Being There revisited, with a little help from Mahler

I could use any old film I watched on television for the point I’m about to make.

Last night Erika and I watched Being There (1979). Hal Ashby’s film is based on a best-selling novel from 1970 by Jerzy Kosiński who co-wrote the screenplay. Watching it in 2022 I swear it’s under-rated. I recall the conversations it provoked.

Do you know the film? It’s full of fascinating commentary on media and the way our minds work, that has aged well in a world full of people who seem ready to believe conspiracies, to put political leaders and pundits on pedestals.

Is he walking on the water?

And I think it would be received very differently if it were released now, because of the way audiences have changed. That brings us to the idea I was alluding to above.

First off: I don’t think it’s a radical idea to suggest that the public reception to a work changes over time. We assume that there’s something cumulative at work, that people remember seeing the first Star Wars film, when they go see the next one, and that at least some of us would be comparing and building on that.

But in addition to franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are genres where we absorb codes and tendencies. If you’ve seen science fiction, you are prepared for the usual signals built into costuming, plot construction, music, and anything else that is associated with a genre.

We become sophisticated: to use a word we toss around often without thinking about what it implies or where it comes from. I think it’s reasonable to say that we become progressively more sophisticated in our film watching through experience, building upon what we’ve seen. Some of this is simply our development, the way we grow in life. I’m not the same as I was as a child, for example.

All fair and good. But what I want to propose is something I haven’t seen in discussions of cinema, that I will illustrate by analogy.

I’ve heard it argued that the composer Gustav Mahler wasn’t properly understood before the advent of long playing records. Yes one could experience a symphony through a concert or by studying a score.

But the breakthrough for Mahler came via a new kind of relationship with music.

I know how it worked for me. I would listen to a Mahler symphony, and then buy another one, and listen over and over. I didn’t really get his middle symphonies on first hearing. I believe the argument goes that few of us really did, that it was an exceptional person who really appreciated Mahler simply by going to hear his music in a concert hall. The complexity of his works required multiple listenings, to discover the depths of his music.

The listener who explores music this way has the opportunity to become more sophisticated.

Just as the LP gave the world a chance to change how we listen to music, so too with the Video recorder. In my childhood it was uncommon to watch the same movie over and over. Yes we saw Wizard of Oz over and over, via regular annual broadcasts,, and yes we saw A Christmas Carol every year in December. Those were exceptions, before the advent of the VCR and later personal digital devices.

In 1979 it was still uncommon to see the same film over and over. I recall feeling strange when explaining my enjoyment in going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times, although the usual conversation concerned whether or not we were stoned (and yes we often were) when we went as the film was understood to be “a trip”.

But in 2022 that’s all changed. We binge watch series. We see films over and over, because of course cinema is now seen as art, and that means we watch a great film multiple times.

So to get to my point, I think we see film differently now because we’re all more sophisticated in 2022. Sophistication entails a kind of literacy. If you’ve seen episodes 4 and 5 of the Star Wars franchise, you’ll recognize the themes in the music, you’ll have expectations of the plot trajectories for any of the later episodes.

And that’s merely the most basic kind of literacy. I heard a discussion on tv after the film ended last night, as we heard that Peter Sellers didn’t want the humorous sequence in the closing credits, fearing it would undermine the illusion of the film.

It is true, this bit of film deconstructs the illusion by making it crystal clear that we are looking at something artificial, something being filmed rather than “real” (whatever that means). Nowadays it’s not uncommon to watch bloopers in the closing credits.

But it was brand new in 1979, or at least something uncommon for a mainstream film.

Are we different now? Surely. We have seen this often enough to know what it is.

Of course, sophistication is not necessarily a good thing, as it comes with expectations attached. We don’t experience the kind of surprise we’d feel in 1979. There are always trade-offs.

But today’s audiences have certainly changed.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Things we do for love

This is a brief tale of tail, concerning two things that really happened to me recently.

Event #1 was on Thursday when I was at my mom’s giving her lunch and dinner, as I will do a few times per week.

Washing dishes I was a bit overzealous with one of my mom’s knives. I don’t know her dishes as well as my own, so I think I mistook this knife for something duller and safer. As I was washing, the knife blade made an incision into the joint of my index finger on my right hand. Being left-handed it’s not as bad as it might be.

Yet there I am, now hesitant about washing dishes, with the third in a series of bandages covering the cut. It’s gradually healing, as cuts will do, even if immersion in dishwater has a way of undoing that repair function.

I’ve been washing my hands with the index finger pointing skywards, while I rub palms and nine fingers together. I never washed my hands so often or so diligently as in the past two years, when hygiene became central to our lives.

