Dilettante's Diary

March 13/14

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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Fall Reading 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
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HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
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MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews 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.

On this page: a note about artist Katherine Dolgy Ludwig

And reviews of: The Great Beauty (Movie); From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Novel); Me Before You (Novel); The Silent Twin (Mystery); The Secret History (Mystery); Wittgenstein (Biogarphy); Academy Awards 2014 (TV); American Hustle (Movie); Nebraska (Movie)

Katherine Dolgy Ludwig (Art) -- It comes as a great pleasure to hear that this artist, whose work I singled out in my review of The Artist Project 2013, has received the award for "Best in Show for Watercolor" for her painting "Live Jazz Magic" in the Artist Members Exhibition of the US National Arts Club. The show is on at 15 Gramercy Park South, New York. What thrills me about the work of Ms Dolgy Ludwig is that it glories in the special, unique qualities of watercolour. www.katherinedolgyludwig.com

 

The Great Beauty [La Grande Bellezza] (Movie) written by Paolo Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello; directed by Paolo Sorrentino; starring Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Serena Grandi

Jep (Toni Servillo) is an arts journalist, based in Rome. As the movie opens, he’s celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday with a wild rooftop party. For the rest of the movie, he seems to be suffering from a massive existential hangover. Nothing makes much sense; nothing has meaning for him. He wanders from one artsy event to another. To mention just a few of them: a nude model bashes her head against a brick wall; a precocious girl artist throws canfulls of paint at a canvas; a photographer displays one headshot of himself for every day of his life; a female performer tenses up as a knife-thrower aims in her direction.

Meanwhile, a lady friend of Jep’s agonizes over her demented son. Jep discovers that the forty-ish daughter of an old pal is a stripper in her dad’s club. Friends talk about a small novel that Jep published years ago. It may or may not have been a significant artistic accomplishment. Is he ever going to achieve anything worthwhile? He has glimpses of what looks like beauty: the occasional couple that seem truly to love each other. He replays in his mind the long-ago moment when he seemed to be on the brink of youthful love. He watches people who seem to have found religious meaning, but it’s elusive to him.

There were moments in this movie when I felt that we were settling into a great film. As when, for instance, a man introduces himself to Jep as the husband of a woman Jep had once known. She has just died. The widower has learned, from reading his wife’s diary, that Jep was the man she truly loved. That strange encounter between these two men touches on something very deep about the pain of being human. But that sense of being intensely engaged in something didn’t last for me. I got tired of Jep’s drifting. Some incidents stretch over several scenes but many are fragmentary and brief. It’s hard for a viewer to get involved in anything.

So I began to wonder: what is it about this movie that appeals (apparently) to so many people? Is it the oh-so-Italian, Fellini-esque flair of the thing? In other words, the weirdness? The exoticism? Or is it the golden glow of the Roman light on the old buildings? Is it the opulence of the private palaces Jep and his friends have access to? Is it the soundtrack, in which the relentless din of party music is interspersed with Gregorian Chant and works that sound like they come from Arvo Prt and Krzysztof Penderecki? None of that was enough to do it for me.

Presumably, if you cared enough about Jep, his character would carry you through the movie. He’s a nice enough nihilist, nothing mean or cynical about him; he’s kind and gentle with people, except in the rare cases when somebody really deserves a comeuppance. But the smug smile that’s his habitual expression never invited me into an interior life that I felt like exploring. He mentions a couple of times that Flaubert wished he could write a book about nothing. The implication is that Jep feels he could do that. Maybe that’s what this movie’s doing. I can sympathize with the intention but it doesn’t make for great watching.

 

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Novel) by Alex Gilvarry, 2012

The narrative voice here struck me as being the most original and distinctive to be heard since Junot Diaz spoke up in the pages of The New Yorker some years ago. In this novel, we have Boy Hernandez, a young Filippino, who has come to Manhattan in the hopes of making his name as a women’s clothing designer. Unfortunately, he has inadvertently become involved with some bad guys who turn out to be terrorists plotting against America. He’s writing his story, in 2006, as a sort of confession, from his cell in Guantanamo Bay. (No spoiler alert required on that point, because we find out that much in the first few pages of the book.)

