Love, Marilyn

Ever notice how patterns may appear around you?

The two films I saw this week (one on the big screen, one, seen now at least 3 times this past week at home) couldn’t be more different, at least on the surface.

Last night I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, a dramatization of the life of a rich woman who liked to sing. The performances by Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg were wonderful, exploring something that’s never really been explored in film. We’ve got a society that seems to make a hierarchy of everything, evaluating, competing, judging.
A week before I turned on TVO at the right moment, catching some of Love, Marilyn, a documentary from 2012 by Liz Garbus. I hunted it down at the library, permitting me to see it another 3 times.

Because my first time I came into the doc having missed the first few minutes, I didn’t hear the key sentence concerning the film’s premise. I was bewildered to encounter a documentary that was full of performances, full of stars reading lines: lines apparently written by Marilyn Monroe!


And so later—watching the film in its entirety—I saw that premise explained in a little note at the beginning, that recently a couple of boxes of MM’s notes had been found. This is a documentary like no other.  We’ve watching a study of performance, of all life as performance.

It is repeatedly explained in different sorts of illustration throughout the doc that Marilyn created Marilyn, her persona was a creation. We see Lee Strasberg speak, we also see an actor portray Strasberg. We see some of those notes projected hugely on the back, and then an actor steps before us to read those words. Glenn Close, Viola Davis and Ellen Burstyn give us very under-stated versions of MM, Uma Thurman and Marisa Tomei are much more histrionic. There’s quite a large group of performers, including some very clearly influenced by MM such as the surreal Lindsay Lohan (so weird to see someone looking exactly like Marilyn speaking Marilyn’s lines, and someone so young). We are reflected back upon the process of signification, of getting inside words and speaking them. We encounter authorities, some like Strasberg or Billy Wilder, or Jack Lemmon from the realm of acting, others like Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer, commenting on the MM phenomenon.

And magically we are seeing not just the phantom film clips of dead people, but living actors performing those fascinating diary entries and poems.

So I guess you can see the connection. I felt that the Florence Foster Jenkins film was a profound meditation on what we do when we seek to make art. And here was Love, Marilyn probing the same interface, between the self and art. It’s hard to imagine two more different people than MM and FFJ, one the sexual icon, the other so damaged by syphilis, in a sexless marriage. Yet they both defied convention. If you accept the studio fiction that I heard as a child —that MM was sexy but talentless—it may be heresy to be presented with the evidence that she’s a key agent of the sexual revolution, a brilliant creator. I hope this isn’t news to you.

It’s a fascinating coincidence to observe ways that both MM and FFJ were exploited. FFJ’s record was the top-seller for that label. MM’s nudes, for which she was paid $50, make Hugh Hefner’s fortune, and that’s only the first in a series of times she is underpaid, unappreciated.

I see them both as powerful women, who were in other ways, victims.

And there is a huge mystery at the core of both of their lives. I alluded to the mystery of FFJ – wondering just how much she knew, whether she was afflicted with syphilitic dementia, or safely ensconced in the cocoon of a loving husband – and of course the last hours of MM are a mystery.

I think one of the things I love most about both of these films is how they honour the mystery and don’t push one simple interpretation. That makes me want to go back, see them over and over, to pursue the snake that eats its tail, to enjoy the unfolding of these lives, and for a few moments to believe they’re still alive.

Posted in Cinema, Theatre & musicals | Leave a comment

Florence Foster Jenkins, everywoman

When I was a child I was introduced to the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, on a record called “The Glory (??) of the Human Voice”.


There was a kind of illicit pleasure in listening to her singing, because

  • She did not sing well
  • She did not seem to notice that she did not sing well

Ours is a society of sophistication. Whether you paint or dance or sing or play golf, we aspire to do these things well, and usually are aware of our handicap / limitation.   When we fail to perform well we suffer, we are ashamed, we have stagefright.

The astonishing thing with FFJ: how much conviction she seemed to bring to her singing.

The great mystery with FFJ: did she sing this way without any inkling that she was not successful? that people were laughing?

Usually singing teachers discourage singers from undertaking repertoire that is beyond their capabilities.  Indeed, a teacher who does not stop a student from over-reaching can damage a singer’s confidence and even ruin a voice.

And so, in our adoration of the virtuoso, our aspiration to excellence both for ourselves and what we enjoy, the Florence Foster Jenkins mystery is profound.  Did she know that people laughed?

