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Nov 27/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Movie); A Stolen Life (Memoir); Willow Quartet (Play); Photography by Ralph Dunning (Art); Careless Love (Biography)

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Movie) written by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg; directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson; starring Kal Penn and John Cho; with Amir Blumenfeld, Thomas Lennon, Danny Trejo, Neil Patrick Harris, Elias Koteas, Yasen Peyankov, John Hoogenakker,

Ok, you’re wondering why we would consider such a movie here at Dilettante’s Diary, right? Let me put it this way: it was a grey November afternoon, I hadn’t seen a movie in a long time and this was the only feasible choice at the neighbourhood cinema. Besides, now and then I enjoy being offended and grossed-out just as much as the next guy.

Which is all this movie looked like it was going to do for a while. Before five minutes were past, we had urine and feces on screen. The word ‘dick’ came up frequently in every scene and eventually the object as well. The actors’ efforts with the laborious expository dialogue made it look like nobody knew acting from eating pizza. But then the plot kicked in and none of that mattered.

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have been separated for a few years. Kumar’s still the ultimate loser but Harold has become a big shot in the Wall Street financial scene. In fact, the opening bit has him escaping a proletarian street protest outside his office. (Nice timing, guys!) It’s Christmas Eve and Harold’s hurrying back to his luxurious house to host the perfect Christmas for his wife’s extended Latino family (about 25 of them). The centrepiece of the celebrations is the genuine Christmas tree that his father-in-law (Danny Trejo) has been growing for eight years. While the others go off to midnight mass, Harold stays behind to decorate the tree. Who should arrive at the door but his ex-buddy Kumar, delivering a package for Harold that was mistakenly delivered to Kumar’s cesspool of an apartment.

With Kumar on the scene, the sacred Christmas tree is soon on fire and has to be thrown out the window. Thus, Harold and Kumar embark on a frantic dash through Manhattan to replace the tree. Their quest takes them to a tree lot where two black brothers keep switching roles as the threatening one and the agreeable one. Then to a party of obnoxious rich kids in a swanky penthouse. They have a brush with midnight mass, then a more extended involvement in a Rockettes-style Christmas extravaganza. They fall into the hands of New York’s most notorious and most violent Ukranian criminal (Elias Koteas) and his henchmen. Complicating matters are two hangers-on. In Harold’s case, it’s a persnickety dad (Thomas Lennon) with his three-year old daughter and in Kumar’s case it’s a geek (Amir Blumenfeld) who’s trying to get to a party where a hot chick has promised to let him de-flower her. The climax of the movie involves a gag that it would be a shame to give away here. Let’s just say that, if you’re going to shoot a powerful weapon into the air on Christmas Eve, you should be very careful where you’re pointing it.

Given all this inventive craziness, you’d expect to see about twenty-five writers credited instead of just the two. It’s as if a bunch of people sat around a table and kept tossing in every outrageous idea they could think of. One session, when our guys are really high, takes place in claymation. When one of them worries about what’s coming up, the other reassures him, "Nothing bad ever happens in claymation." A particularly bizarre scenario involves a very famous actor who, in real life, is one of the most openly gay men in showbiz. Here, it turns out, his gayness is a cover for his over-the-top hetero studliness. One scene where our guys encounter two old friends in a restaurant doesn’t have much to do with anything except that it gives an opportunity for a speech by a Jewish convert to Christianity who claims that, as the waters of baptism flowed over him, he felt all his Jewish neuroses wash away.

In a slightly sci-fi touch, a key element of the plot is a robot that makes waffles. I didn’t love this device, but that could be just because of its irritating robot voice. What I did like very much was the satirical use of many Christmas motifs. Like the discreet, almost unnoticeable reference to Tiny Tim and his crutch. When two stoners are blissing out on hash, a glorious rendition of "Joy to the World" swells up and the smoke rings that the guys are exhaling turn into Christmas wreathes. A door in the penthouse apartment opens on a couple boinking vigorously and we get the jaunty strains of a passage from "The Nutcracker." When a virgin is descending the penthouse stairs seductively, we get Franz Schubert’s "Ave Maria." Best of all, we get good old Bing chanting "White Christmas" as bags of cocaine are torn open and clouds of beautiful white stuff are drifting down on everything.

