Dilettante's Diary

June 27/06

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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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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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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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On this page: Food in Movies (mini-essay); World Cup (Soccer Final); Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition; Toronto Summer Chamber Music Festival; Prairie Home Companion (Movie); What Shall We Do With CBC TV? (Essay); A Year in the Merde (Novel)

Food In Movies (Mini-essay)

On CBC Radio Two's "Music and Company" Norah Young, who's sitting in for Tom Allen, was asking for psychological insights about food in movies. We  submmitted an observation which Ms. Young read verbatim on air. Just in case you missed it, it's repeated here, so that you'll know that our opinions are heard in high places.

Dinner scenes in movies bug me. Snacking is ok, but extended meal scenes put me off. There often seems to be something phony and unnatural about the way the actors chew the food. Could it be because they have to sit there toying with the food for hours and hours, take after take – maybe even days on end? Anybody’s mouth would dry up and their stomach would rebel. No wonder the actors’ attack on the food looks a little forced. Which leads me to guess that in movies sex is easier to fake than pleasure in food. Does this qualify as a psychological insight? Maybe it says more about the psychology of one viewer!

 

World Cup (Soccer Final on TV, Sunday July 9/06)

They said a billion people were watching around the world, so who were we to abstain? And then – surprise!– it turned out that there weren’t any commercials (at least not during the main parts of the game). With the result that we caught about an hour of the final. The next pleasant surprise was that many of these superb athletes were more mature than the ones we’re used to seeing on our screens over here. I’m in favour of anything that shows older guys still have it in them.

Although we had personal reasons for wanting France to win, I’m happy for the Italians who seemed pretty desperate for something to celebrate. But what really are they celebrating? I mean, the teams played equally well during the game. And that penalty kick by the Frenchman which didn’t go into the goal – what does that prove? It nearly did. If some butterfly had flapped its wings somewhere, the ball might just as well have gone in. How does so much elation depend on such a tiny thing? It’s hardly grounds for acting as if the gods are on your side and evil has been conquered for all time to come.

Which observation may explain why we don’t often report on sports in Dilettante’s Diary. When you look at a really good watercolour or read a really good book you know that things are working out the way God intended them to.

 

Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2006 (Nathan Phillips Square, July 7-9)

Unlike some so-called "juried" shows, this one offers lots of very good art. So much of it that it’s impossible to do justice to the 800 artists in one visit. To simplify things a bit, I ignored sculpture and the decorative arts and crafts. Not that there’s anything wrong with them artistically, but a guy has to focus somehow. Here, then, is the best I could do in a couple of hours. Apologies to the many artists whose work I didn’t get to see.

First, some familiar favourites.

Watercolours: David McEown’s refreshing Arctic scenes – lots of snow, ice and water – hit a welcome note on a hot day. In quick visits, I also paid homage to: Micheal Zarowsky’s dazzling interiors and gardens of Paris in almost a pointillist style; Sally Milne’s luminously transparent glass bowls in different colours; Jacqueline Treloar’s glimpses of urban beauty in overpasses and construction sights.

Other media: I’ve long admiredTimothy Daniels’ pastels and I especially like the way they’re getting a little more edgy, a little less "pretty". Virginia May, my friend from the Toronto Watercolour Society, didn’t bring any of her magnificent watercolours – alas – but her semi-abstract landscapes of the wide open spaces around her country home are getting lots of deserved attention. As in last year’s show, Dorion Scott shows beautiful paintings of mundane objects like running shoes, fly swatters and ketchup bottles. I’m glad that Kim Atlin, whose work I admired at the winter show at the Metro Convention Centre, brought more of her haunting cityscapes this time. One large oil on canvas of a city at night – a marvellous composition mostly of rectangles and verticals in yellow and black – comes very close to being my favourite picture in this show.

