Dilettante's Diary

Oct 4/07

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.
 
Reviewed here: The Darjeeling Limited (Movie); Death At A Funeral (Movie); Confessions (Memoir); Being Caribou (Wildlife/Travel/Science); Yellowknife (Novel); The Mercer-Black Collaboration (CBC TV); Adieu, Notre Petite Programme (CBC Radio Two); Klaas Hart and Philip Craig (Loch Gallery)

The Darjeeling Limited (Movie) written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, with Waris Ahluwalia, Amara Karan, Irfan Kahn.

The best thing about this movie is that you can never quite figure out exactly what kind of movie it is. Given the stars, you’d think it was a comedy. In some ways, it is. Many people in the audience were tittering delightedly all through the first half, even though there weren’t many real laugh lines. I would call the general tone droll, rather than funny. But, about half an hour before the end, something happens that makes the tittering dry up in a rather embarrassed way.

The setup is that Owen Wilson, the senior of three brothers, has persuaded his siblings (Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) to accompany him on a train trip in India. Presumably the purpose of the trip is to combine fraternal bonding with a spiritual quest. Actually, the Wilson character has a hidden agenda which I won’t reveal here. The fact that the brothers don’t look much like each other – except for their long, narrow faces – is part of the off-beat appeal of this movie. It bothered me that Owen Wilson spends most of the movie with his face in ugly bandages, supposedly as a result of a car accident. What does that have to do with anything? But that too is one of those logical questions that have no relevance to the weirdness that’s going on. What does seem to matter is the simmering tension among the brothers, the shifting and adjusting of the fraternal dynamics, the muted (mostly) bickering, the settling of old scores.The mood of it all is summed up in a wistful comment by the Jason Schwartzman character: "I wonder if we could have been friends in real life."

No matter what its faults, I love a movie that engages your attention every minute but constantly catches you off-guard. Which is what you might expect from the director of movies like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Just a couple of examples of this one’s unpredictability:

- The opening scene shows Bill Murray in a taxi on his way to a train station somewhere in India; he just misses his train, then runs down the platform in an attempt to catch it. You’re thinking: Oh, I didn’t know Bill Murray was in this movie.... I wonder what his function is? None, actually. The scene has nothing to do with the story of the movie. It’s just a nice little vignette to throw you off kilter.

- The chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia) on the three brothers’ train looks like very imposing, with turban and fierce black beard. But he speaks in perfectly clear Western-accented English, no trace whatever of the expected Indian sound. Every time he opens his mouth, you’re taken by surprise. Again, there’s no explanation, no apology. It’s like the movie-makers are challenging you: what makes you think a guy who looks this way must always speak with a cartoon-like accent?

Which is not to say that every quirk in the movie hits the right note. Something about an assistant of Owen Wilson’s character, a guy who keeps to another part of the train where he tracks the group's itinerary on a computer, seems utterly pointless. And why does the Wilson character have an assistant anyway? It gradually strikes you that we learn almost nothing about the careers of these three guys. Apart from some mention of women back home, there’s almost no reference (that I can remember) to the context of the brothers’ daily lives. That leaves them seeming rootless, suspended in a kind of limbo, thus robbing the movie of some of the impact it might have had.

In terms of trying to type this movie, the one thing you can say for sure is that it’s a road movie, i.e. a kind of travelogue. As such, it’s brimming with fascinating details about travelling by train in India. But I’m not sure that it satisfies the requirement that a road movie keep moving. Near the end, there’s some slackening in the pace, some stuttering and stalling. You keep thinking you know where it’s going but then you get the rug pulled out from under you. A flashback to a New York funeral feels obtrusive and unnecessary.

The performances are all fine, each of the starring actors showing a side to himself that's new to me. Near the end of the movie, a well-known actress makes an appearance that is so ballsy and unexpected that I didn’t recognize her and had to wait for the credits to find out who she was. But perhaps the strangest thing of all is the casting of Owen Wilson as the controlling, anal-retentive oldest brother. Is it just because of recent news about his private life that his character seems tinged with sadness? I suppose you shouldn’t read things like that into a performance but it’s hard not to in this case.

