Monday, July 23, 2012

About Looking (Book Review)

John Berger About Looking (1980) Berger’ style is his own, which makes reading him like learning a foreign language. He is most concerned with the meaning of art, less so with style, composition, technique, palette – the stuff of conventional criticism. He believes, passionately, that art matters because it can express the artist’s view of life. His question is always, What meanings does the artist express in his painting? And are these meanings socially valid or not? In his discussion of individual artists (Courbet, for example) he ignores art-historical ideas almost completely. He implies that valuing Courbet for his stylistic innovations misses the point.
     He’s in good company. Most people want to know what an art work “means”, especially if it’s not obviously a genre painting, a pleasant landscape, or a recognisable portrait. This desire to understand art at some level that can be verbalised explains the popularity of Sister Wendy’s TV programs and books, for example. Anyone who takes art seriously sooner or later comes to some version of Berger’s and Sister Wendy’s belief in the significance of art. For myself, when I look at a painting, I want to see some evidence that the painter was compelled to make it, that he or she made the picture because not making it would have left a gap in the artist’s life. This is the difference between painting as a pastime and making art: the Sunday painter could just as well have spent time reading a book or playing golf.
     Berger’s book is not an easy read. But he made me want to know more about some artists, to see more of their work, which is I think the best justification for art criticism. Recommended. ***
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Rick Mercer Report: The Book (Book Review)

Rick Mercer The Rick Mercer Report:  The Book (2007) Rick’s Rants, some complete, some excerpted, along with a few photos and snippets of dialogue. How little has changed, and yet how soon we forget! Politics is still a mix of farce and tragedy, and we, the electorate, still forget the scandals, corruption, and foolishness within weeks or months. If people had the contents of this book top-of-mind during the last election, Harper would not, I think, have garnered a majority.
     Mercer on the page doesn’t have the impact he has on the screen, but that’s a good thing: we can see both his tricks and shticks, as well as the substance of his complaints. A lot of the time, Mercer’s comedic, satiric style assists us in coping with the appalling contempt for democracy evinced by our leaders. But we rarely laugh out loud. Someone once said that war is too serious to leave to the generals. I wish more of my fellow Canadians realised that politics is too serious to leave to the politicians. ***

In the Frame (book review)

Helen Mirren In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures (2007) I don’t often read biographies, auto- or otherwise, but when I do, I’m  pleased to see how people’s lives are all the same mix of the ordinary and the surprising. That’s the impression, anyhow, but reflection shows that what’s surprising to me is ordinary to others, and vice versa. Mirren’s background is Russian: her family were what in England would be called “gentry”. Her parents, like many others, ended up on  England because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Many years later, Mirren was able to reconnect with the extant Russian branch of the family, an event that meant a lot to her. She is deeply committed to her family, and very proud of them all.
     She decided quite early on that she wanted to be an actor, and has worked hard at her profession. She’s generous with praise for the help and teaching she got along the way from many different people, and equally generous with praise for her fellow actors, for directors, cinematographers, costume designers – all the people that make a show work. It looks like she simply omitted mention of the jerks and doofuses that must have crossed her path. She does say she’s still angry at a couple of men who took advantage of her naivete when she was a student, but on the whole she has had a satisfactory love life, and is obviously deeply in love with her latest (and last) partner, Taylor Hackford. They married after 11 years together. Although she claims not to take weddings too seriously, she clearly enjoyed hers.
     Someone has pointed out that an autobiography by definition is false, since the author decides what persona to present to the world; and we all are more than and different from our personas. True; but truth is always incomplete. As with any history, the question is, Does this, incomplete though it is, have the ring of truth? For this book, the answer is Yes. I’ve liked Mirren ever since I saw her in Prime Suspect. If anything, this book made me like her more. Recommended. ***
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Byzantine Churches of Alberta (Book Review)

Shemchishen, Orest Byzantine Churches of Alberta (1976) Edited by Hubert Hohn. Shemchishen was commissioned to record country churches serving Orthodox congregations before they dwindled away and the churches were pulled down. He succeeds admirably. Hubert Hohn, at the time curator of the Edmonton Art Gallery,  contributes an Introduction of several pages and many words, which can be summarised as “Documentary photography succeeds when we see that the subject of the photograph mattered to the photographer.” This happens to be true for Shemchishen’s work: the pictures both record the fact of the buildings’ existence, the details of their architecture and settings, and also the sense that economic and social changes have made them superfluous. They stand on the prairie, isolated. The light clarifies their substance. The interiors, silent and empty, allude to the performance of the sacred rites for which they were built.
     There are no people in any of the photos. One is surrounded by cars and trucks that indicate a liturgy is in progress in the church: it stands out as an anomaly. Most of the churches, although well-kept, already seem like relics of a past that few recall, and fewer will narrate.
     This collection of photographs is more than a source book. Hohn is right: Shemchishen’s work shows that these buildings meant something to him. Worth looking at more than once. **½

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Nephew (Movie review)

