Dilettante's Diary

Dec 4/08

Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
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Feb 1/16
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Winter Reading 2016
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Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
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July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
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Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
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Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
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Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
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Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.
Reviewed here: I've Loved You So Long (Movie); Slumdog Millionaire (Movie); The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Movie); Synecdoche, New York (Movie); A Miracle of St. Anthony (Play); Milk (Movie); Dissolution (Mystery)

I’ve Loved You So Long (Movie) written and directed by Philippe Claudel; starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Sylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grvill, Frdric Pierrot, Claire Johnston, Catherine Hosandin, Lise Sgur

Since we don’t reveal any more plot than necessary here at Dilettante’s Diary, let’s just say that Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), a former doctor, is being released from prison after serving fifteen years. She has accepted an offer of hospitality from her sister La (Elsa Sylberstein), a university prof, who lives with hubby (Serge Hazanavicius) and two adopted kids in a commodious house in Nancy, France. The arrangement is somewhat awkward, though, given that the two sisters were estranged most of the time Juliette was in prison.

The best thing about the movie is Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette. This is no movie star we’re watching. This is an ex-con with dead eyes, and a blank expression, somebody who’s going through the bare minimum of motions to qualify as a social being. For most of the movie, she exhibits what the shrinks call "flat affect". (To explain the "English accent" that the nieces notice in the French spoken by Ms. Scott Thomas, the script identifies the mother of the sisters as a Brit.)

Only in the last two minutes does Juliette finally let out everything she’s kept bottled up for the previous two hours of film. This final scene provides the answer to the one question that was bugging us throughout the movie: why did she do what she did? I found the answer somewhat dissatisfying, perhaps because it was predictable, but the scene does offer some thought-producing speeches.

Apart from that nagging question about Juliette’s motive, there’s nothing much to engage our attention. With its close-ups, its emphasis on domestic interiors and the tension between the two sisters, the movie looks as though it’s trying to do an Igmar Bergman but it doesn’t quite manage it. It’s hard to create a drama that really pulls us in if one of the characters doesn’t say much. Until those last few minutes, nothing really deep is explored.

Instead, we get a lot of emoting by various people, mostly in reaction to Juliette. Most of the histrionics seem exaggerated to me. A prospective employer goes ballistic when he finds out about Juliette's past. A dinner with friends turns into a merciless grilling about Juliette’s secret. Her sister has a meltdown when a class discussion touches on a crime like Juliette’s. While the sister’s husband is understandably wary of Juliette, she eventually wins his trust by a simplistic plot gimmick. We get a looney scene from a demented mother (Claire Johnston) and one character commits suicide with no apparent motivation or warning. Maybe you set yourself up for this kind of melodrama when you start out with a premise like this movie's. On the other hand, maybe the movie needs lots of commotion from the others to fill in the blank spaces Juliette spreads around herself.

As with many French films, though, there’s pleasure to be found in the very genuine people populating the movie, sometimes in quite minor roles. For instance: a human resources person in a hospital where Juliette applies for a job: a tall, gangly, middle-aged woman with long hair who seems to have the mistaken notion that she’s very beautiful. Juliette’s social worker is an extremely fat woman. The cop she reports to every two weeks (Frdric Pierrot) turns out to be not at all what you’d expect. Michel (Laurent Grvill), a colleague of her sister’s, who befriends Juliette, happens to be a notably decent person. All these people seem to be just who they are, i.e. they give the pleasing impression that they look and act the way they do, not for any purposes of the script, but simply because they’re the people who happened to be found in Juliette’s life at this point in the story.

My favourite among them is the young actor who plays Juliette’s eight-year-old adopted niece from Vietnam. A bossy, precocious, affectionate, extroverted kid, she gives the sometimes over-wrought movie its firmest touchstone with reality. She also provides the surest sign that human life can be beautiful and joyous even if it doesn’t much look like it at times.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")


Slumdog Millionaire (Movie) written by Simon Beaufoy; based on the novel "Q & A" by Vikas Swarup; directed by Danny Boyle; co-director Loveleen Tandan: India; starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Irfan Kahn, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Rubiana Ali, Saurabh Shukla

If you lie awake at night worrying that crappy tv might not be equitably available world-wide, rest easy. This movie shows that India, at least, has cheesy quiz shows that are hugely popular. The movie’s young hero, one Jamal (Dev Patel), has pulled himself out of the slums of Mumbai, or Bombay as it was known, and is within one question of winning the multi-million jackpot on a sort of "Jeopardy" program. Unfortunately for Jamal, the cops wonder how a former urchin, i.e. a "slumdog", has managed to acquire the erudition that brought him this far on the tv show. So they arrest him for fraud and, with a bit of torture, try get him to confess to cheating. His explanation of how he knew the answers to the questions gives an opportunity for flackbacks which tell the story of his life.

