Thursday, September 25, 2008

War and Peace in Pieces

War and Peace, Volume 1 by Leo Tolstoy (Published 1869 - republished by Penguin Books Ltd., 1957) translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 712 pages

I have been toying with re-reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace which I have not read since my post-university days. I remember being curled up on the couch reading during very cold, snowy weather - or am I imagining this memory?

My reading cupboard was bare and I wanted a challenge, a big challenge. I was joking to a friend that I will be reading this on Valentines day next year (likely this is not a joke). But let me parse it book by book, part by part so that I may comprehend the whole. The cast is so vast that I keep a small chart of who's who in my copy of the book.

Aside from the obvious cliche of a lit geek picking up the mother of all novels to read (deemed by some to be "the best novel ever written" etc ...) this has been a very satisfying reading experience. Again, I dare not criticize the master but I do have a few observations. You must force yourself to slow down and accept the rhythm of the book which is much slower than we are accustomed to as modern readers. But I am looking forward to enjoying the two volumes over the fall and winter.

The cataclysmic effects of the Napoleonic Wars (the name given to the military campaigns in Europe between 1803 and 1815 prompted by Napoleon's designs on the rest of Europe) looms in 1805 and the aristocracy of Russia blithely dances on when the book begins. Several aristocratic families will be impacted and torn apart by the wars and we are introduced to them here in Part 1, Book 1.

I am reminded of how misanthropic Tolstoy seemed to be in his writings at times. How melancholy the Russian psyche appears ... conforming to all stereotypes about fiery, impassioned natures and bitter perspectives about life. Pierre broods, "He had the unlucky capacity many men, especially Russians, have of seeing and believing in the possibility of goodness and truth, but of seeing the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to take any serious part in life. Every sphere of activity was ... linked with evil and deception."

Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky head off to war to fight Napoleon ... the passages about the war are somewhat turgid unless, I suspect, you are totally immersed in the ins and outs of the Napoleonic Wars and the role of the Russian army. I know he had two illustrious ancestors with the same last surname who participated in the wars.

I can't attest to the historical accuracy of the scenes depicted of the Wars in the period of 1805 - 1809 although many if these fictional scenes are compelling: the brilliant image of Prince Andrei's almost hallucinogenic first glimpse of Napoleon on horseback while he lies wounded on the battlefield, presumably dying, at the end of Book One; soldiers being stripped naked and beaten for their minor transgressions; commanders stealing provisions to save their men from starvation; and, the wounded and dying, pleading for assistance, and being abandoned on the battlefield as the troops withdraw from Napoleon's forces are others.

Tolstoy does not spare us from the war obviously, but infinitely more interesting to me is the "peace" experienced by five aristocratic Russian families. Tolstoy touches on many elements of Russian society: religion, the class system, relations between men and women, history, Russian culture, familial obligation, wealth.

In St. Petersburg, Pierre Bezuhov, a newly minted Freemason and the "illegitimate" son and heir of his father Count Bezuhov's vast fortune, is disillusioned in love (both in romantic love and in his purported love of the common man). Helene Kuragin, his wife, cheats on him and he suspects, probably rightly, that all of high society knows of his sorrows and secretly laughs at him behind his back.

Trying to apply Masonic precepts to the liberation of the vast number of serfs under his command on Bezuhov's estates results in little progress and elicits scorn by his "inferiors" and contemporaries. Pierre is sometimes seen as Tolstoy's alter-ego.

Pierre Bezuhov, like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, struggles with his faith and with the desire to do good for his family and his serfs. Yet one senses the despair of the aristocrats Pierre and Levin - that their good deeds will all be for naught as the serfs are too deeply entrenched in their degradation and poverty to progress. Pierre, like Levin, is socially awkward, cerebral, easily offended and quick to offend ... mystified and perhaps slightly terrified by women. Misanthropic, angry and constantly struggling to find peace within himself.

His closest friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, is heading out to fight against the French forces leaving behind his pretty, if neurotic, wife Lise with his difficult and demanding father and devout sister Princess Maria in the countryside, at Bald Hills, the Bolkonskys' country estate, much to his wife's displeasure. Prince Andrei returns home to watch his wife Lise perish during childbirth. Andrei, disillusioned by his role in the Napoleonic Wars after Emperor Alexander I negotiates and "befriends" Russia's former enemy Napoleon, suffers a long period of bitterness and cynicism relieved only by the prospect of the sixteen yeard old Natasha Rostov's love and a prospective marriage.

Princess Maria Bolkonsky, his sister, devout, plain and virtually starved of love, channels all of her considerable spirituality and passion into raising her nephew Nikolai and caring for her "God's folk", pilgrims committed to a life of spiritual enrichment and physical abasement before God.

In Moscow, we meet the Rostov family who will figure prominently in the book. When the book opens twelve year old Natasha Rostov is in love with Boris Drubetskoy, a handsome if impoverished aristocrat and a near relation. Her brother Nikolai Rostov, an ambitious soldier, is in love with Sonya Rostov, also an orphaned cousin. We will learn more about elder sister Vera Rostov and younger brother Petya Rostov later in Volume 2.

Tolstoy underscores the frivolous, inconsequential life that many of his kinsmen lived (best expressed perhaps in the bitter diatribes against the aristocracy by the character Levin in Anna Karenina). They attend balls, conspire to court wealthy relations and marry off their daughters, indulge in frivolous, drunken, dangerous activities, challenge each other to duels, and expire sometimes very foolishly.

