Tuesday, October 31, 2006


I’d heard Elizabethtown was a bit quirky, but thought it might still be worth watching. It wasn’t. It was far more than quirky – it was off its tree several times. Early in the piece the characters, especially those from Kentucky, came across as fun and eccentric, but then the thing lost its way almost completely and decided it was a late starter in the road movie stakes and spent the last ten minutes with Orlando Bloom on the road, driving and visiting a number of tourist sites. Very odd. Bloom had been going to kill himself early in the piece after having cost his company a billion dollar sale (!) but didn’t because he was interrupted by his annoying little cell phone. His intention to go to his father’s funeral and then come back and kill himself was mostly forgotten about for at least an hour until it suddenly was used as an excuse for why Bloom couldn’t fall in love with Kirsten Dunst (who was definitely eccentric, even though she was an airline hostess – of an airline that plainly wasn’t doing very well, flying a jet with only one passenger). The minor characters were fun, but the film couldn’t make up its mind what it was doing: why on earth was Susan Sarandon given a tap dance to do when plainly she had no talent in this direction? How did Bloom and Dunst manage to talk all night on cellphones without having to recharge the batteries (in one shot the phone is connected to a socket, but only once); why did they keep avoiding falling in love with each other? What happened to ‘Ben’ the supposed excuse for Dunst not being able to fall in love? How did she manage to write an entire road book with CDs attached that would cover a 42 hour road trip – in the day or so between Bloom deciding he was definitely going home and then going? The thing started with a real sense of style, then got stuck into the ‘funny backwoods’ people thing in Kentucky, introduced us to a whole host of characters, most of whom didn’t actually do anything in the story (including the one who supposedly has so upset Bloom’s mother) and then gets waylaid by an odd love story that has no suspense whatsoever.

Roger Ebert tells us that the original movie was another twenty minutes longer – and never seemed to know when to end. A good deal of it related to the road trip at the end (which must have seemed mind-boggling) and an epilogue where the shoe that missed becomes the shoe that hits. A relief that this is all gone, I’d say. Berardinelli rightly says that the cut down version still doesn’t address the film’s flaws, and I’d greatly agree. It’s a matter of structure. The love-story is waffly, the point of the film is waffly (is it about getting back to your roots, or forgiving your father, or what?)

I have to link to the superbly cutting review by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. He puts it so much better than I can, and far more succinctly.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Punishment fitting the crimes

Brent Todd arranges for a friend to meet with a cocaine dealer and, when he finally has to face the court, is given a fine of $500. That’s about what I’d pay for electricity over a couple of months.

Ngati Reweti, takes a piece of concrete up on an overhead bridge with the intention of dropping it on the cars below, and kills a young man. Not only is his sentence reduced by the judge from what was first considered, it’s then found that he’ll probably be out of jail by Christmas because (1) he’s already served 14 months, and (2) because of the parole system.

I could no doubt scour the newspapers for other examples of nonsensical justice, but these two will do. They’re all well known.

I’m not the sort of person who naturally demands an eye for an eye, though in my first reactions to crime, especially vicious crime, that’s often how I feel. Why should someone live years in prison when a life has been taken? But I always realise that justice of that kind doesn’t serve much purpose in the end. Killing a murderer is an easy way out.

I’d believe in restorative justice much more if I saw enough evidence of it, but although it’s talked about a lot, I suspect that the increasing prison populations tell me it isn’t working very well as yet.

So while out walking yesterday the old song by W S Gilbert came to mind, the one from The Mikado about letting the punishment fit the crime. Throwing people in prison very plainly doesn’t work: most criminals come out of jail worse than they went in.

My ‘fitting punishments’ aren’t perhaps the most imaginative, and perhaps they don’t need to be as clever as Gilbert’s were, but supposing, instead of Ngati Reweti, being put in jail, he was chained to a lump of concrete roughly equivalent to the one that killed an innocent man, chained in such a way that night and day he couldn’t get free of the thing. He’d have to carry it to school, or drag it; he’d have to go to bed at night with it still attached to him; he’d have to go out with his mates and suffer their ongoing mockery. Perhaps he could be attached to this for the same number of years his victim had been on earth. Maybe the same number of months would be enough. But at least we might start to see some remorse from him. So far there doesn’t seem to have been any.

