Dilettante's Diary

June 15/05

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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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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Reviewed here: An Ex-Mas Feast (Short Story);  Brothers (Movie); Trying (Play); Movies: An Overview (Essay); The Best of Youth: Part One(Movie); In America (Novel), Leonardo (Biography), Palindromes (Movie)

An Ex-Mas Feast (Short Story) by Uwem Akpan (The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2005)

We don’t usually discuss short stories here, but I couldn’t not mention this one. It's in the current issue of The New Yorker. You know how every once in a while you long to read something really different? You want somebody to tell you about something you don’t already know. You want to hear a new voice in fiction. Well, here it is. I won’t say any more about this story except that it’s about a street family living in a shack in Nairobi. Their speech is rendered in a fractured English but you catch on to it after a while. Despite what you might expect in the way of the grim horror of their existence, there’s plenty of humour and affection going on. A photo in the magazine shows the author to be a great hulking black man. The story sounds as if he’s writing about his own childhood. According to the editors’ notes on the contributors, however, he’s a Jesuit priest from Nigeria.

 

Brothers (Movie) by Susanne Bier, in Danish with English sub-titles

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages and it has one of the worst scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Correction: I didn’t actually see the scene in question. When it became obvious what was going to happen, I closed my eyes. The sounds were bad enough. It’s one of those moments that makes you want to turn in your membership card in the human race. All of which is to say that, although this is an excellent movie, one part of it is very hard to endure. If you can get over that hurdle, the movie’s totally absorbing.

A dedicated family man, a major in the Danish military, heads off to Afghanistan where his helicopter comes under fire and crashes into the sea. He’s presumed dead but after a while it turns out he has been taken prisoner. (Sorry to reveal this much of the plot but it occurs very early and it’s impossible to discuss the movie without revealing this much.) Meanwhile his family is mourning his loss back home. His wild and crazy brother seems to be taking over the "dead" man’s place in the family.

Sound a bit contrived? Ok, but what about Othello? Lear? Then there’s good old Hamlet – a plot propelled by a ghost for godsake! I guess my point is that corny plot contrivances don’t matter that much as long as long as the piece turns up some genuine insight into being human. And this one does. The actors are all superb. Every moment feels perfectly real. Characters’ reactions are always complex and multi-faceted. The major’s two young daughters have eyes and teeth too big for their skinny faces, just like actual kids, not Hollywood brats. My favourite moment involving them: at the last minute, they balk and refuse to wear their good dresses to their dad’s memorial service.

On the intimate level, Ms. Bier really knows people and how they behave. (Is this a special trait of Scandinavian filmmakers? I’m thinking of the classic My Life as a Dog. What made that movie for me was the loving detail to things like the way the old lady prepared for bed.) On the more philosophical level, the film made me confront some of the deepest and darkest questions a guy can handle: What is worth dying for? Are there some situations where you would be better off dead? Could you be forced to do something that could destroy the person you are?

Rating: B+

 

Trying (Play) by Joanna McClelland Glass, directed by Marti Maraden (Canstage, Toronto)

Paul Soles and Caroline Cave do beautiful work in this two-hander by Joanna McClelland Glass. It tells about Ms. Glass' experience as a 25-year-old Saskatoon girl working for retired Judge Francis Biddle in Washington, DC in 1967. From the outset, it's obvious what the arc of the play is going to be: how long will this polite girl put up with this curmudgeon? Amid topical references to things like the Martin Luther King assassination, there are lots of amusing comments on the young woman's Canadianness. Expectedly, the relationship between the judge and the secretary changes considerably by the time we've reached the touching ending.

So why did the show send me home feeling rather depressed? Dare I mention the possibility of boredom? After half an hour, the old man's fulminating about split infinitives wears a bit thin. There are references to his involvement in the Nuremberg Trials and his opposition, as Attorney General, to the internment of the Japanese, but these topics pass without much effect.

Maybe I'm a total boor, but I crave a bit of excitement in a play. Near the end of the first act, some firecrackers go off when the woman responds to the geezer’s insults. We think: aha, they're really going to get into now. We’re gonna have a tooth-and-nail fight to the finish -- feminism against paternalism. They’re finally gonna resolve something. But no, that moment passes too.

Could the actors have done anything to inject a little more drama into the proceedings? The judge is supposed to be 82 years old and dying, but Mr. Soles' performance was so quiet and realistic that, attimes, it was like watching a movie rather than a stage play.

I began to wonder, particularly in the first part of the play, why Ms. Cave was signaling her emotions to the audience in a facial way. In retrospect, it occurs to me that the script gives the secretary only a couple of opportunities to show anything other than perfect Canadian decency. So, for lack of supporting text, Ms. Cave does her best to make her character interesting. You begin to become too aware that it’s all about an attempt to convince us devoted Canstage followers out there that we're having some kind of an experience of theatre.

