Dilettante's Diary

Jan 30/08

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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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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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The most recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Starting Out In The Evening (Movie); Monarchy: The Royals at Work (TV); There Will Be Blood (Movie); Year's End (Short Story); Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Biography); The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Movie); Michael Clayton (Movie); The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (Art/History)

Starting Out In the Evening (Movie) script by Fred Parnes; based on the book by Brian Morton; directed by Andrew Wagner; starring Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty

Here’s an experiment that’s fun to try now and then. You head out to a movie without knowing a damn thing about it. No idea what you’re going to get – like taking a chance on the fish pond at the church fair. In the case of this movie, I vaguely remembered hearing something good about it, that’s all. Couldn’t remember anything about the story or the stars. I even managed buy my ticket and enter the theatre without looking at any tell-tale posters or ads.

Starting Out In the Evening turns out to be about an elderly writer and a young woman who wants to write an M.A. thesis on his oeuvre. The writer (Frank Langella) is a widower and was once famous but his works have long been out of print. Desperately trying to crank out one final novel, he seats himself every day at his typewriter, in shirt and tie, and dutifully pecks away. My guess is that his writing isn’t real zippy: this guy speaks in perfectly formed sentences; you can hear the precise punctuation. If the typewriter doesn’t age him enough, there are his 1960s’ style glasses frames. Actually, he reminds me of the Dali Lama, only more serious. The writer doesn’t have quite as much of the Dali Lama’s wild-and-crazy-life-of-the-party quality.

As for the young scholar (Lauren Ambrose), I’m not sure how seriously we should take the literary musings of someone who calls something "an unexpected surprise." It’s hard to see how anyone but a ten year old boy could be impressed by this pushy brat who flaps her hands constantly like a nervous actor and makes dewy-eyes at the old man. When he becomes fed up with her nonsense and asks her, at one point, to leave his apartment, she asks, trying to appear utterly guileless, "Did I do something wrong?" Well, yes, Miss, you did. For starters, a polite guest does not stick her fingers into someone’s jar of honey and she particularly does not then proceed to spread the honey on the face of her stolid host.

But I suppose such women do exist and it probably does happen every now and then that one of them gets a letch for an elderly writer. And it’s not implausible that the object of her infatuation could be a trifle diverted by the attention. Which is to say that this story might have been believable if it wasn’t doled out in such a heavy-handed, stilted way. Characters are constantly speaking reams of expository dialogue to explain the what, the where and the why. When a waiter in a coffee shop makes friendly with two people, for instance, it’s far too obvious that the entire purpose of the exchange is to give us a whack of information about them.

Maybe this kind of movie would have looked pretty good about forty years ago but movies have improved enormously in terms of naturalism since then. Stagey gimmickery is shown up for just that, now that we expect scenes to flow in a naturalistic way. Same with the acting. In one scene in this movie, the writer is holding the young woman’s coat for her but she turns and kisses his hand, whereupon he jumps back and drops her coat. You’d think you were watching the high school play. And all the earnest talk about the relationship between life and literature makes you think this script must have been written by that annoyingly intense (and intensely annoying) young twit in her undergraduate years.

So I kept wondering: what could I possibly have heard was good about this movie? Maybe the art on the apartment walls? That’s not the sort of thing that’s usually highlighted in someone’s comments on a movie. But I did find myself enjoying the abstract paintings in the background. (Several artists are credited at the end of the movie.) Mind you, the paintings might not all be abstract; it was hard to tell because they weren’t all in focus. Being out of focus can do wonders for a painting.

Apart from that incidental pleasure, this movie would have been a complete wipe-out for me – except that something interesting gradually developed between the old man and his daughter. Forty years old and unmarried, she was pretty screwed up but there was something genuine about her. And you could see that there was some real connection between her and her old man. Not so sure about her relationships with the other men in her life (Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty) but one of them did turn out to be a better guy than you were expecting. Which saved this movie from rating a big fat F for "Fergeddaboudit."