Brent Todd – how might he be punished? There are plenty of options. Instead of receiving his celebrity fees on television, all his earnings could go to Drug Rehabilitation Clinics. Maybe that wouldn’t be quite strong enough. Perhaps he should go and work in a Drug Rehab Clinic for some long time – 500 days sounds like a good minimum. Maybe he could be made to live with someone trying to overcome their addiction. Maybe the walls of his fancy home could be plastered with the names and photographs of the thousands of people who’ve suffered from drugs in this country – the pictures of those who’ve killed themselves because of addiction might be blown up to full size.

As long as we treat the victims of criminals as unimportant, as has been the case in both of these instances, people like Todd and Reweti, will consider that they got off lightly, and will carry on doing stupid and remorseless acts. If they were made to face some deterrent aspect of their crime in a full-on fashion, perhaps we’d reach their hearts, their souls, and find out whether they really were human or not.

An hour before meals

Why do doctors insist on prescribing tablets that have to be taken an hour before meals?

Do they think we all live in a controlled world where everyone always eats their meals at the same specific time each day? Or that suddenly, because we have these tablets to consume, we will order our lives in order to fit around said consumption.

The hardest part, of course, is trying to remember to take the things an hour before meals, breakfast being the worst. Do the doctors really expect us to wake an hour before breakfast just to down a tablet or two? And what happens when you have to take four of these things a day? Are you supposed to fit in an extra meal?

Friday, October 13, 2006

More on the dance

More from Michael Mayne's Learning to Dance. This time from the chapter entitled May. I just read a kid's book on the way home from town: Fibonacci's Cows, by Ray Galvin, published in NZ. Gives a very good explanation of what Fibonacci did.

We live in a world of patterns. Nightly the stars move in a circle round the sky; the perfectly shaped spiral of nautilus shell echoes the spiral of the curling, breaking wave; the patterns in the desert sand point to the laws governing the flow of sand and air. Once again we are in the world of mathematics, the way we recognise and classify the patterns that lie all about us. And nothing is more intriguing than the mathematical equations that link leaf and flower patterns with the exact proportions the Greeks used in their architecture.

Leonardo Fibonacci was born in Pisa in about 1170. When he was twenty he went to Algeria, where he learned Arabic methods of calculation. He wrote on number theory and recreational mathematics. His most famous discovery was what is known as the ‘Fibonacci sequence’, in which each number is the sum of the two previous ones: hence 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144….and these turn out to be the numbers that dominate the natural world. The number of petals on most plants is a Fibonacci number: for example, 3 petals on lilies and iris, 5 on buttercups and the wild rose, 8 on delphiniums, 13 on ragwort and corn marigold, 21 on asters, 34, 55, or 89 on most members of the daisy family.
More strikingly, the Fibonacci sequence is found in the spiralling seed-heads of sunflowers, where the clockwise spirals 55, 89 or 144; on the diamond-shaped scales of pineapples, with 8 rose sloping to the left, 13 to the right; and on the spirally base of pine cones, or the spiralling florets of a cauliflower. If genetics can give a sunflower any number of seeds it likes, a daisy any number of petals, or a pine cone any number of scales, why is there such a dominance of Fibonacci numbers? The answer almost lies with the dynamics of plant growth.

Now go one stage further: take the ratio of two successive Fibonacci numbers, starting with 5, and divide each by the number before it: 5/3 = 1.666, 8/5 = 1.6, 13/8 = 1/625, 21/13 = 1/61538. The ratio settles down to a particular value, 1/618, and this is known as the Golden Number or the Golden Mean, the ideal proportion used by the ancient Greeks in building: an oblong with the proportion 1 to 1.618 found to be particularly pleasing to the human eye.
At the time of the Renaissance this proportion was seen to be the secret of what we find beautiful in the human face and body: in a well-proportioned body 1/1618 is the ratio from the top of the head to the navel, and from the navel to the ground, as it is of the finger (measuring the length of the knuckle to the end of the first joint against that of the middle joint) or that of the middle joint against the finger tip; as it is also if you measure the width of the mouth against that of the nose, or the width of the incisor against that of the adjoining tooth.

There is in mathematics what is known as the Logarithmic Spiral: if you draw within an oblong with these proportions further and ever-smaller oblongs, in which the shorter and longer sides are in this same 1/1.618 proportion, and then join the corners, the resulting spiral exactly matches that which is everywhere in nature: in the shell of the hermit crab, in the ammonite, the ram’s horn, the breaking wave.

