Dilettante's Diary

March 26/08

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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: As You Like It (Play); Kenny (Movie); La Bohme: Met's HD Live Broadcast (Opera); Sicko (DVD); Tristan und Isolde (Opera); If.... (DVD); Tomorrow (Novel); High Profile (Mystery)

As You Like It (Play) by William Shakespeare; directed by Albert Schultz; designed by Lorenzo Savoini; starring Michael Blake, Sarah Wilson, Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis, Jennifer Villaverde Michael Hanrahan, Krystin Pellerin, Mike Ross, Amy Rutherford, Derek Boyes, Kevin MacDonald, William Webster, et al. (Soulpepper, Toronto, to April 19)

Don’t worry if you didn’t study this one in high school, because even if you did, chances are, you won’t be able to follow the plot. Lots of stuff about nasty aristocrats banishing and dis-owning everybody. But rest assurred, the good people escape to the Forest of Arden and the bad people get "converted" more or less by magic in the end. With lots of wordy speechifying and punning, this is apparently Mr. Shakespeare’s take on a certain genre called pastoral. Not exactly the kind of work that would make you think this guy had a big career in theatre ahead of him.

Except when it comes to the antics of the lovers in the woods. Here Mr. Shakespeare shows that he has the makings of a really good tv sit-com writer. He’s especially good when it comes to the business of a girl pretending to be a boy who then persuades her lover to woo her, by persuading him, who thinks she’s a boy, to play along with her as she impersonates a girl. When it comes to gender bending, Mr. Shakespeare is as edgy as the latest John Waters opus.

As the central couple Michael Blake (Orlando) and Sarah Wilson (Rosalind) have lots of charm and chemistry working for them. Ms. Wilson (who happens to be a family friend) manages some very deft comic touches in moving from her real feminine persona to her fake masculine one to her playacting feminine one. There’s also some sparkly rapport between Ms. Wilson and Jennifer Villaverde in the role of her pal, Celia.

Among the more seasoned members of the company, Diego Matamoros stands out as the melancholy Jacques. Shabby and disheveled, Mr. Matamoros commands the stage with his acidic wit, making the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech a highlight of the play. The ever-reliable Oliver Dennis also turns in some admirable work as the clown Touchstone.

In fact, everyone involved does good work. So why isn’t the show particularly thrilling? I think it’s because there seems to be no directorial concept driving it, no particular message that the company wants us to take home. For the sake of a high school audience, we were given a little chat beforehand in which we were told that the play is set in Canada, about 100 years ago. Maybe that earns points with those agencies that dispense cultural grants according to rather bizarre nationalistic standards. But what does the Canadian setting amount to? Some background hills in Group-of-Sevenish fall colours and a couple of loon calls now and then.

Maybe it’s because of the lack of a strong motif that the production doesn’t have much of an ensemble feeling. That could also have to do with energy issues. The Shakespeare comedies that work well are the ones where people rush on and off at breakneck speed. Mind you, it helps when you have a thrust stage like the one at the Stratford Festival, with all those ramps for entrances and exits through the audience. Fact is, those of us who have been raised on the Stratford version of Shakespeare have been spoiled. With a proscenium production such as Soulpepper’s, the comings-and-goings are bound to be a little less dramatic.

But one thing about this production that works marvellously well is the music by Mike Ross, played live by him and three other performers. I’m no expert on musical genres, but the combination of banjo, fiddle and two guitars has a slightly bluegrass sound to me. The close harmonies on the many songs – such as the famous "Under the Greenwood Tree" – make for enchantment. Who would ever have thought that those old ditties could sound so good with that treatment? They should be selling CDs in the lobby.

 

Kenny (Movie) written by Shane Jacobson and Clayton Jacobson; directed by Clayton Jacobson; starring Shane Jacobson, Chris Davis, Jesse Jacobson, Ronald Jacobson, Eve von Bibra, Morihiko Hasebe

This is not something I recommend as a regular practice, but there are times – when all else fails – that you simply have to tell the truth. And the truth that has to be told here is that this movie made a fool of me. See, I’d heard about this documentary about an Aussie who’s in the business of supplying portable toilets for big public events. And I figured you’d have to love a documentary about such an unlikely subject. I mean, why would anybody make such a film, why would it get international release, unless there was something very special about it, right?