Some New (for me) Discoveries in Watercolour

Jesus Mora makes lovely, delicate abstracts that may or may not be inspired by insects and biological matter and which express the essence of watercolour in their flowing transparency. Robert Spurll takes a more structured approach to his use of the medium, creating landscapes with sculpted, hard edges, in which the clouds loom very large as abstract creations. Andrew Kwiecinski’s landscapes are done in a relatively traditional way but with just that dash of exhuberance and freedom that pushes them in a more creative direction. Bonnie Brooks does fine work with the use of a lot of negative painting. If you’re looking for large, loose florals with the pigment flowing all over the paper, you can’t do better than Evette Slaughter's. Brent McGillivray combines watercolour and gouache for his evocative scenes of old buildings in a flat style somewhat like Christopher Pratt’s. Dominique Prvost, who won the prize for the best watercolour at this show a few years ago, uses resist, chalk and pastel to provide definition and punch to her very free-flowing landscapes. With his large, loose transparent abstracts in watercolour, W Hoyano makes stunning pictures with somewhat geometrical compositions that may or may not represent things like icebergs.

Discoveries of Paintings and Drawings in Other Media

My first priority at these shows is the watercolours – which is as it should be since that’s the medium favoured by the most god-like creators. However, several artists in other media seduced me away from my intended focus. For instance, Jim Bourke’s rough-hewn encaustic paintings of still lives and subjects like a huge freighter as seen from the stern. Or Isabella Stefanescu’s expressive gesture paintings of nudes with house paint on butcher paper. Jae Ahn’s paintings appeal to me because of their unlikely subject matter like a furnace in a basement corner. Bonnie Miller’s series of hydro poles with their myriad connections make for great compositions. As do Eric Cator’s roof lines of buildings. Brian J. Harvey turns out very painterly still lives and interiors with subjects like a guitar leaning against a window. A lot of artists now are turning to the night for their subject matter. Sean O’Keefe’s work in this vein intrigued me. I could have spent hours looking at his composition of a marina where yellow and burnt umber create the eerie effect of boats under harsh sodium lighting.

Many aspects of the work of Ehryn Torrell fascinated me. First – her large pictures of junk-filled corners in partially demolished buildings: a broken door, a fallen rafter, a gaping hole. Then there are her "cage" pictures – black and white mono prints inspired by condos under construction where you get lots of dramatic verticals. I couldn’t follow her description of the process – it involved paint, turpentine, ink, etc – but I love the smudgy end products. Most of all, though, I love her scribbly drawings suggesting cities. With all the scratchy graphite work, you could dismiss them as just a kid’s mess but you look at them for a while and you begin to get the feeling of space and distance with a few slashes of colour to express the explosive bustle of city life.

Probably my favourite painter of the whole show is Simon Andrew. One of his semi-abstract landscapes pulled me like a magnet from thirty yards across the plaza. "What do you like about it?" he asked about the oil on board. Well, the simplicity for one thing. He suggests so much with just a few slashes – a snowy, bleak landscape above a leaden sky, just a hint of red (some life stirring) on the horizon. But it’s not all just a blur. There’s a pleasing geometry to the broad strokes of paint making up the landscape. Several of his other pictures have a similar breath-taking effect. And I’m happy to say that they’re selling extremely well. Which says good things about Toronto art buyers.

Further

It was fun to see the work of Jesse Boles who was featured on the cover of Now magazine a few months ago. His photographs of crummy industrial landscapes show how an artist can see the beauty in what most people consider ugly. You’ve got to hand it to Todd Munro for his imaginative prints of automobiles inspired by the Lascaux cave animal paintings. Beth Howe’s minimalist pictures of houses, like pieces of architectural drawings, are apparently made of lines of pale thread sewn into the paper: very cool, ultra-sophisticated. Susan Avishai does exquisite coloured pencil renderings of parts of people’s bodies and clothes – just a neck, collar and sleeve, for example. And the lighting in Diane Archer’s black and white photos of a derelict concrete building creates a very contemplative effect.

In the student section, I was happy to see the work of recent OCAD grad Jamie Bradbury whose portraits use a lot of drippy, watecolour. Ditto the thrilling work of Alice Gibney, another OCAD grad. In her portraits and animal paintings, the swirls of watercolour fly off the page. Jillian Ditner’s pastel silkscreen prints of suburban houses and driveways caught my attention with their clean, quiet composition. And I couldn’t understand a word of Braden Labont’s explanation of his process. Words like "gesso", "epoxy" and "resin" were flying around. But I can say this about his moody, runny portraits which look like black paint on shiny white tiles – they rock!

