Dilettante's Diary

Feb 1/06

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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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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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Dec 20/04
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Reviewed here: Transamerica (Movie); Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life (Novel); Mozart Birthday Celebrations (CBC Radio Two); Match Point (Movie); Fraud (Essays); Losing It (Novel); Election Night in Canada (TV); Walk the Line (Movie); Munich (Movie); Metropolitan Opera Mozart Retrospective (Radio); Pack Up the Moon (Novel)

Transamerica (Movie) written and directed by Duncan Tucker

What a great set-up: a transsexual (male to female) who is about to have her final surgery finds out that she has a son as a result of a fling back in university when she was a male. Her therapist insists that she resolve issues about this son before undergoing the surgery. For reasons too complicated to explain here, the transexual and the son head out on a car trip across America. And here's the  thing: the son doesn’t know the score. (I’m not giving away anything here because the previews tell you this much.)

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to its promise. Like any road movie, it’s subject to the inherent flaws of all such movies, which tend to be episodic and lacking structure, meandering from one misadventure to another. Still, the big question underlying the whole story provides enough tension to pull us forward. But the movie doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be; there’s a tentative, uncertain quality to the script. The previews give you an impression that it’s one of those laugh-a-minute comedies. Not quite. There are some jokes around bathroom business and dressing but hardly enough to rival the Farrelly brothers. The travelers plan to spend a night at the home of a transexual friend but that quickly turns into a bad idea. So why did they go there in the first place? Attempts to show the son’s fondness for animals (apparently to give him some likeable quality) don’t amount to anything. When the pair arrive at the home of the transexual’s parents, we’re subjected to a pampered, self-centred mother/grandmother so over the top that she blasts any sense of reality out of the movie.

That, I think, hints at the main problem. In a quiet, human-interest movie like this, you have to believe totally in the people; they have to seem very real. I could never believe that Felicity Huffman, playing the transsexual, was a man becoming a woman. For the entire movie, Ms. Huffman was, to my way of thinking, a woman pretending to be she what thinks a man who wanted to be a woman would be like. Granted, it’s not an easy role to cast. Since you’re not likely to find an actor in the final stages of transsexual change, you have to pick a woman or a man. My guess is that a man would have worked better. Am I being unfair here? Sexist? Is it simply that I knew from the start that Ms. Huffman was a woman? (One look at those hips in a silky dressing gown was enough.) Would I have bought the performance if I hadn’t known? In any case, I think men who seriously intend to become women strive for more subtlety, less caricature. This transsexual was campy, prissy and ultra-feminine, always teetering on extremely high heels, a stickler for perfect manners, etiquette and grammar, with a fear of snakes. Most of the opportunities for a tender moment -- some revelation about being human -- didn’t come off because that artificiality got in the way. I wasn’t fully persuaded to believe in the kid (Kevin Zegers) either. He’s supposed to be a tough seventeen-year-old, having worked as a prostitute on the streets of New York. So why would he put up with this fuss-budget? Granted, he’s getting a free ride to Hollywood and a hoped-for career in movies, but I can’t see him lasting more than a hundred miles with this Mother Superior.

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

 

Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life (Novel) by Trevor Cole, 2004

This novel puzzles me. The writing is fine. I’m totally sympathetic to the story about an unemployed, middle-aged actor eking out a precarious existence in Toronto. The author has a gift for tossing in a thought-provoking apercu here and there. Then why did the novel bug me so much?

