Dilettante's Diary

April 14/07

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Note: the Date at the top of the page indicates the date on which the page was started, not the date of the most recent postings.

Reviewed here: The Page Turner (Movie); 36 Views (Play); Gerald Finley (CBC Radio Two); Aquavision Spring 2007 (Watercolour Show); Deadlight (Mystery); De Niro's Game (Novel); The Hoax (Movie); The Good Shepherd, Marie Antoinette and You, Me and Dupree (DVDs); Sweetness in the Belly (Novel); The Immaculate Conception (Novel);

The Page Turner (Movie) written by Denis Dercourt and Jacques Sotty; directed by Denis Dercourt; starring Catherine Frot, Dborah Franois, Pascal Greggory, Xavier de Guillebon

A young woman who seems to have a score to settle moves in with a pianist and becomes her page turner. The pianist and her husband live in an enormous mansion in the country. For no discernible reason, we’re informed that the house comes equipped with an elevator. And a swimming pool where, appropos of nothing, a kid practises holding his breath underwater. The lady of the house struts around in very high heels at all times. People pose and preen. It’s all beautifully acted and every shot is framed like a painting. A portentous score strikes a melodramatic tone. Sure enough, somebody eventually falls to the floor in a swoon.

All of which would be tolerable if there were some sort of pay-off in terms of an understanding of the page turner’s character. This is one of those roles where a director has apparently fallen in love with a young woman’s face and his viewfinder can’t get enough of her. But we viewers ask for a little more. Dborah Franois can smile enigmatically all she wants but we’re at a loss to know what she’s thinking or feeling. She remains opaque for the duration. Presumably the explanation for her strange behaviour lies in a trauma from her childhood. But said trauma was a trifle. Instead of making a movie of it, somebody have just told her, "Get over it, girl!"

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

36 Views (Play) by Naomi Iizuka; directed by David Ferry; starring Gordon Bolan, Ginger Ruriko Busch, Marjorie Chan, Kyra Harper, John Fitzgerald Jay, Gary Reineke (Actors Repertory Company, Berkley Street Theatre, Toronto, to May 5)

You can usually count on Actors Repertory Company to dish up something different. (See Dilettante’s Diary reviews of Family Stories: Belgrade, Sept 7/05; and Small Craft Warnings, April 12/06) This time around, it’s the Canadian premiere of a sophisticated play that has had a distinguished history in the US. In this highly stylized production, people stand around making erudite remarks and pretending to view artworks that are mostly invisible to us. It’s all very arty and beautifully done on a white set but nothing comes up to make us care until forty minutes in (I checked my watch). And not long after that comes the intermission.

This kind of thing might be effective if the actors can really engage your attention. I enjoyed two or three who played the more distinctive characters in the piece. But some of the other actors didn’t have clear characters to play. Two young men in particular came off as generic no frills guys. The best efforts of the accomplished actors couldn’t infuse the parts with the interest that the script failed to supply.

The second act might have been better but I wouldn’t know. At my stage of life, it takes something more gripping than this to keep me up past bedtime.

 

Gerald Finley (CBC, Radio Two, Monday, April 23/07)

So maybe the evenings are not a complete wasteland for classical music on CBC Radio Two. Monday night we got a taste of the superb Canadian (now living in Britain) baritone Gerald Finley. The National Arts Centre orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman was sounding very exuberant, although louder and lusher than what you’d expect for a Mozart band.

Mr. Finley doesn’t often appear in his native land. It’s probably just as well. Otherwise, all other Canadian baritones would be inclined to stay home and keep quiet. Mr. Finley’s voice is beyond good; it’s supernatural: perfectly blended, from a ringing, bright top to a rich, resonant bottom that almost sounds like a bass, plus seemingly endless resources of power and expressivity. On the phrase "Delle belle turbando il riposo" (in "Non pi andrai" from The Marriage of Figaro), Mr. Finley tossed off that word riposo with a spin on it that made it thrilling. In the same aria, his improvised coloratura (if that’s what you call it) on "brillante" was stunning, including a terrific high note. The short aria from Don Giovanni was delivered in one rapid-fire volley. And, although I’m tired of that silly aria from Cos Fan Tutte which our baritones insist on programming just because it includes a reference to Canada, it was worth hearing the piece again just for Mr. Finley’s gorgeous low notes.

