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Aug 11/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they 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: Crazy, Stupid Love (Movie); Must You Go? (Memoir); Asleep in the Lord and Home (Short Fiction); Abstract Expressionist (Art); Haute Culture: General Idea (Art) What Have You Done? (Short Fiction); God's Blog (Humour); Talk of the Town (Video);

Crazy, Stupid Love (Movie) written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Marisa Tomei; with John Carroll Lynch, Kevin Bacon, Liza Lapira, Beth Littleford, Joey King, Josh Groban

A married couple, played by Steve Carell and Julianne Moore, are sitting in a restaurant, trying to decide what they want for dessert. Ms. Moore suddenly announces that what she wants is a divorce. Mr. Carell decides to move out of the home immediately. In a singles bar, he encounters Ryan Gosling. Problem with Mr. Carell, according to Mr. Gosling, is that he’s lost his manliness. Mr. Gosling kindly offers to make him over. There follows a crash course in studly behaviour and wardrobe. What life’s all about, Mr. Carell discovers, is the right hair-do, the right shoes, the right pick-up line and the right ending to every evening – getting laid with a new woman.

This pairing of the cool dude and the nerd is such a common comic theme that a really brainy critic should be able to cite lots of examples. (Apart from my not being brainy enough, I figure you can come up with your own.) So we know the premise works. But the scenario as played out here is so obnoxiously vapid and empty that you can’t help wondering: Is this supposed to be a parody of the singles scene? Nobody could live this superficially. And yet, Mr. Gosling is so attractive, charming and smart that he always scores. It looks as though this is supposed to be for real. No irony intended.

As if that isn’t grating enough, there’s a subplot where a seventeen-year-old babysitter stumbles on a thirteen-year-old boy masturbating. He apologizes for letting her find him in flagrante, then tries to put things right by confessing that thoughts of her were fuelling his frenzy.Yikes! You’re beginning to think this movie isn’t going to do anything but rub your nose in stuff you don’t want any part of.

Silly you. You should know that, this being a Hollywood comedy, it’s bound to fall back on the wholesome and conventional values that the industry has always held closest to its heart. Fear not, notions of soulmates, romance, love and truth to self will prevail.

All of which could be terribly depressing – except that the script’s loaded with clever switcheroos, reversals and surprises. Things get so complicated at times that it wouldn’t be going too far to say that you hear echoes of some of the comic situations in the work of a playwright who had a certain knack for that sort of thing, one William Shakespeare. In one climactic scene of the movie, however, where nearly all the major characters converge chaotically, what comes to mind is one of those classic bedroom farces.

Some outstanding scenes in a less frantic mode would include the one where Mr. Gosling’s evening with the woman played by Emma Stone takes a very different turn from his usual one-night-stand. And one of the final scenes between Mr. Gosling and Mr. Carell, where they confront each other at a bar, could well stand as an example of superlative acting for study by all young practitioners of the art. But the best scene has to be the one that has something to do with the pilot light for the furnace in Mr. Carell’s and Ms. Moore’s home. To say anymore than that about the specifics would spoil it for you, but you can take it from me that it may be one of the most touching and original scenes in any movie that’s making the rounds these days.

Among the other attractions of Crazy, Stupid Love, some really good lines include this one, when a woman first sees her date’s bare torso: "You look like you’ve been photoshopped." And this one from cool cat to nerd: "I don’t know whether to help you or euthanize you." But, most of all, there’s the acting. Mr. Carell has a way of running through a rant but dropping in a zinger right from the heart that stuns you with its emotional honesty. The thirteen-year old boy and the older baby-sitter, although I don’t love their unsavoury situation, are very well incarnated by Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. It’s especially satisfying, in the case of Ms. Tipton, to see a teenage female who’s a real person, instead of your typical movie bimbo. Marisa Tomei gets to cut loose in a way that makes good use of her age, with a result that’s more enjoyable than her work in some more serious roles. In the least sympathetic role, Kevin Bacon serves up just enough ambiguity to make him seem like somebody you might know. Even Julianne Moore, whom I often find uninteresting in a blah, disaffected way, warms up considerably as things progress and becomes – surprise! – likeable.

