Dilettante's Diary

March 21/05

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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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 Reviewed here: Schultze Gets The Blues, Walk On Water and Clean (Movies), Angels In America, Anatomy of Hell and Facing Windows (DVDs); Bent (Video); Lost In Place, Ruined by Reading, The Fisher King and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch (Books); Bride and Prejudice and Ryan (Movies)

Schultze Gets The Blues (Movie)

Every now and then, I like to drop into the Carlton Theatre in downtown Toronto to see some strange movie (usually foreign) that you'd never get to see anywhere else. Sometimes, I'm glad to have seen the movie even if it wasn’t a lot of fun. Images from some of the weirder ones come to mind with a kind of satisfaction in retrospect that wasn't there in the original viewing.

With this movie, things were looking good from one of the very first scenes. Three guys are retiring from the mine where they've worked all their lives. Their buddies gather in the mine office to sing them a farewell song in three part harmony. The singing's pretty ragged, but still!

Once retired, Herr Schultze (Horst Krause) finds that the only interest in his life is playing the accordion with a traditional German music society. Suddenly, one night he hears music from the deep south of the US on his radio and he's hooked. Mind you, being a cautious German, he first makes a trip to his doctor to make sure there's nothing pathological about this change of musical taste.

As faithful followers of Dilettante's Diary will know, I sometimes complain about an actor's limited range of expression. Herr Krause's repretoire could hardly be more restricted. His face bulges so tight from all the beer and sausages that it's barely possible for him to change expression. No matter. The genius of this movie is that, as wanders from scene to scene in his stolid way, the camera provides all the emotion. It tells us everything we need to feel.

It's a long time since I've seen a movie where the camera so effectively conveys much of the story without any need of dialogue or explanation. In many scenes, the point is made entirely visually, without any dialogue at all. One favourite: a poignant dance hall scene that involves a misunderstanding and a missed opportunity.

We often get silent, lingering shots of just a kitchen table, or a windmill, or a field seen through a door. There's a Vermeer-like, contemplative quality to these moments. Not that there's any of the spic-and-span propriety of 17th century Delft here. The ambiance is pretty grungy for the most part but somehow the photography brings out the beauty of the shabby and ordinary.

Same with the people. The movie teems with interesting and real faces -- barely an actor in sight. I'll never forget the scene where elderly people glide around a dance floor with the smoothness and skill that come from years of companionship. These are surely not actors but members of a social club that the director found in some backwater. In fact they're so not professional that some of them mug for the camera and the result is charming.

The movie isn't really so much a drama -- the pace is slow and meandering -- as a series of striking vignettes. Among many memorable ones, a favourite would be the one where Schultz's doctor, confessing that he always wanted to be an opera singer, turns his back to the camera, faces the window and sings one of Cavaradossi's arias (not very well) from Tosca. Another would be Schultze's sharing a hot tub with a friendly American woman at a crummy motel. Only one scene struck a wrong note, I felt. I could not see the point of having a waitress at the local pub suddenly break into a passionate flamenco dance on a table top, complete with clicking high heels.

Eventually Schultze makes it to the US where he acquires an old boat and chugs about on what, I presume, would be the bayou. I wouldn't normally reveal that much plot but it's impossible to assess the movie fully without mentioning this. When we have Schultze wandering around his little town, inter-acting with the local characters, I think we have a scenario in which certain conflicts and issues will arise and eventually be resolved within pre-determined limits. But when the piece turns into a road adventure, everything becomes open ended, every issue is left behind as you move on to the next one. There never is any resolution; it's constant forward motion. Not that I didn’t enjoy the US scenes, with Schultze tip-toeing around, trying to learn American ways and trying, with his complete lack of English, to fit in and not be too obtrusive. It's just that the aesthetic side of me feels a bit antsy about the fact that we seem to be dealing with two different kinds of movies.

Warning: This movie attracts clutches of elderly German women who will chat in their native language and chortle over every familiar detail; it can be hard to keep your distance from them in the small Carlton auditorium.

