Monday, March 28, 2016

3 Fun Things, 15 Not-So-Much

I did something that I haven't done in a while and that I hate doing: I gave up on a book. Now that I'm a big kid, I allow myself to do that, but I don't like to. I was so looking forward to reading Fifteen Dogs, but alas 90 pages were enough.
It started out great. As a classicist, I loved the premise of the intervention of Hermes and Apollo. I enjoyed the dogs' perspective of co-resident cats (p. 65). My heart strings were yanked taut about animal neglect, pain and death (p.18–19). I had enjoyed listening to interviews on CBC radio with the author. But my god, was I bored otherwise! I can't offer much of a critique, because I'm not even sure where it fell flat for me, but blech
What I did like—love—was Fiona Barton's The Widow. Wa-hooo, what a ride! [At this point, I hope you aren't drawing the conclusion that I just don't understand literature and only like commercial page-turners. That ain't the point.] Actually, this book had its downish side, too, in that serious themes were the background to the plot: the desperation of wanting children; co-dependent relationships; the hell of addictions and the self-loathing they can create. But if you have to have a story on this topic (don't worry: no spoilers), this one was well-crafted, and the character development was excellent and still allowed for twists and turns. 5 Wine and Cheeses, for sure! See sidebar if you don't know what that means.
The other fun things I wanted to point out come from the current issue of The WholeNote magazine from the Toronto music scene. One point is that this month's DISCoveries section (starting at p. 69) covers several CDs which reference famous art works (as well as poetry and history). Also, there are a couple of fun entries in the listings about sing-along movies beyond Rocky Horror and The Sound of Music! On April 16 and 23, the Randolph Theatre is screening captioned Moulin Rouge and Chicago respectively (see page 63 of the online mag for deets). I've been trying to get people excited about a certain film sing-along for ages. Hmm... maybe I'll contact presenter Joseph Patrick about that. Can we have way more of this at more Toronto cinemas, please? Bril. 
I'm currently reading a post-apocalyptic novel, which I will report on next time, as well as on a dystopian film and one wild performer. But no spoilers now.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Homeless On Bloor

I’m working on a photobook tentatively titled The Disposable City. It’s a vehicle for exploring urban concerns like ephemera, waste (garbage, demolitions, pollution), and the commodification of everything, including people. Every now and then, I do another spread, then let it sit for a time to see how I feel about it. A while back, I did one on a homeless woman who camped out for a few weeks in a doorway across from me. It seems like a reasonable piece to post on Good Friday. I’ve included the text and a few images below, but for the full impact, you can download the two spreads in pdf format.
From The Disposable City:
I live high up in a condominium on the north side of Bloor Street. Across from me on the south side, one by one, the retailers are leaving their shops as a new owner—a developer—prepares to demolish the existing structures and build a 49-story tower in their place. A homeless woman has started camping out in a doorway. The sight of her greets me in the morning as I eat my breakfast, and again at night as I get ready for bed. Each day, out of curiosity, I lean out my window and train a long lens on her. I want to know if people interact with her as they pass on the sidewalk.
What I have learned is that most people barely acknowledge her existence much less interact with her. On the preceding page are 25 shots of the same scene. In all but one, the people passing don’t appear to see her. A small child, maybe seven years old, is the only person who turns her head and looks directly at the woman. Later, another child waves from his stroller.
It would be easy to sentimentalize the scene, maybe read something Biblical into it—you must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. That sort of thing. I dismiss my observations as coincidental. Like so much of photography, it’s a “framing” issue: I’ve watched for only a short time and this has allowed me to be selective in the sliver of time I choose to capture the interactions of pedestrians and a homeless woman. Those interactions just happen to play out in a way that evokes a Biblical aphorism. If I watch for long enough, my sample size will more accurately characterize the interactions. They will become more statistically representative and less Biblical.
The next morning at breakfast, I look out my window and note that a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses have set themselves up within spitting distance of the homeless woman. The scene suggests to me a story about a certain man who lay injured in the street and the pharisees who passed him and did nothing. So much for being statistically representative!
Over the days and weeks that follow, I watch the homeless woman from my perch. I’m disinclined to suppose that my observations become statistically representative of anything. But they do become more complicated:
A man approaches from the east. He sees the homeless woman. He stops in front of her. He leans in and speaks to her. He pulls a five dollar bill from his pocket and offers it to the woman. They exchange words and then the man walks away. I’m a long way off and can’t infer much from their exchange; I assume the man asked the woman how she was, she answered, and he (taking pity on her) gave her a five dollar bill.
It isn’t until I examine the exchange on my computer monitor that I realize something different has happened. The man palmed the bill as he walked away. The homeless woman refused the offer of charity.
What a different impression of the parable we would have if the injured man lying in the street had told the Samaritan to go fuck himself.
Then again, that story may have no relevance to the scene on the street far below me. After all, the story was first addressed to a lawyer and so was told in terms he could understand. It was reasonable. Logical. And it was told in answer to a question about the definition of a word (neighbour) and not, as we usually suppose, to encourage acts of charity.
If we want to learn about charity, the stories we hear are anything but reasonable. Emphatically illogical. A woman wants to douse her master’s feet with a valuable perfume. Judas, the greatest villain of the Western canon, makes the reasonable suggestion that they sell the perfume and give the proceeds to the poor. I think it’s important to remember that it is Judas who endorses charity. Maybe it’s his unassailable logic that makes him so villainous.
In the movie, The Unforgiven, William Munny points the muzzle of his rifle. Cowering in terror, Little Bill looks up and says: “I don’t deserve this.” Munny answers: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” He pulls the trigger. If he weren’t a murderer of women and children, Munny could be a religious man explaining the dark underside of a theology of grace. It’s deliciously unreasonable. And terrifying in it’s consequences.
If I am to be gracious, then I must be unreasonable. I find myself asking: what is the unreasonable way to view myself in relation to this woman? What is the unreasonable thing to expect me to do (or not to do) in answer to her presence?

