Dilettante's Diary

April 8/05

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Reviewed here: The Pope's Funeral (tv) Leisure Society (Play), The Master (Novel), Dancing at Lughnasa (DVD) and Dear Frankie  (Movie)

The Pope's Funeral CBC TV April 8/05

Here's my policy regarding tv. With the exception of certain rare cultural programs, I watch only the following things: election nights, Academy Awards and really good funerals, such as Princess Diana's, The Queen Mother's and Pierre Trudeau's. You'll  notice that they're all live events. The appeal is that you never know what'll happen.

At first, I thought the pope's obsequies wouldn't rate my consideration. My feelings about him in his role as "Vicar of Christ" are largely negative (although I gather that, as a man, he would make a fascinating character study). So we're not talking about any great sorrow or affection here. Nor would I watch the ceremony for the ritual. Pompous liturgies mostly bore the hell out of me. (They're meant to, you say?) In this case, one might hope for some good singing but not enough to get me up at four in the morning.

What did make me consider it was the prospect of an unprecedented public event. How would those faceless bureaucrats at the Vatican perform come show time with the world watching? All those heads of state in one place! I wanted to see how the logistical and the security problems were handled, not to mention the political implications. Besides, a pope's funeral is kind of like a solar eclipse: you don't get to see one very often, at least, not when you elect stubborn old hangers-on like this one.

Going to bed Thursday night I heard the welcome news that CBC would re-broadcast the funeral at 9 am, so it seemed prudent to wait for that. But then the call of nature wakened me at 4:30. Knowing that I'd be lying awake for a while longer, I decided to trudge downstairs and catch some of the ceremony as it was happening. (Later I caught the first part on the 9 am re-broadcast.) I arrived at the tv just in time to catch that splendid blonde deacon (John McDonald) intoning the gospel. I wonder what his future in the church holds in store for him?

First impression: a Martian watching this ceremony could be forgiven for asking, "How do these creatures reproduce? There are only about two females for every hundred males!"

On the whole, I would rate the ceremony as decorously dull. Rather like this year's Academy Awards in that respect, except that in this case all the commercials were plugging the same thing. Nothing untoward happened. In this, the Vatican officials succeeded probably beyond their fondest expectations.  No snipers, no heart attacks, no cardinals on cell phones. You had to search for the tiniest imperfections, such as one sneaky choir member snapping a photo. And the wind blew the book of gospels closed on the coffin. One lady seemed to lose her balance when presenting her gift at the offertory, and Cardinal Ratzinger, the celebrant, had to help her up. Apart from that, God herself couldn't have asked for a more flawless performance. There was, in fact, a kind of austere beauty to the picture. I kept thinking of all that scarlet scattered among those soaring columns in terms of an abstract painting.

Eventually we did see some of the Polish nuns who staffed the pope's household. If you want to know what I have against him, look no further than these women with whom he surrounded himself. They garb themselves in ridiculous trappings that hide their womanhood as much as possible and they dedicate themselves to lives of servitude towards male patriarchs who are only too happy to keep them in that submissive role. He even had the gall to parade one of them on his last trip to Canada. What an insult to all Canadian women to imply that such a person is the model of what women should be.

We were told that there were several kings and queens in the conglomeration of VIPs. They should have had nametags. All clumped together, they looked like just a bunch of puffy-faced people. Since the Vatican was giving us the video feed, we didn't get to see any Canadians dignitaries. Apparently they weren't considered important enough. There was a glimpse of Prince Charles looking not too frustrated by the postponement of his wedding by one day. It was amusing to see George W. Bush placed not in the front row of a group. I thought it very campy of Condoleeza Rice to dredge up the old idea of the black lace mantilla, which hasn't been de rigeur at papal audiences for about 40 years now. Maybe she hoped to re-capture Jacquie's elan on her meeting visit with Pope John XXIII. Nice try.

I don't know who was doing the English translations on CBC but he handled the job very well: understated and accurate. Father Thomas Rosica's sanctimonious and self-serving commentary nauseated me. He kept bringing the subject back to his particular obsession -- World Youth Day -- and his personal connection with the pope. Thank goodness for Peter Mansbridge's trying to inject a folksy chuckle now and then. And Sister Susan Kidd's sensible, down-to-earth attitude was refreshing. She frequently referred to the deceased as "this man" rather than by one of the fawning honorifics.

On the subject of commentary, don't you hate the way the media have been tossing around these references to the crowds as "the faithful" and "mourners"? I know those words are just handy journalistic short-cuts but they really bug me. As if every tourist who shows up in Rome to try to get a piece of the action is "faithful" or "in mourning".

