Monday, August 31, 2015

Biking in Toronto

I know I've mentioned that I am biking fairly often in Toronto, though I don't know how much I've actually written about the conditions.  I'd have to say that biking here is ok, not great.  I am clearly not up for biking year-round here, so that makes it a lot more like Chicago unlike Vancouver or Cambridge where I basically did bike year-round.

Vancouver was interesting, since if you were biking north of King Edward (roughly 25th Ave), then cars were reasonably wary of you and gave you a bit of extra space, but the drivers south of King Edward were generally very suburban in outlook and drove far too fast for the local conditions.  Toronto drivers are fairly aggressive, not dissimilar to Chicago drivers.  In general, both Vancouver and Chicago have wider streets which make it easier to carve out marked lanes for cyclists.  There are a few streets I try to avoid at all costs, primarily Queen and King, since between the narrow streets, parked cars and street cars, cycling is a huge challenge.  Unfortunately, the Trump Tower suffered some kind of malfunction today (so many punch lines...) and Adelaide St. was closed off, which meant I had no choice but to go up Queen for a stretch.

The conditions of bike lanes in Toronto is often poor, particularly Shuter Street, which I take essentially every day I ride.  But Dundas isn't too bad nor are the new bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide.  I do like the fact that Toronto is much flatter than Vancouver, though there are still some hills, particularly if you are heading north.

The bike racks (or rather bike rings) throughout the city are a particularly lousy design, but the city seems to have doubled-down on them.  Every time I think it couldn't get worse, I go find some place that has bike racks from the 1970s or something.  The one by the No Frills on Carlaw are perhaps the worst bike racks I've seen in my life.

So things could definitely be better...

I was working quite late today (and then took a bit more time to get my contribution off to Sing-for-Your-Supper* before heading home) and it was actually dark before I left.  Though I had bike lights, it was really uncomfortable making the ride home.  Not only did a cop car almost turn into me (without signaling), a van came extremely close to clipping me, while I was on the bridge crossing the Don River.  I just can't see doing much more of this cycling in the dark, whereas I had a somewhat safer (yet hilly!) route in Vancouver that I could handle in the dark.  Cambridge was interesting, as I was so freaked out by going through this park in the dark that I changed my entire route in the winter, but it was still reasonably safe.  Of course, I say that but the only time I was hit by a car was in Cambridge, plus the time I clipped a car that passed me and then pulled all the way to the left, blocking my path.  So many drivers, so many assholes...

* While I don't want to go flouncing about, this is the last time I will submit anything to Sing-for-Your-Supper if this piece is not accepted.  I simply have more important things to do, and the longer pieces I want to work on won't fit their format anyway.  I did think this new piece was amusing, though a bit under-developed.  At one point I envisioned a whole chorus chanting something about the river rising (perhaps a bit of a reaction to thinking that the Louisiana section of Svitch's piece was the weakest and that I could do something a bit more interesting), but I substituted a homeless man who sort of sings/hums Johnny Cash's Five Feet High and Rising.  (Check that out here.)  If I had a few more pages I would probably have had the Clarice character start fantasizing about restarting the human race with the two (gay) men that ended up in her clutches.  Probably just as well to leave that somewhat implied but just out of frame.  I am reasonably proud that I knocked out the 10 pages of dialogue in just about 2 hours.  You can read it here, and I will certainly post again if it is accepted.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Last gasps of August

I'm actually glad that we have one more day of August,* but it is definitely starting to feel like fall.  I wouldn't say this was a particularly lazy day, but I didn't push quite as hard as I often do, and I can picture actually relaxing a bit on the weekends in Sept. and Oct. (though one will actually be kind of busy helping out on a block party and then I make one more long weekend trip to Stratford).  I'm sort of debating whether to buy a hammock for the backyard porch or if I wouldn't use it enough until next year.

I took my daughter to the Textile Museum, and I enjoyed the exhibit on Artist Textiles.  I even have bought the catalog for my step-mother who is a textile artist in North Carolina.  The exhibit runs one more month and is quite nice, though I would probably recommend going on Wed. evening, when it is pay what you can.  Then we went over to the AGO and saw a few paintings, and went to the family area, though mostly she wanted to play ping pong.  I guess her creative juices had been exhausted in Milwaukee.

Sunday I did the groceries and I even trimmed the tree in the front yard.  (I hope I didn't trim too much and inadvertently kill it, but I think it looks pretty hearty.)  I had time to run down and see Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick at the Red Sandcastle Theatre.  It plays for one more weekend.  I enjoyed it, but I think it would have gone over a bit better with a bigger audience.  I felt that it was just a bit like Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy -- it is never entirely clear what is real and what is imagined and what is a slightly amped up version of reality.  I didn't mind that too much in Torch Song, but here the main dilemma is a gay man (an actor/waiter) falling in love with an HIV+ bartender, but petrified of being hurt when this potential boyfriend gets ill.  Many of the more touching scenes between them fall right after the fantasy moments, which somewhat undercuts them.  The director actually played just about everything straight, except for a scene where another friend has just died of AIDS and comes back to give Jeffrey relationship advice, while I gather the movie version played up the fantastical elements.  I wouldn't ever argue that only certain people get to write about certain topics, but I have to say it was a bit easier to swallow some of the main character's weaknesses when I confirmed that Rudnick was gay (the same way I was more willing to accept Kushner writing about a (largely) morally bankrupt gay character in The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide...).  I still am not sure I buy the bit about the Catholic priest or the ending where Jeffrey finally agrees that to live life one has to make oneself open to experiencing pain and suffering but at the same time allowing love to grow, even in the face of uncertainty.  It was a lot of personal growth in about a 5-10 minute span.  Anyway, it was worth seeing.  I'll probably see their production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart next year, even though I have already seen the play. (I think this company seems to specialize in gay theatre.)

After all this, we had a nice moment where three of us went outside and sat on the deck and read.  I finished Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour and just started Barbara Comyns's The Juniper Tree.  This is the first book of the long pile of books that the library sent me.  I will really have to step up the pace if I am going to get through most of them, and it has certainly disrupted my reading list.  I guess that is it for now.  Tomorrow I will try to write up another museum visit from the recent trip to the States.

* That gives me another day to write something for Sing-for-your-supper.  I have an interesting idea I've been kicking around, but if this isn't accepted, it is the last time I bother.  It's not entirely wasted writing time, however.  I think of all the things that got rejected, several have at least helped me improve my dialogue and pacing.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Buffalo (art) on the move

I believe I discussed this a while back, but we had attempted to visit the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo on the trip we made to Niagara/Buffalo to deal with our permanent resident paperwork (which had to be processed at a border crossing).  Due to unusually long border delays and bad Google directions, we weren't able to make it to the museum.  That was particularly unfortunate as they had temporarily reinstalled 80 of their masterworks, which were about to go back on tour.  In Dec., I made it to the museum on my own and found that they still had some amazing pieces.  I wrote about that here.

To kick off this long trip, I decided I would go through Buffalo en route to St. Louis.  Not only would the plane fare be cheaper, but I could visit the Albright-Knox again.  I also knew that their traveling exhibition would be in Milwaukee, which we planned to visit before returning to Chicago.  So I'll combine both of these museum visits into one longish post, and write about the other museums I visited separately.

The bus down wasn't too bad, though the promised wireless wasn't working.  I was totally beat from preparing for the trip (not just packing but doing some cleaning as well).  I had planned to do a fair bit of reading, but just didn't have the energy so I mostly slept on the way down.