Rating: B

Walk On Water (Movie)

The main reason I wanted to see this movie, apart from the promising previews, was that it stars Lior Ashkenazi, who appeared in the very good Israeli movie Late Marriage. In that fascinating piece, he plays a man whose parents are trying to hitch him to a sweet young thing in spite of his passionate attachment to an older, divorced woman.

Here, he plays a ruthless hitman for an organization that looks like Mossad. His assignment is to find the whereabouts of an elderly Nazi war criminal presumed to be hiding on the other side of the world. To zero in on his target, he poses as a tour guide and befriends the old man's grandson from Berlin who is visiting his sister on a kibbutz. This brings the hitman face to face with Palestinians and also immerses him in the gay world. It would be hard to say which makes him more uncomfortable. The catch is that while he is obviously one tough nut (it so happens that he is physically unable to cry), his wife recently committed suicide and his bosses are worried about him going off track emotionally.

This movie offers a lot, what with the view of life in the Middle East today and all that implies in the way of history and politics. As our "tour guide" squires the young German around Israel, there's even some of the appeal of a travelogue: the wall of the Temple, the Sea of Galilee, etc.

If there is a fault in the movie, it’s that the gritty revenge drama doesn't mix all that well with the human interest. The involvement with the young people keeps bringing up interpersonal issues that beg for further development, but the movie seems reluctant to jump in all the way. It's a bit like the hitman: keeping its emotions in check, afraid of getting too personal.

Ultimately, the movie has a surprisingly life-affirming message. Is it sentimental? Yeah. Sometimes sentiment feels good.

Rating: C

 

Clean (Movie)

There should be a warning about hand-held cameras in movies. This one literally made me sick. At first, the hand-held technique suggested the rush and excitement of the drugs-and-rock-and-roll scene. But even in the intimate scenes, the blurry swing of the camera back and forth from person to person made me quite ill. After half an hour, I was trying not to watch the screen, which was ok in the English-speaking scenes but, for the scenes in other languages, I was forced to watch the subtitles. This may be a way to economize on a movie (lots less editing required) but you have to wonder about the economics of it if it means killing off your viewers.

Magie Cheung plays a junkie whose husband dies of an overdose. Their little son is being looked after by the dad’s parents. In order to see her kid, the mother has to get off drugs and get a job, not an easy assignment for a would-be rock star. Ms. Cheung, who won a best actress award for this performance at Cannes, is very good in the scenes where she doesn’t have to say much. When she does speak, what comes out is a strange mixture of British, spoken with an Asian accent, plus a kind of lisp (a difficulty with some consonants). Not that I would ever fault someone for a handicap but the problem is that her speeches sound dull and monotone. A more serious difficulty is the fact that we never get the impression that she cares much about the kid, so the whole thrust of the movie lacks urgency. Maybe the script is to blame for not giving her a chance to show that she had some sort of connection with her son.

Nick Nolte plays the shaggy, gentle grandpa, speaking barely above a whisper most of the time. As far as I know, this role is quite a switch for him in terms of image and he pulls it off beautifully.

I’ve heard it said that one of the hardest problems for a movie to deal with is constant changes of location on an international scale. Here, we go from Hamilton to Vancouver to Paris to London (back and forth between those two), ending up in San Francisco. The movie doesn’t handle the leaps very well. We keep getting titles on screen telling us where we are and how much time has elapsed. It all feels rather unwieldy. With each geographical jump, there are new supporting characters to figure out. Maybe this is why the story never really gets a grip on us.

There are scenes that look very promising. For instance, the grandfather’s first encounter with the junkie daughter-in-law (Nolte and Cheung) after her husband’s death comes across with a certain quiet intensity that feels very authentic. But the promise of such scenes is frittered away with all that globe-trotting.

