Dilettante's Diary

Sept 16/05

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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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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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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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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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Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
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Reviewed here:  American Purgatorio (Novel); Skating to Antarctica (Biography/Travel); Naked States (DVD);The Wedding Crashers and Yes (Movies); Annual Sketches Show (Roberts Gallery); The Promise of Happiness (Novel); Mrs. Keppel and Her Daugter (Biography); 200 American (DVD)

American Purgatorio (Novel) by John Haskell, 2005

When the message came from the library, I couldn’t remember anything about this book. Presumably, I’d read a recommendation somewhere; otherwise, it wouldn’t have been on my hold list. On the first page, I found this guy coming out of a convenience store at a gas station on the highway. He’s just bought some snacks for himself and his wife on their drive to visit her parents. But the car isn’t there. His wife is gone. He looks around – no sign of her. He asks people – nobody saw her. Given such a strong opening, it looked like I was in for a good read.

Pretty soon, though, it began to feel like I was trapped in the blind date from hell. The guy mopes around, making feckless attempts to find his wife, all the while treating us to a running commentary on the fastidious workings of his peculiar mind. He launches a journey across the country but he never does anything sensible or reasonable. You want to smack him upside the whatever. He goes into a barber shop for a shave but everything’s wrong as far as this neurotic bundle of irritability is concerned. It doesn’t help that sentence after sentence of his narrative plods along in a flat, assertive monotone. The only thing that kept me reading was that his love for his missing wife came through loud and clear.

After about 100 pages, I did something immoral, illegal and possibly even impolite – I skipped ahead to see if there was any point to it all. Well, there is – quite a lot of point, actually. Without giving away anything, let me just say that we arrive at a different interpretation of what happened at that service centre on the opening page – a couple of different interpretations, in fact. Given this new light on things, the creepy narrator’s torturous train of thought began to really grab me. I even went back to ponder the skipped pages. One of the things Mr. Haskell may be trying to do is to pare life down to the minimum, to see what life consists of when there is no desire, no hope, no enjoyment. (There is a kind of Samuel Beckett feel to the minimalism.) I think he may also be trying to show what it’s like for a person to disappear, literally and figuratively: what does it mean to be a person if nobody sees you, if you have no connection to anything? A bold and brave literary experiment, but not recommended if you’re looking for a fun read.

 

Skating to Antarctica (Biography/Travel) by Jenny Diski, 1997

Here, Jenny Diski combines a trip to Antarctica with reflections on her unhappy childhood. That may seem an odd mixture but there’s a great tradition of using travel as a way of discovering yourself. A pursuit of whiteness runs through the book: the whiteness of the Antarctic and of the bedsheets in the mental hospitals where Ms. Diski spent some of her youth, as well as the whiteness of annihilation sought through her suicide attempts.

You may remember that Ms Diski’s book After These Things (see review on Dilettante’s Diary, Sept 1/05) bugged me because of the lousy dialogue and the lack of life-like detail, in spite of the great ideas. In this one, there’s no scarcity of provocative ideas and there’s none of the stagey quality of the characters in the book about the Old Testament patriarchs. But there’s just as much drama here. Ms. Diski’s fractious parents can give any biblical characters a run for their money when it comes to sturm und drang. As usual, Ms. Diski’s brain works overtime on the ratiocination. At one point, through some sort of cerebral acrobatics -- involving concepts of truth, privacy, choice, willingness, imagination and experience -- she comes to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things whether or not she actually sets foot on Antarctica. Earlier, she spoke of putting herself to bed on one of the first nights of the trip with a Scotch, two aspirins and a sleeping pill. If that was her typical routine, I can see how it wouldn’t much matter where she was for the rest of the trip.