The movie swings frantically from the past, to the quiz show, to the cop shop. Sometimes the cuts are so fast that it’s hard to know what’s happening before you’re on to the next scene. In the childhood scenes, poor little Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) staggers from one disaster to another, barely managing to outrun the scythe of fate. Some of the horrors he encounters are cringe-making. All this is accompanied by a relentless, hard-driving score that had me plugging my ears much of the time. The frenetic style reminded me of the aesthetics of a rock video – or, I should say, it might remind me of a rock video if I’d ever seen one. But I loved the colourful, kaleidoscopic visuals. Every shot – whether of a slum, a train station, a marketplace, a bar or a posh condo – is composed with an eye for pictorial effects that made me want to whip out my drawing materials.

If it weren’t for the flashy style, however, the movie might turn out to be a straightforward story of a plucky kid’s survival. Stripped of its hyper-activity, the movie’s downright sentimental and old-fashioned. Turns out Jamal’s something of a knight in shining armour, with high standards of nobility and honesty. We get the classical theme of dissent between brothers. That most tried-and-true motif, the rescuing of a damsel in distress (Freida Pinto), also comes into play. Jamal even fantasizes about himself as a handsome action hero that he worshipped as a kid.

All of which makes for good entertainment. Except for something that was bothering me: the connective device of the quiz show. It struck me as hokey that every question posed had a direct link to some key episode in Jamal’s past. But even more worrying was the involvement of the cops.Why were they so suspicious about a kid’s success in a quiz show? As the movie would have it, all India was cheering him on. So what got up the cops’ noses? Eventually, an explanation is hinted at, and it makes sense, but, until that point, the question interfered a lot with my belief in the movie.

Towards the end, though, the fast pace produces terrific tension as Jamal faces the final question on the quiz show. Anil Kapoor serves up a slick tv host who keeps you guessing as to his sleaze quotient. In fact, all the acting is spot-on, especially the kids playing Jamal and his friends as children. There are so many fascinating glimpses of life in Mumbai/Bombay – be it doing laundry in the river, fogging the streets with insecticide, lining up to use the latrines – that you get almost a documentary-like feeling for the place. The impression is that you’re seeing something like real life on the run. The credits sum up the phenomenal energy of the whole thing: all the characters from the different phases of Jamal’s life dance together in one massive outburst on the platform of a train station. In spite of your quibbles about what went before, you come away feeling that you’ve had a good time. And that you’ve seen a real movie-movie.

Rating: C (where C = "Certainly worth seeing")


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Movie) written by Mark Herman; based on the book by John Boyne; directed by Mark Herman; starring Asa Butterfield, Vera Farminga, Cara Hogan, David Thewlis, Richard Johnson, Amber Beattie, Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock

The title should have warned me that this is yet another take on the German concentration camp experience. And again, it’s from the viewpoint of a child. Had I known that, there would be no review here for you to read. Having arrived at the theatre uninformed, however, I settled in and found that this time, the child’s viewing the camp from the safe side of the barbed wire. Bruno’s eight years old and his dad, a high-ranking Nazi (David Thewlis), has just been put in charge of a concentration camp. So the family moves from its baronial home in Berlin to a modernistic palace in the countryside. The new abode’s supposed to be miles from the camp but little Bruno’s bedroom window happens to give a view of what he calls "the farm".

Obviously, this is supposed to be a profoundly moving film with a powerful moral message. So I tried not to hate it. To be fair, there are some good things about the movie. It’s beautifully photographed. I could really take a few days of R and R in that luxuriant German countryside (Hungary actually), not to mention lolling in those gorgeous interiors.

And it’s interesting how Bruno’s innocence misconstrues every bit of information he picks up about what’s really going on at the "farm". Asa Butterfield, the young actor playing the part, hasn’t much star appeal. In fact, I found his pallid moon-face, with its small mouth, off-putting at first. But his genuineness grows on you. One thing that helps to make him real is that he’s a bit of a liar, which makes for some neat plot turns. The kid on the other side of the barbed wire, i.e. the wearer of the eponymous pyjamas, is also natural and believable.