Downtown Buffalo was depressing as ever, but it didn't take too long to get to the museum on the local bus system.  They had a massive exhibit on video art take over the special collections side, and some were quite interesting, including 3 full pieces by William Kentridge (I sat through two of them).  I think my problem with video art is that you have so little control over them; you so frequently come in during the middle and have to wait for the piece to loop through.  That's not so bad for a 5 minute piece, but some of these pieces were substantially longer.  (In a different gallery they were playing these long-form pieces that were very similar to the Krewmaster cycle (including in length) but were animated.)  I did spend a fair bit of time inspecting the different pieces before I went back to the main gallery.

I have to admit that this time wasn't as good as the previous visit.  Quite a number of the pieces I'd seen were packed away (possibly to make space for the masterworks which should be returning in October).  Generally, the abstract expressionists were still there and a few others I remembered, like Milton Avery's Bucolic Landscape.  However, the large room filled with Clyfford Still was now filled with much lower quality paintings.  On the other hand, they had a few solid pieces from the Pop era and beyond.

I was pleased to see George Segal's Cinema and pieces by Rauschenberg and Rosenquist.

James Rosenquist, Nomad, 1963

The Nomad piece is particularly multi-media with a plastic bag of some type hanging from the top and a broken chair at the bottom.  It put me in mind of a balloonist having a very, very bad day...  I don't even know that I've ever seen or heard of this piece before, since I am unaware of Rosenquist doing the multi-media thing, whereas it is quite expected from Rauschenberg, though his piece in the museum (Ace) was actually fairly restrained.  Anyway, those new Pop-era pieces were basically the highlight of the Buffalo leg of the trip, and I will definitely want to hold off on another trip to the Albright-Knox until they reintegrate the masterworks which were on view in Milwaukee.

With that, I will skip over more than a week of calendar time to get to the Milwaukee trip.  I had no end of trouble trying to book the tickets on the Amtrak website, but this isn't a route that gets oversold, so we just walked over in the morning and bought tickets for the 10:30 train.  This dropped us off just before noon, and we were met by my cousin who lives in Wisconsin.  We drove over to the Milwaukee Art Museum and ended up eating there in the cafe.

I was somewhat surprised and a bit disappointed to learn that the entire main collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum was offline with the galleries being renovated and the art then being reinstalled at some point in the late fall.  Well, it may just mean that if we are in Chicago for more than a week next summer, we'll make another trip up.

It also meant that we focused our attention on the special exhibit, i.e. the paintings on loan from the Albright-Knox.  This was an impressive core collection, and I do hope that most of it is on display the next time I visit Buffalo.

The best way to get a sense of the paintings on loan from the collection is to buy or borrow the catalog titled The Long Curve (some details here).   (Obviously it is better to go in person if that is an option...)  I was pleased that because the Albright-Knox allows photography, they didn't put any restrictions on photography in the special exhibit (other than no flash photos), which I thought was very generous of them.  I will post just a few that struck me, but really all the pieces were quite nice.

Wassily Kandinsky, Fragment I for Composition VII, 1913

Stuart Davis, New York Waterfront, 1938

Max Beckmann, Hotel Lobby, 1950
Helen Frankenthaler, Tutti-Fruitti, 1966

After viewing the exhibit, my cousin drove back home and we went to do some art of our own, which I've memorialized here.  Then we met another friend who lives in Milwaukee at the Public Market to catch up a bit, and then walked back to the Amtrak station.  A pleasant & not overwhelming day trip to Milwaukee.  I'll have to keep this in mind to not try to overload the kids on these various trips, even though it cuts against my nature.

At any rate, this wasn't the end of my museum going, as I managed to sneak one more quick peek at the Chicago Cultural Center on Monday and a very short trip to the MCA on Tuesday.  I'll be discussing these trips, as well as the longer trips to the St. Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, in the near future.  But for now, I'll think I'll end with my son pondering the ineffable in the form of Rothko's Orange and Yellow.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956

Friday, August 28, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 2nd Review - Street of Riches

Street of Riches is the 4th novel by Gabrielle Roy (or at least the fourth translated one), coming hot on the heels of The Cashier.  It is definitely in a different key than either The Tin Flute or The Cashier, as it isn't particularly tragic and it isn't concerned with matters of grace and/or redemption through suffering.  I only skimmed the intro (for some reason the New Canadian Library introductions often have significant spoilers to the point I think they probably ought to just move them to the back).  However, the author of the intro made a point of comparing this relatively early novel by Gabrielle Roy to Anne of Green Gables.  I assume that Anne of Green Gables (or for that matter Little House on the Prairie) is relatively elegiac, celebrating a rural way of life that was already disappearing during the authors' lives (and accelerating far beyond what anyone might have expected back in the 1950s).  It is possible that this book is perhaps slightly more melancholy than those other series.

Clearly Roy made some changes, but this is a fairly autobiographical piece.  She did grow up in a Francophone colony in the west (Manitoba).  Her father was a minor government official who did indeed resettle immigrants from Europe in various small towns out west and was laid off (perhaps due to a change in the ruling federal party, as suggested by the novel).  Roy did start out as a teacher though was far more adventurous than the main character here and moved to Europe to study theatre (and make a living as a writer?) though she was forced to return to Canada due to the outbreak of WWII.  She moved to Montreal and the rest is history...

Minor SPOILERS follow.

I don't know enough about Gabrielle's brothers and sisters to know how much is drawn directly from them, but in Street of Riches we encounter a sister who becomes a nun (and finally gives Gabrielle the yellow ribbon she so desires) and another sister who is stricken by scarlet fever or a similar disease and becomes feeble-minded and is placed in an institution.  It is generally regarded as a small mercy that she passes away relatively soon after this.

One of the more amusing stories ("The Gadabouts") is about how the narrator's mother desires to go travelling so badly that she saves up money from taking sewing jobs in town and then places her other children (aside from the narrator) with neighbours or in long-term care and goes back east to Quebec on the train.  (The father is away on one of his long work trips in the other direction.)  Interestingly, all is forgiven after this adventure is uncovered when the mother tells her husband about how his home town looks and that she met all his living relatives and convinced them that he was an important bureaucrat and yet living in Manitoba was dreadful compared to the conditions in Quebec.  Presumably, Gabrielle caught some of her mother's adventurous spirit.

While Roy recognizes that she never really understood her father and why he considered his work so important, she does paint a moving portrait of him ("The Well of Dunrea"), while at the same time, suggesting that if he had been somewhat more open-hearted at home, he would have had a more fulfilling family life.  Perhaps the single most melancholy story is "By Day and by Night," which shows how sad he became after his career was cut short.  He also became an insomniac and often tried to get his children to stay up with him and tempt them away from the daylight hours that their mother kept.  I can well understand this attraction to the evening hours, which generally are my favourite hours.

This is a relatively slight book and with seemingly simple stories, but I did like many of them, particularly "The Gadabouts" and "By Day and by Night."  I would certainly recommend it to anyone who liked Anne of Green Gables, but wanted something that had just a bit more depth to it.

Interestingly, this edition came with a bonus.  Someone left behind a hand-written recipe for strawberry punch (with lots and lots of liquor) apparently from the 1970s (back when they knew how to party without all these new-fangled pharmaceuticals).

I can't vouch for the recipe, but it looks ok if one is mostly looking for fruit-flavoured liquor.

Stratford reviews - pt. 1

Yesterday was an extremely stressful day.  I was scheduled to go out to Waterloo for a presentation.  I tried to leave at 11:30, though ultimately it was more like 11:45.  Then I could not locate the Zipcar (it was in a parking garage).  Then at the parking garage I had to get help from the manager to find the actual car and figure out how to get out.  I don't think I'll ever rent this particular car again.  Then I missed the split between the 401 and the QEW and lost at least another 15 minutes trying to get back onto the 401.  Then I hit Mississauga and they were getting ready for construction, though not actually doing anything, and they closed down 2 of the 3 lanes.  Given how many trucks are on this thing, it made for 30 minutes of just absolutely dreadful driving.  I was 30 minutes late.  Going back wasn't much better, since I missed a different turn and took the 401 instead of the Gardiner, so I actually overshot the downtown and had to circle back and drive down Richmond to drop off the car.  The only small saving grace was that ZipCar didn't charge me extra for being a few minutes late dropping off the car.