The Nephew (1998) [D: Eugene Brady. Niall Tobin, Sinead Cusack, Luke Griffin, Pierce Brosnan] Chad Egan-Washington, the biracial American son of Karin Egan, a wayward Irish girl who emigrated to the US, goes to his mother’s home village in Ireland to spread her ashes. His arrival stirs up old memories and forces people to confront their wrongful past actions. His Uncle Tony has had a grudge against the pub owner Joe Brady ever since Karin left. Brady’s daughter Aislin and Chad develop a relationship, which pleases neither of the older men. Peter O’Boyce, who has a crush on Aislin, complicates the plot. Of course everything turns out OK in the end, with confessions and secrets shared leading to understanding and redemptive self-insight.
     That’s the story, a farrago of cliches, so the question is how well the film riffs on them. Very well, I’d say. It’s low key, does a lovely job of developing the characters’ slowly accumulating awareness, and even though we figure out what the revelations will be, they are done well enough that we care. On-line ratings are barely above average, which was my initial reaction, too. I think the rather thick lathering of Irish charm has something to do with some viewers’ negative responses.
     But this is one of those movies whose images stick in your mind, and which make you angry at the harm done by hiding shameful secrets and making respectability a prime value. So I’d say the movie is successful. ***

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bullitt (Movie Review)

Bullitt (1968) [D: Peter Yates. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett] This is a noir film in colour. The situation is simple: protect a mobster who will give evidence at a grand jury hearing. An ambitious D.A. wants to ensure he gets credit for bringing down “the organisation”. But the man is killed, and Bullitt knows something is seriously wrong. The dead man was not in fact the mobster, so Bullitt has two tasks: to find the killers, and to find the real witness. He must also fend off both the ambitions politician (played creepily by Robert Vaughn) but also the mob (who want to ensure the victim is truly dead.
     Bullitt’s an honest cop who doesn’t like being pushed around by VIPs. He goes his own way to find his quarry, but knows how to work with his team. At the turning point, he sees he’s being followed, so he dekes up a side street and begins to follow the car that pursued him. It turns into a deadly chase, one that film makers have studied and borrowed from ever since. I recall seeing it on a large screen. It looks pretty good on the smaller TV screen, too. It really is one of the best ever filmed. Many of its tricks have become standard, so anyone seeing this movie for the first time would probably be somewhat blase about the car chase.
The plot is intricate but clearly delineated, step by procedural step. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is laconic, unwilling to show his deeper feelings (there’s a perfunctory love subplot), and he’s finally worn down by the violence he must perforce witness and commit. The final act shows us another classic sequence, a chase across the runways of the airport at night.
     A good movie, well worth seeing again, or for the first time. ***

Get rid of veggies in front yard! (Link)

In Drummondville, Quebec, a couple are being told to remove their vegetable garden from their front yard:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Away From Her (Book Review)

Alice Munro Away From Her (2001, 2007) Re-titled from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, one of Munro’s best collections. Munro has the ability to make us see and care about people, from the most ordinary to most strange. She  displays how her character’s lives are shaped not merely by the accidental meetings and events that fate bestows, but by the follies and weaknesses, the strengths and wisdom that control the responses to those accidents. Munro does this with neither pity nor cruelty: the lives she shows us simply are what they are. She leaves it up to us to make sense of them.
     The occasional first-person narrator ends the story with some summing up, but we know it’s not the final word, it’s just another fragment in the puzzle that is a person. It marks the end of an episode, but it doesn’t explain a life. Sometimes the story ends with a character’s reaction to what has just happened, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, whatever revelation was vouchsafed to the character, it’s not a solution to a mystery, nor is it a sign of what's to come. What will happen next is as imponderable, as inevitable, and as contingent as everything that went before. The events of the story appear as part of a life, yet they contain the whole life. In this, Munro’s stories have the depth and resonance of a novel.
     It’s difficult to summarise an Alice Munro story. Describing one of the central events is not enough. In Away From Her a woman develops Alzheimer’s. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage a woman marries an apparently unsuitable man. In Floating Bridge, a woman kisses a young man, almost a boy, who has taken to show her a floating bridge while her husband negotiates some business with his father. In  Comfort an undertaker tells a widow, whom he kissed many years before, how he has prepared her husband’s body for burial. In Nettles a woman meets her childhood sweetheart many years later. What is Remembered tells of a single but very satisfying sexual encounter between a young wife and a man who drives her to the ferry that will take her home after a funeral.
     In all these stories, people remain mysterious to each other, their relationships made incomplete by the limits of language, the constraints of social expectations, the wounds that make us fearful of suffering another injury. And yet. And yet. There are glimpses and hints of happiness and joy. Moments when some barrier is breached, some separateness transcended. Recognition that the only morality is to be with each other, and not use each other. ****

Shock and Awe (TV)