Another thing I liked was the performance of Vera Farminga, as Bruno’s mother. When a Jewish prisoner who works in the family home bandages Bruno’s cut knee, it takes Mamma about thirty seconds to cough up the words "Thank you". We gradually learn that Mamma didn’t have a clue what was really going on at the camp either. Her awakening to the truth provides about the only interest among the adults in the movie.

Apart from its few virtues, the movie falls back on motifs that are either predictable or contrived or both. At the top of the list are the frequent viewings of ominous black smoke pouring from the camp’s chimneys. A tutor brought in to educate Bruno and his older sister makes them read texts decrying the evil Jews, whereas we, of course, can see who’s really evil. It’s nice (in a cloying way) that the Jewish slave who treats Bruno’s cut knee turns out to have been a doctor in his former life. But is it likely that this shuffling wreck would be pressed into service as an all-purpose butler and kitchen boy in the camp commandant’s home? A subplot about a beautiful Aryan soldier (Rupert Friend) who flirts with Bruno’s sister (Amber Beattie) and who’s hiding a family secret only serves to add melodrama that doesn’t further the main story at all. We get a terrific electrical storm at the climax of the movie -- for no reason other than to underline the horror of everything.

If you like a movie that tells you what you already know and one that has a musical score that insists on telling you how to feel, then this one may please you. It will enhance your enjoyment further if you like an ending that goes for a Greek-tragedy feel. Maybe some viewers will smack their lips and utter a vindictive "That’ll-teach-em!" at this kind of an ending. Me, I prefer a story in which the purpose of the whole the thing isn’t just to set people up for a severe shit-kicking.

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


Synecdoche, New York (Movie) written and directed by Charlie Kaufman; starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Sadie Goldstein, Tom Noonan, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest

In a mode of kitchen-sink realism, we open with Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lolling in bed in his cluttered home. He’s a successful theatre director but mumbles and stumbles his way through life, barely connecting with people who like him. He and his wife (Catherine Keener), a successful painter, are disaffected with each other. So the movie’s shaping up to be a kind of Chekovian piece about people not being happy for some reason that escapes them. Even in the realism, though, there are strange details. Cotard and his wife attend sessions with a fatuous therapist (Hope Davis) who seems mostly interested in plugging her own corny self-help books. And, while Cotard seems like a hypochondriac, odd afflictions do keep popping out all over his body.

Things take a decidedly surreal turn as a woman strolls through a house that she’s hoping to buy: flames are licking at the windows and smoke pours through cracks in the walls. What gives? Is this a dream? Well, yes and no. See, we’re in the hands of writer/director Charlie Kaufman (scriptwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich), so you gotta expect that things will go weird. He always tries to give us a look at what’s hidden in the everyday. The best thing about Adaptation, for instance, was the inner monologue in which the Nicholas Cage character obsessively chewed over his neurotic worries. In Synecdoche, Mr. Kaufman seems to be externalizing the nightmarish scenarios a person conjures up. In a visit to a strip joint, Cotard thinks it’s his daughter gyrating nakedly behind the glass. In another scenario, he finds himself playing the part of his estranged wife’s cleaning lady.

Along the way, scriptwriter Kaufman gives us some startlingly candid glimpses into a person’s soul. When an ex (Samantha Morton) tells Cotard that she’s ok, he blurts out: "I don’t want you to be ok....I mean, I do, but it tears my guts apart." Before climbing into bed with one of his conquests (Emily Watson), he finds himself wishing he had a pretty body like hers – which raises the thought that maybe he wanted to be a girl.

Sometimes, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s laid-back, interior style of acting doesn’t quite manage to sustain a movie (Owning Mahowny, Love Liza). However, he walks the tightrope safely from beginning to end in this diffuse and prolix movie. I can’t think when an actor has aged several decades on screen so successfully. (Admittedly, some of the credit for that goes to the make up people.)