Florence Foster Jenkins is Stephen Frears’ new film with Meryl Streep as the singer and Hugh Grant as her devoted boyfriend, an actor who didn’t quite make it.  Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg is FFJ´s pianist Cosme McMoon, another virtuoso who didn’t quite make it.  I always thought that the pianist’s bizarre name suggested that it was a pseudonym, a good piano player who refused to be identified, but the story we get in Frears’ film tells quite a different sort of story.

I can’t help thinking that this might be the most profound meditation upon performance and art that I’ve yet encountered, precisely because, as far as FFJ is concerned there but for the grace of God, could go you or I.  Some of us are more talented than others.  I grew up in a household with a stunning voice –not my own but a sibling—that has forever got me thinking about such things.  We can be very harsh critics of ourselves.  FFJ is the other extreme, perhaps someone who was overly enabled by loving and supportive friends & loved ones.

How much did FFJ really know?  I think this film offers one set of answers, even while displaying other possibilities.

Along the way we also encounter a very enlightened film about relationships, about unconditional love.  For most of the film Streep is doing a remarkable impersonation of the messed up interpretations of opera arias I recall from childhood, although we get a tiny glimpse as if from FFJ’s perspective: as Streep suddenly gets to sing in tune, a poignant moment near the end.

In this electoral campaign where one of the candidates has ridiculed a disabled person’s speech, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about the topic.  In the darkened theatre I confess I giggled a few times even as I watched Grant as the boyfriend express outrage that anyone could laugh at her.  Why is this kind of laughter okay and sanctioned by our sophisticated attitudes, while we disapprove of what Trump did?  We go into a church or a school and when the little children in sunday school or kindergarten sing out of tune we think “aw isn’t that adorable” and withhold judgment.

But we judge ourselves harshly, because we expect too much of ourselves.  Competence and sophistication seem to be the rocks upon which we wreck ourselves as we age, as we become progressively less competent. For some reason we forgive some, while judging others harshly.  Florence Foster Jenkins is a delicate examination not just of this quirky story, but of the predicament of every performer, aiming to be great and squirming in the presence of failure.

Posted in Cinema, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations | 5 Comments

60th Anniversary of Hungarian Revolution: Two Commemorative Concerts


This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.  The influx of approximately 40,000 Hungarians in 1956 influenced society so much that it was declared a Canadian National Historic Event, and is part of Canadian heritage.

To commemorate this occasion two large-scale concerts with the title “A Bridge to the Future” are being organized by CHAMP:

Thursday, November 17, 7:30 PM.     —      Tuesday, November 29, 7:30 PM.

Trinity-Paul’s United Church, Toronto — Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau

Tickets available:  —  Box Office of Museum

The concerts will also commemorate the 135th anniversary of the birth of Béla Bartók with the performance of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Works by Kodály, Liszt and Polgár  (North American Premiere) performed by Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano, Daniel Warren, trumpet, Peter Cosbey, cello, Mary Kenedi, piano and a chamber orchestra led by conductor William Shookhoff.

The concerts are under the sponsorship of Stefánia Szabó, Consul General of Hungary, and Bálint Ódor, Ambassador of Hungary. Both events will be attended by both Hungarian and Canadian dignitaries, and will be followed by a reception.


The Canadian-Hungarian Association for Music Performance (CHAMP) was founded to present professional concerts with a repertoire of Hungarian and contemporary Canadian composers. The music bridges the two countries, reflecting the assimilation of the Hungarian refugees of 1956. Music is a universal language communicating equally to all.

Contact:   Mary Kenedi, Founder, Pianist  —  Website:

           —  416-272-4904


“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.

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A Tale of Two Cities: the opera

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (shall we call it TTC for short?) has now been adapted by composer Victor Davies and librettist Eugene Benson as an opera, and given its world premiere production by Summer Opera Lyric Theatre and Research Centre (known as “SOLT”). That’s the same team who gave us Earnest, The Importance of Being (or EIB) premiered in 2008 by Toronto Operetta Theatre and revived just last year by TOT. When I say “the same team” I am loosely conflating TOT and SOLT, given that Guillermo Silva-Marin is the driving force & artistic director of both organizations. I’m hoping that history repeats itself; just as TOT premiered and then revived EIB, perhaps we’ll get to see TTC revived as well.


SOLT Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin

After seeing their work presented, Davies & Benson may make revisions. Hopefully we’ll get to see another version of the work. Silva-Marin continues to be an important broker for new work in this city. Although SOLT,  TOT and Opera in Concert (all run by Silva-Marin) are three companies where one expects to see classic works from past centuries those organizations also occasionally venture into new work. Last year we saw the World Premiere of Isis and Osiris by Peter Togni and Sharon Singer via Opera in Concert.

