Dilettante's Diary

March 8/07

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Reviewed here: Ominous Noises at CBC Radio Two (Essay); New Ideas Festival: Week Two (Theatre); Breaking and Entering (Movie); The Bible Unearthed (Archaeology); Zodiac (Movie)

Ominous Noises at CBC Radio Two (Short Essay)

Ok, so the powers-that-be at CBC Radio Two have decided that it’s time for a shakeup. We’ve been content with the programming for too long. It’s time to get us irritated and annoyed by change. So we’re bombarded with hype for the new programs that are going to be foist upon us on March 19. As far as I can tell, the changes are mostly in the evening programming, which is not when I listen most to CBC Radio, but still, I can’t help feeling that the tenor of these unwelcome changes will seep down into the whole schedule.

I willingly admit that I hate change. I don’t adjust easily to changes in the weather, the time, family plans or radio schedules. That’s my problem, I know that. Me and my therapist are working on it. And I readily acknowledge that probably the only change at CBC that would please me would be something like bringing Bob Kerr back from the dead.

From the description of the new programs, though, it sounds like they’re trying to appeal to everybody except those of us who love the CBC and listen to it regularly. Reminds me of the old line about the minister preaching to the members of the congregation who aren’t there. I know it’s necessary to do this in the name of democratization, the theory being that, since the CBC is funded by taxpayers, it should appeal to all of them. So attempts must be made to draw in listeners who don’t want the CBC and have always wished it would go away.

But will the strategy work? Will the new programming draw in vast numbers of the unconverted? Or will it simply turn off the faithful listeners for once and for all? We’ll see.

And what’s with that new slogan for CBC Radio Two that they keep throwing at us: "Everywhere music takes you" ? I keep puzzling over the meaning of that. Isn’t there a sort of tautology happening here? I mean, if music takes you there, then doesn’t it go without saying that music is there? Is it likely that music would take you somewhere, drop you at the door, then turn around and go home?

Or does the saying simply mean "Music takes you everywhere"? That would be worth saying but I can’t think the CBC slogan-writers would resort to such arch reversal of normal sentence order in the way of  those oldTime magazine editors in the days when backward ran the sentences.

Maybe what the slogan is trying to say is simply that music is everywhere that you are. I can see the point of that but it isn’t what the slogan says. And it is to be presumed that the word-handlers at CBC Radio mean what they say.

In fairness, then, I have tried to work out the logic of the slogan in terms of a real-life scenario and it seems to me that it might work something like this: you listen to music on the radio in your car on the way up to the cottage and when you get to the cottage, you can listen to music on your radio there as well. Catchy, eh?

 

New Ideas Festival: Week Two (Alumnae Theatre, Toronto, March 14-17)

It has been a couple of years since I dropped in on New Ideas. What got me down to Alumnae Theatre this year for the 19th annual run of the festival was a notice that the lineup for this week included a piece by Kathryn Malek and Rob Downes. I have good memories of working in New Ideas with them in 2003.

Before the performance, the Alumnae folks pointed out that New Ideas is all about originality, experimentation and pushing the envelope. It’s not about polished performance or writing. It was good to be reminded of that. In the five offerings this week, there’s lots of intriguing material and plenty of talent on display. Some of the works struck me as more finished than others, some more skillful than others in terms of stagecraft and suitability to the theatre.

Whether by intention or not, surrealism looms large in the collection. The first piece, "between the tree and the sweetest pea" by Haley McGee (directed by Esther Jun) opens with a guy (Paul Stafford) waking up late on his wedding morning with his bride (Jessica Moss) pounding on his apartment door. Meanwhile, a former girlfriend (Sarah Swift), now dead, appears to him as a tree hovering over his bed. The bride is funny and practical, the other woman arty and poetic. In the dream-like state of first awakening, he can’t decide between them.

"Conscientia" by Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt (directed by Anita La Selva) explores the relationship between two English professors who have adjoining offices. He (Rob Candy) is haughty and aloof while she (Eve Wylden) is friendly and ingenuous. Their story, which feels rather like a novel of relationships crammed into 45 mintues, starts realistically enough but eventually takes them into some pretty strange territory.

Which is exactly where "Rope" by Mary Frances Pocrnic (directed by Darrin Suzuki) begins and ends. Three guys – John Desantis, Erick Fournier, Alan Leightizer – find themselves in a dark room with no windows or doors. Tied in a circle with their backs to each other, they’re not very happy campers. This makes for some droll dialogue and entertaining physical work.

Ginette Mohr, an engaging and dynamic actor, performs her one-woman piece "Fish Face" (directed by Kate Fenton). Ms. Mohr presents herself as Rosalind trying to win Romeo back from her hated rival Juliette. I didn’t always understand how that theme connected to the motif of a fish rising from the sea but Ms. Mohr pulls off some very theatrical swirls and tangles with long sheets of plastic.