Nikolai Rostov thrives under military life despite his injuries at the Battle of Austerlitz returning only when begged by his rapidly impoverished family to return and take hold of the financially crumbling family fortune which he has hastened with a foolish gambling debt. Nikolai is more frivolous than Andrei, both with family and with the affections of his cousin Sonya who desires, but does not insist on, his honoring a childhood promise to marry.

Natasha Rostov, who is as delightful and impulsive as she is often portrayed in cinema, falls in love repeatedly ... with her impoverished cousin Boris, Nikolai's military friend Denisov (he of the annoying lisp), with Prince Andrei, and then yet another whom she will eventually marry. Every two hundred pages she has a new suitor!

Boris Drubetskoy, frivolous, irresponsible and poor, seeks a wealthy wife although drawn to the vivacious Natasha. He gets one.

Prince Vasili Kuragin (father of Helene) conspires firstly to deprive Pierre Bezuhov of his rightful inheritance and then to (successfully) marry off his daughter Helene to him with very unhappy consequences. While son Anatole Kuragin, vain, handsome and calculating, searches for a wealthy wife ...

Tolstoy seems to understand both the feminine and the masculine psyche so well within the constricted social hierarchy of the Russian aristocracy ... the passion that women hold for romantic love, family, social activity, gossip, children, friendship, fashion, society. The allure of war and valor for men, the importance of comradeship between men, and proving oneself before other men.

And as with Anna Karenina, I am always amazed by Tolstoy's understanding of the female psyche whether he writes of the young Natasha's delight at her first ball, her first love and her disastrous near elopement; Sonya's passion for her cousin Nikolai; Princess Maria's shame and dissatisfaction at being paraded before a potential suitor; or, Mademoiselle Bourienne's quick and fruitless infatuation with the disarming Anatole Kuragin which quickly sabotages Princess Maria's hope of a marriage.

In a far more inferior book published last year, The Emperors' Children, the characters debate whether they are a "Natasha" or a "Pierre". I could not remember the significance of that reference when I read the book. Now I see it likely refers to Natasha's enthusiasm and love of life versus Pierre's self-doubt, cynicism and misanthropy ... which are you? I haven't decided yet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Debate

We've been talking about the HPV vaccine a great deal. J, when she reaches grade eight next year, will have the option of getting the shot or not. It is meant to prevent cervical cancer which the girls can develop after contact with the virus in a sexual relationship. Can I tell you how unpopular this discussion is with a squeamish 12 year old and two protective parents of a lone female child? I think you can imagine.

But the consensus after discussing this with J's doctor and a close friend who is an ob/gyn doctor is yes, we should proceed.

J dislikes the idea intensely ... it's not just the needle which she is nervous about, it's thinking about the whole thing ... cancer, boys, sexual activity ... yuck.

J asked her father why I didn't have to have the vaccine and R had to explain that circumstances were different and this was not recognized, or seen as a threat, at that time.

J very sweetly said, "So ... 12 years ago [when she was conceived] that virus didn't exist?"

I looked at her dumbstruck (momentarily). "Oh sweetheart, did you think the first time mummy and daddy were "together" was just before you were born???"

The wave of shock and horror that passed over her face in successive waves ...

"Ewwww, why did you say that? Eww, I don't want to think about that!!!" True disgust distorted her sweet little face in a grimace of horror.

"But sweetie, we were married for a while before you were born ... you didn't think we ---?"

She marched off in disgust. "I don't want to talk about this!" she yelped. And she rapidly disappeared into her room presumably to escape her icky mother. :)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

TIFF 2008: Disgrace

Disgrace (Australia, 2008) by Steve Jacobs, 120 minutes (Cumberland 3)

My last film for this festival ... I enjoyed it despite losing an earring and spilling my entire cup of coffee all over myself and on the floor in front of me. I was chatting with the woman behind me; she had seen 45 films - lord my head would have exploded - those days are well behind me (not that I ever saw 45 films at the festival).

I begin and end the festival with a film featuring John Malkovich.

Based on J.M. Coetzee's book of the same name, it features the ever present John Malkovich. He has been busy with three films at the festival. Here he plays David Lurie, an arrogant yet lonely professor of romantic literature at a university in Cape Town; he is also a loathsome lothario preying on his students and finessing young girls with good wine, classical music and the romantic poetry of Byron. His last sexual affair goes wrong and the girl files a complaint against him at the university. Although not coerced, she appeared unwilling and faintly disgusted by the whole process even though she submited to his advances.

Losing his job and stalked by the vindictive and potentially violent boyfriend of the girl, he fancies himself some sort of Byronic hero. He admits to his involvement but refuses to apologize for his actions and leaves Cape Town. He decides to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) who lives on an isolated farm in the Eastern Cape. There is a lot of blather about men following their impulses and such which will eventually bite him in the proverbial you know what it turns out.

Lucy co-exists happily with Petrus, a black farmer with ambitions to improve the property that he co-owns with Lucy. Lucy's laid back live and live philosophy is severely tested when she and her father are attacked by three black youths, one of whom it turns out is related to Petrus by marriage and eventually comes to live with Petrus.

Lucy's liberal guilt is maddening to witness. She feels compelled to leave things as they are even though they have both been horribly violated and she will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life. She even submits to some humiliating conditions in order to preserve her way of life and keep the peace.