The final performance was Saturday night at the Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto, an educational opportunity for all concerned. While SOLT is a kind of training program for young singers (whether they’re undertaking an older opera such as Handel’s Julius Caesar or a new work like this one) this is an especially glorious opportunity for Davies & Benson to explore the strengths and weaknesses of their new work. I chatted briefly with Silva-Marin, who described the six week workshop process.

For a creative team, getting the chance to try out a new work in front of an audience is invaluable. The theatre becomes a kind of laboratory, a place for genuine experimentation. Given that theatres usually aim to make money, an unknown and untried work is particularly risky. It seems to be an excellent partnership. SOLT used Davies & Benson as the context to teach young singers unique lessons about opera performance (world premieres don’t happen every day!), while Davies & Benson got the chance to try out their new work with live audiences.

I think TTC is a much more ambitious project than EIB. With the Wilde play you start off with a well-tested and stage-worthy play, whose setting as an operetta aimed to hit the same high-points as the play: and mostly succeeded. TTC however is a novel, which makes the adaptation process much more difficult. Lines that are spoken as one reads to oneself are not necessarily lines that work when spoken aloud in a theatre, a hurdle that is further heightened when the line must be sung rather than spoken. There’s also the question of the incidents of the plot for an entire novel, which can make for a much longer work (as in one of the long serialized TV adaptations) or a more condensed account of the story, depending on the choices made in the adaptation.

Listening to Davies’ music, I saw different possible directions as far as the understanding of genre. Sometimes the music was more dissonant, particularly when the events of the story were most fraught and upsetting. Sometimes the music was aptly sentimental for romantic scenes. Davies exhibited his melodic gift at times, although I felt the work is still not finished, as it still could be tightened up. In places the work seems operatic, in other places it’s more like a musical, reminding me at times of Les Miserables. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though, as some musicals are wonderful pieces of theatre, that are sometimes undertaken by opera companies. I don’t invoke the genre question to judge (negative words especially) so much as to discover new opportunities, to better understanding the direction of a work and the best ways (and personnel) to exploit those opportunities.

Davies & Benson were well served by SOLT and Silva-Marin. For the most part characters were portrayed in a direct or sentimental way, sometimes resembling the melodrama of the mid-19th Century, their hearts on their sleeves. The exception was the barrister Carton, whose more conflicted emotions were subtly captured by James McLean, one of the seasoned professionals SOLT sometimes brings in to work alongside the students, an important part of their learning experience.

Michael Rose as music-director and pianist gave a stirring account of Davies’ score, while keeping things tightly organized even when the chorus was singing from far offstage. Davies sometimes threw lots of notes at the pianist, but the rhythms were mostly regular, the harmonies mostly tonal, and the singing rarely too difficult. As a result the singers were very easy to understand. I was pleasantly surprised that I understood almost every word without surtitles.

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CBD, part the second

After writing two pieces last night (one about the AGO, one about a trip to a dispensary to get CBD), I decided to take one of the pills, a gel capsule containing cannabidiol (aka CBD).

Please note, this is just the testimony of an average guy. I’m no expert, cerrainly nor a medical practitioner. I’m just a citizen trying to find the best way to live, and sharing my observations, which shouldn’t be generalized as a prescription. Anyone else thinking about alternatives needs to decide for themselves.

When I took the pill last night I had no alcohol in my system, just the caffeine from a strong coffee after dinner, plus whatever residue remains from the 2 coffees I’d had earlier in the day. I felt something within fifteen minutes of taking the pill.  It didn’t get me high, not one iota. As it was bedtime, it worked beautifully that I began to feel relaxed. This was ideal preparation for what I was doing first thing today  (Thursday morning), namely a dental hygiene appointment.

My arthitic symptoms include neck stiffness, tightness in the jaw, numbness and/or pain in various places such as my legs, my shoulders & my arms. In past years my dentist told me to take a valium before my appointment to help me combat that stiffness.   It’s a practical concern because it’s hard for a dentist or hygienist to work when my mouth doesn’t open all the way.  That inability to open can make the appointment quite uncomfortable, so in addition to the valium for muscle relaxation, I’d also take a Tylenol to lessen the pain.