Eventually, Cotard books a huge warehouse to stage a mammoth theatre project – nothing less than the re-enactment (sort of) of his life. Sets are constructed to represent the various locations where pivotal scenes of his life took place. Over the decades of rehearsal, a whole city takes shape in the warehouse. Hoardes of actors are on hand. It becomes clear that Cotard’s life has been about acting a role. He studies hundreds of acting notes he has received "from God." Doubles of various people in his life saunter in and out. His directorial duties are gradually usurped by somebody playing him (Tom Noonan). Still, Cotard tries to maintain some control; he’ll tell an actor strolling by, "You don’t walk that way. Walk as yourself." [not an exact quote]

Given the hilarious reaction of some people in the audience, the question arises whether this is all supposed to be funny. For me, it mostly isn’t. But one shtick that amused me was Dianne Wiest’s turn as an actress auditioning for the part of a cleaning lady. Maybe the fact that Ms. Wiest brings so much with her – the Oscar sticking out of her apron pocket, so to speak – helps to up the entertainment value. One other thing that made me laugh was Cotard’s ultimate choice of a title for his life story. At first, he tries "An obscure moon shining on an obscure world." Later he hits on the perfect one: "Infectious Diseases in Cattle."

As the absurdities pile up, Fellini and Ionesco come to mind. But perhaps the strongest influence is Beckett. Cotard seems to be waiting, if not for Godot, for the answer to the "Why?" of it all. Near the end of the movie, we get, not exactly answers, but a few clues. Cotard suddenly realizes, about the billions of people in the world, that nobody’s an extra. "They’re all the lead in their own story." At the same time, he discovers the basic truth that "You’re alone; nobody’s watching you."

At the summing up of Cotard’s world view, the score – something that, more often than not, irritates me in a movie – sets a seductively mellow mood. By this point, I was wishing I had liked the rest of the movie better. A scene with an elderly couple climbing into bed has sentimental overtones but I couldn’t luxuriate in the feeling because it wasn’t earned. We hadn’t travelled enough with this couple in real time. Most of what preceded was too fantastical to engage my emotions; some of the scenes, although attention-getting, felt more like acting exercises than genuine life experiences.

I recognize, though, that the movie may be a hit with sophisticates who like to mull over the implications of bizarre scenarios. No doubt, they’ll have hours of fun arguing about why the literary term ‘Synecdoche’ replaces the name of the city of Schenectady, New York. Not that we’re anti-intellectual here at Dilettante’s Diary, but we get more satisfaction from works of art somewhat more grounded in reality.

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


A Miracle of St. Anthony (Play) by Maurice Maeterlinck; directed by Tatiana Chouljenko; starring Gordon Bolan, David Fraser, Emily Lineham, Scott Maudsley, Edward Zinoviev. Presented by Atrium Theatre; Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto; to Dec 13.

It wouldn’t be proper to write an actual review of this production, since the "preview" I attended turned out to be more of a dress rehearsal, with an audience of just six. Also, I know several of the people involved in the production, both onstage and off. But I can say that the show offers a unique theatrical experience. In that respect, it fits well into Atrium Theatre’s mandate: to mount Canadian productions of classic International plays that aren't often seen around here.

This time, co-artistic directors,Tatiana Chouljenko and Edward Zinoviev, both from Moscow and now settled in Toronto, have turned to the work of Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature. In this strange little piece, Maeterlinck gives us a well-to-do family mourning the death of a beloved aunt. A bedraggled fellow shows up claiming to be St. Anthony of Padua. Seems he thinks he can bring dear old Aunt Hortensia back to life. Trouble is, that would mean that the heirs would miss out on their expected legacies. Mayhem ensues.

This play belongs to a peculiar genre. It’s not exactly theatre of the absurd; more like theatre of the whimsical. All the pandemonium about the deceased reminded me of Joe Orton, but without the wicked wit. Very broad acting, lots of physical comedy. Perhaps because the piece is so light, director Tatiana Chouljenko has dressed it up with spiffy choreography (provided by Karen Andrew). That seems to suggest something along the lines: what the heck, life’s pretty much a dance anyway, isn’t it?

Although this isn’t a supposed to be a review, I can’t sign off without mentioning Edward Zinoviev’s droll work as the St. Anthony character. With his solid stage presence and his under-stated comic style, he anchors the production in a very amusing way. And, when he doffs his monk’s robes, he turns out to be the best dancer of the bunch!


Milk (Movie) written by Dustin Lance Black; directed by Gus Van Sant; starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Dennis O’Hare

There are few directors whose personal style has made a distinct impression on me. Gus Van Sant is one of them. I’ll never forget how his radically minimalist Elephant conveyed the shocking banality of evil. Or how My Own Private Idaho charmed with its quirky, off-beat story.

The most surprising thing about this movie, then, is that it’s a conventional bio in most respects. You start off with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US, dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder. Throughout the film, this dictation serves as a connecting motif. Time and again, that narrator sitting at his kitchen table tells us about things we are going to see. As in the typical bio, we get lots of documentary footage. Very frequently, subtitles are used to identify places and time periods. You get slow motion scenes for dramatic effect. Opera is used at moments of great emotional crisis, as is apparently de rigeur now in all movies about gay men. In the way of many routine movie scenarios, one character starts off on such a hostile note that you know he’ll turn out to be a strong ally.

