Dilettante's Diary

Nov 7/11

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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: Foreskin's Lament (Memoir); Breaking the Spell (Ideas); A Mind of Its Own (Cultural History); Don Giovanni: Met Live in HD Broadcast (Opera); Open Water 2011 (Art); Howl (DVD); I Love You Phillip Morris (DVD)

 

Foreskin’s Lament (Memoir) by Shalom Auslander, 2007

Flashback to about four years ago. I’m driving around town, doing some errands. On the car radio, there’s an interview on CBC with this Jewish guy who has written a book about whether or not to have his baby son circumcised. Seems the dad has mixed feelings about the prospect, to put it mildly. He sounds kinda dweeby. A lot of whining and soul-searching. So much angst about whether or not the knife should be applied to the little one’s organ! It all sounds pretty distasteful and cringe-making, especially the title. So the book goes on my must-read list.

Well, it does turn out to deal with the question of having a son circumcised. But that’s just the framework for the book. Mostly, the book’s about Shalom Auslander’s growing up in Monsey, New York, in an Orthodox family. Not a fun time, as remembered by Mr. Auslander. He tried to play the game according to the rules. The problem is that he did believe in God. Still does. That’s what makes it so hard for him to deal with all the religious strictures and regulations. You get the feeling of a guy who’s pursued by a tormenting deity who won’t leave him alone.

In the early years, young Mr. Auslander spends prodigious mental energy on trying to figure out just how far you can go when it comes to breaking the Sabbath laws. When the going gets really rough, he remembers the injunction that the person who breaks one law breaks them all. So he sins lavishly. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, I guess. Or, in for a penny, in for a pound. He becomes quite the adept sinner. One of the keys to successful shoplifting, he discovers, is to wear his yarmulke and tzitzis.

That’s all understandable, in the context of childhood, but it’s somewhat harder to credit the adult Mr. Auslander’s bargaining with God. For instance, his finagling to arrange things so that watching his favourite team in NHL finals won’t count as a violation of the Sabbath. Still, I’m not going to suggest that what he describes couldn’t be true. Religion, as I well know, can drive people to demonstrations of insanity.

But my main reason for cutting Mr. Auslander some slack, for going along with him on this crazy trip, is that he’s a terrific writer – not just immensely skilled when it comes to narrative, but wickedly funny. This is some of the blackest comedy I’ve ever read.

First an example of the narrative verve:

I found my brother downstairs, who said he didn’t want to go to afternoon services, and my father said, – Get your ass in gear, and my brother said no, and my father said, – Don’t make me come down there, and my brother said, – I don’t care what you do, and my father said, – I’ll deal with you later, and told me to follow him and so I did.

Another:

Before I left for Israel, I visited Baba one last time, knowing she would likely succumb to Alzheimer’s before I returned. I’d sat there beside her bed, holding her hand and trying to comfort myself with the thought that her mind had already died some time ago. When that didn’t work, I told myself that it was all for the best. When that didn’t work, I cried, said, – Bye, Baba, and hurried out the door.

As for the humour, I always feel it’s a bit unfair to give away a writer’s best jokes. On the other hand, potential readers/buyers have a right to get some idea of what’s in store. A few of Mr. Auslander’s best morsels, then, would include the following:

God knew he’d never let Moses into the Promised Land, just as He knew that one day Sarah would laugh, but He still let him wander around the desert like a schmuck for forty years searching for it. – Warmer, warmer, you’re getting warmer, you’re dead. God loves that joke.

And this:

My mother lived for death. Nothing made her happier than sadness. Nothing made her more joyful than melancholy. She worked as a medical assistant for a local pediatrician, and the tragedies she witnessed there were at least as much a perk as the dental coverage.

One of the funniest passage has his dad in his garage workshop, building a new ark for the synagogue, swearing and cursing profusely, while the family in the kitchen is carrying on an inane conversation for the sake of pretending not to hear. This made me laugh out loud (and you should know that’s not an easy thing to bring about). The pleasure wasn’t diminished by a slight inkling of deja vu, a phenomenon that turned out to have a natural explanation when I eventually remembered having read that passage in The New Yorker.