Shock and Awe (2010) [TVO] A BBC series about the discovery, exploitation, and eventual understanding of electricity. Well done, with many re-creations of crucial experiments. One comes away with a renewed respect for the scientists and engineers who worked out the way electricity does its many things, and an appreciation for the fact that we don’t really know anything else about electricity except just that: how it works. The equations describe what happens, and thereby enable us to control what happens, and that’s all.
     Those who want to know what electricity “really is” will be disappointed. But to ask what a thing “really is” is to ask for more than we can know of it. Reality is what we can know and understand. There may be more, but since we cannot know or understand it, it’s pointless to ask what it is. It is of course not pointless ask whether we can know more than we know now, but that’s not a paradox. We each of us have limitations, and we each have the ability (albeit limited) to transcend those limitations when we share what we know. Conversation is a liberator.
     One thing that’s missing from these series is the dead ends of mistaken theories and false starts. Science progresses as much from discovering what ain’t so as from discovering what is. As with all documentaries, some prior knowledge will provide the personal context needed for understanding and pleasure. In this case, a middle or high school knowledge of electricity is enough. ***

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mr Bean's Holiday (Movie Review)

 Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007) A road movie: Bean wins both a video camera and a trip to Cannes, where he wants to paddle in the water. A mess of mishaps happen, which I won’t summarise. Most of the Mr Bean tropes that we’ve come to love (or hate) are worked into the plot, so Mr Bean fans will like this movie. The rest of us will spend a more or less pleasant hour and a half, or avoid the movie altogether. I’m a lukewarm fan, so I rate the it at **

Fawlty Towers (TV series review)

 Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) run a small hotel in Torquay. Basil wants to raise the tone of the place, and repeatedly fails to do so. He fawns on guests he believes are socially acceptable, and is rude to those who don’t measure up his snobbish standards. The humour comes both from his desperate attempts to rescue situations in which he’s made mistakes, his venomous wit, and the contrast between his self-esteem and his horrified self-loathing when he recognises he has, once again, messed up. We watched all 12 episodes. I think some of the humour went over Jonathon’s head.
     I was again struck by the near-perfect plotting (I say near-perfect only because I’m sure there are some flaws somewhere that I didn’t spot), the comic timing, the writing, the characterisation, and Cleese’s amazing ability as a physical actor. Not to everyone’s taste, but highly recommended all the same. ****

Thursday, July 05, 2012

In the Light of History (Book Review)

J H Plumb In the Light of History (1972) Essays, reviews, and occasional pieces by a historian with a distinguished academic record (for which he was knighted in 1982), yet not one who made much of a splash outside the universities. His specialty was England in the eighteenth century, but  judging from this book he read widely beyond that narrow focus. I liked his occasional pieces best, written for a general magazine audience in the 1960s. He’s good at presenting a brief sketch of what we think we know, then carefully, and often wittily, revising it in the light of documents that professional historians have hunted out and published. This is the light of history of the book’s title.

     Plumb’s gift is to present to us the way people lived. He believed that there was no point in knowing what happened in politics, war, and trade, if you couldn’t imagine what it was like to live in that time and place. What mattered then as now is that people of different classes lived different lives. What matters now is that our lives have become very different from those of our ancestors. Plumb is on of the few people to recognise that technology drives change because it changes the time and effort spent on daily living, and because it expands the range of available choices. We interpret this as progress because for most of us these changes give us more comfortable, healthier, less work-intensive lives. It also changes power structures, which is why the conservative reaction to changes has become so vicious. The old patterns of wealth and power are undermined when ordinary people can live better than their betters did a couple or three generations before.
     Plumb made some astute predictions. He noted in an essay on hippies that these people focus on themselves, on the satisfaction of their emotional and aesthetic needs, and withdraw from politics. This is dangerous, for it allows fascism to breed in the political vacuum created by their disengagement. An article in the New York Times is a useful gloss on this insight:
     A book that is both entertaining and instructive. Recommended. ***

An Hour in Paradise (book Review)

Joan Leegant An Hour in Paradise (2003) Leegant can write. Like Munro, Gallant, Ford, and other masters of the short story, she can evoke a whole person and their milieu in a few sentences, and show us, ruthlessly but never cruelly, the consequences of their weaknesses and flaws, the effects of unexpected encounters with people and events. We are most of the time unable to see ourselves accurately, still less see the actual relationships with other people. Illusions of one kind or another may prevent us from achieving what we think we most desire, or may lead us into recognition of what we really want, that is, what we lack, need, and desire. Passions that we don’t acknowledge seize us unexpectedly. Goals we thought would give our lives purpose become mirages that lead us into a morass of despair. But there is always hope. The smallest joy can, at least for a time, compensate for the pain.
     So a young American PH D student, sure that he does not need a wife, is seized by love when he encounters a girl who knows she’s ready for a husband, but has false notions of the kind of man she could love. A couple unite after a lifetime of marriage to the wrong people, only to have their vision of bliss destroyed by frail health. A girl who thinks she wants the glamorous life of Hollywood is startled to recognise her soulmate in the man in the seat next to her on the flight home. A woman who has become pregnant by her married lover marries a man who rejects her when he discovers her pre-marital betrayal. Yet she could not help herself. There are six other tales, all worth reading.
     These stories draw you in. I wanted to know more of the world Leegant has imagined. ***