Dilettante's Diary

Dec 20/11

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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: The Descendants (Movie); Melancholia (Movie); In the Garden of Beasts (History); The Sense of an Ending (Novel); Glorious Sounds of the Season (Concert)

The Descendants (Movie) written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; directed by Alexander Payne; starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Patricia Hastie, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern, Beau Bridges, Matt Corboy, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel,

The previews totally put me off. Something about a guy (George Clooney) whose wife is dying and he has to look after their young daughters. Clearly, a weepy melodrama. But then there’s all the favourable buzz about the movie: a sure winner of several Oscars, etc. Not that the actual awards mean anything hereabouts, but if there’s so much talk about a movie’s being a contender, that might mean it's worth a look.

At first, this one was shaping up to be every bit as bad as feared. In voice-over, the Clooney character, Matt, a prosperous lawyer, is talking about life here on one of the Hawaiian islands. He’s saying that people think the locals lead an idyllic life, that their disappointments aren’t so bad, their cancer isn’t so terrible. Outsiders, Matt says, think that life here must be paradise. I’m like: Puleeese....!!! If any movie-makers think such drivel could be of any interest to me, then their movie isn’t likely to be.

But then things start to turn really bad for Matt, as that voice-over intimates that they must, and then the movie’s not so bad.

Very good, in fact. The Clooney character’s wife is on life support, as a result of a boating accident. His attempts to cope with their two daughters ,17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller), aren’t going great, given that he hasn’t been a very attentive dad till now. On top of which, to put it mildly, both daughters have huge dollops of attitude. As things deteriorate, Matt finds that his family life wasn’t quite what he thought it was. Other reviews will undoubtedly tell you more than that; if you want to spoil it for yourself, go and read them. All I’ll say is that Matt is led into some difficult situations.

That’s one of the best thing about the movie – it keeps turning up new and unusual circumstances, scenes unlike any you’ve encountered in other movies. At times, admittedly, you can’t help wondering whether some of the Clooney character’s actions are plausible: Would a guy in his situation really do this, would he really go down this path, have this conversation? Still, the writing is good enough that it makes you want to suspend disbelief, just for the pleasure of the ride.

Much of that pleasure comes from watching the way Mr. Clooney handles the scenes. He has long ago established his rep as a competent, credible actor. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do anything as complex and finely-nuanced as this. His mastery of his craft first hits you in the weepy scenes. You’re thinking: thank goodness this is George Clooney. You can’t imagine any other actor getting through this stuff without being tripped up by the ick-factor. As one problem after another hits him, you get a study of a man who’s forced to try to be the man people expect him to be, a man who’s going to do and say all the right things – to be brave about his wife, for instance – when his emotions are pulling him in opposite directions. We can tell what he’s feeling but he almost never gets to express the depth of it – except maybe when he’s alone with his wife’s comatose body.

Happily, for the sake of the movie as a whole, Mr. Clooney is surrounded by a cast of great supporting players. One outstanding one is Judy Greer, as very kind, guileless woman Matt encounters. The daughters each offer, in their own ways, yet further examples of the extraordinary in-your-face naturalness that we see in young actors these days. As for a guy named Sid (Nick Krause), a buddy of the older daughter’s, I thought I’d seen every kind of teen-age obnoxiousness on screen these days, but this guy dishes up a new kind of creepy. Just one example: he laughs at the babbling of a demented grandmother, thinking that she’s trying to be funny. Let’s sum it up by saying he richly deserves the black eye administered to him by a feisty senior. Of course, the kid turns out not to be as bad as he seems, kinda nice, in fact, just like his pals, the lawyer’s daughters.

If there were a flaw in the movie – and I clearly think there is or I wouldn’t be introducing the subject – it would be that the movie shows its origins a little too obviously. The novel on which the movie is based would appear to have been a novel that was lying in wait till it could be turned into a movie. It doesn’t have the spontaneous, naturalistic, almost improvised feel that some of the best examples of the movie genre have. Sometimes things seem a little too structured: for instance, a character in one part of the story is discovered, unexpectedly, to have a connection with another part of the story. As in many attempts to dramatize a novel, here you get clumsy expository dialogue in which people tell each other things they all know, just so that we’ll get clued in. There’s a subplot about the sale of a huge parcel of land belonging to the lawyer’s family, descendants of Hawaiian royalty. The issue doesn’t have much to do with the main plot, except that it adds a certain sweep and majesty, the kind of contextual dressing-up that can add so much to a novel.

