Dilettante's Diary

Jan 23/12

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

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

Reviewed here: The Iron Lady (Movie); The Enchanted Island (Opera); Light and Dark (Autobiography); A Brief Encounter with the Enemy (Short fiction); Expectations (Short fiction)

The Iron Lady (Movie) written by Abi Morgan; directed by Phyllida Lloyd; starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman, Harry Lloyd, Richard E. Grant

There’s no way of knowing, of course, whether or not this movie gives us the true Margaret Thatcher. Yes, some of the well-known facts about her life are there. But is this the woman as she really is? No matter. Meryl Streep, with considerable and expert help from the prosthetics department, creates a searing portrait of an old lady looking back on a remarkable life. Slipping in and out of dementia, she’s re-living some of her life’s most memorable moments. One touching scene shows the old lady in a doctor’s office, perched on an examining table in a hospital gown, her bare legs dangling from the edge of the table. At the request of Ms. Thatcher’s daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), the doctor is examining the old woman to determine the extent of her dementia while she, undaunted, lectures him about how people’s values have gone all wrong these days.

Many scenes about the former PM’s recent life have similar resonance and pathos. Through them all, she’s imagining that her deceased husband, Denis, is still at her side. In the hands of Jim Broadbent, he’s something of an affectionate court jester. The tone of the portrayal reminds me of a satirical review that was playing in London at the time, I believe, with the title "Anyone for Denis?" The movie seems to have somewhat the same jokey attitude to the guy.

Fascinating as these views of the oldsters may be, when we get the historical flash-backs, things turn rather ho-hum. After all, we know all the big moments: the bombing of the Brighton hotel, the Welsh miners strike, the Falklands war. We don’t learn much from the movie’s quick review of them. And yet, one event that would have made good watching gets short shrift: Ms. Thatcher’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Conservative party. We get the build-up, in which she says she that doesn’t expect to win the job but that she intends to run, just to "nip at the heels" of the established leaders. Next thing you know, she’s leader. No hint of how she pulled off the incredible feat of winning over all those male politicos.

Another problem is that Ms. Thatcher, the politician, as depicted here, isn’t a terribly interesting person. She’s so monotonous in her principles (self-sufficiency, courage, strength, refusal to compromise) that there isn’t much room for the kind of nuance that makes for an intriguing character. When she delivers a pre-nuptial speech to her fianc, her text-book feminism sounds too doctrinaire for the early 1950s. The scene where she’s hectoring her cabinet, berating one of the members for spelling mistakes, it’s not a pretty sight. Admittedly, some people in the audience – Brits, I’m guessing – seemed to enjoy seeing their hero in action once again. But I feel that the movie’s not meant to be about whether or not you approve of the woman or whether you think she did great harm with some of her major policies. The movie’s neutral about all that. The focus is on the character, finding out what makes her tick. And that turns out not to be something that invites in-depth study.

What was bothering me most about the movie, though, was that nothing seemed to be happening in the present other than this old lady’s rifling through her memories. No matter how interesting a life your granny has led, poring over her scrapbook palls pretty quickly. So the movie appeared to be lacking dramatic momentum. But then I began to realize that there was some: the tension between the old woman and the imagined presence of her husband. She seemed to need him and yet to be trying to get rid of him. There was a question about sorting the clothes he’d left behind. This seemed to have something to do with getting closure on something. But her attitude to him was ambivalent, to say the least.

To my mind, that scenario would make a great stage play. You could have the elderly lady struggling to come to grips with finding herself alone now, after being surrounded by so many flunkeys at the height of her career. In a way, her husband’s imagined presence would be a stand-in for many of those characters from the past. But you could still have some of them appear, as imagined, and they could act out some of the key tussles, briefly. There would be more emphasis on the bewilderment of this woman who wanted to make a difference in the world, to make changes. Now she can’t go out to buy a pint of milk without everybody’s getting upset. At one time, she was all about power. Now she’s practically powerless. Maybe that’s what the movie was trying to get at but the message is muffled by all the literal re-enactments, the headlines and the news footage that clutter things.

If you want help writing the script of that play, you can contact me through the link below.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Almost very good.


The Enchanted Island (Opera) devised and written by Jeremy Sams; music by George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Henry Purcell et al; conducted by William Christie; starring David Daniels, Danielle De Niese, Joyce DiDonato, Luca Pisaroni, Lisette Oropesa, Layla Claire, Elizabeth Deshong, Paul Appleby, Elliot Madore, Plcido Domingo, Anthony Roth Constanzo; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Live in HD Transmission, January 21, 2012.