As far as I can tell, the problem is the central character. Norman Bray is vain, self-deceiving, narcissistic and so out of touch with reality that you have to wonder at times about his sanity. None of that would bother me – in fact there’s a certain charm in his refusal to face up to the truth – except for the fact that the author constantly lands him in ludicrous situations. Norman gets into a tussle with his sister’s boyfriend over a jar of beet jam. The boyfriend gave it to the sister and he thinks Norman is trying to steal it. While spying on a couple making love in a basement apartment, Norman falls into a hole, his face glued to the window. One afternoon, he arrives home, having forgotten that he invited guests for dinner. There’s no food or money in the house, so he rushes to the bank. Finding it closed, he bangs on the window, thinking the staff should open up for him. (What world does this guy live in?) He can’t afford a whole package of light bulbs, so he breaks the package, thereby raising suspicions that he’s shop lifting. In a liquor store, he inadvertently accosts one of the workers, with the result that his picture is posted on the bulletin board as a dangerous person. All this is presumably meant for comic effect. For this reader, it turns Norman Bray into a tiresome fool. This is a pity, because the author seems to have a worthy purpose. There’s even one passage – one of those pre-employment psychological tests to figure out Norman’s aptitudes – where his incorrigible narcissism shows to hilarious effect. There is a kind of courage in Norman’s refusal to admit defeat and, in the end, he arrives at a bit of self-knowledge and empathy. But it was only with great determination and with a conscious effort to subdue irritation that I made it to the end. Didn’t somebody say that a novel won’t work with a central character who isn’t believable? Was it Aristotle? Maybe Barbara Cartland. Anyway, you heard it here.

 

Mozart Birthday Celebrations (CBC Radio Two, Jan 27-29)

People close to me hear a lot of complaints about the changes in CBC Radio these days – the "popularization", the attempt to lure younger listeners with inferior stuff and the politically correct inclusion of "world music". In my view, CBC radio’s job is to give us what we can’t get anywhere else, i.e. really good stuff. You may think there’s some dispute about how to define that but it’s not difficult at all. The definition of good music is music that I like. In that respect, CBC Radio Two came through spectacularly this past weekend. Bravo, CBC! You recognized that the birthday of the world’s greatest gift to music deserved three full days of celebration.

I wasn’t able to catch everything but, fortunately, the actual birthday (Friday the 27th) coincided with a day when my computer was indisposed (the doctor thinks it was a virus). Unable to do real work, I enjoyed a good sampling of the celebrations while catching up on housekeeping, plumbing, laundry, that sort of thing. But I must admit, to my great chagrin, that insomnia had me up reading in the middle of Thursday night, with the result that I slept through most of Tom Allen’s "Music and Company" (he’s my fave CBC host at the moment), catching just the tail end of his tribute to Mozart with tenor Michael Schade as guest.

However, the first hour of Shelley Solmes’ "Here’s To You" offered fascinating comments on Mozart from eminent Canadian musicians. Baritone Russell Braun surprised me by saying that he finds the baritone roles in Mozart less demanding than the tenor ones. Don’t some of the baritone arias, particularly the ones with coloratura passages, demand just as much virtuosity as anybody else’s arias? For instance, the Count’s bravura aria in The Marriage of Figaro where he lets fly with all his resentment against Figaro. I would agree with Mr. Braun if he meant that the baritones’ arias in Mozart tend to be less soulful than the tenors’. A pianist, whose name I didn’t catch, pointed out that in Mozart, the performer is totally exposed, there’s no hiding behind a flurry of notes. As one who despairs of ever doing Mozart justice at the keyboard, I can vouch for the truth of that. For me, Jean Lamon of Tafelmusik made the most perceptive comments. She said Mozart’s music goes straight to the heart, so a performer needs to have a clear image of the emotional message of the piece. Perhaps her most telling remark was that it’s impossible to explain the beauty of Mozart’s music because, if you could, you could write like Mozart!

Eric Friesen’s "Studio Sparks" kicked off with a short documentary that included little kids reading passages from a Mozart biography, along with stumbles and giggles. Charming – but why weren’t we told who the kids were? Then came the finalists in the competition for variations on "Ein Mdchen oder Weibchen" by composers 19 years old and under. Hearing all ten of them made me very proud of good old CBC for holding such a national competition. And proud of the young people of our country for producing 200 submissions. ("Only in Canada, you say?") It seemed to me, though, that leaving the choice of the winner to an on-line vote by listeners didn’t prove much. To borrow from Lady Bracknell, democracy is no guarantee of quality. However, I suppose there was some discernment involved, in that a panel of experts (presumably) had chosen the finalists. Even so, to choose just one winner struck me as a bit implausible. How about a prize for the one that was most pleasant to listen to? Another prize for the one that was musically most sophisticated, and so on? (Later in the weekend, we found out that one of the ones that I found most pleasant to listen to, a group of Saxophones from Newfoundland, won first prize. And one of the ones that I thought showed prodigious musicality, a pianist from Woodbridge, came second. So I guess the populace isn’t always completely off base when it comes to matters of taste.)