To say more would ruin the story but it seems that Lucy's resignation to the violence of men and the consequences of those actions prompts David to re-examine his own disreputable behavior and impulses. He undergoes a transformation of sorts, perhaps growing up for the first time and realizing that although he is less evil than the three boys, his own actions have created perhaps irreparable harm to those around him.

Friday, September 12, 2008

TIFF 2008: Che

Che by Steven Soderbergh (U.S., 2008) 4 hours, 20 minutes(!) with an intermission at Ryerson Theatre

I couldn't resist using this iconic image. It's still incredibly powerful isn't it? It's little chilling looking at actor Benicio Del Toro in his Guevara garb in the film ...

Clearly director Steven Soderbergh worships at the altar of Che as do many left of centre artists and politicos. Ariel Dorfman had an interesting article in Time on Che and his enduring image (both visual and political). Che is, as they say, ubiquitous appearing on T-shirts, purses, book covers, coffee mugs. Forgotten is the complexity and darkness that was also a part of the man and as the article reminds us: "This erasure of complexity is the normal fate of any icon."

The simplest examination of the man's life will reveal Che to be extraordinarily humane, brave, articulate, respectful of women and protective of children, literate, fair, virile, handsome, loyal ... But Che was also the one who ordered prisoners executed without a fair trial in Cuba and killed deserters from the Communist cause on the spot.

The film is ambitious and adheres to history, it seems, accurately, perhaps too much so. Ernesto Guevara, an Argentine doctor, is invited by Fidel Castro to try and overthrow Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. They do so with a small rag tag group of guerillas that conquer the island region by region. Often they are abetted and cheered on by the campesinos themselves.

He achieves international fame or notoriety, speaking before the UN, being feted and adored int the West and everywhere he goes it seems. This is the first half of the film. In the second half, it is the mid 60s and he "disappears". He leaves wife Aleida and children in Cuba to go to Bolivia in disguise with a false passport to foment revolution but his reception is at times indifferent or openly hostile. He is perceived as a foreigner and troublemaker. He fails and dies for his efforts when caught by Bolivian troops. Reputedly, he was shot and then had his hands cut off as if, Dorfman points out, to minimize his power even further in the grave.

This is an extremely brief synopsis of a long film filled with historical detail - too much detail - we needed more exposition about what drove this man, what created what he was.

I remember watching Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and crying throughout it because I felt I had finally understood what drove this man to become a revolutionary. In the film, Che says something to the effect that he had seen too much and could no longer be the same person that he was. That quiet film, where two adventurous boys travel through South America on motorcycles and finally see, truly see, how other South Americans are suffering, are dying because of the evils wrought upon them by the state and corporations and the general indifference of their countrymen was infinitely more moving than this film where we see violent death and destruction dozens of times.

What is lost is the essence of the man. This is hagiography not a biography. He was a son, a friend, a lover, a husband, a father ... Yet he remains a beautiful icon much like the gorgeous photo we see here - pure without flaws or ugliness, only beneficence and valour. And for that reason specifically I think Soderbergh has failed with this film.

Not that it is not immensely appealing in its presentation, that it isn't fascinating to dwell on what he did and where. But why is it so?

From Ariel Dorfman again:
Perhaps in these orphaned times of incessantly shifting identities and alliances, the fantasy of an adventurer who changed countries and crossed borders and broke down limits without once betraying his basic loyalties provides the restless youth of our era with an optimal combination, grounding them in a fierce center of moral gravity while simultaneously appealing to their contemporary nomadic impulse. To those who will never follow in his footsteps, submerged as they are in a world of cynicism, self-interest and frantic consumption, nothing could be more vicariously gratifying than Che's disdain for material comfort and everyday desires. One might suggest that it is Che's distance, the apparent impossibility of duplicating his life anymore, that makes him so attractive.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

TIFF 2008: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York directed by Charlie Kaufman, 124 minutes (Scotiabank Theatre #1)

The word "synecdoche" is derived from the Greek meaning originally the acceptance of a part of the responsibility for something.

Completely, completely indecipherable. And interminable. Will need to rethink this one ... at so many points I thought it was over but, alas, it was not.

Let me think on it anon ...

TIFF 2008: Gomorra

Gomorra (Italy, 2008) by Matteo Garrone, 135 minutes (Scotiabank Theatre #1)

Mistakenly, and with some relief, I see that Gomorra is about the Napoli Camorra and not the Sicilian mafia. It's a little tired no? This obsession (my obsession also) with the Sicilian mafia?
Based on the stories found in Roberto Saviano's collection entitled Gomorra (a combination of the words Camorra - the mafia in southern Italy - and Gomorrah - one of the biblical cities of depravity destroyed for its wickedness) the film cuts between the lives of different people affected by or involved with the Camorra.

Saviano is a hero in Italy and internationally for writing about the Camorra in Gomorra. He denounced its activities and there have been repeated attempts on his life by the Casalesi clan. He has been assigned a personal body guard for his protection. By January 2008 more than 1,200,000 copies had been sold in Italy.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who serves as a "submarine," pays out money to the families of those that are imprisoned for their loyalty or silence regarding the organization until he witnesses the murder of a woman (women are customarily exempt from the wrath of the Camorra) for her son's desertion from his gang.

Two young hooligans Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) play at being Tony Montana from Scarface, stealing weapons from the Camorra, sticking up the local video arcade, pretending to be gangsters, and they pay the ultimate price for it.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor whose garment factory is financed by the Camorra resorts to assisting a rival Chinese run a designer knock off garment factory and pays for his "betrayal".

Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a young man searching for work and then landing a position assisting an illegal toxic waste disposal company walks away after he cannot stomach his boss Franco's (Toni Servillo) slimy and despicable tactics.

Thirteen-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) who imagines himself a potential player must betray an innocent women to prove his worth and does so with very little convincing.

It's not pretty; it's not a picture postcard of Italy. It's ugly and brutal and utterly realistic. The faces and the scenarios and the situations all ring true even if fictionalized.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TIFF 2008: Adoration

Adoration by Atom Egoyan (Canada, 2008) 101 minutes (Scotiabank Theatre #1)

May I say up front that Cameron Bailey, TIFF's newest Co-Director, is a ninny? A bright, articulate ninny but a ninny nonetheless. Here is how he describes this film in the program book: "a fugue for our age of terror and shifting identities". What does that mean? This is the kind of description that drives genuine film lovers away from more complicated material which is the category that I would put this film in.

This is the best film I've seen at the festival. I don't love all of Egoyan's films (vide Where the Truth Lies) but I do find Egoyan intriguing. I will watch pretty much anything he makes. He was a few years ahead me at the University of Toronto (we have never met) and I remember how the morons on the school paper would tear him to shreds for being an "artsie" - remember that tired old insult from university? He showed them all a hundred times over. Occasionally now, I see him walking around University College at UofT where he now teaches a course periodically. It's one of those "I know you - you don't know me - aren't you very interesting to observe up close" moments.

Speak truth to power Atom - he gave a short speech before the film exhorting us to express our views regarding funding for the arts and the upcoming federal election. But on to the film ...

Simon (Devon Bostick) shares a story with his French class in highschool which initially the class thinks is a piece of fiction and then he reveals to be a "true" story. Encouraged by his teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) he expands and embellishes the details of the story which starts a firestorm of discussion on the Internet in a chat room with his friends and then much further to academics, kooks, interested and not so disinterested parties.

The story involves his father Sami (the very hot Noam Jenkins), a repairer of violins, and his possible involvement in a terrorist plot which put Sami's mother, a talented violinist, in peril during her pregnancy when she was on a trip to Israel. Fed by his grandfather's assertion that Sami may have been responsible for the death of Simon's mother Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), Simon vacillates between hatred of his father and support for his beliefs.

Sabine engages Simon's uncle Tom (terrifically played by Scott Speedman) in a bizarre cat and mouse game to determine how much he knows of the story. Her motives are not made known to us until the very end of the film. Her presence is actually quite threatening as we have no idea what she is up to in her desire to encourage Simon's revelations.

It's a film about manufactured identities and truths in the absence of truth and facts. It's about memory, about the construction and twisting of historical truth.

To say more would spoil the plot and I will begin to spout nonsense like Mr. Bailey. As is usual with an Egoyan film, the truth is elusive and not easily determined. I may even be able to drag R, a frequent detractor of Mr. Egoyan, to see this one.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

TIFF 2008: The Heart of Jenin

The Heart of Jenin (Germany, 2008) by Leon Geller and Marcus Vetter, 89 minutes at AMC Theatre #9

This documentary is heartbreaking although it does leave one with hope. In November 2005, a 12 year old boy named Ahmed Khatib living in Jenin was accidentally shot by Israeli troops who thought he was carrying a gun (he was playing with a toy gun). His father Ismail (pictured left here), a thoughtful and gentle man, had a difficult decision to make. He was asked to donate the boy's organs. As it turned out, the organs would go to Samah, a Druze girl in northern Israel; Menuha, an Orthodox Jewish girl living in Jerusalem, and, Mohamed, a Bedouin boy in the Negev desert (as well as three other recipients not named here).

The documentary reveals Ismail's visits to the three small children, some of whom are too young to understand what has been done for them. Despite the destruction of two businesses and having lived his entire life under Israeli Occupation, being part of the resistance during the first Intifada and spending time in prison, it becomes increasingly important to him that he forge some sort of relationship with the children that received his son's organs.

You feel completely conflicted as you watch the Khatib family dealing with the difficulty of trying to leave Jenin to go to a commemorative ceremony for their son and the obstacles they must face. On the other hand, if there weren't so many elements trying to kill Israelis they wouldn't have to resort to such draconian methods to contain the peace in the occupied territories.

The worst moment of all is watching a father, an Orthodox Jew, matter-of-factly express the wish that the organ had come from a Jew rather than an Arab. And yet one realizes with a glint of compassion that he was asked this question by a news crew as he sat in an emergency room during the transplant at a very stressful time.

There are so many moments like this where you are rankled by the idiotic racism and bigotry and then softened by the recognition of the horrendously difficult times that these people live in.

TIFF 2008: Management

Management (U.S., 2008) by Stephen Belber, 89 minutes (Scotiabank Theatre)

Jennifer Aniston
, as charming as she is, seems limited to certain types of roles either because these are the ones she selects or these are the only ones that she is offered on the indie film circuit (the “charming romantic comedy” as the TIFF program book states). This is standard Aniston fare: light, quirky and as ephemeral as candy floss.

Hence, we see the grocery clerk with low self esteem and the horrible boyfriend in The Good Girl (2002); the flaky object of Ben Stiller's desire in Along Came Polly (2004) . disillusioned, former teacher turned housemaid in Friends with Money (2006) and this film. She is usually a damaged, under-confident, pretty girl with some kind of unhappy history that a quirky boy/man saves her from.

