Monday, October 29, 2012

Two and a half movies

From the sublime to the ridiculous and back again.   One might say.

I watched about two-thirds of Peter Watkins' 1974 made-for-TV movie, Edvard Munch, the other day.  I'd never heard of it, and it took me some time to connect the director's name up with the somewhat notorious pseudo-documentary, The War Game - and the even earlier, Culloden.   Watkins makes documentaries that use amateur actors and mix drama and doco styles in such a way that it's hard to tell which format is being used at any one time.   In Edvard Munch, the characters/actors often look at the camera even while they're in the middle of what seems to be a relatively dramatic scene.  After a while this became irritating; the sly or awkward glances at the audience conveyed nothing additional to the scenes, and kept tripping us out of the historical context.  Plainly this is what Watkins wants, but I'm not sure that it always works.

I gave up on the movie, as I say, about two-thirds of the way through.  It was repetitive, and slowly-paced, and jerked back and forth between childhood scenes and painting scenes and love scenes, and scenes with other characters who were only incidental to Munch's life.  Some of these spent time talking to an off-screen director, as people do in reality shows.  In fact some reality shows are more dramatic than portions of this movie were.

It was beautifully filmed, with a lighting style all of its own, and the scenes in which paintings were gradually formed were wonderfully done.  But by the time we'd been told for the umpteenth time that women were subjugated to men and that marriage was some sort of horror, or seen one or other of Munch's siblings or relatives choking up blood (from tuberculosis) yet again, the whole thing began to outstay its welcome.

Considering that the cast consisted of amateur actors, there were actually some very good performances, in particular Geir Westby in the title role.

Coming down a peg or two, we watched Nativity!, with Martin Freeman as a dull and stale teacher who's been landed with having to produce the annual school nativity play, and Marc Wootton as a temporary classroom assistant who's manic in the extreme, and everything that Freeman isn't.   It's a predictable piece, with some moments of considerable humour (not all of them involve the kids, some of whom are great and down-to-earth; one of whom is an irritating little twerp whom the director obviously thought was funny, and who gets into scenes where he'd be better not to be).  Wootton, by overplaying everything to the max, actually makes his role work; Freeman has done his role any number of times before, but somehow finds some real emotion in it, and makes us have sympathy for this rather annoying little man.  The rest of the cast do their bit, and there's a splendiferous performance of the Nativity in the old Coventry Cathedral at the end.  Considering that the school is obviously on its bare bones and that it appears to have only one class (Freeman's - other teachers appear but not other kids), it's a bit surprising to find at the end that the show is so spectacular, and that somehow Freeman and Wootton are doing everything backstage: make-up, dressing, management, lights, flying kids from the steeple and so on.  Don't apply the logic meter to this one.

And back to something with a bit more content and class: Twelve Angry Men.  Not the Henry Fonda version in black and white, directed by Sydney Lumet (though that was what I thought I'd got out of the library's collection), but a later made-for-TV version from 1997 with a very respectable cast headed up by Jack Lemmon and George C Scott (both looking pretty old, I must say: Scott was 70 and Lemmon 72 at the time). along with Tony Danza, James Gandolfini, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hume Cronyn (88 at the time of production), Courtney B Vance, Ossie Davis (80), Mykelti Williamson (Bubba, in Forrest Gump, but a much tougher character here) and others.

The combined experience of these older and younger troupers shows: they take this top notch script and give every line its due.  William Friedkin's direction is spot on most of the time: keeping twelve men in focus throughout an entire movie is quite some feat, and there are a couple of shots in which one character or another is unintentionally obscured, but in general we not only have a sense of the claustrophobic atmosphere, but also manage to keep track of who's who and where they stand (not only physically, but on the case in hand).  I suspect the piece was put together at a quicker pace than full-scale movies are, which may account for its occasional visual lapses.

The original script is a little adapted for this version, with some references to colour and race, and some changes to occupations, but in general it sticks closely to the original.  The Wikipedia article on the play (which began life on television, was adapted as a stage play shifted to the movies, and has been subsequently adapted and altered into a number of different versions since) is interesting in regard to the way in which this piece has taken on a life of its own, even becoming Twelve Angry Women at one point.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Retail shelving

One of the things that used to be a pain when I ran OC Books was the lack of decent shelving.  We were forever fixing up or adjusting or repainting the shelving we had, and it was never adequate for the books we were trying to display.  When we moved from Dowling St to Prince St, my wife and I spent an evening undoing all the shelves on three units, painting everything, and then refitting the shelves in places that were more usable, because books went from being smallish in general, to being larger altogether.  Of course there were still smaller books, such as the mass market paperbacks, but they were increasingly being replaced by bigger formats.

I would dearly loved to have had the chance to visit a commercial outlet dedicated to retail shelving, like the retail shelving at mfried.com, but we never had the spare cash for such outlay, and had to be content with secondhand stuff, fixing it up, adjusting it, and repainting it.   Such is the life of a small business owner....

Not a disaster, thank goodness

Well, it's been a bit of a day.  First we helped at the monthly church lunch this morning - and over lunchtime, of course.  It was a barbecue day, so I was cooking onions, as I have done traditionally since we started these lunches.  Beautiful day (following an equally beautiful day yesterday) and I probably got my neck sunburnt.  I mention the beautiful days because we've had a long run of rainy days, or days with bitter, sharp winds, or a combination of both.  Seeing the sun for more than a few minutes at a time is a great relief.  

