In The Beginning Was The Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite by Andrew Brown, 2003 (Book)
This title might strike an unwelcome note for people who
have some respect for John’s gospel. I didn’t notice the pun until I had the book home from the library for about
24 hours. Maybe I’m not so sensitive to religious slights after all; or maybe I’m just slow.
So why would I read a book like this? Am I just trying to
prove how eclectic my interests are? Well, I did take a biology book out of the library for leisure reading one weekend in
high school. I like to find out about living things and what makes them tick. Makes me feel rooted. And I enjoy reading about
contemporary scientists and their work; they look at the world so differently from the way that was inculcated in me.
Besides, the introduction really grabbed me. It cited Tony
Blair's salute to the work described in this book as "the first great technological triumph of the twenty-first century".
And another quote from some bigwig who should know, "This is the outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime but in terms
of human history...this code is the essence of mankind."
It looked like something a person ought to read. The book
describes the work of the team of scientists who cracked the genetic code of C elegans a tiny, hermaphroditic nematode,
and how this led to the sequencing of the human genome. (Don't ask me what that last bit means; I'm quoting from the dust
jacket.) I enjoyed reading about the worm, I was fine with the old-fashioned biology but once they got into the genetic stuff,
I was pretty lost. To tell the truth, I only understood about fifty percent of what I read. And that included lots of sentences
like: "He was born in whatsitsname and he did his doctoral degree at such and such." So was it worth reading? Well, I know
for sure now that those guys who cracked that code did one helluva lotta work.
To give myself credit, though, maybe the lack of comprehension
wasn't entirely due to my own ignorance. The writing is breezy and informal for the most part but, after a while, I began
to wonder about the clarity of it. Now and then, what appeared to be typos made some passages hard to decipher. Then I found
a paragraph from page 128 repeated verbatim on page 146. Where did the paragraph logically belong? I began to wonder what
other bloopers might have been interfering with my understanding. Maybe I would have scored sixty-five percent if the book
had been better written?
It was hard to tell for a while what this movie was about. That always counts in a movie's favour
with me: means it's not your typical Hollywood fare. Gradually, it develops that two guys are taking a jaunt through California
wine country the week before one of them gets married. I wondered what kind of groom would be available for such an escapade
the week before his wedding, but never mind.
Pretty soon, the material began to seem a bit thin. I started being reminded of movies
from the 1970s. That was when movies (at least the ones in my awareness) started moving away from the established formulae
and giving us folksy, off-beat tales of human interest. Maybe our tastes were a little simpler, less demanding back then.
Or maybe the novelty of it all made us more indulgent. And that split-screen technique: what could be more 70s? And
those montages where we get whole episodes condensed into a bunch of overlapping images. When movies resort to those techniques,
I always suspect that the scriptwriters couldn't come up with anything interesting, so they had to skip over huge chunks of
the story by means of these shortcuts.
And those titles across the screen announcing each day of the week. It makes me edgy when a
movie has to use titles to keep us clued-in chronologically. Is it because the movie doesn't have enough inherent structure,
enough momentum to carry us forward, that we need the titles to make us think we're getting somewhere?
Still, the relationship between the two guys intrigued me up to a point. These two best friends
were mostly mad at each other, constantly putting each other down and telling each other to go to hell. I kept wondering:
is this what real men are like? Silly me, I always thought you should try to be nice to your friends.
These two are the classic odd couple: one sensitive, intelligent, neurotic and depressed; the
other thick-skinned, stupid, carefree and impulsive. It was interesting to see Paul Giamatti in another role after his unforgettable
nerd in American Splendor. His character here is different enough -- just a few degrees closer to normal -- to convince
you that Mr. Giamatti is an actor and not just some freak they turned up. When we find out about the emotional baggage his
character is bringing on the trip, the movie threatens to get really interesting.
But the other character, played by Thomas Haden Church, keeps pulling the rug out. I don't want
to come over all moralistic about a guy whose main preoccupation the week before his wedding his getting laid by somebody
other than his intended wife. I would gladly have shelved any scruples on that score if his screw-ups had been funny enough.
Or if he hadn't been so thick-headed. His inability to appreciate anything about his situation made him seem somewhat less
than human, with the result that I wasn't caring a whole lot about what happened to him.
So the movie ends up being an uneasy mixture: not comic enough for a real romp but inane enough
to undermine the more interesting possibilities. Not that there aren't some good moments. Mr. Giamatti's character blows a
hairy, but then his eye is caught by a lovely bunch of grapes which he reaches out and fondles tenderly. A marvellous transition.