Now at one point I had considered getting a ticket for Jonson's The Alchemist as Stratford is only another 40 minutes past Waterloo.  It was sold out for weeks, though incredibly a seat did open up in the morning of this trip.  As I was looking over maps and deciding whether to go ahead and do this, it was snatched up.  I think it is probably just as well.  I would have been extremely stressed trying to get out to Stratford, since the congestion on the 401 W seemed pretty bad as I left the meeting (and it was generally better heading back east, at least until I got back into Mississauga and then missed my turn).  Also, while traffic presumably would have finally died down, I wouldn't have gotten back to the downtown core until midnight and then I still would have had to get home after that.

Ok, with that off my chest, I will just note that it can be a major headache getting out to Stratford and the Shaw Festivals, though Shaw is much, much worse from my perspective.  That's one of the reasons that I try to go out for a weekend and see 2 or 3 plays at a time.  I did that already this summer, and am going towards the end of Sept.  I am not planning on making one more day trip to try to catch The Alchemist, since I have so many other things to try to squeeze in this fall.  I'll just cross my fingers and hope that it transfers to Toronto at some point, though it is also worth noting that I've seen this play twice (and actually passed on a chance to go in Vancouver). (I'm still holding out some hope that Barrie's When We Are Married from the Shaw last summer transfers.)  I guess that would somewhat spoil these festivals if the best productions always made the transfer, but it would make my life easier...

Since there is still plenty of time to catch them, I'll go ahead and review the plays I saw at Stratford in July.

I don't think one can really SPOIL the plot of one of Shakespeare's plays at this point, but there may be minor SPOILERS for The Physicists, which is a more obscure play.

I have already talked a fair bit about the recent production of Hamlet here.  I generally liked this production of Hamlet quite a bit.  Interestingly, there was more emphasis on comedy here than usual, and the play really does come across as a comedy for most of the 1st half (aside from the ghost). I felt in general, it was clear Hamlet was playing at being mad rather than slipping into madness.  Nonetheless, I didn't think the playfulness should have continued after Polonius's death (and thought the Driftwood production had a better take on the immediate aftermath of Polonius's death, though that had its own problems in the transition to the duel between Hamlet and Laertes).

It's somewhat interesting which plays cross the line for me.  I find myself really not very interested in The Merchant of Venice and probably won't go again.  And yet the actual message of The Taming of the Shrew is pretty retrograde, but I still find myself enjoying it (with a few reservations here and there, particularly at the end).  This was one of the more successful productions I've seen.  I would say, however, that I did feel one thing that didn't come across fully is that Catherine is enraged, largely because she she feels locked into her role as the shrewish older sister and feels that society has already devalued her and labeled her an old maid.  There is a lot of emotional hurt that expresses itself badly in her tantrums.  I've seen that done a bit better elsewhere.

At any rate, Petruchio becomes a kind of mirror, showing how unpleasant her unreasonableness is to others and causing her to reflect on her own behaviour.  I thought they did this well, though I was struck at how many servants Petruchio had at home.  Certainly more than one normally sees in a typical production.  Anyway, a few people have written that Katherine put enough stress on "honest" in "And not obedient to his honest will" that she is indicating she knows what he was up to and will only obey Petruchio in the future if they establish a union on a more even basis.  I think that is a stretch.  There really is no textual basis to prevent this speech from coming across as a pretty abject surrender to Petruchio's will and whims. So it remains a problematic and yet very funny play.  I did think the framing device (which I don't actually recall seeing before) could definitely have been cut back, though it was funny to hear the interloper say that because he was a blogger, he had to be treated better or else.

Let me turn to Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists.  One important note is that this is a new translation and actually an adaptation as well.  If one is a purist, that may not go down so well.  As it happens, I brought the Grove translation with me and read it the night after I saw the play, so I was able to make a pretty good comparison.  I'd say that 2/3 of the changes are generally small improvements that smooth out understanding, particularly as scientific literacy is a bit lower today and probably the audience wouldn't get from the discussions of Einstein's formulations that the matter at hand was that people could be atomized by the application of Möbius's work.  I would say, however, it is more than a little ironic that the copying technique employed in the adaptation has absolutely nothing to do with nanotechnology but would be a special kind of telemetry.  But nanotechnology is trendy and sounds cool, so that's what they went with.

The more explicit reference to millions being killed in speech to the third soon-to-be-dead nurse was good, as it somewhat raised the stakes and made it a bit more clear why Möbius was hiding out in the sanatorium.  I thought the switch in the second act to put a bit more of a spotlight on the Frau Docteur was also good (here she puts up a portrait of herself rather than another random family portrait), and I liked how they could make it sound like taking the company private was a very sinister thing.

The inspector Voss talks a bit more about retirement in this adaptation, and looks forward to the day he can let murderers murder and not have to concern himself with it, since it doesn't seem to make a bit of difference.  I will say I thought the original was a bit better right after the third murder is discovered.  At Stratford, Voss says his boss is catatonic, but places a lot of stress on that word, so that it seems to mean something even more serious than livid, but catatonic doesn't mean that at all.  In the Grove translation, the inspector says "He's past being angry now.  He's just brooding."  I think brooding can be quite sinister, since he might simply be pondering his next move.  Anyway, a small point.

I definitely thought having Möbius's children appear and sing one of Psalms was a good idea.  If they ever publish this adaptation, I would like to compare both the last major speech made by Möbius as well as his Psalm to the Cosmonauts (which he uses to chase his ex-wife and children out of the room).  There is something to like about both approaches.  The new adaptation was just a bit more slangy, so perhaps the original was slight more appropriate for a newly discovered Psalm (heard directly from the mouth of King Solomon): "Outcasts we cast out, up into the deep / Towards a few white stars / That we never reached anyhow."

One perhaps significant change was that in the original, it seems much more likely that the Newton figure was a British spy, not an American one.  It is sort of strange, and definitely sad, that this play, written during the Cold War, is suddenly more relevant again, since Putin is single-handedly restarting the Cold War to shore up his domestic problems, while Obama is more or less ignoring him (which probably enrages Putin more than anything) and has made some tangible steps to reverse terrible foreign policy decisions on Cuba and Iran.  Though I would certainly not say that Obama's approach will bear fruit, not least because another Democrat has to be elected to carry on for a while before the Republicans given up.  At the moment, this doesn't look like it will be out of reach, since the Republican clown car since hasn't offered up a particularly electable candidate.

But I've strayed quite far off topic.  At any rate, I enjoyed The Physicists quite a bit.  I think the original translation would have worked fine, but this adaptation is good as well.  If they decide at some point to transfer this to Toronto, I would probably go a second time with some friends, though I would much prefer they transfer The Alchemist.  The Physicists runs through Oct. 3 in Stratford and, barring a transfer, this is probably your best chance to see it, as it is not often revived, particularly when compared to your typical Shakespearean play.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The trip - first day back

I updated the blog slightly yesterday, but have quite a few posts to try to get to over the next week.

Traveling back to Toronto was generally a breeze, compared to the trips we had to make over the Rockies to get to Vancouver.  Now there was a snag in that the postal rates for packages to Canada has gone up yet again to the point where sending packages is simply uneconomical.  They wanted $90 to send this box, and Porter would take it as a checked "bag" for $25.  It's so crazy that high postage costs are undoing globalization at the micro-level.  I know quite a number of small merchants who simply can't afford to send packages outside the U.S.  I'm trying to cut down on my purchases of books and CDs (and am generally doing pretty well when compared to 10 or even 5 years ago) and the high shipping certainly helps.  If I was still in that mode of making major acquisitions I'd probably get a drop box in Buffalo and go down once a month.

