Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Posts Tagged ‘reviews

Love, Simon: not a great love story

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Reflection on the movie “Love, Simon”. Spoilers but honestly I think the joys of this movie aren’t in its plot anyway.

img_0552“Love, Simon” is a super-typical teen romance flick – with a twist: the generically white middle-class male protagonist is secretly gay. I know – what a bombshell, in this day and age. He is cute though, played by the generically “hot” but utterly loathsomely characterless older boy in the recent “Jurassic Park” remake. (Almost unrecognisable here since his “Jurassic World” role involved little more then constantly ogling at teenage girls and telling his younger brother not to cry (even when pursued by velociraptors) because only girls cry. Simon is a character pretty much the opposite of that.)

Me and the 17 teenage girls in the cinema enjoyed “Love, Simon” well enough, although I had my misgivings from the overly cute trailer portraying the typical American high school with its corridors of lockers, stereotypical social cliques, the suggestion of the usual bullying scenarios and the casting of overly pretty young actors whose faces resemble airbrushed plastic (give me the repulsive, smelly, zit-covered teenage reality of a film like “Gregory’s Girl” any day). The film does reflect these features from the trailer, however they are all toned down a little: Simon is pretty but portrayed moderately realistically; his peers are cliquey but not to any extreme; his school is typical in appearance but his middle class environs have tempered the extremes of bullying scenarios (one of his friends even comments that a schoolyard argument at her previous school would have led to violence – but not here). The teachers in particular are not ignorant forces of power and injustice but charming, poignant and carefully compassionate human beings, tending their flock of students with caution and care. Which may be a tad idealistic, but at least it’s not the cliche.

Into this world of privileged, picket-fence, white ordinariness, Simon agonises over his gayness, sharing his secret anonymously via email exchange with another closeted gay boy from his school. The fear is emphasised; Simon feels he is not ready to come out to his loving and supportive family and friends and his correspondent feels similarly. Most of the film is comprised of Simon trying to figure out who his anonymous gay contact is. This of course provides lots of desire, intrigue and suspicion, as Simon tests out eligible men in his social circle for signs of telltale email correspondence details or simply gay tendencies, amusingly represented by visual sequences in which Simon imagines the various characters in ‘gay teen’ typical scenarios. The plot gets more complicated when Simon is blackmailed by a dorky straight guy through an ‘Oops I forgot to log out of my email on the library computer’ scenario. He therefore spends much of act 2 trying to hook up one of his female friends with this dork under threats of exposure. I didn’t mind this so much as I love a good ‘moral choice’ scenario, with our protagonist amicably making wrong decisions and digging himself deeper into webs of lies and manipulations to escape the revelation of his own awkward hopelessness. Eventually, of course, his secret is exposed, his lies uncovered, and his friends, betrayed, leave him just at the moment he most needs their support in coming out to his family. All of this is a trifle melodramatic but entertaining enough.

My issue with the film is really the happy ending, in which friendships magically seem to repair themselves, and his frightened gay email correspondent is revealed to be his hot black Jewish friend and they kiss and stuff. I don’t know whether my own experience of gay romance is just unusually bleak, but in my experience, I think it is highly unlikely that his network of heteronormative straight friends would ever make up with him. This isn’t because his betrayals (lying to them about who likes whom, etc.) aren’t forgivable. It certainly isn’t because one of his girlfriends had a straight crush on him either. It is simply because he is now exposed as different from them in a way significant enough to place a permanent uncomfortable distance between them. Leaving aside the fact that many teenage friendships stand on shaky ground anyway – based on superficial liking for certain sports, brands or TV shows or just “being cool in my clique” – this exposure of Simon’s sexuality instigates a reassessment of prior intimate conversations and connections and casts a shadow of suspicion or at least uncertainty over all. (Well, this is my view; I’m open to the possibility that Australians may also be unusually heteronormative or have flimsier friendships as well.) I don’t think remaking the friendships is impossible, just that I can’t see how that distance of difference would not engender a certain coldness and the film does not seem to acknowledge this. Add to that in the context of the movie there are barely two weeks left of high school after which no one needs to see each other again anyway so why make the effort?

As for the final denouement of the romantic subplot, this is total popcorn fantasy. Consider Simon’s crush, the seriously closeted gay teen boy who is so scared to expose himself that he must create fake email accounts to correspond anonymously. This boy sees Simon outed at school in front of friends and relatives, is shocked and appalled, and cuts off contact out of fear. He then sees a public post from Simon on an online forum saying that Simon will be on the Ferris wheel at such-and-such a time and he hopes to meet him at last. Then on the night in question, Simon rides the Ferris wheel alone around and around while a huge number of his friends and classmates stand around nearby expectantly waiting, essentially, for this guy’s very public outing. Why the heck would this frightened closet-case appear?