The main thing when reading a book like this is to decide how you feel about the narrator as a traveling companion. Ms. Diski’s commentary is never less than engaging but she paints herself as a pretty contrary character. Not surprising, given her miserable childhood. (Is it part of a defiant, counter-cultural stance that Ms. Diski has refused to let editors clean up her grammar? She often uses the wrong cases of pronouns.) Of course, being a bit of a crank makes for good travel writing. (Think of Paul Theroux.) Not much of a travelogue if you report that the people were nice and the scenery was lovely. Travel with Ms. Diski feels a bit like being invited over to some fiendishly clever kid’s house to play. There’s bound to be lots of action but you’re never sure when your host might turn on you.

 

Naked States (DVD)

Perhaps you saw news photos in recent years of hundreds of naked people lying in the streets of various US cities. These phtos weren't documenting some hippie-style love-ins, sit-ins or, for that matter, strip-ins. They’re the work of Spencer Turnick, a serious photographer trying to create his unique art. I figured he must be a pretty sophisticated guy but one of the attractions of this video is that he comes across as a kind of kook on a mission. He’s at his most engaging when he talks of his own discomfort while shooting in the buff at a nudist camp. His main complaint: no pockets for all his gear.

The DVD is a bit long and repetitious but it's interesting to see Mr. Turnick trying to drum up volunteer models and explaining the project to strangers in the hope that they'll participate. The best part is the special feature "Strawberry Fields" which documents one day's shoot with a large group of people in a couple of locations in Manhattan. Being with the same participants all day gives you a feeling of camaraderie and fun about the whole thing. You see every type and description of human body on display.

Mr. Tunick’s inevitable legal hassles are documented. Which raises the question of whether his photos are art. I'd say so. There’s an eery quality to the sight of all that anonymous human flesh on display. Makes me think of that great Come-As-You-Are Party, otherwise known as The Last Judgement. If you’re not sure how you feel about showing up that day, this DVD may help you decide.

Rating: D ( = "Divided -- some good/some bad)

 

The Wedding Crashers (Movie) Directed by David Dobkin

Every now and then you should check out a trashy Hollywood movie to see what you’ve been missing. In this one, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play two jerks who intrude on weddings with the hope of picking up willing women to screw. As expected, they run into a situation where their tricks backfire. I think the partnership of the two actors is meant to remind us of some of the famous comic duos of the past – Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, Cheech and Chong. Although Mr. Wilson and Mr. Vaughn are dealing with much raunchier material than their predecessors did, the chemistry between them works well enough. At times there was something about Mr. Vaughan – perhaps a lift of the shoulders, a tilt of the chin – that explicitly reminded me of Bob Hope.

The only thing that matters in this sort of movie is whether the comedy is good enough to compensate for the crap quotient. Not quite, in this case. Beside the fact that the plot’s totally mechanical and contrived, there are some real groan-making stereotypes: the hideously obnoxious boyfriend, the foul-mouthed grandma, and a homosexual so extreme that one can only hope that gay men will see him as too ludicrous to take offense. And yet, when I think of the kind of yobos this movie will appeal to, I’m not reassured.

But there are some neat bits. Christopher Walken turns in a very subtle and shrewd performance as a Secretary of the Treasury. As his marriageable daughter, Rachel McAdams really wowed me. She’s a marvelous screen presence: very beautiful but edgy enough to be believable. And there are some droll scenes, like the one where a guy invites a priest to share a drink and then pours out a lurid sexual confession that the priest doesn’t want to hear.

Mostly what I enjoyed about this movie was the way the people talk. Their hip, cool way with language makes me realize how out of it I am. A guy’s greeting on his answering machine: "This is John....whatever." A girl: "I am so ready to take this relationship to the next level." A dude answers his cell phone: "Talk to me." One guy to another: "I like your enthusiasm." It pleases me to find out how people out there are talking. Or is it just the way hip, cool scriptwriters think people out there should be talking? Don’t care. It’s fun.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" = good and bad)

 

Yes (Movie) written and directed by Sally Potter

You could say that He (Sam Neil) and She (Joan Allen) have a lousy marriage. It’s not just that he screws his girlfriends on the marital bed and leaves his condoms in the toilet where the maid finds them. The big thing is that He doesn’t appreciate Her. So She takes up with a swarthy Lebanese (Simon Abkarian) who does. The Arab lover is often seen at work chopping veggies in a hotel kitchen, but don’t worry, he’s actually a surgeon back home in Beirut. (A guy who’s handy with a knife can always get a job anywhere in the world.) Meanwhile, She has an aunt who is a diehard Communist in Belfast. What that has to do with anything, I don’t know. And that maid keeps going on about dirt. The existence or non-existence of God comes up a lot too.

