Dilettante's Diary

Sept 1/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 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
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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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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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
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Reviewed here: The Aristocrats (Movie); Reservation Blues (Novel); After These Things (Novel); Richard the Third (Shakespeare); Me, You and Everyone We Know and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Movies); How Insensitive (Novel)

The Aristocrats (Movie)

I was very uncomfortable while watching this movie, and not just because the air conditioning in the theatre was too cold. In this documentary, several comedians discuss a dirty joke that’s apparently been thriving behind scenes in showbiz for quite a while. Friends had warned me that the joke was extremely obscene but they assured me that I, as someone keen on the craft of humour, would find lots of interest in the commentary. Well, there’s some interest there: the examination of the punch line and how it works, the ways in which the joke can be screwed up, ways of making it more topical, ways in which it plays in different cultures.

But there was so much unpleasant stuff to sit through! The fact of the matter is that the joke itself isn’t necessarily so very obscene. The point of it is that the outline of the joke gives the teller an opportunity to improvise, to throw in the dirtiest things he or she can think of, for shock effect. The various tellers in this documentary gave it their all. Believe me, there are some things said that you  don’t want to hear. Some things, in fact, that should probably not be said. The only mitigating factor is that the movie’s restricted to eighteen-year-olds and over, unless accompanied by an adult. (The usher was checking ID cards for age.)

Lots of young people in the audience – and some not so young ones – were beside themselves with mirth. I’ve never heard so much continuous giggling during a movie. Is it just that these people are the kind who go into spasms when they hear naughty words that Mommy forbid? Am I more sophisticated? On the way home, a more dire possibility occurred to me. Perhaps my mind is so corrupt that I can easily imagine the depraved things that are being said. It’s not that I know people who would do them but I’m aware that the reality out there isn’t very far from what’s being described. Maybe those innocent souls who were laughing so much took the scurrilous goings-on for pure nonsense.

For me, the most gripping part of the movie was the identification of the various performers at the end. As someone who sees very little tv, I didn’t know most of them; the movie would probably be more fun for somebody who did. But I enjoyed seeing some old fave’s: Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Robin Williams, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin et al. And there were some laughs, even for me, more or less parenthetically. In the end, the movie felt like a celebration of the comics by themselves and for themselves. You could often hear the film crew breaking up as each performer was doing his or her shtick. Which contributed to the overall impression that the whole thing was an in-joke. They were making too much of that one joke, trying to give mythic status to something that really wasn’t worth it. After they’d all had their way with it, the poor joke lay dying on the floor.

Rating: D (i.e. Divided – some good/some bad)

Reservation Blues (Novel) by Sherman Alexie, 1995

Once or twice a year, you discover a book that takes you to a place you’ve never been before. Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues does it for me. Previously, I’d only read one of his short stories in The New Yorker; he was one of the writers that magazine touted in their 1999 list of up-and-coming American authors under the age of 40. In this novel, he tells the story of Coyote Springs, a would-be rock band from the Spokane Indian reservation. It seems to me, as one whose knowledge of that scene is virtually zilch, that Mr. Alexie creates that world very authentically. It would be interesting to know what other First Nations people think of Mr. Alexie’s portrait of these members of the Spokane tribe. There are the poverty, the aimlessness, the alcoholism and the violence but there are also decency, tenderness and a down-to-earth wisdom not anything like the hokey spirituality that passes for First People’s lore in popular culture.

There’s weird stuff, too. A guitar speaks and seems to play for itself. A character named Big Mom is apparently both real and mythic, with a viewpoint extending centuries back. As one who likes his magic realism without the magic, I was wary of these elements of the novel, but Mr. Alexie seduced me into accepting them, mainly through the charm and humour of his writing. Take this line about the famous rock and rollers that Big Mom supposedly taught: "They all drank so much and self-destructed so successfully that Big Mom made them honorary members of the Spokane Tribe." At one point, one of the band members notes, "Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies." Big Mom asks the band a simple question and when one of them says, "I thought you knew everything," she answers, "I know you’re a jerk." As the members of Coyote Springs are about to board an airplane, one of their members produces an eagle feather for safety but another band member retorts, "Get that Indian bullshit away from me." There is spirituality here, but the slangy irreverence makes it palatable: "Coyote Springs walked the rest of the way in silence. They all thought about the help they needed and heard the word faith echo in the trees. They all heard the same music in their heads. ‘This is spooky shit,’ Victor said. ‘Way spooky,’ Junior said."