At times, the humour prompts more of a shudder than a laugh. As in this passage where the author’s thinking about the theological implications of suicide:

The fact that He deemed it a sin only lent further credence to my theory: He was a control freak and it probably drove Him crazy that a man could take his own life – that all of mankind could, en masse, end His whole miserable creation – and that maybe that was reason enough to do it, because fuck Him, because this might be His sandbox and He might be able to punish me whenever He wanted. But guess what, O Lord? Guess what, There Shall Be No Other God but Me? Guess what, Love Me and Fear Me, guess what? I can take my shovel and go home anytime I want.

You marvel at the chutzpah, the intellectual agility, but you wonder what makes it so black. Was it Mr. Auslander’s family? His mom, although loving is deluded about most things. His father’s a violent, angry alcoholic. (And yet, Mr. Auslander expresses some pity for the old man: after all, it must not be very nice knowing that nobody likes you.) It comes as not much of a surprise when Mr. Auslander does mention, in passing, that he takes anti-depressants. References to a psychiatrist’s bland counsels usually end with a sarcastic note about the whopping fees for the sessions.

That’s not the least of the touches of social satire that make Mr. Auslander’s work all the more biting. One of my favourites would be his description of the town of Woodstock which, he says, has become the art version of Las Vegas: "Homosexuality is revered in this town, less so for the homosexual’s defiant refusal to be told whom he or she may love, more so for his or her taste in wine and home furnishings."

Mr. Auslander’s narrative skills come to their full flowering, appropriately enough, when we finally get the birth of his son. The short passage is packed with all the excitement, the confusion, the panic and the joy. It made me cry. But don’t tell Mr. Auslander. I hate to think of the way he might mock those tears.

 

Breaking the Spell (Ideas) by Daniel Dennett, 2006

For me, it’s a matter of mental hygiene to read a Daniel Dennett book every once in a while. He’s one of that group of outspoken, science-oriented atheists that includes the likes of Richard Dawkins. While I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, it can be refreshing to read their stuff, to savour the way their minds work. It gives me a take on the world that’s very different from the one that’s more innate to me. In fact, it was my reading of Mr. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, about fifteen years ago, that launched something of a revolution in my own way of looking at the world.

Given the title of this book, you might think that Mr. Dennett wants to explode the belief and practice that we refer to as religion, to send it off into outer space in a million smithereens, so that we’ll never hear of it again. But Mr. Dennett’s aim is much more modest, at least his professed aim is. As stated here, his purpose is simply to ask whether religion can be examined impartially like any other phenomenon of our culture. Can we engage in a genuine discussion about whether the grounds for religious faith are humanly justifiable? About whether the effects of religion, on the whole, benefit human beings or harm them? If we assume that an uncritical acceptance of religion is necessarily a boon to humanity, it should take nothing more to correct that view than a reminder of the horrible excesses that religious fervor has caused in our own time. To ensure that such extremism doesn’t annihilate humanity, we need to make sure that we understand and can control the role that religion plays in our lives.

The spell that Mr. Dennett wants to break, then, is the notion that religion is above and beyond any such examination. What he wants to demolish is the claim that nobody can ask any tough questions about religion because it’s "sacred." His audience for this book is not the atheists who are convinced that religion does no good. Nor the indifferent many who don’t give a damn. The people Mr. Dennett’s trying to reach are the believers who might be willing to subject their beliefs to such scrutiny. To pave the way for that,  (we’ll refrain from saying "to soften them up"), he does a lot of preliminary groundwork which involves much philosophical distinction and logical analysis. Most of which I found tedious.

It’s when Mr. Dennett gets into the meaty, scientific stuff that the writing really appeals to me. Like his pal Richard Dawkins, he has a wonderful way of speaking about evolution. This is what the two of them are steeped in and it’s a great pleasure to hear Mr. Dennett discuss how evolution may impact on religion. This isn’t the place to scrutinize every twist and turn of Mr. Dennett’s thesis and to approve or disprove (as if I were capable and you were interested). So let’s just mention a few of the fascinating things he turns up along the way.

In trying to figure out whether there might be a "god centre" in the brain and why that might have survived evolution, Mr. Dennett considers the placebo effect which can produce health benefits. In primitive cultures, there would have been no better agent to administer the placebo effect than the local shaman. If people had a gene that made them more amenable than others to the ministrations of the shaman, this would be like health insurance. Thus, the gene that made those individuals susceptible to religious influence would have been passed on. (I’m trying to summarize some rather more complicated reasoning here and hope I haven’t misrepresented the author’s thought.)

