Dilettante's Diary

July 21/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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Reviewed here: The Tempest (Stratford, Ont.); Birdman and Angels Passing (Mysteries); City Hall Outdoor Art Show and CSPWC 80th Anniversary Show (Art Exhibitions); Pavlov's Brother and Stronger...A Variation (Fringe shows); Mysterious Skin and Sabah (Movies)

The Tempest (Play) by William Shakespeare, Stratford Festival, Ontario

Any dilettante worthy of the name will make at least one trip to Stratford every summer to take the pulse of the nation's culture. Strolling the banks of the Avon River the other day, I found it very reassurring to see whole families devouring their texts of The Tempest, along with their sandwiches and champagne. A mother was explaining to a child, "Forgiveness is the theme." Come the actual performance, you might think all that diligent preparation would kill the pleasure. Not at all. People were laughing tons. They seemed to be having a great time.

Me, I was getting a bit antsy after the first half hour. So much talking! All this back-story about what happened in good old Milano once upon a time. Old guys in miles of upholstery fabric, with sofa cushions on their heads. Except for Ariel who was running around in what looked like a Victorian matron's foundation garments (although nobody knows what a Victorian matron's foundation garments looked like).  He was a fairy, see. Which means magic. Lots of it. Not exactly my scene. A bit deficient in the realism department.

But there was a kind of magic working for me. You take this guy in his eighties and put him on stage and say that this'll be his last performance ever. The very fact that he can get through it (all those lines!) seems a kind of miracle. Not to mention his playing. I've seen William Hutt do Prospero twice before, over a span of about 30 years. First time, he was noble, second time crotchety. This time, turns out that Prospero's this really, really nice old man. Not that he doesn't blow a hairy now and then, but man, is he ever loving and forgiving (that mother hit it dead on).

You get the feeling that Mr. Hutt's really enjoying saying goodbye to all of us this way. He's having so much fun with the part. It's like a textbook lesson on all the old tricks (double-takes, pauses, etc.) for getting laughs where you'd least expect them. All those great lines about of Shakespeare's about ringing down the curtain turn into Mr. Hutt's message to us about how grateful he is for his Stratford career. He's telling us how much he loves us all and he's saying thanks for the memories. (Mind you, I thought his final curtain call was stolen from Chris Plummer's Lear a few summers ago: a fluttering wave from grampa telling us kids to go home now, the party's over.)

I think we should all retire this way when the time comes. Just to be on the safe side, I'm booking the theatre tomorrow.

 

Birdman by Mo Hayder (Mystery) 1999

The main thing this book has going for it is that it's tightly written, with a plot that pulls you steadily forward. Mutilated corpses of prostitutes are showing up in a dump. (Sound familiar, Canadian readers?) Early on, we start following the bad guy. Like Ruth Rendell, Ms. Hayder does a good job of getting into the fiendish mind of the creep. But the extent of the violence and depravity here make Ms. Rendell's most horrific offerings look genteel. Unlike Ms. Rendell, Ms. Hayder doesn't do atmosphere and character very well. Apart from a few main characters, the others are just names that keep cropping up. Especially in the cop shop, they're almost indistinguishable. And there's far too much cop jargon, acronyms for various tests, procedures and divisions within the service. Are British crime readers expected to know all that? For me, it was like trying to decipher a foreign language at times.

Angels Passing by Graham Hurley (Mystery/Crime) 2002

After reading this, the third of Mr. Hurley's novels featuring detectives Joe Faraday and Paul Winter, I'll be glad to check out the previous two. It's a somewhat less speedy read than many current mysteries, but it's worth it. At first, you're following three quite separate stories, which slows the pace, but the plots eventually merge in a satisfying way. The characters are good and the writing is thoughtful. Only one complaint: all that palaver internal police politics, the competition for resources, the rivalry for promotion. Who gives a crap? But then it occurs to me that tv cop shows, especially British ones, are full of this stuff. I guess writers today, with an eye on the balance sheet, can't help offering some pretty obvious hints about what good tv shows their books would make. So here we have the answer to the old philosophical conundrum about whether or not art imitates life. Turns out, art imitates tv.

 

Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition: City Hall, July 8-10

There's just too much damned art to see at this show. So I made the rounds pretty quickly this year, stopping when it looked like a good conversation with the artist might be possible. First, though, I made brief calls at the booths of some favourite watercolourists such as David McEown, Sally Milne and Virginia May (although Ms. May was showing mostly acrylics this year and I prefer her exquisite watercolours). A young man was showing his wild, scratchy cityscapes that I admired in the recent show of work by this year's graduating class from the Ontario College of Art and Design but he seemed to be in a snippy mood (the heat, maybe?) so I moved on.

