Dilettante's Diary

Jan 11/10

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. Newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page as added, while older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: Avatar (Movie); The Dining Room (Play); The Young Victoria (Movie); The Birthday Present (Mystery); Jock Sturges: Colour Prints (Photography); 2010 Salon: Propeller Centre  (Art); About Alice (Memoir)

Avatar (Movie) written and directed by James Cameron; starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Joel Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez.

Dilettante's Diary doesn’t usually investigate science fiction. But we knew the world would be holding its breath to find out what we thought of the movie that's predicted to soon become the biggest grossing film of all time. 

Its plot has something to do with humans travelling to another planet in search of some special metal. There they encounter creatures like humans but much bigger. Some hokey process enables the humans to enter a sort of cocoon so that their minds can be transferred into an Avatar just like the natives of the planet. This enables the invaders to mingle with the locals who would otherwise snuff them out.

The designers must have had a ball. On the spaceship, acres of computer labs chockablock with new-fangled gizmos would drive little boys wild. Then there are the jungle-like scenes, the flora and fauna on the new planet. All very pretty, especially with the 3D effect.

But why did I feel like I was watching a puppet show? Could be that, as a kid, I had a nifty little toy called a "View Master". (I can probably put my hand on it now, if you give me a minute or two.) It shows you tableaux from fairy tales staged in 3D. Or could the puppet effect have something to do with the stilted, stagey aspect of the movie?

Truth to tell, I'm not the ideal critic for this kind of material. What may be some sort of congenital antipathy prevents me from enjoying narratives with fantastical scenarios. Maybe it has something to do with the stories your parents read to you when you were a kid. Anything of the surreal and far-fetched strikes me as bordering on nightmare, therefore to be avoided at all costs.

About forty-five minutes into this one, we had just endured a horrendously noisy scene of freaky animals attacking our hero (Sam Worthington), when along came a pleasant but brief romantic interlude. But the peace was shattered by a hoard of warrior types breathing death and destruction on the poor human caught in their midst. Unable to take any more of the trumped up terror, I had to bail.

People tell me that if I’d stayed, good ideas – such as stuff about how everything is living and has a soul – would have pleased me. Maybe. Usually the concepts involved in science fiction don’t interest me. It all strikes me as a lot of made-up cornball. Anybody can dream up these goofy worlds with, supposedly, their own rules. I prefer to see what insight writers have to offer about the world we know.

Still, our effort to appreciate this one may not have been in vain. We understand it has now officially become the biggest grossing movie of all time. So we can say we did our bit in making history.

Rating: N/A

 

The Dining Room (Play) by A. R. Gurney; directed by Jonathan Geenen; starring Terrence Bryant, Benjamin Clost, Madeleine Donohue, Deborah Drakeford, Michael Spasevski and Sarah Wilson; Down n’ Out Productions; Campbell House Museum, 160 Queen St. West, Toronto. Until January 31 (except Friday, Jan 22nd)

Sometimes professional actors get fired up and band together to produce some special project under their own auspices. Their union, Actors Equity, allows these initiatives as "co-op" productions. The genesis of this one was that the brilliant young director Jonathan Geenen, having just finished a very successful three-year run directing at an English language theatre in Shanghai, found himself in town with the month of January free. So he convinced some fellow alumni of George Brown Theatre School, plus two other actors, to throw themselves into A.R. Gurney’s Broadway hit of the 1980s, The Dining Room.

But the group had to scramble for a venue on short notice. What they came up with – historic Campbell House in downtown Toronto – turned out to be a godsend. A small ballroom upstairs makes the perfect setting for the play. Composed of many short sketches, it presents the disparate activities that take place in dining rooms. The first scene gives us a real estate agent showing the dining room as the crown jewel of a mansion for sale; then we move on to scenes of upper class families at breakfast, then discussions with an architect about how the room could be divided, birthday parties, clandestine encounters and so on.