Because it was so lovely yesterday, my wife and I went for a walk along the road that runs beside the reservoir up on Dalziel Rd.  We'd never been down there before, and eventually it peters out and becomes the lead-in to some private properties, but we got a fair walk out of it, with a moderate amount of hill-climbing.  There's a deer farm along there, so we and the deer inspected each other (and the dog did too) both going and coming back, and they performed intricate manoeuvres whenever we tried to count how many there were.  (Forty-ish, we decided.)  On one of the properties (which appear to be mostly lifestyle blocks of several acres) there was a host of gum trees, a wonderful cathedral sight, with rich, dense grass beneath.

As we drove back home again, via a road that used to be gravel and is now sealed (and was unpleasant to drive on when it was only gravel, because it's fairly steep in places) we saw some small bird that appeared to have things dangling from it on either side.  At first I thought they were wings, but they remained stationery when the bird flew.  Some curious decoration, and not a bird I recognise at all.

In the afternoon we shovelled some more bark mulch onto our garden, and I went for an audition for the play on the life of Rosalie Macgeorge that our church is putting on at Easter next year - it's the church's 150th anniversary.   And that was pretty much enough to wear us out for the day...

But back to today.  After we'd finished with the lunch at church, we decided to head straight down to Port Chalmers, where Sunny Side Up (the a cappella group I sing with) was doing six songs at Iona Church, as part of that church's fundraising.  (A million dollars are required just to bring the church back to its normal state.)

We thought we'd kill the extra time we had before the concert started by having a cup of coffee in Port Chalmers.  We nearly didn't get there.  On the way down, my wife was eating the salad she'd brought with her.  She started to cough, then choke and splutter, and then just choke full stop.  I stopped the car - it took a moment for me to realise that she was trying to get her breath - but I had no idea how to help her.  Apparently a stringy bit of salad had gone the wrong way down and was caught at the back of her throat.  She tried to reach into her mouth to get it, but her fingers couldn't grasp it because it was too slippery.  I tried, with no result either.  She grabbed a kitchen cloth that we had in the car for no obvious reason and, because it was dry and had some grip, managed to grasp the bit of lettuce and pull it out.  Messy and extremely scary.  For both of us.

Onto Port Chalmers feeling rather edgy after that experience, and had a coffee in a cafe near the Church.   The concert had an interesting mix of artists, with Owen Rooney as compère.  Apart from SSU, there was a pianist, an Irish comedian/baritone (the pianist accompanied him too), two very good saxophonists (one of whom I'd seen playing at the Competitions a few weeks ago), a quartet of singers made up of some of the top people from SSU (known as One Lucky Guy because there are three women and one man in it); a woman singing her own compositions accompanying herself on guitar, and an organist (I think the church's organist, in fact).  One Lucky Guy are a great combination, and do some marvellous, jazzy, a cappella arrangements.  The composer's songs had interesting guitar accompaniments, but didn't seem to have an awful lot of lyrical content, though the singer had a good voice.  The Irish baritone, who had a lovely voice that was still holding up even though he obviously wasn't young, told some good clean jokes, and sang some old favourites from the Irish ballad repertoire (not Danny Boy, thank goodness).  The pianist's solos left a little to be desired; I got the impression he'd played them a lot (he plays at rest homes and such) and that his heart wasn't quite in it.  I might have been wrong.  The organist....well, I'm not sure what was happening up there in the organ loft, but it was a bit dodgy at times!

And home...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book list

Back in March, I mentioned a list of ten books that someone in the magazine, Books and Culture, had suggested everyone should read.   You know how people - and newspapers, and magazines - do this all the time.  On this occasion I decided to note down the titles, with the intention of reading my way through them.  In the end I only read the first three books on the list.  It wasn't that I got bored with the idea, but as always, other books came along demanding attention, and the list went by the by.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, A House for Mr Biswas, and Things Fall Apart, were the three I read. I don't remember much about the first, except that it was pretty strange.  Strange, convoluted, and yet surprisingly readable.  I really enjoyed Mr Biswas, though most curiously, when I read it again a couple of years ago, I found it disturbing, irritating, and very dark.  Odd how a period of years can make a difference to the same words on a page.

Things Fall Apart is pretty dark too, but it was a marvellous book, and, most intriguingly, gave an insight into how it must have been for those Biblical patriarchs who had several wives - and how the wives themselves must have fared.  It always seemed odd to me that three or four women (or more) could possibly get along with one husband.  The answer is, of course, that they don't.  The situation is fraught with tension at all points, with jealousies, anger, frustration and much more.  How the husband manages all this is beyond me.  He would have to have a fairly high opinion of himself, I suspect.

Anyway, while clearing up stuff round the house today, I found the original list in the back of a notebook.  Here are the rest of the titles:

The Adventures of Augie Marsh - Saul Bellow
Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - I read this when I was young, when Solzhenitsyn was the In-writer (his books suddenly became available after being circulated in hand-written copies for some years) but I don't remember much about it.
Rabbit Angstrom - Updike.  This is officially a trilogy, so that adds another couple of books to the list!