Which is not to say that the extensive and panoramic exploration of Hawaii’s scenic beauties and its culture don’t add anything to the movie. It’s like a plunge into a soothing hot tub on a drab day in early winter. Lilting Hawaiian music accompanies almost every scene. The charming tunes seem to provide an ironic counterpoint to what the family’s going through. Or maybe it’s not ironic. Maybe the message is: yes, all this is pretty bad, but life has its sweet moments too.

Capsule comment: lovely.

 

Melancholia (Movie) written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgrd, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgrd, Cameron Spurr

Take the title as a warning.

We start with what might be the wedding from Hell. The bride (Kirsten Dunst) and groom (Alexander Skarsgrd) are two hours late for the reception because their stretch limo got caught on a tricky curve somewhere in back country. Once arrived at the swanky banquet – at her brother-in-law’s baronial mansion on a private golf course – the bride keeps absenting herself so that she can do things like putter around on a golf cart and pull up her bridal skirts to pee on one of the greens. When it’s time for cutting the cake, she’s lolling in a bathtub upstairs, still wearing her wedding veil. Clearly, this girl has problems.

But she’s not the only blight on the party. Her dad (Jesper Christensen) is a complete nutcase. He keeps pocketing spoons and asking the waiters to bring more. When he tries to give a speech about his darling daughter, her domineering mother (Charlotte Rampling) jumps up to make scathing denunciations of weddings and marriages.

By the second act, Justine, the former bride, has descended to a catatonic state of depression. She’s barely able to open her eyes or walk across a room. (At which point you may begin to look on the title as something of an understatement.) Meanwhile, there’s talk of a planet called Melancholia that’s headed for earth. There’s some question of whether it will glide by as a gorgeous spectacle or whether it will ring down the curtain on humanity. The mighty strivings of Richard Wagner on the soundtrack underline the ominous implications.

All of which may amount to a great work of art, in keeping with other examples of director Lars von Trier’s oeuvre. The in-and-out-of-focus camera work gives the piece a feeling of docu-like reality. You might say all the actors look very impressed to be working in a Lars von Trier opus but there’s no denying that they all strike an appropriately authentic note. The rich-brother-in-law looked a lot like Kiefer Sutherland but I kept thinking it couldn’t be he because the acting was so fine, so believable. And yet it turns out that it is Mr. Sutherland!

However, I can’t speak for the merits of the work as a whole, because the relentless gyrating of the hand-held camera made me so sick that I had to bail, just past the half way mark. Advertisements and reviews should warn you about hand-held cameras. A notice at the door of the auditorium said some patrons might experience motion sickness. But what good is that information when you’ve already paid for your ticket and ascended two escalators (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox) to the auditorium?

So I forged ahead, hoping it wouldn’t be too bad. It was.

Capsule comment: Made me sick.

 

In The Garden of Beasts (History/Biography) by Erik Larson, 2011

Just a few measures of this book’s popularity – It’s been on the New York Times best seller list for months now. My library version is the 16th printing since publication in May. Friends and family members keep telling me it’s the best book they’ve read for ages.

So, there’s really only one question: is the book as good as everybody says? Yes, if you’re looking for a fascinating read and you’re not a stickler for literary perfection.

Author Erik Larson has decided to tell the story of William E. Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937. Mr. Dodd, an unpretentious scholar from North Carolina and a history prof at the University of Chicago, was by no means President Roosevelt’s first choice for the post. Mr. Dodd was chosen only after several previous candidates declined. His main qualification for the job was that he’d lived in Germany as a student and, as a result, spoke German. Along with his wife Mattie, he took to Berlin with him his two adult children, Bill and Martha, both in their twenties.

Martha, to use an expression that might have been popular back in the day, appears to have been a young woman who was "hot to trot." A pen pal with the likes of Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg, she was vivacious, flirtatious and apparently very liberated in sexual terms. Typically, she had a lover or two on the string at any given time, not to mention various potential suitors hovering, even though she was still technically married to an American banker. One of her most passionate affairs in Germany was with Boris Winogradov, a first secretary of the Soviet embassy. She was squired about town regularly by the saturnine Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo, although it’s not clear that they were ever lovers. Her Nazi buddies even introduced her to Die Fhrer himself, as a potential girlfriend.