Not that these commonplace touches mean the movie isn’t done with care. Great pains are taken to create the ambiance of the 1970s Castro area of San Francisco when it was becoming a gay bastion. You get the fluffy hair, the high collars and wide lapels. Clunky, squarish phones and Selectric typewriters are  in evidence. So why did the script writers use so many expressions that don’t fit the 1970s context? For instance the verb "to do" is used in a contemporary way: "I don’t do losing." Then there’s the current way of issuing an order: "I need you to come in here." I suspect that "over the top" wasn’t common in the 1970s as a description of something extreme. The use of "Whatever" as a dismissive shrug surely came into vogue in the last decade. And the most annoying speech mannerism to become popular during that same period is the use of "You know what", not as a question, but as the intro to a snarky put-down.

Am I nit-picking? Maybe. On the other hand, when scriptwriters don’t take the trouble to make characters sound like they belong in their supposed time period, I begin to start thinking: these guys weren't there and they don't know how it went down.

Only in a few places does the movie offer any Van Sant-style ingenuity. One scene – the aftermath of a gay bashing that resulted in the death of the victim – is filmed as reflected in a shiny whistle lying on the sidewalk. A meeting between Harvey Milk and State Senator John Briggs (Dennis O’Hare) – who was campaigning to deny human rights to gays – takes place in a vacant lot. There’s an eerie, ominous quality to the bleak setting that makes you wish the movie had more intriguing moments like that. One of the ones that does evoke special interest involves Dan White (Josh Brolin), Harvey Milk’s on-again-off-again supporter in the city government. It’s early morning and the White character is sitting on a living room couch in his underpants, looking out the window anxiously. The moment leaps out at you, making you wonder: what the heck’s that about?

Unfortunately, you never find out. Josh Brolin does a marvellous job with this enigmatic character but, it never comes quite clear what’s happening with him. It’s difficult to follow his flip-flopping as he and Harvey Milk try to barter political deals with each other. Some last-minute kafuffle about the White character’s resigning and then wanting his job back was incomprehensible to me – which is a pity, because the denouement of the movie turns on that issue.

In the title role, Sean Penn does the great work that he’s justly renowned for. He’s totally inside the character; you never feel you’re watching a straight actor mimicking a gay icon. I liked the way Mr. Penn lets the character’s campy side show now and then, while maintaining, for the most part, a relatively straight, business-like manner. But I didn’t feel, in spite of Sean Penn’s mastery of the role, that the movie ever gets us very far into the soul of Harvey Milk. A few late night phone calls from troubled young men give us some idea what motivates him to fight for gay rights but we’re left pretty much in the dark as to what makes this guy keep on at such great cost to his private life.

And the relationships in that domain remain mostly superficial. At the end, we see shots of various characters who were involved with Harvey, which shots are then superceded by shots of the real people the movie characters were representing. Short blurbs tell us what has happened to those people. The process feels a bit empty because several of the people cited had such a limited presence in the movie that we haven’t come to care very much about them.

All of which is to say that, while this isn’t a great movie for people and character, it’s a creditable accounting of an important movement in US social history, perhaps in the history of the western world. Even on those terms, though, it’s difficult at times to follow all the political manoeuvering. Many references to public offices, election procedures and bills to be voted on are confusing. But maybe all that comes across more clearly to a well-informed US citizen than to me.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")


Dissolution (Mystery) by C.J. Sansom, 2003

The best thing about this mystery is the historical setting. It’s the early 16th century in Britain, and Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s vicar general, is doing his damndest to shut down the monasteries. When one of his commissioners is decapitated in a Sussex monastery, Cromwell orders lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate the killing.

This setup lets author C. J. Sansom dish up lots of interesting lore. We find out that the monasteries were expected to sign a document of surrender, after which the monks would be pensioned off. We learn that, because of an uprising in the north, the King and his henchmen must now proceed more cunningly. Sometimes the monks give fascinating accounts of their motives for escaping from the Tudor world into the monastery. Mention of the business of smuggling wool to France sparks some interest, although we don’t get as much information about that as we’d like. When it comes to theological reflections on the events of the times, I appreciated the reference to St. Augustine’s opinions about the authority of the Church and to Martin Luther’s teaching on predestination. Through Matthew Shardlake’s observations, we hear about the terrible plight of the poor and the confessions extracted by torture in the tower. Eventually, we share Shardlake's insight that this so-called "Reformation" is not going to lead to a better world, the "Reformers" being just as corrupt as the system they claim to be reforming. Ultimately, the explanation of the murder that launched the book has an intriguing link to momentous events on the larger stage.

