All posts by Ronald Weihs

Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, at the Playhouse

Poster for Guest of Honour. David Thewlis.

Atom Egoyan’s new film, Guest of Honour, was shot mostly in Hamilton. Last night, masks in place, we saw it at the Playhouse Cinema.

I am a great admirer of Atom Egoyan’s films. Yes, they are dark and brooding. Yes, they drift and ramble. I’m okay with that, because his vision is so compelling, and the films are so beautifully crafted.

The story is set in Hamilton. Remarkably, for a Canadian film, it really is Hamilton, not pretending to be some American city. The film opens in St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on Main Street (a location we know well, because our play Walter was staged there, back in March.) Jim, the main character, is a health inspector, who is seen checking on some of the well-known restaurants on James Street, most notably Wild Orchid, as well as the Trocadero on Barton Street.

The impact of seeing our Hamilton environment represented in film is surprisingly affecting. We’re used to nudging each other in the middle of shoot-em-up American films, whispering “Gage Park”, “King Street”. This really is Hamilton, and Hamilton is looking pretty good.

The acting is fine. The film is a tour de force for David Thewlis, shuffling and shambling his way through Jim’s troubled life, and for Laysla De Oliveira, as his daughter. Hrant Alianak and Arsinée Khanjian as the owners of Wild Orchid, Luke Wilson as Father Greg (and everyone really) deliver deeply nuanced performances.

Guest of Honour is a small, sad story about misunderstanding, about anger concealed too long, about the gulf between adults and children, about love felt but not communicated properly. Not for everyone, maybe, but for people who like a film that probes the complexities of life, more nourishing that twenty action-packed blockbusters.

Limits to Common Sense

Today’s Hamilton Spectator (September 31, 2019) has an opinion piece by Matthew Lau in praise of economist Milton Friedman, founder of the “Chicago School” espousing the virtues of unrestrained free market capitalism. He cites two of Friedman’s ideas, which he treats as obvious:

  • “nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”
  • “overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control “
Milton Friedman shaking hands with Ronald Reagan while Nancy Reagan looks on.
Milton Friedman and the Reagans. (Wikimedia)

The first he calls ” a statement that just about everyone accepts as true”, and the second is “nearly universally accepted”. In other words, common sense.

https://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/9572354-milton-friedman-s-ideas-still-resonate-we-should-listen/

Now, I have problems with both those statements. I suppose that puts me in some niche, some outlier category of people with weird ideas. Why don’t I think like everyone else?

“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” Speaking for myself, I am more inclined to be careful with someone else’s money than my own. I try to be scrupulous with money entrusted to me, but I reserve the right to spend my own money carelessly and indulgently. Most of the people who are my friends are like that. People who don’t care about harming other people are the people I don’t want in my own life. Fortunately, they aren’t hard to recognize, and easy to avoid.

My observation is that the characteristic most people share is fairness. Children generally have a strong sense of what is fair and what is not, from a very early age. Adults who believe in fairness would think that wasting someone else’s money would not be fair, but to waste ones own is “fair enough”.

“Overwhelmingly, government is the source of problematic monopoly control ” — oh, really? The source of monopoly control, surely, is the natural drive of corporations to capture as much of the market as they can. Governments have often used their legislative powers to fight against the restraint of trade through monopolies, and to instill fairness in the economic sphere. Of course, powerful economic entities try to corrupt governments to favour themselves and to deregulate the marketplace to their advantage.

When someone says that “everybody knows” something, I am inclined to be wary. Many things that were thought to be “common sense” have turned out to be false. “The earth is flat”, “the sun goes around the earth”, “immigrants steal our jobs”, “we can’t spend money we don’t have”, “we all have to live within our means.” (Of course, this last is nonsense. We all borrow from the future to pay for the present: mortgages, student loans, credit cards. If we didn’t, the economy would collapse.)

“Everybody knows” is the sign of the demagogue. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, common sense is probably the second-last. Common sense means not having to explain, research, analyze, demonstrate, prove. Everybody knows, don’t they?

The art of politics

Posted on August 2, 2019 by roncw

The NY Times columnists, a dozen or more,  rate the performances of the Democratic candidates as if they are auditioning for a theatrical performance. They answer questions that include ideas, but their responses are judged on body language and seeming sincerity. The ideas are selected from a list of alternatives, and the candidates are given 90 seconds to extemporize on their choice. They are not expected to sustain an argument, or to hear and respond to lines of reasoning from the other candidates.

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

John Turner, Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney debate free trade (NAFTA) in 1988

I remember with fondness an election debate with Mulroney, Broadbent and Turner, the trio I satirized in my play The Beavers. I would have been happy to have had them at our dinner table, discussing with intelligence and insight the issues of the day—in two languages! I disagreed with some of what was said, agreed with some, but overall I was proud that our election was being conducted on that level.

That’s gone now, especially in the US. Some of the candidates are capable of that level of discussion, but they wisely eschew it. They know that only the soundbites matter, and that they deliver them without flinching.

So what? So what if all is fabricated? So what if there is no ground to stand on, no memory beyond yesterday? So what if everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we pick the ones we find most attractive?

Since most of us do not care to live in a real world (although we do), maybe the politician who offers the most attractive fantasy to the greatest number of people should be the one elected.

Reality is that shadowy, ungraspable world that will inevitable determine our fate, but we seem to have given up trying to approach it. Science and philosophy, both fundamentally driven by a commitment to consistency, are increasingly ignored. In their place we have inspiration and invention. In other words (heaven help us), art.

Playing Real Good for Free

One of the pleasures of our 10-day stay in Lisbon was the quality of the street music all over the city. Best of all was a really fine ensemble from Cabo Verde playing near the waterfront, Nôs Raíz. We listened to their concert for about 40 minutes and bought a CD, which turns out to be very well produced. The woman on the left had the job of selling the CDs.

Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.
Nôs Raíz playing in Lisbon.

Joni Mitchell sings a lovely song called “For Free”, about seeing a street musician playing a clarinet.

And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Street Rapper in Lisbon
Street Rapper in Lisbon

But these days, things are somewhat reversed. A lot of musicians are playing real gigs for free, or just about. And all those downloads that pay tiny fractions of a cent? Out on the street, the busker can actually make some real cash. And sell the CDs, and get some real money.

Busking is an ancient and honorable tradition. I am reading a book about Johann Sebastian Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner, and I came across this item on page 67: 

It is often assumed that, in addition to his singing in church, Bach, like [Martin] Luther, was a Currender, a member of those street-busking choirs in Eisenach, Ohrdruf and Lüneberg which collected charitable money…

Bass busker in London, UK
Bass busker in London, UK

We have a busker festival in Dundas, but I’m underwhelmed. The one real busker, our friend Michael Leech, who plays fiddle real good, was shooed by cops off the street playing outside the confines of the festival a couple of years ago. And he’s been chased away from the sidewalk near the LCBO on Dundurn, so there’s no music anymore outside. Just panhandlers.

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge
Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

 

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.