Rules for Safety with Fire Works

And one other item of interest that one of my sons wrote - it has some wonderful pictures, such as a burning house with a speech bubble saying Help! and a pet saying Echh! , and a boy with large shoelaces saying Arr! as an explosion goes off in front of him (with a BOOM!) and a round firework (presumably) sails over his head.
Unfortunately I can't get my scanner to go at present, otherwise I'd reproduce it here.  Seems like he did it for a school topic.  The following text - with its delightful last line - is as writ.

Safety with Fire Works
Be careful with fire works and don't muck around. 
Here are some rules: When you light a fire work stand well away from it and if it doesn't go off don't go and see what the matter is.  
Keep your pets in side or they could be hit or deafened by a fire work.  
Don't leave fireworks in your pocket or they could blow your pants off. 

Ideas from the past

We've been clearing off some shelves this morning, trying to de-clutter.  It's always a major task, and the decisions that have to be made boil down to whether to keep this particular old letter, or card, or piece of paper with something 'important' on it.  In spite of that I've nearly filled the recycling bin, so we've obviously made some progress.  I want to move my stamp collection on: it's a very eclectic collection, with no great focus, though there are quite a few NZ stamp booklets, and some stamps in the UPU anniversary amongst the items.   Some of the material is worth a bit; a great deal is worth next to nothing, except for someone who wants to start from scratch. 

In the middle of the box that was filled with old notes about ideas for writing, I came across an exercise book (it had started life belonging to one of my daughter's when she was at school, and I'd taken it over) - on the first page there are a bunch of IDEAS from the 13th July, 1993.  These have obviously been contributed by my children in some sort of a brainstorming session, and they're worth repeating here.  

D: A water-detector for Ethiopia.
B: A peeler with a curve in it to peel the bends in vegetables.
D: A button on glasses to turn them into sunglasses.
L: You can go to bed when you want but you must get up at seven am.
D: A metal door on the bedroom to keep you in, once you're in.  (He was ten at the time, and difficult to keep in bed at night.)
D: A hand on the clock that bangs on your bed to wake you up.
D: A toilet roll holder that gives you a choice of how many sheets to have at any time.

Then there are two more ideas from the 20th of July not attributed to any of the children: 

A time to show how many more hours you've got on the gas heaters.
A strip on frozen food packets to indicate when they're no longer any good to use.

It's interesting that more than one of these ideas has actually been worked on by other people over the years - there are glasses that change colour when the sun is bright; some public toilets obviously have a system to produce only so many sheets at a time (not quite the same idea, but close); all food these days has a use-by date on it.   And I suspect the idea of a water-detector in Ethiopia has already been created.  In fact, I seem to remember reading about something similar a few years back.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Getting the facts right

Yet again, a television current affairs programme loads the dice against one side by showing archive material that doesn't actually relate to the topic in hand.  

On Close Up, on the 16th October, Mark Sainsbury and his team showed archive footage of an abortion clinic in the United States being burnt by an arsonist, and other footage relating to the murder of an abortionist in the same country.   But the discussion was about abortion in New Zealand, where pro-life activism has been peaceful.  

The inference was that the New Zealand pro-life movement was involved in the murder of abortion clinic doctors and in firing abortion clinics.  This isn't the case, and there has never been a murder of an abortion doctor in New Zealand.   

The only abortion clinic in New Zealand to have been damaged by fire was in Auckland.  This occurred in 1989, and the person who burnt the building has never been caught or convicted.   No one knows whether a pro-lifer was involved or not, including Alison McCulloch, the spokeswoman for the Abortion Law Reform Association, who appeared on the programme opposite Dr Norman McLean, a pro-life doctor from Invercargill.  

Of course, murder of abortion doctors and footage of abortion clinics being burnt is more dramatic than the facts.   It's on a par with using footage of Muslims 'enraged' by Western actions, or 'rejoicing' at deaths of Westerners, when the Muslims in the footage could have been anywhere in the world shouting about anything - who knows what.  

Echoes

We watched a DVD of The Conspirator last night.  It wasn't a movie I'd heard anything about, although it had a fairly distinguished cast: James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, and a bunch of other reasonably well-known faces hidden under various 19th century beards and moustaches.   Robert Redford directed.

It concerns the trial of Mary Surratt, a woman who had the misfortune to be the mother of a young man aligned with John Wilkes Booth and the other men involved with the assassination of Lincoln (and the attempted assassinations of the Vice-President and the Secretary of State).  How much of what we saw was factual, I don't know, but it made a satisfactory drama.  (The story is told in great detail on Wikipedia.)

Booth and his crew used Surratt's boarding house as a meeting-place because of John Surratt's involvement with them.  This fact was used against Mary Surratt to charge her with conspiracy, although it seems likely she wasn't in fact involved in any way more than being a relative and a sympathiser of the lost Southern cause.   McAvoy played her initially unsympathetic lawyer thrown into the deep end with no witnesses on hand, and fighting against a military tribunal; the case was illegally heard by the military rather than a civil court.

The film connects the case in many ways to the state of affairs in American life that surfaced after 9/11, when normality was often overturned, and the military viewpoint allowed to hold sway.  While there is no specific reference to later events, it's evident that the scriptwriters had this in mind.