This morning I went to the clinic for my 8:30 hygiene appointment, still feeling the effects of the pill I took last night. I remembered what I had read in the paperwork I was asked to sign by the clinic, that had admonished me to be mindful, that if I was in any way intoxicated: I must not drive.

But there was no intoxication, no altered reality. I woke up briefly in the night, thinking again about those concerns about driving if I was impaired. But I was fine. I woke up very well- rested this morning, having had a deeper than usual sleep. I had my usual breakfast, and took the recommended Tylenol in case I had any pain. When I brushed my teeth after breakfast I noticed that my jaw was looser than usual, that i could open my mouth quite wide.


So that’s the first thing to report. When I began the appointment, I felt quite a bit different than usual. As I was being lowered back in the chair by the hygienist, I felt ten years younger, with none of the discomfort –or pains– I usually experience at this moment.

None whatsoever.

When we began the cleaning and I opened up, it was noticeably different. My usual is to be reminded sometimes to open wider. Today I was looser than last time, looser than any recent time I’ve been.

I thought of the times when I took the valium (which I didn’t do the last couple of appointments, having run out of the prescription and not bothering to re-fill it), which made me feel a bit dizzy. I hated the sense of being drugged, not fully there in the moment.

How ironic that something based on cannabis would help me to be more in the moment and less intoxicated.

The outcome of the appointment was much more positive than usual, as I enjoyed the experience rather than cringing.  Afterwards, talking to friends, I must have sounded euphoric with the unexpected sense of freedom.  I felt taller, although that may simply have been because i wasn’t hunched over in pain, wasn’t limping or aching.

Maybe part of what I felt is a placebo-effect, but even so, i felt amazing.

This is the beginning of a conversation with my doctors, as I will want to discuss how to use these pills and to make informed choices, to learn from the experience. I know that I will always want to take CBD before a dental appointment, but perhaps there’s more, given CBD’s supposed anti-inflammatory properties.

It’s nice to have options.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception | Leave a comment

Gates yea, Martin nay

I wanted to like it.

As a child and teen, Lawren Harris was one of my favourite artists.  Steve Martin was and is one of my favourite comedians, actors, and writers.

But when I got to “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” something was lost in the translation.  I wonder, thinking about such things as the French embrace of Jerry Lewis, as to whether Steve Martin’s version of Harris –passionate though it may be—misses something.

I quite liked the earnest little film of Martin talking about his discovery of Harris, mistaking him at first for Rockwell Kent.  That was my only brief encounter with Kent, but what struck me immediately was an aspect of Harris’s work that I’d never thought about before, something that hadn’t troubled me.

Kent’s paintings in juxtaposition to Harris’s work reminded me of the dual exhibit of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, a recent AGO show I liked very much.  At the time I’d been struck by how abstract Moore seemed, compared to Bacon, and here I was again, possibly making a simplistic comparison.

Let me cut to the chase, telling you what I love about Harris, especially in this show, and what I felt was being disrupted by this presentation of his work.  For me Harris is extremely stylized, showing us a vision of rocks and trees, sky and water, that rarely resembles the subject.  Because we know what’s being signified it doesn’t trouble us to see trees that don’t look like real trees or mountains that don’t look like real mountains.  We may as well be looking at a visual allegory, a symbolic picture.

Symbol is really the key word.  I was reminded of Paul Gaugin and Maurice Denis in the handling of the colours, a pair of painters I associate with the symbolists, even though their works date from the 1890s, not the 1920s and ‘30s.  And as a painter whose images of Canadian landscape is so completely reified –without any signs of genuine life but instead from a symbolic (or symbolist) tableau—perhaps the paintings should be accompanied by the music of Debussy or Satie.

And so I believe the problem with this show is that we’re not embracing symbol but fighting against it.  We see photos and attempts to illuminate Harris’s vision.  Pardon me, but when I am in a theatre seeing an opera or a movie, please don’t interrupt my reverie with images of the actors out of costume, of biographical details.  Yes, later on I’m happy to view such things on the DVD. But as I walk through the gallery, as I seek to sink into a reverie with these paintings, to be yanked out again and again?  Not helpful, not respectful, not what I liked at all.



Theaster Gates, powerfully exploring meanings of “house” and “museum” at the AGO.