The writing can be heart-breakingly beautiful. "The old Indian women dipped wooden spoons into stews and stirred and stirred. The stews made of random vegetables and commodity food, of failed dreams and predictable tears....Those spoons moved in slow circles. Stir, stir. The reservation waited for Coyote Springs to fall into pieces, so they could be dropped into the old women’s stews." And my favourite passage, as the band members are taking leave of Big Mom: "They sort of felt like baby turtles left to crawl from birth nest to ocean all by themselves, while predators of all varieties came to be part of the baby turtle beach buffet. They sort of felt like Indian children of Indian parents."

The only thing that prevents this from being a great book (for me) is the looseness of the structure and plotting. The events are pretty random – just one thing after another. The characters are passive for the most part, just responding to what comes up. I suppose that goes with the territory; it’s probably an accurate reflection of what life is like for many people in their circumstances. It doesn’t make for a page-turner but it does offer a moving look at the experience of people whose lives are very different from your own.

 

After These Things (Novel) by Jenny Diski, 2004

In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC radio's "Writers & Company", Jenny Diski was talking about the fact that some of her novels are re-tellings of biblical stories. She said something to the effect that the point of the bible stories is that people had to show God a thing or two about what it meant to be human. Sez I to myself: now this sounds like a writer worth paying attention to!

The introduction to this novel confirms that impression. We get a tussle between the Creator and the Creatures as to who owns, who controls, the bible stories. The question of who created whom is tossed into the pot. Then comes a disquisition on why people have told stories throughout human history and what the roles of editors are. It took me a couple of readings to get the gist of Ms. Diski's amazing thoughts.

The main virtue of the novel itself -- a look at certain incidents in the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- is Ms. Diski's brilliant way with psychology. She shows that Isaac, after his close-call with his knife-wielding dad, was a mere shadow of a man for the rest of his life. Damn straight, lady! Who wouldn't be a nervous wreck after child abuse like that? Her portrayal of Leah's conviction that she's the right wife for Jacob is dramatic and powerful. Same with the depiction of the rivalry between the sisters Leah and Rachel, both Jacob's wives. Ms. Diski cleverly interprets Jacob's famous wrestling bout as a struggle with his conscience and she plausibly conveys his later misgivings about the supposed Lord of Abraham.

But good ideas don't make a novel. When it comes to the actual descriptions of the day-to-day existence of the people and their speech, the book stinks. The context of their lives, the living in tents, the meals and the sheep-herding lack convincing details. People are always hanging their heads in moments of shame or subjegation. The dialogue is gawdawful. Except when somebody is expressing great passion, the speeches veer between Cecil B. DeMille pomposity ("I am your father....you must go to your lessons and learn things like your brother") and soap-opera banality ridden with anachronisms ("I hate my life";or "What do you want as severance pay?"). I am sympathetic to the difficulty of making biblical characters sound life-like without erring too much on the side of current slang. It's not for me to say whether or not the feat was pulled off successfully in my biblical novel I Give You My Word: The Autobiography of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but I think it can be done, with great care to avoid the most obvious clangers. In this respect, Ms. Diski has a tin ear, it seems to me.

This book did, however, send me scurrying back to the bible to see how much of Ms. Diski's novel was present in the original stories. (Pretty well all of the basic facts of the novel are found in scripture.) There are those who would champion this book simply on the evidence that it had such a salubrious effect on a renegade like me. I'm not so sure. I used to think I grasped the over-arching theme of "Salvation History" but a closer look at some of these bible stories makes me think they're very weird folk tales indeed.

 

Richard the Third by William Shakespeare, directed by Scott Lale, A.C.T. Productions, Ken Williams Square, Brampton, Ont. (Fri-Mon, until August 29, 8 pm, Admission Free)

Scott Lale says he decided to mount an all-female version of Richard The Third because he "got tired of saying ‘no’ to the best actors." Who can quarrel with that? This production gives 15 or so young women a great opportunity to tear into some of the greatest text available in English theatre. As explained to us by a member of the cast, the concept is simply that this is a world where there are no men. The women don’t wear beards or try to ape men; nor do they try to come across as Amazons. It’s simply that some of the women have men’s names, with men’s motivations and ambitions.

When Cara Hunter launched the "winter of our discontent" speech, I thought: oh no, this person is far too pretty, far too female, too young, too fresh. Apparently, it was a directorial decision to have her appear first as herself, then gradually don the character of the wretched Richard. Fair enough. But, given the fact that we had to get over the gender thing, I’d say it made for a rocky start. Very soon, though, Ms. Hunter won us over completely. The character of the hideous Richard came through strong and clear for the whole performance. Mainly, it was a question of body language. With the contorted walk and the snarling visage, you always knew who this Richard was. When she was conniving and scheming, even when she was wooing new brides all over the place, you never doubted the evil egotism of this would-be monarch.