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


Monarchy: The Royals at Work (TV documentary) by the BBC. (CBC TV Sunday, February 3/08)

Last Sunday night, CBC reached out to those few viewers not likely to be mesmerized by the antics of human behemoths on a football field. This alternative programming, much like those fish nets that scoop up all sorts of oddities, also caught those of us who almost never watch programs on commercial television – with rare exceptions, such as this.

Ok, so I’m one of those people afflicted with an interest in royalty. It’s nothing you can help. Sort of like having a weakness for booze. It’s unreasonable but there’s no denying it. The best you can do is try to control it. Which means that you don’t shell out for every tabloid tell-all about the royals. But when a respectable organization like the BBC – with the approval of the palace – produces a documentary about the royals, your inner nag can’t complain.

This show, with the high-minded intention of demonstrating that the royals earn their keep, focuses on official duties. None of that business of the Queen driving a station wagon and commenting on her life, as in the documentary of some fifteen years ago. So the Queen’s visit last year to the US features largely. Early on, a BBC announcer, in typically plummy tones, notes that the Queen is very popular in the US now because of her recent "hit movie". You have to wonder if you’re hearing things. Would the Queen have approved of a reference to that fictional representation of her Majestic Self in Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance? Does this mean that this documentary is going to give us a hip, un-buttoned Queen?

Hardly. A tte--tte with Tony Blair might look like the Queen is intentionally imitating a scene from the movie, until the conversation between Her (real-life) Majesty and her minion turns out to be utterly banal. That’s the way throughout. You get glimpses of informality and spontaneity. But most of the Queen’s off-the- cuff remarks are barely audible You hear how the brand new sheets in her US hotel room have to be washed four times but it’s not as if you see the Queen in her nightie and curlers. No, the image is as controlled and as rigid as the hairdo. The lid is on tight all the time.

Speaking of which, what can you say about a woman who chooses hats that invariably look like some designer has literally flipped his or her lid? Maybe somebody else could carry off that outrageous headgear but it’s totally at odds with the Queen’s demeanour. These attempts at whimsy, if that’s what they are, only emphasize the impression of a woman who can flash a charming smile when necessary, but whose habitual expression is a grumpy scowl. Whatever the Queen’s great personal qualities – many, undoubtedly – all that business of climbing out of cars and shaking hands, proceeding up red carpets, turning and waving, gives the effect of a puppet trotted out for ceremonial occasions.

Most of which looked pretty pointless. The consultations between the US and Brit teams planning the American visit sounded like a game of our-pomp-is-bigger-than-your-pomp. In the official speeches, the palaver about the great friendship between the two nations seemed fraught with unintentional irony. There was far too much of George Bush but you had to keep reminding yourself that it might be interesting for Brits to see how their Queen was perceived by someone like him.

At only one moment did the documentary come to life. Back in Blighty, Buckingham Palace was gearing up for a state banquet. Just as things were getting underway, it was discovered that the elevator required to ferry a dignitary’s wife to the banquet room was busted. Sweaty times in the mammoth kitchen as the army of cooks struggled with the timing challenge. Shots of the Queen prowling the corridor impatiently in formal gown, purse in hand, then leaning over the bannister of the stairway to peer down and see what was happening below – in the very posture of a kid on Christmas morning peeking to see if Santa has left anything. The announcer informed us that Prince Phillip found the answer to the dilemma but damned if I know what it was.

Some of the best moments came from incidentals. A little kid shouted out "You’re welcome" when the Queen thanked him for a bouquet of flowers. A footman, while shining his shoes, said how good it felt to change to another pair during a long day of duty. The palace sommelier showed how the Queen likes her drink prepared (gin and dubonnet, I think). Amid all the oo-hing and aa-hing from the plebs viewing a collection of the Queen’s gowns, a woman’s assessment of one dress as "hideous" was refreshing.

Unexpectedly, two hours of watching left me ambivalent about the whole thing. Could it be that the exposure to all that wealth and protocol and privilege made me feel just a bit Bolshie? Or maybe it was the effect of the constant interruption by the commercials. (I don’t know how people endure them.) Somehow, the juxtaposition of some of the classiest and the crassest aspects of our civilization seemed to suggest that, in terms of hollow show, there wasn’t much to choose between them.