The point is that this is all in poetry. Rhyming iambic pentameter. At least, I think that’s what it is. My fingers kept tapping out the rhythms on my thigh. Occasionally a line seemed to be missing a syllable or two, but maybe they tricked me in those cases by putting the rhyme before the end of the line. Now, the only question, when a writer forces people to speak in an unnatural way, is whether it enhances or hinders your involvement with the characters. Here it gets in the way, I’d say. Your fingers can’t stop tapping out those damn rhythms. And you start anticipating some of the rhymes. It wouldn't be so bad if the content of the lines was worth it. Some lines come out banal: "Something to drink? Perhaps you’d like some tea?" Some ghastly, as in this one about insects: "They fornicate and then they lay their eggs." (These quotes are exact, as I happened to have a pad and pen on hand.) In the lovers’ first bedroom scene, we get a discussion about " the one," "the two," and "the three" that’s so mind-numbingly boring that I couldn’t tell you whether it was about metaphysics or mathematics. In what’s apparently meant to be the hottest speech of all, we get metaphors with such originality as flames and burning, and rhymes along the lines of "mutter/gutter....fire/desire....luck/fuck."

In one scene,  the rhyming worked for me – spectacularly. In the kitchen where the Arab chops, a black man with a Carribean accent is sounding off about Jesus. That leads to an argument, with a Limey dishwasher and a Scot throwing in their bits, not to mention some comments from our Muslim friend. It builds to a violent climax, with Braham’s little waltz in A flat plinking away on the piano in the background. The invective flies back and forth so fast that you don’t have time to think about the poetry; you’re just vaguely aware of a certain swing to the insults. To adapt Spencer Tracey’s famous remark about acting in films: "Poetry in movies is ok if you don’t get caught doing it."

Sally Potter seems to think this is a masterpiece in the auteur genre, with herself as auteur. Not only did she write and direct, she also composed original music for the piece. To me, it’s an exercise in self-indulgence. Long after the film should have ended, we’re sitting through a prolonged montage of jerky photography that’s presumably meant to be arty. I was grateful that nobody was speaking but then that snippy maid started poeticizing again about dirt, ending up with the conclusion that the only response is "Yes!"

Huh???

Rating: E (as in "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

Annual Sketches Show, Roberts Gallery, Toronto (until Sept. 9th)

Thanks to frequent reminders from my next door neighbour, I managed to catch this show just before it came down. The gallery uses the term "sketches" in the sense of small works, many on board or paper. The works are all by artists the gallery represents, about fifty percent of them still living and working. There wasn’t time to study everything carefully but I was glad to see some favourite artists’ works, like the stunningly simple (but fiendishly difficult) nudes in watercolour wash by Ming Zhou. Mary Anne Ludlam’s intricately composed watercolour landscapes are as beautiful as ever. Valda Oestreicher's oils nail the Canadian Shield landscape with exhuberant, broad strokes. I also felt that Kelvin Smith captures the feel of the north country very effectively in a Group-of-Sevenish-way.

Among new discoveries for me, some of the most exciting were the oils by John Lennard. His blotchy, almost abstract landscapes make very bold statements with the simplest of means (mind you, they’re very strongly composed in a geometric sense): there’s your big orange blob, that’s your autumn tree, that other blob is its reflection in the water, those vertical stripes are naked tree trunks. What more do you need? You have everything the artist feels about the scene, his complete message, in a few strokes. Same with Joseph Peller’s florals in oil. His recent work at the Roberts Gallery has featured large, complicated city scenes like a vast crowd emerging from a train station. But here we have flowers represented simply as glowing daubs of colour emerging from a dark background. You get everything the artist feels about them; you don’t need him to show you that he can draw the petals, the pots and all that other stuff. I was also excited by the blurry, impressionistic acrylic landscapes (at least I think that’s what they are) by Rachel Gareau and I’m looking forward to her upcoming show at the Roberts Gallery.