It doesn’t stop there: 90 per cent of plants show the Fibonacci numbers in the arrangement of the leaves around their stems; and in the bee colony the number of female workers to male drones will be around the golden number of 1/1.618.

Learning to Dance

One of two passages I want to quote from Michael Mayne's Learning to Dance. This is from the chapter entitled June: The Dance of DNA. One of Mayne's other books, This Sunrise of Wonder, has been a book I've gone back to at least twice, and it's still a great book to dip into. Learning to Dance is proving to be just as good.

I've altered the paragraphing to make it more readable on here.

In mid-December 1928, my mother became pregnant. Here again the combination of law and chance took effect: the law dictates that male sperm fertilise female eggs, while chance allows just one sperm (out of 300 million or more) finally to each and invade the ovum, some 85,000 times its own size. Around each one of us hover the shades of a million other lives that were not destined to be born. By early January a distinct tube-like structure had been formed in my mother’s womb: it would become my heart, and it was already beating. By early February the early forms of all my internal organs were present, though the embryo that was potentially me was only a little more than an inch long and weighed less than one-fifth of an ounce.

Already my genetic make-up had been determined. The genome (that sequence of genes which carries instructions for the manufacture of proteins) was directing the two hundred or more types of cells of which we are composed to their various ultimate locations in order to generate the necessary systems (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, reproductive, digestive, urinary, respiratory): to my lymphatic system which would fight disease; to my immune system whose role would be to distinguish friend and foe, what belonged to my body and what did not; and to my autonomic nervous system, that widespread web of nerve-cells, circuitry and chemicals with the task of preserving within my body both equilibrium and constancy.

In a few more days tiny arms and legs could have been seen, the hands and feet still paddle-like, with web-like bits between the fingers and toes, and faintly detectable ears and eye sockets. ("In the absence of any other proof," said Sir Isaac Newton, "the thumb alone would convince me God’s existence.")

My central nervous system and muscles had formed sufficiently to respond to gentle stimuli. Ever movement and change was now being choreographed by the genetic code, various cell groups uniting to

‘migrate, twist, turn, glide, fold, bend, lengthen, branch, fuse, split, thicken, thin, dilate, constrict, hollow out, form pockets, pinch off, adhere, separate….Hundreds of millions of dancers appear and they all participate, forming themselves into the shapes of various tissues and organs.’ [Sherwin Nuland in How We Live]

I had become a foetus, and it was all systems go.

By the middle of March my head was still enormous in comparison with my body. Fingernails and eyelids had formed, plus lips and an enormous nose. My ribs and vertebrae had become cartilage. By the middle of April my body was catching up with my head: I was some nine inches long and my mother could begin to feel me kicking. By the end of May, with an ear to the womb you could have heard my heartbeat, and I was beginning to show signs of an individual personality, establishing patterns of sleep and wakefulness. I was even growing eyelashes.

By Midsummer Day my eyes were complete and I could both hear and cry. Finally, on 10 September I was born. And already there was enough information capacity in every single cell in my body to fill some dozen copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Chick flicks and Dogville

Celia and I went to see the much-heralded (by other people) Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, the other night. A load of old sentimental cobblers, and even Celia said it was a 'chick flick.' It was enjoyable, but improbable, relying almost entirely on the central performance by Joan Plowright, who does 'old' very well - possibly because she now is old. The relationship between her and the young man who takes on the role of her interim grandson isn't a difficulty, but it's always sweet and light; there's no difficulties in it. And everybody, even the nasty people, fall in love with Mrs Palfrey - though it seems she'd prefer they didn't, as she wants some privacy, and to just be herself, not someone's wife, or mother, or daughter. The young man, Rupert Friend, has the unenviable task of being nice all the time. He manages it okay, but it's not very interesting, and there are some scenes where you think: he's going to have to break out of this or go crazy!

It would be nice to go to something that required the brain to do a bit of work - not that I want to sit through something like Dogville every week - but something that isn't about just straightforward people being nice to each other. Isn't it absurd, that the most enjoyable dramas are ones in which people aren't being nice to each other? The Varsity has just presented Hecuba at the Mary Hopewell Theatre this week: by all accounts as gloomy and miserable a piece as you'd want to see. Yet I bet the 17 people who attended went home thinking they'd caught up with something that was worth their while getting out to.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The World Premieres of Some of My Music

For the record, here's the review that appeared in the ODT of my concert, held on Saturday, the 30th Sept, 2006. It was written by Elizabeth Bouman.