Event #2 was just before sunset today, the trip outside with Sam the dog.

A recent sunset photo including the St Augustine Seminary in Scarborough

Sam did her business, which by the way was also a number 2 if you take my meaning.

I watched the sun vanishing behind the Seminary building, a bit later each day, as the days get longer oh so gradually.

Sam came and sat beside me, more or less staring in the same westward direction.

As she came to sit I thought I caught sight of something a bit troubling. Oh no, it wasn’t anything really bad or really dangerous. She’s 15, she has a huge cancerous growth on her side. We’re thinking in terms of palliative care, minimizing her pain and maximizing quality of life.

So this wasn’t anything threatening.

But I thought I glimpsed a brown lump hanging by a thread from her behind.

“Glimpsed” because it was seen only for a moment before Sam sat right on it. Oh boy.

Sigh, oh well. I walked in front of her, inviting her to walk a bit further and she stood up and did so. As she stood, I saw the meat-ball sized turd, still attached by its peculiar umbilical chord. Nothing had smeared on her leg, perhaps as byproduct of the extreme cold.

Insert momentary hesitation before I did what I had to do. I was wearing nice new gloves, so I took them off even though the wind-chill was -20 or so.

I grabbed the connector, which was some sort of hair going into her poop-chute. I managed to sever the connection, using a twig to golf the ball into the underbrush.

Sam went on her merry way further along the path, likely oblivious. Did she feel what I had pulled out of her? I wonder.

But she didn’t say thank you, not just because she was looking elsewhere. Sam doesn’t talk to me very often, except when barking at mailmen or ruff-ruffing her requests for a doggie cookie.

Sam on sentry duty

But there I was, the hand that had the bandage on it, now having come rather close to the brown stuff. I looked at it, and saw nothing thank goodness.

I kept the glove off, and asap brought Sam inside.

Did she read my mind when I said “go home”, and she complied so readily? Sometimes she listens, sometimes she doesn’t. Perhaps she didn’t really like the chill air either (although she usually revels in the cold).

We were inside before my hands were totally frozen.

But I couldn’t omit hand-washing, not when it’s now de rigeur for any chance encounter with germs, let alone a ball of doggy poop. Sometimes the cold is a blessing, as for example when it prevents one from smelling the poop, when it freezes both #1 & #2, at least for awhile.

Spring will be here eventually, with the onslaught of odors hitting my nose and Sam’s (although she seems to savor what we abhor). Sam seems perplexed at times by the purity of the cold. For now the cold is like a silencer.

It was a pleasure to wash my hands, bandage or no bandage.

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Missing church

The last thing I posted had the word “missing” in the title. A few days ago I wrote a rambly thing as I thought about a canceled show and one of its canceled performers, pushed off the stage by contagious circumstances. I know he’s okay, but I miss him. Alas, not only is the virus catching but that sentiment of missing, too, seems to spread, the more I think about it. I thought (a bit abashed at the end), maybe this will be the first of a series, because there is so much we’re missing.

The Nutcracker has packed up for the year.

Come From Away is gone forever. We are missing lots of things right now.

Perhaps you’re missing the annual junior hockey world championship. One day I was watching the brilliant young Canadians clobbering Austria, and before you know it, damn, the tournament was done.


Please follow along with this, it’s a completely capricious and illogical sequence.

My mom is 100. It’s a miracle she’s alive still. In the summer she had a collapse (weak heart), and for a time she was in Mt Sinai as they watched her closely, then she went to Bridgepoint for two months of rehabilitation. She’s now home, although not as strong and independent as she was a year ago. But wow she’s alive and stronger now than she was when she came home in November.

In 1960 I was five years old, the year my dad died. Yesterday was the sixty-first anniversary of my father’s passing. My mom and I watched TV together with a candle lit to his memory. The candle on December 30th is something she has done every December 30th since.

It was my honour to light it for her, for him.

That’s Muriel’s Wedding on the tube.

Today I heard the surprising news that Betty White passed away, just a few days short of her hundredth birthday. Why did I dare be surprised? Sure, she always seemed so lucid, so strong, so beautiful. When I heard it, I was not really surprised by the news, painful as it was.

Living to 99 is already a miracle.

With our recognition of mortality spirituality lurks underneath, like the prayers we make to God when we’re on an airplane in a storm, making bargains begging for our lives, if only…. God and religion are the underpinnings we never think of. You swear an oath in a courtroom. You get married in front of a pastor with Jesus smiling down from the stained glass.

