Dilettante's Diary

March 24/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above will be the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews 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: Limitless (Movie); God's Secretaries (History/Scripture); Annabel (Novel); Don Giovanni (Opera)

Limitless (Movie) written by Leslie Dixon; based on the book by Alan Glynn; directed by Neil Burger; starring Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Abbie Cornish; with Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth

It makes me wary when I walk into a movie theatre and see lots of young teenagers sitting there munching popcorn and waiting expectantly. I’m like: if they’ve heard that this is a movie that will appeal to them, what are the chances that it will appeal to me??? In this instance, the four previews intensified my pessimism: three adventure movies with futuristic, fantastic, sci-fi elements, and one British farce starring Russel Brand, an actor who, as far as I’m concerned, used up his screen appeal in his brief appearance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given that previews are pitched to the tastes of the people who are there for the main feature, what hope was left for me and this one?

It starts out with one Eddie Morra perched on the ledge of an apartment balcony towering over Manhattan. He’s ready to let gravity do its thing with his body. His voice-over narration tells us that he has reached the peak of his potential, but now the knife is in his back. Then we flash back to see what brought him to this point. Just a few months earlier, he’s a washed-up, would-be writer, a loser in virtually every aspect of human endeavour. But a chance encounter with his ex-wife’s brother introduces him to an experimental drug that enhances a person’s brain power exponentially. Suddenly Eddie can remember details about obscure legal tomes he once glimpsed. He can learn a language as fast as a kid can master a new cell phone app. He knocks off a best-seller in four days. In a brutal fight, he calls up winning strategies he once saw on a Bruce Lee movie. His brain power, you see, has become "Limitless."

Best of all, his new-found analytical skills make him a stock market genius. Suddenly, he’s the darling of all the rich people. The good times begin to roll. He even receives an invitation to consult for one of the most formidable tycoons in the energy industry. That sounds scary – except that the tycoon turns out to be Robert DeNiro in a rumpled, mellow mood. Never mind, Mr. De Niro’s enough of an actor to provide a frisson of threat in his overtures to Eddie.

Up to a point, this is fun to watch. We all enjoy one of these "What-If?" fantasies. Director Neil Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems have come up with cool ways to show the effect of the drug. When it’s time to clean up his crappy apartment, Eddie sees several versions of himself methodically going about the chores. When he’s sitting at his computer trying to write, words come falling from the ceiling like showers of Alphagetti. Ingenious as these cinematic devices may be, though, there’s nothing new about the theme. Fairy tales and folklore abound with such magical interludes. And, as that word suggests, they can’t last. Which is not to give away any plot secret here. You kinda know something’s amiss when dead bodies, some of them murdered, start showing up in Eddie’s wake. And don’t forget that we started with that picture of Eddie perched on the balcony about to commit suicide.

The question is whether the actor in the role of Eddie is also in such a precarious situation. Having made a good impression as the sexy playboy among the jerks in Hangover, can Bradley Cooper sustain the role of a leading man? On the plus side, he has certain star qualities: eyes that are an unbelievably beautiful blue and teeth that are very white and square. And yet, I found Eddie more interesting in his grubby phase than his spiffy one. There’s something rather tight about his face; it’s not a giving mug vis a vis a camera. It may be the fault of the script more than the actor, but he doesn’t provide any insight into what it means to be a human being. Contrasted with Mr. Cooper’s hard-edged good looks, the soft beauty of Abbie Cornish as Eddie’s girlfriend, comes as a welcome rest for the eyes.

Too bad the ears couldn't get a rest from Eddie’s voice-over narration. As readers of Dilettante’s Diary know, I don’t mind a bit of voice-over narration to get things started. But when the voice-over continues through the entire movie, as it does here, I begin to think I might as well be home reading the book. Is this all part of the dumbing down of movies? Can’t viewers be expected to understand what’s going on without some narrator explaining everything? What you’re getting here, in effect, is a book with pictures. A graphic novel, if you will. With the added pleasure (if you consider it as such) of a video game: lots of psychedelic visuals and a score that sounds like Japan’s Kodo Drummers on speed.