A large audience in Marama Hall on Saturday evening enjoyed a programme of original works by Mike Crowl, whom many Dunedin people know as the quietly spoken man who operated a book shop in the Octagon.

Music fraternity have known of his involvement with Opera Alive, and as accompanist at vocal competitions with singers from 8-year-olds to ODT Aria contestants, but few knew of the ‘composer within’ until Saturday’s recital entitled The World Premieres of Some of My Music.

Crowl’s style in setting New Zealand poetry is delightfully contemporary without venturing into the extreme. It is witty, poignant and very singable, often ending with a whimsical touch.

Performing were Arnold Bachop, Rose Evans, Cally Hammond-Tooke, Benjamin Kidd, Glenys Murray, Brent Read, Helen Scott and Justin Scott, and pianist Richard Warnock.

The songs were mostly written for a particular singer or vocal teacher, and the fifteen performed varied in text, all with interesting stories as to how they evolved. Several set Ruth Dallas’ poems, and a group of five children’s songs included Eel-fishing, The Rooster and [The] Elephant, by J K Baxter. Response (Ursula Bethnell) [sic] was dialogue from an immigrant writing home about opposing seasons in the garden. Sabbath, Winter Warning, Church Sunday and Ecstasy, longer, more complex works with colourful varied accompaniment, were written for Brent Read, who travelled from Auckland to perform.

Piano Pieces for Kobi Bosshard were five impressive piano pieces, each inspired by a picture. The recital concluded with a captivating piano duet written to accompany (projected on screen) pages of a much loved children’s book, The Fence.

Crowl’s work is available for purchase, and may there be many future publications from this local musician.

I no longer work in a book shop, which hasn't been in the Octagon for two years - but reviewers can't be expected to keep up with everything. Ursula Bethell has no letter 'n' in it, either. Opera Alive was a group of young singers, 15 to 29 in age, who for perhaps ten years presented an annual concert/show. 20 to 25 singers would be involved, and it was a great learning ground for these people. I was involved for around seven years. Kobi Bosshard and his wife, Patricia, were neighbours of ours in the late seventies, and at that time Kobi was learning the piano. Unfortunately the pieces I wrote were just a little on the difficult side for someone still learning (!)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Wild Bean Coffee

Liz came and brought me a Wild Bean coffee - it was nice to see her and talk about things, but Wild Bean proved to be exactly what I thought: false advertising. If anyone viewed it as some kind of real coffee, I'd eat my hat. It has all the excitement of coffee that's poured out of a machine: in other words it's coffee for people whose taste buds have gone down the tubes. Which doesn't say much for that chap in the ad who gives up a good-looking girlfriend for a cup of Wild Bean, or wakes with horror from a delicious dream of a luscious lady offering him a morning coffee because it isn't Wild Bean. The guy needs his head read!

It's noteworthy that BP writes about their Wild Bean outlets: "Customers do not expect to find high quality café outlets in a Petrol Station." That's right, they don't. Could anyone expect to find decent coffee at a petrol station, where, these days, they often can't even be bothered to come out and pour your petrol for you...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Other people's books

I once visited...Anthony Powell, who actually wrote a novel called Books Do Furnish a Room. Indeed, they did so in his case. He lived deep in the English countryside, in Somerset, in an old stone manor on many green acres. We had tea in his sitting room, which had floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall. There were first editions by his good friend Evelyn Waugh, and countless volumes culled from his decades as a reviewer. "I can't give a book up, if it's a book that meant something to me," he said. "I always imagine I'll go back to it one day. I rarely do, but the intention is there, and I get a warm feeling among my books." I wished I could have spent days wandering in that house, as he had books in nearly every room.

From an article by Jay Parini entitled: Other People's Books.

I have given up a number of books that I thought I never would, because I was sure I'd read them one day, but I understand Powell's feeling. Having read a book you have a link with it that won't go away - even the awful books that you know were badly written and which you only read because you had to review them or because someone else thought they were wonderful. And so you keep them, thinking that one day you'll need to look something up in them, or check the title, or make a note to read something else by the same author.

I have a great deal of trouble not buying copies of many of the books I borrow from the library. Having established the link with them, I want them to stay close at hand, not be on the shelves at the library where someone else might take them out just when I need them.