And so consciously or otherwise, I sat down at the piano, where I had my Chalice Hymnal.

I should explain, I’m an opportunist. When I see something useful in a used book store I buy it. I jumped at the chance to have at least one of all the usual hymnals that one sees in churches, and enjoy playing them from time to time.

Amazing bargains

The Chalice Hymnal is especially important to me because it’s what they use at Hillcrest, where I have been singing as a soloist or in the choir on and off for the past decade, and occasionally subbing for music director David Warrack at the organ, as I did twice in January 2020, the last two times I had the privilege of going to church.

((( Sigh )))

I miss church, the community, the friendships, the music, the energy of the spirit. And it’s been another Christmas of displacement, feeling like an exile.

I sat down at the piano to hymn #160, a tune with resonance for me.

Hymn #160

It’s the centerpiece for the film The Time Traveler’s Wife, the carol sung early in the film, that recurs through the movie like its beating heart. Yes I do love the film. Can you tell?

And Tafelmusik Chamber Choir gave us a version of the hymn at their live Christmas concert not so long ago. It was such an opportunity to be able to attend a live concert: especially when seen in retrospect, as we must now miss so many events and performances.

At the end of the concert I had a lovely conversation with people sitting nearby. OMG how lovely to again socialize, the supporters of Tafelmusik being a special breed. They saw me taking notes, and so we started to talk. We discussed the urgent (nerdy) question: how many verses does the hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” really have? In the original German, some would argue that there are only two, as you see in the photo from the hymnal. Those two in English are translated from their German originals. In some congregations in USA one sings four verses, or so said one of my new acquaintances, something google confirmed for me.

Today that was but the first hymn I played. No I didn’t have the voice to sing today. I’m sometimes muted by how I feel, I suppose. I went through the many of the Christmas carols / hymns, into Easter, and beyond. I was aware that I was playing them pianistically, out of touch with the organ that I haven’t, well, touched: not since January 2020. It’s not the same to make a piano piece out of a hymn, or at least the impulse carries one to a different musical place, a different spiritual place.

No it’s not church, not even close. But then again this is a time of estrangement. The piano will have to do for now.

I stopped, went to feed Sam, and after a bit, took her outside, letting her wander about in the fading light before sunset.

Late afternoon today

I’m so lucky to be here at this time, witnessing my mom’s latest chapter. I don’t know how many more days or weeks or years she can manage. But she’s stronger since emerging from hospital, and as lucid as ever. She’s a lot of fun.

Tonight is New Year’s, an arbitrary celebration. We appreciate Betty White at any age, a great soul and a wonderful person. Perhaps we should remember gratitude every day we’re here, noticing one another at any age, regardless of whether it’s the first or last day of the year, whether or not it’s the last year of our lives. I feel like a lucky guy, glad to be here, blessed.

Thank you for reading this. And have a Happy New Year.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, My mother, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Missing Greg

In the final week of 2021 I ponder the year that’s passed and contemplate the one that lies ahead. We all may have something we miss doing, something or someone that we wish we could see or hear. Re-reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol after seeing numerous cinematic adaptations prompted me to think about the many people I miss seeing and hearing.

The last show I saw before the closures brought on by the pandemic was the HMS Pinafore on March 7th from Toronto Operetta Theatre.

March 2020

I was hoping to see A Waltz Dream in TOT’s return to live theatre at the end of the month. At least that was the plan.

But it has melted away like the snowfall of a few days ago. Just like the remaining performances of the National Ballet’s Nutcracker, or Mirvish’s imported production of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt that I was eager to see, TOT have decided to cancel performances in the interest of the health and safety of audiences and performers alike. Just when it seemed we were coming back, we’re again wondering. How safe is it to go to a show, and when will it end?

Greg Finney, an anchor –excuse the pun– for TOT’s HMS Pinafore in 2020, was to appear in the TOT’s A Waltz Dream. I think he’s often billed as “Gregory Finney” so excuse me if the choice to call him “Greg” is confusing.

I first saw him in the Against the Grain Boheme at the Tranzac Club a decade ago.

 (L-R) Justin Welsh (Marcello), Adam Luther (Rodolfo), Gregory Finney (Benoit), Keith Lam (Schaunard) and Stephen Hegedus (Colline)

He doesn’t necessarily play big parts, but he makes a huge impression.

What was it that Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard? Someone recognizes her and says “you used to be in silent pictures—you used to be big.”

She replies, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

I think Greg makes his parts bigger. When he’s onstage he’s usually the one you’re looking at, regardless of whether you think he’s the star. Charisma?