You can see more of David's photography sandbox here.
Reprinted with permission and with thanks.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

We All Have a Place We're Not Meant to Give Away

A good piece of art takes you out of yourself. Last night, Toro, the ‘dance’ piece, allowed me to forget an unrelated incident from an hour previous that had left me shaking. I put dance in quotes for positive reasons, not to denigrate the performance. As Matthew Jocelyn likes to do, we were presented with a genre-bending performance that focused on dance but also employed world music, singing and drama to create the kind of eye-opening and enlightening CanStage offering that Toronto is beginning to expect from it.
Toro was the quickly re-visioned performance after one of the two booked dancers, Israel Galvan, had a serious knee injury in Paris and had to withdraw. But the audience did not suffer for it: four remarkable musicians augmented the dance of Akram Kahn, and I had an education. David Azurza, countertenor, B C Manjunath, percussion, Bobote, flamenco and Christine Leboutte, contralto, provided an organic background of vocalization, and instrumental and body percussion which had flavours of India, Spain and perhaps the Middle East. There was humour, there was contest (“toro”) and there was conversation of many and no languages. Their interactions, with the unbelievable beauty and control of Kahn’s be-belled kathak dance, created a choreography that produced an aura of energy around them at times—and it wasn’t just when the flying sweat entered the lights centred on them. I’m still processing it. And I feel privileged to include this offering in my ongoing education about dance.

I learned about Tracy Groot when Janet Ursel interviewed her and I knew I wanted to read Madman. I had some trouble ordering it (I’ve since learned that online outlets have misleading 'out of stock' notes) but finally got it this past month. First of all, the cover image is amazing. And perfect.
Then you open the book.
This is the kind of “Christian fiction” that you want to run towards, not away from. It gives that genre a good name.
Groot, like Ursel, has a way with character development and voice, and her treatment of setting is also thorough: I have a degree in classics, yet she opened areas of ancient Roman culture to me that I didn’t know about. She subtly captures the multiculturalism of biblical Galilee, which is eerily reflective of current refugee crises, and navigates socio-cultural reactions to mental health issues. But the reason it is good Christian fiction is that it takes about 300 pages to even get to Jesus, who has metaphoric names via different characters (a child, a possessed man) based on their experience of him. There’s no hitting you over the head with proselytization and even the climax is handled ever-so-gently (and beautifully). Plus, a key phrase in the story is in Latin (and it’s correct! Unlike other unnamed Christian authors who should not Google-translate the language…), which tickled this ex-magistra.
I get so excited when I read Christian fiction (like Groot’s and Ursel’s) that is worthy of publication and wine-and-cheeses!
[This post's title is from pg 310 of Madman.]

I went to El Club (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2015) at TIFF because I knew it had a theological theme. I was surprised by this inflammatory Chilean film was; it’s a fictional (?) treatment of the topic of priests disgraced for sexual misconduct, and it is very in your face about it, as it should be. It is a largely unforgiving study of the church and how it deals with its problems. Which is interesting since I saw themes of forgiveness and love, and motifs of cross-carrying and communion and The First Murder. Top-notch acting. I don’t know what the director’s and screenwriters’ (Guillermo Calderón, Daniel Villalobos) intentions were about those, but I’d love to have a chat with my former theology film prof, Adelmo Dunghe, about it!
If you can handle the subject matter and unrestrained language, I’d recommend it.
Finally, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a huge and longtime fan of Tapestry Opera, which commissions and presents new operas, and not just Canadian music: I got to the last performance of The Devil Inside, co-presented with Scottish Opera and based on the short story, The Bottle Imp, by R.L. Stevenson (a friggin’ creepy tale, btw.)  You may have seen the cover of WholeNote magazine this month which featured the production. I found principals Steven Page, Nicholas Sharratt and especially Ben McAteer to be very strong in their roles. I was also very impressed with the staging effects used: sets were largely monochromatic (B&W) and really creative and resourceful: effective use of backdrops and charmingly simple back-lit silhouettes, all proving you don’t need a kajillion-dollar budget to put on a good production in a small theatre with non-Met revenues. Kudos! It was great to see like-minded opera companies collaborating, even over the pond. So glad I made it!
While waiting for curtain time, I had some time to go into the Power Plant and see current exhibits, pictured at the bottom of this post. The black bits are 30,000 paper moths with an interesting background. See the Power Plant site for info on the other pieces.

