Sunday, September 28, 2008

Goodbye to Narnia, until next time

Narnia has been left behind finally, for this year. This brings both a sense of relief and sadness. After several weeks of intensive rehearsal, and nine performances, we’ve probably given it as much energy as any show can take – from an amateur troupe. But it’s still sad to see the set dismantled, and the props put away, and the costumes lying in piles. For a time the theatre becomes our second home, so we’ll miss that too, in spite of the fact that the facilities aren’t exactly A grade. Nevertheless, the Mayfair is the only theatre in Dunedin that most amateur groups will perform at: it’s a good size, but not over-large (like the Regent) and even though it was built as a picture theatre originally (as far as I’m aware) it has great acoustics, and a sense of place.
I was even more fond of His Majesty’s before they turned it into a nightclub – one of the many disastrous decisions made by various City Council members, back in the 60s and 70s, who appeared to have had little foresight or vision. His Majesty’s had been the home to hundreds of local amateur groups over the years, as well as innumerable touring professional shows. It was a good size, (again not overlarge) and a proper theatre. Its backstage facilities, by today’s standards, probably wouldn’t have been that hot, but the many companies who used it don’t seem to have complained a lot. I remember the rabbit warren of dressing rooms out the back, and the orchestra pit with the names of dozens of musicians scribbled on its walls. There’s been talk of revamping the Mayfair on a number of occasions (the company that owns it just doesn’t have the money to upgrade it) but in spite of it being an asset to the city, it’s surprising how little enthusiasm there is on the part of the City Council to help support it; yet they’ve been hundreds of thousands already on the blasted Stadium with far less support from people, and seem to be intent on spending far more.
Anyway, all in all, The Dawn Treader was a great success – perhaps not financially, but certainly with the audience. Those who came seem to have loved it, and many declared it the best effort yet from the Narnia Production crew. My wife took photos of the play on Friday night at the behest of the director, and until I saw the photos even I hadn’t realised just how good it all looked. There are some scenes in the play that I never see: I hadn’t realised just how the good the costumes looked in those scenes, and how great the art work on the sets was. (I usually have my back to the sets!) But when you can actually step away from being in the play and see it more as a whole, you begin to more appreciate the work other people have done.
We presented about a quarter of an hour of the play at church this morning, at the request of our senior pastor, who discussed some of the themes in the book/play. It was a bit like doing it naked: I didn’t have any makeup on (which was great from my point of view as it meant I didn’t have to have another big clean-up) and we had none of the scenery (it was still down at the theatre) and only some of the props. Nevertheless, the actors managed to rise to the occasion.

In the photo, Edmund, Lucy and Eustace have just arrived soaking wet on the Dawn Treader.

Friday, September 26, 2008

We continue to survive the Dawn Treader

The Narnian performances have been going well this (second) week, with much better houses; even though the bookings were low, the door sales have been high. Ridiculous, but there you go.
There have been the usual share of minor calamities, and my tail has been caught so many times either by someone’s foot or in a piece of scenery that tonight I finally got wise and took to carrying it until I was actually on stage. Seemed to improve things. The poor tail has had a rough time of it, altogether. The seam above it has been opened twice, it’s got a bit of a bend in it, and it’s grown…through being left behind when I’m moving forward.
But the tail is the least of it, though one muddle yesterday involved it. Before Eustace is supposed to ‘swing’ me by the tail, I’m sitting on the barrel minding my own business, and waiting for the tail to be pulled. Last night I felt a tug as usual and stood up, swung round – only to find Eustace hadn’t even got near me….! Don’t ask me what the ‘tug’ was – perhaps the tail moving of its own accord – but it took a bit of recovery to get past that.
Much more spectacular was what happened during the storm scene on Wednesday morning. I climb down from the poop once it’s begun, holding the chess set (with the pieces all blue-tacked on) and usually just waddle my way round the crew who are going in all directions. This time, however, something tripped me up – I thought it was a crew member, but the director thinks it was the ‘mast’ for the sail. Whatever, I went flat on my face, banging onto my left knee and making it feel as though I’d bust something in it. Absolute agony – well, I have to say that to make the story more interesting. Certainly it was painful, and I think I must have banged my hand at the same time, as my right wrist has been very unhappy today. Some of the chess pieces went flying as well, so various members of the cast were grabbing at them as soon as the curtain closed.
Tonight I managed to get left behind somehow prior to the Rhoop scene, and had to skip on as the curtain was opening. The only problem with that was that I had to do it ‘off’ the boat. Reepicheep had apparently been off for a little swim…
Amazingly the set has survived the season: the poop creaks and groans worse than a real ship, but survives having more than half the cast (of 19) on it at one time during the sea monster scene. It isn’t pleasant to be inside it when people are walking about on it; it sounds as though something’s going to give. The prow hasn’t fallen over, even though it’s not exactly the most stable piece of scenery ever produced, and none of the triangles have gone over either. Last year, apparently, my son (who was in the play) knocked over one of the triangles. At some ten feet tall or more they ain’t a small thing to come crashing down.