Adopting Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes, i.e. cultural ideas which are comparable to genes in their urge to reproduce themselves, Mr. Dennett makes the rather startling suggestions that, since the proliferation of memes depends on their ability to attract hosts, it could be that religious memes are spreading themselves on us as hosts. Another notable point is Mr. Dennett’s observation that, since it’s not possible to know for sure what anybody else believes, the profession of belief becomes all important in religious communities that seek cohesion. Perhaps not a direct result of this dynamic, but certainly a related phenomenon, is what Mr. Dennett calls belief in belief. Lots of people who claim to be "believers" really don’t believe in anything very specific except the principle that it’s important to believe.

It may not surprise you to hear that the conclusion of the book (it’s not as if I’m giving away any plot secret here) is that Mr. Dennett believes religion should be subject to careful study, with a view to the pro’s and the con’s. Not that hardcore believers are likely to be swayed. But they might take some comfort from Mr. Dennett’s courteous bows towards religion and its adherents (all the more remarkable, given what one knows of his less sympathetic views). For example, there’s this admonition: "Since the benign effects that religions do seem to be having would probably diminish if skepticism took hold, regardless of whether it was justified, caution is called for." He does acknowledge that religion has, in many cases, accomplished great good. In a discussion about religious charlatans, he comes to the conclusion that exposing them is a great public service in spite of the pain it causes their innocent followers. But then he says: "....further details, or just further reflection on the details that are known, might lead me to change my mind." 

Mr. Dennett even offers his own version of a viable form of spirituality – which, he emphasizes, has nothing to do with any belief in the supernatural:

If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.

I can’t help pointing out, though, a few places where I think that Mr. Dennett, in spite of the gentlemanly tenor of his writing, lets slip a few gratuitous digs at religion. He seems to see Buddhist monks in their monasteries as narcissistic navel-gazers who don’t do any good for the world. As I understand it, the Zen practised in such places is meant to get the individual straightened out so that he or she can ultimately have some good effect in the world. The idea is that too many activists are running around half-cocked without understanding themselves and why they’re doing what they do.

And I don’t think Mr. Dennett is fair to the spirit of some words by Cardinal Ratzinger who said that having faith helps one to understand religion’s mysteries. Mr. Dennett seems to interpret this to mean that your profession of belief amounts to pretending that you understand when you really don’t. Which I don’t think the cardinal was saying.

Mr. Dennett also says that the victorious athlete who ask for God’s help chalks up a win as evidence for the existence of God but "quietly revises his theory of God whenever he loses in spite of his prayers." Not that I’m on locker-room terms with any such athletes, but I don’t think people in these circumstances intend their references to God's help as proof of the deity's existnce. So a loss need not be taken as evidence of God’s not being there. Most religious people accept such setbacks with a sense that God must have had some reason for not letting the team win this time.

Mr. Dennett winds up with some important questions about parents’ rights and the indoctrination of kids. He wants people to be able to make informed choices on the basis of sound education about religions. He also asks whether religion is necessarily the foundation of morality. For me, one of the most striking points he makes is that extremists in a religion benefit from the silence of the moderates in the same religion. If the moderates don’t speak out to condemn the extremists, the latter are free to operate under the cloak of respectability that is thrown over their religion as a result of the public’s deference to the more mainstream manifestations of the creed.

Because of that, Mr. Dennett issues a clarion call to US politicians who have made a public issue of their Christianity. He actually addresses eleven of them by name and tells them it’s their duty to rein in the dangerous Christians who are promulgating an "End Times" world view. It's not often that a book of ideas issues such a direct challenge to named individuals.

 

A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (Social Studies) by David M. Friedman, 2001

Thank goodness, the subtitle of this book is printed very discreetly on the cover. That means a reader doesn’t have to blush or look the other way when checking it out of the library. And that raises the question: why would a nice boy take such a book out of the library? The answer is something like this: once you find out that such a book exists, you have to read it. Call it pure curiosity. What could there be to say on such a subject that would fill a book?

Quite a lot, it turns out. David M. Friedman takes us on an extensive tour of that museum of science, culture, history and the arts, where the male organ is the subject of every exhibit. We visit ancient times and review all the beliefs about the wondrous – even miraculous – properties the organ was thought to possess. We learn how religious luminaries like St. Augustine can be blamed for demonizing the organ. We re-visit many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas on the subject. Robert Maplethorpe’s photographic celebration of male nudity is explored. A completely different attitude is expressed by the extreme feminists who consider the penis as the equivalent of a battering ram, no matter what the circumstances. As for those times when the ram won't rise to the occasion, historical and contemporary methods of dealing with impotence get the full treatment.