Capsule Comment: Lots of fun if you can get through the off-putting setup.

 

Must You Go? (Memoir) by Antonia Fraser, 2010

The title quotes Harold Pinter’s question to Lady Antonia Fraser at a public event. She’d approached the celebrated playwright for a few words. When she tried to take her leave of him and return to her life with her husband and kids, he asked the fateful question. She decided immediate departure wasn’t required after all, sat down and enjoyed a tete-a-tete which led to their affair and their life together for some thirty-three years, until his death in 2008.

Before picking up this book from the "fast read" shelf at the public library, I’d passed on it several times. I’d enjoyed Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Lady Antonia on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company, but the Bolshie in me wasn’t all that keen on delving any further into the privileged lives of these aristocrats of the British literati. On the other hand, Lady Antonia’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey was one of the best biographies I’d ever read. (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page Jan 24/07.) Her book about the love life of Louis XIV was very entertaining too. (Review on DD page Summer Reading 2010.) As for Mr. Pinter, the fact that he won the 2005 Nobel prize for literature didn’t necessarily mean that he was beneath my notice.

Still, this book about the two of them presented some hurdles for me to get over. First, there’s the fact that it's littered with names that may not be familiar to a North American reader who isn’t particularly up to date on all the celebrities in Britain’s world of theatre, literature, film, politics, etc. You miss a lot of the impact of the stories for not being able to identify the people involved. Same with Lady Antonia’s kids. They’re never officially identified; you have to gradually figure out who they are. But the drawback of the book that disappointed me more was the fact that it’s based on Lady Antonia’s diaries. Thus, you get snippets with, now and then, a few explanatory paragraphs that have been added after the fact. Not perfect conditions for a smooth, continuous reading experience, or what they call a "good read".

Still, the book does exert a certain fascination. Not least among its attractions, even for those of us who consider ourselves immune to the lure of common gossip, are the cameos of the famous people. (The Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, to cite just a few.) One anecdote actually plays against the fame of Lady Antonia’s celebrated partnership. When lunching with a distinguished French scholar who was enabling her research on one of her books, Lady Antonia introduced Mr. Pinter simply as "mon mari" (my husband). At the end of the meal, the professor asked the husband’s profession. Then came the question: "And are your plays performed?"

In spite of the fragmentary nature of these entries, some elements – not quite plots – help to provide narrative momentum. The most frequently recurring one is the development of the many books, plays and films that the two authors are involved with: the initial inspiration, then the writing, the plans for production or publication, ultimately the presentation of the finished work to the public and the critical reaction. Another on-going theme is the response of the writers’ parents to the (initially) adulterous Pinter/Fraser relationship: guarded at first, if not downright chilly, gradual mellowing, then fully accepting. There’s also the matter of what might be called the drama of conscience, as Lady Antonia grapples her Catholic guilt. It’s finally resolved when, both their first spouses having died, the couple is free to be married validly in a Catholic ceremony. And, towards the end of the book, there’s the gripping matter of Mr. Pinter’s precipitously declining health and his heroic battle to carry on.

Lady Antonia gives hubby full marks for his courage on that front but she downplays what some people saw as bravery in his political outspokenness, most notably felt worldwide in his 2005 Nobel acceptance speech that excoriated the US and Britain for their action in Iraq. His readiness to voice his left-wing views didn’t take all that much balls, apparently, because the guy loved upsetting people. Lady Antonia makes the point, though, that he wasn’t at all confrontational in the domestic milieu. Many a well-known man, she notes, is referred to as a street angel/house devil: suave and charming in public but a bully at home. Mr. Pinter was the reverse, she says.

But don’t look to this book for deep insights into the man or his work. Or into Lady Antonia and her work, for that matter. She comes across as an intelligent, educated and genteel English lady who responds to most situations with the concern, empathy and good humour you’d expect of such a woman. In her diaries, at least as excerpted here, you won’t find any of the searing insight, the startling philosophical observations of, say, the diaries of composer Ned Rorem (see review of The Paris and New York Diaries on DD page Feb 23/11.) While she’s honest about the ups and downs of her marriage to Mr. Pinter, there are some glaring omissions. What about the effect of her divorce on her six children? You’d think that would have been a major consideration when it came to breaking up her marriage to the Tory MP, Sir Hugh Fraser. But there’s no mention of any such worry. Maybe that was just too painful to write about. Or maybe, as a protective parent, she felt that the children’s feelings about it should not be exposed to public scrutiny.