Photo is of the poop deck.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Julie Birchill writing on being a Christian and no longer an atheist

A few paragraphs from an op-ed that appeared in the Guardian back in August this year:

Although it is often they who accuse us of being babyish, needing a big daddy in the sky to lean on, there is something profoundly immature about atheists. That surly, self-satisfied certainty that insists that one is the first person, ever, to see with a white-hot, burning clarity straight to the heart of society's attempts to manipulate and control us all for its own ends.

Today, atheism is big business with the success of books like The God Delusion. If you want to get ahead, be a heretic! Something, however, has been lost. Say the word "atheist" 100 years ago and it conjured up a vision of sexy, freewheeling rebels celebrating life, love and creativity in their rejection of a higher power. Say it now and a vision of fun-hating killjoys, desperately scared that somewhere a Christian is having a good time by singing lustily in church on a Sunday morning, comes to mind. And, sadly, the alleged "humanist morality" never happened – to this day, 80% of all unpaid and unself-interested voluntary and charity work is faith-driven.

The problem, which western atheists miss, is that to be a heretic here requires no bravery whatsoever.

Narnia and some more bruises

Found it hard getting back into Narnia again after a two-day break. I already felt a bit under par, and by the time I'd had my tail caught in the poop deck's back doors, had it stood on later in the second act (undoing the seam again), and fallen over, flat on my face, in the storm scene (scattering chess pieces across the stage in the process) I was beginning to feel it wasn't quite my day. In the fall I came down with a clump on my left knee, which is of course would be the one that's not feeling the liveliest, and though I don't seem to have done any major damage, it's quite unhappy at the moment. I don't think I'll be adding that particular stunt to the play from here on in.

We had a large audience of schoolchildren, which was good, even though they failed to laugh at any of the real jokes. Instead they laughed at an odd line of Eustace's: There's a strange look on his face. Don't ask me why that struck anyone as funny. Who can understand the nature of audiences? I'm sure someone's done research on it somewhere, as they have done on everything from Electrolux vacuums to how many days of the year the average person sneezes on, but I doubt that they were able to come to any decent conclusions.

Apropos of nothing above, I've just been listening to John Adams' violin concerto again (with the sound turned up - there's no one else home). It's hugely energetic in the two outer movements, though it's not always easy to feel a cohesion between the orchestra and the soloist (Adams says that'ss the way he's written it), and it must be a bit of a nightmare for the soloist to figure out where he is at any time - though admittedly he hardly ever stops playing anyway! The Chaconne is a strange piece, with the constant bass line moving at the 'pace of a glacier' (to quote Adams). The line, however, never moves consistently; as the piece progresses it gets more and more out of sync with itself, and the listener is forever thinking - whoops, they've forgotten to come in. That's part of its charm and design, no doubt, and it adds a curious edginess to the slow movement.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monsoon Wedding

I mentioned this movie quite some time ago, but didn't say very much about it. There was a DVD of it in the library the other day when I was there, so I picked it up to have another look at it.
A good deal of it came back to me, but I'd virtually forgotten the strange, beanpole of a man who's the 'event organiser' (played by Vijay Raaz). His story is treated in the way Shakespeare used to treat his humorous, down-to-earth comics: as counterpoints to the main play. Here, in a setting that's nearly all middle-class and full of extravagance, we have a man who's also well-off, but who's impoverished in something that matters: his heart. His mother has been nagging him for years to find a wife and give her grandchildren, but whether because he hasn't bothered or just hasn't found the right person, we don't know. Anyway, within ten minutes of the movie's beginning, he's fallen head over heels in love with the servant of the house. And she with him - although she manages to hide it rather more successfully. The man is fairly ugly, to put it mildly, and isn't the sweetest of personalities, but in the end he gets his girl, and you feel as good for him as you do for any of the other characters. Better, perhaps. It takes some work holding himself together, but he manages.
The film, on the whole, is a cheerful piece, with few dark corners. However, there is an underlying sub-plot about a family 'friend' who has been helping fund the family in past crises, but also secretly molested the niece (whose own father is dead - she lives with the family). When I first saw the movie, this aspect came as a surprise (as is probably intended), but this time round the warning signs are obvious throughout the film.
The story is full of all sorts of other complications, some of them trivial, some of them important to the people concerned; and there are several relationships running at various levels throughout the movie. It's a little hard to keep up with all the characters, but perhaps that doesn't really matter: this is a film about community, both within and without the extended family, and it's a film about the joy of being alive, and the enjoyment of all that weddings mean, and how they bind people together in amazing ways.

On another tack altogether, I'm listening to Philip Glass' Violin Concerto - yup, I did say Philip Glass. This is another Glass altogether to the man who wrote that interminable opera I mentioned a while ago. Here is a wonderful soaring piece of music with a constantly throbbing accompaniment that varies as instrument after instrument picks it up, or moves it suddenly along at twice the speed. It's coupled with John Adams' Violin Concerto, which, apart from its Chaconne movement, is taking quite a bit of getting used to.