What drew me to Dorion Scott’s stall was a very simple still life: a piece of cake with strawberries or some such fruit, semi-abstract, just a delectable lump of white stuff with some red decoration. Ms. Scott makes wonderful paintings of the simplest objects. You wonder how anybody could make an interesting picture of a coffee pot and mug, but she does. "I try to look at every day as a painting," she says. "It's amazing how it changes the way you see things." She tells me that she graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design where she studied design. It shows.

I loved the large abstract canvases of Janice Tayler. They burst from the surface with a three-dimensional quality, like chunks of concrete exploding. She told me that she works out her compositions by a collage method and some of the finished paintings retain some elements of collage.

I was trying to find Tim Daniels whose pastels are among my favourite pictures anywhere. Then I noticed a picture of some flowers in a tin can and I knew I'd found him. The tin can bouquet is one of his favourite motifs. He does stunningly simple compositions of flowers, often against a window. Again, design is everything. "I wouldn't be sorry if I never painted anything but flowers," he said. But he was also showing a cityscape (San Francisco, I think he said) with big dark shapes dominating the foreground and, in the distance, the twinkling colour of buildings and hills, the whole almost abstract. A real treat for the eye.

Same for David Marshak's luminous oil paintings of gas stations and service centres at night: the eery glow of metal and glass against the dark sky. If you  thought there couldn't be any beauty in the structures that commercial blight has inflicted on the natural world, you should see these paintings.

I remembered Darren Stehr’s photos from last year. He specializes in nudes in unexpected settings (think kitchens). This year, I was amused by a droll photo of a male nude standing by a piano with fat cat dangling from his arm. Mr. Stehr is a rather hefty man with an inscrutable expression, but if you look closely there's rather a sly look to him. He told me that his sometimes his bizarre compositions emerge from whatever happens to be at hand: for instance one rather complicated nude duo involving kitchen chairs.

David Trautrimas was just tucking into a sandwich when I asked him how he would label his prints. He politely stood up and answered with a self-deprecating smile, "Surrealist." Not hard to see why: a picture of somebody whose head happened to be a salt shaker pouring salt onto the ground; people lining up to take rides in buckets hanging from the spokes of an umbrella; tree-like structures against the sky with cloudy shapes in them that turn out to be human bodies upside down. Mr. Trautrimas, another OCAD grad, should be in the business of illustrating magazine and newspaper articles. There are some wicked ideas percolating under that gentle manner of his.

Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour: 80th anniversary Show, Roberts Gallery, Toronto (until July 15)

On walking into the Roberts Gallery on a hot summer morning, it felt like I'd died and gone to heaven -- and not just because of the delicious air conditioning. What a feast of watercolours for drooling over. On the other hand, my comportment wasn’t especially celestial. Swear words of awe and envy kept escaping from me as I moved from one picture to another.

But I was glad, to see works by many friends and fellow members of the Toronto Watercolour Society: Margaret Roseman, Elisabeth Gibson, Alejandro Rabazo, Cheryl Puterman, Jake Mol, Dorothy Blefgen and Susan Chater, to name a few. It pleased me to see Virginia May's large and dazzling picture front and centre (and sold!): a silver bowl with pears against a black and white striped cloth. In TWS shows, we usually see Ken MacFarlane's fine, delicate landscapes, all soft and muted, but his "Maine Event" shows the peak of a rooftop and an upper window against the sky -- geometrically very appealing, in a sort of Christopher Pratt way.

As usual in the CSPWC shows, there is a lot of emphasis on meticulous, realistic detail. So it was good to see some representation by the wild and free TWS artists. Jeanette LaBelle caught my attention from across the room with her impressionistic and colourful rendering of fall trees by a pond. I love the way Joanne Lucas Warren creates semi-abstract landscapes with thick, saturated pigment flowing across the paper (does she pour it on?). One that really knocked me out was "Rise and Shine" by Doreen Renner: a city skyline seen across water, all dazzling light, colour and shape, done in a very wet-in-wet style.

Among works by CSPWC (not TWS) members whose pictures I have admired in the past were a cityscape by E.J. Hunter who specializes in the reflection of twilight on streets, David McEown's grand natural spectacles, and Tony Batten's marvelously intricate architectural pieces. Brent Laycock's splashy mountain scene captures mood and light in a very evocative way, as his pictures always do. Ming Zhou's pale pond scene (I call this intricate work "jigsaw puzzle" painting) marks a striking departure from his sombre pieces with very dark backgrounds. Which just goes to show, I guess, that some very great artists find a style and stick with it while others keep experimenting.