What’s fascinating is Boy’s explanation of how it all happened. The writing doesn’t actually sound like a confession; it’s too creative and playful. But never mind. Boy’s tone is flippant, in-your-face, sarcastic, witty and sly. Although his humour sounds gay to me, he insists that he’s straight and he provides anecdotal evidence that would seem to prove the point. Anyway, who am I to question what any person – fictional or real – claims about his sexuality? Maybe the gay association is a reflection of my own prejudice about the fashion world.

But who would think to make a connection between that scene and terrorism? The situation is so extraordinary that I had to check the publisher’s note in the front of the book to make sure that this was fiction. It seemed that the book must be based on some actual case. Apparently not. But Mr. Gilvarry makes the odd juxtaposition very plausible. Partly, that’s thanks to his deft creation of character. The charmingly oleaginous creep who lures Boy into the terrorists’ network is unforgettable. Even Boy’s guards in Guantanamo stand out as interesting individuals.

The only thing that bothered me about this brilliant and clever book was that, about two-thirds of the way through, there is a shift in tone. The high spirits peter out, understandably perhaps, as Boy’s situation becomes worse and worse. (I’m sure the term ‘Kafka-esque’ has been applied to it by some reviewers.) The book becomes an excoriating critique of the abuses of justice perpetrated by the George W. Bush administration. This is more by way of implication than outright statement; it’s the inescapable conclusion of our witnessing the horror that Boy’s put through as a result of the knee-jerk patriotism of the era. Not that I’m against a novel’s delivering a hard-hitting political message. Just that it’s not what I was prepared for here.

 

Me Before You (Novel) by Jojo Moyes, 2012

It’s not an unfamiliar premise: a plucky caregiver takes on an ornery patient. Our heroine is Louisa Clark, an English lass without much education but lots of goodwill and a policy of being as positive as possible about things. (A Sally Hawkins role.) The patient, on the other hand, is a former jet-setter businessman who has become a quadraplegic as a result of being hit by a motorcycle. Although Ms Moyes does a good job of rendering his sardonic quips, I’m thinking: do we really need this scenario again? About 100 pages in, however, a crucial question crops up. It raises ethical issues that are very much in the news these days. As a result, the reading becomes somewhat more compelling – leading to a hard-hitting and thought-provoking ending.

Throughout my reading, though, the book was teetering precariously on the edge between satisfying literature and pop culture shlock. My lingering impression tends more to the pop than the profound. It almost feels as if the book were written with a direct eye to movie sales. There are too many contrived plot elements. The discovery of a case of adultery, for instance, provides a convenient prop for a kind of blackmail. A cataclysmic thunder storm is tossed in for effect at an important climax in the book. Also, the book is tinged with the curse of a lot of British writing: class consciousness. The author’s depiction of Louisa’s parents is condescending and stereotyped – although they do eventually show some interesting individuality. Same for Louisa’s upper class employers, her patient’s parents. The one truly unusual relationship is the one between Louisa and her younger sister, who happens to be smarter, more successful and more attractive than Louisa. You don’t often get that dynamic in a novel; it makes for some interesting insight into the two women’s characters.

 

The Quiet Twin (Mystery) by Dan Vyleta, 2011

Our main character is a young doctor who runs his practice out of his apartment in Vienna. It’s around the time of the beginning of the Second World War and everybody’s muttering darkly about what’s allowed and what isn’t under the Nazi regime. The doctor’s wife has recently left him for some unstated reason but that’s the least of the mysteries in the air. The doctor’s apartment block is teeming with strange goings-on. A crotchety housekeeper summons him to the bedside of a young woman who may or may not be ill. Is she neurotic? Is she just trying to seduce the doctor? Her elderly uncle, with whom she’s living, is a retired doctor who is rumoured to have once sexually assaulted a young patient. In a window across the courtyard, a mime can be seen washing off his makeup and strutting naked every night. He seems to be harbouring some secret in an adjoining room. A little girl with a twisted spine scampers about the building making friends with everybody while her alcoholic father, as seen in his window, sits drunkenly at his table. The building’s janitor lurks suspiciously in his underground premises. A detective with hairy hands and a frightful wig skulks around. A dog has been found disembowelled in the courtyard. Oh, by the way, the bodies of four murdered people have turned up nearby.