"Death to Dating" by R.J. Downes and Kathryn Malek (directed by Pat McCarthy) was the only piece of the night that remained fairly naturalistic throughout, albeit in a zany vein. Essentially, the play provides a vehicle for the considerable comic talents of Lynn Zeelenberg as a woman desperately attending funerals to catch a guy (David Borwick). I particularly liked the sound design provided by the artiste who somewhat eccentrically calls himself Noise.

 

Breaking and Entering (Movie) written and directed by Anthony Minghella; starring Jude Law, Robin Wright Penn, Juliette Binoche

The movie opens with Jude Law and Robin Wright Penn in the car. They’re both staring straight ahead. We hear his voice-over saying that it’s a bad sign when partners stop looking at each other. And I’m thinking: here comes a touchy-feely soap opera about beautiful people in a failing relationship.

But pretty soon things start to get more interesting than I was expecting. The Wright Penn character has a very difficult daughter about ten years old. Seems the kid may be autistic. Her acting-out takes some bizarre turns. Watching the adults struggling to cope with her really pulls you into their lives. You see how things could be a bit strained between them. Then comes a session with a therapist who’s trying to help them. Every moment of the session struck me as intensely real and engaging.

Meanwhile, Jude Law, as an architect, has set up a spiffy new office in a warehouse in King’s Cross which appears to be a really bad area of London. This leads to his involvement with some Bosnian refugees living in the area. You start getting unusual situations and intriguing conversations: two young architects on a stake-out, trying to spot the burglars, for instance. Along come some fascinating bit parts. A hugely fat detective (Ray Winstone) who is completely off the wall. A hooker (Vera Farmiga) who is wackier than any prostitute I’ve ever encountered – in the movies, that is!

The acting is superb all-round. Then there’s that juvenile burglar (Rafi Gavron) whose acrobatic jumping around from rooftop to rooftop brings a peculiar grace and lightness to the movie. Take into consideration the fact that it’s gorgeously photographed, throw in a really original speech about ecology and it begins to feel like a you’re seeing something special.

The elation doesn’t last, though. Towards the end, things began to get a bit fuzzy for me. I wasn’t understanding clearly why people were acting the way they were. I started remembering that writer/director Anthony Minghella has given us movies like The English Patient which are strong on atmosphere but not so strong on clear thinking. Maybe I need to go back and see this one again; maybe it was all perfectly clear. Or maybe it wasn’t.( It didn’t help that the Brit accents made it damn hard to tell what people were saying; the refugees were easier to understand.) The ending may have been life-affirming; or it may have been mushy thinking.

In retrospect, I’m thinking  the visual beauty of the movie caused a kind of golden glow, making for a somewhat blurred effect. There was never a feel of gritty reality, even though much of the movie was supposed to be taking place in a slum. Juliette Binoche did a great job as a Muslim refugee – delightful accent – but I can’t help wondering if the movie might have been more convincing if you had somebody less gorgeous. If the whole project had a more low-budget feel to it, you might come away thinking you’d had a compelling encounter with life instead of a nice time at a pretty movie.

Rating: C minus (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The Bible Unearthed (Archaeology) by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, 2001

This book came to my attention through a passing reference in an article on quite another subject. When the book arrived from the library, my first impression was that it might be a bit drier and more academic than I was expecting. It turned out, though, to be one of those books that you read while the kettle’s boiling, while you’re lying in the bath, and at bedtime when you’re staying up later and later for just a few more pages.

I love books that take something basic, turn it on its head and make us see it in a completely different way. And what could be more basic to Western culture than the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures)? Authors Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, both distinguished academics, had the brilliant idea of examining the latest archaeological findings in order to see what physical proof there is – if any – for these ancient stories.

Not much it seems. If I read them correctly, Professors Finkelstein and Silberman say that the first extra-biblical evidence of any of the history in the bible is a reference to King David. In 1993, in northern Israel, a fragment of a monument was found on which an Aramean king boasts of having killed the son of a king "of the House of David". (The reference is believed to be to an assault on Israel around 835 BCE.) So a King David of some sort did exist, according to this archaeological evidence. But there’s precious little sign of the supposed splendours of his or of his son Solomon’s kingdom. Most of the architectural marvels formerly attributed to Solomon actually date from a couple of hundred years later. The Israel that existed at the time of David and Solomon was a motley collection of dispersed villages at best.

Going further back, what about the Exodus? Well, from Egyptian writings of the time, it’s clear that large groups of Semites from Canaan were settled in Egypt around the Nile delta at about the time that the Exodus was supposed to have taken place, roughly 1400 BCE.. None of them were identified in Egyptian writings, though, as Israelites; the only reference to Israelites at the time was to some who were living in Canaan. The Semites living around the Nile delta were eventually chased out by a Pharaoh who was fed up with their growing power and influence in Egypt. As for their conquering Canaan after being expelled from Egypt, that’s highly unlikely because Egypt held firm control of Canaan through various fortifications.