It’s not often that you get a chance to see a world premiere of a brand new opera by such a prestigious company as the Met. But a prospective audience member faces some uncertainties. On the one hand, you could be reasonably sure that this pastiche opera would offer some good listening, given that the music is taken from composers who’ve racked up pretty good track records for themselves, guys like Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. But what about the fantasy premise of the piece?

A sort of spin-off of two Shakespearean plays, the opera has the two young couples from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as honeymooners on an ocean voyage. A shipwreck transfers them to The Tempest, where they wash up on Prospero’s island. Chaos ensues when Ariel gets things all mixed up in the attempt to make Ferdinand, from another shipwreck, fall in love with Miranda. Meanwhile, Caliban and Sycorax are scheming in their dark ways.

Not exactly fare to gladden the heart of a diehard realist like me. For much of the first act, I was sitting there thinking along these lines: In traditional operas, we can endure a lot of nonsense about gods and sprites and magic spells because we know this is the way things went back in the day. We can appreciate the works in the contexts of their eras. But why would we moderns want to sit through that sort of falderol?

Especially when the text of the piece in question is so lame: eg. Miranda’s singing about "this feeling that I’m feeling." Before long I was pining for a bit of Rogers and Hammerstein. Something like "The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye" would have come as a relief. Besides which, some of the lines in The Enchanted Island seemed to have unintended echoes of other famous lines: eg. "I was blind and now I can see." Those references felt like intrusions. It also seemed to me that the librettist, Mr. Jeremy Sams, hadn’t found wording that fit the music well, in terms of metre. Frequently there were lines where a singer had to correct himself or herself, as in, (not an exact quote): "I feel great anger...no, great hatred!" It was impossible for singers to make sense of those thought changes within the musical lines they’d been given.

All of which made for a something of a struggle in terms of one’s goodwill towards the production team. We respect and admire the Met Opera people; we’re grateful to them for keeping the standard of opera productions high here in North America, especially for making their shows available to millions of us worldwide by HD Live transmission. In this case particuarly, we salute them for coming up with a work that showcases the exquisite talents of many singers of Baroque music, so many that I’m guessing they’d seldom have the chance of appearing all together in any other show.

But those considerations couldn’t mask the fact that the experience was turning out to be extremely boring.

Until the big storm at sea. It was fun to watch the old-fashioned scenery creaking away in tandem with up-to-the-minute video projections. As the waves, getting bigger and bigger, eventually filled the rear projection screen, the effect was even a bit scary. A little later came the grand coup de theatre which was Neptune’s entrance. Up to this point, there wasn’t any very familiar music but now we were hit with the exhilarating "Zadok the Priest", a must for British coronations. And there was Plcido Domingo, enthroned in the luminous deep, sensuous mermaids swirling about him. That a member of the audience sitting near us should burst out laughing seemed not entirely out of keeping with the extravagance of it all.

Another laugh came when Signor Domingo, as Neptune, complained about being "old and irritable." Not that the people laughing necessarily knew that this was actually the singer’s 71st birthday. Around here, we don’t consider that old, but he is, obviously, somewhat beyond the stage at which most tenors take starring roles. Even so, the venerable star was in resoundingly good voice for his big arias.

As you have a right to expect in a Met production, the singing by the other performers was uniformly excellent, so much so that it would almost be a shame to single anyone out. However, you couldn’t help noticing the delicious trills that Layla Claire tossed off in the role of Helena. Joyce DiDonato, as Sycorax, turned out to have some good trills too. Danielle De Niese had tremendous energy and mischievousness as Ariel and her coloratura singing was astoundingly agile if, perhaps, a bit strident at the top, compared to what might be the more honoured tradition of Baroque singing.

It took me some time to get used to countertenor David Daniels as Prospero. At risk of having to relinquish my status as a card-carrying artsy-fartsy, I have to say that the current craze for countertenors hasn’t totally won me over. They often sound strained and weird to me. That's not what you want in Prospero. At one point, when he was chastising Ariel for not being able to pull off a feat that was apparently "too hard" for her, Mr. Daniels’ laboured emphasis on the coloratura passage work made me think that maybe he was aiming for parody. It seemed that might not be a bad approach for the whole opera.

However, his lament that closed Act One, with sparse accompaniment from the pit, was very beautiful. And I have to say that his repentance scene near the end of the opera was so sensitively sung that it brought on tears (mine, if you must know). Another of the opera’s best moments also involved a countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, as Ferdinand. The delicate perfection of his love duet with Miranda (Lisa Oropesa) took me by surprise, given that Mr. Costanzo’s voice and demeanour created a somewhat dorky impression of Ferdinand when he first appeared on the scene.