 

Toronto Summer Chamber Music Festival (Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, July 7/06)

Who knew that Toronto had a summer chamber music festival? Or that we needed one? However, when two tickets for this all Franz Schubert concert fell into our laps, we didn’t raise any objections. Apparently, this event is the brain-child of Marilyn Gilbert Artists Management and Artistic Director Michael Guttman. He’s the first violinist of the Arriaga Quartet, a Belgian group that seems to act as resident artists for the duration. (Ivo Lintermans, second violin; Marc Tooten, viola; Luc Tooten, cello). For this concert they were joined by well known Canadian-based musicians James Campbell (clarinet), Joel Quarrington (double bass), James McKay (bassoon), Richard Raymond (piano) and the up-and-coming Louis-Phillipe Marsolais (french horn.)

The age gap between Mr. Marsolais and most of the others raises the question: what’s with these twenty-year-old photos in the program? One can understand why artists want to show photos of their younger, sleeker selves. None of us is immune from that kind of vanity. But performers should know that it can backfire. In the case of the middle-aged one who presents a relatively recent photo,  he comes on and you say to yourself, "Well, there’s a decent person, no Adonis, but a respectable chap." But when they come on looking fatter and older and balder than their pictures, you’re hit with unwelcome thoughts about human frailty, narcissism, ageing, mortality, taxes and the cost of living. Makes it kind of hard to concentrate on the music.

Which may or may not be why it took me a while to get into the first piece on the program – Schubert’s Octet in F Major (D. 803). Apart from the third movement scherzo, the piece isn’t very familiar to me, so I wasn’t able to just sit back and enjoy the playing. I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on. It struck me that there were some ragged patches, particularly in the second movement adagio that seemed to call for a soothing, rocking motion under the melody. The rocking was a bit bumpy. But it was good to hear a piece that gives the bassoon such a workout. An especially beautiful moment was in the dancey andante of the fourth movement where the viola and the cello were passing the melody back and forth like relay racers with a baton. If you closed your eyes, you couldn’t hear the transition from one player to the other.

It struck me while listening, though, that Schubert’s chamber music isn’t really a spectator sport. It’s participatory. He wrote these things (I figure) for a bunch of friends to get together and make music. The idea is to bring your violin or your horn and sit in for a movement or two. That’s the fun of it. It must be thrilling to provide one of the voices of that very complex composition. Whereas the guy who’s just sitting there listening has to scramble constantly to try to hear what’s happening. Maybe if the playing is perfect, it carries the listener along without any such questions but that wasn’t happening for me.

The playing of the much better known "Trout" Quintet in A Major (D. 667) was a different matter. Anybody who listens faithfully to CBC Radio Two knows this one – at least in parts – as well as their own phone number. So you could just let it wash over you. And did it ever – like a Tsunami! As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve heard The Trout live. I’d never realized it was such a barn-burner. And so LOUD! (Guess my radio instinctively keeps the volume down.) The ensemble playing was wonderful here; you had the feeling that the guys had the piece in their souls and they were letting it rip. The co-ordination and team effort were spectacular. The Raptors* have nothing on these guys.

Richard Raymond remained unflappably calm and cool through the bravura piano work but I have a quibble about the quality of the piano’s sound. It didn’t have any brightness or ring. Nobody else was complaining (indeed, the enthusiastic applause produced an encore of part of one movement) but, to me, it sounded like those dull workhorse pianos you hear plunking when you’re walking down the corridors of the Royal Conservatory. The Trout calls for some sparkling stream in 19th century Austria, not one of murky branches of Toronto’s Don River.

* A group of basketball players, I believe.

 

A Prairie Home Companion (Movie) directed by Robert Altman, written by Garrison Keiller, with a bunch of stars.

As you know, I don’t read anything about movies before seeing them, so I can’t say to what extent this one mirrors Garrison Keillor’s actual radio program of the same name. In the movie, the cast are performing their radio show for the last time, in an old theatre for a live audience, before the new owner of the theatre rings down the curtain on them. We get backstage carry-on, snippets of the performers'  memories, and lots of onstage performing. Tons of sentiment and plenty of cornball humour. Not sure how the music would be labelled. Sort of light, old-fashioned country with a touch of blues and some gospel thrown in?