It came to a point in my reading of this book that the only reason for continuing was to see what the writer was trying to do. Why was he writing this story? I persevered well beyond the half-way point but could go no further. I can only conclude that this is a kind of story-telling that some readers, myself not being one of them, enjoy: a fantastic spinning of yarns, the more complicated, portentous and murky the better. None of it seems to have anything to do with real life, as far as I can tell. It’s more like an elaborate dream. What particularly annoys me is that, in breaks between some chapters, the author gives brief accounts of certain well-known and grisly criminal cases of the time. To what purpose? Is it to try to impress upon us that all sorts of horrible things did actually occur in that era? The tactic doesn’t make his imaginary confections any more convincing. What’s worse is that the book is divided into many separate sections, by means of nearly-blank pages. The divisions have no artistic relevance whatsover. What a pretentious waste of paper!

 

The Secret History (Mystery) by Donna Tartt, 1992

There’s been so much fuss about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s most recent book, that I thought her first one might be worth a read. It’s like the books that Ruth Rendell writes under the pseudonym "Barbara Vine." In these books, there’s usually a murder or some such catastrophe at the heart of the story but it’s not so much about whodunnit. It’s about other questions, like: why? and when? and how?

In this case, we know in the first paragraph that the deceased is one of a small group of friends; the killers are the other members of the group. They’re six young people who are students of an eccentric professor of Greek at a small college in Vermont. The prof exerts powerful control over this select club and they’re encouraged to think of themselves as exclusive and elite. Through his "classes" – taught in his tasteful and homey office, with tea and refreshments – an intense bonding develops and it extends to social interactions among the group members throughout the rest of their lives on campus.

Why, then, did they eventually turn on one of their group? Ms Tartt keeps you reading intently for almost the entire 580 pages in order to find the answer. There’s a slow, steady, intricate build-up of detail that has you constantly longing for more. It helps that the writing is marvellously clear, fluid and stumble-free; you almost never have to re-read a sentence for clarity; nor do you ever have to re-write one in your mind. Another thing that helps is that the narrator, a member of the group, casts a spell, with his calm, thoughtful manner. He has an impassive, bystander quality that reminds me a bit of Nick, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. Sure enough, he mentions at one point that that’s one of his favourite novels. Another writer that comes to mind here is Iris Murdoch. These kids are much like her characters in that they seem to have endless amounts of time to sit around talking; they’re always at each other’s beck and call, always responsive to that midnight knock on the door, to the suggestion of a visit to the pub, to the invitation for a drive in the country. You begin to wonder if they have anything else to do, but then you remind yourself that university life can be like that much of the time.

The writing, though, that figures most darkly in the background here is Shakespeare’s Macbeth: the terrible dread of having to live with something you wish you had never done. The place where that comes through most strongly is in the section where the perpetrators have to attend the funeral of the victim and make a show of their sympathy for the victim’s family. After that, however, the book loses some of its gripping quality. For much of the last one hundred pages, there’s too much dilly-dallying, too much hand- wringing, too much to-ing-and-fro-ing. The urgency has gone out of the proceedings. I got tired of people falling asleep drunk and waking up in a strange location hours or days later. But Ms. Tartt does finish the main story with a dramatic slam, followed by a poignant and telling epilogue about what happened to everybody in the long run.

 

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Biography) by Ray Monk, 1990

I used to have a somewhat romanticized vision of Ludwig Wittgenstein: the misunderstood genius living in his isolated cottage overlooking the sea, wandering on cliffs with his head in the clouds, tormented by his sexuality. Well, it turns out that there’s some slight truth in that picture but it’s far from being the whole story.

This bio, which is apparently considered to be the most authentic one, shows that Wittgenstein, possibly the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was not all that isolated. True, he did often flee society for solitary hideouts, but he taught at Cambridge and was the centre of a lot of important discussion. Still, he hated the place and was always trying to find more humble, more useful work. It’s not as if he was inept when it came to anything practical. He’d trained as an engineer before turning to philosophy and he was decorated for bravery under fire in the First World War. In the Second World War, he provided worthwhile assistance to a hospital research project on casualties. The reason he kept bouncing back to academic life was that it was an inescapable conclusion that that was where he could make his most valuable contribution to the world.

The man, although not a believer in any conventional sense, seems to have considered it his obligation to be a saint. He gave away his considerable share of his Austrian family’s fortune and he kept himself to a very strict and demanding standard of honesty in all his dealings. But he was also extremely controlling, obsessive and anal-retentive.. He was so domineering in discussions that even his best friends and most sympathetic listeners had to plot ways to escape from him at times. Although Mr. Monk never mentions the term, you begin to wonder if Wittgenstein might have been a very likely candidate for a diagnosis of what is today known as Asperger’s syndrome. (A quick Internet search shows that some experts in the field of mental health have had the same thought about him.)