In spite of these flashy touches, the movie’s not above falling back on clichs. As when a guy tells his disenchanted girlfriend about his future plans and she responds (more or less): "I guess you’ll have to do all that without me." Then there are the standard thugs, the kind who tend to have metal teeth and Eastern European accents. They’re clearly after the drugs that Eddie has access to but I’m not exactly sure about all the connections among the bad guys. Or about how everything works out. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. We’re left in doubt about whether somebody did or didn’t commit a certain murder. To me, that doesn’t seem the right way to send people home. But maybe those teenagers got it better than I did. After a while, my attention was drawn mainly to the marvellous works of modern art adorning the walls in Eddie’s fantastic world.

[As stated recently, we’re dropping the calibrated ratings for movies. Such a system seems to imply that there’s some sort of equivalence among movies that receive the same "score." But works of art can’t be given any such comparative rating. Instead, we’re now providing a Capsule Comment (CC) at the end of every review.]

CC: Mildly entertaining as a thriller but nothing more than that.


God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (History/Scripture) by Adam Nicolson, 2003

Don’t know about you, but I used to think of the King James Bible as something that was always there. Sort of like the pyramids. You know that they’re cultural artefacts and you know somebody put some effort into constructing them, but the process is lost so far back in the mists of time that it seems irrecoverable now. Same with the KJB. You can’t imagine committees sitting around a table, appraising previous translations, arguing about choices of words and phrases, finally deciding on which ones work and which ones don’t.

But that’s exactly the scenario Adam Nicolson conjures up in God’s Secretaries.

Oddly enough, the production of the KJB arose as more or less an afterthought. King James had called a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 to discuss the rivalry troubling England’s non-Catholic version of Christianity. The Puritans, and to some extent the Presbyterians, wanted a stripped-down liturgy, without any "papist" pomp. They also wanted to abolish bishops. For the king, however, bishops were essential to the realm. Since bishops were appointed by the king, they could be relied on to support the monarchy. But nothing much was accomplished at the assembly intended to resolve the dispute – other than the somewhat off-hand suggestion that a new translation of the bible might help, in that it would provide one official version for all of England.

Taking up the suggestion with alacrity and demanding that it be actualized, goofy, erratic King James seems to have made one of those wise decisions that he was sometimes capable of. One of the most important guidelines or rules, as formulated by one of the king’s loyal functionaries, was that the new bible must not contain any notes unless absolutely necessary. The reason? Because the king was enfuriated by a note in the Geneva bible (published in 1560), regarding the incident when the Jewish midwives didn’t kill all the male babies as Pharaoh had told them to. The note said that their disobedience towards the Pharaoh was ok. To King James, that smacked of sedition. So no notes in the KJB! This, I now realize, is why, some 350 years later, we Catholic kids in Ontario schools were warned to stay away from Protestant bibles because they didn’t have any notes from the authorities on high, telling you how to interpret various passages.

And so the great work was launched. We get elaborate explanations of how the personnel for the translating committees were chosen, what each committee was responsible for, how often and where the committees met. Mr. Nicolson goes to some lengths to show that the committee members weren’t all saintly men. Many of them were venal clergy, greedy for the pay involved. As for one of the major criticisms of their work – that they largely appropriated William Tyndale's translation from the 1520s, Mr. Nicolson argues that, yes, they did avail themselves of much of Tyndale’s work but the changes they made were significant, so much so that they enhanced the work to the point of its meriting the classic status it has achieved. Mr. Nicolson does a good job of showing how the KJB reflects the temper of its times: the love of ornamentation, of excess, of luxurious expression. He also gives intriguing analysis of several instances in which one word or phrase was chosen over others. One of the over-riding concerns was that the concept of royal authority should permeate the text.

To my taste, however, Mr. Nicolson’s account of the process is padded with more sociological detail and character analysis than necessary. There’s a feeling that he’s trying to appeal to a wide readership by spinning a great yarn out of what might otherwise have been a somewhat dry account. The rather silly title could be a reflection of that populist intent. (I gather, though, that this is the American title. The British edition was published under the more sober title Power and Glory.)

Still, the reading is entertaining.Through the many vicissitudes of politics and dwindling royal funds, it took seven years from the first committee meetings until the first printing in 1611. Early versions of it were riddled with typos that made a hash of some passages. But that’s not why the finished work wasn’t favourably received at first. It wasn’t until after the Restoration, in 1660, that the KJB was recognized as the national expression of God’s word. Until then, people preferred the previous English translations, especially the Geneva bible. That could be due partly to the fact that the KJB didn’t reflect a truly vernacular English. Even at the time of its debut on the world scene, it was felt that the KJB’s English was a fake version of the language.