And all the media's clichés about the supposed charisma of the great man, all the testimony to the amazing effect he had on people who met him. Don't they realize that celebrities have this charisma because we attribute it to them? Through the influence of our culture and our tendency to hero-worship, we surround such people with a kind of glow, so naturally we think they're special when they make eye contact with us. Granted, some celebrities are better at it than others. But I think almost anybody's going to seem magical if you elevate him or her to a throne and make access to that person's august presence highly restricted and privileged. Bump into the Queen pushing her shopping cart at the A & P and I don't think you'll be over-awed.

It was quite a nostalgia trip hearing all that Latin and Gregorian chant. Many decades since I've heard much of it. There was, in fact, some good singing but, unfortunately, Father Rosica talked through the In Paradisum, that very sad but uplifting hymn in which we ask the angels to bear the deceased into Paradise. It was always my favourite part of the traditional funeral liturgy.

The cameras didn't tell the really interesting story, though. Like, how did the thurifer keep the charcoal burning in the censor? We altar boys always found it difficult to get up a good enough burn on the charcoal to last through a 20 minute Benediction. So how do you get through a three hour stint outdoors on a windy day? Did they have four or five censors stoked up and waiting in the wings? (All the incense reminded me of a friend who recounted something he'd witnessed in the Third World. A priest was consoling family members on the death of a relative and they said, "That's ok, Father. For the funeral we want three priests and lotsa smoke.")

Other questions: where were the toilets for the cardinals and the VIPs? Surely those elderly people couldn't have been expected to last all that time without a whizz. And who was that English-speaking young man who did the second reading? Where were the organ pipes? We saw a man seated at an organ, apparently outside the basilica, where the choir was stationed. Was the console connected to the pipes inside and were the sounds being carried outdoors by speakers? How would the Vatican have coped if it had rained? Do all the cardinals have to buy their outfits from the same haberdasher? Otherwise, how could you get such a perfect consistency in the red hue of their robes, coming as they do from all over the world? Do the Swiss guards ever get a chance to move or are they hired for their ability to stand rigid for hours on end? Even the guards at Buckingham Palace get to tromp back and forth occasionally.

If the Church wanted to impose its power and majesty on us, it succeeded mightily. Especially in terms of the power. You couldn't help but be impressed by an organization that could organize an event like that so smoothly and efficiently. There was just enough concession to contemporary times -- some very slight involvement of women -- to indicate that maybe something like the Second Vatican Council happened once upon a time, but the overall impression given by the ancient rituals was that the monolithic majesty of the Church wasn't budging an inch. I had the feeling that they wanted to show that they're bigger than me and that they'll outlast me. Nolo contendere!

When all's said and done, though, a man died. He lived among us on this earth and enjoyed life as we all do. No doubt, it was as hard for him as for anybody to let go in the end. He got more chance than most of us to make his mark on the world and, presumably, he did the best he could. Last week, the Globe and Mail published a picture of him taken in the month that he was elected pope. He was sitting alone in a kayak by an overgrown river bank, looking down at something he was reading. Oh, I know there was a gaggle of photographers within arm's reach. Still, the suggestion of quiet and solitude, the human-ness of the picture appealed to me. I wish that was the way I could remember Karol Wojtyla.

 

The Leisure Society (Play) by François Archambault, translated by Bobby Theodore, directed by Ken Gass. Factory Theatre, Toronto

On stage, two couples settle in for a night of heavy drinking. They play games and argue about babies. Horrible secrets tumble out predictably.

I keep looking around the audience to see why they seem to be enjoying this so much. For the most part, they look like a respectable United Church congregation. It appears they've never seen such an amazing play.

For me, it's shaping up to be a long night. Granted, the dialogue is clever and the decor is oh-so-cool: beige, grey and off-white. There some good gags: one couple has bought a grand piano because they're planning to adopt a Chinese girl baby. But none of these people is very likeable. The main problem is that, as theatre, it all feels so 1970s.

Until we get to the explicit sexual talk. Tons of it.Definitely not 1970s.  All very graphic and in your face (you should pardon the expression). At this point, the writer ratchets the dialogue up a few notches on the funny metre and the action builds to a farcical pitch. The delighted church-goers are responding like they've got what they came for.

All four performers acquit themselves well enough. The two playing the hosts, Irene Poole and Richard Zeppieri, are the more accomplished of the four. Miss Poole's strong performance is a touch too theatrical, though, for my taste. Her husky-throated, drama queen style adds a certain gravitas to the play, but she never seems quite real to me.

On the other hand, Mr. Zeppieri has me believing in him all the way. He comes across as a very real person, an ordinary man bewildered by the madness around him. (Mr. Zeppieri has an especially deft touch for self-deprecating humour. Think: Jack Lemmon) Come play's bleak ending, you feel this man has been through a nightmare and learned something. Thanks mostly to his convincing and authentic presence, I come away thinking maybe there's some point to the piece after all.