Anyway, the house is still standing and in pretty good shape.  The main issue was that the dehumidifier stopped running (which I expected), so we'll have to let that run through the weekend.  I managed to do some laundry and get some basic groceries before we all crashed for the evening.

In terms of what I did on the trip, I visited 4 major museums (Albright-Knox, St. Louis Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum) and a bunch of smaller art museums/galleries in Chicago.  I probably can't go into great detail about each, but I'll post some impressions soon.  The kids came along to the Art Institute and the Milwaukee Art Museum.  We didn't have time in Chicago, but we did the children's art projects in Milwaukee.

There's a lot going on in my daughter's picture, including several flowers and clouds (I think) and the small animal to the right is actually a cat.

My son's picture is supposed to be dark and foreboding.  I think he said there was a dragon at the centre.

This is mine actually.  It is much closer to what I had wanted to go for in my artwork for the house, though it would have been more of a red wash, but I couldn't get the paint to cooperate.

In addition to all this art, I saw two plays (it was supposed to be 3 but one sort of fell through) and presented a paper at the American Sociological Association and went to 2 receptions to catch up with some old friends.  (Still, this will probably be my last ASA meeting unless they travel up to Toronto or Montreal.)

I finished Moby Dick the morning that my wife and I saw Lookingglass put on their version of Moby Dick.  To simplify matters they compressed the three mates to two (though only Starbuck had any meaningful lines) and the three (actually four!) harpooners down to two and renamed one.  Then they renamed Pip, which seemed completely unnecessary, and slightly changed the story of how he ended up in the water and was rescued.  They also had one of the sailors fall from the mast and drown, which didn't happen that way in the book.  Generally, things were amped up a bit more than absolutely necessary, but on the whole it was an interesting production and quite gripping at times.

I got through two more books on my TBRD pile (only making 100 pages into Rose Macauley's The Towers of Trebizond, which I obviously didn't care for).  I also read Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten and John Litweiler's Mojo Snake Minuet, which is an alternative history set in Chicago where Africans colonized Europe and North America.  While religion and politics are turned on their head, somehow the jazz musicians still practiced their craft much as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.  Also, Chicago has the same street names that it does in real life.  Strange...  What it really reminds me of is one of those Chester Himes detective novels set in Harlem.

As it happens, my reading list is about to get completely upended.  I inadvertently had a new play Constellations put on hold and it was sent to me on the day before I was scheduled to go on the trip.  To avoid a fine, I had to have the librarian suspend my holds, but then they all activated at the same time (yesterday).  Despite trying to put most of them back on inactive, 12 books are being sent to me all at the same time!!!  I've looked through the list and 3 I'll just return right away and then put back on hold.  I'll then do some triage and work through the ones that are in demand and on hold (and thus can't be renewed) -- and of course some I may find are not really of interest after all.  I don't know quite how many I'll get through, but probably somewhere between 6 and 9.  It's an annoyance certainly, though not the end of the world.  And on that note, I do have to get ready for work,* so I'll circle around and get into details of the trip later on.

* I really could use a vacation from my vacation, though I think I'll be able to relax a bit over the weekend.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My art

While I have a reasonably good eye and can generally frame photographs fairly well, I really have not explored the fine arts at all.  I'm not sure if this is because I feel I have no time, or I don't want to embarrass myself (or some combination of both).

Anyway, one of the last things was to try to cover up a bunch of small holes in the upstairs bathroom.  The previous owners left paint that was supposedly for the upstairs bathroom, but it was a bit too light.  I decided to take some spare canvas I had and the paint for the downstairs bathroom and see what I could come up with.

What I was aiming for was something along these lines, though red and black and maybe a bit more tree-like.

Kazuo Nakamura, Inner Structure, 1956, @ AGO Collections

As you will see, I ended up with something that is nothing like this at all.  It's slowly growing on me, though I might try to get the thing in my head on canvas one of these days.  (I probably ought to start with a better primer, however.)

I went ahead and photographed several stages, much like Matisse did, though I didn't completely paint over what I had done obsessively, as Matisse (and Picasso) were known to do.

The blank slate
Basic black
More black
Red on black
Purple passion
White on black (homage to Franz Kline?)
Going green
Mellow yellow

And that is it in its final form.  (Or probably so.  I may touch up the purple with a bit of blue, since the purple dried so dark it looks nearly black.)  This is basically an abstract piece, though I kind of see a wolf-like figure chasing some bird-like pictographs with a campfire at the bottom right.  There is a lot of empty space, which maybe is a good thing.  It certainly is different from what I had originally intended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual

I have made it back from the Shaw Festival and have seen the Kushner play.  As described elsewhere, it is a very long title (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures) and a very long play (3 hours and 40 minutes including two intermissions).

Driving there was a major headache, with some particularly annoying driving observed from a bunch of cars with Quebec plates (waving towels at each other and at one point pulling next to each other and trying to pass food between the cars) and a Quebec truck driver that basically pulled behind me without waiting for the lane to clear.  I still don't understand how he didn't squash the car behind me.

There will be very minor SPOILERS hereafter, though nothing that isn't in the other reviews or indeed in the program.

The play opens with a very short shout out to Shaw's Major Barbara.  Pill, the homosexual son of Gus, is describing a play that he saw in Minneapolis (perhaps at the Guthrie) and then launches into a set piece about how he is glad he isn't an actor who has to deal with the terrible rude cyborgs who can't turn their cell phones off.  Cathartic for both author and actor, I am sure, but a bit dramatically inept.  Anyway, audience learns within a minute or two of this rant, that Gus tried to commit suicide a year ago and that he is most likely going to do it again.  The play mostly consists of his family trying to understand why he actually did it and to try to talk him out of it.  While there is a lot else going on, mostly arguments over politics and some of the crazy family dynamics that one sees in a show like Modern Family,* that is the essence of the play.

The pall of the suicide of the patriarch hangs over the play, just as in Tracy Lett's August: Osage County (which may be an unacknowledged influence), though this patriarch is very much alive, even though determined to shuffle off the mortal coil.

What Kushner does here, much as in Angels in America, is to have people talk just as seriously about politics, particularly the politics of the left, as they do about family matters.  Indeed, Gus is basically quite unreconstructed and admits not believing the work his daughter does is valid, since it simply (somewhat) ameliorates the problems with capitalism and thus forestalls revolution.  Though how an intelligent person could look out over American history and expect communist revolution is completely beyond me.  I guess there are certain pockets of insulated leftists, particularly in New York, that still hold out these hopes.  Certainly there are plenty of progressive social scientists who think things will get better, though I don't believe any of them are actually hoping for a communist take-over...

What I did not like, however, is how he sets up a few scenes with just too much going on, so that even a fairly well-trained theatre-goer cannot track the multi-layered dialogue.  Gus often talks over his children, but there is one scene towards the end of Act II where there are literally 4 centers of attention, all competing against each other.  I find this completely unfair and a bit maddening.  Kushner even cheats a bit by having Sooze say, above the crowd, doesn't anyone want to know what is in the suitcase.  Of course we all do, though it isn't revealed until Act III.  Anyway, it is clearly a stylistic choice to make things unintelligible (and this happened with some frequency in Top Girls, though normally it was only two competing conversations, not 4), but it is not one I appreciate at all.