Upstairs there’s a show that blew me away from an American artist, Theaster Gates.  It’s political edginess strikes a chord in this season of rallies by Black Lives Matter, BLM being only one small footnote to this show.  First and foremost, I found Gates stimulating. Sometimes touching, sometimes achingly vulnerable, there’s a lot to think about, lots to feel.

burn_babyBut perhaps it’s more important to say that I was able to access Gates in a way that I couldn’t really access Lawren Harris.  I kept bumping into the curating vision of all the other minds, all that big money seeking to tell me how great Lawren Harris is, and who Lawren Harris is. And in the process, they interrupted my delight in his paintings, because –excuse me– Lawren Harris is new to me the way Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz is new to me: one of my favourite artists since childhood.  Only one room really allowed me –near the end of the second part of the show—to fully sink into the experience of Harris’s paintings.  Am i sounding petulant? perhaps. To repeat: i wanted to like it. I really did.

And make no mistake, there are a great many wonderful paintings there. Perhaps the key is to look at the art and ignore the many messages from curators and historians.  Don’t listen to people tell you who Harrris is.  Maybe they’re more accurate than I in understanding him?  Could be! But if you go to this show and find it’s not working for you, there are at least two possible strategies I would suggest for you to take, that I took:

  • Go upstairs to the fifth floor, where you can see an artist’s vision unencumbered by curatorial intervention. The energy and joy coming at you are unmistakeable.
  • Buy the book. I think I came to know Harris from books, where his reified understanding of our landscape –an idea of north if ever there was one –comes through most clearly.

Where better than the book of “The Idea of North” to get the idea of the Idea of North..?

And when I go back to the show I will concentrate on the paintings.  Just as we didn’t really need the French to tell us who Jerry Lewis really was, perhaps we can find Lawren Harris for ourselves.

Posted in Art, Books & Literature, Opera, Popular music & culture | 2 Comments

CBD, part the first

A loving family member cajoled me to try something new today. My chief pain management strategy for dealing with my arthritic symptoms could be summed up (before tonight) with the following quote:

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a pain management strategy”.

In other words sometimes stoicism is the best medicine, given the hazards of the alternatives:

  • NSAIDs (aspirin is in this class, that includes much more powerful versions that do many of the same anti-inflammatory things).
  • Biologicals (Enbrel or Humira for example: powerful and expensive meds that might work for some, but aren’t recommended to someone who’s spooked by the list of possible side-effects / hazards. When your dad died of leukemia you don’t naturally think these are a good option)

I exercise.

I eat carefully (having discovered the low- or no-starch diet option).

And yet there might be another option. I have the initials CBD on the back of my hand, written there as a reminder, to know what to ask for. Cannabidiol or CBD? One of the many ingredients of marijuana.


One can get pills containing CBD, bypassing the smoke & the stone altogether.

I was persuaded to visit a dispensary today, where I spoke to a nurse practitioner about my symptoms via skype. It was a bit surreal –she had a stunning smile, astonishing teeth that I coaxed out of their hiding place once I persuaded her to giggle at a bad joke I made—to be in this place in downtown Toronto.

I’ve talked to activists pushing for harm reduction and the legalization of cannabis, both medicinally and recreationally. I couldn’t help noticing that while the activists such as Lisa Campbell are an intellectually brilliant lot, that’s not what I saw at this dispensary.
In fact come to think of it, I guess what I saw resembles what I see when I go to a liquor store or beer store, except that the demographic was mostly the group under 35. I must have seemed an oddball there, a guy with posture problems and a bit of a limp (sometimes), among all these healthy young people.  No I am not saying they weren’t legit. But I did stick out like a (pardon the irony) sore thumb.

I know that the medicinal marijuana is for a host of things, sometimes stress, psychiatric issues, or to assist people in sleeping. I came there actually unsure what I would find, but persuaded to seek out CBD, rather than the usual cannabis. You can read a comprehensive paean to CBD in a piece arguing that it’s the “medicine of the future”.

But I am writing this simply to report on a fascinating phenomenon that seems to be under the radar. One of these days Justin Trudeau and Bill Blair will find the right language for legislation legalizing cannabis, both medicinal and recreational. I am impatient for it on the principle that alcohol and tobacco are legal even though neither is as safe as cannabis as far as I can tell / as far as I have read.

Part two of this conversation will be to report on my first CBD pill. From what I have heard, my dose is very mild, certainly compared to what is taken by a person coping with chemo and/or cancer.

Depending on how I feel that may be taken tonight.  I’ve got a dental hygiene appointment tomorrow morning, for which i used to take valium to ensure that my jaw is looser, to lessen the pains i experience in my neck and back.  Perhaps a good night’s sleep via CBD will be helpful.

Posted in Food & Nutrition, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception | 1 Comment