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June 7/15

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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.

Reviewed here: Stranger By the Lake (DVD), Sleep (Short Fiction), Catastrophe (Article), Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box (DVDs)

Stranger By the Lake (DVD) written and directed by Alain Guiraudie; starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumao, Jrme Chappatte

The setting: a gay beach on a lake somewhere in the South of France. In the woods behind the beach, guys meet for casual sex. One evening, as action on the beach is quieting down, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a frequent visitor to the spot, happens to see what looks like a murder by drowning. Subsequently, he hooks up with the apparent murderer, Michel (Christophe Paou). To his dismay, Franck finds himself falling in love with Michel.

What kind of movie is this?

A murder mystery? Not really, because we know early on who the murderer is. (That’s why I don’t feel any compunction about revealing it here.) Is it, then, the kind of movie that builds on our curiosity about how the murderer will be caught? That might seem to be the drift, as a cop (Jrme Chappatte) does start snooping around. But the cop’s searches don’t lead to any satisfactory resolution of the story.

Given the abundance of explicit sex in the movie, you might think it’s meant as high-brow gay porn. But there’s not quite enough onscreen action to qualify it for that label. On the other hand, it could be seen as a kind of documentary about a certain kind of gay scene. If you don’t know – or if you want to know – how these kinds of casual hook-ups occur between men in such a setting, then this movie will tell you all you need to know about that subject.

I think perhaps what the movie’s intended to be about on the deeper level is Franck’s perilous psychological state, his being unable to resist the magnetic pull of someone who could be very dangerous to him. But Franck’s feelings and his thoughts are not explored. We’re left to infer what he thinks and what’s happening to him. His face is, for the most part, impassive. We learn very little about his character or his motives. It’s hard, then, to care a whole lot about him. Or to feel that we’re caught up in some passionate and doomed love affair. If there’s supposed to be something compelling about Franck’s dilemma, it doesn’t work for me, in spite of his potentially threatening situation.

Maybe the best thing I could say about the movie – acknowledging that others have found many good things to say about it – is that it has an arty way of creating a mood of suspended tension, a sort of "what’s-happening-here?" ambiance. And the movie does demonstrate an allegiance to certain aesthetic values. The binding force of unity, for instance: it’s all shot in one location – the beach. That’s very rare in feature movies these days. The photography is beautiful, if you don’t mind not being able to figure out what’s going on in some scenes shot in almost complete darkness. (Another problem: the mis-matching of shots, due to changes in atmospheric conditions, particularly with regard to wind and sunlight, sometimes give the project an amateurish feel. But maybe it’s impossible to avoid that sort of glitch when shooting an entire film outdoors in one location.) There’s a stately pace to the proceedings; things move very slowly. Each chapter, if you like, opens with Franck’s arrival at the beach and his parking his noisy old car in the grove where other cars are gathered like slumbering beasts in the shade of the trees.

The only aspect of the movie that I found intriguing, though, was Franck’s encounters with Henri (Patrick d’Assumao), a middle-aged man who parks himself on the beach every afternoon. Henri has recently broken up with his wife and he has apparently (if I remember correctly) had sex with men, but mostly what he wants now is just to talk to Franck about the place of love and sex in relationships. It sounds as though this may lead to something interesting but the friendship between Franck and Henri, like everything else in the movie, ends with a fade to black.

 

New Yorker Notables

Sleep (Short Fiction) by Colm Tibn, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015

We usually mention New Yorker items here at Dilettante’s Diary only if they are outstandingly good or special in some way. In this case, it’s more a matter of my uncertainty about the material. Is this story good or not? I can’t tell. Is it a new kind of writing, one that I’m not ready to appreciate? Maybe. Given that it comes from such an esteemed writer as Colm Tibn, it certainly deserves close attention.