One thing, which you find out in the program notes is that Pill is older than his husband, Paul.  They met at U Michigan where Pill was a grad. student and his husband was a sophomore.  That sort of thing could happen in the somewhat repressed 80s and 90s but now in the increasingly codified systems we have today would probably lead to charges against Pill.  I don't quite understand why the worst, most puritanical aspects of the progressives (i.e. their desire to remove power imbalances from sexual relationships) have been the most politically "successful," but it is downright depressing.  Kushner doesn't touch on that at all.  I will say that, for me, Pill was a pretty unpleasant character, weak and selfish, and basically unrepentant over how he spent so much of his sister's money on a hustler, who turns back up during the course of the play.  I suspect only a gay author could have gotten away with writing about such a flawed gay character.

Pill is played by Steven Sutcliffe, and I was pretty sure I had seen him before, but I wasn't sure in what.**  It turns out he has played quite a few gay characters, such as the closeted Vanya in Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but he played a much more rewarding role as Ned in Findley's Elizabeth Rex.  I'd say that is probably the role I thought he was best in, even though I didn't recall it immediately as I was watching him in this play.

I did recognize Fiona Reid as being cast in Durang's play as well.  However, as is typical, in that play she and Sutcliffe were roughly the same age, and here she is Sutcliffe's aunt...  Ah well.  She has some great moments as she recalls her experiences being a nun and then being involved with the Shining Path in Peru.  (Clearly, the whole family is a bit unhinged.)

It is a bit difficult to think about the play as a whole.  There is a bit too much of everything -- too much political talk, too many crazy family dynamics, too much selfishness -- and generally not enough love.  I certainly didn't get the feeling that Gus cared that much for his family, since he was on the edge of committing suicide again; his political ideals mattered more.  I never really felt what it was that Pill felt for Paul.  It wasn't really believable to me that he loved him whole-heartedly.  It was more that he was in love with the idea that he was a gay man who could be faithful to Paul, even though it was so evident just how weak Pill was. (I truly think Kushner needs to give Pill more redeeming qualities, 'cause the way he is written now he is pathetic.)

So I think it is an interesting play and one well worth seeing, though I don't think it is a masterpiece on par with Angels in America, which seems to be the view of the Toronto Star reviewer.  (I do find it amusing that he kind of digs at the Shaw Festival, saying this is one of only a handful of truly great productions he has seen there.  Perhaps he hates the drive down just as much as I do.  I do think this may well have been my last visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake.)  Again, everyone's perspective is different.  This reviewer liked the cacophony at the end of Act II, whereas the only thing I liked about that scene was when somebody shouts "I bought the cherry orchard."  (I guess you had to be there -- and you have until Oct. 10 to do so.)

I should have mentioned earlier that the set is quite nice.  The stage shows the dining room of a Brooklyn brownstone and then a somewhat obscured bedroom upstairs.  There are sliding panels that look like the sides of freight rail cars, which dockworkers would have loaded and unloaded.  (When the panels slid closed that indicated that the setting had shifted somewhere else than the brownstone.)  The central panels had an image of the Brooklyn Bridge inspired by Joseph Stella's paintings.  Again, quite apropos of Gus's working class background.

Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939

* I do wonder if Pill is just a bit of a shout-out to Phil of Modern Family.  Similar to that show, there is multi-ethnic casting with Pill's partner being African-American and V (the youngest son) having an Asian wife.

** Interestingly, both Sutcliffe and the actor playing the hustler had both been in a Shaw production of Major Barbara, which they discuss early in Kushner's play, though I hadn't seen that particular production.  In fact, if I have seen Major Barbara it would have been a long, long time ago, perhaps in Ann Arbor, so I might look into seeing it some day, though not in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Quick takes - July/Aug 2015

This should have been done at the end of July, but the 24-hour play-writing thing, plus a trip down to Niagara-on-the-Lake really took more out of me than I thought.  I'm finding quite a number of things I would like to blog about in fairly long form, which is kind of good (when I have the time), so I'll try to keep this set of mini-reviews pretty brief.

There will almost certainly be SPOILERS ahead. 

Many people find Molly Keane's Good Behaviour to be their favourite novel.  I can sort of understand why, though I had a mixed reaction to the book, particularly the sudden twist at the end.  The narrator is so monstrous at the beginning of the book that it is part of the fun trying to understand how she turned out that way.  Certainly of all the unpleasant mothers in Keane's work (it truly is an obsession with her), this one is right up there.  She puts her daughter down pretty much constantly.  What is different in this case is that she is totally feckless when it comes time to running the estate (most of the monstrous mothers in Keane's fiction are at least competent, but this is a weird hybrid of Keane and Comyns).  This one just hides bills and stops talking to the lawyer who is trying to sort out the problems.  In fact, the narrator is the one who slowly consolidates power, simply by paying some attention to reality.  (Sort of.  She has this fantasy that this closeted homosexual man will end up marrying her.)  Things look pretty grim, however, when her father dies after complications from a stroke.  But surprise -- he left everything to her in the will, and this is how she gains control over her mother.  I assume a number of readers like the revenge twist, but I had a bad feeling in my mouth over a plot point that would simply be illegal in the States and Canada (perhaps it was feasible in Ireland at the time).

Albert Cossery's Proud Beggars lets you know right up front that one of the main characters commits a senseless murder, and the focus is not really so much whether the police detective will find the killer but the way that this crime does or does not impact the killer and his two best friends.  It is a strange but intriguing blend of Camus's The Stranger and Mahfouz's cafe-based novels.  (When I get around to reading Cossery's The Jokers, I may finally be inspired to review his Cairo Trilogy.)  I think Cossery does have a fairly cynical take on society and how corruption pervades Egyptian society to the point that anyone who participates fully in society is a dupe or a criminal (and it's probably worse to merely be a dupe).  The cynicism of the three friends starts to rub off on the detective, and he does wonder if he is wasting his time. (Interestingly, in Durrenmatt's play The Physicists, the inspector comes more or less to the same conclusion and he can't wait until he can retire and no longer worry about the murders committed in the psychiatric hospital.)

I was only a few pages into Carla Tomaso's Matricide when the tone started changing.  The beginning was somewhat manic and promising, about how this burned out teacher is going to go to a female-only writing retreat with her principal, and a former student more or less hitches a ride.  The narrative seems like one will keep stumbling across loads of lesbians in unexpected places, which is a bit comic, but then the teacher hooks up with a much older poet who reminds her of her mother.  And then there is a very overt and not that well-handled incest theme hanging over the rest of the novel.  Too bad, as I was enjoying it until that point, but after that, I knew I wasn't going to hang onto the book.  I would have felt much worse about that (it's one of the last from my mother's collection), but I recalled that I did have Bruno Schulz and a few others.  Now Bruno Schulz will merit an stand-alone review, I guess written when I am back from the States.

I will also be reviewing Gabrielle Roy's Street of Riches shortly as a separate review.  I'd like to get this posted by the end of the month, but that may not happen.  (I can't actually blog at all from my work laptop, and that is all I am taking on my trip to the States...)

After that, my reading slowed down considerably.  In part because I decided to tackle Moby Dick again (as I will be seeing it as a play in Chicago).  I thought I might skim parts of it, but really I am finding even the asides to be full of a really dry humour, so it looks like I will go ahead and read the whole thing (good thing I have some time to kill on the bus and in various airports).  Also, the weather has generally been cooperating, and I don't read as much on the days I ride to work.  I've seen quite a few plays these past two weeks, and the rest of my evenings have been taken up with small home improvements.

Since SummerWorks is over, there isn't much point in blogging about Svitch's Upon the Fragile Shore at great length.  I have mixed feelings about the play.  I think it does not have enough dramatic shape and it definitely seemed too long.  It is basically a catalog of bad things that happen, mostly due to man's inhumanity to man, but not always.  If you have ever read Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, you may know what I am talking about.  One bad thing piled onto another onto another.  (Actually, there is some shape to that trilogy since virtually everything that happens in those books can be blamed on the U.S. ...)  There is some relief here and there, but overall it feels like a negative experience, and the way she frames it almost makes you feel bad for just sitting back and soaking in all this misery from the comfort of your seats.  But I thought the language and imagery was strong in some places.  I particularly liked the Aurora, Boston and Kuala Lumpur episodes.  The only one I would definitely drop (were I her editor) was the stuff about Louisiana that I found very weak.  (I should also note that if I ever manage to stage Dharma Donuts, I'll at least see if one of the actors here wants the role of the spunky Hispanic sidekick.  I suspect my play isn't sufficiently cutting-edge for her, but one never knows.)