I don't remember seeing the work of Joanne M. Hunt before but I certainly will now. Her "Stacked" shows just five or six teacups piled up against a dark background. Her picture that really brought me to my knees, though, was "Dessert": some plates and tea cups, with silverware and a silver candle stick. I wanted to cradle that china in my hands and lick that silverware.

Much as I loved the show, one heretical thought did enter my mind while walking down Yonge Street afterwards. (And maybe this was the result of seeing all that weird stuff at the City Hall show.) We rely on the CSPWC for the most beautiful watercolours imaginable, but are they ever going to show us anything amazingly innovative, anything that pushes the boundaries of watercolour?

Pavlov's Brother  by Mark Ellis & Dennis McGrath, based on a story by Andy Borowitz, directed by Liza Balkan, Toronto Fringe Festival

In this droll comedy, Ivan Pavlov experiments on his loser-ish brother Nikolai. Since Nikolai needs cash for booze, he might as well hang around Ivan's lab, hooked up to gizmos that collect his saliva. The brothers are very well acted by Mark Ellis (Ivan) and Paul Fauteux (Nikolai). Director Liza Balkan (who directed a  Fringe play of mine two years ago) gives the production a stylish, clever look.

On the understanding that Fringe shows are often works in progress, this one was well worth seeing. There are many good scenes, particularly the one where both brothers get pickled. Where the play needs work, I think, is in the script (based on a New Yorker short story). The scenes don’t build towards any momentum. I kept wondering: where is this going? What am I supposed to care about here? What is the theme? At times it seems to be about unfeeling science versus flesh-and-blood humanism. Or is it about the struggle to survive Russia's Communist revolution? After many digressions, it appears that the point is that the some sort of love between the brothers survives all their ups and downs. Which proves, I guess, that spit's thicker than water.

Stronger....A Variation Conceived and directed by Allyson McMackon, featuring Liza Balkan, Viv Moore and Lucy Rupert. Toronto Fringe Festival.

Three women in strapless black dresses dance around in a very stylized way and act goofy. It seems to be Christmas Eve. One of the women makes a condescending speech to an unseen woman alone in a café. Apparently, the woman alone is the former girlfriend of the speaker's husband. This speech keeps coming back many times, spoken by different performers. It feels like one of those bits of found dialogue that somebody decides to use as the basis for a performance. (Later, I learned from the program notes that it comes from August Strindberg's The Stronger.) With their choreography and their repetitive declamations, the women seem to be examining ideas about female rivalry, the values of family life, and the roles of wives and husbands. The question seems to be: which woman is stronger -- the single or the married one?

Then it occurs to me that you have to stop trying to figure it out and just go with the flow. One of the major pleasures of this piece -- and I hope this is taken in the feminist spirit in which it's intended -- is seeing some quite mature women working up a sexy sweat, doing it very well and, what's more, with humour.

The problem with this kind of thing is knowing how much is enough. Several times, it seems to be ending, but no. Eventually things seem to be falling apart. Maybe the women aren’t so sure about what they've been saying? (I can't stop the figuring!) But then comes a wacky Nutcracker Suite with more spectacular dancing. So who knows what it means? Who cares?

Mysterious Skin (Movie) written and directed by Gregg Araki

Gregg Araki's earlier movie, the nihilistic Doom Generation, had the great line where a young woman tells a guy "You're nothing but a support system for a [rude word for the male member]." As vividly demonstrated in that movie, Mr. Araki does seedy and depraved very well. There's lots of it in this new movie. What he doesn't do well, as demonstrated here, is natural, believable, intelligent and high-minded. We're supposed to care about the terrible thing that happened to two young men when they were little boys. Trouble is, Mr. Araki spends so much time and energy reveling in the grunge and so little effort on creating a realistic, believable context, that you have to wonder about his motives for telling this story.

For instance, the home life of one of the boys is so badly created that it never feels like anything but a cliché. The actress playing his mother sounds stagey and artificial in every speech. Given such awful lines, though, I'm not sure even Dame Judi on her best night could make them sound natural. Every scene in that household had me bouncing restlessly in my seat wondering whether to make a break for the door. On the other hand, Elisabeth Shue, who plays the other boy’s mother, comes across as a genuine person: a mother who's a bit flakey and promiscuous but lots of fun. As for the two boys, one of them grows up to be quite the stud, supposedly. A gay admirer describes him as a god. But the actor playing this divinity has as much on-screen charisma as a potato bug. The other young man, though, the one with the unbelievable mother, grew on me in a quiet way.