Two characters work themselves into an erotic trance while describing their favourite wines with monologues that flow like
Shakespeare's most lyrical love poetry. And the ending of the movie is beautiful.
Sometimes, subject matter running through a movie can make it a good experience for some people but
not for others. A football fan might enjoy a movie set in football land (so they tell me) whether or not it's a good movie.
In this movie, most of the talk about wine didn't interest me much. Maybe if they had been discussing tea blends or coloratura
sopranos, I would have had a better time.
Rating: D (See "Movies" page for an explanation of the ratings.)
I hardly ever go to a science fiction movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first Star Wars movie
were quite enough for me, thank you. But people have been saying there was something really special about this movie, not
least of the marvels being the fact that it was made on the proverbial shoestring. Shane Carruth, one of the two stars, wrote
and directed it, and apparently did just about everything else, including writing the music. It appears that his mom and dad
provided the catering.
The set-up is that some young men are fooling around with technological stuff in a garage, trying
to come up with some marketable gizmo. Two of them stumble onto something that, shall we say, leads to complications. I don't
know whether or not a person is supposed to follow all the scientific-sounding mumbojumbo. I certainly couldn't. And the ideas
get very hard to follow. Seems they're playing around with notions that are, on the one hand, as exalted as parallel universes
and time travel, and, on the other hand, as commonplace as deja vu. Trouble with this parallel universe stuff, I get pretty
mixed up. How are we supposed to know which is the real universe: the one we're watching, or the one off-screen?
Maybe you're not supposed to worry about that. The main thing is the style of the movie. It
struck me that I'd never seen a movie that looked or felt quite like this. (And I'm not talking about the scenes that are
unintentionally out of focus; the movie earns enough goodwill that you easily overlook such flaws.) It made me think of Gus
Van Sant's Elephant (the re-creation of the Columbine High School massacre). Not that the movies are very much alike,
but each of them seems a unique creation, a movie unlike any other.
In this case, I think it's mostly a question of style, as created by lighting, editing and other
aspects of the ambiance. The overall look of the movie is a grainy yellow and black, with bits of blue now and then. A garage
door rises and lowers with great dramatic effect. Sometimes we see things through the windows in the garage door, like glowing
portholes in the night. Mr. Carruth's music heightens the eery, intense effect.
And it doesn't hurt that the two stars are spot-on. They manage to make the tightly-scripted
(if somewhat hokey) dialogue sound convincing. There's none of that pompous sci-fi intonation that I hear coming from the
tv room when Star Trek is on. You always feel here that you're watching real people going about their real stuff,
not actors performing. Better still, you're eavesdropping on these guys and the fact that it's difficult to figure out what's
going on makes it all the more realistic.
I don't know whether or not the movie ends successfully as I couldn't understand all the final
bits. Something about our heroes trying to avert a disaster which, thanks to their time-travel machine, they knew was going
to happen. As one of them says at one point, "We're prescient." To put it mildly! Which makes them a lot smarter than me because,
if this movie's any example, I can't even figure things out after they've happened, let alone before. But I'll certainly be
on the watch for anything that these guys dish up in the future. Or is it the past?
Rating: C (See "Movies" page for an explanation of the ratings.)
Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour Etobicoke Civic Centre Art Gallery
As usual with the CSPWC annual show, many of the pictures here show meticulously detailed, almost
photographic realism. A notable example is Karen Wilson's painting of a dory as seen from above, the winner of the A. J. Casson
medal for the best in show. Among many other outstanding pictures in this style are Phyllis Ljuden-Edlerkin's magnificent
still life of African violets in a window and Breen Robison's close-up of glowing green moss on tree branches. One gets the
impression that many of these artists are, or could be, top-flight commercial illustrators. If you want perfection of detail,
I'd say you couldn't do any better than Sheryl Luxenburg's "Shady Lunch" which shows some of the best figure painting I've
ever seen in watercolour.
In the context of such a show, it's good to see that there's still room for the splashy, impressionistic
style of watercolour, as in Brent Laycock's fresh and exciting painting of a western scene with mountains in the background.
Yao Hua Yan's picture also appeals to me very much with its quick, fleeting rendering of an Asian hamlet, almost as though
it were seen in a blur while passing on a high speed boat.
A personal favourite of mine is a city street in winter painted by Christopher Gorey. Not the
most original theme, perhaps, but I love the loose, quick technique, the expert use of negative space, the excellence sense
of draftsmanship and the capturing of the very essence of winter in the city. I also enjoy Stephanie Quainton Steelel's bold,
assertive statement: a large picture showing just a vase containing paint brushes against a window, with brilliant red curtains
on either side.