Now for the complaints.

It’s about these Readers’ Digest Condensed versions of concerts. This sampling of Mr. Finley was presented in a package including bits from other concerts by a flautist and singer-song writer. Since all three performers have Ottawa connections, the concerts were grouped by the CBC into the theme of Home Coming. To force the original concerts into this kind of a presentation is, I think, an insult both to listeners and to the performers. Are we supposed to believe that these concerts actually had some intrinsic link? How stupid does the CBC think we are? And why didn’t they tell us when the Finley concert was originally performed? Did those seven arias and one overture, lasting about 45 minutes, constitute the whole concert as experienced by the folks at the NAC? If not, are we ever going to hear all of it?

And then there are those callow announcers who breathlessly enthuse about an artist like Mr. Finley as though they’re hyping the hottest rock sensation. Do they think we’re going to believe that they actually appreciate his artistry, that they know anything about his kind of singing? Ok, so they’re not talking to us old fogies. They’re trying to draw in listeners of their own generation. Will they?

 

Aquavision Spring 2007 (Toronto Watercolour Society, Thera Gallery, 575 Mount Pleasant Road, Toronto, April 21 to May 6)

As usual, for the sake of complete impartiality, we have asked our dear Aunt Agnes to review this show.

You will recall, dear readers of Dilettante’s Diary, my generous and patient remarks about my nephew Patrick’s success in previous watercolour shows. [see Dilettante’s Diary, Nov 25/05, May 2/06 and Nov 8/06] On those occasions, I thought it was only fitting to note that the recognition given to him could be seen as encouragement to do better. It now appears, alas, that my kind words have backfired. I had done my best to rein in my disappointment at the subject matter of his watercolours - mostly clutter and junk – but this is the limit! This time he has won the gold medal for "Best in Show" for his painting of a pile of junk in someone’s backyard. (I suppose I should be grateful that he has at least, this time, set his sights on messes elsewhere than in the family home.) The jurors said something to the effect that they liked his picture because it manages "to say so much with so little effort." Well, I certainly can’t argue with the latter part of that assessment. It is only to be hoped, now that Patrick has won the top prize, that he will desist. Perhaps this obsession with ugliness will pass. Maybe we will see some nice pictures from him in future.

You can certainly see why the other medal winners were recognized for their works. Ann Harvey’s "Ancient Window – Zanzibar" shows a moody, dark window in a stone wall. I’m told that the painting represents a prison in Africa were black people were kept before being shipped into slavery. Ms. Harvey says the yellow flowers in front are a sign of hope. Margaret Roseman, the founder of the TWS, won the bronze medal for her lovely residential scene from Thornhill, Ont. The picture has a very pleasing harmony and balance.

As for the Awards of Merit, three of them portray very attractive landscapes. Myra Evans’ "Beckoning Light" has a wonderfully mystic effect with light streaming through trees. Ross Monk’s "Kennisis Lake" captures woodsy, cottage country perfectly and Charline Gardhouse pictures a beautiful setting by a stream in her "Cutting Edge". In "Iris Delight", Jill Segal captures the essence of that glorious flower and Pauline Holancin’s still life "From the Market" shows such fresh and realistic produce that you want to bite into it.

