Dilettante's Diary

November 28/06

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Reviewed here: Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir and Mireille Asselin (Concert); Volver (Movie); Running With Scissors (Movie); For Your Consideration (Movie); The Sea (Novel); Everyman (Novella); The Cure of Folly (Memoir)

Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir with guest star Mireille Asselin (Trinity-St.Paul's United Church, Toronto, Dec 6/06)

The great excitement of this event for me was the discovery of a new young singer. Apparently, Mireille Asselin, who’s in her final year of the performance program in the Glenn Gould School (Royal conservatory of Music), has appeared in lots of things but I’d not yet had the pleasure of hearing her – and what a great pleasure that turned out to be. In her first set on this program, she sang "Rejoice Greatly" from Handel’s Messiah, the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night" (one verse in French and one in English). She doesn’t have the richest, fullest soprano voice I’ve ever heard but it’s bright and clear and the coloratura is sparkling and bell-like. The silvery, quality of her voice is especially well suited to French text. In the second part of the program, she sang a couple of love songs ("Ma Vie En Rose" and "Nature Boy"), followed by the "Alleluia" from Mozart’s "Exultate Jubilate". That final piece was so thrilling (with no small thanks to the brilliant accompaniment by Julie Loveless at the piano) that I was wondering: why would any soprano waste her talents on love songs when she could be dishing out this sublime stuff all the time? I hope to hear lots more of it from Ms. Asselin.

Which is not to say that the Toronto Welsh Male Voice Choir wasn’t impressive. They sing with amazing precision and very clear diction, under conductor William Woloschuk. In full flight, they have a glorious tone. The bass section is particularly good. (If you want to get the full effect when listening to Welsh male choirs, you should close your eyes and imagine those poor minors trudging home and raising their voices in song in order to bring a little beauty into their lives.) I particularly liked the performance of an "Angelus" by Franz Biebl, not least because it was good to hear the beloved Latin again. At another point, one of the choristers read the last part of Dylan Thomas’ "A Child’s Christmas in Wales", while the choir hummed in the background; the tune was, I think, the famous Welsh song that many of us know as "All Through the Night". Some African-American spirituals closed the program on a very strong note.

 

Volver (Movie) written and directed by Pedro Almodvar, starring Penlope Cruz

The movie opens with a scene in one of those conglomerations of granite and marble that is a European cemetery. As the camera pans across the graves, we see an army of women, their bosoms all a-jiggle, as they vigorously scrub and polish the tombstones. Plastic flowers everywhere are teeter-tottering in a strong wind. I’m thinking: is this a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? I half-expect the women to break into a paraphrase of the opening chorus of The Gondoliers:

List and learn, ye plastic roses

Roses white and roses red

Why we strike these foolish poses

In the company of our dead.

I’d gone to this movie knowing only that it was supposed to be very good and that a lot of people thought Penlope Cruz was really hot. But that opening scene reminded me that there’s something I don’t like about Spanish movies – of which Pedro Almodvar seems to be the major practitioner at the moment. There’s an over-the-top, outlandish quality to them. The tone veers wildly through sitcom, melodrama, farce and soap opera. What I dislike most is a certain fantastical element involving superstition and unreality. (I find this in Spanish literature too.) I think we’re supposed to be all caught up in the "magic" of storytelling – sort of a 1,001 Nights thing – no matter how far-fetched it is.

For about five minutes of this movie, however, I thought we were in for a good variation of the murder/mystery genre – a violent death and the clandestine disposal of a body. But no, that very minor plot element was soon swamped by a convoluted tale about a bunch of women – mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, the woman across the street and other neighbours. It was almost impossible to sort out the relationships until the very end. Lots of deaths and disappearances as well as re-appearances of deceased who may or may not be ghosts. And some particularly incomprehensible palaver about a tell-it-all tv show.

It all has something to do with some terrible thing that happened in the past which turns out, in the end, to be the most popular shocker in contemporary culture. There is, admittedly, a nice narrative twist near the end. However, a movie that requires a ten-minute wrap-up speech to explain everything tends to make me feel about as pleased as the dumb kid at the back of the class when the teacher’s giving out the answers to the exam questions.

So maybe the story doesn’t matter? Maybe the point is that there’s wonderful stuff for women actors here. But who can take these women seriously? The way these women lie to each other is stupifying. They tell untruths as spontaneously and naturally as breathing. Is that part of their cute, feminine appeal?  Penlope Cruz traipses around taking on improbable challenges – in tight skirts, low necklines and pumps – like some sort of contemporary Lucille Ball. Except that this is a comedienne whose eyes fill with tears every ten minutes. We’re supposed to believe that she has some dreary job cleaning floors in an airport or someplace but anybody who looks like her would obviously have to spend a large part of her day in the makeup trailer.