Another Dawn Treader review

Alan Firth, of St John's Anglican Church, has once again written a very favourable review of a Narnia production. Alan has supported the shows since the beginning (I think), not only by attending but also by writing them up for the Church website.
I particularly liked this paragraph in the review:
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, scripted and directed by Erina Caradus, is structured almost like a cinema film, with rapid cuts between scenes but no breaks in the action. The set design and stage management is complex and very effective. Fine painted backdrops set the scene on many of the islands, while a mobile and versatile Dawn Treader set fills much of the stage for the shipboard scenes. (The ship's crew double as stagehands, to the extent that handling the ship is sometimes indistinguishable from handling the scenery.)

It just occurs to me that Eustace says at one point, 'I bet there isn't any tax here'. He's such a fussy character, going on about British Consuls, and depositions and other such nonsense. Yet the one thing he never mentions is his lack of a passport...curious that!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Narnia reviewed

While trying to see if the review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was in the Otago Daily Times online, I found the short article and photo that we've all been waiting to turn up in the newspaper. The lack of this piece in the newspaper has been a bit of a sore point with us, as it would have helped with the advertising. As it was, the review took two days to get in, and then was not quite buried in an obscure part of the Saturday paper.
Anyway, I can't quite figure out how to copy the original version of the review and still make it readable, so here's what it said:
Painstaking Presentation
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Mayfair Theatre
Sept 18, 2008
Barbara Frame

That huge dedication has gone into Dunedin City Baptist's Productions' presentation of C S Lewis' classic is evident. The detailed sets, props and costumes have been meticulously designed and constructed. Music and lighting have been selected with care, and the performances are clearly the result of painstaking rehearsal.
The story is a fantastic one: Lucy and Edmund, well known to Narnia fans, find themselves obliged to spend a long summer with their disagreeable cousin, Eustace. An argument about the merits of a painting suddenly propels them into another world, where they are reunited with their friends Aslan and Caspian, and during the course of the voyage to the end of the world they find out a great deal about themselves and the nature of existence.
Everyone in the large cast does a good job. Matthew Scadden, as Eustace, convincingly goes from nasty to nice-ish after a harrowing spell as a dragon, Dara Caradus is a confident and radiant Lucy, and Mike Crowl occasionally steals the show as Reepicheep, the pugnaciously noble giant mouse.
A good pace, co-ordination, and indeed just plain hard work are much in evidence. Erina Caradus' adaptation of the children's novel tidily condenses many adventures into two hours, and a great deal of thought has gone into every aspect of the production.
About 100 people attended last night. This is a great entertainment for families.

There was some quibble amongst our lot about the use of the word 'painstaking.' I thought it was complimentary, but some felt it emphasied 'pain' too much (!).
I met Barbara, who's someone I've known for about twenty years (she's a librarian), in the supermarket the day the review came out. I told her that I'd intended to steal all the scenes, but she said she felt she had to mention at least some of the younger ones (!).
We think there were rather more than a 100 people present on the Thursday night: the theatre was at least half full, and it holds around 400.
Nevertheless, it was a very positive review, and gratefully received!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

More on the Dawn Treader

I’d never enjoyed the book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as much as some of the other Narnia stories, but working on it as a play has made some its values clearer. Nevertheless, the episodic nature of the story isn’t easy to overcome, and the curious way Eustace is redeemed long before the ending makes that part of the book seem less important than it is.
Alongside this part of the story is the quest for the seven lords, and Reepicheep’s desire to get to the ‘utter East’. These three are mixed together in a way that perhaps isn’t totally satisfactory; in other words none of them is quite important enough of its own, or rather none of the three is stronger than the others. Even Eustace’s change of character after meeting Aslan isn’t given the prominence it might deserve. I’m not sure what the point of finding the seven lords is, apart from its being a hinge to hang the story on - or as my wife suggests, a story about finding ‘that which was lost.
However, the audiences seem to find the play works for them, and perhaps I’m unusual in not enjoying the story as much as some of the others.

In general the play's gone well since opening night, although the houses haven't been too good. Seemingly the houses for Ruddygore and Cats weren't good either. Perhaps it's the economic climate, or maybe the large number of shows on at present; or perhaps the upcoming Arts Festival has already chewed up the 'discretionary' income...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dawn Treader on a roll

First evening performance of Dawn Treader, and a much more responsive audience. Although the place was full only in the centre section, the audience was involved and heard the humour and laughed and did all the right sort of things audiences should do. Which encouraged the cast greatly. So confidence has been restored for everyone: the director’s very happy and the cast feel affirmed. Great!
Everything on the technical side went pretty well except for two incidents that were out of the control of anyone: a curtain got stuck on one of the triangles when it was being moved, and held up the show, and then in the second act, the front tab just wouldn’t open, no matter how hard the bloke on the curtain tried. We were seriously considering options when it suddenly came loose and things came back to normal.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Voyage begins

