Dilettante's Diary

Feb 26/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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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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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

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: Monsieur Lazhar (Movie); A Dangerous Method (Movie); The Yacoubian Building (Novel)

Monsieur Lazhar (Movie) written and directed by Philippe Falardeau; based on the play by Evelyne de la Chaneliere; starring Mohammed Fellag, Danielle Proulx, Sophie Nlisse, milion Nron, Seddik Benslimane, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip, Daniel Gadouas, Louis Champagne

New Teacher Meets Class. Next to Boy Meets Girl, that’s gotta be one of the most common movie themes ever. If a new movie’s going to make any kind of impression in that vein, it had better have something special to say.

Well, this one certainly starts off forcefully. The new teacher is required because the previous teacher has hung herself in the classroom. One of the kids finds her when he’s delivering milk cartons to the room first thing in the morning. Monsieur Lazhar, the man who’s chosen to replace her, is a new arrival to Montreal from Algiers. He brings some pretty heavy baggage with him.

It would seem, then, that there’s plenty of potential for compelling drama here. Except that the movie coasts along amiably without ever digging deep enough into the possibilities. We’re never sure what the main point of the story is supposed to be. When one issue does eventually come to the surface, it brings on a searing emotional climax involving one of the kids. But prior to that, the new teacher drifts from one educational project to another. (His personal problems are another matter but we only get three or four scenes addressing them.) He skirmishes with the kids a bit about their dictation (they appear to be somewhere around grade five), he makes them put their desks in rows instead of in the semi-circle their former teacher favoured, he tries to respond graciously to the romantic overtures of a woman teacher, he kibbitzes with the other two males on the school staff, the phys ed teacher and the janitor.

It’s all very effectively photographed – as for instance, at the beginning of the movie, when, for a few seconds, we see nothing but the empty school hallway after the boy who has discovered the teacher’s body runs off to tell somebody. In a way, though, the sleek look is one of the problems with the movie. The kids all look too polished and polite to be real kids in a real school Granted, this is apparently a private school (the kids all wear uniforms) and that’s probably necessary to the plot; otherwise, this particular new teacher probably wouldn’t have been hired. So maybe these kids wouldn’t be as unruly or untidy as kids in a public school. Some of the boys have some individuality: there’s the weasel-faced one who found the body; a boy who speaks Arabic with the teacher; and a fat boy who’s teased by everybody. But the girls are all too beautiful, too obviously movie stars in the making and none of them has a distinctive character. By contrast, I kept thinking of the French movie The Class (or Entre Les Murs) about a teacher in a multi-racial school in Paris. (You can see my review of it on DD page dated Jan 26/09.) That classroom was teeming with grubby vitality that you could smell.

Not so with this collection of comparative angels. There is, though, an admirable believability about the adults in the movie. In every scene, Mohammed Fellag, in the role of Monsieur Lazhar, gives us different aspects of a very interesting man. As the school’s principal, Danielle Proulx is particularly convincing as the semi-glamorous, semi-haggard school administrator that we all know so well. At first I thought the teacher with romantic intentions towards Monsieur Lazhar was too smiley but she eventually gets more real. Even minor characters – the gym teacher, the janitor and an obese woman teacher who gets off ironic quips in the staff room – are very familiar characters from the ordinary, everyday world.

Capsule Comment: Amiable but aimless


The Yacoubian Building (Novel) by Alaa Al Aswany, 2002 (Translation by Humphrey Davies, 2004)

Recent media coverage would lead you to believe that Alaa Al Aswany is the writer you have to go to if you want to find out what life’s like in Cairo these days. Eleanor Wachtel interviewed him on CBC radio’s Writers & Company a few years ago about his novel The Yacoubian Building, which created a huge sensation when it was published. And now The New Yorker (January 16, 2012) has published a profile citing Mr. Aswany as one of the most prominent intellectuals on the Cairo scene and a fitting spokesperson for liberals on the subject of last year’s revolution.

While I’m in no position to judge the validity of that claim, I can say that The Yacoubian Building does give a very good sense of what life is like for many of the residents of the teeming metropolis of Cairo. The book’s setting is a downtown apartment building and the narrative follows the stories of several people who live in the building or in sheds on its roof, or who have offices in the building. (The building actually exists in Cairo and Mr. Aswany has had his office there as a practising dentist.) The main characters include: an idealistic young man whose father is the doorman for the building; the boy’s sweetheart; an ageing rou and his shrewish sister; a successful businessman who wants to become a politician; a gay newspaper editor and his lover, who is a married soldier with children. Other characters who come along are Imams, government bureaucrats, restaurateurs, doctors and the like. Mostly what you learn about their lives is that they’re chaotic, unpredictable, frustrating and blighted by one problem or another.