I also went and saw Julius Caesar in High Park.  Once again, I cut it very close, only turning up a few minutes before they released the reserved seats!  I didn't care much for the post-modern touches, particularly when one of Brutus's friends had a V for Victory mask on and then pulled it off to reveal the Caesar mask.  I went and looked up the script afterwards, and they cut one of Brutus's speeches at the end (probably ok -- I was definitely ready to go by that point) but they rolled Cinna the Poet and the Soothsayer together with some other lines of a random Roman.  Even that wouldn't have been so bad, but then they put long speeches in the mouth of the Southsayer/Cinna, and as far as I can tell, this came from some completely different source, i.e. not Shakespeare.  That just goes too far for my taste, so I don't think I would recommend it on that grounds alone, even setting aside the postmodern touches at the end.  But I still would highly recommend The Comedy of Errors, which I believe runs through Sept. 6, so a few more weeks to catch it.

That's really more than enough to cover what I have been up to these past 6 weeks or so.  

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Tall Building @ SummerWorks

I was going to wait until tonight to write this post, but I enjoyed The Tall Building quite a bit, and it turns out there is a showing today (Monday) at 5:15, so I might as well promote it right now, and then circle back around and fill in more thoughts tonight.  If you can't make the show Monday right after work, there are four more shows between Wed. and Sunday.  Details here.

There is a basic NNN review at Now, and a more thoughtful review at Mooney's.

Probably my favourite aspect of the show was the kid's obsession with 7-11.  I found these pretty fascinating growing up in the 'burbs, as they were one of the few things open late at night, which became kind of critical as my curfew got longer and I started driving.  In the city, the appeal of 7-11 and White Hen (kind of a Chicago thing) diminished slightly, though there was one on Belmont that always fascinated me, as it had a big parking lot (kind of rare for that close to the subway).  I always imagined aliens coming to land at that particular one.  In fact, I thought that Corporate Codes was going to be the story of aliens at that 7-11, but it went in a completely different direction (probably for the best).

Ok, I really do have to run now, but I'll fill in a few more thoughts on The Tall Building tonight.

Glorious Amateurs

If you read this post, you may have noted that I hoped to make it to the Sunday morning concert that wrapped up the Toronto Summer Music Festival at UT.  I did make it, biking furiously, though only with 5 minutes to spare.  I don't know that I would have made such an effort had I realized that the concert was to show off adult amateurs (in the MC's words) who had take a week off to study with the professionals at the UT Music School.  (Sort of like fantasy baseball camp, but for musicians.)  Is it really that different from paying to see music students perform?  Aside from the fact that the students are (mostly) growing into professionals, and the adult amateurs know that this is not a viable career path for them?  The main reason I probably would have skipped it, is that in order to fit everyone onto the stage, most of the time they put on a single movement from each piece, and I really don't care much for that approach.  Nonetheless, I was there and decided to stick it out through a Shostakovich piece about 2/3rds down the program.

The choral piece was surprisingly good.  This was followed by an amusing piece for tuba and bass clarinet.  Things were starting to look up until it came to a Mozart piece for strings where the lead violin was quite out of tune and the piece kind of dragged on.  On the whole, I thought the performers did quite well, and probably half of the time, I would have been very willing to hear the entire piece.  In the case of one amateur quintet, I might even be willing to pay a small fee to see them elsewhere.

Every now and then I get the crazy idea of advertising on Craigslist (or the bulletin board at the music school) to put together a quartet to play Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  It is such a silly idea, not least because I don't know of any small theatres that have pianos, even upright ones.  Well, I probably won't completely give up on the dream, but it is a much lower priority than getting my various theatre writings up on the stage.  I guess it doesn't change my opinion of the piece, but it seems that Messiaen was a real pill when it came to anything involving the Quartet.  If this book is to be believed, Messiaen, just back from the internment camp where he wrote the Quartet, refused to intervene on behalf of the father of one of his fellow inmates (who played the clarinet part incidentally). This man ultimately died in Auschwitz.  I guess I can sort of understand Messiaen's paranoia that speaking out would lead him right back to the camps, but it is a shame he did not act more nobly.  Certainly my mental picture of Messiaen is stained now.

Sadly, someone either pulled out or got unbelievable stage fright and they did not perform the Shostakovich Concertino for 2 pianos.  Somewhat surprisingly I do not appear to have this on any of my CDs, so I'll have to track it down through Naxos or something.  I stuck it out for one more movement of a Poulenc chamber piece and then went back home.

I'd kind of thought that I would be going to the Taste of the Danforth, but ultimately changed my plans.  I actually don't like crowds all that much, and the last time I was there, the menu was heavily slanted towards beef and chicken...

I got a haircut at the mall and then went back out to Theatre Passe Muraille to see The Hum, which was part of Summer Works.  I have to say that this is a show that is almost review-proof.  Who wants to write a negative review and directly or indirectly attack a 10 year old girl?  The concept is basically that they have a number of artworks produced by the girl, and then they (the mother and father) wrote a show around it with some discussion of the glory of camping and canoeing, and some dancing and so on.  I guess the parents are local artists, though this reminded me very much of the movement to democratize the arts so that anyone can call themselves an artist.  But they had plenty of supporters and friends of the family in the audience, so I guess that is fine.  I knew more or less what this was going into it, but I still thought it would be a bit more polished.  I would recommend it if you want to be inspired by children's creativity and have children of your own, but would probably pass otherwise.  I do think my kids would have liked it, though I am sure my son would be asking why don't I write a play for him to perform...

I suppose the answer is it is a fine idea if one has the right connections or can understand how the lottery system works for the Fringe.  

Anyway, I stayed downtown and did a bit of work, then came back for the 7:30 show The Tall Building, which I will comment on elsewhere, as it was not amateurish at all.

Friday, August 7, 2015

One summer festival ends, another begins

There really is no end to the things one can be doing in Toronto.  I am finding I have to dole out my time carefully.

I actually did find out about the Toronto Summer Music festival in time to consider going to a few performances.  Unfortunately, I was booked solid for two interesting ones (including something this Saturday, for those interested).  My best option was to go last night to the complete Bartok String Quartet cycle, and I did make it home in time to go.  But I was a bit exhausted from giving a practice run of a presentation I am doing in September (plus all the running around to other events I have been doing).  And to be honest, the prices for students and those under 35 are fine, but this concert was a bit rich for my blood, considering I had never even heard of this quartet before.  Had the price been $10 less, I would have gone.  I am sorry that I won't make the concert tomorrow, but the Kushner play at the Shaw Festival runs 4 hours long!  I actually had to adjust my car reservation so I won't be late returning it.  There is a free concert Sunday morning at 11 (programme unannounced so far), and I'll probably drop in on that.

I honestly don't know how I heard about the SummerWorks festival.  It might even just have been a random pop-up on the internet.*  However, this looks very much up my alley.  Almost like Fringe Pt. 2.  The creativity and the ability to make work on a shoestring is quite impressive here in Toronto.  I'd say in this respect it does rival Chicago.  Anyway, this one is just kicking off, so there are opportunities to see just about everything (aside from The Stranger, which may well be sold out for the entire run).  For what it is worth, I am going to try to get a 3-show pass and reserve places for Hum, The Tall Building and Upon the Fragile Shore.  The last one is written by Caridad Svich (she may well be the most celebrated playwright at this particular festival).  I have to admit, I wasn't crazy about Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart -- and this play looks in the same vein.  However, I think I should still take a chance, given that the tickets are very reasonable.  Actually, this is being billed as the Canadian premiere of the piece, but it looks like the previous stagings have all been readings.  This might in fact be the first full production of the piece world-wide, for people who care about such things...