The second hour of the program consisted of a delightful interview with Angela Hewitt, Sitting at the keyboard of her Fazioli in her flat in London, she played samples of the first Mozart pieces she learned as a kid (my repertoire). While discussing the concertos, she dashed off brilliant keyboard passages, meanwhile singing "deedle-dee-dee" to indicate the orchestra’s contribution. When it came to presenting her three favourite Mozart compositions, Ms. Hewitt made absolutely the right choices (say I). First was a concert aria for soprano (although at least ten other arias would have been ok by me). Then, to my great joy, she chose the "Laudate Dominum" from the solemn vespers. I had been afraid that the weekend was going to pass without it – surely one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written. For her third choice, Ms. Hewitt named the Jupiter Symphony. Symphonies – even Mozart’s – don’t rate all that highly with me, and the Jupiter is vastly over-exposed these days. However, by pointing out that it looks back to Bach, what with all the fugal writing in the finale, Angela made me think of it in a different way. The next hour was a concert from Canada House in London, with her accompanying baritone Gerald Finlay. He has one of the best baritone voices in the world but I found his two selections a little less than thrilling. The second one was that aria from Cosi that mentions Canada. Amusing, but we’d already had Russell Braun’s recording of it about 15 times on CBC in the past while.

Let’s get this point out of the way here. It disappointed me very much that we didn’t hear the beginning of "Laudate Dominum", with the beautifully legato entrance of the soprano. We did, thankfully, hear the ending, where the soprano suddenly appears out of nowhere, soaring above the chorus. This business of sampling pieces rather than hearing all of them drives me nuts but it has been a fact of life during these Mozart celebrations, so I have tried to be a good person and keep my complaints to myself.

Another concern: Much though the weekend extravaganza suited me, I couldn’t help wondering if the decision-makers at CBC weren’t going a little too far in extending the celebrations as completely through the schedule as they did. On Friday night, the jazz-oriented groups were forced into some pretty strange contortions in order to fit Mozart into their programs. And some very odd stuff emerged in the little bit of Jurgen Goth’s "Disc Drive" that I heard.

On Saturday morning, Peter Togne gave us – oh joy! – another "Laudate Dominum", the whole thing this time, performed by Kathleen Battle. He also played one of the famous horn concertos, followed by that wonderful spoof of it by Flanders and Swan. Their version is so good – the singer’s vocalizations capture the sound of the horn so well – that, unfortunately, I can never hear the concerto now without thinking of the joke version. Never mind, I think Mozart could take it. After all, he’s known to have had a jokingly derisive attitude to his favourite horn player.

Family duties prevented me from hearing all of the Met’s Cosi Fan Tutte on Saturday afternoon, but I did hear the end of the first act and all of the second. What to make of this puzzling piece with its seemingly misogynist message about the fickleness of women? I was following along in a libretto because I’ve come to the point in my appreciation of opera where my brain craves to know the meanings of the words and to be able to understand them as sung. However, I was saddled yet again with a woefully deficient libretto. The English translation provided mere paraphrases and – worse still – the Italian version left out huge chunks of recitative, as well as some arias. It’s beginning to look as though a person will have to buy the original libretti, sit down and start translating them with a dictionary at hand. It’s amazing how, when you’re following the words closely, the music begins to sound different. Take, for example, the Dorabella and Guglielmo duet when he is pretending to woo her and she is actually falling for him. It’s all presumably farce but the music they create together is so eerily beautiful that it teases the mind to figure out what it means.

On Sunday afternoon, it was a difficult choice whether to stay with the concert on Radio Two or switch to Radio One for a couple of my favourite programs. Upstairs, I caught some of "Tapestry’s" documentary on Gospel music (Radio One) and downstairs during lunch, some of the concert (Radio Two), including Louis Lortie’s marvelous playing of Chopin’s variations on "La ci darem la mano". But, come 3 pm, it was impossible not to go with Radio One for Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with writer Rick Moody, which turned out to be very satisfying.