Apart from the historical interest, however, the book rarely rises above the level of mediocre. One strike against it is the fact that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (English translation 1983) does a much better job with an investigator being sent to a monastery centuries ago to investigate murder. In that book, as in this one, the investigator is accompanied by a young assistant who turns out to be a sexual magnet for all and sundry. And the earlier book does the depravity and corruption among the smelly monks so well that nobody needs to go there again. In fact, Mr. Sansom relies overly much on the olfactory sense to convey the horror of it all. Every chapter includes some reference to offensive odours. We get the message soon enough and begin to wish that the author would come up with some other ways of conveying the insalubrious aspect of the surroundings.

Given the precedent of Umberto Eco’s book, you would think that author Sansom, would try to make his own detective excel in some way. But he comes across as a bland fellow. In the roles of both detective and narrator, Matthew Shardlake falls back twice, within a mere thirty pages, on the not very original device of ending a chapter with a shiver: "I had to suppress a shiver" (end of chapter one) and "The memory of those burning eyes made me shiver." (end of chapter four). He also resorts to hackneyed expressions to describe his reactions in moments of tension. At one point, he tells us, he digs his fingernails into his palms; at another, he shakes "like an aspen leaf". About three-quarters of the way through the book, he thinks he has found the murderer. The guy must be a bit dim – or else he hasn’t read many mysteries – if he doesn’t know that a culprit is never found that much before the end of the book.

Author Martin Amis is reported to have said something to the effect that all good writing is a struggle against clich. That’s a dynamite observation and the reason for its potency, I think, lies in an understanding of how writing interacts with the mind. Good writing seeks to bring the mind to some new insight rather than leaving it to wallow in the troughs of the familiar. By that standard of excellence, this book falls well below the level of good writing. In practically every chapter, somebody’s cheeks redden. Time and again we are reminded that monks are only flesh and blood and that they are, after all, subject to the wiles of the devil. An infirmarian trots out the hoary observation that it’s his duty to protect life, not to destroy it. One device looming over the whole story was shopworn before the end of Agatha Christie’s writing career: a snowstorm keeps everybody stranded at the murder site.

And then there’s the monotony of the swearing. While one can sympathize with Mr. Sansom’s difficulty in rendering Tudor English for today’s readers, he relies far too heavily on oaths like "God’s blood," "God’s death," "God’s nails" and "God’s bones." In the last 200 pages of the book, I counted some 16 instances of these imprecations. With so much time to mull over the possibilities, surely those monks could have come up with some more variety in their cursing.

Which brings up the question of Roman Catholicism as pictured in the book. The many errors and anachronisms in that area make you wonder if the secular history is riddled with inaccuracies too. The author has masses taking place in the evenings, with congregational responses. As far as I know, masses with such formats and scheduling were unknown in Roman Catholicism until around the time of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Not to delve into the finer points of the abstruse doctrine of transubstantiation, but it comes across as somewhat ludicrous that Mr. Sansom thinks Catholics believed the bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ "in the priest’s mouth". As though the seal of the confessional was never heard of in this monastery, a sin that someone admitted in confession becomes general knowledge. All the monks are referred to as "Brother" none of them as "Father", which would seem to indicate that none of them are priests. Yet surely there must be priests among them, if only to say the masses. One of the most egregious errors in the book is the author’s referring to the "Good Thief" who was crucified with Christ as "Barabbas". A cursory check in the New Testament would have revealed that Barabbas was not the Good Thief but the prisoner whom Pontius Pilate released to the rabble instead of Christ.

Maybe all my criticisms of Dissolution could be swept away with the claim that it’s only meant as light entertainment. Why get so worked up about it, then? Well, because it comes adorned with laudatory quotes from such distinguished mystery writers as P.D. James, Peter Robinson and Colin Dexter. They extol this book as though it’s a masterpiece of the genre. You have to wonder whether such people even read the books they’re blurbing. Is it all about authors slapping each other’s backs regardless of the quality of their writing? That scenario doesn’t give you a really good feeling about the business of literary marketing these days.

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