Here she is as Sue, a seller of “art” to small motels working for a company called Corporate Bliss based in Maryland. On her travels through Arizona she meets Mike (Steve Zahn), who works in his parents’ roadside motel near Phoenix in pretty dreary circumstances and obviously yearns for something better.

Sue is pretty much the hottest thing that Mike has ever seen and is immediately smitten. He pursues her with his earnest puppy dog advances and she grudgingly sleeps with him and then returns home to Maryland.

Mike impulsively buys a one way ticket to Baltimore and tracks her to her workplace where she is less than pleased to see him. She resists his entreaties that they become a couple and he returns home again but he can’t get Sue out of his system. The attraction is a little hard to fathom – she is cold, rude and withholding and yet, she is Jennifer Aniston and he is, well, he is Steve Zahn, a man-child as Cameron Bailey describes. It’s wearing a little thin isn’t it – this whole man-child business and I guess we only have Judd Apatow to blame for all those films featuring Seth Rogen et al … This seems an odd coupling on film with a so-so chemistry.

He tries to find her yet again only to discover that Sue has moved to Aberdeen, Washington (home of Kurt Cobain) to live with an “ex-punk” and ex-boyfriend named Jango who is now a frozen yogurt entrepreneur played with menacing authority by Woody Harrelson. Again, why would these two people be together? Jango is rich, has a kennel of vicious dogs at his home which he uses to terrorize people, shoots would be intruders with BB guns and pummels Mike when he discovers his relationship to Sue.

Sue, whose dream it is to manage a homeless shelter, wants to marry a rich thug because he can finance some of her dreams? And, oh yes, she is pregnant with his child, perhaps a plot twist to make the whole thing more “palatable”. Yes I suppose some, or many women, would do this.

The plot which starts simply and sweetly becomes silly and annoying with a series of sight gags none of which are particularly funny: Mike parachuting into Jango’s pool to get to Sue; Mike hooking up a sound system out of the remnants of a Chinese delivery cart and singing outside her window at night with a friend; living in the basement of a Chinese restaurant just to be near her; becoming a Buddhist monk with an obsession for volleyball when he is once again rejected by Sue, etc …

I’m sure this is all meant to be seen as wacky and fun but it doesn’t register as such for me. Hey, I’m all about wacky and fun when it hits the right notes but here it does not.
Of course, Sue achieves her dream with the help of Mike's generosity (through a fortuitous act of good fortune on his father’s part) but despite an early scene where we see Sue distributing coupons and drinks to the homeless we can sense nothing about this cold, uninviting personality which would suggest that she could take on this sort of enterprise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

TIFF 2008: Religulous

Religulous (U.S., 2008) directed by Larry Charles, 101 minutes (Winter Garden Theatre)

I think I described last year how beautifully kitschy and odd the Winter Garden is which seeks to recreate a forest or garden complete with flowers, vines, trellises and painted doorways. It's beautiful in a precious sort of fairy tale way conjuring up an enchanted forest from which some horrible witch might pounce. It's a small theatre, comfortable and intimate and lovingly restored. You take, literally, two staircases and three escalators to reach it above the Elgin Theatre on Yonge St. As you trudge upwards you begin to feel that you are are entering a wonderful, special place so it seems to be little odd as a showcase for this satirical documentary on organized religion.

Comedian Bill Maher is not really my ideal progressive social commentator; however, he is taking on a relevant and controversial topic: organized religion.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all come under scrutiny as he travels the world questioning, mocking and probing into the beliefs of all three major religions. Topical too, as the media examines the Pentecostal Christian beliefs of Republican Veep nominee Sarah Palin.

He argues the bible with truckers in a "truckers' chapel", wrestles verbally with an "ex-gay" leader of a Christian organization counseling "former" gay men and women who want to go straight; talks to former Mormon followers.

Jews and the followers of Islam are not exempt ... Jews who oppose the existence of the state of Israel or Jews who invent gadgets to circumvent the prohibitions of the Sabbath, Jews that consort with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a holocaust denier).

He challenges (or engages) Islamic believers in Holland on the site where the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered about whether the Koran preaches violence against the infidel, senior priests at the Vatican, ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City, Jews for Jesus selling Christina icons, Jesus impersonators in Orlando, Scientology, creationists at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando. The man has parts, I'll give him that.

Interspersed with all this live footage are snippets of biblical and religious movies, cartoons, commercials, news footage, etc ... all to underscore the fact that organized religion is ridiculous. But it is easy to make fun of these people because they are ridiculous and represent the extreme end of the spectrum. So what's the point? These are all easy targets and I did laugh, repeatedly.

But are we really meant to think that all religious people are stupid and illogical and worthy of our scorn merely because they believe?

Larry Charles, the director of both Seinfeld and Borat fame, slouched on stage afterwards swinging his mike like an incense holder. He appeared complete with a ZZ Top gray beard, fedora and shabby black suit and made some sharp quips about wearing a kevlar jacket and how his death by outraged extremists would made a great extra feature on the DVD. As I said, these guys do have parts.

TIFF 2008: The Other Man

The Other Man (U.K., 2008) directed by Richard Eyre (90 minutes) Ryerson Theatre

How could this film go so wrong with such strong actors and an accomplished director? It features Liam Neeson (the husband), Antonio Banderas (the "Other Man") and Laura Linney (the adulterous wife) ... This was so mediocre, so maudlin and silly. The premise: Peter (Liam Neeson) finds e-mails and photos that prove his wife Lisa (Linney) was having an affair with an individual named Ralph Cortez (Banderas) some time ago.