Her dad was bemused by that encounter (which didn’t lead to anything – or heaven knows what change of direction history might have taken). As for her other affairs, the dad seemed naively innocent of their true nature. In the opinion of some of his critics, he was naive about political matters too. For most of his tenure, he tried to maintain cordial relations with the German government. His job, as he understood President Roosevelt’s instructions, was to exert quiet pressure toward moderation. Not that he wasn’t alert to the looming dangers. In a speech to the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce in October 1933, he cited various examples through history to show that brash attempts to control people brought social catastrophe. German liberals in his audience responded with wild enthusiasm but State Department officials back home felt he was coming too close to criticizing the host country, an inexcusable faux pas for an ambassador.

As for the abusive treatment some German soldiers meted out to American Jews who unfortunately found themselves in Germany at the time, Mr. Dodd protested to the government quietly but emphatically. Regarding Germany’s treatment of its own Jews, however, Mr. Dodd, like many people around the world, believed it was not the job of other governments to intervene. In this, he was supported by some Jewish leaders back in the US, while others demanded more strenuous attempts to curb Hitler’s anti-Jewish ravings.

What ultimately undermined Mr. Dodd’s term in office, however, was opposition of a more insidious kind. Mr. Dodd, having never belonged to the elite cadre of career diplomats, was not beloved by them. Not having the kind of private fortune that most diplomats could draw on, he lived and entertained modestly. He’d had his old Chevrolet shipped to Europe for his official use and he tried to live within the limits of his annual salary. What really irked his colleagues in the foreign service was his insistence on curbing the lavish excesses in their lifestyles. His enemies in the State Department became so fed up with him that they began referring to him as "Ambassador Dud." They finally found an excuse to have him turfed when, by the end of his term in Germany, he decided that Hitler’s government was so pernicious that he refused to have any further communication with the regime. His opponents argued that an ambassador who wouldn’t communicate with his host country was useless. The appointee who followed him in the post took the opposite approach: toadying to Hitler and Co in a sycophantic way.

One of the benefits of this book, for a reader who isn’t especially well informed about those terrible times, is that it helps you to understand the craziness of the Zeitgeist in which Hitler’s ideology took hold. References to Christopher Isherwood’s writings help to convey the ambiance of a place where diplomats, in order to escape Nazi eavesdroppers, had to conduct their meetings while strolling in the Tiergarten. A mid-town park of 630 acres of trees, walkways, riding paths and statuary, it was formerly a hunting preserve for royalty and its name translates literally as "animal garden" or "garden of the beasts."

Which, of course, as used in the book’s title, alludes to some the most treacherous players in the story. Surprisingly, though, Herr Hitler comes across as bland and pasty-faced, the kind of person who would fade into the woodwork, except for a strange intensity in his eyes as they bore into you in one-on-one encounters. (And we all know about the terrifying transmogrification that took place when he got behind a microphone.) The characters of his primary henchmen – Gring, Himmler, Goebbels – come through clearly, as does the vindictive in-fighting among them. One of the gang who was new to me was Ernst Rhm, the homosexual commander of the Storm Troopers, who met his end in the purge of June, 1934.

In reading about all this, you can’t help being struck by the way in which so many of the issues at stake are still burning questions in our time. When do we intervene in the affairs of other nations? (Think Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) And it’s remarkable how, back in the first half of the twentieth century, you were hearing from the Nazi’s the same sorts of duplicitous assurances that you hear today: oh no, the authorities have had nothing to do with the acts of violence that have been perpetrated on innocent people; these aberrations are strictly the actions of rogue elements and are not condoned by the regime. (Think Syria.)

For me, the most impressive thing about this book is Mr. Larson’s seizing on the idea of it. (Surely the film rights have been snapped up by now.) Not that Mr. Larson didn’t have plenty of hints of what riches were lying in wait for him. Memoirs of various people involved, including Martha Dodd, had been published. Diaries too. But Mr. Larson also combed through boxes and boxes of papers, official and personal, in libraries and archives. (His extensive endnotes offer lots of intriguing details that couldn’t be fit into the main text.) That Mr. Larson turned it all into a compelling read is all the more remarkable for the fact that, given a certain miasma of horror that permeates the book, you feel a kind of dread each time you return to it, even though you can’t stay away.