The best thing about the production over-all was the excellent handling of the text. It used to be that you didn’t get young actors who could articulate Shakespeare well. No such problem here. Virtually everybody was crystal clear. Does this say something surprising about our rap-listening, rock-obsessed young people? I’d like to think so. Mind you, not all of the performers had the maturity to make their characters fully believable and, to my mind, they were all fighting the cold, windy setting in the park outside Brampton City Hall. Not much opportunity for subtlety and nuance – with the result that I wasn’t quite fully captivated and carried away by the story. It’s a tough story to follow at the best of times. When you’re constantly re-wrapping the blanket around your legs and pulling your scarf up higher and your hat down lower, it’s kind of hard to keep track of all the dukes and lords and brothers and aunts and nieces and nephews and grandmothers. Suffice to say that the impression came through loud and clear that this Richard was not at all a nice person, slaughtering a swath through everybody who stood in his way to the throne. Really, some of the things the English have hidden in their history!

Apart from Ms. Hunter, one other performer who really stood out (for me) was Siobhan Chin, as Richmond. Coming on very near the end of the play, she brought tremendous energy and panache to her role as the shining knight who saves the day. One of the feistiest young stallions from Stratford’s current stable could not have done any better. So convincing was she that, if it doesn’t seem prurient to say so, I found myself watching closely for some unequivocal evidence of female-ness. It wasn’t until she doffed her feathered cap and a luxuriant pony tail fell out that I began to see that this person really might be a girl.

Speaking of gender, perhaps the only place where the sex of the cast proved a definite drawback was the fighting. The war cries lacked a little in the ballsy department. As for the battles themselves, they were choreographed and stately, rather than out-and-out violent. Perhaps a wise decision, but they looked a little odd at first. Strangely, though, they eventually pulled off some scary and macabre moments.

Discerning readers of Dilettante’s Diary will be suspecting that they know why we undertook a trek to downtown Brampton on a chilly summer night. And they will be right. Madeleine Donohue acquitted herself well in several roles in this production and I’m happy to report that, as one of the bumbling killers of the Duke of Clarence, she got one of the few laughs of the evening.

 

Me, You and Everyone We Know (Movie) written and directed by Miranda July

At first, this movie seems too cute for its own good. All this angst about a goldfish in a plastic bag on a the roof of a car driving along the highway. Is the poor little fish in its last moments of life? Do we care? And then there’s the elderly man in another car telling about his great love affair with an old woman in his seniors’ home. Haven’t we had that cloying theme a little too often?

But then comes a scene where a shoe salesman tells a woman whose shoes are hurting, "Subconsciously, you probably think you deserve this pain." The same man, bewildered by the break-up of his marriage, says that his kids should have sent him and his wife to their room for time-out, to think about what they had done. "But there’s no time-out in adult life, is there?" * He tells a buddy that when first married, he and his wife couldn’t bear to be apart. The buddy thinks he’s talking about sex. Oh no, the disappointed husband says, the best times where when he and his wife slept together like babies for hours on end. The recently-separated dad, in a moment of panic, breaks in on his boys at their computer games and asks, "Say you didn’t know me. Do I look like a normal person who could have a wife and kids?"A ten-year-old girl proudly displays the contents of her hope chest ("In French, that’s trousseau.") She’s bought all these linens and appliances with her own money and in twenty years, "They’ll all belong to my husband my daughter."

This turns out to be virtually the perfect movie for me: a look at very believable people, a story that tells you something you didn’t know, that gives you insights into human nature that had escaped you. Days later, I keep thinking about amazing things that characters said in this movie, truths they revealed that I never would have guessed at. I can’t guarantee that this is the movie for everybody. It’s a very quiet movie; some audience members walked out; presumably there wasn’t enough action for them. While there are at least four plots happening, the story-telling is skillfully subtle and the cutting between the stories, the pacing, is brilliant. One of the greatest pleasures of this movie is that almost nothing turns out the way you’d expect. How often do you see a romance where the woman makes the moves on the man and he tells her to get out of his car? Another example: two people have been exchanging sex messages in an Internet chat room. Their inevitable park-bench meeting turns out much better than anything I could have imagined.

Writer/director Miranda July has cast herself as the love interest, a determined young woman who, despite the odds, believes in herself as an artist. Based on the evidence of this movie, Ms. July has good reason to see herself this way. She has a unique vision of people. Maybe it has something to do with seeing life in somewhat the special way that a kid does. That occurred to me near the end of the movie when a little kid finds out that the adults have been feeding him a totally bogus explanation for something. Ms. July's original slant on everything makes me feel like a reporter who has been scooped by some newcomer. You feel like you’ve been missing the real story all these years.

