Dilettante's Diary

Feb 14, 2022

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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MOVIES
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Reviewed here: Yearbook (Memoir); Spencer (Movie); The Plot (Mystery/thriller)

Yearbook (Memoir) by Seth Rogen, 2021


This memoir is obscene, offensive, scurrilous, narcissistic, silly and shallow. Swear words are more common than commas. The author can't offer a single sentence without falling back on some gross term. Is this all intended to show us how hip he is? Could it be that his fans expect this kind of gutter language from their hero? The pages overflow-- like a plugged toilet -- with bathroom humour. Do we really want to have our noses rubbed in his fondness for pornography? In his participation in a live sex show in Amsterdam's Red Light District? And how many of us are thrilled with the book's over-riding theme: marijuana (affectionately known as "weed") and acid are good for you and everybody should be free to enjoy them as much as they want? Clearly, this sort of book is intended to make a reader like me aim it at the nearest garbage pail.


But I was laughing so hard in places that I probably could not have thrown it accurately enough to hit the barn door, let alone the garbage pail.


Mr. Rogen learned well the lesson that the instructors taught him when his parents let him attend a stand-up comedy school in Vancouver at the age of twelve. Nobody wants to hear about the things you like, the things you enjoy, the teachers said. Audiences only want to hear about the things that bug you, the things you hate. So young Seth's first stand-up routine lambasted his awful grandparents who seemed to love his sister more than him "mostly because their words and actions made it wildly clear that they did."


From that promising start, he goes on in this book to talk about one disaster after another. (In that respect, this is more of a collection of humorous essays than a memoir.) There's the time when he was a teen stand-up and a mohel asked him to write some jokes for circumcision ceremonies. The time when he lost control of his bowels on a date that looked promising. When he had to pee in a bottle on the path leading into Tom Cruise's mansion. The calamity around an accident at a Jewish teenagers' camp. His terror at working with a live tiger for a scene in The Interview. Fleeing for his life from the burning sculpture scattered by the wind at the climax of Burning Man in Nevada. Not to mention the convoluted hassles of getting movies made and the international kerfuffle about his take on North Korea's supreme leader in The Interview.


Mr. Rogen doesn't come across as a connoisseur of literature but he shows that he does understand the art in that he makes fun of it at times. At one point, for instance, he says: "I will now switch to PRESENT TENSE because books about writing say it 'adds immediacy to the story'." And later: "I will now revert back to past tense. Thank you for going on this amazing literary journey with me."


Occasionally, Mr. Rogen does allow hints of more serious purpose to peek through. In the midst of many tales of youthful drunkenness, he'll mention -- almost parenthetically -- that he doesn't drink any more. He advises against the use of cocaine, presumably because he feels it has ruinous effects that other drugs don't have. His love for his wife, Lauren, and his commitment to her come through clearly. And there are a few times that he abandons the comic voice and lets real grievance be heard. One example being his outrage at the anti-Jewish sentiment that Twitter tolerates. Some grudges against other actors and comedians aren't completely stifled. He does frankly admit that negative criticism of his work hurts, particularly when it comes from other comedians as it did in the case of The Interview. And the book's cover blurb does let us know that he and his wife have established a non-profit organization to help families coping with Alzheimer's.


So even a curmudgeonly reader can't write the guy off completely. But all that emphasis on the joy and pleasure of recreational drugs gives this reader pause. Mr. Rogen makes a pretty good case that they're a lot less harmful than alcohol and yet there's no social stigma around alcohol. Is that because drugs are thought to be associated more with marginal, racialized people, whereas alcohol is championed by society's elite? Or is it more of a generational thing? Are we geezers simply incapable of appreciating the merits of a practice that has been demonized for most of our lives?


Hard to say what the good or ill effects of the practice may be. Except that it certainly hasn't inhibited the creativity and productivity of one notoriously stoned stoner.



Spencer (Movie) written by Stephen Knight; directed by Pablo Larrain; starring Kristen Stewart, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet.


Okay, we know this isn’t meant to be a historically accurate document. In fact, it opens with a statement something like: “A fantasy based on a real tragedy.” We can accept, then, that this is an attempt to show what it might have been like for Princess Diana to spend a few days of the Christmas holiday with the Royal family at Sandringham. It’s presented as having taken place about ten years into her marriage, at the point when it was seriously unravelling.


But can the members of her husband’s family have been anything like as stiff and formal as they’re presented here? Would they all – about ten of them – sit in absolute silence at the dinner table, until the Queen picks up her spoon and takes a sip of her soup, whereupon they all pick up their spoons in unison and take sips of their soup? Would they pose for the official family photo without anyone saying anything? Didn’t they ever engage in casual, spontaneous conversation? The Queen (Stella Gonet) only has one brief speech. Apart from one significant scene, Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) has only peremptory mumbles here and there. All of which is to say, this isn’t a movie for royal watchers. They’d be sadly disillusioned by the marionette quality of their idols.