Rating: D

Angels In America by Tony Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols (DVD)

The first time I saw some of this celebrated play was a couple of years ago when the graduating class at George Brown Theatre School performed the first half. At the time, I was not thrilled with the material. It all seemed so long ago and far away -- the Reagan years in the US. Maybe, I thought, the problem was the age of the actors. Not that there weren't some great performances, but possibly their youthfulness meant that they weren't able to establish the essential connection to those times.

However, gay friends told me they had been thrilled with the play when it first came out (about ten years ago, I think). They seemed to feel that it was the first time they'd seen their story told. And then along came this HBO televised version. Everybody was raving as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to tv. So, on a trip to the video store on a snowy March night, with a couple of days of solitude to fill, it looked as though this six-hour epic would be just the thing.

There's a lot to like in it. The adaptation to film works well, what with the inter-cutting of scenes (if that's what it's called), the exterior locations, and all that. The special effects (if you like that sort of thing) certainly work better than they could in any theatre. Many of the scenes are fascinating. Some favourites: the young Mormon's 3 am phone call to his mother to try to tell her that he's gay; and the encounter between that mother and the gay man who's dying of AIDS; for that matter, virtually any scene involving Meryl Streep.

And the acting is fabulous, some of it so good that I didn't catch some of the double-or-triple-casting until the credits. Who would ever have spotted Ms. Streep as the rabbi in the opening scene? But the lion's share of acclaim goes to Al Pacino. I am almost on the point of officially declaring him the most gifted actor working in movies today. In this piece, he seems so different from any of his previous personae that, if it weren't for certain tones of voice, I could scarcely have believed that it was Al Pacino. Maybe he was using a dental prosthesis that changed the shape of his face. But this wasn't just about appearance. He is the very quintessence of a movie actor in that you put him in front of a camera and he simply becomes the person the script calls for. (Sort of the way Gwyeneth Paltrow does it.) There is no hint of acting; he simply is that person. It's all about being, not doing.

And yet, I'm not as ecstatic with the show as everybody else seemed to be. What comes next may sound like criticism of the writing. Maybe it's not so much about whether the writing is good or bad but whether it's to my taste. For me, there were far too many scenes that offered not much more than a lot of theatrical sounding off. It would not be fair to say that it was melodramatic. After all, King Lear is melodramatic. In Angels everybody's in a state of crisis all the time. Ditto King Lear. Perhaps the difference with Shakespeare's tragedies is that what people have to say in their dire straits is more engaging and more beautifully put. In Angels, I can barely make sense of what people are saying a lot of the time. It seems a lot of poetic, theatrical speechifying. People leave their partners and try to get back together again but I can't understand why. It's not that I'm judgmental about the flip-flops. Everybody understands that. What I can't make sense of is all the yakking that people do by way of trying to explain themselves.

About half-way into the fifth chapter of this six-chapter work, I began to notice that the scenes between two gay men nearly always ended with somebody uttering a gob-smacker of an exit line and then stomping out of the room, across the park or wherever. Do people ever break off conversations with friends in that stagey way except on stage? Well, once in a while maybe, but not every encounter. What I seem to be saying here is that the writing is too theatrical. That goes down better in the theatre than on screen.

For me, what best exemplifies the worst about this show is the Angel. All that palaver about prophecy meant nothing to me. Surrealism doesn't appeal to me much at the best of time and when it's combined with vaguely biblical gobbledy-gook -- yuck! I am a great admirer of Emma Thompson's work but I longed for a hook to get that Angel out of the picture. (Come to think of it, how do you get rid of an angel: a butterfly net? a flyswatter? a shot of Raid?) What was she doing there? Was it some sort of hocus pocus to try to convince the gay audience that the awful deaths of so many friends had some sort of transcendent meaning? The only message I got is that life sucks and we should sue God for kicking us out of Eden. Not bad for a fortune cookie message but such a lot of verbiage to get there.

Rating: C

Anatomy of Hell (Movie) by Catherine Breillat

Some filmmakers (mostly French) seem to be trying to create a new genre of movie: high-brow art combined with hard-core porn. Catherine Breillat, judging from her recent oeuvre, appears to consider herself the leader of this pack of plucky pioneers. Presumably, they're aiming at viewers who want sex on screen but who wouldn't be caught dead renting a porno movie. After all, you don't have to wait until there's nobody in the lineup at the video store when you're checking out some tony French movie.