In the evening, I got back from a misty walk in time to catch the second half of the concert from the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, starting with Isabel Bayrakdarian’s performance of "Exsultate, Jubilate". In terms of recordings of this piece, nobody can surpass Leontyne Price, given the enormity, the range and the seemingly inexhaustible power of her voice. With Ms. Bayrakdarian, you’re dealing with a much lighter, brighter voice. However, she gave the aria a very spirited rendition. When it comes to religious singing, Ms. B expects to engage the almighty face to face, to grab his or her attention and carry on a lively dialogue, just the way Ms. B does in all her interviews. And why not? My only quibble -- that screechy final high note. Not that I’m trying to pick faults, but something like that makes me nervous about the future health of a singer’s voice.

The celebrations wrapped up with a conversation between Shelagh Rogers, who had been the host for the Vancouver concert, and Tom Allen, who was the overall host for the weekend. They reflected on the fact that Mozart’s clarinet concerto had won the vote for the listeners’ favourite Mozart composition. Each Monday of the month, Ms. Rogers had hosted a panel of experts who proposed favourites and listeners were invited to send in their votes. It so happened that the winning concerto had been a suggestion made by Ms. Rogers herself. It was rather cute the way she shyly acknowledged this. (That girl could have an acting career.) Then to my great pleasure, came a recording of Michael Schade singing one of the crown jewels of the repertoire, "Il Mio Tesoro" from Don Giovanni. (Devoted readers of Dilettante’s Diary will recall my hissy fit about the omission of that aria from Opera Atelier’s production of the opera. See DD page Dec 5/04.) To my horror, though, the aria was interrupted mid way. What for? A reading of a Mozart letter by Michael Schade! The man reads well enough but, dear God, you’d think he’d know that his singing of that glorious aria means much more to humanity than his reading of some prose passage. Oops, I was going to try not to complain, wasn’t I?

 

Match Point (Movie) written and directed by Woody Allen

Nothing wrong with this story. An ambitious young tennis pro is taken up by rich Brits who want him to marry their daughter and move up in the world. Only trouble is, he has the hots for their son's fiancee, a struggling American actress. Lots of drama to keep you wondering how it's all going to pan out. Then why does it seem so stodgy and contrived?

Woody Allen, so they say, is an intense and demanding director. Could it be that these British actors are labouring mightily to give what they think he wants rather than simply doing what would otherwise come naturally? They sound like they're playing at being upper class Brits. At times, Jonathan Rhys-Myers seems to be rattling of his lines from a teleprompter in order to get the required clip and speed. When two young men make arrangements to go to the opera, they're so polished and correct with each other that you suspect (wrongly) they must have something secret happening between them. In the midst of all this posing, Scarlett Johansson's purpose as the American actress seems to be to show just what a gallumping boor an American can be. I hope Ms. J's reputation as a performer soon recovers.

We get one laborious set-up after another. A gets hired for a job where he meets B, B introduces A to B's family which includes C, C takes a shine to A and speaks to D about A which prompts D to hire A, then D hears from E great things about A's work....and on it goes. Not one moment seems spontaneous. These people have no life outside their scripted confines. It's very much an anyone-for-tennis crowd but without the wit and grace. If Noel Coward were forced to spend a weekend with this crowd, he'd lock himself in his room and bar the door. After all the painstaking effort to establish the posh ambiance, Mr. Allen takes us to Covent Garden where these toffs have a private box. And what do we get? Productions of Verdi (Traviata and Rigoletto) with piano accompaniment! Come on, Woody, how dumb do you think we colonials are?

So far, only one scene strikes a true note. The rich mother, not exactly keen on her son's planned marriage to the unemployed actress, gives her a harrowing shake-down about her prospects in the theatre, the necessity of facing up to reality and accepting one's limitations and so on. It gave me the chills. Could that be because the subject is closer to home for Mr. Allen than the mores of the British upper classes?