But the show-stopper for me is Yi Liu's painting (an award winner) of two ballerinas. One is
sitting on a bench fencing us, the other sitting on the floor, seen in profile. There is very little range of colour: mostly
pinkish-greyish-whitish, the only dark value being the women's hair. Apart from the fact that the anatomical drawing is exquisite,
what makes the painting for me is the evocative mood created by the variation of soft and hard edges. At one point, you get
the crisp, frilled edge of a tutu; elsewhere, the skirt melts into the background. Same with the ballernia's hair. The facial
features are blurry and indistinct. One ballet slipper is lying in the foreground and the rendering of the untied satin ribbon
of the slipper is stunning. Without a precisely-detailed drawing, you still get the effect of light glinting off a strip of
shiny cloth folding back and forth on itself. If anyone ever again raises the question of whether a precise, photographic
watercolour or a suggestive, evocative one is more effective, I will simply submit this painting as evidence for my argument
for the latter position.
Another painting that, to my way of thinking, illustrates an important point about art is Marcia
Lea's picture (another award winner) showing just a few steel girders as the light catches them against the dark background
of a factory ceiling. The composition is breath-taking in its stark simplicity and its unexpectedness. I think this demonstrates
one of the most important reasons why we have artists: to show us beauty where we least expect to find it.
Inevitably, there are two or three pictures in this show that, one feels, might not have been
included. One can only assume that they must have looked better in the slides submitted for jurying. In the total
of 69 pictures selected (usually about 400 are submitted), there are another ten or so that are good enough but
they must leave several fine artists wondering why their own pictures weren't chosen instead.
Pictures by some friends in the Toronto Watercolour Society are included in this show. Virginia
May surprised me. Rather than one of the contemplative still lives for which she's famous, she's showing a pleasantly
bucolic scene of cattle and sheep on a hillside. Pam Tong's picture of a barn door, admirable for the simplicity of its composition,
demonstrates her trademark magic with clear, transparent colour.
And I was delighted to see that an award had been given to a picture by Jane Hunter, my first
art teacher, the person who introduced me to watercolour back in Sarnia when I was a teenager. (I believe I was her first
student!) Her picture in this show demonstrates a style which appears to be brush-less and may be original, for all I know.
The very subtle colours blend and melt in a hazy way. Up close, you can hardly make out anything but, as you step back, an
autumn woods at dusk gradually emerges.
A recent Friday afternoon left me with about an hour between appointments, so I checked out
a couple of shows in Yorkville galleries that The Globe and Mail had been touting.
Doug Kirton's show at the Sable-Castelli gallery gives prominence to his new
work based on his experience with digital imaging. His pictures are evocations of downtown scenes, with lots of glass and
steel, many reflections, windows of buildings and the glare from the roofs of cars, all super-imposed and jumbled. The colours
are muted for the most part: greyish-bluish-greenish (as I recall). For me, they capture something of the ache in the beauty
of a city that often eludes in the frantic business of downtown life.
But one of the digital images on which a certain painting is based hangs just inside the gallery
door. As far as I can see, the painting is a precise enlargement of the digital image. Is Mr. Kirton doing nothing other than
rendering these images much bigger in oil on canvas? I want an artist to do something more than that.
Tom Hopkins' paintings at the Mira Godard gallery groan under the weight of gobs
of paint. Several pictures show the artist's studio, very cluttered and messy, mostly rendered with dull, dishwater grey mounds
of paint. Occasionally an object -- for instance a bunch of bananas in the foreground -- stands out in bright, primary colour.
In another, the chest of a nude model is brightly lit by a nearby window. It bothered me that the breasts of the model are
definitely female but the stance shrieks male. (The genitals aren't visible.) Maybe that's my problem, not the painting's.
In a video playing in the gallery, the artist explains what certain objects in the paintings
signify. For example, a knife has something to do with a near-death experience of his. To me, symbols that have private meaning
for the artist are of no interest in paintings.
The overall effect of these paint-heavy pictures is of a mucky mess. (Maybe I am responding
too much as a watercolourist.) I'm not so naive as to ask that every painting be pretty. But I do not see what purpose is
served by the unattractiveness of these works.
Some paintings in the show are landscapes and I like these better, mainly for the way the light from
the background shines against the dark trees and shrubs in the foreground. The paint application is lumpy here too but it
seems to suit botanical forms better than interiors.