The cumulative effect gives you an overview of life in America in the 20th century. It’s all about changing mores, changing values, shifting standards: who actually uses a dining room for its original purpose any more? In terms of stagecraft, one fascinating aspect of the play is that scenes overlap. Actors will enter and start a new scene before the previous one has finished. Besides speeding up the pace of the play, this device suggests certain metaphysical possibilities: maybe the realities of time and space are not as rigid as we tend to think they are?

Such ideas not withstanding, what the play’s really about is bravura acting. The main pleasure of the piece is watching the gusto with which the actors race through the cast of characters. Each performer plays roughly ten parts. With lightning quickness and minimal costume changes, they can switch from obstreperous kiddies to doddering oldsters, from cultured sophisticates to boors. Everyone does such excellent work that it’s possible here only to highlight some favourite moments from each performance. (Disclosure: as you will probably realize, I have a close connection with the cast.)

- As the senior male of the company, Terrence Bryant makes a very strong impression in each of his roles, whether it be an adulterous visitor, a tycoon planning his funeral, or a cranky grandfather. Amazingly, though, his most poignant moment (tear-jerkingly so) comes in his impersonation of a forlorn kid pleading with an Irish maid not to abandon his family.

- Ben Clost, as always, turns in very solid work in roles ranging from a taciturn teen who suspects his mom of cheating on his dad, to a carpenter called in to consult about repairs to the heirloom table. One of his best bits, in my opinion, is the grandfather who tries not to hear his married daughter’s lament that her life is falling apart.

- Michael Spasevski does very well in roles like the architect with plans for destroying the dining room and the insensitive nephew doing an anthropological study of his Aunt Harriet’s etiquette. Without doubt, though, his best scene comes near the end of the play in a hilarious shtick as a prim-and-proper establishment type, clad in smoking jacket, who announces that he must avenge his brother "Binky" who has been insulted on a question of sexuality in the steam room of his club.

- Some of Madeleine Donohue’s juiciest parts include a teenager raiding the family liquor cabinet and the prissy Aunt Harriet explaining proper dining decorum. I found her most interesting and most complex portrayal, though, to be the one where she’s the harassed young mother trying to keep control of an unruly kids’ birthday party while carrying on a problematic discussion with one of the dads about their illicit affair.

- Sarah Wilson excels in all of her roles, whether as an Irish maid, a goofy kid, an unhappy young mother or a gormless teen. But she’s absolutely devastating as a matriarch suffering from Alzheimers.

- Of Deb Drakeford’s various roles, I especially liked her wealthy mother who comes down to breakfast in an alcoholic daze and her homeowner who crawls under the dining room table to inspect the damage cited by the carpenter. This scenario produces her startling epiphany about the revered piece of furniture: it’s nothing but wood when you see it from underneath. Ms. Drakeford closes the play beautifully with a monologue from a hostess imagining how she would love to have the perfect dinner party, one that sounds to me like a foretaste of the harmony and peace only to be found in the heavenly banquet.

The advantage of seeing the play in this venue is that, by way of fringe benefit, you get to visit one of Toronto’s loveliest old homes. I couldn’t help thinking that the play might not be as charming if seen on a traditional proscenium stage. In this production, with the audience seated on either side of the table, you feel caught up in the intimacy of the goings-on. But the seating is very limited. So make sure you phone ahead for tickets! (416-504-7529)

 

The Young Victoria (Movie) written by Julian Fellowes; directed by Jean-Marc Valle; starring Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Michael Maloney, Harriet Walker, Thomas Kretschmann, Mark Strong.

Some of us are interested in royalty and some aren’t. For those of us afflicted with this condition, there’s nothing we can do about it. We know perfectly well that it makes no sense to regard certain people as being special just because of the family they were born into. Still, we can’t help getting caught up in the fuss about them by like-minded people (who seem to comprise a very large segment of most societies). So there was no question of my not seeing this movie. But the previews made me afraid it might not be any more interesting than those historical re-enactments of famous battles that geezers stage in the parks come summer.