But one that has shown considerable staying power. Mr. Nicolson doesn’t say so outright, but he appears to be one of those people who believes that no other English translation comes anywhere near the KJB for majesty and poetry. In passing, he makes the rather chilling observation that the absolutism in the KJB would be more in keeping with the attitudes of some religious fundamentalists today than with the wishy-washy liberalism of most of western culture. But it’s the style more than the ideology of the KJB that interests him. He even admits that the KJB translators more or less botched the Old Testament because their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew wasn’t adequate. No matter. In his view, the KJB’s greatness has more to do with rhetoric than theology or dogma.

If Mr. Nicolson argues his case for the KJB’s literary merits a bit too strongly -- . after all, such appreciations are largely a matter of opinion -- he does make a very interesting point on the literary front, when he compares the KJB with another pinnacle of English literature that appeared around the same time: William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Both emerge from the ambitions and terrors of the Jacobean world...King Lear pursues the implications of a singular and disastrous decision to divide a kingdom; the King James Bible embraces the full breadth of absorbed and inherited wisdom in order to unite one; Lear contemplates, more fearlessly than any text had ever done or has ever done, the falling away of all meaning; the King James Bible enshrines what it understands as the guarantee of all meaning....

And there's no denying that Mr. Nicolson bolsters his case for the KJB with some very telling comparisons between it and various subsequent translations. Consider, for instance, this version of Simeon’s words (Luke 2:29-32) in the KJB, as compared to the efforts of Dr. Edward Harwood, a Bristol Presbyterian who came up with his own New Testament translation in 1768:

KJB: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Harwood: O God, thy promise to me is amply fulfilled. I now quit the post of human life with satisfaction and joy, since thou has indulged mine eyes with so divine a spectacle as the great Messiah.

Ok. Given that, and various other examples cited, I’m willing to grant Mr. Nicolson’s claim that, without the KJB and its glorious, inspiring language, we might never have had some of the great speeches from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.


Annabel (Novel) by Kathleen Winter, 2010

A novel about a person born with the condition known as hermaphroditism might not necessarily be written in an odd way. But this one is. That, however, didn’t stop Kathleen Winter’s novel from being short-listed for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

As Ms. Winter’s tale would have it, a child in a small outpost in Labrador in the 1960s, is born with a small penis, one testicle, labia and a vagina. The child’s condition is kept secret from everyone except its mother and a friend of hers who has assisted at the birth. When the father eventually intuits that something’s amiss, he insists that a decision must be made to raise the child as one sex or the other. The male sex is chosen, appropriate surgery is undertaken, and the name Wayne is given. As Wayne grows, he’s given male hormones to make his body look more masculine. (Some of the medical developments seem rather improbable, if not outright bizarre, but I’m willing to trust the author on this score.) Not knowing what’s going on, young Wayne experiences considerable inner confusion. While he leans towards some things that are usually considered to appeal almost exclusively to females – synchronized swimming, for instance – his dad keeps trying to impress male patterning on him, a program that gets a bit too insistent at times, if my opinion. I know that lots of dads like to address a male offspring as "Son" but this guy doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the kid has any other name.

The fact that this is all taking place in a relatively remote outpost of civilization helps to make it seem real. In this village, men’s and women’s roles are very clear. One of the best things about the book is the way the author conveys the feeling of the passing of the seasons and the way the people relate to the land. Wayne’s dad is a trapper who spends many months of the year away from home, tending to his lines. When he has troubles, he doesn’t blab them to anybody or to God; he goes into the woods and talks to an owl he once spotted. A lot of the effectiveness of this material is due to an incantatory tone of voice whereby the author lulls you into a certain mood.

Ms. Winter also creates the inner lives of her characters very well. Your heart aches for Wayne as he struggles to negotiate the conflicting forces weighing on him. However, the characters don’t come alive in a way that gives them a vivid external life. You can't imagine them as they would appear on stage or in a movie. This is partly due to the fact that most of the dialogue lies pretty flat on the page. It strikes me as a somewhat less serious quirk of the writing that Ms. Winter appears to want to endow these earthy folk with something of a Zen-like consciousness: more than once, the observation is made that naming things limits things or takes something away from them.