While the set design by Julian Crouch made for splendid visuals (somewhat in the vein of Maurice Sendak, to my eye), some problems still loomed even when you had warmed up to the opera. Certain arias went on far too long – Sycorax’s consolation of Caliban (Luca Pisaroni), for instance. And it was impossible to follow all the machinations of the plot. Too many people, it seemed to me, had licences to cast spells. The treatment of certain characters seemed destined to annoy Shakespearean purists, but less exacting theatre buffs probably wouldn’t mind. Still, they’d have to put up with the somewhat tiresome convention of baroque opera whereby people run on and do their scene, then run off and somebody else comes on. More like a series of set pieces than a continuous drama.

One device that drove home the artificiality of it all was that many of Neptune’s courtiers were just singing heads inserted into cardboard cutouts of bodies. In this context, Neptune’s grousing about ocean pollution sounded like a misplaced effort to score points on a contemporary issue. Baroque opera, as I understand it, isn’t about nitty-gritty realities like that. It’s all about grand ideas as represented by humans and gods. As the god who solves all the problems here, we have not so much a deux ex machina but a deus ex marina: Neptune imposes harmony on all the litigants. By that point, the Baroque thing was really working for me. With the result that I loved the ending: a glorious paean to good stuff like love and forgiveness and trying to get along with one another. 


Light and Dark (Autobiography) by Ken Howard, 2011

Ok, maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover. But sometimes a cover can give you an honest hint of the pleasures inside. In this case, it was an excellent painting of a female nude, against a window, that was featured on the cover. Flipping through the book, I found many more impressive paintings. It turned out that the book was the autobiography of British artist, Ken Howard. Given the samples of his work reprinted, it looked as though he’d have some valuable things to say about art, even though I’d never heard of him.

Which doesn’t of course, mean, that he isn’t worthy of considerable renown. In fact, he tells the story of the time he was sitting with his elderly mother, watching a tv item about himself. He’d was doing very well around that time: he’d been elected to the Royal Academy, he’d been commissioned to paint the Queen’s portrait, his paintings were selling very well around the world and now, here he was, on the telly. When the program finished, his mother turned to him and said, "Och, Ken, I wish you’d done something worthwhile with your life."

In Mum’s terms, that would have meant becoming a banker. That was something you could boast about to the neighbours. But an artist? Everybody knew that artists were layabouts, drinkers and womanizers. Well, there was a certain amount of the latter two pursuits in Mr. Howard’s life but he still managed to rack up a fair degree of respectability for himself.

Born in London, in 1932, and coming from working class roots – which may be why his mother wasn’t impressed by artistic achievement – he knew early on that painting was the only thing he really wanted to do. After preliminary education, he got himself admitted to the prestigious Hornsey School of Art in London, which he enjoyed enormously. On moving up to the even more elite Royal College of Art, he found the grind considerably harder. Suddenly, he wasn’t the best artist among the students. So much competition and envy. Also, everybody was hep on Abstract Expressionism from New York and young Mr. Howard knew that wasn’t his thing.

Staying as true as he could to his own artistic gift, he never strayed very far from relatively realistic painting in the representational genre. As conveyed in the reprints here, some of his paintings, the ones at the less impressive end of the scale, in my opinion, express a conservatism not far removed from Norman Rockwell’s. Most of Mr. Howard’s work, though, shows the fruitful influence of Impressionism. His bright city scenes of crowded streets, with flashing colours and complicated patterns, are wonderful. Even more exciting to me are his homages to bleak, grimy industrial areas. To say that some of his watercolours evoke the work of John Singer Sargent is very high praise. A shimmering view of Venice in that medium is stunning. A few of his works – such as his paintings based on graffiti observed in Northern Ireland – reach almost into the abstract genre.

Over and above the pleasure of looking at the paintings in this book, there’s much to mull over in what Mr. Howard says about art. One of the most important things for an artist, he says, is to recognize your limitations and work as well as you can within them. He says it’s nonsense to claim that, since Czanne, nobody should do representational art. "As long as you are expressing your own feelings, what you are doing will be new, you will find a new language which will be your own." Reflecting on some of the most difficult times in his life, he says: "....a period of chaos and the inevitable suffering is necessary to produce something special as an artist. The pain has to be deep and real, however; it cannot be manufactured." When is a painting done? "...when it gives you back the sensation you had when you first got the idea or the subject. Once you have captured that sensation in the painting, as it were, then it’s finished and completion has nothing to do with putting fingernails on or dotting the ‘i’s or crossing the ‘t’s."