Here we have a first-person narrator who sounds very much like Mr. Tibn – author, Irish, gay, living in Manhattan – talking about his relationship with a boyfriend. Most of the story is written as addressed to the lover in the second person. We get surprisingly intimate details about them (what they wear to bed, who is circumcised, who is not). The narrator reflects on the amazing fact that the Internet brought them together; he notes how impossible this would have been a few decades ago, not just because of the lack of the technology back then, but even more so because of the need for gay life to keep hidden from cultural censure. (Spoiler alert: it’s necessary to give a little more plot than I’d like to here.) On a more troubling note, the lover is concerned about the fact that the narrator has violent outbursts during his sleep. So the narrator goes to see a therapist in Dublin. It seems that the narrator’s problem has something to do with his brother’s death from a heart attack. During a hypnosis session, the narrator seems to identify with his brother in that moment of death.

Since I don’t want to give away the ending of the story, you’ll have to trust me when I say that I don’t see the point of it. Does the writer intend us to see that the narrator’s discovery in psychotherapy somehow affects the outcome of the relationship between him and his lover? Darned if I know. As far as I can see, there isn’t, as the critics like to say, a "through-line" to the story.

Looking for some guidance on the matter, I turned to Mr. Tibn’s comments in the magazine’s website section entitled "This Week in Fiction." There, Mr. Tibn deftly fields some questions about the overlap between an author’s real life and his fiction. He enunciates some general principles to the effect that an author, when using incidents from his or her own biography, must give them a meaning or a shape that they might not have in real life. Fair enough. But wouldn’t it help us more if Mr. Tibn would tell us which incidents are fact-based here and which are invented? That would give us a better idea of how the author’s process works. But perhaps that would be too much like pulling back the curtain on the magic show.

In any case, I’m left with the fact that I can’t discern the shape that Mr. Tibn has meant to bring to this material – in the sense of shape as a meaning, or a significant resonance. He tells us a lot but I don’t see how it all adds up. The most intriguing line in the story is a comment dropped in casually, with no follow-up. The narrator compares the apartment the two men are in now with "...the apartment you share in Williamsburg on the nights when you do not stay with me." What’s that all about? I’d like to know.

 

Catastrophe (Article) by Oliver Sacks, The New Yorker, April 27, 2015

In this article, the noted neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, tells about his consultations with Spalding Gray, the actor and monologuist, in the months before his suicide. In 2001, Mr. Gray had suffered a serious head injury in a car accident. Damage to his right frontal lobe seemed to have brought on bouts of severe depression that did not respond to conventional treatments. What Dr. Sacks and a colleague of his noticed, however, was that anaesthesia used for subsequent surgeries apparently had a remarkable effect in lifting Mr. Gray’s depression and returning him to his cheerful and enthusiastic self. That led the two doctors to wonder about the possible inter-action between the anaesthesia and the damaged frontal lobe.

As we know, Mr. Gray’s depression did return, unfortunately, leading to his suicide in 2004. The article makes you wonder about how much a physician can ethically reveal about the private life of a patient, whether or not that patient has since died. But that’s not the point of my mentioning the article here. What strikes me is the writing. Dr. Sacks is a writer from whom, it seems, I’ve been hearing far too much. He is so prolific! So voluble! So glib! In interviews on CBC Radio with Eleanor Wachtel, he has sounded so irrepressibly pleased with himself and his fascinating life that, last time, I was reaching for the "off" button by his second sentence.

And yet, this article is an example of superb story-telling and reporting. It is crystal clear and straight to the point. There is no excess verbiage, no confusion, no doubling-back or redundancy. No attempt to impress you with fancy writing. Not that you would usually find that in New Yorker articles, but this one stands as a model of clarity, simplicity and coherence – virtues more noted for their absence than their prevalence in the media these days. Good on you, Dr. Sacks!

 

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Monster in a Box (1992) (Dramatic Monologues on Film); written and performed by Spalding Gray.

The recent New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks about his meetings with Spalding Gray prompted me to take a look at these famous monologues by Mr. Gray, as recorded on film.