You’ve got to understand that the reviews in Dilettante’s Diary are strictly about my personal reactions, ok? So....I have no idea how a normal person would react to this movie but I sat there with an idiotic grin plastered on my face throughout.  Every song felt like being dunked in a pleasure bath. How delicious to see Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep singing those lovely harmonies together. Even more charismatic were Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the cowboy duo. Garrison Keillor provided beautiful additional harmony for many of the tunes. Lindsay Lohman belatedly added a touch of twenty-something sexiness. They all seemed like such nice people. And it turns out that they probably are: when the credits for the back-up musicians came on, the name "Pat Donohue" was all over the screen. (He's a guitarist and composer of several of the songs.)

I love all the showbiz shtick. But this movie shows the biz in a new way. There's hardly any break between the backstage human-interest stuff and the onstage performing. The movie flows seemlessly back and forth from one to the other. People stroll into the spotlight while chatting with one of their colleagues and pick up a song in the middle of their conversation. Maybe this is the ultimate tribute to showbiz: to say that it's just part of the on-going beat of living?

Some surrealistic business about a mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen) doesn’t work very well. Neither does the dorky detective thing assigned to Kevin Kline. As a matter of fact, none of the little plot lines really convinced me. I got the feeling that Mr. Altman didn’t care much about them either. After the complicated interweaving of themes and stories in most of his illustrious oeuvre, it looks like he just wants to have fun here. What matters is the loving detail to the clutter in the basement dressing rooms. And the way the performers haul themselves up that narrow staircase, emerging in a dark corner of the wings – shown as reverently as a ritual from some arcane liturgy.

No message, no moral. Just lots of feeling. And yet, certain resonances are sneaking up on me. Maybe it was about nostalgia? About dying? About losses? About change?

Rating: B+ (Where B = "Better than most")

 

What Shall We Do With CBC TV? (Dilettante’s Diary Special Essay)

What with all the hubbub about CBC TV in the wake of the recent Senate report,  Dilettante’s Diary will now pronounce on the subject. After all, it’s well known that we are one of CBC Radio’s most devout adherents, so it’s understandable that there should be enormous curiosity out there about what we have to say on the fate of CBC TV's future – even though we only watch tv (always CBC) on election nights, or when there’s something of special interest on "The National" and occasionally "Opening Night". Oh yeah, I almost forgot – really good funerals. All of these events, you’ll note, are broadcast without commercials.

Which should give you some idea where we’re heading here. We would like to say that we heartily approve of the Senate committee’s recommendation that CBC TV should get out of commercial television. That it should go in the direction of CBC Radio – i.e. quality programming only. People can get shlock elsewhere; let them suffer through commercials for it. CBC TV should get tons more government money to do something really worthwhile. Why not a licence on every tv in the country? Then, as in Britain, the funds would go to the public broadcaster, enabling us to reach heights like the BBC’s but in a Canadian way.

As mentioned, we would like to say all that. But we’re not sure we should. If CBC TV followed our instructions, we might start watching it more than once or twice a year. We’d probably be hooked in no time. What about all those books waiting to be read? What about movies? Plays? No time for writing reviews. Bye-bye Dilettante’s Diary!

 

A Year in the Merde (Novel) by Stephen Clarke, 2004

These days, when a book has "bestseller" emblazoned on the cover, any self-respecting critic feels an urgent need to denounce the author’s crass commercialism and to lambaste the fools who opened the book, read a couple of chapters, bought gift copies, started talking it up and turned it into a hit without reading it to the end.

So, let’s note what’s good about this "bestseller". Presumably meant as a riposte to Peter Mayle’s famous A Year in Provence with its idyllic theme, Merde tells about the disastrous year that a young Brit spent working in Paris. It’s brisk, slick and easy to read. The author gets off some funny lines. And he sure nails the foibles of the French: the bureaucracy, the hypocrisy, the constant strikes. (I bin there.)

The problem is that the book’s billed as a novel. The characterization is so thin, the plot so skimpy, that this book is to novels as McDonald’s is to fine cuisine. Which wouldn’t matter if the book were funny enough. Granted, the fact that not all the world speaks perfect English is a truly hilarious and incredible phenomenon, but the joke pales after a while.

We all know that some great travel writing comes from grumping and complaining about foreign places. Look at Paul Theroux’s stellar career. But the young Brit in Merde lacks any qualities that would make him an engaging travel writer. The only thing about France that really interests him is French women’s underwear. Not at all like a nice Canadian boy. Which may be why my year in France went much better than his.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com