It's inferred in the movie that the conspirators originally only planned to kidnap Lincoln.  This isn't clarified to any extent, and the film opens with a long sequence in which Lincoln is shot and the Secretary of State violently attacked in his bed (the Vice President was supposed to be assassinated too, but the assassin lost his courage).   Redford produces an excellent movie that holds your attention throughout, even though it seems unlikely that Surratt is going to be let off.  The odds are stacked too highly against her.

Looking back you wonder why these men plotted as they did, when the Civil War was to all intents and purposes well and truly over (official peace is announced in the movie some time after Lincoln's death), but such situations have been a common after-event of wars for millennia.  I was reading again this morning in the book of Jeremiah (in the Old Testament) how, after the Babylonians had finally destroyed Jerusalem (it took many years of various states of siege) and had taken off its puppet king to Babylon, they gave over the governorship of the land into the hands of a Jew named Gedaliah.  Gedaliah seems to have been a man of integrity, trustworthy, capable of keeping the land in a reasonable state on behalf of its captors.   Jeremiah was one of the many poorer people who were left behind in his care.  Everything seemed to have come about as Jeremiah had prophesied, and a certain state of peace reigned.

Except that there was a bloke named Ishmael (he may have been a member of the royal line, as Gedaliah may also have been) who, not content with the state of affairs, plotted to kill Gedaliah.  The latter was warned of this, but chose to ignore the danger - probably as Lincoln himself chose, or had to choose, to ignore the possibility that there would be factions still unhappy with the state of affairs. and that his life might be in danger.

Ishmael assassinated Gedaliah, and many of his followers, and proceeded to slaughter a number of pilgrims who were on their way to what was left of the Holy City.  When violence is started, it spreads to innocent people who happen to get in the way - as we see in the movie where Government aides and others are injured.  Ishmael and his crew were eventually routed by people faithful to Gedaliah, but by that time it was too late for the unfortunate Governor.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Special weekend

We have all of our grandchildren here at the moment, because my daughter and her family, who live in ChCh, are down for the weekend.   It's also the birthday of one of the my grandsons - he's nine tomorrow - so we had a party for him this afternoon.  We realised during it that it's the first time all of our grandchildren have actually been together (it's also the first time my daughter's man has been here for about six years).  On the last occasion when there was this big a collection of grandchildren, about three years ago, one of them hadn't been born.

So the house has been full all weekend, with aunts and uncles reacquainting themselves with various nephews and nieces, and with party food everywhere, until no one feels like eating anything anymore.  We had part of the birthday party at the Dunedin North Intermediate swimming pool - it was just our family and a few of my grandson's friends.  Not only don't we feel like eating any more, we're all wiped out from the swim, especially those of us who don't go in the pool very often.

So there's a lot of ongoing cleaning-up, as you can imagine; the fabric tablecloths don't get more than one use before they're in the wash, for instance.

But families are great.

The Debt

Note: some spoilers here...

Some while back I walked in on a movie that was showing on TV late one night.  Helen Mirren was fighting for her life with some elderly man who managed to stab her a couple of times.  Last night I watched the rest of the movie, which is a taut thriller based around three Israelis kidnapping a German doctor. They believe he was a Nazi who committed various 'research' atrocities on Jews in one of the concentration camps.  These three also appear, played by different actors, in sequences that occur thirty years later: this is where Helen Mirren is involved.

The film, The Debt, is primarily concerned with the decision the three younger people have to make when their prisoner escapes, and how they live with that decision for the next thirty years - until the doctor is apparently found again.  Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren play the main female character in the story, with Sam Worthington and Ciarán Hinds pairing off as the Israeli whose conscience plagues him, and New Zealander Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson sharing the role of the other man who is able to put the past behind him very easily, even when things go wrong. 

So while it's a thriller, in that there are some excellent suspense sequences, it's also a story about relationships, people caught up in close quarters and struggling with the consequences of a botched kidnap.  The doctor is played by Jesper Christensen; he's brilliant in his role of a man still capable of winding up the Jewish psyche and coming out on top.  

The end of the film, which in some ways undercuts the values of the rest of the movie, is a bit of a female Jason Bourne sequence: not quite believable and all relying on split second timing.  Helen Mirren is, as always, superb in her role, but she's asked to make credible the stealing of documents from a newspaper office, the tracking down of the evil doctor, and a subsequent fight to the death with him.  This is Hollywood stuff that's not quite comfortable with what's gone before.  

Nevertheless, as a thriller this is well done.  Hinds doesn't get enough screen time - his character is killed off in the first few minutes, seen again quite a bit later on and then lost again.  Sam Worthington is the quieter of the two young men, a man with a mission who struggles to see beyond the borders of his intents.  Czokas is the wild man and fills the part easily, and strongly.  Chastain, with her tight angular features, has the major role, and does very well. 


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Long weekend

My wife and I spent the weekend (from Friday, just after lunch, until lunchtime on Sunday) at our church's annual family camp.  There were a 170 happy campers, some not so happy because of the heavy rain that we had (especially on Friday). They had to set their tents up in the downpours.  Most people chose to be in 'cabins' - a bit of a misnomer in this particular place, since they're more like long buildings with small rooms in them.  Either way, those people didn't get quite so wet.  