Here, I feel the film fails to reflect another aspect of real homosexual social relations in my own perhaps overly depressing experience. Gay men are pretty hopeless – not that I blame them exactly. Our minority position amongst normative majority leads to isolation and distance even amongst our own kind as not just prejudice and normative expectations but simply the indifference of the majority has socialised many of us away from even the most basic communications of who we are let alone communicating intimately in a healthy way. Simon should have been riding that Ferris wheel alone all night until the place closed down. Even without a humiliating audience in attendance the spineless closet-case probably would not have appeared, even if he had indeed still fancied Simon after knowing who he was (also unlikely given the improbability that any two randomly connected people share anything significant in common). The film should have exposed the isolation of being different – even just a little bit different, which is what is so sad really.

And yes I know this is exactly why a teen romance flick like this cannot possibly be allowed to end this way. My misgivings are really that the film isn’t a teen romance film – it is a teen coming out film. The movie spends more of its running time on Simon’s identity crisis and outing than it does on navigating the social interactions and character compatibilities of finding a gay man to date. As a result, the actual romance portion is tacked on at the end of act 3 as an overly simple happy ending – we’re both gay so we must be compatible hey? (Just in the way you straight readers naturally pair up compatibly with the first heterosexual you meet.) You could make the ending more realistic by having the closeted gay boy improbably turn up at the Ferris wheel but then turn out to be someone whom Simon considers insufferably incompatible – another downer of an ending.

mgid_ao_image_logotvAs a coming out film though, the movie isn’t bad in itself. I was grateful to see such an ordinary protagonist rather than portraying all gay men as feminine or somehow stereotypically liking fashion or something (not that there aren’t plenty of real gay men like that out there who are lovely people). I particularly liked the scene where Simon and the more public and ‘fem’ gay boy Ethan from his school meet in the principal’s office and their lack of connection with each other is obvious. Yes, they’re both gay men but this does not mean their personalities are aligned. Simon, the freshly outed ‘straight-acting’ gay dude is awkward in the presence of, apparently, one of ‘his kind’ and Ethan mocks him for his obsession with hoodies. This rings truer than the film’s romantic subplot.

Ironically, I feel the only genuine (non-familial) intimacy revealed in the movie is when Simon comes out privately to one of his friendship group earlier in the film. She accepts and supports him saying, “I love you, Simon,” and she means it in the sense of loving your friends, the people you hang out with everyday and laugh and talk rubbish to, not the high-falutin, bonded-forever, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes business. This is more valuable as it is more difficult to find especially among romantic prospects, and even among friends, who often achieve this type of relationship but rarely acknowledge or appreciate it, particularly among men, let alone gay men. Most of us are too busy trying to find “the one” or the next fuck. This movie has some good stuff in there, and it’s reasonably entertaining, but it reveals little about romantic connection. It is a generic teenage coming out movie probably at least 20 years after its time.

Written by tomtomrant

25 April 2018 at 12:56 pm

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

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1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

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1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

Life Is A Dream (Theatre is Unrelenting Torment)

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There’s not a lot to be said about this theatre production which I saw at the Store Room Theatre in North Fitzroy last Sunday.

The play is supposedly about the horrors of repression and the unbridled dictatorship of some Polish king or other at some time but reading the programme notes gives the false impression the show has a plot.

We were subjected to a stuffy half-demolished room in which a team of actors sat around having half-mumbled arguments with each other that eventually escalated into violence and blood-shed in a gradually increasing series of crescendos interspersed with boring lulls. The play had obviously been choreographed at great length so that there was constant movement and overlapping action which was mildly diverting for about 20 minutes but given the show was 1hr and 20 min long, attention soon waned.

I don’t want to go into this show in any more detail – mainly because it was meaningless anyway (it’s one of those post-modern productions in which lots of weird shit happens and ‘anyone’s entitled to their opinion’ as to what the heck any of it means). But I do want to ask why we subject ourselves and our audiences to such demoralizing works?

The works are all the same – one-set plays in which miserable characters sit around tormenting each other in one way or another and then it ends without anything having happened. (I have a theory that it’s all about economics – it’s nice and cheap to make one-set shows where nothing much happens and it poses very few writing or acting challenges either.)