In this one, a woman picks up a man at a gay club, takes him home and pays him to look at her naked. He's supposed to tell her everything he things and feels about her body. (If you need to know why these people do what they do, you're in the wrong pew.) I guess you could call this the grown-up version of "playing doctor". In this case, it leads to some pretty bizarre behaviour. Not pretty, actually; in fact, some of it's disgusting, not in the moral sense, but in the vomit-making way.

I was prepared to go along with most of this in the spirit of, shall we say, anthropological research. What killed the experiment for me were the long, boring stretches between the bouts of sex. In these lulls, the man and woman spout pseudo-poetic twaddle that is presumably meant to speak to the primal emnity between male and female.

The actor, Rocco Siffredi, appeared in Mme Breillat's Romance (which was anything but). Word was that he brought to the project a distinguished career as a performer in sex movies. I remember someone making the apt observation that if you want a wooden performance, you can't do better than hire a porn star. Here, he has one scene in which he cries (don't ask me; I don't know). The rest of the time he has one expression: a sullen stare. The actress, Amira Casar is beautiful in a way that Michael Jackson was probably hoping all the plastic surgery would achieve. The movie begins with a notice to the effect that a body double was used for Signorita Casar's "most intimate" scenes. That's the kind of information that I'm sure her parents would find very comforting. I guess Signor Siffredi's parents don't care.

Rating: E

Facing Windows (DVD)

The previews for this movie, when it was showing in the theatres, made me think it would have lots of good pastry baking and some intrigue about windows across a courtyard. A young Italian family takes into their apartment an elderly man who was lost in the street. He has amnesia. Gradually, we glean bits about his mysterious past. The Rock Hudson type in the apartment across the way gets involved, in more ways than one.

All these characters are interesting, but the it never amounts to as much as you think it's going to. The conflict between the young husband and wife feels trumped up, merely for the sake of the plot. I mean, she's luscious and doe-eyed, he's a buff Bruce Willis type (but with a sense of humour) and an excellent dad, so what's your problem people? I'm not buying that guff about the inconvenience of his working nights. Given that the story seems to be told from the young wife's point of view, maybe it would work better in a women's novel (you should pardon the expression) where her thoughts about the situation could develop more slowly and convincingly.

Oh yeah, the baking: the old man was once a celebrated pastry chef. We learn few of his secrets in that department, only that you shouldn't use tap water because it might have too much chlorine. At one point, he goes on a baking binge and the camera pans across a table crowded with beautiful dolci. I'm thinking: at least the film crew are going to get something out of this. And then, with a sinking heart, I realize the goodies are probably all cardboard.

Rating: D

BENT (Video)

I’m not really in a position to review this movie about two gay men in a Nazi concentration camp, since I fast-forwarded through a lot of it. I mean, how long do you want to spend watching guys lugging rocks back and forth across a compound? It seemed that the relationship between the two guys could be interesting, but the main reason for mentioning the movie here is the casting. One of the guys is Lothaire Blutheau, well known to Canadian audiences for his starring role in Jesus Of Montreal. The other guy is Clive Owen, recently nominated for an academy award for his role in Closer. I gather he was relatively unknown when this movie was made. It must have been one of his first. According to the credits for Bent, Jude Law also made an appearance as a Nazi but I didn’t re-wind to try to find him. The most amusing aspect of the experience was finding out the identity of the rather sedate middle-aged drag queen in a Berlin nightclub: Mick Jagger!

Rating: N/A

Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman, (Memoir) 1994

My clipping file contained a New Yorker profile (October 2000) of Mark Salzman, with glowing reference to this delightful-sounding memoir of his boyhood. Finding that it was available at the neighbourhood library branch, I retrieved it and plunged in eagerly. About 50 pages in, however, it began to seem rather familiar. Had I heard the author reading some of it on the radio? Had some of it been excerpted in The New Yorker? After another 25 pages, I had to admit the undeniable: I had read the book before.