It looked like my fears were being confirmed when an early voice-over passage, presumably from the subject’s diary, sounded this clanger: "Even a palace can be a prison!" It soon turned out, though, that Victoria’s early life presented lots of genuine intrigue far beyond the reach of any such clich.

Before she acceded to the throne, some authorities wanted the teen-age princess to sign a document agreeing that, even if the king died, a regency would rule in her place until she turned twenty-five. But the feisty teen steadfastly refused. When she did become Queen, though, her inexperience caused a national crisis. The public was furious with her for seeming to favour Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister, over his rival, Sir Robert Peel. Then, her marriage to Prince Albert stirred up trouble in the royal household. How much would Victoria let him share her duties? What was his "work" to be?

Lots of other subplots swirled around the young Queen in her early years, all of which makes for a movie far more dramatic than any historical pageant. Of course, the proceedings could still come off as stiff and prosaic if you didn’t have a young woman as engaging as Emily Blunt at the centre of it. She’s better looking than Victoria ever dreamed of being, of course, but Ms. Blunt’s great achievement is that she makes you want to believe that Victoria was like this, at least a little. It’s fun to think that this woman, whose image today represents the epitome of stuffy formality, might once have run through the rain with a sweetheart. We knew, of course, about hers and Albert’s enthusiasm for the arts, but it comes as news to me to learn that, as a young queen, she was keen on reforms to help the poor who were being dislocated by the Industrial Revolution.

Somehow, Ms. Blunt makes sense of this complex character: the stubbornness, the sentimentality, the intelligence, the propriety. I think what enables the actress to pull it off is that, no matter how much she lets down her guard, there’s a preternatural dignity about her. It has something to do with the serious watchfulness of her eyes. Regardless of what’s going on in the rest of her face, the eyes almost never smile.

A marvellous supporting cast and a production filled with visual and aural pleasures serve Ms. Blunt well. Among all the actors who turn in excellent work, some who stood out for me are: Paul Bettany as Melbourne, Michael Maloney as Peel, Miranda Richardson as Victoria’s mother and Harriet Walker as Queen Adelaide. I especially loved Jim Broadbent’s richly-rounded, although brief, sketch of King William. Rupert Friend did about as well as anybody could in the thankless role of Albert, a good-looking if somewhat solemn prince, who seldom gets a chance to express much individuality. Lots of great music helps to make the movie especially enjoyable – Schubert, Purcell, Bellini and, of course, Handel. Speaking of whom, snazzy editing gives us many stirring reprises of – what else? – the coronation anthem "Zadok the Priest."

Rating: B -- i.e. "Better than most"

 

The Birthday Present (Mystery) by Barbara Vine, 2008

Fans of Ruth Rendell know that she occasionally writes books under the pen name "Barbara Vine" as an opportunity to indulge in a different kind of writing. These books tend to be chattier, less tightly-structured than her straight whodunnits. The Barbara Vine books don’t so much solve a crime as look back at one to see why it happened or to sift through the contemporary consequences of some terrible act of long ago. Or maybe we’re watching a tragedy in the making but we’re not sure exactly what’s going to come down. Some of us enjoy these books of Ruth Rendell’s more than her conventional mysteries.

In this one, I didn’t totally love the setting and the theme as much as in some of the best Barbara Vines. (A Fatal Inversion, for instance, or No Night Is Too Long.) This time, we look back to the Margaret Thatcher era, when a British MP set up a sex charade that led to the accidental death of his mistress. At the time, nobody knew about his involvement. Some years later, it looks as though he’s still getting away scott free. Or is he?

The story’s told from two points of view. Our chief narrator is the politician’s brother-in-law. He knows a great deal about what happened because the young politician, worried about whether or not he’d be found out, bared his soul to him. The other narration comes from a diary made around the time of the tragedy by the friend of the woman who was killed.