Since, however, it’s our duty here at Dilettante’s Diary, to keep the candle of literary perfection burning bright in the encroaching darkness, we do have to point to a few flaws in the book’s writing. For my taste, it reeks too much of best-sellerdom. Take the titles of some of the book’s sections and chapters: "Lucifer in the Garden," "The Queer Bird in Exile," "The Man Behind the Curtain," "Death Is Death," "Warning from a Friend," "The Message in the Bathroom," and "Sympathy’s End."

Too much striving for effect, if you ask me. As in sentences like:

"The fear and oppression that Martha saw in Fallada [a writer she’d visited] crowned a rising mountain of evidence that throughout the spring had begun to erode her infatuation with the new Germany."

And this: "...as shadows cast by the dim streetlamps outside played across her ceiling, she could not keep the terror from staining the night." If the lady’s having a bad night, just say so. You don’t have to try to convince me with fancy writing. Let the facts speak for themselves. Attempts to dress them up with too much writing tend to backfire on me: I begin to wonder if the author is protesting too much.

Not that I’m against creative touches entirely, but I think a writer should be careful not to repeat similar expressions in close succession to each other. On page nine, we get a reference to a phone call that "forever changed" the lives of the Dodd family and on page thirteen comes a meeting that "profoundly altered" Dodd’s life. On page 258, Dodd’s limitations as a driver "raise a chill," and on page 259, his hopes "were chilled."

But perhaps the most startling result of the author’s reaching for effect comes when he tells about a time when Mr. Dodd opted to do some work on his opus about US history, by way of an escape from the awful realities around him: "Late that afternoon, he devoted two quiet hours to his Old South, losing himself in another, more chivalrous age."

The Old South ‘chivalrous’? Ask some African Americans.

 

The Sense of an Ending (Novel) by Julian Barnes, 2011

In our review of Julian Barnes non-fiction book about death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of (DD page dated Feb 7/11), we took the author to task for his circuitous philosophizing. We told him to get back to fiction. Well, he’s taken our advice – and look what it got him: the Man Booker Prize!

Mind you, this novel does include a lot of philosophizing along with the fiction. What story there is begins with the narrator and his three pals in school in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, these cynical smartalecks sound a lot like the guys in Lindsay Anderson’s epochal film If, set in the same period. In Julian Barnes’ take on that era, a female student joins the four boys’ circle. For the rest of the book, the narrator catches up on her fate, while trying to understand something terrible that happened to one of the guys. The woman seems to have the key to the mystery but she keeps taunting the narrator with unhelpful accusations like "You just don’t get it, do you?" I often wonder why authors and film directors give so much time and space to these supposedly enthralling women who are so annoying. However, this woman’s reticence may be understandable when we eventually find out what went wrong.

But such plot developments aren’t the main point of the book. Mostly, it’s about memory: about how we remember things or don’t remember them, how our memories distort things, how we can never be sure whether what we’re remembering is what actually happened, how our memories shape our sense of ourselves. The narrator’s constantly turning these questions over and over from the vantage point of his senior years. In the process he comes up with some very insightful observations about what life is like for us humans.

Take this stunning example:

....Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

How’s the following for an acute analysis of feelings?

And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.

I particularly like this wise comment about looking back on youthful folly:

Of course, I’d been crass and nave – we all are; but I knew not to exaggerate these characteristics, because that’s just a way of praising yourself for what you have become.

And how could you top this ruthless candour in summing up oneself?

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain?

With such excellent writing on offer, my only complaint about the novel is that, at 150 pages, it’s too short. Granted, Mr. Barnes made the right decision in artistic terms. It’s just that he left me wanting more. Call it a conflict between aesthetic principle and personal pleasure.

 

Glorious Sounds of the Season: Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto with The Bach Children’s Chorus (Concert) conducted by Lydia Adams and Linda Beaupr; Eleanor Daley, piano; Shawn Grenke, organ; Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto; Dec 17.

Keep this in mind for next year: if you’re looking for a seasonal concert that offers something other than the old chestnuts, you might try the Amadeus Choir’s event with the Bach Children’s Chorus. Given that this program includes the winners of the choir’s annual song writing competition, you’re hearing brand new works of professional and amateur composers from Canada and around the world. And some of them are children as young as ten-years-old.