After nearly an hour and a half, it begins to look like one of these obnoxious people is going to get blown away. This does the movie a lot of good. Now we have a mildly interesting murder mystery -- not so much a whodunnit, as a who will it be done to, and how, and when, and will the perpetrator get away with it? There's even an ironic twist that delivers a nicely nihilistic ending. But, since this is a Woody Allen murder mystery, don't expect the formula to be delivered unadulterated. This is the kind of murder mystery where a detective suddenly sits up in the middle of the night, having solve the crime (he thinks) in his sleep. And when the victim's ghost beefs about getting bumped off, the murderer offers what must be the most self-serving apology in movie history: "It wasn't easy." You begin to suspect there are times when Woody Allen's sense of humour gets the better of him.

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

 

Fraud (Essays) by David Rakoff, 2001

Having heard a lot lately about David Rakoff, I thought it was about time to sample the work of this Toronto export. Apparently, he’s making quite a splash in the world of US publishing with his humour and social commentary. My first few dips into the book made me wonder what all the fuss is about. He’s not as funny as David Sedaris or Bill Bryson. Granted, Mr. Rakoff has knack for droll observation, whether he’s skewering New Age pretensions or the kitschy souvenirs at Loch Ness. He positions himself – gay, Jewish Manhattanite – as the ornery outsider in many situations. A couple of his favourite devices are exaggeration (was it Oscar Wilde who said that’s the distinguishing mark of American humour?) and the apt but unexpected allusion: eg. comparing the proprietress of an ice cream parlour to a deposed Marie Antoinette. The writing is a bit tangled at times; several sentences take more than one reading to tease out the meaning.

As with all really good personal journalism – like say, for example, arts reviews that some dilettante might post on his website diary – the real subject of each essay, regardless of the ostensible one, is the writer. You begin to wonder: what kind of man is this David Rakoff? Does he like anything or anybody? One of his favourite essay patterns provides a clue. Typically, he’ll start off curmudgeonly, dissing everything in sight (with lots of amusing quips thrown in) but, later on, he'll grudgingly admit genuine admiration for, say, the actor Steven Seagal as a New Age guru. On the last morning of a nature retreat, the wonder of the dawn makes him positively dewy-eyed – for ten minutes or so. The last essay in the book, an account of his bout with Hodgkin’s disease, finally gives us a good look into the dark depths of his soul. No cheery "triumph over tragedy" this story. On the contrary, Mr. Rakoff shows that his usual reaction of jokey denial very nearly prevents him from knowing his own feelings or experiencing his life to the full.

A few comments about some non-literary aspects of the package. The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter impressed me, all the more so when I discovered that they’re by the author himself. The one for the nature retreat shows him peeking out of foliage; it really looks like him, judging by the photo on the dust cover. The illustrations appear to be traditional woodcuts but, for all I know, you can fake that sort of thing with software now. In any case, they make a strong visual impact. Wish I could say the same for the text; the font chosen if far too thin and pale. Is publishing these days dominated by whiz kids whose senses are not yet suffering any of the depredations of accumulating decades? In addition to more ink on the page, I would have appreciated some explanation of the context of the essays. Several of them are clearly connected to assignments from various publications. Yet there is no indication that any of them have been published elsewhere. Are they spin-offs from the original assignments? At the back of the book, Mr. Rakoff thanks a huge number of people. By rough count – I ran out of fingers and toes – over a hundred people are named. A quick scan showed that none of them know me, but I recognize a few of the names. Is this great long list some sort of joke that’s too subtle for me? Or, maybe it’s just that Mr. Rakoff, for fear of sounding too misanthropic, wants to show us that he has lots of friends and backers after all.

 

Losing It (Novel) by Alan Cumyn, 2001

It may have been the Giller prize nomination for one of Alan Cumyn’s earlier novels that prompted me to order this one from this library. It starts just great. The setting is Ottawa and we’re following three linked stories: an elderly woman who has Alzheimers, her daughter who is grappling with a two-year-old kid, and the daughter’s middle-aged husband, a professor who seems to have some kinky sex happening on the side. The situations are so well realized, so fully felt, that we could be in John Updike territory, Canadian version.