As for sex, he definitely had a passionate sexual relationship with at least one man. From Wittgenstein’s journals, we know that he fell in love with two or three other men but it’s not clear whether or not he had sex with them. It wasn’t being gay that bothered Wittgenstein so much; it was the fact of sex itself. He felt that sex sabotaged what should be a pure, idealistic love. If that isn’t enough to prove that a supremely intelligent person can have wonky ideas, the strongly anti-Jewish theme in his private journals (even though three of his four grandparents were Jewish) shows a susceptibility to knee-jerk, popular ideology.

Author Ray Monk does his best to show that those sentiments were not meant as a societal judgement on people, that they were written, when Wittgenstein was a relatively young man, in the context of a ruthless examination of his own character. In any case, such references disappear from the journals well before the onset of World War Two and Wittgenstein did not, in any way, sympathize with the Nazis or their program. Mr. Monk does a thorough job of covering this and every other aspect of Wittgenstein’s life, without falling into the fault, as some biographers do, of zeroing in on picayune details. There is a cool, calm, detached tone to the writing. Mr. Monk is not the "kiss and tell" kind of biographer who has fallen in love with his subject.

What Mr. Monk seems to enjoy talking about most is the philosophy of the great man. Roughly one-fifth of the book’s text of some 580 pages is given over to explications of Wittgenstein’s writings and teachings. But you have to wonder about the point of including this material. There surely isn’t enough detail for the scholars or the students who want to know all about Wittgenstein’s philosophy and yet the going can be tough for the rest of us. I usually was able to get the general idea of what was being talked about. To put it in inexcusably simple terms, most if it is about how words are used and how they relate to reality, if at all. Occasionally I could follow the complete argument of a few paragraphs, but not often. Oh well, Wittgenstein frequently said that he didn’t expect anybody to understand him.

Given that my library's copy is from the fifteenth printing of this important work, I find it inexplicable that the photographs are so poorly reproduced. Many of them are so dark and blurry that it’s impossible to make out any of the people or any details of the locations. Information about the photographs is accompanied by numbers, apparently meant to refer to the photographs, but there are no such numbers on the photographs. Is the publishing business in such dire straits these days?

 

Academy Awards 2014 (TV)

I don't watch the Oscar ceremony to see who wins. It's ridiculous to claim that one performance or one movie or one sound track is better -- by a certain percentage of votes -- than another. Let's just say that all the nominees have done very good work. Let's celebrate that.

The reason I watch the show is to see the actors in their off-screen roles.  Which is not to say that they aren't still performing. They're performing the roles that are expected of them as movie stars in the public eye. But I like to see how those personae differ from the more scripted roles the actors play in actual movies.

Of the various things that they said in the brief interviews, I found Kevin Spacey's remarks some of the most interesting. He reminded us viewers that the work these people do in movies every day is not, in itself, glamorous. It's a grind. So the point of the Oscars ceremony is to live it up, to party. Hence the appearance of glamour. Which is, of course, much augmented by our adulation.

One of the best speeches of thanks was by one of the filmmakers of the short documentary about Alice Sommer, a holocaust survivor. Instead of reeling off a long list of people to thank, Malcolm Clarke simply talked about Ms Sommer, who had died a week ago. His comments about her resilience and her hope conveyed a memorable message.  

In her opening remarks, Ellen DeGeneres looked to me like she was going to be one of the best Oscars hosts in recent memory. She struck just the right tone: friendly and affectionate, but edgy enough to be funny. She later referred to her opening shtick as a monologue but it was more like a number of wisecracks directed at the stars sitting in the front rows, thus helping to establish a chummy, communal feeling to the evening. Some of Ms DeGeneres' later stuff seemed a bit aimless and dumb: popping up from a seat in the auditorium, for instance. The business of ordering pizza for everybody looked like a disaster but it turned into a very good pay-off, with her not having the money for the delivery guy. Another good thing about Ms. DeGeneres' hosting was that she made spontaneous references to things that were actually happening. The group photo with several stars, then tweeting it, later telling  us that Twitter had crashed as a result -- that pulled the Oscars ceremony well out of its stuffy, formal past and right up to the minute.

In fact, the informal, relatively casual note struck me as one of the best features of the show. There were very few of the elaborately mind-numbing production numbers of the past. If only they could get rid of those awful performances of those ghastly nominated songs, I might be able to last right to the end of the show on this, my one tv night of the year. As it was, I only made it to about 11:20 EST.