First performance of The Dawn Treader this morning in front of a fairly quiet audience of school children. They laughed at a couple of things early in the piece, and then seemed not to get much humour out of it after that, which was a bit of a surprise. I think a lot of the humour is geared at adult understanding of language and such, and may have gone over their heads. Or they may just have enjoyed it all in a quiet way!
Don’t know what they thought of the five and a half foot mouse, except that the applause at the end was okay (he’s described as being two foot tall in the book). You can see photos of an actor called Warwick Davis playing Reepicheep (in the tv series) - he's closer to the right size, though I think I prefer my costume to his. That one looks all-enclosing and rather too fluffy to my mind. Warwick Davis also played the Goblin bank teller in the first Harry Potter movie.
In general the actual performance today went well, but it’ll be interesting to see how it goes in front of an older audience.
No major disasters, which was a relief, and all the scenery managed to get into the right place at pretty much the right time without hold-ups. Eustace was left burbling on a bit at one point, but not for long, and one of the ancient sea captains didn’t make it on stage for his couple of lines, so the other two captains covered for him. (He has to make a very quick costume change, and just didn’t get there.)
I sat down this morning about seven o’clock and wrote out a resume of the scenes, just to get them better into my head. Apparently everyone is having the same trouble trying to remember what comes next at certain points in the play – it probably differs for everyone, and may even differ from day to day. Yesterday, for example, I managed to miss getting on in time for the ‘water’ scene, having got left holding the chess board (and blue-tacked-on pieces) and finding nowhere to put it down, or no one to give it to. It’s not been a scene I’ve missed before.
We’re still making changes to the thing: the director has just rung me up to say we’re getting rid of the ‘waterfall’ – it’s only on for about thirty seconds (if that) and it causes a need to shift the infamous poop deck out of the way yet again, and then put it back. For the sake of some quiet at a moment that needs quiet, we’ve made alternative arrangements for Reepicheep’s departure from the play.
It’s amazing how insecure even amateur actors get. If we don’t get feedback we think we’ve done badly, even when we know in ourselves that we haven’t. It must be something to do with putting yourself out there in a vulnerable way; you’re kind of opening yourself up to the public, making a kind of fool of yourself. And if you don’t feel as though anyone’s thought it was all okay, you immediately drop into some ‘I’m terribly insecure hole.’ Well, I guess you have to just run with that, and keep on pluggin on!

The photograph is of Reepicheep (holding his tail for some reason - maybe to display it to the photographer). Taken this morning while he was offstage for a few minutes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Just about there for the Dawn Treader

Well, we’ve now had two Narnia dress rehearsals, and virtually ironed out all the problems. The long Sunday rehearsal helped in this regard, but there are still a few issues. Shifting the poop deck is often a bit of a pain: like any heavy object it takes a bit of getting started, but glides smoothly once it’s going. And getting it in the right spot is another difficulty. However, that’s coming right.
And some of the scenes in front of the front tab are just a fraction too short for the backstage people to set up for the next scene. However, even that’s coming together. Hopefully by this tomorrow I’ll be able to say that it’s all gone smoothly. We play in front of one of our few school audiences tomorrow, and I imagine they’ll be very forgiving!
It’s interesting, now that we’ve been inside the play for so long, that it’s very hard to gauge how it’s really going to go across to an audience. But that’s often the case with this stage of a production. And it’s easy to lose confidence. Hopefully the first audience will restore things in this regard.
I had my makeup on again tonight. It’s a fair facial covering: grey undercoat with stipple on top, plus lots of detail. Took about half an hour to get it on tonight, but hopefully the artist will have it a bit more sussed tomorrow.

Monday, September 15, 2008

This Boy's Life

Watched This Boy’s Life the other night. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Nero and Ellen Barkin.

It’s a pretty grim piece in which a drifting mother and her rebellious son move into Seattle, meet up with De Niro (a widower, apparently) who decides to take DiCaprio in hand prior to marrying Barkin, and hauls him off to his hometown of Concrete (yup, that's what it's called!). De Nero portrays a vicious, unloving man, who turns out to be even more self-centred and selfish than we first suspect, and his behaviour towards the boy is heavy-handed, to say the least. DiCaprio’s skills as an actor keep the thing moving along, well aided by the two adults, and a cast of otherwise fairly unfamiliar faces. (Chris Cooper has a small – and, as usual, unpleasant role.) In spite of its grimness, it’s a gripping movie, and much better than many biopics – it’s based on the Tobias Wolff’s memoirs of his childhood – even though there’s a strange gap of two years about three-quarters of the way through, when DiCaprio manages to grow not one inch…

The viewer is rewarded with a 'happy' ending of sorts: the mother goes off to Washington with another (and presumably much more pleasant) man, whom she eventually marries. Wolff, after yet another misstart, manages to make a career out of writing for himself, and is now well-known as a short story writer.