But things rapidly deteriorate. The professor’s antics get more and more ridiculous. God forbid that I should have anything against kinky sex but I do ask that it be plausible. This man’s behaviour loses credibility with every appearance, to the point that he’s ultimately a write-off. I can’t think of one instance in the book where he makes a sensible decision. Likely, his situation is meant to be funny; we’re supposed to be amused by the contrast between his lofty calling and his undignified pursuits. I, however, am sick and tired of the theme of the outrageous sexuality of the middle-aged academic. Could it be that we get so much of this kind of thing because a lot of people who write novels are academics and they think their lives are more fascinating than the rest of us do? In any case, it’s a pity that the goof at the centre of this book sabotages the whole thing, because the other story lines are handled beautifully. Even the small role of a bachelor handyman is superbly realized. His scenes with his nagging, bed-ridden mother feel excruciatingly real. The last scene in the book, an interior monologue from the elderly mother who has Alzheimers, comes off with dazzling virtuosity. As in a reading from James Joyce, the meanings of the words slip around, eluding a person’s grasp, thus conveying with stunning verisimilitude the devastation of the poor woman’s mind.

 

Election Night in Canada  (CBC TV, Jan 23)

Election night and Academy Awards are the the night of the year when I turn into a tv-watcher. What I especially love about election night is the unpredictable, un-scripted quality of the coverage. Sometimes I have two tv's going simultaneously to compare different treatments of the event, but we're down to one screen in our home entertainment centre, so I stayed with CBC -- an obvious choice, for me, given that there are no commercials during the actual returns.

The hour before hand provided an opportunity to find out what I've been missing in terms of Canadian comedy, tv-version. The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes have similar sets -- lots of transparent plastic, bluish atmosphere, very space age. And the pace of both is frenetic. This is apparently the norm for today's audience, thought to be afflicted with attention deficit disorder. Both shows included shots of laughing, applauding audiences. Were they real? Why would people traipse down to a studio to watch shows that consist mostly of pre-recorded bits thrown together? As for those of us watching at home, how do people put up with all those commercials? Just asking.

There was lots of funny material in both shows but the best parts of both of them were the actual, flesh-and-blood appearances of the politicians who were being satirized. On some level, maybe a subconscious one, this accomplished some sort of Brechtian dazzle around the confusion between reality and illusion. On the more obvious level, our national political leaders -- all of them, without exception -- looked far better as stooges in comedy shows than they ever look in their carefully scripted political appearances. Does this tell us something -- perhaps something we'd rather not know -- about the state of politics in our country today?

When it came to the actual broadcast of the election results, dear old CBC started making me cringe. It had apparently been decided that we wanted a friendlier, funnier face on the election coverage. One of the higher-ups must have had a bad attack of the touchy-feelies. We kept being told that this was all about us and what we had done that day. We were even threatened with humorous contributions from the likes of Don Cherry and Rick Mercer (again), along with gems from various other celebrities. We even had Peter Mansbridge cracking funnies and going har-har-har. Pul----eeese, Peter! We don't want that from you. We want your stern, authoritative demeanour. An occasional smile is ok, an ironic lift of the eyebrow maybe, but we want to feel that your steady hand on the tiller will prevent the ride from getting too choppy. And we don't want clown content from your back-up contributors. We want the granite composure of the usual CBC reporters who can reassure us with their confident number-crunching and their encyclopedic command of political lore.

Once the returns started coming in, we reverted, thank goodness, to the usual tone of election coverage, with frequent use of fond phrases like, "with just x number of polls reporting out of ...." and "....a situation that we'll be watching closely." But suddenly -- one hour in? -- the excitement was over. CBC had made its prediction of the final results. Mr. Mansbridge's panel of experts -- Hugh Segal, Ed Broadbent and John Manley -- dropped their role as thoughtful wisemen and started yukking it up, tossing around each others' last names like old jocks at a team reunion. By eleven o'clock, the show was finished as far as I was concerned, and I could go to bed thankful for one thing. The returns had been coming in too fast to allow for the promised comedy items and celebrity interventions.