This might all come off as a series of separate sketches and stunts, if it weren’t for the great rapport between Harold and Kumar that ties the mayhem together. A quick check of my review of their previous movie (Dilettante’s Diary page dated May 18/08) shows that I wasn’t thrilled with them in that outing. Here, their comic partnership works as well as any you can think of, with Harold ever the spiffy, clean businessman and Kumar the eternal doofus. Perhaps what makes things click better here is that they’ve been estranged for a while. So there’s always an undercurrent of mistrust and resentment, even when they’re most dependent on each other. Harold always has a slightly prissy way of wanting to fend off Kumar. Some brilliant scriptwriting for them turns up in a scene where they're tied to each other, about to be incinerated. When a bitter dispute breaks out among the two thugs assigned to the job, Harold and Kumar try to make peace between the two goons. Gradually, we realize, as do Harold and Kumar, that they’re talking to each other, trying to reconcile their differences.

Maybe it would be asking for too much from Santa to expect this gift to sustain the high level of parody and irreverence right to the end. Being a Christmas movie, it has to get a bit wholesome before sending us home. But not without a twist to remind us that Harold and Kumar will always be who they are no matter how much goodwill prevails on earth.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): a disgusting, offensive hoot.

 

A Stolen Life (Memoir) by Jaycee Dugard, 2011

An eleven-year-old girl is abducted and kept prisoner for eighteen years. For much of her time in captivity, she’s a sex slave to her abductor. (We’re talking about real-life events, here) She eventually escapes and writes a book about it. Is there any way I’m not going to read that book? No! But certain concerns arise. What if she’s not a writer? What if she doesn’t have the ability to pick the meaningful details that will make her story come alive? What if she doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say about the experience? What if her story comes across as clichd, trashy? Still, I’m going to give the book a try.

Jaycee Lee Dugard was living with her mom, stepfather and half sister (just a baby) in South Lake Tahoe, California, on the day in June of 1991 when she was abducted on her way to school. Phillip Garrido and his wife Nancy took her to a shed in the backyard of Garrido’s mother’s house where they lived. Jaycee was forced into sex with Garrido on a regular basis. At first she was handcuffed, but when the couple judged she had become docile enough, she was allowed to move about more freely. She bore two girl babies.

The man tried to pretend that they were all a family. The children were told that their mother was their sister and that Garrido and his wife were their parents. He would take them to places like the beach. The wife would take Jaycee shopping. Because of Jaycee's bond with her children, she never tried to escape. Also, Garrido had convinced her that the world was a dangerous place and that only he could protect her and her girls. So she was scared of what might happen if she tried to break free. Freedom did eventually come when some parole officers, with whom Garrido was involved, became suspicious about his explanations for the presence of Jaycee and her children in his life.

Comparisons with Emma Donoghue’s Room are inevitable. (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page Dec 6/10.) Ms Donoghue has the advantage of fiction, in that she can invent details and episodes that make for more drama in the telling of her tale. And, she has impressive literary ability. Ms Dugard’s writing skills, while not non-existent, are somewhat more rudimentary. She tells her story mostly in the present tense, conveying the child-like impressions that came to her while the story was happening. (Reflections from an adult perspective are inserted between chapters.) That gives an immediacy to the telling but it also makes for sentences that run on without much sense of structure, that sometimes have grammatical problems and that sometimes don’t amount to very coherent explications of the author’s thoughts. The tone of voice in some excerpts from a journal Jaycee kept during her captivity brings Ann Frank to a reader's mind. More often, though, the philosophical reflections strike a somewhat banal note. But maybe we can forgive that, given that the author’s formal education was cut off at grade five.

In fact, for all its lack of finesse, the raw, unvarnished telling has a power of its own. The first descriptions of the sexual abuse made me so uncomfortable that it looked like I might not be able to continue reading. Same with the child’s yearning to see her mother again. It was almost unbearable. Soon, though, Ms. Dugard began to skip over the sexual stuff rather quickly. Although pain and loneliness were never far away, it was almost as though she settled into her captive life as the "new normal". So the reading got easier.

But.... is there a point to reading this terrible story, setting aside prurient interest and thrill-seeking? Yes, Ms. Dugard’s book helps us to understand better how this kind of thing can happen. What purpose, you might ask, does that serve? Does it make us feel sorry for the offender? Does it mitigate the harm done? Not at all. The point of good writing about crime – whether from William Shakespeare or Truman Capote – is that it helps us to see that the worst things can be perpetrated by people not unlike ourselves. When we hear about a ghastly crime such as this one, we’re inclined to write the perpetrators off as belonging to some horribly evil sub-species of humanity. A work like this, though, has the cautionary effect of making us wary of the capacity for wrong-doing in all of us humans.