So much niceness on display, so many middle-class Torontonians thronging the theatre for an afternoon of agreeable, mildly-entertaining Canadian fare, so much money spent on the production of this civilized, inoffensive fluff, so much talent poured into the making of this pretty bauble. There’s my recipe for depression.

You may say this sounds like the reaction of a jealous playwright. You may have something there.

 

MOVIES: An Overview

Some readers of Dilettante's Diary have been grumbling about my attitude to movies. Seems I'm too negative. Why do I go to movies, they ask, if I hate them so much? To punish myself? Or readers of Dilettante's Diary? The implication is that I'm a blight on the movie industry. The world would be better off if I shut up and stayed home.

My first response will be from the psychological/emotional angle. It’s true that I’m generally less pleased with movies than I’d like to be. But I continue going to movies because I keep hoping for a good one. In this, I am a lot like the dedicated fan of a losing sports team. Despite disappointment time after time, I keep showing up at the field/arena/gym/court/cinema because I'm hoping that they're going to win big one of these days. I know from experience that it's going to be very thrilling when they do.

And now for the scientific/statistical rebuttal. The fact of the matter is that I am not hard on movies. Since the inception of Dilettante's Diary, I have reviewed 44 newly released movies. Of those, 25 have received a rating of C or higher. You will remember that a C rating means "certainly worth seeing". As for videos and DVDs of older movies, 26 have been reviewed, with 10 receiving a rating of C or higher. That makes a total of 70 films reviewed, with 35 recommended as "certainly worth seeing" or even better than that. Another 17 films (either movies, videos or DVDs) have received a D rating: "Divided -- some good, some bad". That rating means that the movie is of some interest but I can't recommend it unqualifiedly. You might like it and you might not. All in all that means that 52 out of 70 films have been recommended as certainly worth seeing or possibly worth seeing.

That leaves just 18 out of 70 movies dismissed as not worth seeing. According to my clever little calculator, that works out to a fail/pass rate of 25.71 % (failure) and 74.29% (pass). Now what teacher, with a pass/fail rate like that would be dragged into the principal's office and told that it was simply not acceptable and that he/she would be required to curve the marks so that the failure rate would be lower than 25%?

So let's not hear any more of this crap about my being too hard on the movies.

To refresh your memory, here’s the rating system for movies in Dilettante’s Diary:

A = Absolutely Fantastic

B = Better than most

C = Certainly worth seeing

D = Divided: some good/some bad

E = Eh? (meaning "iffy")

F = Forgeddit

G = Gawd Awful

 

The Best of Youth -- Part One (Movie)

You'd think this movie would have a lot of appeal for me. It starts with two Italian brothers hitting the road in 1966. Had they been starting out just a year earlier, my brother and I could well have run into them while bumming around Europe. The movie catches some of the feel of those times: the chance happenings that take you down different roads, the failures of friends to show up at an appointed rendezvous, the reconciliations further down the road, the skinny dipping with strangers.

But the movie has much grander ambitions than mere travelogue. At three hours in length (it was originally a tv series in Italy), it strives for a saga effect, showing how the brothers' lives keep diverging and coming back together up until 1980. This kind of thing can work, despite the episodic and desultory nature of it, provided there’s enough attention to authentic detail to give you the feeling that you’re watching a slice of real life. In this case, the actors are far too old for the university students that they’re supposed to be at the outset. It doesn’t help that one of them is saddled with a fake-looking wig for his "long-haired" stage. The camaraderie and the joviality seem forced. The things that make these guys laugh wouldn't raise a chuckle in a kindergarten. Their fights look just as stagey. Arguments are trumped up. Plot developments turn on the flimsiest of premises. The introduction of some communist agit-prop strikes a blaringly false note. And even though these guys exchange letters across their separate worlds, they never seem to know much about each other. I kept forgetting that they were supposed to be brothers.

One issue that appears to be driving this movie is the mistreatment of psychiatric patients. Was this a big deal in Italy in the late 20th century? Maybe it is true that some patients were kept in horrible conditions in dickensian dungeons, but the movie never engages me on this point. The situations portrayed never have the ring of truth to them; more like melodrama.

Maybe you have to know and love Italian culture as it was at the time to appreciate this movie. Heaven knows, I'm grateful for a lot that Italy has given us. But this attempt at gritty realism doesn't do it for me. One word in the script highlights the problem. A cop says that he was called in as backup security for a big rally. The subtitles call it a "protest" but the word that he uses is manifestatione. Just try saying that. By the time you've got it out -- all seven syllables – it has lost its punch and bite. It's too elegant and lyrical. It really calls for an aria.

Rating: D

 

In America (Novel) by Susan Sontag (2000)

All the talk about Susan Sontag around the time of her death (a few months ago) made me think it was time to read something of hers. This novel seemed like a good place to start. The fact that it had something to do with theatre appealed to me. Set in the late 19th century, it tells about a celebrated Polish actress who comes to America with her entourage and tries to establish a farming commune in California.