Maybe I will see you at one of these shows, and there are plenty of other interesting events and happenings at SummerWorks.

* Actually, I now recall that I had been searching on Now and Mooney's to see what was going on and found out about it that way.  And SummerWorks is the cover story of Now, so I would have heard of it fairly soon one way or the other.  I stopped by the Factory Theatre, and went ahead and booked my 3 tickets.  Hopefully, the shows turn out to be interesting.  (I wasn't too familiar with Factory Theatre, but their next season looks reasonably interesting (moreso than Tarragon at any rate), and I may go to a few shows.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Dancing in Withrow Park

Well, the adventures are piling up faster than I can post about them, but I should mention Dusk Dances in Withrow Park, which has 4 more nights to go (the show starts at 7:30, but with a class to teach you to dance salsa beforehand) and there are matinee performance tonight and Sunday at 2:30. More details are here.

I need to start off by saying that while I am a big believer in live performance, I've never been a big fan of interpretive dance, modern dance or even ballet.  That said, I do enjoy dance more than opera...

Anyway, Withrow Park is practically in my backyard, and the suggested fee was only $10, so I thought I would check it out.

The main part of the show is 4 shortish dances (maybe 10-15 minutes each) followed by a 30 minute piece called Disconcertante.

I thought overall it was a lot of fun, but I did not think it was a good idea to haul the audience across the park for each performance.  Even if they needed set up time between pieces, they could have charted a better route that didn't force the seniors and small children to walk so far.  This was particularly true of the last piece which was held at the complete other end of the park, down a fairly treacherous incline, just as it was getting fairly dark.  I was particularly resentful as I had parked my bike on the opposite side of the park.  (While Withrow Park has a lot of nice features, it is unbelievably lacking in bike racks.)

The night started off with a Spanish dancer doing some modified Flamenco dance.  It was good, though not particularly innovative.

Then there was Mumure de femme, which was an African dance piece for five women.  This was very energetic.  I think my daughter would have liked it.

Then came Bella, which was a duet beside, on top of and under a large wooden horse.  It had it's moments, but didn't sustain my interest that much.  It could have been shorter for sure.

My favourite piece was Photuris Versicolor, which featured two female performers wrapped up in silver blankets.  They emerged as two buzzing fireflies.  This freaked out a few small children, who had to be taken home...  They danced around and finally seduced a man from the audience and then after dancing with him, ate him.

I heard from some people walking around that last year there had been a very funny piece, and I guess we could have made the show, though I suppose we were still quite busy unpacking from the move.  I wouldn't say this was laugh-out-loud funny, or at least not most of the time, but it was droll.


The night ended with Disconcertante.  I was already disposed to not like it very much, since I thought it was ridiculous to move it to the other end of the park.  I also had a sense that this was from a choreographer that took himself too seriously.  The moves were sort of intentionally anti-dance, rough, choppy movements that sort of drew attention to the whole artifice of dance.  Then to make matters worse, a solid five minute chunk in the middle was danced without music.  I've written a bit about artists who push the envelope, since they are essentially bored with all that has been done before, but they usually end up with very sterile art.  That's what I felt about this piece, and I had no qualms about leaving only a few minutes into it.

A few quibbles aside, this was an entertaining evening, and I'll definitely look into going next year, probably taking the kids as well.

Monday, August 3, 2015

La Dolce Vita

I don't know if it's more surprising or sad that I had never seen more than a short clip or two from La Dolce Vita.  I mean I've owned the DVD for ages and even recently picked up the Blu-Ray (though this is missing in the house somewhere).

Now despite this being a 55 year old film (and among the most famous films ever made), it is apparently possible to have gone through life (even as an admirer of foreign films) and not know much about the film.  It may well be that the 3-hour length is enough to scare many people off.  Certainly I never felt I had a 3-hour block of time, aching to be filled by a jaded look at the life of rich and idle Romans.

Actually, in my case, it is particularly sad as I have accumulated a small pile of Fellini films, but have not watched any of them.  But that is the case with so many of these masterpieces.  There are just too many of them (and generally quite cheap too, especially if you wait for bargains from, and I tend to spend my leisure time reading.  In terms of foreign-language film makers, I've done a reasonable job watching Jacques Tati and Ingmar Bergman and Kurosawa, though there are still important films left to watch (at least for the last two). I've seen a small handful of films by Godard, Melville, Antonioni, Fritz Lang, Roy Andersson, Satyajit Ray, Tsai Ming-Liang  and Bela Tarr. I've seen almost none by Renois, Truffaut, Rohmer, Ozu, Naruse, Fassbinder or Fellini as I said.  This is depressing, and yet I also know I have many amazing movies yet to see, and many of them I could show the kids, at least my son, as they get a bit older.

I found out somewhat late that TIFF was doing a summer in Italy film series this summer, and I actually decided somewhat at the last minute to go try and see Amarcord (inspired by stills of the movie in an Italian restaurant in Stratford).  But I must have gotten the timing wrong and the movie was shown only once (while I was in Stratford!).

That left only La Dolce Vita as a movie I really wanted to try to see, since I knew I would be a lot more likely to make it through in one sitting in a movie theatre.  However, as I mentioned in the 1000 Monkeys post, that overlapped with the ending of the playwriting marathon, and going from one marathon to another putative one seemed awfully punishing.  Nonetheless, I kept it in mind as a goal, and when it became clear that I would finish early, I went home and got ready to go to the movies...

In the end, I fussed around here a bit (recovering) and made it to the box office with only about 15 minutes to spare, yet there were a few tickets left.  Just like the showing of Kubrick's 2001, it was completely sold out by the time the curtain opened, and they ultimately opened up the balcony, though I suspect some people were turned away by that point.  I realize if they showed these movies on a more frequent basis the crowds would thin out, but it seems there is a fairly healthy demand out there for putting the revered classics up on the big screen.  Maybe we'll see the revival of 2nd run theatres here in Toronto, or the ones that are still hanging on will start programming the foreign classics again.  One can dream anyway...

From this point on, there will be SPOILERS, so turn away if you are a Dolce Vita virgin.

I'd only known about a couple of scenes, and even the raucous party at the end played out a bit differently than I thought it would go (it was more sordid and yet more of a tease than anything really debauched, as I imagined it would be).

However, the Trevi fountain scene did play out more or less like I thought (though again a bit anti-climactic (intentionally so!)), simply because that that clip is shown in all kinds of contexts.  Still, I wasn't aware that Ekberg had the kitten all over her head walking to the fountain.  The way she had Marcello Mastroianni going around begging for milk was quite hysterical.

(Of course, I made it a point to see the fountain when I was in Rome, though it is hard to image it nowadays being deserted at any time, day or night.)

For some reason I thought that Paparazzo was going to get knocked off his Vespa and killed, though that did not happen at all.