Long Narnia rehearsal

Yesterday I got into my Reepicheep costume at one p.m. and didn’t get out again till eight. Fortunately, even though it was a lovely day outside, it wasn’t hot in the theatre, so I wasn’t that uncomfortable – though I did pull the hood back off my head whenever there was a chance.
Rather than it being a rehearsal where we aimed for a straight run-through, we stopped at every scene change to make sure all the cast and crew knew what was happening with the scenery and such – and then often practised this again more than once. In several instances we made adjustments to the way things run, for expediency’s sake; it’s just too late to start adding bits to the script to cover scene changes.
It was rather frustrating in terms of keeping up the energy for the acting, but hopefully it’s solved all the problems we’ve had with the ship and the ‘triangles’ (as the large sets are called: they’re triangular-shaped constructions with a different piece of the scenery on each side; and this year they had additional flaps so that fewer of them have to be used. Complex!)
A lot of the cast were in their costumes, so that side of things was beginning to come together as well, and most of the props and additional bits for various scenes (such as the treasure cave) are starting to appear as required. It seems an enormously detailed show, now that we’re right in the thick of things. Obviously the acting side of it is the least complicated! My coracle is now virtually complete; instead of being a skeleton of a boat with troublesome wheel castors that won’t move easily, it’s got a ‘skin’ on it, and flows along with barely any effort on my part. Fortunately I’m not in it for long, as it’s quite wearing on the legs!
I was very tired at the beginning of the rehearsal, for some reason, and it took a long time to feel as though I was thoroughly ‘with it’, but it often seems that I have more energy in the midst of performing than I have when I finally stop. Suddenly I become an old man again! (Okay, 63 may not be super old, but it’s a time when the body’s starting to feel the strain of having been up and running for a good long time.)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Couple of footnotes

Forgot to say that after today's rehearsal I was one of the guinea pigs for the make-up artists, who were having a training session. Unfortunately, you might say, because I'm an animal in this play, my make-up isn't going to be straightforward. I came home eventually about three o'clock (the rehearsal had finished at one) after having had my face covered in grey makeup, along with various pinks and whites and blacks. I'd washed off the worst at the theatre, but needed a good soaking to get the rest of it out of my beard.
Can't say the idea of this process is grabbing greatly - but the makeup did look effective when they finally got through with me!

Recorded Woody Allen's Melinda Melinda last night, and watched it this afternoon when I was too tired to do anything else. Talk about inconsequential. It has a bunch of four unnamed characters talking about an incident in which a woman walked uninvited into a dinner party. One writer thinks of it in tragedy terms, the other as a comedy, and we get to see both their versions on and off through the movie. But neither version goes anywhere; the connections between the two stories are random; characters leave husbands and wives with a fair amount of speed; the woman in the comedy version manages to wind up with Will Ferrall (playing Woody Allen, basically) and suddenly the movie stops. We see no resolution to any of the stories, and the ending of the tragic version is cut off as abruptly as the movie itself. Bit of a fizzer, really.

Two rehearsals

On one hand Narnia is hotting up in terms of more rehearsals, and getting closer to the opening night, while on the other hand all the work on the acting side is struggling to survive against the necessities of sorting out all the technical logistics jobs. And being a Narnian production, the technical aspects are considerable: frequent lighting changes, music and sound effects and voice-overs. But over and above this is the complexity of the scene changes, which in this production are made more difficult by having to shift the Dawn Treader around the stage – constantly.
Often it’s the script in a production that gets cut; today it was some of the scenery. Parts of the boat are just so unwieldy at speed that they’re going to go. This will truncate it a bit, but better that than having people getting steamed up backstage because the thing is just so awkward.
Last night we had a straight tech rehearsal without lines; the problem with these is that the actors lose interest after a while and starting playing up. Not seriously, but concentration becomes an issue. Today we had a proper rehearsal, but with all the scene changes incorporated. Oh, dear. It’s the sort of rehearsal that makes you want to go out and refund the ticket money. Well, it would if you didn’t keep a positive attitude. Fortunately the backstage people are, for the most part, fairly equable characters. They don’t need to be temperamental like the actors (!). However, it must be said that the actors were pretty well behaved too, all things considered, and in spite of injuries…
Firstly Caspian tripped up the poop deck stairs and took some skin off his knee – enough to have him dropping blood all over the stage. Secondly, Eustace, who, you might remember, have a bit of his forehead skinned the other night with Caspian’s sword, twisted his foot while running below the stage from one side of the other. And then, right towards the end, as I was being lifted up out of the ‘water’ – after Reepicheep has inadvertently gone overboard – I gave my shin a sharp enough knock against the side of the boat to give it a nasty graze, something that shouldn’t happen again, as that part of the boat is due for removal.
So all in all, a tough rehearsal today. Another long one tomorrow, and then the dress rehearsal. Fortunately there’s a night between the dress and the first performance. That may give those who need it, time to sort out all the last minute details – the ones that seem to be accumulating by the hour!