 

The Promise of Happiness (Novel) by Justin Cartwright, 2004

On the first page, we get a middle aged man walking on the beach in Cornwall. Because of the chill, he keeps stopping to pee. He was recently turfed out of his prestigious job on trumped up sexual abuse charges. His oldest daughter has landed in prison in the US, his younger daughter, a druggie, is dating a married man and his son, a successful businessman, is at odds with Dad. As for Mom, she seems to be turning flakey -- going all mooney about arranging flowers in the local church. I’m thinking this is shaping up to be my definition of the perfect novel: a bunch of miserable people with intractable problems and an author who can write about them interestingly.

When the scene shifts to the younger generation, I'm less convinced. They never sound quite real to me. Mr. Cartwright sprinkles the egregious "like" all over their conversations in an attempt to make them sound contemporary, but it doesn't work for me. Their communication doesn’t sound much like the casual, semi-hostile sibling interaction I’m used to. And the relationship of the parents to the kids never feels quite right. I guess it’s all because of boarding schools. For aeons, the cultured classes of Britain (ie. those who have been writing novels) have sent their kids off to boarding schools at an early age. So the parents have hardly known their kids for most of their growing-up. And the fact that the siblings went to different schools could explain why the ones in this book sound a bit formal with each other.

There are more important aspects of the book that don't ring true to me. That crime of the older daughter's always feels a bit iffy. Yet, it's supposed to be enough of a crisis to throw the whole family into the turmoil that launches the story. Admittedly, towards the end of the book, an unexpected revelation gives a very different twist to the daughter's crime. And I could never quite understand the dad. What is that simmering hostility to his wife all about? And what's the problem between him and his son? I could never accept his excuse for not visiting his daughter in prison – that he might crack up. It's hard to feel for a guy like that.

Still, there's lots to like in this book. Mr. Cartwright has a lovely way of slipping in perfect but unobtrustive metaphors. Another neat trick of his is to casually, almost parenthetically, mention a totally different version of a story when you’ve come to accept a completely different one. At one point, the dad takes a very interesting excursion into moral philosophy in his attempt to make sense of it all. I was beginning to get fed up with the mom's vacuous tizzy about an up-coming wedding when suddenly, in the space of a few lines, the author gives her an impressive depth and a clear-sighted view of her situation.

So it was an engaging read, in spite of my problems with it.Mostly, they have to do with my not knowing Brit culture from inside. Thank God.

 

Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter (Biography) by Diana Souhami, 1996

To those devotees of Dilettante’s Diary who will be shocked at our dipping into such frivolous fare, let me explain that the Books section of the Globe and Mail recommended this biography around the time of Prince Charles’ recent marriage. Presumably, the esteemed editors thought the book would be instructive in the way of precedent and historical background. Mrs. Alice Keppel was, you see, the official mistress of England’s King Edward VII. When it comes to womanizing, though, the old boy makes his great-great grandson look like a non-starter. Several times, Bertie (as he was known to his intimates) was very nearly dragged into court in connection with divorce proceedings. Through many years of his marriage to Queen Alexandra, he enjoyed the company in bed of Mrs. Keppel. Both remained outwardly loyal to their respective spouses, while taking long holidays and cross-Europe jaunts together. The important thing was that appearances were maintained. It helped that the media kept a respectful distance in those days. That meant that those who knew knew, and those who didn’t didn’t. In other words, the commoners – you and I – never caught on.

Mrs. Keppel’s daughter Violet recalled in later years that, as a child, she used to see this fat old man emerging from Mummy’s boudoir in the afternoons. His pudgy fingers were covered with rings and he reeked of cigars. One afternoon when they were all sitting around the parlour, presumably basking in post-coital glow, little Violet had the temerity to ask why they had to call Mummy’s visitor  "Majesty". An appalled silence fell on the room until Mummy dispatched Violet to the nursery with nanny.