Among the many lovely paintings in the collection of 80 on display in this show, I particularly admire Vera Worling’s two landscapes. It seems to me that they are just what watercolours should be: very transparent, tranquil and relaxing. John Nussbaum’s exhuberant display of flowers in "Spring Delight" also displays the glories of the watercolour medium. In a more detailed style, Sidda Whitmore’s "The Colour Orange" shows two pumpkins in a fantastic garden tangle. Jenny Reid  has perfected the appearance of Canadian Shield rocks in"All Washed Up". Lillian Asquith’s "Walk in the Woods" presents another aspect of light shining through trees, while the play of light and shadow in Elisabeth Gibson’s "Sunlit Show" has a mesmerizing effect. "Arctic Dream" by Kai-Liis McInnes radiates with the stark beauty of the far north and Jeanette Labelle’s "Une Histoire de Poire" dazzles with its pears on a brightly striped cloth. Carolyne Pascoe expresses the spooky beauty of trees looming through the mist in "Early Morning Sentinel". I would certainly have given a prize to Bonnie Steinberg’s "Lower East Side #6" – a magnificent study of store fronts in rich, glowing colours.

 

Deadlight (Mystery) by Graham Hurley, 2003

I’m somewhat resistant to these police procedurals where a couple of story lines about different crimes are interspersed with lots of kibitzing at the cop shop. It seems to me that such a mystery is a kind of cheat; it’s as if the writer didn’t have enough material for a thoroughly engaging book about one mystery. And the huge cast of characters in minor parts suggests that the writer has his or her eye on tv sales more than on me, the reader.

On the other hand, you could argue that the beauty of a book like this is that it’s very true to life. The believability if Deadlight is slightly marred by one far-fetched incident where a cop sets up a rather elaborate ploy to try to trap a misbehaving colleague. But the book reads well – as long as you don’t mind pages sprinkled with acronyms that can be familiar only to die-hard fans of British police fiction.

Detective Joe Farady, Graham Hurley’s successful creation based in Portsmouth, England, is on the case of an unpopular prison guard found murdered and naked in his apartment. Surprisingly, there’s not nearly as much tension here as in Angels Passing, Mr. Hurley’s previous book. [Dilettante's Diary July 21/05) Some parts of Deadlight – particularly the section where Faraday visits a remote cottage overlooking the sea – are downright bucolic. The ending of this book has none of the high-wire theatrics that brought Angels Passing to a close. In fact, the resolution of the mystery here has almost an anti-climactic effect. Rather pleasant for a change.

Footnote in the word-usage department: It comes as something of a surprise to me to discover that the verb "to sort" has multiple meanings in Brit police slang: to take care of, to fix, to look into, to arrange, to deal with, to get, to kill and even, sometimes, to sort.

 

De Niro’s Game (Novel) by Rawi Hage, 2006

Even if nothing else could be said for it, this book– a finalist for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s – offers something quite other than musings on contemporary middle-class life in North America. Rawi Hage tells the gritty story of a young man’s attempt to survive in the dog-eat-dog turmoil of war-torn Beirut. With very direct, immediate writing in the voice of the hero/narrator, the book rushes head-long to its conclusion. Most of the sentences are simple and declarative. At one point, the dry tone reminded me of Albert Camus’ L’tranger and, sure enough, within a couple of pages, Mr. Hage started quoting the Camus’ work.

However, I have two problems with this book.

First, there doesn’t seem to be a theme or an idea behind the narrative. The events are gripping enough but I felt the lack of some kind of introspection on the part of the hero, some sense of an inner search that would keep me hoping for the best. Every few pages, the dry, factual prose breaks into a poetic, fanciful burst. Maybe these riffs are supposed to convey the soul of the book. Sometimes they carried me along but not always.

The other problem is the character of the hero/narrator. He’s a pretty desperate little rat. Every problem that he encounters is solvable with a gun and machismo. At least, that’s his only way of dealing with anything. I think we’re meant to cut him some slack because his situation is, admittedly, pretty lousy but I could never quite get on side with him. Still, his tale kept me reading right to the end. Maybe that’s all that matters.