Granted, the movie may be trying to convey Diana’s impression of the royal world, the sense that there was an enormous gulf between her and the royal way. But it’s a little hard to take her situation seriously when her opposition is presented as being so inhumanly regimented.

As is everything around her. In the opening of the movie, some army trucks are driving up the long, majestic entrance to the palace. About eight soldiers alight from each truck in lock step formation, take chests from the vehicles (what are these chests? children’s coffins?), turn, march into the kitchen, deposit the chests and withdraw, all in lock-step formation. Then the kitchen staff, again in perfectly synchronized unison, step forward and open the chests and begin to deal with the food in them. I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that the groceries couldn’t be handled in a higgledy-piggeldly manner, but would they really be processed in such a rigid way?


I was never a particularly devoted follower of Princess Diana but, as far as I can tell, Kristen Stewart conveys a reasonable likeness of Diana (although Ms. Stewart is more beautiful, I believe, than the princess was). Sally Hawkins, in her slightly oddball way, brings a note of humanity to the part of Maggie, one of the few servants Diana feels comfortable with. Ms. Hawkins’ character gets one of the few lines that offers any compensating view of the royals. Regarding a decision that Prince Charles makes in Diana’s favour, Maggie opines: “They’re not all bad.


And when it comes to oddballs, nobody surpasses Timothy Spall in the role of an army officer who’s supposed to be overseeing security arrangements at the palace. His strange uniqueness brings a depth and complexity to the role that a more ordinary actor probably couldn’t offer. In one attempt to reach across the official divide towards Diana, he tells her about his best friend’s dying in his arms during a skirmish in Northern Ireland. When people die heroically like that, it’s for the crown, he says, not for the personalities of the individual royals.


We all know now – better than we did a few decades ago – that life can be very difficult for a young woman who marries into the royal family if she’s not adequately prepared for or temperamentally suited to the role. But Diana’s plight isn’t explored thoroughly enough here; we don’t get much sense of her inner world. Yes, there is mention of the “other woman” and we can see how that is troubling for Diana. And she can't help occasionally comparing her situation to Anne Boleyn's. For the most part, though, she wanders through the movie as a kind of moody enigma. All that comes really clear is that she wishes she could revert to her pre-royal life, to her carefree childhood. Hence her blurting out “Spencer” with a burst of joy when, in the final moment of the movie, she’s asked to give her name on a visit to a drive-in restaurant with her two sons.



The Plot (Mystery, Thriller) by Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021


Jake Bonner, our progagonist here, is a writer whose first novel was hailed as a very promsing debut by a young author. Since then, he hasn't accomplished much by way of follow-up: a couple of small literary efforts that didn't measure up to his earlier promise. He's currently biding his time teaching creative writing at various institutions. But suddenly, he gets a really good idea for a thriller. Its publication brings him huge success: fame, money, lots of media attention. The life every hopeful writer dreams of.


Except that he's starting to get messages from someone who threatens to expose him as a corrupt fraud. Clearly, the anonymous messenger's intent is to ruin Jake's career. Other reviewers will no doubt tell you the exact nature of the charge against Jake. We at Dilettante's Diary, however, believe in the inviolability of a writer's narrative process, so we won't jeopardize the author's intentions in that regard.


The tension builds to an almost unbearable level as Jake is showered with more and more of the spoils of the successful literary life while the threats from his tormentor are becoming more and more imperative [intense, frightening, scary]. As Jake begins to figure out what's going on, the outcome of the drama -- the resolution of the mystery of his tormentor's identity -- is truly amazing. This is one of those books that comes to such an astounding conclusion that it makes you want to go back and read it again, just to make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together as well as the author claims they do. After some thought on the matter, though, I decided to trust Ms. Korelitz on this point, rather than delve into the book for a second time.


Just two complaints about a book that makes for such a compelling read.


From time to time, we get short excerpts from Jake's phenomenal best-seller: something about a young woman who has grown up in a strained relationship with her single mother and the consequences through the daughter's life. To me, these excerpts did not sound at all like a best-seller. The text is, for the most part, dull narrative, a lot of telling and explaning, hardly any dialogue. In fact, the first excerpt started out so boringly that I skipped most of it. It was only later that I went back to read the whole excerpt, since it turned out that I needed to know how what had happened in the first part of Jake's opus retated to the real life around him.


My other caveat about the book concerns the depiction of the literary and publishing world. Writers are depicted in the most scathing terms. As this book sees them, they're all a bunch of venomous, jealous, conniving egotists. (Not to mention the ridicule heaped on the legions of would-be writers.) In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Ms. Kurelitz makes a sort of apology for that in acknowledging that writers are hard on themselves. "In fact, you couldn't hope to meet a more self-flagellating bunch of creatives anywhere." Well, that may be; we'll have to take her word for it. But's not easy for those of us who stand outside the writers' circle to lose the sour taste that her picture of them leaves in our mouths.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com