Or maybe because he’s obviously having fun.

Greg Finney

The parts he plays may be meant for comic effect, but that’s much harder to do if you don’t understand humour or timing. His delivery is natural because he’s a natural. He doesn’t appear to be working, doesn’t seem to be acting.

I recall what I said about him back in 2013 when he sang Escamillo in the Peter Brook La Tragédie de Carmen presented by Loose Tea Music Theatre:
“Greg Finney steals the show every time he’s onstage (the funniest one in Against the Grain’s Boheme and again in Figaro), so I am thrilled to see him in a principal role.  This is an Escamillo who perfectly matches the extroversion of Warner’s Carmen, a flamboyant man of charmisma unafraid of crowds.  Finney’s voice is amazingly versatile, as he gave us plenty of voice in the Toreador Song, yet always gave us a perfect balance in his ensembles.  

I remember asking him about his career a few times, wishing to see him playing a leading role again. Finney isn’t a driven madman of an artist. He’s enjoying himself. I wish he would be given more opportunities to play big serious parts, but then again, maybe he’s content.

OH and of course he doesn’t know I’m writing this…? He’d probably think this is kind of corny. What the hell, I’m older, it’s permitted, especially at this time of year.

Another thing I’m missing hugely is church. Sometimes I would sing as a soloist or in the choir, sometimes I would be substitute organist, at Hillcrest Disciples of Christ in Toronto. David Warrack was usually the organist and music director. The last two times I played were in January 2020, stepping in due to David’s absence.

On occasion when the bass was off David would get Greg to replace him. When I had to step in for David at the keyboard, David would get Greg to sub as the tenor. Whenever he showed up, the choir sounded better.

And we had fun.

Greg reminded me a bit of Guy Lafleur the hockey player.

Guy Lafleur (right) getting a light from Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa in 1971

Lafleur was a famous winger for the Montreal Canadiens, who scored over 500 goals in 14 seasons, while sometimes smoking two packs a day. Does it seem unlikely that an athlete could excel while being a smoker? I think it’s even stranger for an opera singer who relies on his wind. But the thing is Greg could hold notes longer than anyone in our choir regardless of his smoking. Amazing.

I’m picturing the impact in operas or operettas that cast Greg. Whatever the size of the role, the rehearsals were surely more fun because of his presence. Not only is he a good singing actor, he’s a larger than life personality.

And I miss seeing him in the lobby. Of course I miss going to shows, which means I don’t see anyone in a lobby anywhere. But if I could run into anyone in a lobby he’d be my first choice, always interesting to talk to, usually well-dressed, friendly.

And I miss the sartorial splendor. Nice clothes in other words. If I had been ready with the iPhone in the lobby when I ran into him, I might have better photos to show, someone who on top of everything else, also knows how to dress with creative flair. I hope I can be forgiven for using an image I found on Facebook.

Greg Finney

One of these days we’ll be back. In the meantime, I miss the church services, I miss the shows and the chats in the lobby.

But I remember. And I must express my gratitude. Thanks Greg.

This might be the first in a series (we shall see…).

Greg Finney
Posted in Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion, Sports | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

A gift from Mel Brooks

It’s been a brutal week of artistic companies facing eviction, shows postponed or cancelled on both side of the Atlantic, an upward spiral of statistics inspiring the panicky pursuit of boosters, masks and safety.

It’s not what you expect in the lead-up to Christmas.

Before we could get in to see Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch, killing some time in the Indigo store in the Manulife Centre, I grabbed a copy of Mel Brooks’s memoir All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business.

There’s a great photo of him guffawing on the front page.

I’ve been laughing too, almost every page

I read almost the whole book today, over 450 pages that flow with the effortless ease of a friendly conversation.

Brooks is very good at making people laugh. If you didn’t already know that the creator of The Producers or Young Frankenstein has a gift for humour, (and chances are you pick up the memoir as I did, eager to hear from a comic legend who already has made you laugh many times) the book will show you that gift, at times giving you a reason to laugh on every page, sometimes big belly laughs.

Today, as I shrank away from the world and its horrors, I was captured completely by Brooks’s story.

At times I wondered what it’s like facing the pressure to be funny. When Brooks wrote for television –in the years before he became famous—he was required to be funny, to create humour week after week. What a miracle but also, what a position to be in. Does that make you neurotic about being funny, perhaps make you compulsive about joking and humour? I wondered even as I sped through page after page of effortless story-telling. Brooks is telling us about his life, and also describing the funny things he created along the way. It’s exciting to read about his creations, how they were inspired, financed, cast, filmed, eventually released, and then embraced by the world.