 

The Hoax (Movie) written by William Wheeler and Clifford Irving; directed by Lasse Hallstrm; starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Marcia Gay Harden

Everybody loves a great con man. So it’s not surprising that this movie has lots of entertainment value. Here we have Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) the enterprising writer who, in the early 1970s, convinced the world – almost – that he had the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. It’s great fun to see how Irving spins one lie after another in the service of his grand scam. As the net of probity closes in tighter around him, his elaborations become all the more audacious. There’s a kind of David and Goliath thing happening as he makes the big shots of the corporate world look like fools. And, to add to the appeal, we know that it all happened – more or less.

I’ve never noticed before that Richard Gere has such tiny eyes or that they can be so expressive. Through those small openings,  we see the soul of a hurting little guy who peers out at the world with a bewilderment and disappointment that things aren’t going his way. In his desperate quest to be somebody important and wealthy, he needs must try to re-make the world according to his own design. It comes to the point that eventually he doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between reality and his own fabrications. Appropriately enough, we the movie viewers sometimes have the same problem.

Still, the movie didn’t thrill me all that much. I don’t know if it’s necessary that a movie about the 1970s need to look like it was made then. As would be expected, there’s a lot of brown and tan in the decor but even the overall colour of the movie has that too-saturated look of old home movies. And the story-telling struck me as pretty old-hat and pedestrian. For the first 20 minutes or so, we get a plodding, predictable set-up. You know the kind of thing – where a guy steps in a mess and a magazine cover sticks to his shoe and the headline on the cover gives him a great idea.

The only part of the movie that struck me as special was the relationship between Irving and his sidekick Dick Susskind, played by Alfred Molina. Mr. Molina, with his large shaggy presence, has something of the effect of a sad clown. Even though he’s into the scam all the way, there’s a kind of invincible innocence about him. (He’s devastated by his moral slip in the sexual department.) You keep wondering why he’s tagging along with Irving. What’s really going on with these two guys? In the few moments when the movie focuses on the dynamics between them, it feels like we’re on the point of entering into intriguing and unexpected territory. But all too soon, alas, we revert to the typical adventure story.

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

 

A recent Friday night alone gave me a chance to catch up on some DVDs of three movies I'd missed in the theatres:

The Good Shepherd (DVD) written by Eric Roth; directed by Robert De Niro; starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Michael Gambon, Alec Baldwin, Keir Duella

This is one of those movies where one character warns another one that you can’t trust anybody, so it follows that we the viewers are going to be pretty confused about what’s true and what isn’t. To show how Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) became a big wheel in the CIA, the movie constantly swings back and forth between the Second World War and the early 1960s with its Bay of Pigs fiasco. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so many plot elements that I couldn’t understand. Maybe the small screen made it more difficult; the titles announcing the eras and the settings were hard to read. Another problem with a movie like this: It’s all very well to have a taciturn, stone-faced hero in a book because you can read his thoughts. In a movie, such a character at the centre of things makes for some pretty dull watching. Matt Damon almost never answers a question and when he does there’s always a three-second delay before he speaks. Some actors can make such a silent role intriguing if they’re lucky enough that the camera reads a lot into their faces. With Mr. Damon, all I get is a young guy trying to play serious and to hide the fact that he’s really too youthful for the role. But the movie conveys the murky spy world very well and it’s photographed beautifully: every shot is framed like a painting.

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

Marie Antoinette (DVD) written by Sofia Coppola; based on the biography by Antonia Fraser; directed by Sofia Coppola; starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, et al.