As for the dynamics involved in the catastrophe described here, Garrido persuaded Jaycee that she was helping him with his sexual problem, that thanks to her, others would not be hurt. When a sexual session was over, he would apologize profusely to her and would try to make her happy. All this time, he was seeing psychiatrists and parole officers (re an earlier conviction of rape). None of these professionals seemed to realize that he was a thoroughly demented man. He refused to take any responsibility for his actions, claiming that "angel voices" were controlling him. He had wacky theories about how he could get people to hear his thoughts through a "black box" device he’d invented. Apparently his wife wasn’t much saner. The two of them were so narcissistic that they made a big fuss about a surprise they had for Jaycee on her birthday and the "surprise" turned out to be the wife’s new hairdo.

Crazy as they were, they controlled Jaycee’s world. She could never trust her own thoughts because Garrido always pointed out why she was wrong. He alone had the answer to everything and it was he alone who would, he claimed, give her a safe and happy life. Ms Dugard doesn’t make this point but you wonder if she was especially vulnerable to such brain-washing because she didn’t have a good role model for fathering. Her biological father had never been part of her life and her stepfather fell into the stereotype of the meanie in that role. So how was she to know that there were good men out there who would treat a girl in a truly loving and fatherly way?

The last section of the book deals with Ms. Dugard’s re-connection with her mother and half sister, her aunt and childhood friends. Not many people could read this material without reaching for the Kleenex box. It’s a bit startling when Ms. Dugard talks about her public relations manger, but you soon see that, given the demands from media like People and The National Enquirer, she needs some such protection. She talks about learning to make decisions, to allow herself to make mistakes. Most of all, to say no. With time, she is beginning to get an objective appreciation of the harm Garrido did to her. (He has been sentenced to 431 years in prison and his wife to 36 years to life.)

When it came to therapy, Ms. Dugard couldn’t see herself closeted with someone in an office; she’d had enough of closed rooms. She was lucky, then, to find a therapist whose methods involve a lot of interaction with horses. This builds on Ms. Dugard’s great love of animals, as demonstrated in the years of her ordeal when one of her main sources of consolation were the various kittens that came her way. She now works with JAYC, an organization for families who are recovering from abductions and other traumas. One of the organization’s healing techniques is animal-assisted therapy. A portion of the proceeds of the memoir will go to the organization. www.thejaycfoundation.org

 

Willow Quartet (Play) by Joan Burrows; directed by Jane Carnwath; with Patricia Casey, Andy Fraser, John Healy, Chris Owens; The Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Road, Toronto; until December 3rd.

This play was featured in the Playwrights of Spring festival of new plays presented by Theatre Aurora a couple of years ago. (My review of that production is on Diletttante's Diary page dated Mar 24/09.) The context of the play is that a woman has come back to live at her family's farmhouse. Her estranged husband lives down the road, but keeps dropping in. A charismatic musician who's participating in the local festival and is boarding at the farm adds an element of excitement to the proceedings. The woman's mother, who has moved to the city, casts a skeptical eye on things during her visits to the old homestead.

As I had appreciated the potential of the play on first viewing, it's good to see a more polished, richer version of the piece in this fully professional Equity Co-op production. The actors here are all, appropriately, more experienced and more mature. John Healy is particularly strong as the charismatic musician visitor. The set is more attractive this time, as well.

 

"Pop UpArt Show (Photography) by Ralph Dunning; 2514 Yonge St, Toronto

It's not often that you're out doing your errands and you can, on the spur of the moment, pay a visit to a satisfying art show that you weren't expecting to find. But that's what happened to me one day recently while prowling Yonge Street between Eglinton and Lawrence. On the west side of the street, in what was formerly a clothing store, photographer Ralph Dunning has set up a display of his very fine photographs. They're mostly from a bicycle trek up a bleak mountain somewhere in Colorado. At the top of the climb, a dilapidated, crumbling village made marvellous subject matter for the photographer: weather-beaten buildings, rusty tin siding, collapsing fences. One very impressive "still life" is a close-up of the side door of a battered truck. Some of the photographs I like most, however, have a more abstract quality to them: traffic lights and electrical wires against the sky, for instance.