I knew him for the famous films. I think Young Frankenstein is under-rated, a perfect gem of cinema. I’ve seen it so many times, yet never tire of it, great writing, perfect performances. The Producers is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen on film, even if the movie is uneven. Blazing Saddles is a piece of anarchy full of laughs. I also love The Twelve Chairs and Spaceballs, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed To Be or Not to Be. There are other films I haven’t seen, as I never made it all the way through High Anxiety, History of the World, or his Robin Hood & Dracula spoofs. When we come to that part of the book, thankfully there’s less to slog through because Brooks knows we’re not hanging on his every word, the way we are reading about his greatest films. And yet it’s still entertaining writing.

In reading the chapter about High Anxiety –Brooks’s attempt at a Hitchcock parody– I feel certain I now understand why I didn’t like the film. We read about how Brooks and Hitchcock actually discussed jokes in the film. Aha. I don’t know about you, but I found the film was a cluster of gags, some hitting their mark, some far too precious and respectful of Hitchcock to actually be funny. I’m sure some people like the film given its apparent success at the box office.

And later we come back to an early film. I never thought I’d like the musical version of The Producers (his own stage adaptation of his own film with songs he wrote himself) that I’ve seen staged and then filmed, but it surprised me, better than expected. In the book Brooks carefully takes us through the creative process step by step. The funny thing with Brooks is that, while he has a huge output, while he’s arguably a great auteur, at the same time the language is unpretentious, mostly humble. Oh sure, he’s telling us of successes, but they never seem inevitable. There’s no arrogance here, indeed Brooks sounds as surprised as anyone else at his success.

In such a long life, the book takes us into a whole series of other creative activities from Brooks. Did you ever watch Get Smart? That was Mel Brooks too. Before that Brooks was part of the team writing for live television such as Your Show of Shows, featuring Sid Caesar in the 1950s. And before that, in the borscht belt and earlier when he was in the army, Brooks was learning the basics of his craft as an entertainer.

Later there were the Brooksfilms projects. I knew of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. But I was surprised to read about Frances, The Fly, 84 Charing Cross Road. And to discover that one of my favorite films, My Favorite Year, also came from Brooksfilms. Remember how one of the writers for the show always whispered his comments? In chapter four of All About Me (the Sid Caesar Show of Shows chapter) we discover a real-life writer who also did that, none other than Neil Simon, in the years before he became a famous playwright.

I think Brooks is pretty honest in what he’s reporting even if he’s telling us the story of his successful career. Or maybe I’m just desperate for a happy story. I’ve devoured it far too quickly, the prose very fluid. Of course Brooks is a writer. No wonder.

There are moments that seem genuinely risky. More than once we hear about a producer insisting on cuts that Brooks would politely acknowledge, and then ignore. When you’re 95 years old you can afford to be blunt. Was he always this way? Perhaps.

There’s a great deal to enjoy in this book, lessons to be learned. It doesn’t matter if you are short so long as you can make people laugh; that way perhaps they won’t beat you up. Or so he tells us. For me it’s mostly diversion, but alas, I’m almost finished. I can’t escape from the world much longer. Writing this blog is a chance to prolong the experience for a few moments more.

You won’t find a better gift to give your friends for Christmas or any other occasion. I bought it for myself and I’m glad I did.

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Ninth Annual Elizabeth Krehm Memorial Concert on Boxing Day


Sunday December 26th, 5:30 pm ET –
Direct link – 

In lieu of concert tickets, Canzona Chamber Players asks for donations to the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, in Memory of Elizabeth Krehm  
Donation Link

This boxing day evening, enjoy an hour-long program of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Mahler Arr. Schönberg and Symphony 7 by Beethoven red. Kevin Lau, filmed at the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto and broadcast on at 5:30pm. 

Canzona Chamber Players is pleased to present The Ninth Annual Memorial Concert for Elizabeth Krehm. Elizabeth passed away on November 17, 2012 in the ICU at St. Michael’s Hospital. Elizabeth’s family will be forever grateful for the wonderful care received by the doctors, nurses, and social workers at St. Mike’s. Every year since her passing, her family has held a memorial concert as a fundraiser for the hospital raising over $175,000 to date. Now the Elizabeth Krehm Memorial concert serves to honour the memories of all cherished friends and family, through the healing power of music, together on boxing day.

This year’s virtual recital is free to view, and whenever possible the family asks for donations to be made to the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation in Elizabeth Krehm’s name. 