The show was definitely ‘affecting’ – in that one is inclined to think about it later – but so is a car accident. In other words, the trauma was moving but I could have done without it thank you. I have to ask why we subject ourselves to such harrowing experiences and call it ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. I cannot see any benefits brought about by such an experience.

You could say it is ‘catharsis’ – “purging of emotion” – but catharsis is a misunderstood concept. Catharsis is not simply expressing or engendering in the audience some emotion for its own sake. We don’t need to be “purged of emotion”. (The modern pop-psychology-basis for this theory is Freud’s outdated and naive theories no longer supported by most practicing psychologists but still touted out by artists who like fanciful melodrama.) If we needed to be “purged of emotion” we could all just go in for a good spanking every week and purge ourselves of all that pent-up subjection or whatnot. Every story has conflict – indeed the power of a drama is found in the grave and universal problem at its core – but what about the reprieve? How do our characters escape their torments? The valient fight of our hero expresses pure unbridled humanity. There is none of this here.

In tragedy of course our characters often do not escape their torments but instead they and we achieve a state of catharsis. When all else fails, how do you hang on – how do you keep living? Strangely (for logic/political theorists), when all else fails, something beyond logic opens up – a void into nothing – a force beyond the opposites of time. The hero learns that the secret cause of all his problems has been himself, that, astoundingly, Fate was leading him here the whole time. This Fate engenders wonder and astonished awe. This is what catharsis is – astonished awe and wonder is a profoundly healthy experience.

Now compare shows such as this one. No character stands out as doing or experiencing anything but torment and disinterestedness. We, as audience, are subjected to anguish and emotional torments but not in aid of cleansing awe – no character experiences an epiphany; no character even reflects (no one is sure what is going on!). We are subjected to torment and then we gratefully escape the theatre. We are chagrined and disheartened, firstly, because someone has told us basically, “Life is meaningless, pointless and tormenting”, which is an oversimplified narrow-minded lie; secondly, we barely even reflect on the unlovable characters or heartless events but instead feel a sense of anger and blame at the unlovable and heartless actors and producers that tormented us, the audience, and took our money for the sake of such a worthless exercise.

The experience conditions theatre audiences not to come back.

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5 December 2009 at 10:19 pm

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MTC play: When The Rain Stops Falling

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Story: A tragic and dysfunctional family history ends in the story’s present with a father and son that seem to be prepared to communicate. Then “the rain stops falling”.

Style: fractured logic-puzzle structure with constant intercutting between 3 different time periods (further complicated by a mother and father that have the same name).

The performances are good and inoffensive, but, as you can imagine, the story is completely static and has no action or forward-thrust. Not a single character strives for a goal or does anything (which makes ACTING the roles less challenging I suppose). It is sad to see characters talking about anguish and courage but no one actually demonstrating these. The whole play could be described as people explaining memories to each other – which is very poor drama. Also clichés are everywhere – from dysfunctional families, to child pornography (yet again) to Aussie-UK relations and car accidents. I question the emotional accuracy of the many experiences described. (It also appears strange to me that these characters do not remember people for what they did but for shallow physical quirks like how they dressed or smelled or because they had a moustache.)

The story itself is basic “kitchen-sink” realism, with all the laughter and enjoyment that affords (very little). The play tries to hide this with lighting and scenery effects, ‘quirky’ symbolism and the intercutting multiple-flashback structure. Along with the music, which is of the slow-moving suspended-chord variety reminiscent of an arthouse movie, this rather ordinary story is muddied and made to seem generally “deep” and “moving”.

Reminds me of a short film I made which needed a musical accompaniment. I saw an ad on the internet from a composer who said he could whip me up a score. We chatted about how the music could best be used to bring out the drama, but the score I received was like the music in this play – surreal and semi-magical. I rejected the music for my film as it was clearly a one-size-fits-all job – the ethereal score could be plastered all over the film inoffensively but without bringing out any of the drama, as if the composer hadn’t the guts to decide whether the scene called for sadness or anguish, a comic flair or brooding suspense. It was all just soup – ‘magical’, static, hypnotic soup that makes everything taste the same, like the monotonous pacing of this play.

It’s all a bit suspect and fishy as drama – fish soup in fact.

How about something with guts someone?

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22 November 2009 at 10:16 pm

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George Bernard Shaw: Arms & The Man/Candida/You Never Can Tell

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Having just finished reading Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant”, I must admit I find his plays pleasantly light but mostly meaningless.