What artists mean by such a "Pop Up" show, as I understand it, is that it's mounted somewhere, more or less on impulse, when a vacant space is found. Apparently, more and more shows in the art capitals of the world are appearing this way. Good idea. But I'm not sure, as in this case, if it's possible to say when the show will end.

 

Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Biography) by Peter Guralnick, 1999

You may be puzzled as to why we sophisticates here at Dilettante’s Diary would be returning yet again to the life of "The King". One explanation might be that, having invested a considerable amount of time in the first volume of this biography, Last Train to Memphis (see review on DD page titled Summer Reading 2011), we wanted to finish the job. But the more fundamental reason would be something like this: Elvis stands as such a significant and enigmatic symbol of so much about our times and our culture that we want to understand his place in our history in a way that goes deeper than the tabloid headlines. Surely the great American tragedy that his life amounts to merits our respectful attention.

However, this book, because it documents a long, slow slide downhill, can’t be as entertaining as the first volume. This one starts with Elvis’ return from his army service in Germany, whereupon Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, books him into several years’ worth of crappy movies. Churning them out, sometimes at the brisk pace of an eighteen-day shooting schedule, wasn’t much fun for Elvis and reading about the process isn’t any more fun for us. Through all this, there’s none of the excitement of the first volume’s account of the young upstart finding his voice and climbing from peak to peak of his fabulous popularity.

After the movies, though, things pick up considerably when Elvis re-discovers his concert career, especially with the fabled Las Vegas shows and some tv specials. Before long, though, the showbiz gigs turn stale and it’s a sorry tale of addiction to prescription drugs, weight gain, a revolving door of girlfriends, increasing mental fog and incoherence in his concerts. Entertaining fare, perhaps, if you like watching a train wreck happen.

Still, the man was a phenomenon. Lots of things come up that I didn’t know about him. The religious quest, for one thing. I’d always known he had a fondness for sentimental Christianity but I didn’t know about the obsessive search for some kind of enlightenment by way of a somewhat woolly spirituality, lead by his guru Larry Geller (originally his hairdresser). The prescribed course of study included reading everybody from Madame Blavatasky to Kahil Gibran. Hence, the messianic sense, Elvis' conviction that he was put on this earth for a special purpose. The confirming sign came one day while he was driving across the desert and a cloud in the shape of Joseph Stalin’s face turned into the face of Jesus. Numerology entered into his peculiar mix of guiding principles.

Among other interests, there was the obsession with ranching that lasted about one year. Then, the craze for karate, something still relatively new in North American culture at that time. And the urge to get himself recognized as an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. That led to his offer to President Richard Nixon to act as a snitch on elements that Elvis considered subversive to US patriotism and dangerous to American values: the Smothers Brothers, Jane Fonda, the Beatles, et al.

And yet, the man had so many great qualities. Generous to a fault towards friends and strangers. It’s almost comical the way he kept giving away cars, the child-like way he assumed that a new vehicle was the key to happiness for anybody. People who met him were flabbergasted by the way he could connect with you so directly and sincerely. Invariably, older and more experienced colleagues remarked on how extremely polite and genuinely humble he was. The jockeying for status among his six or eight paid companions brings to mind the machinations at the Court of Versailles but, one-on-one, he always convinced whichever buddy he was talking to that he was the most important person in Elvis’ world at that moment.

When it came to sex appeal, it’s hard to think of any man who could have competed with him. You know that scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the Don seduces a young bride away from her husband on her wedding day? That shtick always strikes me as implausible. No more, having seen what Elvis was capable of. Not that he pulled off exactly the same stunt, as far as I’m aware, but it’s obvious that he could have, given the way women fell at his feet. Whatever else you might say about Elvis’ sexual instincts, though, there’s no mistaking him for a feminist. Any woman he loved, from his wife Priscilla on through the various girlfriends who lasted any length of time with him, was just raw material for him to shape into the kind of woman he wanted her to be. (His soulful rapport with others didn’t mean that he wasn’t capable of flying into a rage at any girlfriend who crossed him on a minor matter.) Ironically, the final girlfriends reported that actual intercourse wasn’t very important to him. It was more about fooling around like horny teenagers. Eventually, there wasn’t even much of that. Elvis needed the steady stream of nubile females so that he could read to them from his spiritual books and they could hold his hand while he was falling alseep.