Canzona Chamber Players is an annual classical and jazz chamber music concert series now in it’s 19th year featuring Canada’s top musicians. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have been broadcasting safe recitals, recorded to the highest standard on their YouTube Channel. The series has featured Winona ZelenkaJoseph Johnson and Jonathan Crow (TSO), Marie Bérard (COC), 2020 Juno recipient Angela Schwarzkopf, Yosuke Kawasaki and Jessica Linnebach (NACO), and many others all in a fundraising effort to support the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation’s COVID-19 Courage Fund. 

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2021 TSO Messiah

As Kevin Bazzana observes in his Toronto Symphony Orchestra program note, “there is no one definitive Messiah.”

It’s an ironic turn of phrase considering the religious implications one might give that phrase. Indeed when I look at the bizarre mockeries of Jesus’s Word that have the temerity to call themselves “Christian” nowadays? I take comfort in Handel’s many incarnations, whether in the reliable King James version texts or the various approaches to the music.

Tonight was the first of several TSO Messiahs to be heard at Roy Thomson Hall featuring the Mendelssohn Choir, Conductor Simon Rivard, and four terrific young soloists.

As we optimistically return to concert halls, I don’t anticipate quibbles from purists. We’re all so grateful for what we can get, whether they’re virtual operas or arias sung over beers in a bar-room, hymns from online services or sung alone.

This 85 minute version is the latest in a series of adaptations to the new normal. Chorus and orchestra, except for the wind players, were masked. They reduce the hall’s capacity, eliminating intermissions and reducing the onstage complement: all in the interest of safety. The by-products are a cleaner sound due to a better acoustic, and a more economical program.

There’s not a lot missing from this version, aided by Rivard’s brisk tempi and insistence on crisp articulation from the chorus and orchestra.

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, tenor Spencer Britten, and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus sing all the important solos, often interpolating lovely cadenzas. I was grateful for their clear enunciation of the text.

In the foreground: Rihab Chaieb, Anna-Sophie Neher, Conductor Simon Rivard, Spencer Britten and Stephen Hegedus, with the Toronto Symphony and Mendelssohn Choir

The TSO Messiah continues until the weekend at Roy Thomson Hall, with matinees on both Saturday and Sunday. Click here for further information.

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Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun

This is more appreciation than review. If you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film this will read differently than to those familiar with his style.

The title, subject and structure of Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (2021) comes from a fictitious magazine, an anthology plus an ending sequence to enact the concept given at the outset. Early in the film, its editor Arthur Howitzer Jr tells us that upon his death the magazine must cease publication. The final sequence concerns his obituary.

The poster looks more like a magazine cover than cinematic promotion.

Anderson follows his usual stylistic procedures for The French Dispatch. Screen pictures have a compulsive symmetry, with so many reminders of artificiality that you can never mistake this for reality. We get his usual elaborate chase sequences. Romance rears its head. We not only get moments that use models but even periods when animation takes over. And yet amid Anderson’s fetish for order we get elaborate depictions of chaos, fights, mayhem. Anderson again puts an elaborate title sequence at the end requiring multiple viewings / hearings to see all the detail. We are presented with a series of clever magazine covers each before us for only a few agonized seconds, then snatched away.

The cast includes many of the usual actors seen in previous films, whether in small parts (Ed Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe), or big ones (Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Adrien Brody), joined by actors in their first appearance (Timothee Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Léa Seydoux, Liev Schreiber, Henry Winkler).

One of Anderson’s recurrent themes concerns youth and children, who seem to be our best hope. Some of his movies (not this one) might even be mistaken for children’s films, the sort of cinema intended for the young.

There are three magazine stories in the film plus the closing sequence. The first segment explores the sale and commodification of art. The second concerns student activism and the influence of the press upon the creation of the story, including its transformation into other sorts of discourse. The third segment is more ambiguous, broaching concerns about race, crime, class.

The original release of French Dispatch was announced for July 2020, but delayed until autumn 2020, then put off again into 2021, finally released in October of this year. Anderson’s next film Asteroid City is in post production, announced for 2022, starring Tom Hanks & Scarlett Johansson, with appearances from such regulars as Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.

I find that repeated viewings of films help me discover layers of meaning that I didn’t notice the first time. While I can’t decide how much I like The French Dispatch, possibly because I’m not sure I understand it, I know I will see it again. Anderson invites this, indeed seems to require this from his elaborate self-referential structures and the density of the creation in places such as the series of magazine covers at the end of the film. There are moments to make you think, some to make you laugh, but I was missing anything so urgent as to make me cry, at least on my first viewing; I suspect that will change as I get to know the film better.