We were privileged to be housed in one of the two motel units on the site, along with the other people running the kitchen for the weekend.  (That's what we were there for, too.)   Working in the kitchen was an interesting experience: I haven't done a lot of physical work ever in my working life, and even less over the last few years, so being on my feet for hours at a time, and keeping up with the punishing routine of a kitchen providing for that many people was quite exhausting.  I got to the point on several occasions where if I hadn't sat down I would have fallen over.

Not being a cook, except in my own kitchen at home, I helped with all sorts of lesser jobs, from peeling things to cutting up things, to stirring soups, to putting more flavours into the soups, to convincing people that one soup was called Moroccan Mystery (it had a cauliflower base, which the cook said wouldn't impress people, so we didn't tell them - just let them try to guess!); to serving 170 people and telling them the names of the soups over and over, or where to get the milk, or the plates or whatever; to washing up stuff, to cleaning floors, to wiping down benches, to helping with baking (my contribution to one lot of baking was to put the flour in, and the baking powder - after that I got sidetracked onto something else); to putting out dishes and taking back the empties again, and so on.  You name it, we did it.

We not only served full-scale main meals, but full-scale breakfasts (people seem to eat a lot more when they're at a camp) and morning and afternoon teas and suppers with baking that had been done in the hours since the last meal.  Some food was brought in ready to be cooked, but not much.  Most was done on site.

With the kitchen not being fully commercial a fair degree of improvising was required on the part of  two talented cooks: they were forever juggling ovens and hot plates and oven trays and the like in order to get everything done on time.  We had some help from some of the campers who'd been rostered on to do stuff at different times, but in general we had the place to ourselves.

By Sunday the sun had come out and improved the state of things, but by Sunday my wife and I were wiped out: we didn't even manage to make it home (only an hour and a half) before we felt we had to have a snooze.  The joys of old age....





Monday, October 15, 2012

Serious and frivolous

It's a little ironic that the hashtag for Blog Action Day 2012 (or any other year, if it comes to that) is #BAD12.  Some bloggers avoid the problem by focusing on @blogactionday12, which is certainly a little better - except that it takes up a lot of room on a tweet.  And others use the hashtag  as an alternative, though if you can read that on first attempt, you'll be doing well. 

Anyway, all that aside, it's Blog Action Day 2012 in this part of the world (we still have others telling us it's Blog Action Day 2012 tomorrow) and however we focus on it, it's an interesting exercise in Internet/Blogging unity.  

The Power of We strikes me as not the most inspiring slogan, not just because of its curious grammatical structure (shouldn't it be the Power of Us?), but because it's somehow not as strong as it might have seemed to those who proposed it.  

It's a bit difficult in English that both 'We' and 'Us' are such little words.  They don't have much strength in themselves, being easily overwhelmed by much tougher, longer words like adamantine, or, unstoppable.  But I guess both of these would clutter up the average tweet even more than .  #PowerofAdamantine, or #PowerofUnstoppable are both hashtags that eat up most of your allotted 140 characters.  18 and 19 characters, respectively, if my quick count serves me right, compared to 10 in the other hashtag.

I know that Power of We gives you perhaps more scope - 'we' can mean anything pretty much, when you get down to it; it doesn't hold you in any one corner, and you can be as serious or as frivolous as you like.  (You can check out my level of seriousness or frivolity here, by looking at my blogs from previous BAD days.)  I note that a lot of people are being serious, or even SERIOUS.  That's what BAD tend to bring out in you, of course; you feel that you have to write something that will inspire, or at the very least, show that you aren't a frivolous person who could write a blog post like this one I'm writing on a BAD day.  (I can write frivolous posts even on ordinary bad days, let alone those with capital letters.)

So this year, how can I be more serious about BAD?  A friend of mine has just died of cancer, and that's pretty serious, except that he was a clown by trade, and a magician, and had his own peculiar sense of humour, and has declared that there should be a considerable element of celebration at his funeral.  Serious, but frivolous (in some people's eyes).

I'm reading a great book by Francis Spufford at the moment in which he takes sin very seriously (and is right to do so) while pointing out that a lot of his readers take it very frivolously.

Human nature has a propensity to undercut serious things in life with frivolity, with humour.  Sometimes it's all you can do.  We all know what happens when someone anguishes about something that is indeed deadly serious, but they do it 24/7, never letting any lightness in on the subject.   It can seem almost blasphemous to make a joke with such a person, yet you have to.  As a species, we don't seem to be able to live on the edge of seriousness all the time.

I watched the deeply serious movie, Northfork, last night; it was almost overloaded with seriousness, to the extent that when something that seemed intended to be amusing turned up in it, you failed to laugh, because your frivolous side had been given a lot of warning to stay out of the room.