As a young woman, Violet would fall in love violently (excuse the pun) with Vita Sackville-West. The latter, before her days were done, would become the lover of many a celebrity, both male and female, including Virginia Woolf. (Mrs. Woolf’s Orlando is essentially an ode to Ms. Sackville-West.) Vita kept promising to elope with Violet but would always fall back on her family life with her two boys and hubby Harold Nicholson. Meanwhile, Harold, with Vita’s full consent, carried on his flings with various dishy young men from all over Europe. Letters flew back and forth between Vita and Harold, professing their undying, sublime and mystical (but no longer sexual) love for each other.

Now that King Edward had died, Mrs. Keppel had lost her guarantee of a welcome in high society and she had to struggle to maintain a foothold. It didn't help that all London was beginning to gossip about her daughter Violet's affair with Vita. So Alice forced Violet into a marriage with Denys Trefusis, mainly to protect her other daughter Sonia’s prospects of a brilliant marriage with a rich aristocrat. Denys, a fairly compliant young man, sort of knew the score but apparently figured he could change it. Mrs. Keppel paid for holidays and homes for Denys and Violet in order to keep them together. (A fat legacy from the King, coupled with the advice of his banker, Sir Ernest Cassel, had made Alice very rich.)Violet kept running back to Vita for stolen weekends and holidays, while Vita continually asserted the supreme importance of her marriage to Harold. In later years, Vita’s allies (including Ms. Woolf) would portray Violet as a marriage-wrecking shrew but, in this book, she comes across as a passionate, if deluded, romantic. She knew that her marriage was nothing but a sham; she hated the hypocrisy and she was all for living her love openly. Nevertheless, Alice managed to keep Violet and Denys officially hitched until Sonia’s advantageous marriage came off, but then it was a question of hanging on until the birth of Sonia’s first child, Rosalind. This child was, in 1947, to become the grandmother of the woman we now know as Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Ms. Souhami tells all this in dogged, uninflected documentary style, mainly by  stitching together quotes from letters and diaries. Rebecca West comes into it, Maurice Ravel, even Marcel Proust puts in an appearance. Ms. Sackville-West destroyed several more marriages, all the while insisting on the inviolability of her own. When her son Ben announced that he wanted to live with his gay lover, she protested loudly. Defeated, he entered into a heterosexual marriage that lasted three years. I put down this book realizing you could understand why people used to think there needed to be a God who handed out people’s just desserts some day. But where do I get off playing the avenging angel? Maybe the problem is just that these people wrote too damn many letters. Nobody puts such incriminating evidence in writing these days. And the upper classes are learning, through bitter experience, to be very careful with their cellphones.

 

200 American (DVD)

You have to imagine a dollar sign in front of that title. We we’re talking about a young Austrialian who comes to the US to work as a gay hustler. Supposedly he's straight but he needs bucks fast for complicated reasons.

A friend had told me this movie was worth seeing. Maybe there's some merit to the story but the quality of the movie-making was so poor that I couldn't watch much of it in real time (i.e. without fast-forwarding). I always wonder, in these cases, what it is that makes a movie look so bad. Not the actors, surely. If you look closely, it's hard to find fault with anything they do. I think it has to do with the set-up and the direction. Everything looks so flat and phoney. There's none of the build-up of detail in terms of sets, backgrounds and business that you get in good (and much more expensive) movies. Maybe the harsh glare of video lighting has something to do with it too. Not to mention the canned, generic music. This one looks like it was shot on video and stayed there. That inevitably gives it a porn movie feel, no matter how high-minded its goals.

In the "Special Features" on the DVD, the interviews with the actors, most of whom are apparently straight, are charming and amusing. Like one guys’ description of his difficulties figuring out how to grapple with another male body during a kiss. Makes you wish you could have liked their work more.

Rating: E ( = "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

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