This movie got a bad rap when it came out, if you ask me. The problem, I think, is that Ms. Coppola cast Marie Antoinette as a young, contemporary woman with an American whine to her voice. This may not be the choice I’d have made if it were my movie, but it’s a valid choice. Are you going to try to invent some arch-sounding speech that will approximate what you think the young Marie Antoinette might have sounded like in English translation or are you simply going to go with what a fifteen-year-old girl would sound like today? Either way, it’s not going to be very realistic. Having made the choice to go contemporary, I think Ms. Coppola follows through admirably. In fact, she drives home the point that Marie Antoinette responded to her situation the way any young woman would today. When the frustrated young queen throws herself into a spree of shopping, Ms. Coppola tosses in a very up-beat rock sound track. You realize you could be dealing with any indulged "princess" featured in the tabloids. Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette is not the way I picture the character from reading the biography, but the movie packs in the main points of the book with great economy and historical accuracy. It ends rather abruptly, but that’s a good choice too, I think. Jason Schwartzman captures just the right tone for the wet-behind-the-ears young monarch struggling to assert his authority. And it all looks fabulous – especially the pastries.

Rating: C (i.e "Certainly worth seeing")

You, Me and Dupree (DVD) written by Michael LeSieur; directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; starring Matt Dillon, Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson and Michael Douglas

The previews made me think this might be one of those goofy but well-made Hollywood comedies. A doofus (Owen Wilson) moves in with his best buddy (Matt Dillon) and buddy’s bride (Kate Hudson). I guess you could say it’s well made in so far as it slavishly follows the formula with contrived plot, predictable scenes and just the right quotient of slapstick – but they pretty much left out any recognizable human beings. Apart from Owen Wilson’s one or two speeches that convey a unique outlook on life, everybody is cardboard or worse. Kate Hudson plays the cute little woman who’s so much wiser than her infantile mate. Michael Douglas does an egregiously obnoxious father-in-law. Matt Dillon is cast as a booze-swilling lout who, in all seriousness, considers any guy who writes poetry a "homo". I don’t know whether his desperate look conveys the character’s distress at being lost in the adult world or if it’s the mute "Get-Me-Outta-Here!"of a seasoned actor stranded in a hideous role.

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

 

Sweetness In The Belly (Novel) by Camilla Gibb, 2005

Given that this book won the Trillium Award and was a finalist for the Giller prize (not to mention the plethora of favourable quotes adorning the paperback edition), you might think there was something good about it. And you’d be right. Ms. Gibb tells the remarkable story of a woman who was raised in Morocco as a Muslim, although she was the orphaned daughter of non-Muslim Brits who had been travelling in Africa. Many years later, from the vantage point of life in London, she tells about living in Ethiopia in the 1970s when there was a revolution that brought Communists to power. (News to me!) The details about life in faraway places at different times are fascinating.

But there’s no pleasure to be had in the writing. This book reads like something your cousin Mavis might turn out if she had gone to the third world and had some amazing experiences, then came home and decided to see if she could turn them into a novel. (After reading the book, I find that Ms. Gibb did research in Ethiopia for her doctoral degree in social anthropology.) The author never finds a successful tone of voice. Or a clarity of style. Or a good editor. One chapter begins: "We returned to a different city. The Imperial Army had always stayed out, letting Hararis run their own affairs, but suddenly we could see fingertips, followed by the whites of eyes, as soldiers began peeking over the wall." What wall? And if you can make syntactical sense of this sentence, you’re a better man than I am: "If this was an embrace, rather than the circle of love I had imagined, it looked more like a barbed wire fence."

In the first hundred pages, not one character emerges as a distinct personality, other than the narrator and a man who projects the decidedly two-dimensional quality of a hero in a Harlequin novel. In fact, the writing hews close to Harlequin terrain throughout, particularly in the cumbersome attempt to combine history, geography, topical description and story. In one scene, our heroine is holding a friend’s hand while she receives some bad news and – lo and behold – she discovers that her nails are drawing blood from her friend’s hand! "He doesn’t let go. He squeezes my hand even tighter." (Where do they get friends like this?) But even the Harlequin empire would, I think, be toppled by such howlers as this description of love-making: "I reached out and grabbed him from behind to pull him in as close, as deep, as could be, me the shell, he the snail, home."