Then there’s a somewhat Gothic or macabre aspect to some of what happens. To no particular purpose, the novel opens with the drowning of a blind canoeist and his daughter. A female classmate of Wayne’s in high school is wickeder than Cruella Deville. Thanks to her, a freakish accident with a piece of flying glass ruins somebody’s vocal chords. Later in the book, a male teenager comes across as remarkably sympathetic to Wayne, so much so that you want to stand up and cheer. But then that person acts thoughtlessly in a way that causes great harm. Is Ms. Winter’s view of life all that dark? I’m not saying that such things couldn’t happen, just that Ms. Winter, at times, seems to be trying to cook up shudder-making melodrama. I prefer fiction that limits itself to developments that, by their more ordinary character, convey deeper insight into people’s lives.

The thing that I found oddest of all about the book, though, is the unconventional way with narrative. Ms. Winter jumps point of view erratically. Sometimes it’s a question of the author’s voice intruding where it shouldn’t. For instance, a couple of untutored teens are looking at a piece of music and we’re told that it’s filled with sharps, flats, sixteenth notes, and such details. How could the teens know those terms unless it was the author jumping in with the info? My balking at this isn’t just a case of pedantic nit-picking. These authorial intrusions shatter the feeling that I’m inside the kids’ heads, seeing things the way they see them.

Another narrative quirk is that Ms. Winter will lead you up to an incident that you expect her to create before your eyes, but she declines to do so. I’m thinking of a time when Wayne spots a beloved teacher whom he hasn’t seen for years. You’re keen to see how he approaches her, but Ms. Winter doesn’t give us that moment. Instead, she jumps forward to tell us about their sitting together in a caf. Is the author too lazy to create the moment of their encounter or is the leap forward a virtue of an elliptical style of narrative? It makes me feel cheated.

Part of the problem is that the "talky" writing means you don’t see some things actually happening as much as you hear the author telling you about them. In some details about relationships between husbands and wives and, in particular, about the breakdown of one marriage, it sounds like Ms. Winter is writing a sociological treatise: "A family can go on for years without the love that once bound it together...". You get the point, but it lacks a certain immediacy.

It could be, though, that the most important thing about the book, as far as this reader is concerned, is that I enjoyed reading it very much, in spite of the things that bugged me. The occasional sentence may seem wildly askew – for instance, the comment that, on looking at an old friend’s face, Wayne saw "the silver undersides of new leaves on the aspens overhanging beaver River." Elsewhere, though, thoughtful and unusual sentences can provide a particular pleasure – as, for example, the note that someone felt Wayne’s eyes held something that looked "... as if it had gone through the end of wrong or right and come out another side." And let’s not under-value the fact that Ms. Winter has a way of planting a narrative hook every now and then that keeps you reading until the next one. Ultimately, she creates a compassionate study of one person’s extraordinarily difficult passage in the world.


Don Giovanni (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Miah Im; directed by Allison Grant; production design by Fred Perruzza; costume design by Lisa Magill; Faculty of Music, University of Toronto; March 13

Apart from jumping at any opportunity to see a production of a Mozart opera, a person approaches one like this with a level of curiosity bordering on skepticism. Just how well can a group of students do the piece? After all, we’re talking about one of the high points of Western culture. Can singers and actors who are still in training come anywhere near showing the work in all its glory?

To answer that question fully, with regard to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music's recent production, you’d have to attend two performances. That’s because the show is double-cast in nearly all the major parts. At one performance, then, you might get a quite different impression from what you’d get at another one. But our attendance at the Sunday, March 13th matinee suggested that the faculty need apologize to nobody when it comes to rendering due homage to the composer. Even if you set aside the proviso that you’d ordinarily judge a student production more leniently than a professional one, you’d find that this one delivers just about as much of the work’s beauty as any production could.