However, I was thrown for a loop, and was truly surprised and shocked by one scene of the film: Steiner's suicide and the fact that he killed his two children first.  I can imagine him feeling empty and contemptuous of Roman society, though his own soirees did seem a bit more high-minded than the other parties that always seemed about ready to degenerate into orgies.  But what drove him to drag his children down with him?  I clearly don't think about movies nearly as much as the people who really love them, like these critics.  I will say that they present a few compelling arguments, namely that Steiner so feared what the world was coming to (decades before the environmental crisis became truly existential as it is started to feel today...) that he wanted to "save" his children from it, or, alternatively, that he was such a narcissist that he wanted to withhold his perfect children from the world.  I lean slightly more towards the first option.  However, it is interesting how one can think and over-think the film.  I suspect that their revulsion to his deeds color their subsequent viewings of the film, when they say things like Steiner's playing Bach in the church is a pretentious, obvious choice or even that Steiner is clearly putting Marcello on when he says that he enjoys his writing.  Furthermore, they claim that the children's bedroom is a modernist nightmare, and that Marcello is being dishonest when he says that he finds this a refuge and that he would like to come over more often.  I didn't get this feeling.

I do agree with them (and this helps put the movie in better perspective) that the loss of Steiner removes Marcello's polestar and without this belief that there can be dignity in erudition, even in a very degraded Rome, he quickly surrenders to the lure of easy money.  I didn't quite realize that he had become a publicity agent for the film industry (that may have been more apparent in the screenplay), but he is definitely more shallow (and yet even more disgusted with himself) at the end.

I thought the creepy eye of the ray or skate that the fisherman bring up from the depths was referenced by Bela Tarr in Werckmeister Harmonies.  I'm quite sure that the party breaking up and the revelers wandered off into the dawn has been used dozens of times since, though I am struggling to think of the last time I've seen it used.  References below are welcome.

In terms of scenes I liked quite a bit - when he is left hanging in the whispering chamber and the scenes with his father, including the very melancholy scene where his father senses if he keeps overdoing it in Rome he will drive himself to an early grave and he catches an early train home.  Marcello trying to make a connection with his father, convincing him to stay another day, may be the closest he comes to real emotion (even the scenes where he yells at his finance seem like play-acting).  He is just the most extreme case of all these characters drifting through life.  Ebert's Great Movies review touches on this here and there.

A powerful scene, though not one I liked very much, is when Steiner's wife is wondering why everyone is trying to take her picture as if she is someone famous (this is before the horror is unveiled to her, though she suspects something is wrong).  Nothing at seems sacred to these newspaper reporters (generally the previous takes on them was that they acted all cynical but most had a sentimental streak like in The Front Page).

I thought the scene out in the countryside worked well, but those scampish children leading the credulous villagers on a merry chase after the Virgin Mary definitely deserved a good scolding.  Instead, everyone in the family was getting ready to cash in, and why not if the media was going to make money too?  Only the foolish took it seriously, and yet even those who only took it half-seriously couldn't resist trying to touch the miraculous and killed the tree by tearing away its leaves and then branches.  The tragedy of the commons in action... I do think Fellini masterfully closed out the scene with one of the supplicant children dying and the mother crying in the rain.  (This was almost as good a use of rain as Kurosawa.)

That leads me to a question.  The whole business of the film (and television?) crew setting up to film this little tree (almost as forlorn as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, even before its branches were torn off) reminded me of another film where while the action is going on, a big construction set is being built.  I believe ultimately the actors are asked to move along, since they are not going to be in the shot, though I don't remember that for certain.  I think, but may well be wrong, that this was in color.  It certainly was a foreign-language film, but I don't know if it was Fellini's 8 1/2 (probably not) or some homage to Fellini by Antonioni or a French or even Japanese film maker.  If that sounds at all familiar, drop me a note in the comments.  Thanks.

No flouncing

I've generally felt that flouncing (i.e. making a big deal about quitting a thread or an entire bulletin board) only makes you look silly, particularly since at root you really are only doing it to attract more attention to yourself.  (It then looks especially foolish when you come back, which virtually always happens.)  I suppose narcissists are largely the folks driving the internet, particularly these days, but you still don't have to make such a big production of it.

It does seem like stirring up internet beefs is an art these days, with probably the majority being arranged beforehand.  While it is tempting to say that we are shallower these days, there really was a lot of trite celebrity news in the 1960s and 70s (esp. anything related to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), and La Dolce Vita indicates the seeds of this worship of pop culture icons started in the 1950s (if not even before).  The difference (to me) seems that the balance is off.  We always had the human interest news and celebrity news, but this always was given third or even fourth billing after the serious state of the world business.  Now celebrity news (and feuds) drive the media cycle.

Anyway, as tempting as it is to launch a feud with some parties that have slighted me, I think it is better to refrain.  Perhaps some day I will end up working with them, though for moment, I am going to work on getting into another circle.  I think that really is all I can say, since if I say anything more about why I am disappointed, it will become apparent whom I am speaking of and that would defeat my larger purpose of trying to be the nobler party who suffers silently (mostly).

Updates on the household tasks

Well, I have been tracking my progress, and things are generally coming together.  I've gotten the desk fixed and the bathroom door sanded down to the point where it doesn't seem to be sticking.

I did empty out two more boxes downstairs (though in one case just by adding greatly to some piles of books next to the bookcase in the basement).  I did find the last major box of TBRD books, and I even tracked down a paperback copy of Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers (just when I was about to go look for a newer copy with what appears to be a cover by Alex Colville -- well, maybe I won't resist if I happen to see if for really cheap in a shop...).  In terms of the things -- that I am aware of -- that I can't track down at the moment, it is down to La Dolce Vita on Blu-ray and Giulini in America (Chicago Symphony Orchestra).  That's not too shabby.  They'll probably turn up when I am looking for something else.*

I also managed to get the outdoor table up just before a huge rain storm.  (Fortunately, it passed by the time I had to cycle down to Red Sandcastle for the reading, though it did rain a second time during the readings.)

I think the deck will be quite nice this fall.

I had hoped to get a bit further with the painting of the downstairs bathroom.  I may be able to get through all the taping in the morning.  I am not sure I can finish the painting before 1:15, which is when I am probably heading out for 1000 Monkeys.  It really would be rude not to turn back up, particularly if I want to try to stage some of my plays there from time to time.  I don't know what the rental fees are, but I'll ask Rosemary tomorrow.  I also forgot my business cards, and I should definitely have handed out some of those yesterday (to say nothing of Sing-for-Your-Supper, if I feel up to going to that).

The main setback -- and it may be a significant one -- is that the ceiling fan box does not appear to be properly wired.  It took a few hours to pull down the old fan, and I thought I could handle the job myself, when I found this problem.  It does not have the appropriate ground wire, which means that it could shock someone (not now but in the future if the wires short out), particularly as you do have to pull the switch to turn on the light.  I've got a friend who probably does know enough to help out, but he may decide that this is indeed a job for a professional.  What I really dread is having to open up the ceiling and/or the wall, but I'm in a really terrible position now, having a couple of wires dangling from the ceiling and no fan (when it has been such a hot, hot summer with few signs this is changing any time soon).

Oh well.  The joys of owning an older house...

Edit to add: I did manage to get the bathroom painted, so all in all, it was a very, very busy but productive weekend (I am glad for the holiday though) with only one significant snag due to old wiring.  Now if it doesn't dry evenly, I'll probably have to hit it with one more coat, but that should go faster since the tape is still up.  Maybe it will only take two hours or so, which isn't too bad.

Aside from the ceiling fan where it looks like I will have to call in professionals, I think the only significant remaining task is to cut down a board to add one more shelf to my son's bookcase.  That can definitely be done one evening this week or next, so everything will be done by the end of summer.  Not bad...

* So yes to the Giulini and no to Dolce Vita so far.  (I do, however, know where the DVD version is, which is the more critical at this point.)  I can't put my hands on the hair clippers at the moment, and I also am wondering about two books (out of the many, many books that are stashed away).  I am fairly sure that I hung onto my copy of Nin's Cities of the Interior and will keep my eye out for it.  I am equally confident that I parted with Jean Rhys's Complete Novels, and I am contemplating buying a trade paperback copy as a replacement.  Reading those back to back, while tempting, would probably be a mistake.