The thing I hadn’t twigged to was that the documentary’s fake. After sitting through the movie and loving what I took to be a portrait of a remarkable human being, it was quite a shock for me to watch the cast list of actors – whose names didn’t match those of the characters – scroll past. And that innocuous notice, "All the characters are fictitious and any resemblance to any actual persons living or dead...." felt like a kick in the groin.

Mind you – and I’m not saying this just to try to salvage some shreds of credibility as a film critic – I’d had a few doubts during the film. Some scenes with shots from different camera angles, for instance. Like the one were the toilet workers’ truck gets caught up in a drag race. How could a documentary get all those different angles on the action? Well, I figured they must have had more than one camera rolling. Or maybe they re-staged the event. Neither option seemed likely for a low budget documentary, but what did I know?

And then there was some question about the involvement of all those bystanders. In airplanes, bars and restaurants, our hero Kenny engages apparent strangers in his guileless way. Why would those people let themselves get drawn into the movie? And would his dad condone the presence of the movie camera in their tent on a camping trip? Most of all, I wondered about the romantic fling with a flight attendant. Would that glamorous woman really cozy up to this fat, unprepossessing guy and, what’s more, would she have allowed the cameras to follow them around town? But I kept explaining away these suspicions by acknowledging the well-known lure of being in a film. Seems people will do anything for the camera these days.

Call it major suspension of disbelief. Or, more likely, wishful thinking. Clearly, my subconscious wanted Kenny and his story to be real. In fact, I kept remembering my reaction to John C. Reilly’s character in the movie Magnolia. He was such a good guy, such an honest, unassuming cop – kind but strong – that you longed to think that there could be a cop like him. Same with Kenny. Here was human goodness writ large. Not that he would ever think of himself as a hero or a saint. Just a guy endowed with tons of strength of character. Simply by putting one foot in front of the other, making his somewhat harried way through the day, he’s constantly doing the right thing, whether it’s reaching into a toilet to retrieve a woman’s ring for her, comforting a drunken girl or trying to calm a guy who has been stripped naked in a drug stupor and handcuffed to a toilet bowl. If you were a suvivor of a train wreck or a plane crash, you’d want Kenny on your team. You know he’d make all the right moves in his practical, down-to-earth way.

But it was his handling of the more subtle nuances of  relationships that really got to me. As when his ex-wife calls to complain about their mouthy son. Kenny asks to speak to the kid, then, in a comradely tone, tells him not to talk to his mother that way, "You’re going to have to pull your head in a bit, mate." Calm and steady with a misbehaving kid, not going ballistic like some people around here. And when Kenny's crotchety father starts dishing out racist insults about the other patients in his hospital ward, Kenny tries to shush the old fart in the gentlest way, "They’re sick too, you know, dad." When Kenny gets dissed by people – as often happens because of his supposedly ignoble profession – he takes the abuse with a manly shrug, walking away with his dignity intact.

Given my total belief in the character, it hardly needs saying that Shane Jacobson’s acting is note-perfect. When he receives bad news on the phone, there’s no melodrama, no over-reaction, just that blank look of a very ordinary guy who’s none too sure he can take any more shit just now. When he gets a chance to live it up a little with a good-looking lady, he doesn’t come across like a movie star on a spree. All we get is a bit of a grin that suggests he doesn’t know why he deserves this good luck but he’s going to enjoy it while he can.

Shouldn’t I have caught on to the joke? Well, in retrospect, I’ve got to admit that the premise was just a bit too ironic: this modest guy who takes humble pride in his earthy contribution to human affairs. All the scatological puns were a bit much but they seemed appropriate. I kept wondering if there was supposed to be something jokey about the subtitles but, fact is, one needed them for the Aussie slang. It did strike me that, for somebody who was uneducated and unsophisticated, Kenny had quite the way with words, as in, "There’s no pecking order in poo," and "A guy shouldn’t be set on fire for trying to save his crapper," or this description of his dear, departed mother, "From the back, she looked like a fridge with a head." Clearly, this guy might be a lot smarter than he was letting on. But still, he was totally believable to me. Even in his Zen-like pronouncement that, in spite of dreams about being a pilot or a composer, he has never envied anybody. "Those are just dreams. This is my life."

So, do I downgrade the movie’s rating on finding out that my much-admired Kenny is fiction? A similar question arose at the end of The Last King of Scotland [see review Dilettante’s Diary, Nov 8/06]. All through that movie, I’d been thinking that it would have been implausible, except that it was true. But then it turned out not to be true. So that eroded my appreciation of the movie somewhat. In the case of Kenny, though, nothing was implausible. It was entirely real-seeming. And isn’t that the purpose of all great movie-making and story-telling: to make you want to believe that what you’re seeing – whether factual or not – is telling you something very true and beautiful about human nature?