Les Enfants du Paradis

I ‘d think it was in the early sixties that I first saw Les Enfants du Paradis. It must have made an enormous impression on me, because when I watched it the other night, scene after scene was familiar. It was as if I’d seen it only last year.
I’d forgotten how long it is: virtually two movies in one, with a first and a second half. (In the DVD I watched, the entire credits are repeated at the beginning of the second half.) But it never suffers from a feeling of being too long. The story, on the surface, is fairly simple. A man (Baptiste) loves a woman (Garance) who loves him in return, but initially no more than she loves others; another woman (Nathalie) loves Baptiste, but is unrequited. The famous actor (Frederick) has a casual but unsustainable love for Garance; Pierre, the strange interfering thief and murderer may or may not love Garance, and perhaps loves himself a good deal more; and then there’s the Count who doesn’t really love anyone, but still manages to add Garance to his trophy collection for several years.
If that helps you understand the story, well done. What seems simple is made wonderfully complex by a literate script and subtle performances from every member of the cast. We’re never completely in the know as to what’s going on with these people, because we’re party only to some aspects of what they’re thinking. Why they do what they do would fill volumes, and yet watching them is immensely satisfying. The actors bring such underlying depths to their roles that you could speculate on all sorts of motivations.
Marcel Carné directs without effects: everything is given over to the actors, and often scenes are played out at length with few cuts. There’s a heap of dialogue, but it’s rich and full of detail. Two wonderfully luminous women play the main female roles: Arletty and Maria Casares, the former exemplifying how to be in love with life and with the moment, and the latter perpetually torn by loving someone who doesn’t love her.
Jean-Louis Barrault (pictured at right) is endlessly expressive, whether he’s playing the young man who makes one mistake in his life (leaving Garance behind when he has the chance to stay with her) or in his extended mime scenes, which comment in their own way on the rest of the story.
Pierre Brasseur is Frederick Lemaître, the over-the-top actor who can pick up a woman with a few charming words, who can turn a awful tragic script into a high comedy, and who’s never sick of the sound of his own voice. Marcel Herrand is the strange criminal character who dresses as a dandy and has no apparent scruples. The world is under his thumb, so he imagines, and in the end he is the one to release Garance from the Count – by murder.
Louis Salou plays the Count, the only main character to appear late in the proceedings. He is seen to be increasingly sour, grim and selfish. It doesn’t help, of course, that no one, particularly Garance, loves him.
The film begins and ends with a huge crowd scene: the streets of Paris are packed with people. It must have cost a fortune to have had so many extras on board. The ‘trivia’ section on notes: The production ‘involved building the largest studio set in the then history of French cinema - the quarter mile of street frontage, reproduced in scrupulous detail, representing the Boulevard du Crime, the theater district of Paris in the 1830s and 40s. This would have been a daunting prospect at the best of times but in Vichy France, when all artisans, transport, materials, costumes and film stock were all in short supply, it was a miraculous achievement.’
Because I know these actors only from this movie, though many of them were well-known in their time, it’s as if they inhabit the characters completely. And the remainder of the cast as just as good as the principals: Fabien Loris as Avril, Pierre’s simple accomplice, somehow dressed like a perpetual youth; Jane Marken as the landlady; Pierre Renoir as Jericho, the ragman, a kind of prophet, mover of fates, jack-of-all-trades; the various stage managers and theatre directors, and the three authors – two of whom invariably talk at exactly the same time and bring some light relief.
Here’s some more background on it, from Roger Ebert: ‘All discussions of Marcel Carne's ''Children of Paradise'' begin with the miracle of its making. Named at Cannes as the greatest French film of all time, costing more than any French film before it, ''Les Enfants du Paradis'' was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945. Its sets sometimes had to be moved between the two cities. Its designer and composer, Jews sought by the Nazis, worked from hiding. Carne was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras; they did not suspect they were working next to resistance fighters. The Nazis banned all films over about 90 minutes in length, so Carne simply made two films, confident he could show them together after the war was over. The film opened in Paris right after the liberation, and ran for 54 weeks. It is said to play somewhere in Paris every day.’
Wonderful, wonderful movie. Need to see it again!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nearly Narnia

From today we don't leave Narnia until sometime in the week after next, when we have a couple of days' break from performances. We had a run-through for (most of) the principals on Wednesday; it was a bit chaotic, because we were back to not having the boat to perform on. (We were rehearsing in the Green Room at the Mayfair.) The young ones got a bit out of hand at times, including one moment when Caspian managed to hit Eustace on the head with his sword (purely accidental) and nick a piece of his forehead. No one noticed the blood for a half a minute.... Tonight we have a walk-through with the technical people; I imagine it'll go as these sort of rehearsals usually go: slowly and awkwardly and frustratingly. But it's a necessary process. The boat is starting to look more authentic, particularly the poop, which looked the outside deck of someone's house, as someone put it.

Arundhati Roy

Roy purposely throws out the split infinitive...but says a good deal in the process:

The only dream worth having ... is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead ... To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

- Arundhati Roy
From her book, The Algebra of Infinite Justice

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Four quotes

Found these four quotes on Simon Carey Holt's blog. (He's a great fan of my birthplace, Melbourne).
  • Zadie Smith
    "To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life."
  • Joan Didion
    "I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."
  • Patrick Henry
    "The borders between reading and writing and living are fluid. I do not take time out from life to write, nor do I take time out from life to read. When I quote somebody, I'm not hiding. I'm introducing you to one of my conversation partners."
  • Leander Kirk
    "To live with the Bible is more like living with a multi-generational, extended family than with a crotchety grandfather who keeps telling us of the good old days.