Among the pieces performed by the richly full-voiced Amadeus Choir alone, as conducted by Lydia Adams, "In The Holy Nativity of Our Lord" was by Matthew Emery, a winner in a first-place tie in the youth category, and a student in music composition at the University of British Columbia. Set to a text by Richard Crashaw that had overtones of William Blake, the ethereal piece was like layers of mist shifting and sliding over each other and, every now and then, colliding to create very dynamic harmonies. Felix Arifin, a student at the University of Toronto, tied for first place in the youth category with his, "Filius Deo Dormit," a slow, contemplative piece (text by Cheryl Cornette). A more sprightly song, "The Ashwell Carol", by Chris Artley, of New Zealand, was the first-place winner in the adult amateur accompanied category (text by John Catterick). "In Excelsis Gloria", set to an anonymous 15th century text, the first place winner in the adult amateur four-part a capella category, was by Robin Fullalove, a retired high school teacher from British Columbia. Conductor Lydia Adams noted that the piece had a somewhat mediaeval feel to it – one that sounded to me like it might have come to us through the influence of someone like Carl Orff.

The pieces performed by the Bach Children’s Chorus alone, under conductor Linda Beaupr, included two by members of the chorus. Imogen Sloss, just ten years old, wrote both the text and the melody of "The Star Shone Bright," the arrangement being by the group’s accompanist, the well-known choral composer Eleanor Daley. The performance of the piece, winner of a tie for first place in the child composers’ unison/two-part category, featured some nifty percussion work with shakers and sticks. Julia Naus, eleven-years-old, composed the charming "The Angel’s Song," the other winner in the tie for first place in the child composers’ unison/two-part category (arrangement by Eleanor Daley). The winner of first place in the child composers’ three-part category, "Quittez Pasteurs", based on a traditional text, was by Allison Winn, age twelve, with the arrangement, again, by Eleanor Daley, and a beautiful flute descant performed by Heidi Yan.

The children’s chorus and the women of the Amadeus Choir combined forces to heavenly effect on "Come Away, My Love," a piece Susan Zimmerman, a former winner of the competition. The piece had long, fluid lines and passages of humming, with a mellifluous cello solo played by Esther Gartner (arrangement by Lydia Adams). Eleanor Daley, herself a former winner of the competition, conducted the two full choirs for a performance of her own "All This Night," a piece that, between sections of a capella singing, featured wonderful, rippling runs on the organ, as played by Shawn Grenke.

For audience members who may have been getting an overdose of angels, a few items sprinkled through the evening had the effect of palate cleansers. Sheldon Rose, winner of an honourable mention, composed "Alexander’s Channukah Lullaby," and Carol Anne Lynch wrote and performed a clarinet accompaniment to David Eddleman’s "Bidi Bom," another Channukah song, made especially lively by the participation of a tambourine. We got a breath of outdoor sport in a paean to ice skating, "It’s the Rink Every Evening for Mine," performed by the children’s chorus. Composed in 1911 by A.R. Douglas, the piece came to the attention of the chorus when popular Canadian soprano Mary Lou Fallis included it on one of her recordings. In three-quarter time, the piece has a whimsical swing characteristic of the period, along the lines of "Casey Would Waltz With a Strawberry Blonde."

"The Shortest Day," a song about the winter solstice, with text by Susan Cooper, of Massachusetts and music by Brian Holmes of California, was the first place winner in the adult professional category. With its earthy, folksy theme referring to things like "....the green abundance/Buried in the sleeping ground," it reminded me of one of those songs that a character will sometimes sing when the action stops for a moment in one of Shakespeare’s plays. The majestic serenity of the piece also brought to mind the composition "The Long Day Closes" by Henry Fothergill Chorley and Sir Arthur Sullivan, although in a more contemporary idiom.

Of course, the concert did honour some of the more customary Christmas traditions – not least in the decor of the venue: masses of red poinsettias, two towering evergreens up front and cedar boughs adorning the balconies. As for musical favourites, nothing could beat the combined choirs’ rendition of Adolph Adam’s "O Holy Night," the arrangement by Lydia Adams being one of the best I’ve heard. It started with piano accompaniment, the youngsters chirping away brightly on the melody and the older choristers providing a somewhat darker background. Eventually the organ joined in, helping to build to a resounding climax that surely must have thrilled even the most tradition-minded of audience members.

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