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

La Bohme (Opera) by Giacomo Puccini; conducted by Nicola Luisotti; starring Angela Gheorghiu, Ramn Vargas, Ainhoa Arteta, Ludovic Tzier, Quinn Kelsey, Oren Gradus, Paul Plishka. (Met Opera Live HD Broadcast, April 5)

So I’m like: not Bohme again! I mean, what’s the point? Isn’t it the original operatic clich? Sure, it has some cool songs but haven’t we had our fill of them by now? It has been a long time since I’ve since Bohme but frequent radio broadcasts tend to lose my attention because of that opening stuff with the four guys farting around in the garret with all that fiddly music behind them. Pretty much a waste of time. Could it be any better in the Met’s HD Live broadcast?

On screen, the antics of the four goons are more tiresome than ever, especially with all the hammy acting -- which involves a hell of a lot of arm waving to try to stir up a sense of joviality. It’s like they’re trying to do an episode of Friends without jokes. Maybe you could make the argument, artistically, that all this falderol is necessary to set up the contrast with what comes next but I’d be quite happy to skip the guys and get to the lovers right off the top.

It must be admitted that I was somewhat prejudiced against Ramon Vargas as Rodolfo. He didn’t thrill me as Lensky in last year’s HD Broadcast of Eugene Onegin. Not that there was anything wrong with his singing but I’d got the wrong message and was expecting heart-throb Rollando Villazn in the role. (Not my fault, they’re both Mexican and their initials are the same; that’s the way my brain works – if and when it does work.) So Signor Vargas’ tubby, diminutive stature took some getting used to. And the dorkey spectacles his character was burdened with didn’t help. However, he quickly won me over as Rodolfo. Granted, he is not the buffest tenor on the block but there’s an ingenuous charm to his broad, smiling face (like a young Santa). Not to mention the fact that he sings sublimely.

So does Angela Gheorghiu (Mimi). But I was troubled by the coy twisting and turning and eye-batting. It seemed to me that the girly shtick was trying to disguise her age. I wanted to say: stop with all the acting and just stand there and sing! In an intermission interview, however, she said it was part of the Zeffirelli concept of the show that Mimi should be sensual and flirtatious.

It was noted that this production of Franco Zeffirelli’s Bohme has played more performances than any other Met production. It’s gorgeous, if you like that crammed, sumptuous sort of design. I especially appreciated his version of a Parisian garret: grungy walls, sooty windows, corners filled with junk. Not like a stage set at all; more like digs I’ve known and loved. In an intermission feature, we got glimpses of Signor Zeffirelli’s other Met shows (eleven, I think) – all of them stunning. In some brief comments on Bohme, the master said that his only intention in the design was to serve the purpose of the music: that everything should come together in such a way as to make you cry. I was glad to hear this from the great man. It’s always good, as an audience member, to know that you’re responding the right way – big time, in my case.

My only quibble with the broadcast package is that we weren’t shown the Met auditorium filling up beforehand. It’s exciting to feel that you’re there in spirit, at least, with those lucky people filing into that glorious room in Manhattan. But maybe there are legal issues about showing the audience members. What about the inadvertent shot of the tycooon with his mistress in one of the boxes? Or what about the close-up of that person who phoned in stick to work that day? Could be, the Met gave up on those shots rather than get everybody to sign waivers. However, you could tell how much the sense of connectedness matters because a collective frisson ran through the movie audience when host Rene Fleming announced beforehand that, for the first time ever, the broadcast audience was being joined by people in France. Even passengers in cruise ships on the high seas were going to be getting the high C’s.

As always, the broadcast program provided excellent value. We got to see the incredible second-act set of a Paris street corner being wheeled into place, with some fifty or so actors standing on the second story of the moving apparatus. The interviews with stars and conductor were charming. By way of a novelty this time out, we got a brief visit with the kids’ chorus and their director.

So yes, when all the tears have flown and the passion has been spent, there is a point Bohme – yet again. But a puzzle remains. I can never understand exactly why it is that the lovers break up in the third act. First, there’s a lot of palaver about his jealousy but that turns out to be a smoke screen. The real story has something to do with her bad health and his feeling that his place isn’t a healthy home for her. Plus they’re poor. But I don’t really get it. Then it occurs to me what the problem is: she must have lost her health card. Otherwise, all the guy would have to do would be to take her to the nearest emergency room. Starving artist friends of mine do that all the time.