There Will Be Blood (Movie) written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; based on the book by Upton Sinclair; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin O’Connor, Ciarn Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard, Paul Dano, David Willis

On the basis of the previews, this didn’t look like my kind of movie: greasy guys in their undershirts duking it out over primitive oil wells, gushers raining black on everybody, religious kooks shouting up a storm, sturm und drang all over the place. But then everybody has been raving about Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar-Nominated performance. So maybe it would be worth a look?

For the first ten minutes, it was. No dialogue. Just a guy all alone hacking away at a hole in the ground. Gradually, he makes some progress. Oil is discovered. Then we get some helpers standing around. An oilman’s career is beginning to take shape. Still no dialogue. Marvellous how a story can be told without any words. And most interesting of all, one of the grubby men is cradling a baby in his arms.

But the further we got into the movie, the more my interest waned. Clearly, this was the story of one oil man’s struggle to acquire California land and get rich in the early part of the 20th century. What you call a saga, I suppose. But I kept wondering: what was the point? What was the central dramatic conflict? His trouble with those nutty Evangelicals? This group, fond of exorcisms, and led by a dorkey young man (Paul Dano), didn’t take kindly to the oilman’s modus operandi. But that story line sank from view, only to resurface about an hour later. In the end, much was made of the oilman’s defiance. But the religion he was setting himself against was so flakey that the broohaha didn’t tell me anything worth knowing. What about that baby in the first scenes? The oilman raises him as his son (played as a kid by Dillon Freasier, later by Russell Harvard) but that story line too keeps fading away.

So we end up with an oilman’s rise to riches with various episodes, virtually unrelated, cropping up like chapters in a novel. Is all this supposed to matter to us because this is part of the great and glorious story of America -- on the assumption that the viewers who matter are American? Is it supposed to be gripping because it shows the origins of an industry that is such a dominant but problematic component of our society?

Maybe I could have swallowed those themes if there was some reason to care about the central character on whom it all hangs. But our oilman hero is enigmatic without being interesting, mean without reason, and contemptuous of others without any justifiable claim to personal superiority. At one point he says that he doesn’t like having to explain himself. Fine. People are like that. But if you want us to be interested in the central character in a film – especially when he’s virtually the only character – you’ve got to give us some hint as to why he’s such a jerk.

Or some reason why he talks funny. For some unfathomable reason, Daniel Day Lewis has adopted a very odd way of speaking – an orotund enunciation, with dropped jaw, the word "all" coming out like "oll". Add to that a husky, breathy delivery for most speeches, with every third word italicized, and you end up with something that sounds totally fake, no matter how sincere the actor’s intentions. Same for the peculiar walk – rangy yet stiff as if he’s recently had a poker shoved you-know-where. There's a lot of buzz these days about the fact that Mr. Day-Lewis is such a serious actor, that he spends so much time preparing for his performances. I think he should ease up a bit.

Much as I’ve loved lots in some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous movies (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), it was tough to find something, apart from those first few minutes, to like in this movie. Certainly not the score which, although clever and complicated, hammers at you in an annoying way. I suppose that’s expected in a saga but I kept getting the feeling that the music was furiously pointing out to me that I might be missing the significance of everything. Which I did, in spite of the music’s strenuous efforts.

Some of the scenes are ridiculously off-key. At the beginning of a meeting with some tycoons, somebody asks about the oilman’s little son and our hero answers with 21st century politesse, "Thank you for asking." Then the bigshots explain that they want to buy out our hero "so that you can spend more time with your boy." Have these rugged pioneers of the oilfields been taking sensitivity training in their spare time? When a doctor comes to examine the ears of a little boy who has lost his hearing, a gang of men bursts into the boy’s room and holds him down as if he was a ram about to be castrated. Why all this fuss about a simple ear examination? Just to give us the feeling that there’s a lot of excitement going down?