It's necessary to go into more detail to explain why I dislike this movie so much. If you're planning to see the movie, don't read the rest of this review. If you're not going to see the movie -- or if you don't give a damn -- read on.

I cannot escape the impression that Mr. Araki is simply exploiting the subject of child sexual abuse so that we'll react with knee-jerk sympathy. No respect is paid to our intelligence or our expectation of believability in a story. It's more about the director's "idea" than about anything to do with real life. Is this what they call an "auteur" movie?

Everything is contrived. When the young stud arrives in New York to turn tricks, his female friend from back home warns him that, in New York, if you go to bed with the wrong person, you end up dead. Not two minutes later, her message is beaten into him -- literally. A guy gets the shit kicked out of him and when he arrives home hours later the blood on his face is still wet. We need to get the two guys together for the final confrontation back in Kansas but how are we gonna manage that with one of them in New York? Easy: the New York guy's mom sends him a ticket home for Christmas, so he suddenly decides that the one thing he really wants in life is to see the despised home town again. The two boys have to re-visit the scene of their childhood horror. No problem. It so happens that the new owners of the crime-scene house are out (it's Christmas eve) so our guys climb in a window and settle in the living room to re-live their trauma. I kept hoping it would turn out to be the wrong house. That's how badly this movie lacks any feeling of spontaneity.

I don't know how child sexual abuse works (thank goodness) but what's on offer here seems cooked up for shock effect mainly. And, even if it could have happened this way, do we really need a blow-by-blow description? Mr. Araki seems to have no sense about how much information is too much. Supposedly, the detailed recital is going to help the boy who has repressed the memory. Oh, really? Especially when the therapy is administered by the uncaring, witless creep that the other guy has become?

And here's my biggest beef with the movie. Suddenly, the egomaniac goes all soppy and tender, saying he wishes he could erase what happened. Not ten minutes earlier, he told us that he really enjoyed the sex games as a kid. He said the abuser was the only man who truly loved him. How come this sudden conversion and repentance? Not that it couldn't happen in real life, one hopes, but here it feels like Mr. Araki's just jerking us around.

Makes for a nice scene, though -- carolers singing "Silent Night" at the door, while the two guys cuddle on the couch in the house they've broken into. Give him his due, Mr. Araki does those arty moments well. There are three of them in the movie.

Rating: E (ie. "Eh?" = iffy)

Sabah (Movie) Written and directed by Ruba Nadda

There was just about time to fit in this movie before a dinner engagement. But not quite. Could I be fashionably late for dinner? On the other hand, the simplest thing might be to duck out of the movie ten minutes early.

That option looked more and more attractive as the movie got rolling. Arsinée Khanjian plays a sheltered 40-year old Muslim in Toronto who falls for a cute, blue-eyed, divorced guy from Sudbury (Shawn Doyle). Obviously, this is not news to be shared with her family. The early scenes with that family feature some of the most outrageous over-acting ever seen on film. You keep wanting to scream at the actors (or you wish the director had): stop with the acting! stop the hand gestures! stop the mugging! Then there's the flat, banal dialogue and the hollow sound. It looks like those blue movies from the 70s, back when porn performers still struggled to create some semblance of a real movie.

Our young hero says he loves opera so he gets the Muslim woman to meet him in a park for a concert. What do we get, but a fat woman (Canada's own joke soprano, Mary Lou Fallis, I think) on a bandstand in the park singing "Plaisir D'Amour" -- unaccompanied. I'm willing to cut a bit of slack to a low budget movie but couldn’t one of those granting agencies listed in the credits have come up with a piano?

Although the exploration of the cultural problems did interest me, I could never believe in the relationship of the two lovers. Why was this eminently available guy pursuing this awkward, geeky woman? Well, I guess there's no explaining true love but it wouldn't be too much to ask the script to give us a clue or two. Part of the problem is Ms. Khanjian’s image. To me she’s too big a presence for the screen. With her daunting profile, she should be playing Medea in an arena for thousands. She has some lovely moments here but I could never really believe Atom Egoyan's formidable wife as the downtrodden Muslim.

And yet, I kept wanting to see how things turned out. That family situation, badly acted though it was at first, led to some good scenes. And there was a hint of some secret to be revealed at the end of the movie. With the result that I was late for dinner. I wasn't sure how the characters’ feelings changed so suddenly –  they were doing more flip-flops than the dolphins at Marineland -- but I was glad I stayed. Can't think of when I've ever seen such a flawed movie that kept me watching. I guess the moral is that story rules.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" -- some good, some bad)

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com