 

Sicko (DVD) by Michael Moore

Here’s the question: is Michael Moore more of a prophet or an entertainer?

Let’s look first at the prophet in him. We all know the US health system, if it can be called that, stinks. Michael Moore rubs our noses in it – but good. He pulls out any number of gut-wrenching cases of people whose lives have been destroyed by inadequate health coverage in the US. What’s perhaps more significant, though, is the historical and philosophical background. It’s news to me that, in mid 20th century, US doctors mounted the ramparts to fight the scourge of socialist medicine – which, supposedly, smacked of godless communism. A key aspect of their battle was a program whereby housewives were encouraged to hold coffee parties where their friends would hear a denunciation of socialized medicine, as performed on record by one bland but popular actor whom the doctors had enlisted in the cause: Ronald Reagan. And it’s chilling to hear tapes of Richard Nixon’s oval office discussions about setting up a health care program that would screw the people to the benefit of the insurance companies.

The ethos of those companies is probably the most damning part of Mr. Moore’s message. Did you think insurance companies existed to take care of sick people? Fergeddaboudit! Their sole purpose is to maximize profits for shareholders – which means refusing treatment for as many potential patients as possible. A good doctor in the employ of an insurance company is the one who can find the most ingenious ways to deny the highest number of claims.

Pretty compelling stuff. The problem is that Mr. Moore makes his case almost too strongly. You begin to think maybe it would be a good idea to hear what some executives from the insurance industry have to say. And US doctors. Surely somebody must have some justification of the system as it is?

And, no matter how much you're on side with Mr. Moore, you can't help noticing holes in his case. Like the fallacy which we used to refer to in Logic 101 as "arguing from the particular to the universal". Mr. Moore wants to find out whether the high tax rate in France causes hardship for its citizens. So he interviews one middle class French couple and finds – surprise! – that they live comfortably. End of discussion. You also begin to notice half truths and misrepresentations. The claim is made that the productivity in France is high; my understanding is that it isn’t. In the paean of praise for the Canadian health system, there’s no mention of its costs ballooning out of control, of worries about whether the system is sustainable in the long run.

As a prophet, then, it would seem that Mr. Moore may not be the most trustworthy preacher in town. As an entertainer, though? No problem. He gives you full value for your money. It seems to me, in fact, that he has revolutionized the documentary. Those old doc’s about the life of the honey bee that we used to watch at recess on rainy days were nothing like this. The cutting, the editing and the narration of this documentary could be cited in any course on brilliant film-making. A superb story teller, Mr. Moore manages to find the perfect archival footage for every point he wants to make, not to mention the apt underlining by way of music. He uses sarcasm so subtly that sometimes it whips past before you realize what hit you. You may get a bit tired of his disingenuous pretending not to know the answers to his leading questions – "What! You mean you don’t have to pay?" – but his shtick makes for great watching.

Same for the re-enactments, I’m willing to accept them as necessary to the genre he has invented. We know, for instance, that Mr. Moore wasn’t there with his cameras when some guy got that fateful phone message from his insurance company. But am I supposed to believe that the guy actually saved the message that he’s now playing back for the camera? Maybe these are quibbles but I’d feel a little more trusting if some disclaimer like "this is a re-enactment" appeared at the bottom of the screen.

And how about taking those 911 volunteer heroes to Cuba where they receive free medical treatment that was denied them in the US? A great slap in the face to America, no doubt about it. But realistic? Hardly. What medical team in some country wouldn’t treat a group of people freely and generously if cameras were hovering and if the result made your greatest enemy look bad?