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

 

Death At A Funeral (Movie) written by Dean Craig; directed by Frank Oz; starring Matthew Macfayden, Keeley Hawes, Ewen Bremer, Alan Tudyk, Daisy Donovan, Rupert Graves, Peter Vaughan, Jane Asher, Peter Dinklage, Andy Nyman

This movie – about a tony family funeral where things go very wrong – wants to be one of those wickedly clever samples of Brit wit like a Joe Orton play. Most of the time, though, it barely manages to reach the slapstick level of the old Benny Hill show. If you like the idea of a guy making an ass of himself because he has accidentally taken acid, then maybe this is your kind of movie. Toss in an episode of somebody being splattered with feces when trying to help an invalid go to the toilet and maybe you’ll be in ecstasy – as were many of the members of the audience at the showing I attended.

In a farce like this, we accept that it’s all very superficial and silly but the writers should be able to make us think that everything that happens is plausible, at least in the short term. Here, however, we get a guy in the garden who’s about to vomit. His wife grabs him by the hand, drags him inside, all the way through the house and upstairs to the bathroom where, for no good reason, he locks the door – all very necessary for subsequent plot developments but entirely unbelievable at the time.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters here are egregiously unlikeable: a ditzy widow, a selfish brother, a geeky stalker, a pompous dad, a nerdy hypochondriac, a bossy girlfriend, a druggy cousin. In the case of one particularly spiteful uncle, the old trick of mining laughs by giving an elderly person lots of foul language is far overdone. The plot saddles Peter Dinklage, the diminutive actor who made such a strong impression in The Station Agent, with a ludicrous function, but he carries off the role with under-stated dignity. As the bereaved son around whom all the chaos revolves, Matthew Macfayden presents one of the few likeable characters in the movie.

Eventually, the various plot elements begin to mesh. To use the analogy of bedroom farce, we might say that all the doors start swinging on cue. With the result that the last half hour of the movie does turn out to be rather fun. The long-suffering Matthew Macfayden finally earns his right to wrap things up with a splendid eulogy.

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

 

Confessions (Memoir) by Kang Zhengguo, translated by Susan Wilf, 2007

By the time this book arrived from the library, my reason for ordering it had escaped me. I must have been intending to broaden my horizons with immersion in a very different culture from my own. The book starts with the author’s first childhood memory: it’s 1949 and his nanny is stashing her jewels into a bundle to protect them from Mao’s army advancing on the city of Xi'an. The book goes on to tell one man’s experience of the ordeals that the Communist government inflicted on the Chinese people over several decades.

Kang Zhengguo (or Zhengguo Kang, to use the Western word order for names) came in for more grief than many of the Chinese. His troubles stemmed from a combination of naivete, stubbornness and an innate ability to say what the powers-that-be wanted to hear. In this context, what might seem to the Western reader like a somewhat banal title has a very specific and ironic meaning. At virtually all stages in his life, Mr. Kang was forced to write self-incriminating "confessions" – a kind of discipline that the government wielded in much the way teachers in my high school days used to employ essay-writing as a response to wayward tendencies.

The indiscretion that first got Mr. K into serious trouble resulted from nothing other than innocent intellectual curiosity as a university student. From then, he was constantly hassled and punished for his "reactionary" or "counterrevolutionary" status – until the thaw that came after Mao’s death. However, even when Mr. Kang visited China in 2000, on temporary leave from his post as a teacher at Yale, he found himself in deep shit with the authorities and only escaped, after several days of harrassment, by writing yet another confession.

Every page of the book is fascinating but one message comes through loud and clear to me. The attempt to impose communal living on people, to enforce some kind of equality and fairness for all, brings out the most vicious tendencies in everybody. Life comes nothing but a desperate struggle to better your own lot by any method of cheating and lying that you can devise, always at the expense of somebody else, and always with a view to currying favour with the higher-ups to ensure your own survival. The picture of human nature that emerges from Mr. Kang’s take on it all is so bleak and depressing that it almost makes you want to hear a rebuttal by somebody who has something good to say for the system.

Although he is an expert on classical Chinese literature, Mr. Kang’s writing style here comes off as efficient, without any particular literary appeal. That could be a function of the translation. In the last fifty pages, the story becomes a bit hard to follow because Mr. Kang keeps jumping forward, then backward in time. This robs the events of some of their drama. Perhaps he’s trying to make things move faster – not a bad idea after some four hundred tightly-packed pages.

 

Being Caribou (Memoir/Wildlife/Travel) by Karsten Heuer, 2006

This may not be the weirdest honeymoon on record, but it’s right up there. In 2003, newlyweds Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison spent several months following the Porcupine Caribou herd (est. 123,000 animals) to their calving grounds – a patch of land straddling Alaska and the Yukon, along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The ordeals that the young couple endured would have been enough to finish off the hardiest of adventurers, let alone young lovers. And the problems weren’t just the weather, the lack of food and the bugs. There were days of waiting and wandering, losing track of the caribou, wondering if the search was futile. Caribou, it seems, don’t have a Teutonic penchant for following maps and schedules.