Even little slip-ups that you would normally overlook typify the phoniness that bugs you about this movie. In one scene, a woman has been directed to shield her eyes against the sun, as country folk are wont to do. Only trouble is, her face is in the shade. In another scene, a gusher that has caught fire burns garishly against the black night sky but when the camera turns to the guys who are watching, there is still quite a bit of daylight in the sky behind them.

Come to think of it, there was something else to like in the movie. Daniel Day Lewis has a great way with a tweed jacket and a brown, broad-brimmed felt hat. How does he manage to look so cool? Now there’s something a guy can care about.

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


Year’s End (Short Story) by Jhumpa Lahiri (The New Yorker, Dec 24 & 31, 2007)

As you know, we seldom mention short stories here unless they’re exceptional – like this one encountered recently while catching up on back issues of The New Yorker. It’s told from the point of view of a US university student whose family is from India. His mother died a few years ago. At home in Massachusetts for the Christmas holidays, he tries to get along with his father’s new young wife from Calcutta and her two little girls.

A simple story but with a devastating impact. I can’t think when I’ve ever read anything that so briefly and succinctly conveyed the gut-wrenching sadness that human beings, inspite of their good intentions, are capable of inflicting on each other. You put the story down and you think: well, there’s no point in anybody else writing anything now; it has all been said.

Just one detail about the writing. This really isn’t a big deal but maybe it hints at the calibre of writer we’re dealing with. Before starting the story, I had thought I remembered that Jhumpa Lahiri was a young woman whom The New Yorker had touted a few years ago in its round-up of the most promising new writers in America today. So on dipping into this story, which is written in the first-person, I assumed we were talking about a young woman. But gradually it turned out that the narrator was a man. So I’m like: "Oh, guess I was mistaken. Jhumpa Lahiri must be a man." On finishing the story, though, I checked the notes on the contributors in the front of the magazine and, sure enough, Jhumpa Lahiri is a woman. Her writing from a man’s point of view was so convincing that I had thought the writer had to be a man. All the through the story, I’d been thinking: this is so good, so strong, that nobody could have invented it; everything this narrator’s telling us must have happened to him.


Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (Biography) by Claire Tomalin, 2006

Before picking up this bio, I could only remember two things about Thomas Hardy (other than that he was the author of some outstanding novels). First there was Virginia Woolf’s report of a visit to him when he autographed a book for her but misspelled her name. (With characteristic sensitivity, Ms. Woolf noted that the question of the spelling had probably worried him.) Then there was Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale which was, I understood, a young Turk’s satirical attack on Hardy as the grand old man of English literature.

Well, it turns out that the venerable writer in Maugham’s novel bears little resemblance to Hardy. Cakes and Ale is more of an attack on Hardy’s second wife, Florence who was, apparently, a ready target for parody. It may have been living with Hardy that did it to her; he seemed to have a way of turning his wives into weirdos, what with his frequent infatuations with younger women. Usually, they were unavailable, but not always. When his first wife, Emma, was still living, he was carrying on an affair right under her nose with Florence. As if Emma wasn’t already eccentric enough after years with Hardy, this carry-on put her over the top. When she died, Hardy married Florence but proceeded to make her miserable with his guilty mourning over Emma.

But let’s not focus on the man’s failings as a husband. Those great novels earn him some respect, surely. It might surprise a lot of us readers, though, to learn that he considered himself a poet who was forced to write novels just to earn a living. True to that claim, when he had capped his success with Jude the Obscure in 1895, he wrote no more novels but continued working at his poetry for the remaining decades of his life. As the patriarch English literature, he cut a rather ambiguous figure. According to all reports, he remained unassuming and modest in his manner, so much so that some visitors found him a greyish non-entity. Yet he thoroughly enjoyed all the perks of fame, gobbling up invitations from the rich and noble for wining and dining.

Whatever his personal quirks, the man was right about some things. During the First World War, he took pity on the German prisoners encamped near his Dorest home, so he arranged to have them come and work on his property for pay. In fact, he believed war should be abolished because of the stupidity of it. He was never very good at patriotic writing, he said, because he could always see both sides of an issue. While it’s not clear that he was entirely sympathetic to labour unions, he did encourage his first wife in her Suffragist efforts.