It’s the skill, as demonstrated in her in wielding of these two narrative threads, that makes reading Ruth Rendell (or Barbara Vine, if you like) so satisfying. The woman truly is one of the greatest story-tellers of our time. Sprinkled through the texts of the two narrators are hooks like:

- "I had an interest in the long term and I needed to remember that."

- "I mention it only because of the events which followed, or, rather, one event."

- "But it was not until weeks later than I learned this."

If your mind has any yen whatsoever for the pursuit of narrative curiosities, you can’t stop reading this kind of thing, all the while enjoying yourself immensely.  (If you don't want to spoil that enjoyment, do not read the cover blurb on the paperback edition!)

In fact, the narrative prowess on display here made me think of one of the greatest practitioners of the art: Emily Bront. The way Ms. Bront adds depth to Wuthering Heights by the manipulation of her narrators’ voices has echoes in Ruth Rendell’s work. To further effect in The Birthday Present, the brother-in-law narrator's occasional discussions with his wife work like a Greek chorus in the background. There’s even a particular fascination in the way Ms. Rendell plays her two narrators' voices off each other: the one well-to-do, comfortable and privileged; the other lonely, unsatisfied and struggling.

Improbable as this fact may seem, the writing of Ms. Rendell, who is on the verge of turning eighty, is improving. Like many British authors, it often seemed in previous books that she couldn’t speak about the "lower classes" without giving an impression of holding her nose. No such problem with this book. One of the way she avoids it is by detailing the MP’s supercilious attitude in dealing with less privileged people. That implies that she, as author, doesn’t suffer from a similar prejudice.

I also find the characters here more rounded, less likely to be categorized as good or bad than in earlier works by Ms. Rendell. A new girlfriend of the MP, a sexy woman whom you keep expecting to be a tarty gold-digger, turns out to be a genuinely warm-hearted, good person. The husband of the MP’s deceased mistress somehow maintains a remarkably quiet dignity, even when he gets a chance for revenge. And, in her journal, the friend of the deceased, develops into an extraordinary character: intelligent, ruthlessly honest about her failings in many respects, yet conniving and self-deluding to the borders of insanity.

One problem regarding this woman’s diary, however, might deter readers less perspicacious than others. The diary starts at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the novel, without any indication that we’re suddenly hearing from a different person, even though the new narrator is speaking in the first person, as did the brother-in-law in his narration up to that point. Surely, a change of fonts would have been in order by way of a clue to the change in voice? However, the fact that I managed to catch the switch without any such assistance testifies to Ms. Rendell’s skill in making the change in voice apparent through a different kind of writing.

Which is not, however, to acclaim the book as great literature. It exhibits some typical weaknesses of the mystery genre. Sometimes the expectations about the behaviour of certain sectors of society – the media, for example – are simplistic. The first part of the book introduces far too many names to sort out with ease. The most problematic aspect of the book is the implausibility of  the deceased’s friend's making such detailed notes about the affair. If she hadn’t, though, we’d have had a less effective novel, so I’m glad she did.

 

Jock Sturges: Colour Prints (Photography); Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street West, Toronto; until January 16

Whenever there’s controversy about sexual issues, you know that Dilettante’s Diary will bravely plunge in and try to settle the matter.

Which brings us to the current Toronto exhibition of Jock Sturges’ photos of nudes. Typically, Mr. Sturges’ shows raise questions about whether or not they’re pornographic. That’s because they include children and adolescents along with the adult nudes (predominately female). As I understand it, Mr. Sturges meets his subjects in naturist colonies that he belongs to in the US and Europe. Books of his works show the same people at different stages of their lives.

My viewing of the works would conclude that there certainly isn’t anything pornographic about them. That judgement's based on the assumption that the term 'pornography' usually connotes a certain sleazy cheapness directed exclusively at sexual arousal. There’s nothing provocative or lubricious about these photos. None of the models is posed for erotic effect. The composition of the photos – the balancing of the figures – often has classical resonances and the lighting (mostly natural, I think) gives the figures a dignified glow.