The authors point out that the stories about Abraham and his brood teem with anachronisms regarding customs and circumstances. Places mentioned did not exist at the time his story was supposed to be taking place but were prominent cites when the scriptures were being compiled. And that’s the key to The Bible Unearthed. The authors’ thesis is that the Bible stories about earlier times reflect the conditions and circumstances of Judah in the eight and seventh centuries BCE. The stories were shaped to emphasize the primacy of Judah as the model for the original belief in one God, Yahweh alone. However, that claim was a question of revisionist history. The archaeological evidence shows that religious practice among the Jews had been syncretistic up to that point. It wasn’t until the seventh century BCE that the Yahweh-only school of thought got the upper hand. The in-fighting among the factions before then sounds eerily like the religious strife in some parts of the world today.

Before you dismiss this book as nothing but blasphemous rabble-rousing by a couple of sensationalists, I should point out that the authors’ academic credentials are impressive. Israel Finkelstein is the director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Neil Asher Silberman is director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium. Although they reject the historicity of much of the Old Testament, the authors express great respect for the cultural power of the bible’s teachings and its influence in shaping the values and sensibilities of a large part of the world. I suppose there are archaeologists of more traditional religious persuasion who would try – possibly with some plausibility – to poke holes in the conclusions of authors Finkelstein and Silberman. Not me. My archaeological expertise is nil and my knowledge of the Old Testament is enough to enable me to just barely follow their argument.

For me, the book confirms a growing sense of the anthropological aspect of religion. We creatures needs must tell ourselves stories to try to make sense of our place in the world. And sometimes those stories may very well touch on some of the deepest truths about what it means to be human.

 

Zodiac (Movie) screenplay by James Vanderbilt; based on the book by Robert Graysmith; directed by David Fincher; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr.

This movie deals with a series of murders that actually occurred in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Right off the top, though, it feels like any fictional murder mystery. For instance, that business about a serial killer taunting the cops and the newspapers – haven’t we had that a few too many times? As with most mysteries these days, the clues and explanations are all very convoluted; there are far too many names of suspects and contacts to keep track of; ditto with dates. We have guys running around in shirts and ties as we keep flashing back and forth from the cop shop to the newsroom at a major daily. There are the usual half-hearted attempts to make the reporters and cops interesting – family problems, cravings for things like animal crackers.

It’s all well enough put together in terms of the movie-making –  very short scenes averaging about twenty seconds with an occasional longer scene – and it holds your attention. Devices like overlapping dialogue (where you’re watching the end of one scene while hearing the lines from the beginning of the next scene) help to keep things moving. But, at two and a half hours plus, you can’t help feeling that you should be getting something really amazing.

Same as you might expect a big pay off from all the star power. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the ingenuous newspaper cartoonist who wrote the book the movie’s based on. Mr. Gyllenhaal seems sincere enough and he has one or two moments where his character’s naivete raises a smile but it would have been nice to see an actor who could have brought a bit of charisma to the role. Mark Ruffalo as one of the detectives occasionally hints that there might be more going on with his character than meets the eye but mostly what’s going on is the riot of curls in his hair. Robert Downey Jr, as a jaded reporter, threatens at times to come bursting off the screen as a really dynamic character but his role, the best in the movie, doesn’t amount to much in the end.

As you know, we don’t do score cards for all cast members here on Dilettante’s Diary, but I can’t resist mentioning a couple of actors in smaller parts. John Carroll Lynch has an intriguing effect as an enigmatic suspect. One of the tiniest roles in the movie made one of the strongest impressions on me: a bruised and beaten young woman in jail. I believe the actresss is Clea DuVall and she nails the part dead on.

Lots of attention is lavished on the yucky clothes men wore in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so much so that these outfits look like parodies. And huge, boat-like vehicles are sashaying all over the place. (Did all cars sound like they needed muffler work back then?) But I wish screen writers would be more vigilant about authenticity when it comes to period dialogue. In them days, as I recall, people didn’t commonly use expressions like, "You know what?" "Thanks for asking" and "Do the math" the way they are used in this movie. Not unless California was way ahead of the rest of us when it came to popular clichs.

Without revealing the ending, let’s just say it’s unsatisfying. Which would be fine, if you felt that it that was consistent with the tone of the whole movie. You would gladly give up a conventional ending to a murder mystery if you felt that, in return, you were getting some very insightful look at life as it really is. Unfortunately, though, this movie, even though it’s dealing with tragedies that were horribly real, never seems to escape the world of fiction.

Rating: C minus (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com