Maybe the truth is I don't seem to be able to live with seriousness all the time.  Maybe I'm too frivolous a person to be writing a blog post on the Power of We, and perhaps I should have skipped this year's BAD.  Too bad, I didn't skip it, and this is the best I can do while the aroma of a newly-baked chocolate cake fills the room, and it's warmer inside than out (somewhat), and my daft dog (a daft dog needing a bath) plumped down on me when I went and had an afternoon nap (as grandparents are entitled to do) before writing this.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Charles Dickens - a life

I finished Claire Tomalin's magnificent Charles Dickens, a life, last night.  Magnificent primarily in the amount of sheer detail that's provided, and which must have taken vast hours of research to put together.  The book deals with the whole Nelly Ternan saga with considerable insight, and manages to take the cover off some of the matters that had been hidden for many years.  It helps that Tomalin has already worked over this particular bit of ground before, in her book, The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 

Dickens, as is generally well-known, was a great mix of a man - hardly unusual, especially in those who can be classed as geniuses - but there are aspects of his life that are puzzling to say the least.  His rejection of his wife, Catherine, after they had had ten children together, and his negative attitude to most of his sons whom he regarded with less and less favour as they grew and proved to be not geniuses like their father, are more than sad, and these attitudes lost him some friendships completely and curtailed others.  His favouring of his daughters and his two sisters-in-law was also curious, given that he spent a great deal of his adult life in the company of other men, behaving like a unattached bachelor.

While he could be harsh on members of his family, or contrary, or dismissive, he formed friendships with some males that endured through all manner of ups and downs.  Forster is the prime example; he could upset Dickens, but never for long, and Forster himself could be hurt by Dickens, but always came back for more.

Then there was the way he drove himself constantly.  Some of this might be attributed to his upbringing by a father who couldn't keep out of debt and Dickens' sense that if he didn't work hard enough he might end up in poverty like the old man. Yet that can only be part of the reason: the incredible walks (twelve miles was nothing, and sometimes he walked through the night from one place to another); the endurance tests of the public readings which increased his ill-health; the striving to do several things at once and managing to do so 99 times out of 100; the insistence on taking on far more than the ordinary mortal could manage; the restlessness of shifting houses and even countries; his self-assurance that he could cure people by what can only be regarded as approaches verging on quackery; and on and on.

But then there was the other side of Dickens: the generous, compassionate, public-spirited man, the man who genuinely cared for the poor (he might have been more sympathetic to his family if they had been poor!), the man who financially supported the widows and fatherless children of old friends, who paid off his father's debts - and those of his siblings - time and again even though it made him angry; the man who fought those who dismissed the poor as being beneath their contempt; the man who mocked the legal systems and brought changes through his writings; the man who celebrated life continually with endless birthday parties, Christmas parties, dinners for friends, dinners for other writers and men (sometimes women) of renown, jaunts hither and thither and yon; the man who fell passionately in love not only with the woman he didn't marry in his youth, but with his sister-in-law, with other lesser-known women and, finally, with Ellen Ternan.  Only one of these relationships ever became a sexual one (Ternan's) but there was more passion in the other relationships than many men have in their whole lives.

And then of course there was the writing: it could make him ill at times, could drive him mad, and sometimes he was troubled that it wasn't good enough.  He could write two novels at one time, and besides the works for which he is famous, he wrote countless other pieces: stories, articles, plays and tirades.  His Christmas stories almost all sold on the basis of the one really excellent one, A Christmas Carol; some of them weren't very good, and the ones he wrote late in his life were pretty awful.  He could write scenes that were pure melodrama, and scenes in which the women behave in the way they would on the stage (acting and stage directing and playwriting were all fitted into his frenetic life) but not in real life (or even in a novel), and he could write scenes that hummed along and couldn't be put down by the reader.  Some of his characters were pure sentiment, some were pure evil.  His best female characters were never heroines, or children, or young girls - all of these suffered from overwrought writing and bland characterization.  Some of his heroes weren't much better, but the best of them are real in a way only characters written by a master craftsman are real.

Besides these, there were the host of people who really do stick in our memories, and they are so many that to name them would take pages.  Not only are there the famous ones who are so well-known that they might have been real people, there are the innumerable characters who appear for a few sentences and still come completely alive.

I've read more than one book on Dickens and his life, but this one seemed more balanced and honest.  Furthermore it gave other people in the story room to breathe.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express

We watched the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express last night.  A very classy production with a wonderful cast.  Albert Finney plays Hercule Poirot - with a limp, for some reason - and he presents the character as always in charge, always at work on the information given to him, and quite able to pick up clues from what people do and don't say.  And even to manipulate the occasional character if it suits his purpose.  

Ingrid Bergman got an Oscar and a Bafta for Best Supporting Actress, though her performance comes across now as a performance.  We never quite believe all that stuff about her vocation as a missionary and her call to the little African children.  It's a bit too acted, for my liking.  Various other members of the cast won awards of different sorts, including Finney and Gielgud, although the latter is doing no more than playing Gielgud, pretty much as he always did.  That's what great stars do, when all is said and done.  Anthony Perkins is the same in the role he plays: he's not quite being Norman Bates, but that character isn't far away.  Great stars bring such a particular personality to their roles that there's almost no need for them to create the character

Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam are good in parts that they could do standing on their heads, but Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery are woefully under-done as the secretive lovers.  Connery looks as though he's longing to get into something with a bit more pizzazz to it; Redgrave has almost nothing to get her teeth into either.  The married couple, Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset ,also suffer from underwritten parts, and quite honestly we're suspicious of their Hungarian status from early in the piece.  Wendy Hiller is all hammer and tongs in her role as a Russian princess, her face like a permanent mask - her doctor advised against her ever smiling, says the character.  Jean-Pierre Cassell makes a great steward, always there, seemingly innocent of anything and honest as the day is long.  Rachel Roberts is perhaps a bit too Germanic, as the cook turned maid, and Richard Widmark doesn't get to do much except be nasty before he's dispatched early in the piece.  