As I try to avoid spoilers forgive me if I make it sound completely abstract. The writing of reviews can be ruminative, a way to digest and rediscover the joy and beauty of a work of art. Or simply an attempt to figure out what you’ve seen and heard.

APPENDIX: Trailers for Wes Anderson’s ten feature films

1-Bottle Rocket (1996)

2-Rushmore (1998)

3-The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

4-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

5-The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

6-Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

7-Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

8-Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

9-Isle of Dogs (2018)

10-French Dispatch (2021)

Asteroid City would be the eleventh, reportedly in post-production and expected in 2022 according to its IMDB entry.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Cinema, video & DVDs, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Confronting mortality: AtG /COC Mozart Requiem

The pandemic is simultaneously new in its requirements and yet old in once again reminding us of our ultimate destiny. Modern science may blind us to history’s lessons. The images on the tray in this picture come from Täby kyrka, a medieval church that probably influenced Ingmar Bergman in showing death playing chess in The Seventh Seal. I brought the tray home as a souvenir from my trip to Sweden.

An image reproduced on a tray from Täby kyrka, an 11th century church near Stockholm

The Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre have collaborated on a film of Mozart’s Requiem, the latest of the COC’s online offerings. Director Joel Ivany revisits the Requiem, previously seen at the Mozart @260 Festival in January 2016, with the Toronto Symphony, the Amadeus Choir & Elmer Iseler Singers bearing the epithet “semi-staged”.

For that 2016 live performance Joel got a personal investment out of each of us by handing out blank cards to each of us, as we came in. We were told in the pre-concert introduction to write the name or names of someone whose passing we would choose to celebrate or mourn.

A new ritual & convention of mourning was invented on the spot.

My private memorial.

Each of us used the card in our own way, but this abstract template furnished a place where we all seemed to meet even though this was not a church, just a concert hall.

For 2021 the new film posed some dramaturgical questions that I’ll attempt to articulate while looking at how Joel and the COC responded. On the website we see the following textual preamble:
“This multi-disciplinary presentation in collaboration with Against the Grain Theatre invites us to reckon with the impact of COVID-19 and devastating losses—and heal together through the power of Mozart’s astonishingly moving Requiem.”

We’re invited to explore the implications of death in the Requiem text, probing even further than what Joel gave us in 2016 at the TSO. The film alternates back and forth between two sorts of discourse, not unlike classic number opera. But instead of recitatives telling the story, followed by arias or ensembles exploring the passions of that moment in the drama, we have Mozart’s numbers alternating with a series of gentle interviews with the soloists (soprano Midori Marsh, mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, tenor Andrew Haji, and bass Vartan Gabrielian) speaking of their experiences. This was a film version of the thing Joel did back in 2016 when he asked us to write down names of the people we had lost. And towards the end of the film we again saw names and concepts such as +215 written on pages before us in this communal space of mourning and commemoration. The comments function the way arias do in number opera, giving us reflective pauses in the Requiem. In addition to the concert context we also watched film of the soloists on a beach, lovely images not unlike what we see in the film The Tree of Life, even as it also resembles the Scarborough Bluffs beaches near my home in the east end of town.

All four soloists have great moments, although I’m particularly impressed by the sensitive and idiomatic work of Midori Marsh, a young singer who is part of the Ensemble Studio. Andrew Haji continues to sing like a star, sympathetic and always musical.

At first I had wondered about the interpretive choices made by Johannes Debus leading the orchestra and the COC chorus. They sound very dry, even astringent in the choruses that we hear, setting up the solos as an escape from something dreadful and terrifying. There is no consolation to be heard in the opening statement of the “requiem”, or the “kyrie”. The sonics of the auditorium plus the producer’s choices (where the microphones are placed, equalization etc) seem designed to maximize the scariness of the text rather than to bring us any kind of ritual consolation. I was frankly confused, until I started to notice how the commentaries from the soloists as well as their solos were placed in sharp contrast to the work of the chorus. Whether this was a conscious choice (to maximize drama and dryness) or an accident of acoustics, the combination works. As we get closer to the end, there is a more vulnerable sound from the chorus, a gentler sound.

The COC / AtG Requiem joins their other online content, available from the COC website for the usual six months.

Soloists Midori Marsh, Andrew Haji, Marion Norman and Vartan Gabrielian

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dogs are right about winter

This morning I had that magical experience of taking my dog outside after the first snowfall last night.

I remember my home room teacher (sorry can’t recall his name) chewed me out in grade 7 when I blurted out “it’s SNOWING.” Yes I disrupted his lecture with my the heartfelt explosion of joyful wonderment. I was all of 12 years old.