It was rather disconcerting to find that I had completely forgotten a book read less than five years ago. Surely, my memory couldn't be that bad? Apparently it is. But I take some consolation from what I would call a Proustian interpretation of the situation. One of the things that Marcel Proust seems to be saying is that each of us never remains simply one person: we are a succession of different persons at different times and the way we remember things will depend on the kind of person we were at any given time. Clearly, at the time of my first reading of this book, I had been another person. The book had made a certain impression on me according to the space my head was in then. This time, when the book came to my attention, my head was in such a different space that nothing of my previous experience of reading it connected with my current impressions of the book -- not until I was well into it.

It was well worth the re-reading, even though chunks of it kept floating up to the surface of memory. It's a charming, amusing and very accessible account of Mr. Salzman's youthful obsessions (like deciding to be a Zen Master at age 13), his experiments with drugs and booze, his attempts to be a cellist, his discovery of the joy of learning, his depression at the meaninglessness of existence and, ultimately, his acceptance of life as it is. The portraits of his gloomy dad and his cheerful mom are sharp, funny and loving.

Here's hoping I won't forget this book again. After all, that's one of the purposes of "Dilettante's Diary": to remind me what I've seen and read.

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, (Memoir) 1996

The title made me want to like this little book (just 119 pages). Ms. Schwartz takes us through her discovery of reading, her favourite books when she was young and books that have had a profound impression on her. She raises several interesting questions about reading: how do you decide what books to read? do you choose books that you should read or ones that you want to read? what about books that friends recommend? She talks about re-visiting books by authors who were favourites at earlier times in her life and she discusses the problem of movies made of beloved books.

Ms. Schwartz is at her best when she recreates a scene such as the women sitting around her grandmother's kitchen. Here we get the full benefit of Ms. Schwartz's narrative talents as a fiction writer. The scene comes alive. But I found her less effective in the more intellectual, analytical parts of the book. There is a plodding, dutiful quality to the laying out of her thoughts. The feeling is cool and detached. Humour and charm are in short supply. Ms. Schwartz talks about the importance of a writer's voice; unfortunately, for this book she has not found a voice that is engaging, that pulls you along and makes you want to hear more of what the speaker has to say.

The Fisher King by Anthony Powell (Novel) 1986

I was glad to find that there was an Anthony Powell book I hadn't read, since his twelve-volume series A Dance To The Music Of Time and his memoirs have given me great pleasure. Not much of that on offer here. This is about a group of interminably talky Brits on a cruise. Hardly anything happens but they gossip about it endlessly, with digressions into mythology and ancient history that are presumably meant to be witty and erudite. I found them stultifyingly boring.

The worst of it is Mr. Powell's aloof, bloodless writing style. Simple assertive sentences are rare. A reader might like to know, say, that someone came into the lounge, sat down and ordered a drink. What you'd get from Mr. Powell would be something along the lines of: "If it would be thought, given the hour of the day and the well-known procilivities of her ladyship, that she might, to the delighted response of the attendant company in having their expectations so precisely realized, make her appearance in the saloon....etc. etc." (Not a quote; I made it up.)

You get the impression that Mr. Powell, in his later years, took a cruise on which he met some people whose talk interested him and he thought it would be fascinating to spin a novel around them, casting everything in a mythological context. A completely self-indulgent exercise. This is the kind of book that could be published only if the writer had a good track record and the publishers hoped his fans would be once again seduced by his faded charms.

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton (Novel) 1987

The publicity about George Plimpton around the time of his death in 2003 reminded me that I had long been planning to read one of his books about his escapades in professional sports. They might provide a congenial entrée into a world I know nothing about. But this work of fiction struck me as a good place to start.