In terms of the broader societal picture, you learn that any form of civil government or justice seems to exist only in theory. Graft, bribery and corruption are the order of the day. For instance, a lawyer advises a client to hire thugs to effect an illegal outcome. You learn about the racism whereby the French in Egypt consider themselves superior to the native Egyptians. You also learn about political/religious problems that probably never occurred to you. Take the US war in Kuwait: the Imams objected to Egypt’s supporting the US because it meant that Muslims would be required to kill other Muslims. Perhaps one of the most informative aspects of the book is the way it helps to show you how a sincere young man can be converted to the cause of Islamist terrorism. There’s a passing reference to one of Mr. Aswany’s key points in the New Yorker article: Egyptians have such a strong sense of their ruler as the father of the family that it’s almost unthinkable for them to complain about, let alone to rebel against, the government.

You can appreciate the enthusiastic reception of this book by Egyptians who were excited to find that an author had finally told about life as it is in their country. But the book provides little or nothing in the way of literary pleasure.

Shall we talk about the characters? The kindest thing you could say is that they’re painted with very broad strokes. Several of them are nearly Grand-Guinol* caricatures. Only one person in the whole lot of them is likeable and that person takes a very regrettable turn. The shrewish sister of the rou is such an unbelievable termagant that her presence on any page burns holes though any credibility the text might otherwise have.

You get the feeling that the inter-leaving of the stories of these various characters is supposed to create a sort of Canterbury Tales effect but the effort is clumsy. Not least because of wooden dialogue: "Not so, sweetheart. It’s the house of my father, the respected basha, which you have defiled with your filth." "Get out! I don’t ever want to see your miserable face again!""My oh my! What’s the matter with you, girl, that you’re so shy? Did we do something naughty? It’s God’s Law, you silly girl!" "You’re a good person. Take care you don’t make Our Lord angry! Do what’s right and leave it to God to provide!" "God indeed speaks truly but your fight with the regime will cost you your life. You’ll die my son. They’ll kill you the first time you confront them."

Admittedly, some of the problems in these lines may be attributable to the translator. Was it possible that he simply couldn’t find colloquial-sounding English equivalents for what the characters were saying? Or is it that their speeches sounded that bad in the original language? Either way, they don’t make for very good reading.

Neither does the narrative style. There’s far too much "telling" here – places where the author’s voice intrudes with comments like: "Thus was it as the 1980s dawned..." "We don’t know what he did before the age of forty..." "To tell the truth, Abaskharon’s adaption to his work is...." "The information available about Abaskharon in his youth is extremely sparse." This kind of story-telling lacks immediacy, it puts you at a certain distance from the characters and their lives. There are also many instance where the narrator, instead of creating a situation that enables you to feel what the character is feeling, resorts to lazy summarizing: "She had lost her compassion for people and a thick crust of indifference had formed around her feelings...." Then: "She had succeeded, after repeated attempts, in ridding herself of feelings of remorse and buried forever the guilt that had afflicted her...." And: "She asked him this sarcastically, then irritation swept over her again...."

It would be one thing to accept an interfering narrator’s authority but odd anomalies that crop up throw you. As in this: "Taha shook their hands affectionately and the three of them sat talking of general matters, though inwardly all of them felt anxiety and foreboding." We’ve been following Taha’s point of view, we've been seeing this scene through his eyes, feeling what he feels about it. How, then, do we suddenly know that the other characters are feeling anxiety and foreboding? Referring to a photo of a certain character, the narrator says that it was "exceptionally expressive in that it showed Hagg Azzam with his huge body, plebeian face, and darting, cunning glances...." How the heck can one single photo show glances in the plural?

Then there’s the mixing of tenses:

"She screamed and clapped her hands like a child..." Three lines later: "When she laughs, the muscles of her face contract, sweat stands out..." A further three lines on: "Zaki took her in his hands and whispered...."

Another example of mixed tenses:

"He affirmed to the lawyer that neither the doorkeeper nor any of the neighbors would prevent him from carrying out the plan. He spoke enthusiastically...." And four lines later: "Is he afraid of her? He never confronts her. He always backs down...."