When it snows I’m 12 again. Every year I feel the same. Yet I’m a beginner compared to a canine.

This morning I took Sam outside, as we explored the first blanket of white. I let Sam off the leash (we start on the leash as a disciplinary thing, but also as a safety thing). She isn’t as agile as she was when I got this gif of her spinning in place in the snow, back in February.

It reminds me of the “spinerama” move of Montreal Canadien defenseman Serge Savard, the pirouette that got its nickname from Danny Gallivan back in the 1970s.

This morning she seemed to be teasing me, spreading her front legs to get her head a bit lower, before dashing away from me. She seemed to be goading me into chasing her.

Which I did.

So there we were, as frisky as two 12 year olds. Sam is in fact 15, but a fifteen year old dog is not as agile as a human teenager. Ah but she still outruns me, cantering today rather than galloping, fast enough to leave me in her wake.

Let me elaborate on my minority position that winter is actually the best season, using Sam as my main witness for the defense.

Snow is perhaps the first thing to talk about. It’s not winter in late November, yet here we are contemplating the white stuff on the ground. I find snow beautiful in every sense even if snowfalls may be inconvenient, snarling the traffic, necessitating cleanups and purchases of snow-melting products.

I like the exercise I get shoveling. I prefer smaller shovels full to big ones, for the simple reason it’s easier on the body. It’s easier to lift ten 5 pound weights than two 25 pound ones. What’s the hurry? I enjoy the stretching sensations, the movement of the body. Yes we need to be careful, mindful, just as we must re-think walking when the ground is icy. I used to fall once every year up until about 2010. Now I’m always a bit slower possibly because I know it’s dangerous. The fact I had a mild concussion from hitting my head also woke me up. I say “woke my up” even though i was knocked out for a bit. When I came back around, you might say, I woke up in every sense. Never mind that, we learn from our mistakes and our mishaps.

I will pause, enjoying the view, especially if I am not in a hurry to get anywhere. Here’s what we can learn from the puppies: to stop rushing about and instead, enjoy the smells and sensuous pleasures of winter. Winter, sensuous? Tell that to the dog, who sticks her snout right into the snow, enjoying how it feels on her back. I suspect it’s much harder to smell anything with freezing temperatures. So she works extra hard, probing and sniffing.

Sam with her snout in the snow

I like the way snowfalls look, encrusting the trees, covering pavement and buildings, and yes, people too.

I love the way my dog behaves in the snow. The sound of snow, stilling the cars and insulating noise around us, is glorious. Everything is brand new.

And a cold winter with its low temperatures has side-effects. It feels cleaner to have the insects and bacterias sealed under a frozen layer.

I’m conflicted about the effect, though. I like that the insects are gone. I didn’t enjoy having a tick trying to burrow its way into my leg to raise a family or merely steal my blood. I don’t hate mosquitoes but I am comfortable killing them, because they kill millions of humans via malaria without even trying.

I do regret what I’ve read, that there’s been a huge crash in the insect population. While I can hear the cheers, wait a moment. Yes we’ve noticed how our survival is intertwined with the lives of bees, worried for bee populations and loving the little guys who pollinate our plants.

And the murder hornets? Not so much.

But without insects, what will the robins and larks and finches eat? We’re connected to the food chain, until such time as it’s all artificially germinated and grown.


“Oh what can ail thee knight at arms, alone and palely loitering. The sedge is withered from the lake and no bird sing.” Pardon the Keatsean digression, but that line always moved me, sometimes close to tears, the deadly stillness of “no birds sing”.

Fewer bugs means fewer birds.

So while my neighbours may glare at me for leaving leaves on the lawn (ah who am I kidding, nobody glares, I have the nicest kindest neighbours on Larwood, truly), I believe in leaving the leaves in place, as a refuge for the bugs.

Hey isn’t that why we call them leaves? They’re not called “pick me up”. No I’m not lazy. It’s actually a mindful choice.

My nervousness about climate change and ecological disaster has winter as a kind of primal root, in my childhood. When the ice cube in your drink has melted, how are you going to keep it cool? Our planetary ice cube is melting, melting, melting. The warmer temperature of the great lakes likely signals a winter of lake-effect snows.

Meanwhile, Sam loves winter. No she isn’t intellectualizing it like I am. But she’s looking younger today than she has in awhile. Whether inside or outside winter is a good thing for my dog, and for me when I watch her responses. She’s a great teacher.

I feel rejuvenated.

If she could talk she might say “it’s snowing”.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Food, Health and Nutrition, Personal ruminations & essays | 2 Comments