If any couple was prepared for the challenges, however, it was this pair. Mr. Heuer, a wildlife biologist and park warden, has trekked through many remote parks in Canada and throughout the world. Ms. Allison has had lots of experience making films in the wild. Their purpose on this trip was to get a first-hand impression of how the caribou would be affected by the oil drilling that the US government was proposing to allow in the calving grounds. Mr. Heuer felt that statistics and studies on paper weren’t enough. To know for sure, you had to be there. His conclusions? Let’s just say that, during the peak of the calving, the young observers were virtually confined to their tent for about ten days because the slightest step outside it made the caribou cows skittish to the point of panic. Chances are, the oil drilling won’t strike them like a lullaby.

It’s the rare groom who makes step-by-step notes on his honeymoon and shares them with us. I’m grateful that Mr. Heuer did. Stories of hardship and survival awaken my dormant cave man: How would I have handled that grizzly bear? Would I have been able to trap a ground squirrel when starving? The book's only flaw, from my point of view, is the writing style. (Admittedly, it would take a supremely gifted author – Thoreau? Mowat?– to turn plodding across the tundra into beautiful prose.) Mr. Heuer’s writing feels as though he has painstakingly learned the ways to knit his narrative together. One thing that creates this impression is the over-use of participle phrases at the beginning of sentences. That’s a handy trick for squeezing in information, much loved by journalists, but it’s not a natural way of speaking, so it gives narratives a stilted feeling. The text also looks like an editor told the author to try to include more dialogue to lighten up the look of a page. So we get passages like:

"It says here the route of the spring migration is ‘highly variable among years,’" I began.

"Leanne frowned. "What else?"

"It talks about the four major corridors for the spring migration. One follows the Richardson Mountains then turns northwest into the Barn Range."

"We’ve done that," Leanne said with a hint of impatience. "But the Barn Range is eighty kilometres wide. Anything more specific?"

Not exactly Oscar Wilde. Still, there’s must be some hidden power in the writing. At the end of a description of a wolf attacking the caribou, it turned out that I’d been holding my breath. And, in passages from his journals, Mr. Heuer manages to convey something of the mystical fervor of a human being’s connection to the forces of nature. Something tells me that the oil industry’s side of the story wouldn’t be quite as inspiring.

 

Yellowknife (Novel) by Steve Zipp, 2007

The publisher of this novel – Res Telluris – sent it to me because of my review of an earlier book of theirs, Winter on Diamond [Dilettante’s Diary, Nov 4/05]. That was the true-life story of two intrepid young men who spent the winter in a cabin in the Northern Ontario wilderness. Given the subject of this new book, you can’t help getting the impression that this publisher specializes in northern themes.

Yellowknife starts well enough. Danny, a young drifter, lands in Yellowknife because it’s the closest place to where his car breaks down. He has a lot of adventures with the local characters, eventually living in a trailer and offering his services as a private detective. Meanwhile, we’re also following the story of a Norah, a young scientist working for the government. She’s engaged to Hugo, an entomologist with an expertise in mosquitoes. I admired the author’s ability to handle both the male and the female points of view and he certainly convinces me that he knows the north intimately. He also tosses in some wry satire on the workings of government bureaucracies.

But things start to go weird before we reach the hundred page mark. Danny’s trailer turns out to have a secret panel that leads into the mines. Norah’s office is moved to the basement of her building and she too discovers tunnels leading into a strange underground world. Anyone for Alice In The Northwest Territories? At page 113, we abandon the original story lines and meet a whole new cast of characters. Danny, Norah and some of their cohorts eventually make reappearances but, by then, you may have forgotten who they are, given that your attention is taken up with things like a dog who steals a snowmobile. A picture of him at the controls appears in the paper. A community of deadbeats lives in tents at a dump. Three pirates start hijacking the boats of sport fishermen and stealing their catch. Somebody runs a pub where the servers stagger around impersonating lost Arctic explorers.

Throughout my reading of these preposterous hijinks, the line that kept running through my mind was "The Northern Lights have seen strange sights" – the opening of Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. From the other end of the literary spectrum, the inspired madness of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 Irish masterpiece At Swim Two Birds came to mind. Eventually, there’s some suggestion – if only I could follow it – that maybe all the weirdness described in Yellowknife was attributable to the diabolic machinations of some computer geek.