This example strikes me as particularly odd: "Slowly he became seized by the notion that heavy sorrows were beating down on him, like the clouds that gather before a storm. Later he will go over a hundred times the insults and abuse that they directed at him...." I’m not saying that a narrator can’t jump ahead to say what will happen in the future. For the leap to be manageable, though, I think it needs to start in the present, not the past.

Admittedly, some of these narrative peculiarities may be traits of a kind of literature, a cultural expression, that I’m not familiar with. Fair enough. What’s harder to tolerate is the narrator’s all-knowing judgmentalism. Referring to a character born of a French mother and an Egyptian father, the narrator says: "And along with the painful loneliness, there were the feelings of alienation and mental confusion from which the children of mixed marriages suffer." What sociologist or psychologist is he quoting here? Who says that children of mixed marriages inevitably suffer feelings of alienation and mental confusion? To me, what we’ve got here is a writer who’s posing as some kind of thoughtful guy while passing on a lot of bunk as supposed wisdom to readers who, he thinks, don’t know any better. Take this as another example of banality posing as deep thought:

You think that the good people should be smiling and jolly and the bad ones have ugly faces with thick, matted eyebrows. Life’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s evil in the best of people and in those closest to us.

Nowhere is the narrator’s judgmentalism more grating than in his treatment of the gay scene. Here, the narrator sounds like some kind of anthropologist visiting a remote and exotic tribe. He differentiates between "passive" and "active" homosexuals. He quotes unbelievably campy dialogue in a gay bar. As if he’s making some very perceptive remark, he notes that a gay man reacts "like an angry woman." He talks about the professions that homosexual men are prone to, as though being homosexual limits you to certain pursuits. Worst of all, although he doesn’t explicitly say so, you could be forgiven for thinking that the author’s treatment of the development of one character is intended to show that being a victim of pederasty as a child can cause a person to become a homosexual. Sheesh!

Granted, much of the awkwardness in the discussion of homosexuality may be due to the fact that it was barely possible even to mention it in Egyptian writing at the time when this book was published. That, no doubt, is why the cover blurb touts the book’s "frank sexuality". Ok, we’ll give Mr. Aswany full marks for daring in the context of his own society, but there’s no denying that his writing on this subject is very off-putting to readers from more liberal Western societies. Maybe they’ll try to be patient with him on that score.

But will they be so forgiving of the over-writing, the ludicrous stretching for literary effect? Witness the following: "...surrendering himself to the jets of hot water spurting from the showerhead which felt to his body like armies of delicious ants...." That word ‘delicious’ raises the question of taste, which raises the question of who’s eating whom? The following elaborate conceit is concocted merely to express a student’s feeling on his first day in a university: "...Taha felt that he was something extremely small in the midst of a terrible congregation that resembled nothing so much as a mythical animal with a thousand heads whose eyes were all looking at, and examining, him." When it comes to sex, frank or not, Mr. Aswany falls back on clich and exaggeration, most notably in the following:

What deliciously insistent, burning desire he felt as he turned the key in the door and found before him Souad, exactly as he had imagined her, waiting for him in the red robe that showed off her stunning charms, and that smell of perfume that stole into his nose and tickled his senses! She came toward him with a vampish gait and passion took possession of him as he listened to her footsteps and the rustling of the robe on the floor.

In spite of all this drek, there are some touching and effective developments in the novel. One character makes a sympathetic transition from being cold and calculating to being a loyal, loving partner. In a scene between a young husband and wife, there’s poignancy in their talking around a dark secret of his that neither of them wants to acknowledge openly. When an author can give you scenes like that, you wish you could admire his whole novel. You want to feel that he can tell you something important about the lives of people who, at this time, figure so prominently on the world stage. If only so much inept writing didn’t keep subverting your faith in him.

* Google it!


A Dangerous Method (Movie) written by Christopher Hampton, based on his play "The Talking Cure," based on the book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Sarah Gadon and Vincent Cassel.

In fairness, maybe I should have stayed home. The previews suggested pretty strongly that this might not be my kind of movie: a lot of stilted, set pieces about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and their patients; lots of idyllic Swiss scenery; cozy, cigar-filled studios; flouncy dresses and big hats on the women. But maybe, just maybe, the movie might have something to say about those two men who had so much influence on modern thought?