‘Arms & The Man’ is concerned with poking fun at the contemporary ‘romance’ of war. Shaw does this by pitting the romantic visions of an on-the-whole rather suicidal soldier (and the dominant beliefs of the domestic womenfolk) up against the witty ‘realist’ soldier (and the pragmatic servants of the household). It’s all very witty and contrived and amusing – the plot concerned with misunderstandings, apparently scandalous liasons and neatly packaged happily-ever-afters.

Now, ‘social-political background’ is often analyzed by critics because a work has nothing overly intellectual for critics to write essays about – thus missing the entire point of the work, but I must admit that Shaw’s intentions are very clear; he certainly seems to be making some attempt at addressing tricky social issues of his day. But to that end, as often occurs when the author is interested in ‘challenging issues’ of a topical nature, the work dates badly and quickly. For if a subject is topical, it is often not timeless. And whereas any subject, generally, can be timeless, often the author-as-social-commentator, lacking subtlety in the name of his desire to ‘affect change’ or ‘expose falsities’, points not to the deficiencies in our nature but in the specific social-political milieu of – oh, a hundred years ago when the play was written. Shakespeare, for instance, avoids this because his dramas are dramas not social-commentary. They can be misread as social commentary but the poetry and dream-like metaphoric nature of his works takes us away from Elizabethan England and into the timeless human soul. There the play may work its emotional power, perhaps ‘change’, perhaps ‘release’ or perhaps ‘disturb’ something, which then may show itself outwardly and play back into the contempory culture – of perhaps any age. This is called having depth.
It is interesting that Shakespeare’s works have dated – particulary in the area of comedy. This is perhaps not surprising as much of his comedy is based on now-archaic wordplay and – whattyaknow – cultural references to Elizabethan England (cf. Love’s Labour Lost and other weaker – rather impenetrable Shakespearean plays). I’d like to suggest that most effective comedy is topical and outside the period in which it was performed (even absent the right form of delivery in performance), the references may more or less be lost, or at least, laughed at for a different reason.

For all that, Mr Shaw comes out rather poorly, I must admit, after a mere century or less. His characters are so 19th century (or so 1930s depending on the play you’re reading) in their mode of speech and way of life that to modern audiences their very accents and speech-patterns appear unintentionally funny at times, their society dim, far-off and irrelevant, and their problems insignificant and out-of-date.

There have been successful modern productions but there must be rather a lot of text-doctoring, new or mis-readings to get laughs, or an overemphasis on researching ‘the socio-political background’ so as to intellectually ‘appreciate’ rather than organically enjoy (read, ‘be truly affected by’) the drama. Despite what our scholars or critics may believe, the audience experiences a drama based on the character’s intentions, and the plot – i.e. what happens next. And what happens next in ‘Arms and the Man’ for example is not, ‘Captain Bluntschli challenges Sergius to revise his views of the romance of warfare’, but ‘Raina must extract that compromising love-letter from her father’s jacket pocket without his noticing’. What was comedy with healthy social satire becomes, a century or even just decades later, merely dated, superficial, drawing-room farce, little better than the latest Summer Movie (though probably less entertaining).

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2 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

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Philadelphia Here I Come! By Brian Friel

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25yo Gar prepares to leave Ireland and his less than exciting father and disconnected friends behind him for a new life with relations in Philadelphia. The play explores should he go? Is he doing the right thing? Etc. The genius of the work is in having 2 actors play Gar – one as his public persona, the other as his personal persona. This allows the personal not just to soliloquize but to argue out problems with public Gar and make sarcastic and highly amusing comic put-downs of the tired old characters he knows all too well. Friel’s language is also quaintly musical and “Irish”, permitting a fluid illustration (“dramatisation”) of character and colour that in lesser plays would be simply clunky or boring exposition. Highly recommended.

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21 April 2009 at 9:53 pm

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Hamlet (a novel) by John Marsden

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Oh what a mess! John Marsden (of Tomorrow When The War Began fame) has written a novel version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or, more accurately, a smutty version. Featuring lots of Ophelia and Hamlet masturbating scenes (as well as surprisingly irrelevant asides featuring servants with large penises (??)), God knows what on Earth he’s doing.

The book purportedly makes the great play more accessible to a teenage audience. Marsden supposedly uses modern language and plain language description to retell essentially the same story. If you assume teenagers perk up at the mention of sex, then I suppose this is true. But Marsden, if he truly believes he is keeping to the story of the play, misunderstands it.