There’s brilliant writing here. A disappointed explorer tells why his last voyage was a failure: "There was no loss of life and no one got eaten." One fisherman tells another that lake trout are dreamers: "That’s why they’re so easy to catch. They’re curious about what it’s like up here. They’d give anything to drive around in a boat." The final section of the book features a conversation between a dog and a bear.

- I ate a man once, Orion [the bear] said thoughtfully. His body was cast up on shore. It was full of chemicals.

- You are what you eat, said Neptune [the dog].

- I’ve been restless ever since. Do you know where England is?

- Across the great water.

- I may go there. What will you do?

- Keep wandering, the same as you.

That chokes me up with an ineffable sadness, like when I used to be reading A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to my kids and we got to the last lines, where Christopher Robin is trying to explain that he’ll be going to school now and he might not have much time for Pooh.

The writer’s rugged determination to please kept me reading to the end of Yellowknife. But it was hard slogging. Mr. Zipp doesn’t quite pull all the elements together into a coherent novel; things keep slipping out of his grasp. In fact, a note at the front indicates that some portions of the book have appeared in literary journals. That makes me wonder if parts of it were written as quite disparate bursts of creativity and the attempt to squeeze them into the novel came subsequently. The result strikes me as a fascinating failure. Then again, it could be a work of genius that can only be appreciated fully by a more careful second reading. If only I had the time....

 

The Black-Mercer Collaboration (CBC TV, Tuesday, October 2nd)

As you know, we at Dilettante’s Diary seldom see television. The other night, though, we happened to be passing through the living room when an item came on that is sure to go down as a memorable moment in Canadian Broadcasting. I had, in fact, read a squib in The Globe and Mail about Rick Mercer’s persistence in badgering Lord Black of Crossharbour to appear on his program. Mr. Mercer said that he just kept at it, refusing to take no for an answer, until his Lordship’s resistance finally wore out.

The fact that Mr. Mercer was successful in this highly improbable quest probably matters more than the actual content of the resulting piece. Who would ever have guessed that Conrad Black could be persuaded to appear on national television making fun of himself – even to the point of exaggerating his well-known verbosity. The set-up: his Lordship’s flaunting his Canadian identity by explaining the way to wax a maple leaf for preservation. It didn’t matter that there was really only one very funny line in the script – the reference to buying a newspaper as part of the required material: "Just a single copy, not the publication." And then, you had to give the man credit just for saying the closing lines – a reference to his not being able, for complicated reasons, to come to Canada to enjoy the spectacle of the autumn colours this year.

Whoever wrote the material deserves an award. But the biggest achievement was Rick Mercer’s in making the thing happen. Where would Canada be without such people?

 

Adieu Notre Petite Programme

We would be remiss in not marking the demise of The Singer and the Song on CBC Radio Two. After five splendid years, the program is no more, as of last Sunday. Ah well, it was probably too good to last. There are too few of us who understand that the human voice raised in song is the finest music on earth. In fact, this program tended to cast in doubt CBC Radio’s apparent prejudice against classical singing. Let’s hope that deplorable bias will not be the order of the day now. Maybe we’ll have to innundate host Catherine Belyea with requests for arias and songs on Here’s To You? The fact that we’ll be able to enjoy her charming, friendly presence on that program is just about the only consolation for losing her as host of TSATS.

 

 

Klaas Hard and Philip Craig (Loch Gallery)

Some time to kill before a movie gave me a chance to check out some art galleries in Yorkville recently. Gorgeous paintings leapt off the walls at me in the Loch Gallery. In the front room, there are the works of Klaas Hart. What appeal to me more than his cityscapes are the stunning still lives with an oriental simplicity and contemplative quality. Things like a fan, an orchid and a couple of small receptacles on a red surface. In the next room are the works of Philip Craig, mostly landscapes and cityscapes in oils that are realistic, but not photographically so. There’s an impressionistic flair to them. One close-up of seagulls on a cliff conveys the awesome strength of the birds startlingly. You can feel their energy just about to burst into flight. But the picture that held my attention most of all was a striking composition of a car on an approach to the Gardiner Expressway: mostly dark, soaring concrete, with a bit of light from the city showing through an opening in the background. Some people might ask: why would anybody want such an odd subject on their living room wall? Quite apart from the daring composition, the thing that dazzled me was the way the paint is applied – every stroke of a different colour makes a strong, bold statement. No mussing or fussing. The artist knows what he wants to put down on the canvas and he does it with astonishing guts and skill.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com