Walk The Line (Movie) directed by James Mangold

Johnny Cash never meant much to me but, given that he's apparently some sort of cultural icon for a large part of the population, I figured it might be a good idea to check out this movie, especially as it looks set for lots of attention, come the Academy Awards. The movie starts with the standard depcition of a hero's impoverished childhood, this one touched with tragedy. Moving on to the beginnings of his career, we get this portentous comment on the black shirt he wears to his first recording session, "You look like you're going to a funeral," followed by the inevitable, "Maybe I am." Then the owner of the recording studio delivers The Speech, you know the one -- it turns everything around and sets our man on the right path: all about artistic integrity, being true to yourself and all that bull.

But pretty soon this movie hooked me the way showbiz bio's often do. I love all that backstage drama. It was fun to find out something about life in a part of the music world that was terra incognita to me. There was, however, one amusing cameo appearance by a guy I do know something about, a lad from Memphis named Presley. The message comes through loud and clear: it's hard to keep an even keel when you're a star, what with all the sex, drugs and booze. I have that mantra printed over the mirror where I shave every morning, so it's always good to have proof positive in a movie.

The big surprise was that I loved the music, totally. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix's voice is a little flat in spots -- it doesn't have the ring that Johnny Cash's had -- but his low notes are sexy. If I could find time in my daily round of piano practice, listening to opera, painting watercolours, writing masterpieces and tending to the bird feeder, I would become a connoisseur of this kind of music. By the way, what kind is it, exactly?

The main point of the movie is the relationship between Johnny Cash and June Carter: the bad boy's pursuit of the woman who is too good for him. This could have turned into sentimental schlock but for the actors' superb performances. I have no idea what June Carter was like but Reese Witherspoon creates a fascinating picture of a woman who is cute and bubbly onstage but shrewd and intelligent in her private life, fully aware of the dangerous tug of her love for the man who desperately needs her. Joachin Phoenix is a marvel as the messed-up Johnny. The great thing about his performance is the way, even at his most despicable, he manages to give you a glimpse into the soul of the hurting kid who craves a little respect, a few crumbs of affection. The only thing that prevents the love affair between these two from turning into a great movie is the ho-hum ending. I guess that's the trouble when you're dealing with a real-life fairy tale. Tolstoy said it before me, something about happiness being a bit of a yawn.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most") 

Munich (Movie) directed by Steven Spielberg

At first, I thought this movie was going to be too simplistic. A crack team of Israeli hit men sets out to wreck vengeance on the perpetrators of the killings at the 1972 Munic Olympics. The message is clear: killing demands more killing. You gotta show that you can’t be pushed around. But eventually we see that this revenge business gets complicated. The hunter inevitably becomes the hunted. Can you trust the guy who’s selling you information? Who’s to say he isn’t selling information about you to your enemies? Most importantly, can you ever be sure that you’ve done the right thing? And the Palestinian side of the argument about land ownership does get a brief hearing. So full marks to the movie for message.

My problem is that the movie turns a tragic situation from real life into a rather formulaic drama loaded with hokey devices. Take the first killing by the hit team. Their target is simply a defenseless (at the moment) old man. Yet the movie indulges in about ten minutes of skulking around, jumping from one car to another, dodging around corners and so on. In the end, they simply confront the geezer in the lobby of his apartment and gun him down. The attempt to build suspense feels as if the actual events are being cheapened by phony movie-making. Similarly, our head hit man happens to have a heart-to-heart chat with a Palestinian terrorist in a situation that looks like something only hack script writers could contrive. Of course, said Palestinian gets killed in the next five minutes of film. The script keeps turning up clunky bits of trite dialogue that are supposed to sound snappy, like "Save your money, you’re going to need it." (By the way, the expression "Have a nice day" wasn’t used in the 1970s as an all-purpose bromide the way it is now.) Actors are often forced to make fatuous speeches that fall flat.

All of which is to say, I guess, that we have here the full range of the good and bad points of a Steven Spielberg movie.

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

 

Metropolitan Opera: Mozart Retrospective (CBC Radio Two, January 14/06)

Was there something wrong with my expectations? In the preceding weeks and days, we kept hearing about how the Met was going to celebrate Mozart’s upcoming 250th birthday with highlights from broadcasts of his operas. Sounded to me like a real gala. Instead, we got a rather leisurely stroll through the archives, with some musings from James Levine (amiable but bland), explanations from Margaret Juntwaite and, sprinkled here and there, snippets of information which, although interesting, lacked context. The thought struck me that maybe the esteemed management of the Met, expert though they are in the production and broadcasting of opera, don’t know all that much about putting together a radio documentary. Could they use a few lessons from the CBC?