Rating: B+ (B = better than most)

* (As readers of Dilettante’s Diary know, quotes from movies and plays are not guaranteed accurate; they’re the best I can do from memory. However, quotes from books are word perfect, unless otherwise indicated.)

 

Mr. And Mrs. Smith (Movie) starring Brad Bitt and Angelina Jolie

Sometimes, for some reason or other, you find yourself at a movie that’s far outside your usual range. Say your partner isn’t getting enough sex and violence at home. Which brings us to Mr. And Mrs. Smith. It opens with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie under-going marriage counselling. Seems they have a pretty good marriage except for a few secrets from each other. Given all the publicity for the movie, you probably know what the secrets are. Think James Bond, Mission Impossible and Star Wars happening in one couple’s relationship. When these two have a fight, not even the crack team from Molly Maids could handle the clean-up. Better call in that crew that tackled the 9/11 job.

Actually, it's lots of fun. Mind you, my partner had to explain a lot of it to me. The violence, that is, not the other stuff. (There wasn’t much of the latter.) Apparently the violence was so extreme that it was actually funny, if you like that sort of thing. To me there were simply too many explosions. How many would be enough? Maybe half an hour less. My speciality is more in the line of dialogue and some of that was funny too, at least the parts that I could hear through all the noise. The best bits were Brad Pitt’s inchoate grunts: "Hmmm?" "Ooof!" "Ach!" He has quite a comic touch with these sounds, which is a good thing because teenage boys (presumably the main target audience) will appreciate them more than actual words.

In a movie like this, of course, the main business at hand for any viewer is to decide which of the stars you find sexiest. I figure Angelina would be more fun in bed. Mind you, Brad is prettier, even though he is allowing little puffy things to appear around his eyes. Speaking of gender differences, I think it’s pretty damned sexist when the female hitman has more intelligence, more firepower and more backup technology than the male hitman. Isn’t it time for a switch on that old cliche?

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing.)

 

How Insensitive (Novel) by Russell Smith, 1994

So far, Russell Smith’s writing has been known to me only through his column on men’s fashions in the Globe and Mail. I get a kick out of seeing how his smarty-pants comments can make me feel bad about what I’m wearing any given week. Since it’s been a while since my last look at Canadian fiction, I figured maybe it was time to check out his first novel. There was quite a buzz about it when it first came out, as I remember.

The book paints an amusing picture of a dweeb-ish guy from the Maritimes, a grad school drop-out, who comes to Toronto to try to make it as a freelance writer. He gradually begins to make a name for himself in the media, more or less in spite of himself. There are definite comic echoes here of similar novels by the likes of Evelyn Waugh. It’s no surprise that the Globe editors should have fingered Mr. Smith as a fashionisto because one of the more endearing traits of the protagonist of his novel is an appetite for clothes totally disproportionate to his meagre income. It’s not all satire, though. The young guy has an interior life; he’s struggling with misgivings about a woman he’s left behind at grad school and it’s to Mr. Smith’s credit that you care about this guy.

The drawback of the book is that few characters other than our young writer friend come off the page. There are two young women, Georgina and Go-Go in the house where he lives. One is the beautiful one he wants to sleep with and the other is the one he does sleep with. Not much else distinguishes them. Then there’s Miranda. She’s attractive and rich, period. Mr. Smith has a tendency to stage set–pieces like elaborate parties where there are far too many characters for a reader to keep track of. Some of these scenes have an "I-guess-you-had-to-be-there" feel about them.

Much as he may care about clothes, Mr. Smith doesn’t appear to be a prose stylist. Many "ly" adverbs lard the pages. Can somebody smile "salaciously"? We get sentences like "He turned to look at the entrance just as Miranda made her entrance...." And this howler: "...he strained his ears to make out individual words...." What do you do with a strained ear? Do you put a splint on it? Or do you make salad with it?

Still, Mr. Smith doesn’t need to loose any sleep over my quibbles. My library copy of the novel turns out to be the seventh printing, just a year after the first one, for heaven’s sake. I look forward to seeing how his writing has matured in his more recent Muriella Pent. I had it from the library but didn’t have time to read it and, when I tried to renew it, it had to go back because somebody else wanted it. Good on you, Russell.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com (if you have sent me an email and not received a response, please try again. Sometimes, if my email system doesn't recognize your address, it sends the letter to bulk mail and it can get deleted accidentally. It helps if you put some reference to these reviews in the subject line of your email.)