La Bohème at the Galaxy

La Boheme
Starving bohemian artists living in drafty Paris attics in the mid-19th century, struggling to produce their art, falling in and out of love, sharing and suffering, living and dying, all done while singing. That’s La Bohème in a nutshell.

I am embarrassed, even ashamed to admit I’ve never been to the opera. Not to a live performance that is. For someone who has long enjoyed opera as music, and has a fair collection of opera on CD, that’s inexcusable.*

I’ve seen a few of the “big” operas on video – I had Madame Butterfly on VHS and still have Boris Godunov and Tosca on DVD and I’ve had a few others (including operetta) – but before this weekend, I had only seen Bergman’s 1975 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at a theatre. And that was back when it was current. That’s going to change.

This weekend we went to the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of La Bohème at the local Galaxy theatre. And all I can say is wow. Three and a half hours that passed by like 10 minutes. The music, the sets, the voices… wow. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

The sheer power of the presentation on the big screen is hard to describe. There’s a closeness that being at a live performance can’t provide. The cameras capture the actors in an intimate way that someone in the nosebleed seats (the kind I could afford) cannot see. Plus the intermissions provide a behind-the-curtain look at how the sets are constructed and moved into place, at how the backdrops are furled and unfurled, at how many people are involved in the performance who you never see on stage. In the theatrical version you have a sort of third-person-deity seat to see the performance unfold.

I have at least three versions of La Bohème on CD, and its major arias on several opera collection albums. I’ve heard it dozens of times. But it never moved me like this.

Wow. Just wow.

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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Kong and his films

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island is the 19th movie in my collection about apes.* Or at least ape-ish creatures (not including those about cave people or yetis). We watched the recently-released Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, even devouring all of the special features on the second disc.

I give Kong: Skull Island second place in the great ape/Kong pantheon because it’s well done, fun, action-packed, and not nearly as bloated as Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Despite some lukewarm or critical reviews, it’s worth watching and collecting if your taste are in any way similar to mine. Films of this ilk are meant to be entertainment, not art. And this one succeeds well in being that. Plus it has some of the best natural scenery in any film I’ve ever seen (Vietnam, in particular).

The main list of my ape films includes the original, 1933 King Kong; still my favourite of the genre, despite some uncomfortably racist bits. And I will admit that the original movie doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always consistent. But it’s fun and was the first big, commercial stop-frame animation film. If you’ve never watched it, you really should. Try to find a copy with the cut scenes restored. And certainly see it before you watch the latest Kong film, so you have the proper context. (For me, it’s also nostalgia: I first saw the film on TV in the 1950s).

A few of the rest of the oldies in my collection are remakes or semi-sequels (not necessarily following in story sequence from the original; sometimes with its own story arc). Some are clumsy mixes of the Tarzan motif and King Kong. Some were “inspired” by (or simply rip-offs of) the original King Kong but not necessarily related in story or mythos. Many rode on its coattails and on the popular (and commercially profitable) fascination with apes and monsters that rose from Kong, Tarzan and all the monster films that were released in the 1930s and later.
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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As Elvis leaves the building, so do we all

Day of the Dead ElvisNo one gets out of here alive. We all die. And with us go into the dustbin the dreams, the values, the ideals, the culture we grew up with, we shared, we ensconced in our daily existence. And the clutter we accumulated during our lives.

Elvis has left the building and, sooner or later, so shall we all. And as we do, the value of our own material legacy will diminish with each day.

A recent story in The Guardian tells of how once-treasured Elvis memorabilia is falling in value, as collectors age and die off, leaving a younger generation to sell it off at bargain rates. A younger generation not imbued with the Elvis worship of their parents or grandparents, not prone to spending income on his waning memorabilia. They want none of this: taking on Elvis is cultural appropriation.

I imagine a grey-haired, Beatles-besotted relative chortling with some internal “I told you so” glee as he or she puts the late collector’s Elvis collection onto eBay. But their time will come, too.

It’s a very Buddhist lesson on why we should not become attached to material things. Despite our passion for them, despite our sense of connection between them and the stages in our lives, as in the George Harrison song, all things must pass. Even Elvis is transient.

The Beatles’ generation, coming so quickly on his heels, scoffed at Elvis, much the same way The Clash generation scoffed at the Beatles, the same way the Beyoncé generation scoffs at The Clash. Pick a pop movement, a fashion, a theme, a style, a fan base: from its lofty temporal perch someone looked down on someone else’s movement. It was ever thus; even Shakespeare fell from grace after he died. Tastes change, new generations come to maturity and power, new technology and new politics come into play, changing the conversation. Today’s pop culture fades into tomorrow’s nostalgia, takes on a patina of kitsch even while we fondly recall it.

I remember a set of plastic figurines of the Fab Foursome made for sticking into a birthday cake beside the candles. They originally sold for a dollar. Then as the Foursome’s star rose, they sold for dozens of dollars. When they ascended into musical mythology and eBay arrived, it was hundreds. Yet they too will join Elvis memorabilia in yard sales, as those of us who lived then pass away. Already children ask, “Paul who? John who?”

Who will pay more than pocket change for a souvenir of Al Bowlly these days? Who has collectible nostalgia for Rudy Vallee? Ruth Etting? Paul Whiteman? Guy Lombardo? Bing who?
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