Claire Tomalin conveys the story of Hardy’s life with admirable skill and clarity. She provides just enough detail without falling into the tedious pedantry of some academics who hope, by footnoting every fart and hiccup, to make their work the indispensable resource on their subject. Ms. Tomalin examines possible explanations for the pessimism in Hardy’s novels but wisely refrains from trying to provide the definitive answer. I found it odd, though, that such a capable biographer doesn’t seem to understand the correct use of the pronouns "him" and "he"; nor do her subjects and predicates in a sentence always agree as to singular or plural. And yet, she accuses the first Mrs. Hardy of grammatical incorrectness in one of her letters.

If it weren’t for the "People-Who-Live-In-Glass-Houses" aspect of the situation, such slight flaws in Ms. Tomalin’s writing would be overlooked, given that her book provides so much pleasure. For me, the best of it is losing myself in a time when life seemed quieter, slower than now. At least, in retrospect it does; probably to the people living then time seemed to be moving quite fast enough, thank you. But oh! for the days when you would spend an afternoon walking the fields with visitors. Or you would think nothing of a fifty-mile bike ride to see friends in another town. (Both Hardy and Emma learned to ride bikes in middle age.) As creeping modernity began to infringe, Hardy made one decision that, above all, makes me love the guy. Yielding finally to Emma’s importuning, he allowed a telephone to be installed in their country home but he refused ever to speak on the infernal thing.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Movie) written by Ronald Harwood; based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby; directed by Julian Schnabel; starring Mathier Amalric, Marie Jose Croze, Max von Sydow, Anne Consigny

You have to admire the nerve of anybody who would try to make a movie about this. In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a high-flying editor of Elle magazine, suffered a massive stroke which left him in the "locked-in" state: he was fully conscious, his intelligence was unimpaired but he was totally paralyzed, except for one eyelid. The only way he could communicate was by blinking that eye (once for "yes", twice for "no") as somebody went through the alphabet, gradually putting together the letters for the words he wanted. Thus, he painstakingly spelled out The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a book about his thoughts and impressions while lying in the hospital in the months before he died.

The movie is something of a phenomenon in that Julian Schnabel does such a good job of turning this material into a film. Of course, there are lots of flashback to flesh things out, and scenes from dreams. After all, Monsieur Bauby observed that his memory and imagination were still working at full capacity. (The "diving bell" image represents the way he feels encased and imprisoned while the "butterfly" speaks to his wandering thoughts.) Another device that helps to liven things up is that we get his thoughts in voice over, so we don’t have to wait for him to spell everything out. There’s humour in the frequent discrepancy between what he’s thinking about and what people assume about him.

For the most part, though, this isn’t an easy movie to watch. Maybe it’s inevitable that the pleasure quotient would be low but, ultimately, I seemed to be admiring more than enjoying. For the first half hour, roughly, director Schnabel gives us everything from the patient’s point of view. We’re looking at people through a narrow range of vision; the picture is often blurry and fragmented, with quick black-outs indicating the blinking of the eyelid. At one point, a cheery doctor comes in to sew up the other eye, the one that isn’t working, to prevent infection or something. Watching the stitching process from inside the patient’s eye was too painful for this viewer.

The main point of the film comes, I suppose, when a friend of the patient tells about being held hostage in a room for several years. What saved his sanity, the friend says, was thinking through lists of wines he had known. He tells the patient to focus on what it is that makes him human. Hence the flashbacks and the dreams. We see the happy memories of relationships with a parent (Max von Sydow), with children, with lovers. But a bleak, non-sentimental irony runs through it all. You don’t come away with any Reader’s Digest message of "Triumph Over Tragedy." For instance, the man’s predicament vis vis the women in his life remains unresolved. The message seems to be that there isn’t any resolution to most of life’s enigmas.

However, some fleeting touches struck me as very beautiful. Like when a young speech therapist shyly told the patient that he was the most important case she’d ever had, and then found herself embarrassed at making such a claim. Or when the adolescent son of the patient, too choked up to speak, wiped drool from his dad’s chin. Those brief moments gave me a sense that there was some point in hanging on – just barely.