Some of Pedro Almodvar's early movies were fun in a wacky way but lately he seems too impressed with his sainted status as the middle-aged woman’s favourite gay director. Apparently, his mission in life is to show us how wonderful women are. (Clearly, the subtext of this movie is that men are brutes and deserve to die.) But I don’t think he’s advancing the cause any by putting his actresses in films that are so ridiculously contrived and implausible. Besides, I can’t help wondering if he hasn't subverted his message by plunking Penlope Cruz down in the middle of these women. It’s impossible to see a star with such megawatt sex appeal as anything like an ordinary woman, especially when her very considerable charms (two of them in particular) are thrust in our face all the time. Granted, it gives some of us something to watch but I don’t think we’re on the same page as Signor Almodvar.

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

Running With Scissors (Movie), directed by Ryan Murphy, written by Ryan Murphy and Augusten Burroughs, starring Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Cross, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jill Clayburgh.

This movie is based on the memoirs of one Augusten Burroughs. In the 1970s, when Augusten was in his early teens, his psychotic mother, a would-be poet, sent him to live with her psychiatrist’s family. Everyone in the psychiatrist’s house was crazy, especially the psychiatrist. Augusten’s alcoholic father, as played by Alec Baldwin is the only person who retains his dignity in this mess. About twenty minutes in, he declares, "This is bullshit" and he bails. I would have bailed too but for the fact that I had to kill some time before another appointment.

I know there were despotic psychiatrists at one time who doped their patients into a stupor and took complete control of their lives. Perhaps there are still some around. However, if you’re going to make a movie on that theme, you’ve got to make some of the people involved seem real enough that we begin to care about them. Brian Cox, as the shrink making a house call, arrives to the sound of spooky music, the camera following his feet as he marches in dark silhouette to the patient’s door. Inside, he sits down and starts tape-recording details about his patient’s bowel movements, while feeding her valium. So maybe this is supposed to be a parody of the malevolent shrink genre? For godsakes, then, give us something to laugh at. But no, we are apparently supposed to take all the sturm und drang for real. Don’t forget – this actually happened, more or less, sort of, kinda, supposedly.

One understands that actresses love nutcase roles that allow them to emote all over the place. But, man, Annette Benning, as the histrionic mom, is tiresome to watch. Now and then you think that maybe a movie about a woman’s newfound feminism, about the sense that she has been repressed and undervalued by all the men in her life, could be interesting, even if she is deluded about her poetic talents. But this woman is so annoying that you want the white coat folks to take her away asap. As a captive audience, the best you can do is close your eyes every time she comes on screen.

It’s not much of an excuse for a movie to say that it’s based on stuff that happened. You have to shape the events to make them coherent. It helps if you have a script that doesn’t keep tripping over clunky bits like "Go to bed, Augusten, you have school tomorrow." (Note to scriptwriters: Augusten knows he has school tomorrow, mom doesn’t have to tell him.) And there’s such a thing as artistic form and shape. And a consistent tone. The way this self-indulgent exercise lurches along, you never know what to make of it. And whose story is it anyway: the kid’s? the mom’s? the shrink’s?

In the end, apparently it’s about how the kid had to find a life on his own terms. Which would be fine if, at any point, you thought you were dealing with a real person. Joseph Cross looks so incorrigibly cute and clean, with his turned up nose, that you feel you’re dealing with one of those cookie angels that turn up around this time of year. You care about him just enough to want to break off sugary bits of him to dunk in your tea.

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

For Your Consideration (Movie) directed by Christopher Guest, written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy

The buzz on this one was not good but I wanted to see it anyway. Having loved this gang’s previous movies (Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind), it seemed to me unlikely that they could strike out completely. Serves me right for ignoring my dear Aunt Agnes’ advice when she keeps telling me that you shouldn't trust your own judgement when it disagrees with the crowd’s because the masses are usually right.

The movie opens with a scene from an old black and white movie on tv. The camera pulls back and we see a matronly, bleary-eyed Catherine O’Hara mouthing the words to her favourite scene. I’m thinking: after this old clich, surely there’s nowhere to go but up? Wrong again!

The premise is that O’Hara, Levy, Guest, Parker Posey et al. are involved in making a schlocky movie. We’re supposed to be caught up in the neurotic, deluded hopes of the actors as they get psyched up about the possibility of Oscar nominations. But the movie they’re making is so bad and their acting so heavy-handed that it’s completely unbelievable that it would ever see the light of day, let alone come within reach of an Oscar.

