr. Kissinger in such a role? Is this supposed to reflect the fact that he didn’t rate highly with the Chinese? If so, that would be another of those historical notes that the libretto’s assuming without any explanation or clarification. What’s even more baffling about the scene is that Pat Nixon keeps trying to interrupt the ballet; she seems not to understand that the abuse depicted in the dance isn’t real. Are we supposed to believe that Pat Nixon could have been that stupid?

During that ballet scene, a dingy backdrop appears – palm trees, sand, water – that looks like something left over from a community theatre production of South Pacific. Surely the Chinese had better scenery painters in 1972? In a way, though, the tacky backdrop isn’t out of keeping with a show that boasts some of the most inept direction and stagecraft of any Met production I’ve seen. In the publicity about the opera, for instance, there’s been much hype about the arrival on stage of the jet plane bringing the Nixons to China. Fine, I’m thinking, it will glide in from the wings and we’ll be able to imagine that it’s rolling up to the stairs the Nixons will descend. But no – the plane drops straight down out of the sky like a dirigible. Admittedly, much of the production is more stylized than realistic. Is this plane drop, then, supposed to make the Nixons look like messengers from on high? To me, it makes them look dorky.

Further gaffs: we get a couple of scenes, supposedly in the Nixons’ hotel room, where a bed is placed at the footlights. Because the front curtain is down, somebody needs to lift a corner of it so that the actors can come on, at which point we get a glimpse of the goings-on behind the curtain. During one soundless lull between scenes, the camera lets us watch stage hands arranging chairs behind the curtain, presumably because there’s nothing else to focus on. At another point, Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim) comes out in front of the dropped curtain. She struts and grimaces and mugs for a minute or so – to no purpose, as far as I can see, other than to fill a gap between scenes.

Maybe this off-kilter aspect of much of the show explains why the elderly couple next to me were laughing at lots of things that probably weren't meant as comedy: Mao tottering in with the help of his three female assistants, Pat Nixon wolfing down pills. Irritating as the laughter was, maybe it was as reasonable a reaction as any to the goings-on. Take those three gals attached to Mao. In spite of their grim expressions, their blunt haircuts and their ugly uniforms, I couldn’t get the Mikado’s "Three Little Girls from School" out of my mind. Even so, if this were a rinky-dink production by the music department in some state college, I’d take it as a brave experiment, a worthy project, if not a successful opera. But to have so much expense lavished on it by North America’s premier opera company? To have everybody interviewed during the intermissions patting each other on the back and congratulating themselves on being involved in a "masterpiece"? I don’t get it.

Except for the final act – sort of. Everybody’s staring into the abyss now. Clearly, the existential angst is reaching the boiling point – even if the contexts of the various interactions are inexplicable. Richard Nixon, for some reason or other, is pestering Pat with his war memories which, she keeps reminding him, he’s already recounted to her. Madame Mao seems to be trying to re-live her romantic moments with the Chairman. He (Robert Brubaker), although previously so frail that he can hardly walk, has suddenly become a randy old goat who’s apparently trying for one last screw. Premier Chou En-lai is wistfully wondering how history will look back on it all. It feels like the conclusion of an opera. If only we’d had one.

* Not an exact quote. We didn’t have pen and paper handy.

 

The Fighter (Movie) written by Keith Dorrington, Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasay; directed by David O. Russell; starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo; with Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee

I grew up believing that nice boys don’t fight. From which it follows that nice boys don’t watch not-so-nice boys fighting. With the result that I am now the type who shuts his eyes when somebody’s about to land a punch. Add to that the fact that the wild gyrations of a hand-held camera in a movie like this force me to keep my eyes closed for long stretches by way of fighting off nausea, and you may come to the conclusion that....

I’m not the best critic for this movie.

Still, here’s what I made of it.

You have Micky Ward, a real-life boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts, about thirty years old in the early 1990s. As Micky hasn’t been winning many fights lately, he makes his living on a crew paving roads. Micky’s trainer is his older brother, Dicky, who used to be the pride of Lowell, in that he once knocked down the famous Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight. Dicky’s deluded enough to think that a film crew following him around is making a movie about his supposed comeback. Actually, they’re making a documentary about his crack addition.

That's why some people think maybe Dicky isn’t the best trainer for little bro. They’re offering Micky a steady salary to train with somebody else. Given that Alice, Dicky and Micky’s mom, acts as Micky’s manager, she’s furious about this proposal. Micky's feisty girlfriend Charlene throws her opinion into the pot too. Everybody’s trying to convince Micky that everybody else is using him to their own advantage.

These people would make your head spin even without a hand-held camera. Let’s say they’re not the kind of east coasters you read about in John Updike. Not much discussion of art and fine wines. But lots of swearing and smoking and drinking beer. Dicky, a stoner with manic energy and a goofy grin, keeps jumping out of the second-storey of his favourite crack house when Alice comes looking for him. Although she’s a scrawny broad, Alice seems to be gifted with her own kind of energy: she’s produced a passel of blonde daughters – about seven of them. Rather an unwieldy premise in terms of scripting, but I guess that’s the trouble when you’re dealing with real-life situations. It’s not clear what these young women do except file into the living room and take positions on the couch where they comment on their brothers’ activities like a Greek chorus. Or cheerleaders. One thing is clear about this household, though: there’s a whole lotta back-combing goin’ on.

As Dicky, Christian Bale is probably clinching the Academy Award that he’s been nominated for. [See our overview of the nominations, Aspects of Academy Awards,  on the Feb 7/11 page.] It’s the kind of bravura, in-your-face acting that, to my taste, comes too close to the Daniel Day Lewis school of theatrics, i.e. too much acting. But that’s what impresses some people who seem to think they know a thing or two about the business – the Academy members, for example. Which is also why Amy Adams, as Charlene, will likely get the nod for best actress in a supporting role. She’s so different here from the way she is in her sweet, innocent roles. Even I found her performance here – all lip and attitude – something of a relief after her attempt at a guileless young nun in Doubt (see my review page dated Dec 24/08). Still, those big, corn-flower-blue eyes keep telling me that she can’t really be as tough as she wants to seem. Mellisa Leo, as Alice, certainly deserves her nomination for the dynamism and drive that she brings to the role of the mom-manager. You don’t often get to use the word ‘termagant’ but I think that’s a fair description of the person Ms. Leo gives us. However, I think the Oscar’s more likely to go to Ms. Adams because she’s about due for it now. My only complaint about the nominations, in terms of this movie, would be the omission from the list of Mark Wahlberg as Micky. With all the strenuous acting going on around him, he provides a welcome oasis of calm and normalcy whenever the camera turns to him.

His character's dilemma about whether to go with the fancy promoters or to stay loyal to his bro makes for a good drama. Brother-brother conflicts always do. I seem to recall some writer who had a huge hit with some such story featuring two guys named Cain and Abel. But once Micky comes to some sort of resolution of the brother problem, The Fighter turns into a typical quest-for-the-title saga. It’s entertaining if you want to see Rocky yet again. But you don’t come away feeling that you’ve seen or heard anything about life that you hadn’t seen and heard many times before. However, if you close your eyes during the fights, like me, you might learn something about movie-making. Don’t take my word for it, but I suspect the sound effects are a teensy bit exaggerated. Every punch sounds like a cement truck smashing into a concrete wall at top speed.

Rating: D (For "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com