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


Michael Clayton (Movie) written and directed by Tony Gilroy; starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson; with Sydney Pollack, Merritt Wever, Austin Williams

For the first forty minutes, this one dishes up lots of entertainment – provided you’re the kind of person who enjoys being immersed in a world that makes you feel like a country bumpkin. This is the stomping ground of big city, corporate lawyers – hundreds of guys in spiffy white shirts, and slick, tailored women strolling the corridors of power. Everybody’s very clever, very in-the-know. They’re always taking urgent calls on their cell phones that interrupt high-level meetings. Some honcho – unlike anybody you know – is always barking orders like, Get me such-and-such! or Do it Now! Rumours whirl around like mosquitoes in the swamp and everybody has some secret they’re not telling. Mostly, you can’t understand what’s going down but you know for sure that there’s high stakes and lots of money involved. And, for good measure, a couple of sinister-looking guys hover constantly on the fringes of the action, listening to everything on earphones and watching the unsuspecting on camera.

But when you begin to figure out what’s going on, it’s not all that amazing. The theme of corporate corruption isn’t exactly breaking news. I could forgive the clich but what makes it somewhat tiring is the over-written script. It all sounds so melodramatic: every ten minutes or so, somebody delivers one of those long the-trouble-with-you speeches that are supposed to pump up the drama but actually give you that sinking feeling. A key element of the plot requires that the lead lawyer for the jeopardized company (Tom Wilkinson) begins to have qualms of conscience and starts to think he may be working for the wrong side. That’s not exactly implausible but, as the script would have it, his inner conflict causes him to go off his medication and strip naked in public. Shocking, right? No, just plain silly.

George Clooney plays the eponymous Clayton, a fixer for the big, powerful law firm. Although it’s not quite clear to me that he has ever actually fixed anything, he’s given the task of reining in the aberrant lawyer and containing the damage. Mr. Clooney does a decent job in the acting department but this is by no means an Academy-Award performance – which is, no doubt, why he has been nominated, the logic of Hollywood being as wonky as it is. In fact, this role showcases his talents minimally. Here, he gets to show virtually none of the charm and wit that have distinguished other roles of his. He’s supposed to have some personal problems (gambling debts) by way of giving his character a shady side but you can never really believe that a mensch like George Clooney could be feeling the squeeze.

Movie audiences like nutcases on film, which is why Tom Wilkinson is getting a lot of praise for his performance as the wacko lawyer. He does it well enough but I don’t shower accolades on these kinds of performances. It’s too easy for an actor to show weirdness; it’s far more challenging to be normal but interesting.

Tilda Swinton has a difficult role as the villain of the piece. I’m rather tired of her acting style whereby a blank face, mouth hanging open, suffices for just about any intended emotion. This time, she mixes it up a bit with some other tricks which hint that hers could be an interesting character. In brief doses, she is. But the cumulative effect of all the "acting" is distancing.

The best moments in the movie, for me, come from two of the youngest actors. I found Austin Williams very believable as Michael Clayton’s little son: a typically self-absorbed kid who is, at times, fed up with the foolishness of adults. But it was Merritt Wever, as an ingenuous young woman, who provided the strongest jolt of pleasure. She has such spontaneous naturalness that she made her every moment on screen (about five in total) touchingly real.

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


The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism (Art/History) by Ross King, 2006

You can hardly imagine a better book when it comes to showing how the art of a certain period related to what was going on in the world at large. Author Ross King takes us from 1863 to 1874, showing how Impressionism went from being a despised fringe movement to occupying centre stage of the art world. Not only is the analysis of the art excellent from an aesthetic point of view, but the sociological issues get the full treatment and there are loads of facts that prove fascinating to those of us who were away from school the day they did history.