In the previous movies by this group, the comedy lay in the very fine line between believability and exaggeration. The characters made you laugh (and cringe) because they were so very near to being people you knew. In this case, there are too many ridiculous caricatures. A ditzy producer in a peroxide wig and inflated boobs who doesn’t look like she could produce anything but gas. A publicist so clueless that he doesn’t know what the Internet is. A starring actress who freezes on a tv talk show. Are Christopher Guest and Co trying to tell us that they really have worked with such aberrant specimens of humanity? When it comes to Hollywood, they bin there and I haven’t but their take on it doesn’t work for me.

Yes, we get the joke of the vapid tv host and the studio brass who don’t get anything but the bottom line. In their previous movies, though, Guest and Co didn’t go for such easy targets. Besides, we don’t need another movie at this point to convince us of the shallowness of the movie world. It’s been done so much better many times. (State and Main, The Player, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – to mention just a few examples.)

The saddest aspect of this mess is that most of the actors do some very good bits. I wanted to care about the way Catherine O’Hara’s character tries to turn herself from slatternly hasbin into a sexy Oscar contender. But the good work from several of the actors doesn’t stand a chance buried in this ridiculous excuse for a movie. The whole thing feels like something a bunch of old friends got together and concocted for a few yuks on a drunken weekend without much thought of how it would play to the rest of us. And I hope never again to witness Eugene Levy resorting to that over-used shtick of talking with his mouth full of food by way of showing what a klutz he is. One gag to many as far as this viewer is concerned.

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

 

The Sea (Novel) by John Banville, 2005

I’m glad to report that this novel won the Man-Booker prize. If that prize didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it just so that this book could win it. The book would be almost a parody of a certain type of British novel if the writing were not so fine: somebody returns to a big old house by the sea, to look over his life and to recall some tragedy that happened there long ago. Almost nothing happens in the present except that a few characters eke out their lives in quiet desperation. In this kind of book, it’s not so much about what happens as it is about the author’s delicate dissection of subtle moods and feelings. In one stunning passage, for example, the main character realizes that his marriage was a way of trying to make himself real. I didn’t quite buy the tragedy when it was finally revealed but, towards the end, there was a nice surprise that caught me off guard. And I’m not sure whether this is a deficit but, although the book is supposedly set in Ireland, it almost never felt Irish except for a couple of brief references. The sensibility seems far more British to me, especially in the terse, tight-lipped way characters deal with death.

This book makes a very interesting comparison/contrast with Philip Roth’s Everyman (see review below). Both are by very distinguished authors, one Irish,  the other American. Both look back over the life of a middle-aged or elderly man. In each case, the man’s sole link, virtually, to the land of the living and loving is a daughter. The question of going to live with that daughter arises for both of the men. One of the men is a painter; the other thinks perhaps he will take up painting. Does this tell us something about how some of our best writers see a man in today’s world?

It’s in the writing that you get the tremendous difference between the two.  In Philip Roth, as usual, it's all about the onward rush of the narrative whereas John Banville serves up very spare, carefully wrought sentences. His occasional descriptive flourishes take your breath away with their perfection in capturing a mood or a moment:  "Rain earlier had left puddles on the road that were paler than the sky, as if the last of day were dying in them." Or: "The sky was hazed over and not a breeze stirred the surface of the sea, at the margin of which the small waves were breaking in a listless line, over and over, like a hem being turned endlessly by a sleepy seamstress."

 

Everyman (Novella) by Philip Roth, 2006

The book starts with mourners standing around a guy’s grave. Then we find out how he got there. We hear about his parents, his brother, his job, his wives and lovers – but mostly his illnesses. It’s not a dramatic story, you wonder how a person could make a novel out of such ordinary stuff. But we’re in the hands of a great writer here. This meditation on what-it’s-all-about belongs up there with all the great books about growing old and dying. I’m thinking of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, Garbrielle Roy’s Alexandre Chenevert, Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and several of Anita Brookner’s latest books.

As far as I can tell, the man in question here is never named, so let’s call just call him Name. Name was puzzled by what was happening to him. He wasn’t supposed to end up like this. "....like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was....impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know." As you may gather, this is not exactly a barrel of laughs but it’s a fascinating couple of hours' read if you’re the kind of person who constantly craves more information about what it feels like for other people to be human – especially when they can look back at the experience as it’s coming to an end.