It’s not just as a painter that Mr. Howard’s command of the arts shines. He also demonstrates considerable literary skill in the way he conveys many of the highlights of his life. For instance, there’s lots of narrative verve in passages where he talks about exciting adventures when the British military asked him to accompany them to conflict zones, to record his impressions as an official artist. (I didn’t know the military still did that.) His accounts of his love affairs and marriages make for good reading too. Even if we hadn’t previously known much about Mr. Howard himself, he helps orient us to his world by mentioning many famous people he encounters, or whose work influenced him: Francis Bacon, Quentin Crisp, Giorgio Morandi, Peter Greenaway, Alan Bennett, Gerald Durrell and Lucian Freud. And let’s not omit the experience of chatting with one of the most famous of all – the doyenne of Buckingham Palace.

About most of those people, we have strong impressions. But how well do we get to know Mr. Howard? One of the things that makes or breaks an autobiography is the voice of the author. If you feel you can hear the author speaking, if you can get the personality through the voice, then the book’s working as it was meant to. In Mr. Howard’s case, it took me quite a while to catch the personal tone. At first, one gets the impression that he may be rather boastful. He often tells stories about how he triumphed unexpectedly, as in the comparison of his own case with that of a more talented art student who flamed out because of too much skirt-chasing and insufficient discipline. Time and again, Mr. Howard comes from behind and, in a major upset, captures the coveted award. Nor that an artist shouldn’t mention those feats in his autobiography. But I think it takes a certain self-deprecating charm to do it in a way that doesn’t sound egotistical.

Eventually, though, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Howard is too honest and straight-forward to employ any such strategy. (Let's admit it, the person who affects an aw-shucks attitude to his or her awards may be more conceited than the one who expresses satisfaction openly.) And so, the persona that eventually comes through here, is that of a guy who’s genuinely pleased with his life but who’s laid-back, candid and unpretentious. He admits that his life has probably been too easy; his mom always said that he had an uncanny knack for good luck. If he fell into a loo, she liked to say, he’d come up with a chocolate bar. He doesn’t even seem to care much about his image when working in public. Once, he recounts with wry amusement, somebody came up to him when he was painting in the street and, on the basis of his appearance, offered him money. Without rancour, he acknowledges that reviews of his work in Royal Academy shows have generally been negative; a certain critic even said that his paintings represent the worst things about the Academy. One of the endearing things about Mr. Howard is that, in spite of his fame and success, he agrees with the statement of Walter Sickert, one of his heroes, who said that the utilitarian purpose of paintings is to decorate walls. How many high achievers in the arts world can you think of who would make such a down-to-earth admission about their output?

Enjoyable as this book is, it must be admitted that writing is, at times, diffuse and repetitive. Mr. Howard will tell you in two different instances, for example, that, when he received a grant for his art studies, he paid part of it to his parents who were still supporting him at home. Twice, within a few pages, he will mention that travelling for his work helped distract him from the tribulations of divorce proceedings. I noted several more examples of this kind of repetition. Why does it matter? Because it feels as though the writer is wasting your time, as though he hasn’t had enough respect for you to clean up the prose and to make it as concise and efficient as possible for you.

To point out these deficits isn’t so much to criticize the writer as to make a comment on the state of publishing and editing these days. Given that the book was published very handsomely on expensive, thick paper, by none other than the Royal Academy itself, you’d think they could have done better on the editing.


New Yorker Short Fiction

A Brief Encounter with the Enemy by Said Sayrafiezadeh (Jan 16/12)

A bleak account of a US soldier's last days of duty in a war zone. The author doesn't say which war, exactly. It sounds like Vietnam to me, but it must be a more recent conflict (Iraq? Afghanistan?) given the references to email. The soldierly routines are boring and dull in the extreme; yet the trooper is receiving messages from a female friend back home who think's he's leading a heroic, exciting life.

My main reason for mentioning this remarkable story is that it takes you to a place where you definitely don't want to go. You put down the magazine feeling really bummed out. And yet, on reflection, you have to admit that the writer was forcing you to face something that is probably very true.


Expectations by John Lanchester (January 9/12)

The oddest thing about this story is that I found the prose so off-putting that I didn't want to read it. A lot of telling and telling about some yuppie working in the  financial world in London. All about his need for a big Christmas bonus to keep up with his consumerist lifestyle. There was no feeling of the character coming off the page. Besides, why would I want to read about such a guy? So I committed that egregious faux pas which seldom happens around here: I skipped to the end to see if it was going to be worthwhile slogging my way through.

That convinced me to go back and start over. About half-way through, the guy's wife comes into the picture and, if there's a bit more vitality in the portrayal of her, she's almost a more objectionable specimen of humanity. She complains bitterly that he doesn't help out at home but all she does is supervise the various nannys' schedules. There's a kind of compelling dread in reading about these two awful people. It's kind of like watching a car crash in slow motion. Ultimately, things turn out so badly that it begins to look as though the description of Christmas morning is aiming at some sort of black comedy. But it doesn't make you feel very merry.


You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com