Some rather startling facts emerge. Such as one of the white man’s main reasons for justifying slavery: the perceived enormity of the black man’s genitals relegated him to a status deemed more bestial than human. (Interestingly, whatever studies have been done to date tend to show virtually no difference between the average sizes of black men’s and white men’s genitals. But the trouble is that all the measurements, so far, have been self-reported. There hasn’t been any objective, scientific attempt to take matters in hand, so to speak.) I was also surprised to learn that one of the reasons for the reviling of Jews in much of Christian culture was that the Jewish man’s penis was looked on as particularly evil because it was circumcised. And here’s one of the oddest findings (to me). Believe it or not, when Doctor John Kellogg developed the cereal that became so ubiquitous world-wide, he intended that the ingredients would help to dampen sexual desire.

For the most part, though, not much of the information in this book is particularly new or fascinating. I really didn’t need another march past of all that tiresome old lore about fertility beliefs and related rites in ancient times. Granted, Freud had an important influence on our culture but his ideas are a bit too shopworn now to make for very engaging reading. All that awful stuff about masturbation restraints and castration and circumcision provides a sort of ghoulish pleasure if you’ve never heard any of it before, but I didn’t want to be reminded of the horrible things people have suffered in that line.

Maybe I’m tiring of books that search the Internet to put together every factoid that the author can find on a certain subject. This book leaves me thinking that there’s just one relevant mystery that it didn’t explore: how is it that a compendium of information about that little bit of human flesh, the cause of so much turmoil in our civilization, could turn out to be so boring?

 

DON GIOVANNI (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Met Opera Live in HD Broadcast; conducted by Fabio Luisi; Starring Marina Rebeka, Barbara Frittoli, Mojca Erdmann, Ramn Vargas, Mariusz Kwiecien, Luca Pisaroni, Joshua Bloom, Štefan Kocn; with the Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus; October 29,2011

Let’s assume – for now – that this Met production was musically pretty near perfect. Then what about other aspects of the production? The way it looked, for instance. It’s a traditional design, so we didn’t have to worry about bizarre innovations that might or might not have worked. The multi-purpose set – just two towering walls with rows of balconies opening on several levels – had that mouldy, damp, peeling-paint look you often see in these kind of productions nowadays. I can’t help wondering: wouldn’t the paint have looked a little fresher back in the day? But never mind. Maybe the faded elegance fits the way we like to think of those days now.

In the catalogue aria, while Leporello was telling Donna Elvira about the don’s many conquests, shutters opened above and we saw women posed demurely as if in Vermeer paintings. Whether their appearance in any way enhanced our understanding of the aria or of the opera, I don’t know, but it was a lovely effect. A somewhat less entrancing visual note was the costuming for Don Ottavio in the masquerade sequence: a black cape and hat, with veils of black lace falling from the hat and framing the singer’s face. This garb on a singer with the physique of Ramn Vargas suggested a Mother Superior going as a circus tent on Hallowe’en – which did not help our efforts to take the character seriously at that point.

Also in terms of visuals, Mariusz Kwiecien and Luca Pisaroni made an odd pair as the don and Leporello, respectively, in that Mr. Pisaroni is much taller and, with his sculpted features and flaring nostrils, more noble looking than Mr. Kwiecien. If there isn’t anything particularly aristocratic or grand about Mr. Kwiecien, I could see him as one of those hippie types back in the 1960s and 70s who, if not especially formidable in a physical way, managed to convey the message that he thought he was nature’s gift to women and, crucially, could often get several of them to agree. I kept wondering why the two men had greasy, shoulder-length hair. Was this just a coincidence? No. It turned out to be a clever design feature: no need for masks or hoods in the scene where Leporello passes himself off as the don. As well, the fact that Leporello was kneeling for most of the scene helped to sidestep the problem of the men’s different heights. Coming across this greasy-haired guy kneeling in the dark and keeping his face turned away most of the time, why wouldn’t Elvira think it was her elusive lover?

Throughout the performance, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between Mr. Kwiecien and Mr. Pisaroni, even though, in the intermission interviews, they talked about their great rapport onstage. Perhaps the lack of fellow-feeling, as I saw the situation, had something to do with the fact that Mr. Pisaroni made for a somewhat sarcastic and bitter Leporello, rather than a warm, funny one. In the final banquet scene, however, the two men seemed very much kindred spirits. By this time, they were both fairly drunk, dishevelled and sweaty, shirts hanging out, and surrounded by prostitutes. The air of dissipation that the two of them were wallowing in helped set us up for the dire ending.