Finally, en route I was listening to the wonderful Mary Hynes’ Tapestry radio show on CBC Radio 1 (one of the few useful shows left there) which included a chat with K.D. Miller, author of All Saints (must buy!). The whole discussion (indeed, show) was fascinating, especially the part about Consumerism, The False God [my title], but I wanted to share Miller’s theological reflection exercise, which starts with “The sky I was born under….” You can listen to that part of her talk at minute 32:33. Really excellent stuff, and not just applicable to “the religious” among us. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Aliens of Different Sorts

Mark Alpert’s The Orion Plan took me back to a large astronomy poster I had as a girl; I’d get lost in looking at its details for hours. This Wine and Cheese Award-winner gets my grudging Ebertian thumbs-up: I whinge because the reading went by too quickly, so gripping was the storyline.

Unlike The Six, which was a YA-oriented novel (see my review), this is an adult sci-fi thriller. (Although really, either book is equally readable by any age group, thanks to the lack of gratuitous sex in Orion.) But like The Six, there is non-saccharine treatment of characters with flaws or University-of-Life knocks; Alpert comments unapologetically about the notion of punishment and the breakdown of Western correctional systems, and he illustrates compassionately the issues around homelessness, grief, addiction, the call to ministry, ecological disasters and colonialism.

But he is not preachy. As Terry O’Reilly said in a recent radio show, “Story matters” and this novel centrifugal-force-flings you through the galaxy (well, part of it) with heart-sinking twists and turns. It’s got heart, humour (I’m thinking of the moving company’s name), excitement and science. Boy, does it have science!

And I don’t mean that negatively, luddite and science-phobe that I now am. Alpert’s longstanding interest and written work in the area of science serve the novel well: there is a balanced tension created between feeling excited by the content enough to keep reading (akin to The Martian) and enough author knowledge to make the story work. If you’d like to read more about his science-delving, see his provided links.

Isn’t the task of sci-fi to make the impossible seem plausible to the skeptic?
And surely, making Artificial Intelligence believable as a conscious, communicative life form—in New York City, no less!—is even more difficult. But aside from the social issues already mentioned, the moral of stewardship with technology (not just of) is a gentle constant in The Orion Plan and there is, thankfully, no hitting the reader over the head with a two-by-four with it.
I’m getting very attached to Mark Alpert’s writing, because he engages my heart as well as my need for a great ride. I look forward to sharing highlights of our conversation after I meet with him in NYC next month.
I finally watched The Lady (dir. Luc Besson, 2011) and was captivated, if you can use that word to include feelings of horror as well as admiration. Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi and the excellent David Thewlis as her husband, Michael Aris present the true story of this woman’s contributions to Myanmar (Burma) and the terrible costs she and her family bore as a result. She was considered an alien by some for her politics (i.e. not militaristic/communist) and also because she married a foreigner, a Brit. It is made all the more impressive when the end credits indicate that many of the film’s contributors must be thanked anonymously in order to protect their safety. A definite Wine and Cheese winner.
The final aliens may be found in the Italian film Suburra (dir. Stefano Sollima, 2015). If is to be believed, it is receiving public acclaim and critical disregard. It’s set up with Crash-like storylines involving the mob, the church and down-and-outers hurtling towards an apocalypse five days hence. Pathetic fallacy reigns supreme with some Noah-like rain and there is a Cain and Abel-esque motif. There’s also some great B&W cinematography au fin, excellent acting all-round and cool treatment of casting credits. I see this apocalypse not as my usual, adored end-of-world kind of apocalypse, but rather an apocalypse of social structures. The aliens are the antagonists’ other-life sides, who kiss their sleeping kids and care for girlfriends and senile mothers.

Of the reviews I did glance at online, I didn’t notice anyone commenting on the title or the setting. Suburra (or Subura) was a not-so-great suburb of ancient Rome that would have housed and attracted outsiders such as this film’s characters into its vices. Also, the plot involves wanting to make the town of Ostia into Italy’s version of Vegas; the ancient port was of huge economic (trade) value to the empire and was ruled by wealthy merchants during the Imperial period, perhaps like the hinted-at Mafia in the film. It had perhaps similar shows of ostentation like Las Vegas does, although unlike Vegas it has no amphitheatre or circus! These points struck me as relevant, but I’d have to research the film and its direction more to see if these names were intentional or coincidental. Maybe it’s just more of the Singing the Ex-Magistra Blues.

In short, a dark, violent film but very interesting. Subtitles were grammatically well done, but idioms remained riddled with missed details and accuracy. (Production companies: I beg of you, hire me to fix your captioned idioms. I promise you I can fix your swear words and phrases so that they will wash over here. I am not proud of my sailor’s mouth, but it hosts an exploitable skill set!)