They are clearly in love, rendezvousing in beautiful exotic places and snapping endless photos of themselves alone and together.

Peter promptly flies into a rage, behaving erratically, threatening to purchase a gun and seek out "the other man" rattling his daughter Abigail (Romola Garai) whom I remember fondly from the far better film Vanity Fair from a few years ago.

He traces Cortez to Milano where his wife often traveled as an upscale shoe designer. In Milano, he hunts down Cortez and initiates a conversation in the cafe where Ralph plays chess daily and slowly learns of Cortez's obsession with Lisa (Ralph has still not figured out that Peter is her husband). Cortez, who only met Lisa in expensive hotels and leads a secret life, nurses a fantasy that she will return to him.

Using Lisa's e-mail Peter lures Ralph to Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy. Peter even offers to pay the way to the rendezvous and to subsidize a dinner that Ralph wants to hold to commemorate their future reunion in London.

At Lake Como, which has an unearthly beauty I was unaware of, Peter reveals the truth to Ralph. But all is not as it seems and Peter has some shocking news about Lisa's lack of contact with Ralph. Neither man is what he appears to be.

In the end the two men are reluctantly reconciled but there wasn't a single scene where I believed either one of them except for the sequence of lovely photographs that Peter comes upon which show Lisa and Ralph together and seemingly, obviously, in love.

Richard Eyre was on hand to answer questions ... he seemed a lovely, literate man and I was genuinely sorry I didn't like it more.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

TIFF 2008: Picasso and Braque go to the Movies

Picasso and Braque go to the Movies (U.S., 2008) directed by Arne Glimcher, 60 minutes (Isabel Bader Theatre)

This short film is part of the Maverick series at TIFF and it certainly has an interesting premise with the added bonus of three bona fide art icons in a discussion afterwards. Arne Glimcher, Chairman of the PaceWildenstein Gallery, the film's director, has represented many of the most famous modern artists of the late 20th c. including Robert Rauschenberg.

Glimcher contends that Picasso and Braque, pioneers in Cubism and confreres, were influenced by both the early cinema and aviation in the same way that painters were influenced by the invention of photography and that the advent of photography influenced the way painters painted.

It was originally an art exhibit curated by Glimcher and was an idea that he had been tossing around for twenty years or so. An audience member asked an astute question about whether this purported influence was conscious or unconscious which of course no one could possibly know.

From what I gathered, Cubism may have been an attempt to emulate motion in the movies. Images in the paintings of Picasso and Braque, often strikingly similar, may have been influenced by short films that they likely would have seen in Paris at the turn of the century. These included a short film on a famous body builder of the time, the "serpentine" dance of the dancer Loie Fuller, the early films of the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938), the first planes of aviation, etc …

More interesting than the documentary which I do not pretend to fully understand loaded as it was with art experts and the more accessible Martin Scorsese, director and an avid film historian, was the discussion afterwards with Glimcher, Chuck Close and Julian Schnabel.

Glimcher, gaunt and elegant in a vivid red scarf and expensive shoes, was the picture of New York casual chic. He was enthusiastic and articulate if not completely convincing.

Schnabel, who surprisingly sat in the audience a few rows behind me to watch the film, shambled up in his trademark athletic pants, sneakers and wildly patterned purple and green shirt for the discussion. That this guy makes the Vanity Fair Best Dressed list every year still amazes me. He vacillates between regular guy and monstrous artistic ego. Apropos of nothing he mentioned anecdote about himself and Chuck Close. Close had said to him years ago, “I’m the second person that knew what a huge success you would be in the art world, after yourself that is”.

Chuck Close is a big imposing man, now confined to a wheelchair (I don’t know if he is ill or has some other ailment) and was interesting, articulate and openly admitted to “hating” the Internet, Facebook and all that comes with it when Schnabel muttered something to that effect. Close said somewhat sheepishly, “I didn’t want to be the first old fart to admit that!”

Amazing to have access to these people (and to sit in the second row doing so as well!).

TIFF 2008: Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles (U.K., 2008) directed by Richard Linklater, (AMC Theatre 3) based on the novel by Robert Kaplow (107 minutes)

Utterly charming and intimate and a terrific way to start the festival on my first day after the disappointment of Burn after Reading. It depicts one week in the life of Orson Welles (played brilliantly by the English theatre actor Christian McKay) and an aspiring young teenage actor named Richard Samuels (Zac Efron of Highschool Musical 1 and 2 fame) as Welles prepares for the premiere of a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the revolutionary Mercury Theatre in New York in November of 1937. The photo above is taken from that 1937 production with Welles as Brutus and Arthur Andersen as Lucius, the role that Efron plays in the production.

I thought to myself, with a laugh, that my 11 soon-to-be-12 year old will be sooo angry with me as the actor Zac Efron was at the screening and spoke briefly before the film. And he was surprisingly good as the ambitious actor who finagles his way into the production and clashes with Welles over his infatuation with Sonja (Claire Danes), a lovely Vassar girl and Welles' right hand "man" in the theatre who can operate with the best of them to get her own way. Welles, monstrous ego and all, finds a way to eliminate the boy from the production after the opening night despite the boy's loyalty and constancy because he dares to challenge Welles.