As for the musical side of things, there would be just one cautionary note about the generally excellent singing. Barbara Frittoli, in the role of Donna Elvira, appeared to be, as they used to say, une femme d’un certain age. This was very appropriate for Elvira, but it sounded as though perhaps the singer’s voice was wearing out. There was too much wave in the sound and it wasn’t produced consistently from top to bottom, as is so necessary if you want to convey the perfection of Mozart’s music. The voice seemed to keep falling back. It also bothered me that Ms. Frittoli swayed and undulated constantly while singing. Maybe some singers feel they need to do this to produce the best sound possible, but I think it’s far more effective when a singer stands more solidly and lets the music flow. By her final big aria, though. Ms. Frittoli was in splendid form.

Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna), however, was at the top of her game from the get-go. This soprano has a voice with the clarion sound of a trumpet. It’s perfectly placed from top to bottom. You don’t often encounter a soprano these days whose gift seems so assurred. Could there be any flaw? Perhaps. In her final big aria, "Non mi dir," it appeared that Ms. Rebeka’s voice might not be at its best in coloratura passages. Suppleness did not seem to come easily. One also wondered whether the singer might be able to include a bit more warmth and gentleness in her tone.

Which is what we got almost to an extravagant degree from Ramn Vargas as Don Ottavio, the undisputed star of the show. What else can you call somebody who brings you to tears with both of his big arias? The beauty of his long, spun line, supported by phenomenal breath control, is devastating. What makes his singing all the more touching, I think, is that he doesn’t have a romantic or heroic image. You feel that you’re getting the outpourings of a pure heart, not the posturings of a matinee idol. His sincerity was so convincing that, at the end of the opera, when Donna Anna fended him off yet again after his long-suffering patience with her, just the subletest expression of frustration from Mr. Vargas got a big laugh. The best laugh of the afternoon and well-earned.

 

Open Water 2011 (Art) Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour; John B. Aird Gallery, 900 Bay Street, Toronto; until Nov 18.

You can always assume that the quality of the work in this annual show is high, given that a mere forty paintings are chosen from submissions from around the world. This year, the work of painters from China, Arizona and India has been included among the stellar work by Canadians. It should go without saying, then (except I’ll say it anyway), that it won’t be possible for me to comment here on all the excellent work. It might also be taken for granted that I’ve come to know several of the artists and some of them might even be considered my friends. (That by way of full disclosure.)

As in past years, notable works of meticulous photo-realism are included in the show. The style may not represent everybody’s favourite use of watercolour but it inevitably makes an impression on jurors because it’s so damned hard to do. And there’s no disputing the beauty of many of the examples in the show. Prominent among them are Karin Isenburg’s still life of luscious strawberries and gleaming crystal; and Terry Evers’ stunning white orchids against a rich red background. Each year, Vivian Thierfelder’s watercolours can be counted on to astound you with the attention to detail and the exquisite rendering. The composition of her still life in this show – a complicated arrangement of fruit, silver bowls, stationery, a postcard and orange flowers – is particularly breath-taking. A more under-stated charm comes through in Liane Bedard’s painting of a Chinese bowl on a glass plate over a patterned cloth.

A similar kind of reticence accounts for the appeal of Joy Godfrey’s delicate but intricate look at a woods in spring – in the palest of colours, you get the excitement of burgeoning life in what could be a hidden sanctuary, a carpet of trilliums in the foreground. Among other nature paintings, there’s Barbara Large’s close-up of sumach branches in the fall, a composition that makes an intriguing pattern of leaf shapes. Even if you feel you never need to see another painting of a water lily, the radiance of Ellen Catherwood’s homage to that humble plant will induce a touch of awe. 

Looking at the natural world on a somewhat larger scale, Micheal Zarowsky’s snowy river bank somewhere near Georgian Bay demonstrates the artist’s fiendish skill in creating dazzling pictures from thousands of tiny brush strokes. I love Bob Shackles’ great orange sky with just a few dark shapes (boats, etc) in the water below. David McEown’s view of an ice-clogged passage in Antarctica dances with various hues of turquoise and purple amidst all the white. A more sombre take on a coastal scene comes from Peter Marsh, who creates his brooding mountains under dark clouds by means of various shapes simply stated. And speaking of dark and brooding atmospheres, make sure you’re feeling well-grounded before you try to take in the full effect of the ominous, swirling sandstorm by Wei Min Wang, one of the artists from Shanghai.