Even though these scenarios are obvious set-ups, they’re as clever and engaging as any contemporary theatre. So top marks to Michael Moore the entertainer even if the debater in him doesn’t adhere strictly to the Queensberry Rules. Maybe he would claim that nobody would listen to him if it weren’t for the entertainment value of his documentaries. Possibly. But the danger is that his showbiz flim-flam could jeopardize his message. That would be a great pity. Because I’m so glad that he’s getting the message out there.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

Tristan und Isolde (Opera) by Richard Wagner; Met Opera HD Live Broadcast; conductor James Levine; starring Deborah Voigt, Robert Dean Smith, Eike Wilm Schulte, Michelle DeYoung, Matti Salminen, Stephen Gaertner. (March 22/08)

You may be surprised to hear this confession from an opera-buff like me, but I’ve never actually sat through an opera of Wagner’s – until last Saturday. His works always struck me as long and boring, with too much silly myth and symbol. On top of which, Romantic music is one of my least favourite genres – not much structure, too much lush, amorphous sound. But Tristan und Isolde is supposed to be one of the great masterpieces of Western culture, right? So a person should give it a try at some point, especially if it’s on offer at your neighbourhood cinema. Sort of in the spirit of: you mean you live within spitting distance of the Taj Mahal and you’ve never bothered to check it out?

Right off the top, T und I delivered more pleasure than expected. The interesting orchestration of the overture was emphasized by shots of the different players at the appropriate times. And once the show got going, I didn’t even mind the silly stuff like magic potions. After all, it’s supposed to be kind of an archetype, isn’t it? In the spirit of which, the minimalist look of Dieter Dorn’s production worked fine. Same with the pared down set – just some huge triangles. And, given that we’re not exactly dealing with kitchen-sink realism here, no reason not to have people popping out of the ground when needed.

So maybe I’m ready to say there’s no problem with Wagner? Not quite. What you need for Wagner is a different attitude to time. You have to cast yourself back to the 19th century when people’s lives weren’t so hectic – at least not the lives of well-to-do opera-goers; for them, whiling away long hours in the opera house seemed as good a way as any other to spend their time. For a 21st century, lets-get-on-with-it guy like me, Wagnerian characters go on far too long about their troubles. It’s as if the composer thought it was necessary to set to music every thought that comes into his characters’ minds. As a dramatist, he could use a lesson from Harold Pinter: sometimes a pause can be more meaningful than all that verbalizing. In fact, one of the best moments in this production of T und I was when the title characters fell in love – wordlessly – after drinking the potion. All that looking at each other in amazement, and then the close up of their hands making contact – thrilling!

With, of course, glorious music egging them on. No question that Herr Wagner knows how to "tear a passion to tatters", as the Danish prince would say. All the principals – Voigt, Smith, Schulte, DeYoung, Salminen and Gaertner – served the music superbly. This was Robert Dean Smith’s Met debut and one feared that, being a last-minute replacement for Ben Heppner, there would be something of a disappointment about Mr. Smith. But he sang the role perfectly – with a bright, strong Helden tenor sound, plus a sweetness that doesn’t always come with that voice type.

As usual with these HD live broadcasts, the intermission features added tremendously to the entertainment value. Susan Graham, while not quite as funny and charming as Rene Fleming, makes a gracious and glamorous host. It was fun to hear Ms. Voigt talk about how she prepares on the day of a performance (she seems so unpretentious and laid back!). Having had four different Tristans in as many performances – with no rehearsal time for each new one – she joked about having to make sure that she kissed "the right guy". The lovely Michelle DeYoung (Brangaene) talked about how her mezzo voice is suited to various roles. The Met’s casting director told about the difficulty of replacing Ben Heppner on short notice. She says there are only ten real Tristans in the world and she knows where each of them is at any given moment.

Other intermission features gave some fascinating details on technical aspects of the production and the broadcast. We saw how the fabric "tent" at the back of the stage created a lovely glowing background by means of the light reflected from a wall behind it. At first, I was bothered by the broadcast technique that often used a divided screen simultaneously showing various angles in separate frames. I wanted to see just what the Met audience was seeing. But I appreciated the video director’s explanation that the multiple-view device was chosen to provide some visual stimulation in what would otherwise be a very static picture. The technique was at its most effective in the final moments of the love scene: first from one angle, then from another, we kept getting the lovers’ heads, side by side, almost in complete darkness, with just the broad structures of their faces discernible.

It was such a good afternoon, all round, that you could almost call me a converted Wagnerite, if of the neophyte status. Who knows? I may yet end up as one of those guys yelling myself hoarse in the upper balconies at the Ring Cycle.