 

American Hustle (Movie); written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell; directed by David O. Russell; starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Elisabeth Rhm

In some ways, this is a good old movie-movie: lots of razzle-dazzle, scuttlebutt, action and glamour (as long as you can accept the 1970s styles in that last category). And yet, in some ways, it’s not at all an old-style movie. There’s something weird and skewed about everything. It’s not so much that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys; it’s more a question of whether there are any such things as good and bad. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a couple of con artists who bilk people who've come to them for financial advice. One of their clients, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), turns out to be an FBI agent. He’ll let them off the hook if they help him to make some really big busts.  

It’s not surprising that I couldn’t always follow the plot, not being an expert in such things. Usually, I understand characters better, but these people are bewildering.

Bradley Cooper seems to be a smooth, cool type and yet, when sex is in the air, he begins to growl like a bear. And what’s with him putting his hair in little curlers to produce those tight curls? Sometimes I found it impossible to read the dynamics between him and his boss (Louis C.K.) at the bureau. One scene between the two of them – in a run-down bathroom, with guns – looks like it comes from another movie.

Christian Bale’s character seems like a total loser, what with his fussy attention to his comb-over, including a supplementary hairpiece, and yet there’s something undeniably authentic about his quiet, thoughtful, almost repressed way of responding to things. You don’t often get a crook behaving that way.

As his partner in crime, Amy Adams has come a long way from the innocent, ingenuous types she first played. It’s possible to imagine lots of actresses playing this part without all the strange moments that Ms. Adams brings to it. I’m never quite sure how to read her. But she’s interesting in every scene.

The top prize in that respect, though, goes to Jennifer Lawrence, as the Bale character’s under-appreciated wife. While she brings new meaning to the word ‘ditzy,’ you can never quite write her off; there’s something genuine, lovable, almost admirable about her determination to march through life as the airhead nature meant her to be.

 

Nebraska (Movie); written by Bob Nelson; directed by Alexander Payne; starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach

If you consider yourself a high-brow afficianado of quality movies, this is the kind of movie you feel you should like. (And it appears that most critics do.) It’s so non-Hollywood, so Independent feeling. In black and white, it's a folksy tale about people in very humble settings. Woody, a boozy geezer (Bruce Dern), receives a letter telling him that he’s won a million bucks. It’s clearly a scam but he’s convinced it’s not, so his son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive the old boy from his home in Montana to Nebraska to cash in on his supposed winnings.

The reason I couldn’t buy into this whimsical tale – even though the guitar, violin and accordion on the sound track kept trying to get me to let down my guard – is that there are too many false notes in it. If you’re going to do a movie about non-movie people, you’ve got to make them convincing, just like people we know. These characters don’t do it for me.

Bruce Dern comes across as an actor doing a one-note performance. He responds to everything in surly monosyllables. Since he has so little to say for himself, there’s no way of understanding what’s going on with him. There’s nothing likeable about him; there’s no way we can care about his quest.

His son seems like a nice enough guy but Will Foote’s over-acting prevents us from feeling that he’s a real person. In the first few scenes, almost every sentence he speaks has too many italicized words. Maybe this is the result of his background in tv comedy?

The character who’s so over-done that she’s intolerable after five minutes is Woody’s wife, as played by June Squibb. For ninety-five percent of her screen time what she conveys is simple, unalloyed, bitchy crankiness. This, I preume, would be the fault of the actor, the director and the script writer.

To give the script writer credit, the dad and son do have one interesting, beer-fuelled discussion about love, sex and marriage. If you’re going to appreciate what this movie has to offer, though, you might as well forget about the main characters and the story line. Then you get a satisfyingly bleak study of America’s dying midwest. Long, soulful shots of fields, barns, roads, storefronts, houses and empty streets. Although most of the small town folk are shown to be shallow, greedy, hypocritical and thick-headed to an extent that’s almost misanthropic, Mr. Payne gets very good performances from some actors, whom I assume are non-professionals, in minor roles. Neal and Eula Freudenburg are outstanding as a kindly farm couple. I liked the fact that the son’s girlfriend was fat and rather plain and I was totally beguiled by Angela McEwan as a sweet newspaper editor who used to be a girlfriend of Woody’s. Stacy Keach gives us a local who can be odious in a particularly smarmy way.

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