Some of the other paintings from Shanghai in this show tend towards more urban or residential motifs. Of two of them, in particular, it’s hard to say which is the more impressive. A painting by Limin Li, all soft browns and greys, in a wet-in-wet style, gives a hazy, dreamy ambiance to a scene showing two boats on a canal between buildings. It’s the kind of thing that can only be done with freedom and spontaneity grounded by absolute mastery. Zenming Chi has painted a busy downtown street -- a tall building with soaring pillars is front and centre, pedestrians and vehicles are rushing past -- and all of it is given excitement and allure by virtue of the fact that everything is indistinct and blurred. The emphasis is not on realistic detail, although it’s all there, expertly executed. What you get mainly is light and life.

That’s much the same effect of a painting of Yaletown (Vancouver) by Emil Kerie: a sense of bustle on a crowded street under a hot summer sky. Yaohua Yan takes a special look at Toronto with his painting of the train tracks at Union Station in the early morning, as seen from above, the dawn light seeping upwards from among the high rise buildings in the distance. (A maddening painting, as it happens, for a certain artist who often longs to capture similar scenes but knows he could never do them as well!) Merv Richardson’s painting of Elora could also be considered to fall into the urban category, but in a much less hectic mode. By very skillfull use of negative painting, leaving lots of white paper, the artist has created a beautiful composition of a cluster of buildings.

Typically, not many portraits or life studies appear in this show, perhaps because they’re so difficult to do in watercolour. Of the excellent ones on display here, one of the best, in my opinion, would be William Rogers’ painting of a young woman sitting on a couch, texting on her hand-held device. The messages conveyed in the woman’s face, in terms of mood and character, are extraordinary.

Two watercolours stand out for me because of their uniqueness – in one case it’s the style and in the other it’s the subject matter. The latter is Pauline Holancin’s painting "Saving the Tomatoes". White sheets are draped over tomato plants in the garden, creating a very unusual composition, like a group of spooky ghosts conferring in a huddle. It’s one of those paintings that "tells a story", as they sometimes say. On the other hand, Marc Gagnon takes on a fairly typical subject in his watercolour of the Bay of Fundy but he does so in a way that’s simplified and somewhat schematic – almost like an illustration in a certain kind of kids’ book. In a show where more traditional styles predominate, it’s good to see that room can be made for such a distinctive voice.

Which brings me to some of the most unconventional paintings in the show. Jeanette Labelle’s abstract, "Quilted Landscape" caught my eye from across the room, thanks to its bold, uncomplicated statement. Mainly it consists of a few rectangular shapes in subdued hues, with some faint horizontal strips of other colours. The serenity and solidity of it, not to mention the stimulation it provides for the imagination, kept me gazing for a long time. An abstract in a much more flamboyant vein, Pat Fairhead’s "Water Circus" fairly bursts with exuberance. It’s good to note again that, in a show where representational work often seems to have the upper hand, such an adventuresome paintings as this has received the top prize, the A.J. Casson medal. Ms. Fairhead’s work is essentially a long, vertical sheet of watercolour paper, saturated with washes of rich blues, slashes of reds, yellows and whites exploding near the top, fragments from some of them drifting into the lower part of the painting. This is the kind of work that makes me stand back and ponder. How does the artist envision these things and how does she turn them into such amazing paintings?

 

Howl (DVD) written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; starring James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Aaron Tveit, Andrew Rogers, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams

Somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind, Allen Ginsberg has long stood as a cultural icon for something or other. Gay rights? Avant garde poetry? Acting up? Dissolute living? Free love? The Beat generation? Now I know, thanks to this movie. The 1957 obscenity trial of Mr. Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, over the publication of Howl, not only made Mr. Ginsberg’s name on the international scene but represented a major landmark in America’s free-speech-versus-censorship wars.

A re-creation of that trial serves as one of the continuity devices of the movie. Another thread woven through the movie is a prolonged interview with Mr. Ginsberg, as played by James Franco. And the third repeating scenario is the young Mr. Ginsberg’s recitation of Howl in a smokey club.