 

If.... (DVD) written by David Sherwin; directed by Lindsay Anderson; starring Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick, Peter Jeffrey, Graham Crowden, Mona Washbourne, Christine Noonan, Arthur Lowe, Mary Macleod, Geoffrey Chater

If.... was one of those watershed movies for me. In 1969, I had just left the protective cocoon of the seminary in London, Ont., and was trying to make my way in the real world, a pursuit which led to my slaving for a daily newspaper in Sudbury, Ontario. While in the seminary, I had been involved somewhat on the campus of UWO in the "student power" movement, that short-lived phenomenon that, in some ways, was one of the most characteristic markers of those times. So this movie about hot-headed young rebels in a stuffy, exclusive boys’ school in England had a terrific impact on me. It was simply the most exciting, most stylish, most interesting and sexiest movie I had ever seen. Ever since that first viewing in Northern Ontario in 1969, it has held a very special place in my movie-loving heart.

First impressions of this much-touted DVD recently released by Criterion – the movie is more beautiful than ever. The transfer to disk has been handled perfectly, preserving all the artistry of the original. Given the excellence of the technology, you can appreciate that every scene is composed like a painting. It’s all achingly gorgeous and luminous. And there are so many brilliant directorial touches, especially in moments with no dialogue: the house master (Arthur Lowe) and his wife (Mary Macleod) in their bedroom at night sitting separately on their twin beds, she playing the recorder and he singing; or the school nurse (the radiant Mona Washbourne), simply relaxing in her room of an evening and looking contented; or the house master’s wife striding naked through the school corridors while the boys are outside on military drill. Even the surrealistic touches – the chaplain (Geoffrey Chater) popping out of a drawer in the office of the headmaster (Peter Jeffrey) for instance – seem more appropriate now. Back in the day, we loved those kooky details just because they upset the expectations of the conventional movie-goers, the old fogeys who were the people in our own lives comparable to the ones the boys in the movie were rebelling against. But now those odd moments seem somehow more integral to the whole. And it’s such a pleasure to succumb again to the spell of that haunting "Sanctus" from the Missa Luba which turned out, so strangely, to be a huge hit in the 1960s.

Much as I love the movie, though, one slight demurral comes to mind. Doesn’t that Mick Travis (the Malcolm McDowell character) come off as something of a priggish poseur? Such a thought never would have occurred to me back in the 60s. At that time, Mr. McDowell seemed to embody the coolest guy ever seen on screen. Now it strikes me that the character may be a somewhat humourless bore. However, we tended to be terribly impressed by such self-annointed radicals back then, didn’t we?

It could be that my impression of the character on this viewing was somewhat skewed by my listening mostly to the commentary. At first, I found David Robinson, a film critic, somewhat stilted and pedantic; he seemed to be reading from a script, which I found off-putting. But he does make some good points about the Brechtian qualities of the work and the fact that the characters are simply givens, that they do not develop in the way characters do in conventional drama. In this rather academic approach, some more colloquial, casual remarks are most welcome as, for example, when Mr. Robinson talks about days when he visited the set during the shooting of a particular scene we might be watching.

Malcolm McDowell’s commentary, sharing the microphone, to speak, with Mr. Robinson, is genial and fascinating in every word. One of the most delicious bits is his explanation of how he, a relative unknown, unexpectedly got this role in his first movie. When auditioning, he was asked to do the sex scene in the caf where he kisses the girl played by Christine Noonan. The kiss went ok but he wasn’t expecting the terrific slap that Ms. Noonan thereupon delivered. The shock galvanized him into a kind of animalistic hostility for the rest of the scene – and won him the part.

The commentary cleared up one mystery for me. When I first saw the movie, it seemed much sexier than in subsequent viewings on video. The rabbit-like screwing on the caf floor had originally seemed more prolonged. In particular, the nudity in the shower scene had surprised me back in 1969. That was the first time I had seen frontal male nudity on screen. But there’s not a single pubic hair to be seen on the video version or on this DVD. Mr. Robinson explains that Lindsay Anderson had originally shot the shower scene with full nudity but that the distributors quailed, so cuts had to be made. Same with the caf scene, I guess. So the big question now is: how the hell did the original, unexpurgated version happen to get itself shown in a pokey little town in Northern Ontario in 1969?

In all, you learn so very much from this DVD about acting, writing, producing, publicizing, casting and every aspect of movie-making. I haven’t often watched DVDs of movies with commentary and special features but I can’t imagine that many of them are as good as this. Certainly none better. A panel discussion from Scottish tv includes, scriptwriter David Sherwin, producer Michael Medwin, cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, assistant director Stephen Frears (!) and assistant editor Ian Rakoff, with further contributions from Malcolm McDowell on video. Among many fascinating details, we find out that If.... was a compromise choice as winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. As for the filming of some scenes in colour and others in black and white, was there any logic to it? Some say it was simply a matter of economy; others that it was a question of how director Lindsay Anderson was feeling on any given day.