Still, some of the pictures can be disturbing. I’m talking here about the ones of young people. In the first place, we don’t often see pictures like this. Most of us, at least we nicer ones, have trained our minds not to go there. So the photos can’t help having a shocking effect, respectful though they are towards their subjects.

More importantly, such photos raise troubling questions. Nobody’s going to object to adults belonging to nudist colonies if they so choose. And I suppose there’s no way you can stop them from having their children participate. (You can’t help wondering, though, whether their children will thank them in later life.) But should the pictures documenting the childrens’ involvement be available for the rest of the world to see? Isn’t that something that the children might live to regret later in life, even if they have no qualms about having been nudists as kids and teenagers?

In the literature surrounding Mr. Sturges’ work, mention is often made of "shame" – as in the claim that these subjects don’t have any regarding their bodies. As if to say that a despicable, religiously-based shame about one’s nakedness is the only thing that keeps people clothed. But is that all there is to it? Maybe it is something quite other than shame. Maybe it has something to do with respect for oneself and for one’s privacy. Maybe that’s the reason – not shame – that most civilizations around the world opt for clothing in public. At risk of sounding here like an old time high school health teacher, I might suggest that it could be a sound human value to treat your nudity as something very special and therefore something to be shared only with the person (or persons) you choose to share it with. Can we say that these children and adolescents have been mature enough to provide their informed consent to share it with us viewers? I dunno.

This is one case, then, where Dilettante’s Diary must admit failure in an attempt to settle an artistic matter and must abandon the debate with some questions still hanging.

 

2010 Salon Show; Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts; 984 Queen Street West, Toronto; to Jan 17.

A couple of artists I know sent me proud announcements of their participation in this show. (You can take that as full disclosure.) The Propeller Centre, an artists’ co-op, boasts some 40 members. This show features about 165 works by 72 artists, some of them co-op members and others artists who have been invited to participate.

It’s, of course, impossible to make a fair assessment of so many paintings in one viewing. What follows, then, is my impression of certain paintings that jumped out at me first time round.

Prominent in the portrait/human figure category, are Esther Simmonds-MacAdam’s very accomplished works, such as the enormous reddish face of a young rocker with an Iroquois haircut. I prefer, though, her profile of a bearded man in her "Old Men Dancing" series, a work exquisitely executed with bold strokes of colour, yet conveying tremendous sensitivity towards the subject. Brian Smith, in "Downtown Girl" shows one of his works in the modern style that have made him a well known portraitist. Somewhat more interesting to me, though, is his "Vivienne": a female figure consisting mostly of whitish blobs against a turbulent background. A somewhat similar style – this time a male figure on an abstract background – works to great effect in "Pittori Toscani" by Susan Dain.

Ms. Dain has also submitted two landscapes, apparently of the Italian countryside, done in a dramatic semi-abstract style. As for Vicki Cowan’s "Change of Season", also a semi-abstract, I wasn’t sure that the composition* holds together but I love the way the effect of something like a blizzard is conveyed by swirls of white, against the suggestion of some habitations and/or greenery on a horizontal line.

As mentioned before in Dilettante’s Diary, Frances Patella has a neat way of rendering cityscapes and landscapes in mixed media collage using some photographic elements. Aleda O’Connor’s ink and pencil drawing highlights the neglected beauty of an aspect of the city that confronts us all the time: an industrial-looking stairway. Among the cityscapes, I’ll include Barry Coombs’ intriguing street lamp: a fractured composition that clearly reflects his interest in cubism. I don’t know whether Mitch Clark would consider his largely abstract paintings cityscapes but, to me, they convey the hectic, crowded ambiance of city life with remarkable economy: jumbles of black acrylic and pencil on a light background, with a few streaks of red here and there.

In the fully abstract mode, Marilyn Lightstone’s large works, built on rectangular motifs in earthy browns, offer a soothing experience. Judi Lederman’s large black canvas with some sparse white lines kept me looking for some time. Rena Sava’s small works in pale yellows, blues and whites, described as monoprint and collage, charmed me with their geometric playfulness. Some of the works that I loved most in the show are Dominique Prevost’s abstracts (or are they landscapes?), in each of which, two or three sheets of paper in different watercolour hues create a profoundly serene effect.