Mckay, who was in a one man show in New York about Welles where Linklater found him, plays him as a charming, irascible, devious, hot tempered, brilliant egomaniac who manipulates everyone around him - from the troupe of Mercury Theatre actors, investors, various paramours, to his deceived and pregnant wife Virginia.

The costumes and New York scenes are picture perfect ... perhaps too much so? It lacks that gritty quality that a New York street has no matter when it is meant to be staged. Everything is clean and shiny and the clothes well pressed and everything just so. Surprisingly, none of it was shot in New York but on a stage in England which Linklater revealed at the screening.

Linklater was friendly and eloquent despite a couple of feeble questions from the audience. McKay was charming and lovely and a perfect evocation of the young Welles. He spoke about resisting the constant comparisons to the young Welles whom he once thought of as a "fat failure".

Embarrassing footnote:
Friendly Torontonian that I am, I failed to acknowledge the hello that the author of the book of the same name, Robert Kaplow, made when he sat down beside me in the theatre. I had no idea who he was but he violated TIFF etiquette so he caught me off guard. Generally you do not sit beside another filmgoer if the theatre is not crowded (it wasn't) especially if the filmgoer is female. Chilly Canadian that I am I failed to acknowledge his greeting and felt doubly foolish when the director introduced him from the front where he was addressing the audience. Oh well, that will learn me to be stuck up ...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

TIFF 2008: Burn after Reading

Burn after Reading (U.S., 2008) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 96 minutes (Elgin Theatre)

R and I have attended the Toronto International Film Festival almost from its inception in the 80s just after we graduated. I love this time of year! I always take a week off to do the festival. R joins me only periodically now. Picking up the tickets turned out to be fairly nightmarish this year as the main office is in a new location at the new Toronto Life Square. I had to return three times to do it as the crowds were horrendously long and it literally would have taken two or so hours waiting in line to do so. But really, there is no point in complaining that the festival has changed, it just has, a victim of its own wild success. We should just be grateful we have such a well organized (mostly), popular film festival in our backyard with such an eclectic line up of films.

The weather is cool and pleasant in September. It's a real pleasure buzzing around from one film to the next. You get a preview of the best films from around the world and Toronto is one of the most enthusiastic film audiences in the world as I have heard many filmmakers remark at a number of screenings.

A, a good friend and a contact in the film industry, was able to get R and I tickets for Burn After Reading. Now the Coens are, admittedly, an acquired taste … Last year’s No Country for Old Men was superb. This film not so much.

Although filled with a number of wonderful actors it never comes together for me. In this self described “crime caper” in the tradition of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowksi, hapless Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt looking just a wee bit tired), who works at the Hard Bodies Gym as a trainer, comes upon the memoirs of ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) on a computer disc. He confides in a co-worker, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who is anxious to obtain money for a series of cosmetic procedures which she thinks will improve her dismal dating record. She convinces Chad to try and blackmail Cox.

The “memoir” written by the disgraced, alcoholic Cox is of no value whatsoever but the two gym trainers have no idea of this and try and sell the information to the Russian embassy when Cox belligerently refuses to pay out after unceremoniously punching Chad in the face during a clandestine meeting where Chad arrives on his bike.

Complicating the plot, Linda, a desperate Internet dater, is also sleeping with Harry (George Clooney), a former security agent and serial adulterer, who is also sleeping with Osborne’s wife Katie Cox played imperiously, and effectively, by Tilda Swinton.

This being a Coen film, someone gets shot in the face and another character gets killed by an axe in a bizarre sequence of events. Clooney’s do it yourself "invention" (I won't spoil it by describing it) also seems a characteristically odd Coen twist which adds little to the film.

The film goes nowhere despite a few comic episodes mostly involving Brad Pitt, complete with frosted hair and an ever present ipod which he periodically dances around with much to the delight of the audience.

I find Clooney awkward in comedies … I prefer him in more serious fare like Syriana or Good Night and Good Luck. Malkovich is strident and irritable (yes deservedly so as he has been fired and his wife has left him) but seems to be playing the same notes in film after film. Tilda Swinton is her usual icy perfection and Richard Jenkins (perhaps best remembered as the deceased father in the TV series Six Feet Under), as the love struck gym owner who attempts to help Linda, strikes a humane and compassionate note but he struggles alone against the comic flailing of the rest of the cast.

Mostly everyone gets their just desserts for their greed and/or stupidity but it is a largely unsatisfying conclusion to a mediocre film by two fairly brilliant guys.

Monday, September 1, 2008

All the Sad Young Literary Men

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen (Viking, 2008) 242 pp.

This is an obvious nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story collection All the sad young men (1926). Fitzgerald wrote about restless, unhappy young men in the Jazz Age navigating the world and their lusts (or so I've derived from my research - the actual book is scarcer than hen's teeth with only one copy available here in the Toronto Reference Library).

In 1926, a New York Times reviewer described Fitzgerald as a chronicler "of the efforts of his sad young men to wrestle beauty and love from the world and the ladies" and this is not an inappropriate description for Gessen's book. Joyce Carol Oates has written a thoughtful review here in the New York Review of Books which has helped put the book in perspective for me describing it's "narcissistic ennui of privileged youth for whom self-flagellation is an art form" (and she liked the book!).