As for omissions of more mundane matters, there’s the question of housekeeping. In the account of all her years with Mr. Pinter, there’s never a mention of anybody preparing meals. Are we to assume that there were employees scurrying behind the scenes? Maybe the fact that no mention is made of such things means that Lady Antonia takes it for granted that everybody lives that way. Which shows that the rich and famous really are different from you and me. Another thing that brings that to mind is the mention of Mr. Pinter’s love affairs while married to his first wife, the actress Vivien Merchant. All through these dalliances, we’re told, he would never have considered "breaking" his marriage. Makes you remember that we’re dealing here with people who aren’t far removed, chronologically, geographically and, perhaps, psychologically, from that Bloomsbury group where you had artsy couples swearing unfailing devotion and loyalty to their spouses – with whom they never had sex; that was for other liaisons.

Not to suggest that any such extra-marital entertainment was going on once Mr. Pinter had married Lady Antonia. Their life together, as told by her, reads like one of the great love stories of recent times, what with all the amorous poetry and the frequent professions of undying devotion. (I always wonder whether older couples who carry on that way aren’t playing a bit at being in love, but if it feels real to them, who am I to say it ain’t?) The all-pervasive aroma of romance doesn’t, however, mean that the two lovers were cocooned from the hard realities of life in the outside world. Lady Antonia, as British head of PEN, campaigned for the rights of writers world wide. She and Mr. Pinter offered their house for a secret meeting between Salmon Rushdie and his family in the early scary days of the fatwah against him. The couple’s politics made them plenty of enemies. Witness the time that a box of Lady Antonia’s books once arrived at her door from the US. Thinking signatures were wanted, she asked who the signatures should be addressed to. The answer came back that the sender didn’t want the books autographed; rather, the sender refused to have them in her house any longer because of Lady Antonia’s letter in the Guardian opposing George W. Bush.

But even if Lady Antonia’s and Mr. Pinter’s lives did have a certain charmed quality, so what? The world inevitably produces celebrities, glittering success stories, creative artists in one genre or another who become rich and famous. Lady Antonia and Mr. Pinter both often reflected on how lucky and blessed they were. If it hadn’t been they who had risen to the top of the heap, it would have been somebody else, and we would be reading now about those people. Presumably, their lives would have been as interesting as Mr. Pinter’s and Lady Antonia’s. Given, however, that she and he were the ones who did live it all, and did so splendidly, the most suitable response on our part, it seems to me, is gratitude to her for sharing it with us so generously.

 

Some Recent New Yorker Gems:

Asleep In the Lord (Short Fiction) by Jeffrey Eugenides (June 13, 2011)

We’re at Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta, where a young man from Michigan has come to work and to try to sort out his attitudes to things like poverty, sickness, justice and faith. For the most part, he seems pretty ambivalent, if not downright diffident, though never unsympathetic. But he does eventually take an action that says something about principles that really matter to him. The thing that most interests me about the story, though, is the fact that it appears in the New Yorker. While there’s no reason to assume that the story’s autobiographical, Mother T’s establishment and the procedures therein are described in such realistic detail that you can’t help getting the distinct impression that author Jeffrey Eugenides must have spent some time there in a volunteer capacity. It intrigues me to think of one of the New Yorker writers pottering around such a place and grappling with the kinds of thoughts that this guy does. Not exactly the way we picture those East Coast sophisticates, is it? (Yeah, I know Mr. Eugenides was born in Detroit. But he was educated at Brown and Stanford and he now teaches at Princeton.)