Most strikingly, one of the main messages is that this masterpiece almost never got made. At the last minute, the major backer pulled out and producer Michael Medwin had only one weekend in the US to try to drum up more money. He was able to hook Paramount only because some star-struck head honcho wanted to meet Albert Finney, one of the Lindsay Anderson stable of actors who happened to be in the US at the time. But when Paramount saw the finished film, they vowed never to show it. The only reason If.... saw the light of day was that Paramount had a huge flop with Barbarella in a big cinema in London. With great reluctance, If.... was slotted in as a replacement, with the resultant pandemonium – both hostile and favourable – among the movie-going public.

An interview with Graham Crowden reveals someone who must be one of the most self-deprecating actors ever. Remember him as the haughtily eccentric history teacher who rode into class on his bicycle? Well, he turns out  -- now -- to be a chatty old geezer who seems to feel nothing but amazement at his good luck in the movie biz. And he passes along some great acting tips from director Anderson. "You're an intuitive actor," the revered director told him, "don't intellectualize." But best of all: "Pay attention to the puncutation -- it's there for a reason."

Perhaps because of the chancy nature of its ever happening, a kind of wistful sadness pervades the discussion of the history of the movie. Further contributing to the melancholy is the mention of director Lindsay Anderson, who died in 1994 at age 71. Brilliant as he was, he seems to have been a very conflicted man: affectionate and gentle with some people (mainly his actors), irascible and ascerbic with others (film crews, for instance). Equally intense fires of love and hatred for Britian seem to have fuelled him. He seems to have suffered from an inordinate superiority complex as well as a closeted homosexuality that apparently never found any satisfactory fulfillment. It was only through his diaries that people found out after his death that he had always been hopelessly in love with his straight leading men -- such as Mr. McDowell.

But maybe the saddest thing of all about the movie is its ending. When we first saw that violent shoot-out back in the 60s, I suppose we just thought something like: well, of course, why wouldn’t those oppressed students respond that way? Anyway, it was only a piece of art. But now so many massacres have shattered the peace of  daily life in various places, especially in US schools. The panelists on this DVD tip-toe around the unfortunate congruence, claiming that the subsequent outbreaks of violence in real life have nothing to do with the movie. Maybe not, but you cannot now look at the ending of If.... with the same innocent wonder. Which only makes the movie that much more poignant as a landmark of a very special kind.

Rating: A (as in "Absolutely Fantastic)

 

Tomorrow (Novel) by Graham Swift, 2007

Given that Graham Swift’s novels have collected many prizes, this looked like a good one to grab from the short-read shelf at the library. I had read Mr. Swift’s Booker-winner Last Orders and seem to recall that I liked it. Since that was before the days of Dilettante’s Diary, however, there is no review on record, hence no way of being sure exactly what my impression was.

In Tomorrow a mother spends the night thinking about something that is going to happen next day. The entire book is addressed to her sixteen-year-old twins who are asleep, as is her husband. On the morrow, the twins are going to learn something that will, the mother figures, change their view of the world and their place in it. The parents have delayed relaying this momentous information to the twins until the point in their lives when they can take it with some maturity and stability.

This book shares some characteristics with Ian McEwan’s stellar On Chesil Beach, winner of last year’s Man-Booker prize (see Dilettante's Diary review, June 8/07). Both short novels take place for the most part during one fateful night, with flashback to fill in the story. Both books focus on the most intimate details of relationships in families and marriages. But Ian McEwan’s book is a masterpiece that holds the reader in thrall from first sentence to last, while Mr. Swift’s book gets more and more irritating with every page, to the point that the only reason for finishing it is a sort of bloody-minded determination to find out just why it’s so annoying.

It’s hard to give a definite answer. Given that Mr. Swift is such an accomplished writer – and there’s good writing here, no doubt about that – you would think he could pull off whatever he wanted. But here are some of the reasons why this book doesn’t work for me.

The narrator’s style, for one thing. In these very short chapters, the sleepless mother keeps harping on the fact that terrible news is going to be revealed tomorrow. No matter how much she circles around in her reminiscing and cogitating, she makes sure that she mentions at least five times in every chapter – very short chapters at that – the dreaded morrow. Suspense? Narrative skill? No, more like ditzy, if seen as an aspect of character. And if you’re looking at it as a quality of the writing, it’s a silly trick that’s badly over-played.