 

The Master (Novel) by Colm Tóibín (2004)

There's been a lot of buzz about this book. For instance, it was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I'm not sure why. Could it have something to do with the combination of two distinguished writers -- one as author and one as subject? Ostensibly a novel, it's based on the life of Henry James and the central character is, in fact, Henry James. For me, though, it doesn't work as a novel because there's no plot and no forward movement. There isn't even any sense that the protagonist is moving towards some sort of new awareness or some kind of insight.

So what's the point? Not biography, certainly, because you can't tell what's invented and what's factual. One of Mr. Tóibín's goals seems to be to show us where James got ideas for his stories. Now and then we see a piece of fiction evolving from a story James has heard or an encounter with an intriguing character. I doubt, however, that any of Mr. Tóibín's readers are at the level of cultural sophistication where they burn with curiosity to know where a writer gets his ideas. I thought that sort of question was confined to meetings between writers and vacant-headed royalty.

The book does work though as a kind of character study, each chapter using isolated incidents to build-up a picture of James. (It could have been called Portrait of a Gentleman.) Here he is in full, living colour: intelligent, discreet, dignified, fastitidious (not to say prissy) and courtly. For the most part, he watches life pass by and records it. In some sections, so little happens that this could be an Anita Brookner piece. One chapter deals with the writer's inchoate longing for a young sculptor but nothing whatever comes of it.

Surprisingly for a book by an Irish writer, grace and humour are in short supply. The dialogue does not sing. Several sentences are downright clumsy. The simple matter of clarity about the antecedent of the third person pronoun is often bungled. In one chapter, two of James' friends report to him daily about developments in the Oscar Wilde trial. The friends' names are given but we know nothing about them; they seem interchangeable. An odd deficiency in a novel by such an acclaimed writer.

But I enjoyed reading this book. Maybe that's because the mood of Henry James' inner world was conveyed so well. Mr. Tóibín casts a spell that pulls you in, never mind all your fussy reservations.

Dancing At Lughnasa (DVD)

I was dreading this film adaptation of Brian Friel's celebrated play because someone who read a script of mine, Weight Lifter Rhapsody, said there's some similarity between the two pieces. Quite a lot, as it turns out. But I guess when you get a bunch of Irish sisters together, you're going to get some of the same themes, no matter who's at the keyboard. In my play, though, the small-town Ontario setting gives the piece a Canadian distinctiveness, I like to think.

If you crave some Irish culture for your Friday night viewing, don't think of Mr. Friel's piece in terms of the charm and humour in something like Waking Ned Devine. Dancing lea\ns towards the sombre and poignant side of Irish-ness, more in the direction of John Houston's The Dead, his masterly film of James Joyce's short story. In spite of my anticipatory misgivings, I found Dancing beautiful and moving. I was somewhat distracted, though, with questions about the film adaptation which must have been quite extensive. Much of what we were seeing couldn't have taken place on stage, it seemed to me.

As always, it's fascinating to watch Meryl Streep. She's very good in this film (made in 1998) but my impression is that her more recent work, as in The Hours, Adaptation and Angels In America, shows that Ms. Streep's acting has become more subtle and more interesting, with a wider emotional range, as she has aged. For some reason, I find that comforting.

Rating: B

Dear Frankie (Movie)

The simplest thing would be to say: Go See It. But the point of Dilettante's Diary is to give me a chance to sound off. If you've seen the previews or heard anything about this one, you probably know the gist of it already, but I don't want to be the one who spoils it for you. So, with great effort, I'll try to stop my fingers from blabbing too much. All I'll say is that it's about a single mom (Emily Mortimer) and her son (Jack McElhone) who is deaf. They live in a seaport somewhere near Glasgow and they're runnning from something.

This is one of those gems of a British movie with superb casting, acting and writing. The local colour is spot-on. Whether it be the pub, the chips shop or the classroom, everything looks and feels exactly right. Grotty as the town is, the camera manages to pick up unexpected spots of beauty here and there. Even the actors in the smallest roles have an authentic look. This movie is like Vera Drake in that it has many of the same strengths, but the grimness of that movie is replaced here with charm.

What happens is sentimental and perhaps a bit preposterous. But it's all done so well that you barely notice. Whenever things threaten to get too sweet, a chain-smoking grandmother (Mary Riggans) who lives with the mom and boy adds a welcome dash of tartness.

One more plot detail that I can't resist mentioning: everything hinges on the arrival of a certain man on the scene. Gerard Butler in the part couldn't be better. His taciturn manliness prevents the story from toppling into the treacle. He's a darker, tougher version of a young Paul Newman -- that same self-contained intensity. I don't know about you, but my hopes of becoming a Hollywood hunk, particularly one of the British persuasion, have received a severe setback.

Some melodramatic stuff towards the end of the story might have been handled more believably. And the saccharine score bugged me but not enough to knock me off the cloud of pure pleasure that floated me through this movie.

Rating: B+

You can reach me at: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com