Much of the credit for that goes to Vasil Garvanliev in the title role. And this is where it would be a great pleasure to report that this up-and-coming student definitely is headed for a major career. Except that a study of the program notes indicates that Mr. Garvanliev isn’t any longer a student at U of T. Having studied at the Glenn Gould School and the University of Toronto Opera Division, he’s now a member of Actors’ Equity and is a participant in Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artists. What we have in effect, then, is a ringer brought in to bolster the group effort. Never mind. His presence was most welcome. With his strong, confident voice and his manly swagger, he anchored the production in every way. It is to be hoped that his voice might acquire a brighter sound in the upper register but, in the meantime, he’s well on his way great success.

Which is not to say that the other singers are not close on his heels. As Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, respectively, Jennifer Schinzel and Alyson Spina sang gloriously. Ms. Schinzel’s voice is more silvery, while Ms. Spina’s is more golden. Two of their big arias – "Non mi dir" (Anna) and "Mi trad quell’alma ingrata"" (Elvira) provided, as they should, high points of the production. One of its most exquisite moments was the seduction scene between Zerlina and the Don. That’s due in no small measure to the fact that you could hardly imagine a better Zerlina than Marta Herman. With her impish, gamine-like personality and her fresh, ringing voice, Ms. Herman personified the sprightly peasant girl to near perfection (the only cavil being a slight question of pitch in some very high notes tossed off quickly). As a woebegone Leporello, Giovanni Spanu sang very well, although his voice, at this stage, is not large. More importantly, his comic touch provided some of the best acting on offer. Andrew Love, another grad and a professional already, sang admirably and made a suitably rugged Masetto. ByungJun Yoon’s tenor voice didn’t strike me as ideal for the role of Don Ottavio. Rather than a high, sweet voice, Mr. Yoon has a somewhat more mellow sound, but it made a valuable contribution to the ensembles and Mr. Yoon’s delivery of the fiendishly difficult aria "Il mio tesoro"was commendable. Geoffrey Sirett made an imposing presence as the Commendatore, especially in the final banquet scene where his voice was amplified to haunting effect.

If there was an aspect of the production overall that fell somewhat below ideal standards, it was the acting. Some of the singers need to learn to stand and deliver without extraneous bodily movements. And when it came to specific actions, many of the singers hadn’t yet learned to meld them to the music and to make them look natural and spontaneous. There were too many instances where you could see the kind of thinking: this is where I’m supposed to reach out my hand so that she can grab it...this is where I’m supposed to turn upstage to pick up the damned hat! Some of this awkardness could be chalked up to the inexperience of the performers.

But I assign some of  the blame to director Allison Grant, who provided the singers with too much forced business. Long swatches of fabric, over which characters kept having tug-of-wars, appeared to be a recurring motif – to no great effect, as far as I could see. Too often, as well, singers were instructed to provide movement upstage behind a soloist when it would have served the music far better if everyone had stood still. However, I do credit Ms. Grant with one ingenious touch. During the overture, we saw the physically fit, muscular Don Giovanni standing on stage in t-shirt and jeans, flipping through his Blackberry (or whatever?) to check his various female conquests. (The screen of his handheld device, showing the women's faces, was projected on the back wall of the stage.) As he stood there gloating, a couple of attendants dressed him in a period costume consistent with the rest of the production's traditional look. This made an excellent point: creeps like Don Giovanni were plying their trade hundreds of years ago and they still are today.

Not all projections worked as well, though. The screen on which they appeared was incorporated into a set that was almost an exact replica of the Statford Festival theatre’s stage – wooden platform, apron-effect, with steps leading up to doors on either side. Where the balcony would be at Stratford was the screen on which we saw various projections as appropriate to the setting of a scene: a cemetery, a villa, a castle room. Sometimes these visuals didn’t help. One street scene, for instance, looked like a clip from somebody’s summer trip to Newfoundland. On the whole, the projections of interiors worked better. A room with lofty windows, as seen during one of Donna Elvira’s big arias, was particularly effective. However, any misgivings about the projection process were quelled when it showed a marmoreal and larger than life Commendatore dragging Don Giovanni off to his doom amidst swirling clouds of hellish turbulence.

By this point, the orchestra, under Miah Im, had fully won me over. In the overture, it had sounded a bit sluggish, not providing quite the sharp attack that you want in those ominous opening notes. Pretty soon, though, flaws were unnoticeable as the genius of Mozart swept the orchestra onwards. Us too.

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