Which is not to say that there wasn’t some intriguing stuff on offer. It surprised me to find that, apparently, piano was sometimes used instead of harpsichord for accompaniment in recicatives. And I didn’t know that the term "baritone", signifying a vocal range, is a relatively recently innovation. Or that "coloratura" isn’t a legit Italian word at all.

The records of the earlier broadcasts give the impression that in the 1940s Mozart was treated as something rarefied, specialized and sort of quaint. Hard to say whether this impression comes from the tinny sound of the orchestras, not to mention the voices. Speaking of which, why was everybody so nuts about Bid Sayo? I know she was supposed to be the epitome of Mozartian charm and elegance. That must have been all about her appearance and demeanour; for my money, her voice doesn’t match the glorious music. In several of the selections, she was paired with Ezio Pinza. Around our house, he was best known for his performance on the original cast recording of South Pacific. My impression: Mozart got about as much finesse from him as did Rogers and Hammerstein. And how about George London singing Don Giovanni’s "Deh vieni alla finestra", the serenade to the serving girl at the window? Not the least bit seductive or sensual. His great big voice seemed to say, "George London has come call, and if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to blow the house down."

Moving to my era, I enjoyed hearing Leontyne Price as Donna Anna because she sang that role in one of the first operas I ever saw. At the time, I was too raw to have much impression of her performance but I knew she must have played the bereaved Anna because I remembered that she’d been strolling around bedecked in a black mantilla. But now her voice strikes me as dark and formidable for Anna. No timorous virgin here – any Don who trifled with this babe would be taking a huge risk. It was a pleasure to have some Canadian content by way of Teresa Stratas – also one of the first opera singers I heard live. But what was the point of having her sing "Batti, batti" from Don Giovanni? I’m no fanatic about political correctness but this aria where a young woman asks her boyfriend to beat her up really bugs me. A person can just about stand it in the opera, given that the work as a whole is a landmark of Western culture, but I don’t think the piece should be singled out this way. I was delighted with the finale from that opera. Having missed the Don Ottavio’s name in the introduction, I was wondering: who is that fabulous tenor? Well, I guess you can call me a good talent scout. Turns out the lad was named Nicolai Gedda. Best of all, Joan Sutherland was singing Donna Anna. She’s my all-time fave, but I seldom think of her as a Mozartian. Where other sopranos would have been straining and stretching to provide those necessary high notes for the ensembles, there was Dame Joan floating serenely above the fray, untouchable in her heavenly perfection.

 

Pack Up The Moon (Novel) by Richard Teleky, 2001

I was well into this novel before realizing that it was set in Toronto. So nobody can accuse me of approaching it with prejudices – favourable or otherwise – about Canadian authors and settings. The narrator, a man in his 50s, reminisces about life as an English student at St. Mike’s college in the University of Toronto in the 1960s. His memories focus mainly on a mystery surrounding Charlotte, a student he was very friendly with. He also brings us up to date on more recent events, particularly the death of Jay, his lover who died of AIDs.

There are brilliant passages here – whole chapters as dialogue, or a telephone monologue, or selections from a journal. But the narrative style used through the rest of the book struck me as somewhat awkward. You’d think an editor would have axed lines like "I went to bed with a sense of foreboding." or "I couldn’t have known, that night, that in a month I would meet Jay." Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The narrator’s voice grew on me. He’s one of those self-effacing guys who downplays his own problems, keeping the spotlight on his fascinating friends (although he does tell us a bit about his own coming to terms with being gay). Towards the end, he strikes an elegiac tone that recalls the narrator in The Great Gatsby. Maybe this book doesn’t probe as deeply as it might. The narrator seems to be trying to convey the impression of something mysteriously compelling about Catholicism for both Charlotte and Jay but, to me, he’s merely skimming the surface of that subject. However, the book gave me several hours of pleasant reading. Isn’t that what matters in the end?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com