As I understand it, the book is an expansion of a spoof article that Mr. Plimpton published in Sports Illustrated as an April Fool's joke. The article introduced to the world one Sidd Finch, a British-born lad, who spent most of his young adult life in a monastery in the Himalayas learning to be a Buddhist monk. Arriving in America, he sets the baseball world on its ear with his ability to throw a ball at over 170 miles an hour.

The joke doesn't quite sustain for the length of a novel -- some of the material feels like filler -- but, for the most part, the writing is delicious and the comedy exquisite. Mr. Plimpton has the finesse to make everything balance precariously between the ridiculous and the believable. The narrator is a washed-up reporter suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder after covering the Vietnam war. A strange and lonely man, he develops a very touching relationship with Sidd Finch and Sidd's girlfriend. The very sweet love affair of the two young people lies at the heart of the book. As far as I can tell, the satire of the baseball world, from behind the scenes, is spot on. Towards the end, Mr. Plimpton tosses in a bit of thriller-type suspense. The danger isn't very gripping but it's gracefully done. It's as if Mr. Plimpton is saying: here's the kind of thing this book should have to round off the joke nicely.

The huge attraction of the book, though, is the enigmatic and elusive Sidd Finch. Ever a gentleman, shy, and perplexed by modern civilization, he remains deeply immersed in his philosophical roots even when the world tries to tempt him with the best it can offer. This is such an engaging character that you end up wishing he were real. And damned if, by the end of the book, Mr. Plimpton didn't have me thinking about the wisdom of the teachings Sidd espouses as an alternate way of looking at contemporary life.

Bride and Prejudice (Movie)

Why is a movie like this playing Toronto? Is it supposed to be a throwback to the good old days when movies provided you with nothing but lots of beautiful people and razzle-dazzle? Or is there supposed to be some sort of cross-cultural educational aspect to it?

Well, it taught me that Amritsar, India is a place where everybody bursts into the most outlandish song and dance routines every time you turn around. Even innocent bystanders seem to know all the steps of the complicated choreography. In one street scene, a bunch of gaudy women were dancing around and then I noticed that the gap in one woman's sari was showing a hairy belly. The "women" were all transvestites. So I guess I was being educated.

Mostly I learned that India is about fabric. I have never seen so many miles of cloth in brilliant colour -- with emphasis on the bright yellows, electric pinks, oranges and purples. It's not often that I feel the need of sunglasses when watching a movie. Evidently, when it comes to colour, the people of Amritsar don't know what excess means.

The story, you ask? Two middle-aged parents have four marriageable daughters, each more beautiful than the other. Three eligible young men are at hand: an elegant and arrogant American named Mr. D'Arcy (just in case you don't get the point), a hunky young Brit whose mom was Mr. D'Arcy's nanny, and a goofy Indian who went to America and made a fortune. To say that the proceedings achieve the artistic level of a Harlequin novel would be undue praise. None of the people seems remotely real, the dialogue is leaden, the delivery stilted and over-acted (in some cases). An attempt to introduce edgy political commentary self-destructs, thanks to the amateurish writing.

The middle-aged parents are amusing in a silly way. The dancing and singing provide a kind of zany fun but, after an hour, I felt there were better things to do with the time that's left to me on this earth.

Rating: E

Ryan  by Chris Landreth (Short Animated Film)

This NFB offering, which recently won an Oscar, was showing with Bride and Prejudice at the Cumberland theatre. You could hardly get a more striking contrast between two films in tone and style. Seedy, depressing and weird, Ryan looks at the life of Ryan Larkin who was himself an Oscar-nominated maker of animated films and is now a burned-out wreck of a human being who panhandles in Montreal. The film offers just a glimpse, a peek into his tragic, screwed-up world. No conclusions are drawn, no interpretations offered. I guess that's the point of a short film: brevity. Don't ask me how they do it, but bits of people's actual faces and bodies are combined with special effects showing skeletal structures and heads with large chunks missing and freaky protuberances. I guess that's how the world looks to someone in Ryan's mental condition. Creepy, in a brilliant sort of way.

Rating: C

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