Ophelia and Hamlet are lusty young lovers in his version of the tale. Hamlet spends his time lusting after her, peering through her windows, brooding over sexual escapades and avoiding crotchety old Polonius. Marsden has blurred the central thrust of the play with these titillating scenes. Hamlet is essentially about a son agonising over how to avenge a murdered father. At no point in Shakespeare’s play is there any subplot involving trying to get it off with Ophelia – in fact, the complete opposite. Hamlet famously spurns women, “Frailty thy name is woman!”; “Get thee to a nunnery” etc. He sees his mother’s marriage to his uncle, his father’s murderer, as the ultimate sign of corruption and deception, never mind that Gertrude probably does not know of the murder. Hamlet’s reaction is a classic Shakespearean tragic overreaction. He sees the attraction of women as a whorish bewitchment. No longer can he view the sexual and emotional pull of the women in his life as the force of beauty or purity or maternal care. He tragically takes this distrust in Gertrude to its extreme – then goes so far as applying it to the entire female gender. His lover, Ophelia, is treated first with distance then with aggression. The situation is indeed not helped by Polonius’s conniving and spying, but a comparison with Juliet suggests Ophelia is hardly the ardent lover herself. Ophelia’s father puts pressure on her not to mix with her lover. In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s father does the same. Juliet defies her father and elopes. Ophelia obeys Daddy like a good girl.

We relate to Hamlet somewhat more than other tragic figures in Shakespeare’s plays because he is so terribly alone. He is let down by almost everyone around him: his mother is sleeping with the enemy, his lover spurns him in his time of need, and his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visiting simply to spy on him for his father’s murderer. Having fudged Hamlet’s spurning of Ophelia, Marsden portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as simply ‘pompous lords’ rather like Osric in Shakespeare’s play. There is no mention of their earlier relation to Hamlet.

These teething difficulties aside, Marsden’s language is a complete mess, juxtaposing, “My bum hurts; let’s play football,” with “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” He can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is quoting Shakespeare or not. He frequently paraphrases half a sentence then quotes directly the rest. In the latter half of the book he seems to get tired of adding “he said” and “he replied” to Shakespeare’s text and resorts to play format:

‘Guildenstern: “Highness, I do not understand you,”
Hamlet: “I am glad of it.”‘ etc.

There are also a number of bizarre references (they can’t be in-jokes since they are not funny) – Claudius considers sending Hamlet to Australia rather than England; Hamlet considers whether Alexander the Great and Shakespeare would have rotted away just like Yorrick. Whatever he means by these odd references, they sure are clumsy and distracting.

His novel certainly does inspire me to read the play again, if only to mentally clear up the mess Marsden has made of it.

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18 April 2009 at 9:56 pm

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler

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Plot: in a terrace house in Carlton, a group of friends mainly comprising two Melbourne bar-maids and two labourers from ‘up north’, meet for the summer. Every year they do this – it is a tradition. This year, they have grown too old. The tradition has become tired and people no longer interact as they once did. Both recent changes in relationships and the weight of nostalgia works to make this the last summer the group get together. The play progresses from unrealistic expectation, to disillusionment and disappointment, to outright disintegration of the bonds between the characters.

Often considered the “classic Australian play”, I must admit I find its so-called “realism” uninspiring and its plodding exposition (in the form of nostalgic remembrances) is necessary – the play is essentially ABOUT this – but hardly enjoyable.

The play is, I think unfairly, recommended as the paragon of Australian realism – this is “the first time Australians truly saw themselves on the stage” etc. The play certainly comes from the uninspiring and unimaginative school of realistic theatre but I believe its strengths are in its construction as a tragedy: while striving for the impossible, the characters, who happen to be Australian for once, bring about their own downfall.

The negativity of the play is as grim and real as life’s disappointments which suggests other theatre classics such “Death of a Salesman” and “Waiting for Godot”. Neither of these works are a bundle of laughs either and are not intended to be. They are releasers of repressed anguish and are therefore cleansing.

My gripe with “The Doll” is this: I agree it is a work of high art in its tragic form but I find its actual execution so glaringly lacking in artistry (in any real technique) that it simply does not measure up to these other works. A sign of an artist’s maturity lies perhaps in is his ability to dispense with plodding narration, with statements of blunderingly everyday insignificance, and audience-taxing schematics – to discover what is true and real, and to dispense with all the muddying unimportant superficial appearances. In other words, to present raw psyche – what is essential for the psyche to grasp the drama – and to dispense with the quotidian and mundane. To gracefully and significantly cut to the chase. I feel “The Doll” fails to do this.

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26 February 2009 at 7:49 am

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