The works are filmed as presented in theatres. Mr. Gray is seated before an audience, at a table on a bare stage, with a notebook, a glass of water, and a minimum of props. Some dramatic lighting effects mark significant changes of mood, which are further enhanced by background music. Occasionally, relevant film clips appear on a screen in the background. In each monologue, Mr. Gray spins stories about things that happened to him, stories that usually surround some central event or propound some key theme. Running through all of the tales is the motif of the innocent at large in a bewildering world.

Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme) tells mostly about Mr. Gray’s experience of playing a small role in The Killing Fields. That film was about an American journalist’s reporting on the civil war in Cambodia. Although the film was made in Thailand, rather than Cambodia, the filming experience gave Mr. Gray an entree into the mind-boggling aspects of life in South East Asia. The context of the piece almost inevitably implies a certain political slant but the more prominent thrust of the monologue is the quest for the "perfect moment" that Mr. Gray felt he should have while immersed in the exotic world of the Far East.

In Monster in a Box (directed by Nick Broomfield), the "monster" is an autobiographical novel that Mr. Gray was working on and that he lugged with him on several adventures in various parts of the world. Most of these escapades resulted from the fame accruing to him from Swimming to Cambodia. Among the various projects, there was his being hired by a theatre to conduct onstage interviews with people who claimed they had been taken aboard UFO’s. He was asked to go to Nicaragua to prepare a script about President Regan’s funding of the Contras. The Russians invited him, along with some big Hollywood stars, to a film festival where, as it turned out in Leningrad, one of the festival’s venues, there was no translation provided for his Cambodia film. In spite of his own reservations about the prospect, no less prestigious a theatre than Manhattan’s Lincoln Centre engaged Mr. Gray to play the key role of the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

As a way of marking milestones throughout the piece, Mr. Gray frequently refers to his progress on the autobiographical novel. In the midst of all the turmoil recounted in the monologue, Mr. Gray was panic-stricken by an AIDS scare. His intention to volunteer on a suicide-prevention line led to his being persuaded to plunge into psychoanalysis.

On the evidence of these two films, there’s no denying that Mr. Gray is an excellent story-teller and actor. He weaves the disparate bits of his stories together with great panache. And he throws himself into the roles of the various characters convincingly, picking up and discarding the required accents with aplomb. His pacing is excellent. But I didn’t enjoy the pieces as much as the hype led me to expect I would. In work like this, where you’re exposed to one person’s talking about himself so much, I think it’s probably necessary that you find the person very engaging on a personal level. Charming, let’s say. For me, that doesn’t happen with Mr. Gray. Hard to say why. Some people do it for you and some don’t; that’s all. (Disclosure: A friend once noted a similarity between myself and Mr. Gray, but I don’t believe that’s the reason for my cool response to him – at least, not the only reason.)

I seldom – but occasionally – found Mr. Gray to be genuinely funny. Could it be that the passage of time has something to do with this? Perhaps more contemporary humourists like David Sedaris have accustomed us to a quirkier, more beguiling kind of humour. Mr. Gray’s shtick as a zany neurotic doesn’t strike a particularly original or interesting note today – at least, not for me. I found him downright irritating at some times, particularly in Monster when he kept emphasizing how, in moments of crisis, his feet would start sweating profusely, his mouth would go dry and he would start barking. Barking? Really? Throughout this second film, I kept wishing he could get a haircut. That halo of glowing, wavy silver was intensely annoying.

I did, however, find his candour about the Our Town production remarkable. After what seemed like a glorious opening night, Mr. Gray was treated to scathing reviews in all the major New York newspapers. He’s unsparing of himself in regaling us with the details of just how awful the critics found him to be. And you can’t help but be moved by the ending of Monster. Mr. Gray finishes the piece with a reference to the conclusion of the autobiographical novel, at which point the young progagonist discovers his mother’s suicide. Given that we now know about Mr. Gray’s eventual suicide, the monologue’s ending is far sadder and more ominous than Mr. Gray could ever have suspected it would be.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com