It isn’t until about page 100 (out of some 250) that the narrator actually condescends to let drop a few details that begin to give you the idea of what all the fuss is about. It must be said that some rather interesting issues are involved, very contemporary ones concerning ethics and identity, that can arise in a world as complex as ours. Mr. Swift, and his editors, probably thought he was raising some very important points but I wish he had done so through the voice of someone more engaging than this twit with her weakness for the clich and the banal observation.

Does anybody really want to listen to this woman speculating as to the identity of the metal that symbolizes the eighth wedding anniversary? Or rattling off mundanities like: "A clean breast, as the saying goes...." and "There are points in our lives which, if we don’t know it at the time, we look back on later and see ourselves as if suspended, poised on some mysterious fulcrum." and still "...cats, it seems, for all their nine lives, sometimes simply fade away." So help me, this woman does her damnedest to convince us that a sick cat had a pivotal role to play in the family’s destiny. (I’m not making this up!, as Anna Russell would say.) Granted, from a certain point of view, anybody’s fate can hinge on minor coincidences but this cat comes off as a cutesy prop that can’t bear the weight of the role assigned to it.

We all have stupid thoughts when talking to ourselves during a sleepless night, but god forbid that there should be a writer at our elbow taking dictation. Which raises the question of what this piece of writing is supposed to be. The constant reference to the twins in the second person would suggest that the piece is written to them. Is it possible that this frequent reference to "you", i.e. the two adolescent darlings in their beds, has the effect of cutting the reader out of the discussion? I’m trying to think of a genre of literature where this second-person address is sustained successfully for a whole novel. Obviously, it can work in letters, even fictional ones, but this is clearly not a letter. No person could sit down and write this in one night, no matter how endless that night seemed.

Another flaw that may be inherent to the chosen format is that the mother’s ruminating ends up with an awful lot of "telling", ie. this happened and then that happened, rather than showing . Almost nothing takes place in the present time – except for snoring and cogitating. And there’s virtually no dialogue. It’s pretty hard to make a book lively and engaging when you eliminate one of the most effective devices in the writer’s arsenal – with the result that, about half way through the book, I started skimming pretty industriously.

And yet, there are hints here and there of the powerful writer that Graham Swift can be. Near the end of the book, the mother recalls the time when her husband was phoning his dad to tell him that she was pregnant with the twins. The older man was, we are told, overcome: "There was quite a long pause, in fact, in which I think I could detect, just as surely as Mike [the husband] could with his ear pressed to the receiver, the sound of a man being changed into a grandfather." When you’re dealing with a writer who can make an observation like that, you’ve got to be more sad than angry that he has delivered a book that is so disappointing.

 

High Profile (Mystery) by Robert B. Parker, 2007

Jesse Stone, the police chief of a small town near Boston, is confronted with the double murder of a celebrity talk show host and the celeb's pregnant girlfriend. Stone goes about his investigations with a laid-back but incisive style that works well for his small town setting. He may not be quite as colourful a character as Mr. Parker’s famous "Spenser". In fact Jesse Stone may not be all that distinct from Spenser but Stone does have some traits that make him interesting: his knowing that he drinks too much and his trying not to, for instance; and his being entangled in conflicting feelings for his ex-wife and his current girlfriend.

There’s no great surprise in the solving of the mystery – which can be something of a relief these days when so many mysteries offer solutions that are too complicated for an ordinary brain to follow. The great things about Robert B. Parker’s writing are the fast pacing and the witty dialogue. Some real gems of sardonic humour here. Also, the flow of shifting scenes is structured with absolute mastery: cop shop, suspects, girlfriends, psychotherapy sessions. And, while you might think the tone is glib throughout, Mr. Parker can startle you with an amazingly insightful bit now and then – as when a gay bodyguard analyzes his relationship with the woman he’s protecting.

But the book has some flaws. In all, I noticed about five lines or quips that seemed weak. We are informed a few too many times that Stone, in moments of high tension, listens to his breathing. And, much as I liked Stone, he does have a tendency to dish out violence, whereas I was taught that that isn’t the way nice people solve their problems. The stagey interference of the state governor in the case isn’t even necessary to the plot and seems intended only to bulk up the page count. However, when an author can still churn out mysteries this good after more than fifty books, the enjoyable reading counts for a lot more than the minor blemishes.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com