To begin with, did you know how the famous Salon des Refuses came about in 1863? I always thought that the disgruntled artists who had been rejected from the official Salon had banded together to put on this defiant show of their works. On the contrary, it turns out that it was none other than Emperor Napoleon III who, on the advice of one of his councillors, decided that the public should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not the jurors for the official salon had been too severe.  Mind you, the Refuses show didn’t get quite the infra-structural support that the official Salon did. The Refuses catalogue had to be thrown together by volunteers, with the result that there were a few errors. Pissarro’s name, for instance, was misspelled. One artist in the show wasn’t even mentioned in the catalogue of the Refuses because he was so obscure that nobody knew anything about him – Paul Czanne.

Mr. King does a great job of explaining the societal and artistic import of douard Manet’s infamous Le Djeuner Sur L’Herbe – the picture that marks a kind of watershed moment in the whole process. It was news to me that the arrangement of the three human figures in the foreground was copied directly from "The Judgement of Paris" by Raphael. And the cause of the uproar about the painting? It wasn’t so much the fact that the woman was naked (after all, French galleries were full of that), or even the fact that she was naked while the men were clothed. What enraged the art lovers was what the men were wearing – ordinary pants and jackets that you encountered in the streets of Paris every day! What was artistic about that? There was nothing beautiful there, nothing classical, nothing uplifting – zut alors!

And thus we come to one of the main points about Impressionism. I had always known (well not from the age of two, but for quite a long time) that one of the revolutionary things about the Impressionists was their technique, in that they tried to capture the effects of outdoor light as it inter-acted with colours, rather than the cool, composed studio light of classical paintings. Thanks to Mr. King’s book, however, I now realize that an equally important aspect of the Impressionists’ radicalism was their subject matter: the stuff of everyday life, the world we live in, just as it is. To an art-loving public accustomed to classical scenes celebrating high-toned subject matter, this "kitchen sink realism" , as we might call it, was not only shocking but repulsive. In fact, patriotic French people tended to blame their ignominious 1870 defeat in the Franco-Prussian war on the moral decadence exemplified by this realist painting which, they contritely felt, should be purged from society.

I also found it very interesting to learn that, in the end, it was the rich American art buyers who gave Impressionism its most important boost. While the French were just beginning tentatively to allow that there might be some point to Impressionism, the Americans gobbled up this exciting new art from overseas, thereby establishing Impressionism as a truly successful phenomenon. When we in the Americas can sometimes be made to feel a bit inferior in terms of artistic sophistication, it’s nice to know that our enthusiastic next-door neighbours can be credited with being the first to champion one of the most important developments in the history of art.

Mr. King has structured his book along parallel narrative tracks: one tracing the gradual rise of Manet (with the Impressionists in his wake) and the other following the career of Ernest Meissonier, the richest and most famous artist in France at the time. Well known for his charming pictures of cavaliers and personages from earlier times (and fabulously wealthy as a result of them), Monsieur Meissonier went on to more grandiose depictions of heroic scenes, such as highlights from Napoleon’s career. Given that this was the kind of art that the paying public admired, it’s no wonder that the railroad tracks and unkempt bathers of the Impressionists turned them off.

I did find, however, a few problems in the reading. Given the dual structure of the book, switching back and forth from Meisonnier to Manet, I would sometimes pass from a passage about the one man to a passage about the other without catching the transition – which led to some confusion and some necessary re-reading. It could be that Mr. King, although he has published novels, didn’t deploy the skills here that would have made the two characters stand out more clearly one from the other. On the other hand, maybe the befuddlement was due to my own deficiencies in mental agility.

One slight regret about the book – I’m not sure that Mr. King ever explains quite why Manet and his cohorts struck out on such a radically different path in their painting. Various influences and precedents are cited but I never quite got the sense of the moment when the painter is standing in front of the canvas and says: I’m gonna do it this way because..... To be fair, though, maybe no third person can capture that moment. Probably the artist himself couldn’t give his reasons.

As for the political history that is so much a part of the story, I found it difficult at times to keep track of all the information. So many officials and courtiers are mentioned that it’s impossible to remember some of them when their names recur. But the book did give me a wonderful overview of French history in the latter part of the 19th century – all those Empires and Republics following one another in rapid succession, I’d never been able to make any sense of them but now I at least have the general idea. Seems not every country has been as stable as our home and native land.

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