Well, it does – if you know almost nothing about them and you want to get a bargain tour of the highlights of their lives, with a quick course in psychoanalysis thrown in. Otherwise, you might see the movie as a couple of men sitting and spouting textbook theories at each other. All that psychoanalytic theory may or may not be a lot of twaddle, it may have some relevance to human lives, but it all sounds so twentieth century now. We get archetypes and dream interpretations. We get the controversy about whether Freud is right in his insistence that the sexual impulse underlies nearly everything. There’s the public indignation at the discussion of all this sexual material. The role of sexual repression in civilization comes in for a quick review.

When it comes to the relationship between the two big men, there are some nice appositions: Jewish (Freud) vs Aryan (Jung); wealthy (Jung) vs not so wealthy (Freud); strictly scientific standards (Freud) vs the inclusion of some religious material (Jung). But any potential drama in these conflicts sputters out quickly. We get a minute or so of their joint trip to the US, for no apparent reason other than that Freud can make his famously portentous comment that they’re unleashing the plague on the US. Given that Jung labours in Switzerland and Freud in Vienna, much of the dynamic between them is played out in the exchange of laboriously hand-written letters. I’m not saying that they should have pulled out their cell phones; after all, it must have been fun going through all the stamps and ink and paper. But the voice-over reading of the letters doesn’t make for very engaging viewing.

One of the most dominant themes is the authority issue, the ultimate icon of that concept being incarnated in Freud. Except that, as portrayed here, Freud doesn’t inspire much awe. Viggo Mortensen plays the old master as genial, laid-back, fairly warm and likeable, with wry humour. Mr. Mortensen is made to look a bit like Freud in a superficial way, but there’s a softness about his face, none of that piercing intensity that you associate with Freud. Partly what makes Freud seem so approachable is that Michael Fassbender’s Jung is a stiff, prim, aloof intellectual who never seems to speak, whether to his wife (Sarah Gadon), to Freud or to a patient, without consulting a formal-sounding script that’s unreeling in his brain. Even when it comes to indulging himself sexually, this guy could be the poster boy for stern, mirthless passion. He makes a vigorous bout of flaggelation look about as exciting as an afternoon at Methodist Sunday School.

As his hysterical patient, Keira Knightly looks not so much like a human being as a screen goddess who is intentionally making herself as repulsive as possible in the hope that it will bring on an Academy Award. Granted, she’s playing a looney and the temptation to let it all hang out is probably irresistible but you might think a director, exercising a bit of taste and common sense, would tell her to pull back a little. (But, if you had that thought, you would be forgetting that the director in this case is David Cronenberg.) Without even knowing this character’s place in Jung’s history, you can make some pretty accurate predictions for her. When she says that there’s no hope for her, that she’ll never get cured, you might not foresee that she’s going to become one of Russia’s greatest psychoanalysts but you have a pretty good idea that her therapy sessions aren’t going to fizzle out. How could they? From the get-go, she seems to know how to play the game instinctively. She’s supposed to be a total basket case at her first meeting with Jung but, when he begins by asking what ails her, she starts emoting about her father’s bad temper.

The only bit of plot that sparks some interest in the midst of all this formulaic falderal is the arrival of a patient named Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a doctor himself, who is being treated on his father’s orders. Our Otto doesn’t think much of repression, to put it mildly. His subversive comments on the subject make for something of a personal crisis for Jung, wherein lies the only true tension in the movie.

Apart from that, things plod along in the way they must. So I found myself admiring the tinkly piano music (arranged by Howard Shore). And the summery whites on the women. What is that very light cotton fabric of their blouses that looks so comfortable? "Muslin?" Is there such a thing or am I getting confused with the word "Muslim"? I also spent a lot of time pondering the little sailboat Jung’s wife gave him. The way he used it made me think of the saying that the test of a true Canadian is the ability to make love in a canoe. What would that ability transferred to a sailboat on a Swiss lake prove? The oddest thing about this sailboat was that it appeared to be moving briskly across the water although there was obviously no wind in the flapping sail. Too bad some of the hot air these characters were expelling couldn’t have been directed at this sail to make it swell. And thoughts of swelling led to questions of flaccidity and impotence. Which, if you’ll pardon the Freudian implications, kinda sum up the whole movie.

Capsule comment (in lieu of a rating): "Woohaaaahunh." (That's a yawn.) 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com