I've removed Simon's links from a couple of these names, as they no longer go anywhere - in the best tradition of the Internet!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tiger Bay

Caught up with Tiger Bay again the other night. I hadn’t seen this since it first came out in 1959. It was Hayley Mills’ first role, and she’s excellent in it, playing the somewhat amoral Gillie, a child who is so adept at lying that she can keep her aunt, the police and even the murderer on the hook when she wants. Not that she’s an unpleasant child: we have complete sympathy with her even when she’s doing something that’s going to cause distress further along the way.
J Lee Thompson was the director, and the film stands up well to the test of time. A few scenes might have been shortened if the film was being made now, but in general things move along at a fair pace. Thompson was probably a journeyman director; there’s little sense of their being a Thompson style or of him being an auteur in the vein of Hitchcock, but he turned out a good number of thrillers expertly, and what more can you ask?
Once again it’s intriguing to see (and remember) just how free children were in those days: they played in all sorts of places adults would now consider dangerous, and they went out of their houses or flats without any great sense of restriction or curfew.
Horst Buchholz made his English-speaking debut in this movie, and there’s little trace of problem with the language. Apparently he was fluent in several languages, which served him well throughout his film career, as he made movies not only in his native Germany, but in various other European countries as well. He was about 24 at the time this film was made, and was already a big star in his native country. He went on to make some classic films (particularly The Magnificent Seven) but I have little memory of him apart from this relatively small-scale British thriller.
Yvonne Mitchell gets fourth billing in the cast list, even though she has only one (extended) scene in the movie. It’s a slightly odd bit of casting – although she’s very effective in the part; she was eight years older than Buchholz, and the age difference makes it seem as though he’s in love with an older woman, rather than one who’s his own age.
Anthony Dawson, the unwitting victim in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder appears here too, playing the man who’s been having an affair with Mitchell while Buchholz has been at sea. And there’s the delightful Megs Jenkins, who could be relied upon to play any one of dozens of parts that called for an aunt, or a housekeeper, or servant or nurse. Movies seldom gave her strong parts; these were left for the stage.
She was apparently a good friend of a Dunedin actor, Lindsay Campbell, who went to the UK in the late fifties/early sixties, to make his career in acting. A friend of mine was Lindsay’s flatmate, and I stayed at the flat several times, though I don’t think Lindsay was actually ever there (!) Lindsay’s claim to fame is that he appeared briefly in A Clockwork Orange – for about 30 seconds. When I stayed at his flat he was often away because he was working in a long-running tv series – it must have been Weavers Green, I think, as that’s the only series that’s listed against his name on Megs Jenkins appeared in it at least once.

Narnia two in a row

Two solid Narnia rehearsals, one starting yesterday morning at 9.30 and going till 1 pm, and another today from 1 till 5.30, (which meant I missed my daughter’s birthday, which was attended by all but one of my kids and most of my grandchildren – boo hoo!). Real progress in both rehearsals; even more so today. We’re beginning to feel as though this might really go well. (The usual Kiwi understatement.)
Lots of technical things still to be tidied up, and lots of little details: for example, obviously no one in Narnia would wear zipped up boots, but one of the characters has to get his (modern) boots off in front of the audience at one point, and the only way to get out of them is to unzip them. What to do?
The music for the play has mostly been written, or ‘discovered’ but there are still moments when another few seconds of music wouldn’t go amiss. The young composer is going to be kept busy right up to the last minute. (He’s a very talented schoolboy using some wonderful midi orchestral sounds).
We were using two rehearsal spaces today: one with the ship in it, and the other with a ‘cleared stage.’ Consequently we spent the afternoon traipsing back and forth between the two rooms, dragging the CD player with us on its ultra-long extension cord, the only one the director could find at home. This meant we didn’t quite achieve the flow the completed performances will have, but at least it means we’re not trying to work around the ship in the scenes that don’t require it.
It’s still a tricky play to get your head around, in terms of what happens next. Because it’s episodic (as the book is), it’s not always easy to remember which scene comes after which. This can be a bit chaotic, especially if you’re supposed to on the poop deck when you’re actually somewhere else, or on one side of the stage when you should be on the other. Still, most of us are getting the hang of it now.
I wore my mouse costume the entire time yesterday, getting the feel of it. Can’t say it’s the most comfortable costume I’ve ever worn, with its heavy ‘bum’ at the back, and a sense of pulling on the hood, but at least it’s bearable even when it’s hot. The two people playing dragons have a much worse time: almost totally enclosed in their costumes in a way that could be claustrophobic.

Photo of one of the dragons being 'incarcerated' in her costume: her head is actually below the dragon's head.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Penny Factory

A while ago I wrote a post lamenting the apparent demise of The Penny Factory's website. The link I'd put on an earlier post no longer went anywhere.
I'm pleased to say now that the demise of The Penny Factory was greatly exaggerated, and it has a brand-spanking new site, much more effective than the old one. Furthermore, they've got heaps of examples of their wares on the site now, compared to the one example that was visible before.
I bought a number of cufflinks in England when I was there last year, but nearly all of them were from secondhand shops or stalls and cost me very little. One of the few new pairs I bought were from a stall The Penny Factory had at the Royal Norfolk Show. They were expensive by my usual budget for such things, but were well worth getting. I'd have liked to have bought more, in fact.