But with such a crew on board the picture could hardly go wrong.  Sydney Lumet obviously enjoys himself as the director, and there are some delightful jokes in the script, for example:

Mrs. Hubbard: [to Bianchi] Don't you agree the man must've entered my compartment to gain access to Mr. Ratchett? 
Princess Dragomiroff: [dismissively] I can think of no other reason, madame! 

or

Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mister Beddoes? 
Beddoes: I am reading "Love's Captive," by Mrs. Arabella Richardson. 
Foscarelli: Is it about sex? 
Beddoes: No, it's about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli. [He's already sardonically told Poirot that Foscarelli speaks a kind of English: "I think he learnt it in a place called Chicago."]

or

Mrs. Hubbard: What's the matter with him? Train-sick or something? 
Hercule Poirot: Some of us, in the words of the divine Greta Garbo, want to be alone. 

or

Dr. Constantine: [referring to Pierre] He had the means to do it. The passkey to Ratchett's room. 
Hercule Poirot: And a knife borrowed from the chef. 
Bianchi: With whom he was in league. 
Hercule Poirot: Which he plunged, repeatedly and without motive, into the body of his suitably astonished victim. 

or

Hercule Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why? 
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story. 
Hercule Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that. 

The solution to the puzzle is perhaps signalled rather more obviously in the movie than it would be in Agatha Christie's original book, where she tends to flit past clues by not highlighting them.  Anyone paying attention to the movie will have picked up a number of them by the time Poirot gets round to explaining the whole thing.  And the opening sequence, in which a wealthy couple's child is kidnapped, is repeated in snatches throughout, adding to our understanding of what's going on.  

For all that, the piece is entertaining, and has stood the test of time - as long as you're prepared to take it as it is, a fun vehicle for a bunch of stars who obviously had a ball with it.  





Saturday, October 06, 2012

Men's Group - Movie

Back in 2009 I wrote on one of the other blogs I was then contributing to about an Australian movie called Men's Group.  
I hadn't been able to see it at that point, although there was a brief trailer available online, but it was getting rave reviews wherever it was shown - which, unfortunately, wasn't in as many places as it should have been.

However, it's now available on DVD, and I caught up with it last night.  In spite of the group hug that they're having in the picture in the poster, this isn't a movie about men getting soft with each other or even communicating very well with each other (I don't think they actually hug at any point in the movie itself).  It's about Paul, a facilitator who offers a small group of men the chance to come together weekly and talk, in his own home.  (His wife and family always spend Tuesday nights with his wife's sister - wisely.)  Five men attend regularly, even though all of them admit at times that they don't quite know why they're there.  A sixth participant comes for one highly emotional evening in the middle of the movie.

The men are: Alex, who doesn't think there's anything wrong with him, and can't see why his son doesn't fall into line; Freddy, who's separated from his wife and little daughter and is desperate for things to be right in his marriage again; Lucas, a dour, good-looking man who barely contributes, but whose private life (which we, the audience, are party to) is aggressive and violent; Moses, a man who wears a beany and a long black beard, both of which enable him to hide to a great extent; and Cecil, the oldest member, who gives away very little and seems okay on the surface.

Of course all of them give away a great deal more than they intend. The audience knows more about them - but not much more - and sees them in a slightly different light to Paul, whose relationship with them is restricted to the Tuesday nights.

There is some resolution in the story - one man manages to make headway in his life - but the rest are still either struggling, or unable to move, or perhaps on the cusp of change when the movie ends.  However, the filmmakers wisely haven't allowed their characters to have easy ways out, and we're left wondering how some of them will fare.

The film is intensely emotional, and will leave viewers - male and female - with many thoughts and responses.  Men definitely need to see it, but women do too - and their reactions will be different.   Christian viewers may want to ask about forgiveness and change in regard to the men in the story, but these guys haven't got to that point yet; the need for some level of self-understanding has to come before they can think of turning their lives around completely.

This is a brilliant movie that deserves a very wide audience, including those who wouldn't normally go to see it.




Friday, October 05, 2012

3 movies

Caught up with three movies over the last week or so, one online and the other two on DVD.

I discovered that Orson Welles' extraordinary movie, Chimes at Midnightwas available online for free. This is a movie he made in two sections over a period of several months, as finances allowed, and in which he used doubles for some of his actors when necessary, and which has an audio track that is often less than excellent.  The film has no appearance of having been made piecemeal; the photography and editing have a surprising consistency, given their origins.  Certainly the soundtrack is muffled at times, particularly amongst some of the younger actors, and even Welles can be hard to hear, but when it's good it's very very good.

Welles' performance is very much focused on the body - and of course he has plenty of reason for it to be so, given that many of the other characters spend a great deal of time insulting this obese man in an enormously wide range of language and metaphor. John Gielgud gives a marvellous performance, with every word clear as a bell.  He moves very little, his regal status relying on the immense strength of personality Gielgud brings to the part.  Keith Baxter, who had played Prince Hal in the onstage version of Welles' collation of Shakespeare's historical plays, swings from the skipping, laughing fool of a youth to the strong new King in the later scenes after going through a period of self-discovery.