Very consciously, Gessen divides the book into nine stories as did Fitzgerald. The book's alternating chapters revolve around the adventures of three male protagonists, all writers:

>Russian studies graduate student Mark, sexually inept and lonely, toiling in Syracuse, NY trying to finish his dissertation on the Russian revolutionaries, the Mensheviks

>Sam, the reluctant Zionist, whose goal is is to "write the great Zionist novel ... to disentangle the mess of confusion, misinformation, tribal emotionalism, and political opportunism that characterized the Jewish-American attitude toward Israel".

>Keith, a post-modern version of the author himself it seems, lit geek, a member of the chattering classes, a on-line writer and liberal pundit obsessed with former presidential Veep Al Gore (although unnamed here) and his daughter.

The characters sometimes seem to be thinly concealed slivers of the real Keith Gessen: a Harvard graduate, conflicted Jew who feels he does not love Israel "enough", aspiring member of the literati, literary geek ... so it is difficult to distinguish the three characters Sam, Mark and Keith at times. Reviewed by Emily Gould, a frenemy whom he dated, she also mentions that the characters are interchangeable and so they are.

Early in the novel, one of these ambitious characters is told, "You can have anything you want." Is that the trouble here? Is that what paralyzes these children of privilege, the proliferation of choices? The endless possibilities? Because they do seem immobilized by the most everyday concerns from problems to do with sex and women and difficult roommates, mundane struggles with family, career worries, struggles to make more money.

But sometimes the writer's observations are astute and funny. The thing that saves his characters, in my mind, is that they are so inept - hopeless with women, woefully underconfident, socially "retarded", frightened. If they weren't so hopeless they would be intolerable to read about.

And the book does strive to reach another more sophisticated level touching on issues of identity and retaining one's culture, upper middle class anxiety, historical concerns, and a fear of the diminishment of male potency, the world outside the small nucleus that Sam, Mark and Keith inhabit.

Conflicted feelings regarding Israel are a recurrent theme. Can one be a good Jew if you do not support the state of Israel? How much support is too much? Can it be too much for a Jew?

What are the pressures on writers who are trying to create? Are other writers, as Sam says, his "enemies, his nemeses" in the short story "His Google" about a writer's dwindling google hits and his comic attempts to increase them. Touching lightly on Harold Bloom's theory of the "anxiety of influence", he notes that writers live under the burden of trying to compete with all that is written before them. We, as writers, revere and fear the power, the art of other writers. We resent their accomplishments which spur us on to create (or perhaps, at times, immobilize us).

There is a irking self-knowledge in the character at work here too ... a suspicion that despite a Harvard degree one protagonist may not be all that. One character cruelly tells the character Keith, presumably a post-modern version of the author: There's this thing about guys from Harvard ... They think everything is fine, just because they went to Harvard. And for them, you know, it is. Even the most mediocre mediocrity can make a nice life in New York if only he went to Harvard.

The thing that saves Gessen, I feel, is the vulnerability of the male characters although many of the women seem like cartoons - whether they are fierce or wildly funny or passive. If the men were more self-assured the irsilly preoccupations would be insufferable.

In "Sometimes like Liebknecht", Mark compares himself to Karl Liebknecht, a German communist and a comrade of Rosa Luxemburg's, who was murdered in prison during the Russian Revolution. Mark, a professor, a failure with women, who unsuccessfully woos Celeste, his golden girl but ends up with with the unwanted bronze Leslie. He strives to be like Lenin and ends up like Liebknecht he says. And while I really enjoy the little tidbits of Russian history and the analogy is slightly comic but ridiculous - to compare the plight of a murdered radical to your own inept masculine sexual maneuvers is a little disturbing. It smacks of pretension rather than good writing.

I will speak about three or four stores that I did find effective. Something happens with the chapter "Uncle Misha" and the rest of the book ... Gessen becomes more serious, melancholic. It touches a nerve for me: the European immigrant experience, the parent dying of cancer, the ride through Baltimore which reminds me in many ways of my hometown Hamilton. It’s really not so much about the renegade Russian uncle Misha but more about family and the effects of immigration, assimilation, about being unable to assimilate and the bitterness of that realization. It’s about how you can’t go home and that everything changes. The cards are stacked against first generation immigrants and no one knows it better than the children of these immigrants who are torn between two loyalties.

In “Jenin”, Sam travels to the Middle East and stays with a Palestinian family in Jenin, a city in the West Bank. As a Jew, and a sometime reluctant supporter of Israel, Sam waits for the tanks, the Israeli aggression and signs of brutality that he has read so much about. In Jenin he hears of the death of five in Jerusalem on the radio and then is ashamed, horrified, to think that there are some present whose hospitality he has enjoyed and who might be rejoicing at the news. He has not revealed that he is a Jew and when he does so to his new Palestinian friend Ahmed, Ahmed is shocked and touched, moved to tears, to think that this man, a Jew, has traveled to Israel to see for himself what is happening during the Occupation. It is immensely moving and the emotion is largely unspoken.

Hapless Mark re-encounters Celeste in “The Phenomenology of the Spirit” and then courts Gwyn, beautiful and ten years younger. The men in the book always seem to be on the prowl to “upgrade” their girlfriends and wives, dumping seemingly inferior girls for “better” ones. This phenomenon I believe to be universal ... There is a nice little passage about why we are constantly hurting each other in the strange ritual of dating.

Sometimes it reads like a serious book wrapped in a bit of fluff as if the writer is afraid to write about the real issues that concern him. But the "real" issues are interesting ... and so his Gessen's take on them.