 

Home (Short Fiction) by George Saunders (June 13, 2011)

How to explain in a few sentences what makes this story so exceptional? On the surface, it’s simple and direct; the prose is plain and unadorned. The narrative is straight forward. And yet, there’s so much rumbling under the surface. (The only model I can think of is Raymond Carver.) A US soldier has returned from the war to his family. His mom, who might well be the personification of "white trash," is hilarious in her off-the-wall comments, but there’s something desperate about her. She’s constantly sparring with her latest live-in boyfriend and she’s about to be evicted from her house. Meanwhile, the soldier’s sister has moved up in the world by means of her marriage but she doesn’t trust our man with her baby. His ex-wife has also done much better for herself with her second marriage, but her husband condescends to him and makes it difficult for him to see his kids. Not that our friend is a saint. We gradually twig to the fact that he’s left some nasty stuff in his wake. Some aspects of contemporary life seem to baffle him but he can floor you with amazingly insightful observations about what’s going down. The underlying feeling is that life isn’t working out the way it’s supposed to. You get the impression that he’s just barely able to control his temper and steer a steady course. Watching his attempt breaks your heart.

 

Abstract Expressionist (Art) Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, until September 4th.

Folks are flocking to the Abstract Expressionist show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. You might wonder whether you need to join them. If you cared that much about some artists who had their heyday about fifty years ago, you could zip down to New York to see their works at the MOMA. Besides, the reproductions of many of the works are so ubiquitous that you might not feel there’s any point in seeing the originals.

But there is. Having them all together, right here in our midst – these works that had so much to do with the development of art in the latter part of the twentieth century – can give you a certain buzz. If you have the good luck to avoid the spiel’s of the docents and if you can ignore most of the platitudinous bumpf that tells you what you’re supposed to think, then you might be able to have a rewarding encounter with these paintings.

Which is not to say that all of them deliver mega-thrills, not for me, anyway. Certain kinds of art represented here don’t please me at all. Mostly, those are the paintings with lots of busy work crammed into the frame, all kinds of frenetic scribbling and doodling. They remind me too much of the "Where’s Waldo" illustrations from kids’ books – as though you’re supposed to get your pleasure from searching through the maze to try to find something. I prefer paintings that make one simple statement, boldly and clearly. That generally excludes paintings based on patterns of figures. And paintings that include a lot of symbolic detail, with a result that looks something like Egyptian hieroglyphics. (Most of the so-called drawings in the show repelled me for this reason, with the exception of Philip Gaston’s spare black lines suggesting something like a spider hovering over its prey, and Robert Motherwell’s yellow vertical stripes with a red horizontal bar on a pale background.)

Not for me the kind of canvas that wants you to puzzle over each little squiggle to try to figure out what it means. Or to enter into some sci-fi fantasy. That’s why I don’t like a lot of the earlier work of the artists here, the stuff from the 1940s. It looks too much like Picasso. Not that anybody could blame emerging artists back in the day for coming under his influence, but its an influence that doesn’t help to make their work stand out on its own. All those divided figures, split personalities, scrambled identities of both people and things – it’s all too cerebral, too clever for me, too "message-y".

To jump, then, to some of the work that does it for me in this show –  Franz Kline's paintings. Those dramatic black scrawls on white backgrounds – they grab my attention from across the room and keep me hooked. A somewhat similar effect, but in a calmer, more contemplative way, comes from the large rectangles of colour that Mark Rothko places on the canvas very carefully. Given the prominence of those paintings in our culture, I was pleasantly surprised by a painting of Mr. Rothko’s in a very different mode – large, blurry, pale shapes that vaguely suggest a street scene. I also like the forward motion of the big black blobs in Robert Motherwell’s "Elegy to the Spanish Republic – 108" (and in the similar but much smaller ink work hanging nearby). Clifford Still’s huge black canvases, with just a few ripples of earthy colours flowing across the top and/or down the sides, have a similarly minimalist effect. Speaking of which, Barnett Newman’s works – in which, for example, you might get just one colour with a stripe of another colour down the middle – strike me as a little too simple, too coy and pleased with themselves, but I suppose you have to grant that they do stir up the question of what’s art and what’s not.