I suspect that this book, conveying as it does a lot of detail about Muslim life from the unique vantage point of this narrator, is meant to make a multi-cultural point. I think we’re supposed to become more sympathetic to a culture that may not be very familiar to many of us readers. Unfortunately, Ms. Gibb’s efforts have the opposite effect on me. Although she does occasionally touch on some beautiful aspects of the way of life she’s describing, she presents what looks, for the most part, like superstition and stupidity. That is not in any way meant as a criticism of the culture on my part. The problem, it seems to me, is with the dim-witted narrator who can’t seem to strain the wheat from the chaff.

 

The Immaculate Conception (Novel) by Gatan Soucy, 1999; translation by Lazer Lederhendler, 2005

This finalist for the Governor General’s literary award is set in Montreal about a hundred years ago. Apparently, the aim is to present a gothic view off proceedings in the murky, hidden corners of people’s lives in French Canada at that time. The cataclysm which launches the narrative is the burning down of a tavern. A lot of fuss is made about an icon that was saved from the fire and about who was the model for the icon. It would seem that an undertaker who looked after some of the bodies from the fire is writing to Monsieur Soucy, the author of this novel, about these events.

It will be necessary to detail some of them in order to give the feel of this book. A reclusive bank clerk who looks after an invalid father is asked to babysit a mute niece of the bank manager. Boys spy on a fat old couple having sex but it turns out the man had invited the kids to watch. A sawmill owner goes out to a barn in the middle of the night with sexual designs on a horse but he finds a journal hidden in the barn, so he stands there and reads what amounts to 12 pages of printed text. A spinster teacher has suspicions – which may or may not be justified – about the impure intentions of some of her charges. A monster child who is born with a full set of teeth and covered in hair has a tragic relationship with a princely brother....

There is some evocative and effective writing here. The plight of the school teacher – her loneliness, her frustration, her dreams, her dead lover – comes across particularly well, even though the character’s situation is something of a clich. The bank clerk’s odd relationship with the mute girl can be interesting at times. For the most part, though, it’s impossible to tell how all the bizarre elements of this book fit together. Touches of surrealism make it impossible to know how to take things. And what is the story? You're half way through the book without being able to say. Is there a main thread that we’re meant to follow? Does it have any coherence at all? I simply could not make sense of it.

So maybe I’m just stupid when it comes to puzzle plots? I’m willing to admit that. But I do have some sense of the difference between good and bad writing. One of the things that bothers me most about this book is the author’s erratic shifting of focus. You’re reading one character’s thoughts, and suddenly the author intrudes with the thoughts of another character. "Clmentine placed a few coins in her hand by way of a tip, ludicrous in the waitress’s view. As she walked away, Clmentine heard her say to someone...." Or: "He said this in an extremely sombre tone of voice and was afterwards bothered by this solemnity. Clmentine finished buttoning the collar of her dress. She wished she could dive into a hole in the ground." And: "Wilson would occasionally give himself leave to take some time off, apparently without the proprietor [Sraphon] voicing any objections. He [Wilson] would disappear for a weekend; Sraphon had no idea where...." Since Sraphon is the proprietor, the "apparently" must be from someone else’s point of view. But in the next sentence, we’re back inside Sraphon’s mind. As far as I know, the deities that rule over English literature have not established a law against this sort of thing but it's hard to get caught up in the story when you keep getting jerked around this way.

And then there are the passages of purple prose: "Clmentine felt as though she had been ripped from the ground. She feverishly reread the lines. Next to this, Victor Hugo seemed all at once a noisy gorilla! She went to lie down, quaking from head to foot, on the living-room sofa....She got up, cheeks aflame...."

Exasperating as I found this book,  it could be worthwhile. (I’d probably have had a similar reaction to James Joyce’s Ulysses if I’d been one of its first readers.) Perhaps if I went back and read this one again -- carefully -- t would all come together. However, reading it once was hard enough. I don’t see anybody offering to pay me to slog through it again.

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