The facile put-down would be to say that Ms. Sontag may be a brilliant intellectual and essayist but not a novelist. However, that won't do. In many respects, this book works very well as fiction. The central characters -- particularly the actress, her husband and a would-be lover -- are well developed; their inner lives are conveyed convincingly. The writing, without ever falling on its face, leaps all over the place in terms of style and point of view. Ms. Sontag sometimes delivers a major plot development with stunning economy and brevity.

But there are flaws. Some descriptive passages strive too hard to show what life was like in America at one time. You get the feeling that the author is wearing her research on her sleeve. Some incidents seem to have been included just for period flavour. As for that retinue of some twelve devoted followers who come to America, only four or five of them emerge clearly as characters. The others are merely names tossed around.

The more crucial failing of the book, for me, was the fact that I kept wondering why we were hearing about this Polish actress in America. What was it about her that was supposed to matter to us? Maybe this isn't fair, but I kept wondering about Ms. Sontag's agenda. Was my awareness of her as a well-known feminist getting in the way of my accepting the story at face value? Or was it just that Ms. Sontag wasn't engaging me on the gut level?

The closest I could come to finding the point of the book was that Ms. Sontag wants to show what it was like for Europeans to discover America. We see how the immigrants gradually become citizens of their chosen country. So maybe the book is all about what it means to be American. Understandably, this would be a compelling subject for many of Ms. Sontag's readers. From where I sit, this business of little, insecure nations trying to figure out who they are gets a bit tiresome.

Leonardo (Biography) by Martin Kemp, 2004

This little book offers an overview of Leonardo Da Vinci's accomplishments in science and art. Surprisingly, for a scientist, he was shaky when it came to arithmetic. As  for algebra, he couldn't even grasp the idea. Geometry was his forte. He had to be able to visualize something. If he could see it he could do it. While his scientific studies were innovative and inspired in his day, some of them sound a bit wonky now. But who am I to say? Maybe someone who could see them in the context of current knowledge would appreciate them more.

At times the writing is a bit cramped. Maybe that’s because Martin Kemp is University Professor of the History of Art at Oxford. Some academics seem to have a bit of trouble making prose out of all the ideas crammed into their heads. They haven’t had to develop the accessible style that journalists and fiction writers are forced to acquire.

But the discussion of Leonardo’s art was very interesting to me -- his use of atmospheric perspective and so on. It was fun to read that Professor Kemp lived for a bit in the very room where the enigmatic  lady posed for her famous painting. He makes the point, though, that the landscape outside the window is imaginary -- in the painting, that is!

There are only about 20 extant paintings done solely or mostly by Leonardo. He was famous for starting projects and abandoning them. Trouble was, his patrons were constantly asking him to take on something new: designing fortifications, waterworks, sets for theatricals, etc. It’s nice to know that even one of the greatest artists ever known couldn't quite manage to finish things.

 

Palindromes (Movie) written and directed by Todd Solondz

Maybe it's time for me to start reading reviews and checking out the official bumpf on movies beforehand. Mostly, I want to see how a movie works on its own terms; I don't want to be influenced by what the movie makers say they're trying to do or by what others say about their efforts. But I'm starting to think some preparatory reading might help me to: 1) avoid subjects that bum me out; 2) figure out what's going on.

In this case, a bit of help on both points would have been welcome. With Todd Solondz, you know you’re going to get your face rubbed in some of the uglier aspects of being human. But you hope there’ll be enough droll humour to make it worth watching. As far as I can tell, (not sure about this), this one’s a fantasy about an aborted baby who comes back to life as young teenager. Characters such as the aborted "Henrietta" and her mother "Aviva" are played by an assortment of different women. One character appears alternately as lily white sylph and a grossly obese black woman.

Henrietta ends up in the hands of a bunch of fanatical pro-life Christians but Aviva's pro-choice Jewish family is every bit as phony and smarmy. So what is the point? I don't know. All I can say is that the movie kept my interest, mainly by keeping me off kilter and making me wonder what was going on. Usually that's just annoying but not when the acting and writing are as intriguing as they are here. Instances of teen-age sex are so banal that they're stunning. In a moment of despair, a born-again Christian asks: how many times does a guy have to be re-born? Near the end of the movie, a teenage girl tells a nerdy, unattractive man who is accused of being a child molester and who has just delivered some of the movie's most acidic lines, "I know you're not a pedophile because pedophiles love children."

And how about that teenage girl played by (forty-something) Jennifer Jason Leigh? That bit of inspired casting is the kind of thing that kept me watching.

Rating: C (ie. "certainly worth seeing" -- but not unless you're in the mood for something odd)

You can reach me at: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com