One of the paintings that doesn't appear to raise any such doubts, in fact it's a crowd pleasure, is Joan Mitchell’s "Ladybug", said to be a personal response to nature. No question that the joyful scramble of delicious colours lifts the spirits. Not sure that the same could be said for Helen Frankenthaler’s "Jacob’s Ladder", in spite of its exuberant, splashy style. To me, it’s too diffuse and pale to say anything much. More or less the opposite problem comes up in the painting by another woman artist. Lee Krasner’s "Gaea" – a series of lurid, pinkish-reddish things splayed across a vast canvas, makes you shudder with its hint of dismembered body parts. Maybe it can be seen as a protest against the objectification of women in media?

But there’s no consolation for feminists in Willem De Kooning’s hideous caricature "Woman 1." About all you can say at first glance is that the guy certainly vented his rage at the female physique and persona. And yet, further looking might make you wonder about the possible significance in the very limited use of colour at certain spots in the painting, most of them far from the focal point. Another of Mr. De Kooning’s works, a study in black and white shapes that fit together rather like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, has a decidedly more benign feel to it, in a design-y way. But the painting of his that really pulls me in is "A Tree in Naples": sweeping strokes of different blues, with some touches of rust, pink and flesh tones. As you look into the painting, you begin to see curtains and waves, all moving and restless, undeniably expressive – of something or other.

By way of education – surely one of the AGO’s mandates – it’s interesting to see how photography was influenced by abstract expressionism. Thus Aaron Siskind’s close up of peeling paint (1950) and his rocks on Martha’s Vineyard (1954), a stark composition that has much the striking effect of one of Franz Kline’s paintings. Harry Callahan’s 1948 photograph in his "Chicago" series shows lighted windows superimposed on each other and overlapping against a dark background in a way that takes photography far from literal representation and closer to the work of the abstract expressionist painters.

What about Jackson Pollock, probably the one who is very nearly a household word? Surprisingly, it's only his "Easter and the Totem" that says anything much to me. A 1953 work, it’s comprised of interesting longitudinal shapes intersected by vaguely organic-looking stuff. As for one of the more famous "drip" paintings, the yucky white snakes of paint are piled so thick in his "White Night" that they make you want to gag at first sight. Later, though, you might appreciate the playful effect of bits of yellow peeking through the layers. And I suppose you have to admit that somebody had to take the step of seeing whether you could use paint to create, in effect, a three-dimensional sculpture.

That feeling that "somebody had to do it" also came to mind regarding a couple of Philip Guston’s canvases. You know the kind of thinking: if we didn’t have artists to do these crazy things, who would? Witness two of Mr. Guston’s paintings: one a mess of slimy grey with a couple of darker slimy grey patches superimposed; the other a mess of slimy grey with a black-ish patch superimposed. Both paintings have pink peaking out around the edges. It’s the kind of painting that makes people protest that their grandkid could do better. Does it become art, then, just because a recognized "artist" did it and hung it in a gallery? Is it just another example of an artist seeing if he can get away with something? Maybe. But it could be about other things. Like the greasy, malleable quality of paint. That came to me in noticing how the white that's one of the components of the grey sometimes shows through. Maybe the artist is saying: Hey, guys, isn’t it great the way paint works, the way it mixes and blends!

Whether you buy that or not, there’s no question that another of Mr. Guston’s paintings conveys a kind of beauty that’s much closer to conventional tastes. Composed of mostly crimson strokes, with a touch of green here and there, and a kind of celestial background, it could easily wear a title something like "Reverie at Sunset over the Lagoon at St. Mark’s, Venice." Not that Mr. Guston would likely have welcomed any such specific association attached to his painting. In fact, you get some idea of how very unconventional his attitude was in this quote from him: "I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting." A statement like that makes me want to grapple an artist to my soul with hoops of steel.

 

Haute Culture: General Idea, A Retrospective (Art) Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, until January 1, 2012

So much for the big US stars on the international art scene of the last century. Canada’s own General Idea, a collective consisting of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and A.A. Bronson, was stirring things up in its own way from the 1960s to the 1990s and was credited with achieving something of a presence on the world stage. Necessarily, the group’s output ceased in 1994, when Mr. Partz and Mr. Zontal died of AIDS. And now the Art Gallery of Ontario is giving us a chance, with this retrospective, to decide for ourselves what to make of them. (And it also appears that the AGO is patting itself on the back for taking them seriously when nobody else considered them anything but sophomoric renegades.) Do we salute those guys now for having achieved that particularly twentieth-century dream of making themselves famous by being outrageous? Or can we now find some lasting artistic merit in their antics?