Margaret Rutherford appears randomly throughout as Mistress Quickly, and eschews her usual slightly daffy screen personality in favour of a woman who knows what she's about and yet has a soft heart for her most recalcitrant customer.   Jeanne Moreau is Doll Tearsheet, an odd piece of casting that doesn't quite work.  (There's also some question as to whether it's Moreau speaking on the soundtrack, or some other actress.)  There are a number of European actors in the movie apart from Moreau - Marina Vlady, Walter Chiari, Fernando Rey, Jose Nieto - and the film looks at times as though it isn't about English characters at all; the extras, for instance, are plainly European.  The film was shot mostly in Spain, so even the countryside has a look of not being English either.

But this is a minor point, and ultimately irrelevant to Welles' wonderful interpretation of the various sections of Shakespeare's plays that are slotted together.  Given a subject he was passionate about, Welles could make marvellous movies on the most meagre of budgets and under the most trying of circumstances.  (Othello was even more of a struggle to put together - and was shot spasmodically over three years.)   This movie veers between utter energy and comedy, and stillness and drama.  The Boarshead Inn is a complicated series of rooms where people often bang their heads on the inappropriately set crossbeams, or run in under doors that aren't quite high enough, or come through openings in the wall up above other characters, or where a host of people suddenly appear out of nowhere.  There's even a privy stuck in the wall in a dining room, with just a gate to hide the incumbent.  The palaces, on the other hand, are huge, and dwarf their inhabitants.  Gielgud often appears as a tiny figure on his throne, perched on a platform above forbidding stairs, and stuck between high and solid walls.  The only light comes in from a window far above. And the battle between Prince Hal and Hotspur, and their armies, is one of the most horrific battle scenes filmed.  It takes between eight and ten minutes (depending on who's counting) and becomes so sickening that I, for one, could hardly bear to watch it after a while.  It seems to include hundreds of soldiers, but in fact there were only 100 - perhaps a 150 (the reports vary).  The editing chops and changes endlessly as weapons fly and soldiers groan and there are horrible noises and bodies flung into the mud (and the occasional horse as well).  Unpleasant as it is, this is superb movie-making.

And so onto another filmed play: The Browning Version.  There have been at least two film versions of this play, and up to four television adaptations.  In the version I saw, made in 1994, Albert Finney stars as Crocker-Harris, the late middle-aged teacher who is about to retire from a prestigious school position because of trouble with his heart.  (There are hints that he's being pushed out, in fact.)  He's unpopular as a teacher (he's nicknamed Hitler), and himself feels that he's failed his pupils.  Yet his pupils do achieve under his teaching, and eventually appreciate his work with them.  His wife is having an affair with another teacher (played by an American in this adaptation) and she is bitter about the way Crocker-Harris has disappointed her during their marriage because he gives into those who have power.  A young pupil makes a break-through with Crocker-Harris on the day he is about to retire, and shows him that his work hasn't been in vain, although perhaps it could have been done better.

This 1994 version includes some 'obligatory' use of the F-word, as though that makes it more relevant to a new generation.  The original script is not only completely opened out, scenes are shifted back and forth, and new characters and scenes included.  Overall it works, and there's little sense that it's constricted to any one setting.  Finney is excellent in his role, and makes the film worth watching.  Ben Silverstone, as Taplow, also gives a top-notch performance, considering his inexperience.

And lastly, we watched Edward Scissorhands again.  This relatively early collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp is an oddball but charming movie.  Depp's performance is spot on, and the cast of suburbanites are a nicely varied group.  Winona Ryder's hair is annoying, and you wait in vain for Edward to give her a decent haircut in the way he cuts and styles the hair of all the other women, but Ryder herself gives a winning performance.  Alan Arkin provides a wonderfully laid-back husband to the an earnest (and slightly dotty) Dianne Wiest; even if he does seem a bit oblivious to some of the strange things going on about him.

The fairy story-cum-allegory is a bit heavy-handed towards the end, and you have to wonder why on earth Edward was ever given scissors as a temporary substitute for hands in the first place by his crazy inventor (Vincent Price - who else?).  Still, there is some wonderful humour, and a warmth about this movie that isn't always obvious in Burton's movies.

Garden matters

Back in late September I posted an item about the lamb that we looked after for a weekend.  And the video I took of him playing with our two-year old dog (it's now reached a phenomenal 99 views!  LOL).  We've got the lamb once more this weekend, because my daughter and her family are away again, and we've spent the last couple of days (on and off) putting together a temporary fence in front of the vegetable garden(s) so that the lamb doesn't eat all our carefully-planted seedlings, some of which are only just getting started.  The place is beginning to look like a gardener's version of Fort Knox. 

At one early point in our planning as to how we were going to stop Rocko the lamb eating everything in sight, we were debating whether some of the garden furniture would keep him at bay, but we ditched that idea early on. (Perhaps we could have utilised some abandoned student furniture instead, but we wanted to keep the place looking reasonably tidy...)

This is the second time we've had to provide fencing: since the dog became part of the family, whenever we've planted potatoes we find he's gone out and dug them up again - because of the blood and bone mix that we put in the hole with the seed potato.  So the last year or so we've grown potatoes inside a fenced-off area.  This works well, even if it does frustrate the dog a little.