All this helps to situate Mr. Ginsberg in the literary and cultural landscape of your awareness, but it doesn’t make for a real grabber, as movies go. In other words, it’s fine if you want to learn something but it’s not going to provide lots of fun for the folks curled up on the couch with their popcorn. The only drama takes place in the courtroom sections and in the brief glimpses we get of Mr. Ginsberg’s hopeless love for hunks like Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi). In the long interview, Mr. Ginsberg does say interesting things about writing. For instance, his kind of writer is trying to express the gutsy feelings that more respectable writers have felt should not be voiced in literature. It’s also fascinating to hear Mr. Ginsberg explain how the ideas in a line of poetry take shape according to what he feels the rhythms of the words should be.

But it’s in the actual recitation of the poetry that the movie’s at its most annoying, for me. Apart from the fact that I don’t love that Whitman-esque, incantatory style (line after line running on like a runaway freight train of words), I loathe the psychedelic animation the movie uses to elucidate the poetry. This surrealistic stuff makes me think the poetry itself might not be so bad if we could listen to it without the distraction of the LSD-type visuals.

What is unquestionably very good about the movie – and will appeal to connoisseurs of the art – is the acting. Everybody is perfect in every detail: James Franco as the edgy, insecure poet; David Straithairn as Ralph McIntosh, the smarmy prosecutor; Jon Hamm as Jake Erlich, the implacable and handsome defense lawyer; Jeff Daniels as a smug professor. It says something very good about a movie when you’re especially struck by people in roles that have hardly any lines. The quiet intensity of Bob Balaban, as Judge Clayton Horn, makes a very strong impression, especially when it comes to his verdict, delivered with a triumphant ring of freedom. You even come away with a lasting memory of the the Ferlinghetti character (Andrew Rogers) who, if I remember correctly, says not a single word.

Capsule comment: Very interesting in terms of cultural history but not a fun movie.

 

I Love You Phillip Morris (DVD) written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; based on the book by Steve McVicker; starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor; with Leslie Mann.

This one lasted such a brief time in the theatres that I missed it, even though I'd been watching for it. What had interested me about the movie was that, in the preview, I couldn't identify one of the main actors, even though he turned out to be somebody I know very well (in so far as you can know anybody on screen). It wasn't until his name came up in the billings that I realized it was Ewan McGregor. There must be some good acting going on when you don’t recognize an actor you thought you knew pretty well, right?

It might be going too far to say that’s the only good thing about the movie, but I now have a handle on why it didn’t last very long in the theatres. In the first place, you know something's not working when a movie relies so heavily on voice-over narration, especially for a lengthy explanation of a major twist near the end of the movie. Another problem is that it’s hard to tell, narration notwithstanding, what the hell’s going on. Ok, so these two gay guys fall in love in jail, they get it on inside, then outside, then inside again. But what is the point? Where is the movie going? It helps, I now realize, if you know that the movie’s based on a true story about one guy (Steven Russell) who was a terrific manipulator and con man and that he wooed this sweet, innocent guy (Phillip Morris), ultimately implicating him in some major crime. You can see how that could make a good movie.

If you had the right actors. What’s with these two straight men playing these campy gays? Is it supposed to be some kind of joke? We know that Jim Carrey doesn’t always have to play the clown. He was fine in his subdued role in The Truman Show. But there’s no authentic core to either of the actors in these two roles. Which is not to say that they can’t act. They’re both pretty good, if you like this sort of thing. (Jim Carrey must spend hours in front of the mirror practising ways of conveying those myriad expressions.) You admire them. When they go for the clinch, you say: oh God, they’re really doing it! but you don’t ever believe them as real people. You keep thinking of them as actors who are enjoying hamming it up. Which kinda subverts the deeper resonances that the movie might have had if you’d taken this story and cast it with two men who played the gay characters straight, so to speak, i.e. as ordinary men who happened to be gay but not outrageous.

And yet, botched as this movie is, there are some nice touches here and there. For instance, when the jailbird lovers are dancing to Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are" while a near riot of violence and bad language rages in the corridor outside their cell. Or when a meek cab driver picks up the Carrey character and insists on intoning lines from the psalms throughout the drive.  Near the end of the movie, we get a few convincing moments of real communication between the two guys. All of which points up the strangest aspect of this fiasco: the fact that it was written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also turned out the much better Crazy, Stupid Love. How could such gifted creators have taken such a wrong turn?

Capsule comment: Blechh!

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