Hmmmm.....

The trouble is that, to get a fair take on this show – spreading over the fourth and fifth floors of the AGO – you have to stop and read a lot of explanatory material. Practically every exhibit or installation comes with voluminous documentation, some of it provided by the AGO, but much of it incorporated into the works by the artists. Without taking on all this written material, you can’t appreciate in full what the guys were doing. But who of us can spend that much time poring over text? It would take nearly a day. So we’re going to have to make do here with impressions based on considerably less study.

We all know that General Idea was cocking a snoot (as the saying goes) at Society. And maybe the first syllable in the gerund used in that term has special relevance, in that so much of the material has homo-erotic implications. For instance, photos of male genitals, shown through triangles cut in paper, have messages scrawled under them. One text has something to do with a boy wanting to grow up to be like his dad. I kinda get the idea, but the relevance of the triangle, a motif in much of General Idea's work, eludes me. Apparently, it was supposed to have something to do with gay threesomes.

Ditto, the many works featuring three poodles. I get that the artists often pictured themselves as these dogs. Maybe it has something to do with the pampered, cosseted sense of these canines in our society. Not that the artists would have thought of themselves that way, I’m guessing, but that they figured this was the way we saw them. However, the large cartoon-ish paintings of three poodles conjoined in various ways, in luminous fluorescent colours on black backgrounds, don’t offer much more than a pop-art effect that gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Possibly of more interest is the installation featuring three life-sized (artificial) poodles in a barn. Straw is strewn around and there’s a bucket beside each poodle, along with a milking stool. On a screen overhead, lights twinkle in the outline of a dog. If you read the accompanying blurb, you find out that the screen represents the sky and dogs are supposed to be studying the Canis Major constellation of stars. Meanwhile, the poodles are waiting to be milked for their artistic output. Granted, there’s a certain droll mockery in play, but the strongest thing the piece gives me to take away is the smell of the straw.

What I get from some other works is a feeling of nostalgia. Take "Double Mirror Video 1971." It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on, but it appears that you have two people standing by a seashore, behind a big mirror, with just their feet and their heads and shoulders showing. A camera on the ground is pointing at this mirror (I think) but there’s another mirror behind the camera that keeps rising and falling. The images captured on this mirror are reflected into the mirror that the camera’s focussed on. So we see the heads and shoulders of the two people rising and falling, rising and falling, while sounds of the seashore slosh on and on. For me, the video’s mainly about those early days of the technology when everybody was experimenting with the monocrhome tapes (colour wasn’t available yet for home use) to see what kooky things they could produce.

Not so light-hearted and sentimental is a display called "Evidence of Body Building." Transparencies in light boxes show separate sections of a man’s naked body that’s grooved with horizontal lines as though he had been bound in wires. Could such a thing actually have been done to a person? Or was it faked by General Idea just to get a reaction? Either way, it does. You can’t help an inward cringe when you take in those ominous black and white photos glowing with something that looks pretty much like evil.

An installation that's not so repugnant but still still formidable is the one about the pills that an AIDS patient has to take. (This installation was mentioned in my comments about a visit to the National Gallery in Ottawa on Dilettante’s Diary page June 27/10). In another striking AIDS piece, a room’s walls are covered in the letters A-I-D-S stencilled in solid Greens, Blues and Reds. (This is one of the cases where, in exception to my remarks about the Abstract Expressionist show, a piece of art based on a pattern works for me – because that’s what it is: patterned wall paper.) Some framed graphics on the walls also feature the same letters, stencilled in the same colours, with the addition of a bit of yellow. Larger posters on the wall – more of the same. The room has a somewhat conflicting effect. You’re swamped with the feeling of a plague that still threatens to overwhelm many individuals and sectors of our world; and yet there’s something so peaceful and orderly about the colours and the arrangements of the letters that you’re almost lulled into thinking everything’s going to be ok.