For this show, I find myself wanting to cite a separate category for "ironic painting". This surely is where Peter Barelkowski’s work belongs. I have previously admired his tiny figures on white backgrounds. Here, for a change, they appear against backgrounds of dark blue, black and red. One particularly haunting Barelkowski shows a forlorn little man surrounded by almost impenetrable darkness.

Also in the ironic category, Jennifer Drysdale’s "One Who Signs Terribly Important Things" offers a droll take on public affairs. Like innumerable photos of such occasions, it’s a painting of some v.i.p. sitting at his desk, looking important for this moment in history as he puts his pen to some document. Except that all you see of his face is the lower part – the grim semi-smile meant to convey assurance and solemnity. His upper face and his eyes -- presumably the 'soul' of any portrait -- haven't managed to get themselves squeezed within the frame.  The emphasis, rather, is on the stagey paraphernalia: the phone, flags, drapes, window, etc. Kind of puts things in perspective, in more ways than one.

* By ‘composition’ I mean the way a picture is structured, i.e. the arrangement of shapes in space. Some people mistakenly take the term ‘composition’ to mean the theme or subject of a work.

 

About Alice (Memoir) by Calvin Trillin, 2006

On Valentine’s Day in 2007, Calvin Trillin was in town promoting this memoir about his wife Alice. From my vantage point, it looked like all the women in the media were falling in love with him: how romantic – a guy writing a beautiful book about his wife who has died!

What intrigued me about the book was the implausibility of the project. How could anybody write about his deceased wife? No matter how much you loved your wife, surely you could not make public the story of your life together. How could Mr. Trillin document all those dark corners, those private intimacies, those secrets of married life?

The answer is that he doesn’t. This is not so much a biography – or even a full memoir – as an extended eulogy. (A very slender book – merely 78 small pages – it could have made one of those longer New Yorker articles of old.) Skipping lightly over their life together, Mr. Trillin affectionately extols his wife’s virtues and great beauty.

One of the main thrusts of the book is to distinguish between Alice’s real self and the one that came to represent her in her husband’s writing. He readily admits that, in his books and his light pieces for the New Yorker, he tended to cast her in the role of a "dietician in sensible shoes." She was depicted as the calm, reasonable one whose role it was to reign in her spouse’s goofier excesses. Far from being such a wet blanket in real life, Mr. Trillin says, his wife was witty, creative and talented. Not to mention, a fiercely devoted mother. Regarding their two daughters, he and his wife came to this conclusion early: "your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary."

It also turns out that Alice was also an accomplished writer and television producer. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me is the account of the way she influenced her husband's writing. Contrary to the advice from a senior colleague at the New Yorker, Mr. Trillin always showed his rough drafts to his wife. Her response was crucial. A laugh meant he was on the right track. A sigh – back to the word processor. In one case – a book about a classmate of his at Yale – Alice’s dissatisfaction made the writer scrap the manuscript and start fresh. That would appear to have been all to the good because I’m guessing that the result was the fascinating Remembering Denny: a haunting portrait of a superstar grad who ended up killing himself, possibly because he couldn’t bear being gay.

In spite of the light tone through most of About Alice, the book does touch on some of life’s troubles. In the somewhat minor category thereof, the Trillin partners had conflicting attitudes to spending money on things like household renovations. While she had no yen for luxuries in the way of fancy automobiles and the like, Alice believed in paying workers handsomely; her husband tended to be somewhat more frugal in such matters. Regarding one of the most serious trials any couple could ever encounter, his testament to Alice’s courage is truly moving. Dying of heart disease a few weeks before their daughter’s wedding, Alice called him to her side and insisted that the wedding must go ahead exactly as planned, regardless of what might happen to her.

 

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