But none of that has much to do with the guy’s stature. Mostly it was about the singing, the entertaining. Put the guy in a spotlight and it was as if something electric went through him, turning him into something more than an ordinary human being. It’s hard to think of one individual star in our times who shone so brightly and for so long. Frank Sinatra? Michael Jackson (Elvis’ eventual son-in-law, as it would turn out)? Maybe Franz Liszt in his day. You might have said Elvis was a prisoner of his fame, that he couldn’t have escaped it if he wanted to. But author Guralnick makes it clear that Elvis didn’t want to. Not long before the end, he was dining with friends at a restaurant but he kept getting up to go to the men’s room, lingering long enough by some women sitting at the bar for them to finally recognize him and go ballistic.

Given the pressures of such fame, popularity and wealth, was it inevitable that they would lead to Elvis’ ruin? Hard to see otherwise, from today’s point of view. The drugs became necessary for settling down after concerts, then they became habitual: uppers, downers, sedatives, sleeping pills, pain medication. If one doctor tried to draw the line, Elvis would hire another. This book makes one reference to Elvis’ cocaine use but it seemed to be mostly prescription drugs that were his downfall. He loved to spout pharmaceutical knowledge, he always claimed that he knew what he was doing. But toxic amounts of several drugs were found in his body at the time of his death.

You can’t, of course, appreciate the enormity of Elvis’ career without taking into consideration the role of "The Colonel", his manager. What a strange, symbiotic relationship the two men had! Elvis might not have achieved anything like what he did if it hadn’t been for The Colonel’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvering. He was, it would appear, the one person who could control Elvis and by whom Elvis seemed somewhat cowed. In this volume, though, The Colonel comes across as more nuanced than in the first volume. True, when it came to business dealings, he had the cut-throat instincts of a carny, which is literally what he had been at one time. But he was relentlessly devoted to Elvis’ advancement. It may seem that he interfered inappropriately by banishing Larry Geller when Elvis’ religious quest was getting pretty intense but it could also be argued that the spiritual gig was threatening to undermine the business commitments Elvis had made through The Colonel.

In this volume, the manager shows himself capable of acts of generosity and kindness. He also shows a sense of humour. Take the "Snowmen’s League" that he founded. You didn’t know you were a member of the league until he informed you of the fact. It cost you nothing to join but $10,000 to quit. "We have never lost a member," he boasted. He remains always a bewildering person, though. While managing Elvis’ career brilliantly, he was apparently racking up millions in personal debts from a gambling addiction. He showed up for Elvis’ funeral in a baseball cap and casual clothes. One assumes that he thought it would be hypocritical to dress any other way, since he never had during Elvis’ life. Or maybe we don’t know why he showed up for the funeral that way. Which is to say that we never come to understand the man but we do see him as a complex human being.

As for the writing of the book, although Mr. Guralnick is sympathetic to Elvis, he remains fair and dispassionate, never crossing over into infatuation. However, lacking the headlong rush of the first volume, the prose feels plodding at times. One quibble: Mr. Guralnick variously refers to Elvis’ manager as "Colonel" and "The Colonel". If there’s some rule of English usage that accounts for the discrepancy, I never heard of it. The inconsistency, then, functions as a minor irritation. As we know, though, a pinprick can get mighty annoying when it’s repeated over and over.

In terms of more substantial problems with the book, Mr. Guralnick gives us far too much detail about contractual arrangements. It’s as if he wants to prove to us that he has the contracts spread out in front of him and he’s poring over them for our benefit. Far too much detail for the casual reader. Same with the recording sessions. The names of the various participants fly by in a blur at times. I realize, of course, that the field of American roots music is Mr. Guralnick’s specialty, so maybe the details are important to him. But reading these passages reminds me of reports of some arcane and obscure sport – like football or baseball. For anybody who isn’t an avid follower of those pastimes, articles about them sound like a lot of gobbledy-gook; the writers sound like they’re speaking to a select inner circle. I had the same feeling reading some of Mr. Guralnick’s notes on Elvis’ recording sessions.

Without all that detail, the book could have been cut down to a size that would be much more manageable for the average reader than the 661 pages (not including 66 pages of impressive notes) that we have here. But, of course, this is one of those cases where a biographer wants his or her book to be the definitive work on a subject. It’s hard to imagine anybody topping Mr. Guralnick on that score.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com