In a room that has a more stunning effect as you enter, the ceiling is covered with helium-filled mylar balloons crowding each other like clustering bees trying to get into their hive. Given that the skin of the balloons is a reflective chrome and that the walls of the room are all white, a row of flourescent light bulbs on the floor, shining up at the  balloons, makes for a dazzle that seems out of this world.

A far smaller, less ambitious work turns out to be one of my faves. It’s a reprint of a typical Tom Thomson painting – a northerly, woodsy scene with some dark, skeletal trees in the foreground at the edge of a body of water. All very familiar and Canadian. On the far shore of the water, however, there are three small capsules: one red, one green, one blue. They’re just standing there as if they were part of the natural scene. But they so obviously aren’t. You could imagine that they’re cocoons about to open and spill the detritus of modern life into this pristine scene. Or that they’re the artifacts of medicine and technology that we humans of today must necessarily take with us when we venture into the wild. In that, of course, we would be so unlike Tom Thomson who was famous for toughing it out in his unique way (and for losing his life in the process). Whatever the meaning of the piece, I can’t help loving it – and its creators – for daring to hint at the possible desecration of one of our most sacred national artistic icons.

 

And Still More New Yorker finds:

What Have You Done? (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus (August 8, 2011)

What’s with these New Yorker pieces about disaffected, alienated losers? Lately, they’re the stories that are knocking me for a loop. Is it just that they depict lives that seem so different from mine? And lives so different from the kind we associate with New Yorker culture? In this case, we have a forty-ish slob who returns to Cleveland for a family reunion. He hasn’t been in touch with his folks for ages. To say he’s uncomfortable around them would be like saying a vegan might be a bit uneasy visiting an abattoir. Trouble is, nobody trusts our man or believes him. Mind you, they’ve got their reasons. Which makes for major discomfort all around. You watch him trying – not very successfully – to be polite and congenial. Meanwhile, a running commentary of scathing observations about them all is going on inside him. But he’s no more contemptuous of anybody than of himself. His honesty is so brutal that it makes you cringe, but you keep reading because author Marcus convinces you that life could actually be like this for somebody out there. And your reward for hanging in is that you’ll discover some things about this guy that will surprise you.

 

God’s Blog (Humour) by Paul Simms (August 8, 2011)

The magazine’s "Shouts and Murmurs" section, while generally amusing, doesn’t often hit this high. The piece opens with just a short paragraph from the Almighty, who’s taking a break now after six days of creation. Visitors to the cite are invited to add their comments about the project. (Some of the entries would no doubt be considered blasphemous by some people, but my guess is that they’re not New Yorker readers.) It’s almost a pity to give away any of the jokes in such a short piece, but I can’t resist flagging what must be one of the best metaphysical witticisms ever. The first comment offered by a visitor to God's cite says that creation seems "like a fix for a problem that didn’t exist."

 

A Talk of the Town Story Meeting (Video)

In case readers of Dilettante’s Diary suspect that the New Yorker enjoys the status of inerrant holy writ around here, take note of this demurral. On the magazine’s website – www.newyorker.com – you’re invited to attend an editorial meeting about the Talk of the Town section. Cool! you’re thinking, it would be fun to find out how those entertaining items come about. So you open the video and you find several writers gathered around a table. But it soon becomes apparent that it’s not a real meeting; the writers are following a dorky script that has some of them coming up with corny ideas, some with winners. A scowling ogre at the head of the table passes judgement on all. Who’s he? Hendrick Hertzberg, it turns out, one of the magazine’s most distinguished writers on serious matters. But then another guy at the table jumps up and says that he himself is Hendrick Hertzberg. The two Hertzberg’s are locked in angry confrontation – when suddenly we see editor David Remnick waking up and discovering that it was all a bad dream.

What is the point? Is it to show us that this is definitely not the way the ideas for stories are generated? Maybe it’s a way of saying: come on, people, you know that we just sit down and have a reasonable discussion; there’s nothing secret or arcane about a New Yorker editorial meeting. Maybe the lousy acting is meant to underscore the joke. But it robs the writers of their dignity. The only insight you can take from the video is that even some really bad ideas occasionally survive the magazine's editorial scrutiny.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com