I’m left with a few questions, though. Name screwed up majorly in some ways. Without denying the man’s faults or mistakes, Philip Roth presents them as more or less inevitable. A favourite saying of Name’s reflects an attitude he picked up from his father: "...there’s no remaking reality.....Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way." It doesn’t seem as though Name ever gave much thought to what he should or shouldn’t have done in some areas of his life. In those respects, he seems to have lacked any sort of ethical compass. I’m not here to judge the poor man – he’s dead after all – and I’m not saying the moral baggage that I lug around makes me any better than him. But is life really so aimless for most people now when the old guidelines have been rubbed away like the markings on a football field near the end of a rough game?

Just wondering. Which is what a good book is supposed to make you do, I guess.

 

The Cure of Folly (Memoir) by Gordon Werme, 2003

I spotted this book by Toronto psychiatrist Gordon Werme as a must-read when it came out three years ago. But I didn’t jump in right away because I’m a psychiatric hypochondriac. That is to say, I’m inclined, when reading about psychiatry, to see myself in every case study. So it seemed a good idea to hold off reading this book until I was feeling mentally strong and healthy. As it gradually became apparent that such a time is never going to arrive and that life is meanwhile slipping away, I decided to go for it here and now.

No worry about seeing myself profiled in every chapter. Doctor Werme doesn’t talk a lot about cases. In fact, he doesn’t much care for diagnoses or "labels". He feels people are what they are, that’s all. "My job," he says, at one point, "is to show my patient – the only person who counts – his suffering is something he does to himself, that it stems from his own set of hurtful rules and that, most of all, he is harmed, hampered, and enslaved by his own cowness." And elsewhere: "As long as a patient pays for the time he’s purchased from me, it’s not my job to steer, guide, or persuade him to ‘try’. What matters is whether I am smart enough to understand why this is the person he has designed himself to be today, and to understand how his actions fit into his wider life and his past. My job is to connect everything to everything else, to help him wise up about himself. Whatever he does is his most pressing expression of his immediate being. If I interfere with that, it would show I fear knowing certain things about him or, like an old-fashioned fascist, believe I know better than him what he ought to talk about."

You can’t help liking the guy. He scoffs at the illusion of the psychiatrist as the guru or the know-it-all, even while noting that he plays that card for all its worth sometimes. As the book progresses, you get a view of Dr. Werme as something of a maverick, increasingly an outsider in the profession for which he has served as a mentor for generations of younger shrinks. He claims his colleagues they don’t like his impatience with diagnoses, drugs, and psychotherapeutic fads. About these disputes, though, it can, frankly, be a little unsettling for the layman to see glimpses of skulduggery and chicanery behind the scenes in the hallowed halls where the shamans of our day receive their training.

Invariably fascinating as the material is, I have some problems with the book. At first, you wonder how the good doctor can reveal so much about patients and colleagues – until a note at the end of the book assures you that names have been changed. The same note, however, explains that certain incidents and details have been modified or switched to suit the writer’s purpose. What are we to make of the material, then? Is he describing true events or not?

Furthermore, at times, it’s hard to follow the doctor’s train of thought. In fact, I’m not really sure what the book is supposed to be. Most of the chapters revolve around a patient who is presented to a class of psychiatrists in training: one of the students describes the patient, then the patient is brought into the room, then Dr. Werme conducts a quick interview with the patient, presumably to show the students how an old pro gets to the heart of the matter by tossing out a few unexpected sallies that disconcert the patient. Frequently, in the middle of the recounting of an inteview, Dr. Werme will wander off into memories and dreams of his own, stories from his own past and disquisitions on Greek mythology. Sometimes it’s hard to see how certain elements fit into the overall theme of a chapter, if indeed, it has a theme. Is this a meandering summary of a man’s life as he sits by the fire? Is it a grab bag of diverse views, opinions and anecdotes?

Towards the end of the book, especially, it can be very hard –at least for me – to discern what Dr. Werme’s getting at. I begin to find myself at risk of drowning in a sea of psychiatric double-speak and enigma. Now this could be simply because I’m the recalcitrant patient who is resisting the amazing new ideas the doctor is offering me. Or it could be – and this is ground on which I feel somewhat more secure – a problem with the writing. On that score, I would say that the book needs stronger editing to make sections more coherent and more telling than they are.

One final puzzle: Dr. Werme seems not to know anything about the correct use of the forms of pronouns according to case. He very consistently uses the nominative form "who" when he should be using the objective "whom". Sometimes similar solecisms occur with the uses of "he" and "him". It’s hardly credible that such a learned man would never have mastered the rules for the proper use of such pronouns or that, at least, an editor wouldn’t have pointed them out to him. You begin to think that there must be something defiant, something personally significant, about the persistence of these errors. As a psychiatrist would say, "I wonder what that’s about?"

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com