On a different topic altogether, when I wrote about Alistair Reid's poem, Curiosity, I don't think I could find another reference to it on the Net. Yet now the poem seems to be everywhere. And they all seem to be discussing that curious line about the idyll.

Talking of poetry, I went to a funeral yesterday for a poet, Brian Hare. He had suffered from schizophrenia much of his life, until he reached the point where it became unbearable. A good deal of poetry was read at the funeral, including a piece by James K Baxter that had been one of Hare's favourites, a longish poem on facing death by Walter Raleigh, and some of Hare's own work (as well as few other pieces). Two other poets, Sandra Bell and Michael O'Leary, who were old friends of the deceased, gave tributes. I don't think I've been to a funeral where so much poetry was read or recited before. I'd thought of having poetry at my funeral; now I'm wondering if it's such a good idea!

Listening to John Adams.

One of the John Adams' albums I've got is called The Chairman Dances.

The first track on the piece is The Chairman Dances itself and it's subtitled, A Foxtrot for Orchestra, but for the 12 and a half minutes of its duration, it’s more like a train traversing the country, maintaining an almost constant speed, click-clacking over the rails, and hitting bridges and viaducts and long stretches of plain, where only the telegraph poles passing provide any variation. That’s not to say it’s dull: for something that maintains such constancy, it’s full of detail and variety, seldom staying around the same pitch or chord for more than a few beats. There’s are patches where the rhythmic approach varies, but underneath there’s still the same basic pulsing, and invariably it takes over as the main focus within a short time. Finally things do wind down a bit, and fade away into the distance.

Christian Zeal and Activity begins its ten minutes with slow movements from the strings, takes a breath for a moment, continues, and then eventually a preacher’s voice comes in. It’s looped, but edited, so that it makes sense and so that there’s emphasis on certain statements. This is a very warm piece.

Two Fanfares for Orchestra consists firstly of Tromba lontana – in other words, the trumpets sound distant, reminiscent of that frequently used idea of military trumpets blowing away over a battlefield. And secondly of Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Unlike the much longer Chairman Dances, which it resembles in its constant pace, it lacks musical interest, but it’s quite exciting – probably more so in the concert hall, I’d think.

Common Tones in Simple Time is rather wandery and waffly to my ear. Things happen, but seem to lack some of the direction and motivation of the other pieces I’ve mentioned so far. There’s a lot of hanging around in one particular spot, like the music just can’t get up and dance; it’s got sort of stuck in a rut. The pianist(s) have a bit of a painful time hammering away at short phrases – think there must be two of them gradually getting out of synch with each other a la Steve Reich. Anyway, this track goes on for twenty minutes until it dies a kind of long, slow, lingering death.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

That old problem of structure

A while ago I wrote about the difficulties I have with structuring a story (or anything else I create, if it comes to that.) Today, in my regular email from Time to Write (Jurgen Wolff) I received the first of nine 'answers' to structure, as posited by the American graphic designer and design educator, Louis Danziger. Jurgen has written the thoughts in italics that follow Danziger's points. The interesting thing about this is that Danziger is basically saying each story/work has its own 'formula'. You can't apply the formula from the last novel to the one you're writing now.

1: Design is a problem-solving activity.

In writing, the problem is how to tell the story most effectively.

2: The solution to the problem is in the problem itself.

3: If you are having difficulty in finding a solution, it seems to be most productive to go back to clarifying and enlarging one's understanding of the problem. Restating it, paraphrasing it, asking the questions in other ways, gathering additional information all seem to help. The form is in the in-formation.

When you're having problems telling a story, don't look for a formula. Look deeper into the characters and the story. I've always found that in writing a script, if the middle isn't working, the problem is actually earlier, in the way I've set up the characters or the situation.

4: In the best work, form and content are inseparable. Always seek to find the perfect balance.

Again, it's tempting to make the story fit a formula or paradigm, but the best work comes when you let the story define its own shape. That's why I'm skeptical of courses or books that say 'a romantic comedy must have these 14 steps' or 'a horror film must always have this shape.' Of course letting the story define its own shape is harder.

Update 17.5.2021
Checking this blog post out again this morning, I realised that the second half of Danziger's thoughts were never added, so I went back to Jurgen Wolff's blog, and found them. Here they are:

5: In the best work there is always a benefit for the audience; the client; and yourself (in this order of importance).

As writers, we might think of the publishers or producers as the clients. Unless they can see the benefit, they won't buy the project, so it's useful to start thinking about this right from the start. Convincing them is getting more difficult, but that's balanced by the fact that going around them (for instance, by self-publishing) is getting easier.  

6: Always strive to give value. Be fair, honest, and responsible.

7: Have the nerve to fail. Fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to creativity and growth. No one ever built or ruined a career on any piece of work. In the scheme of things, one's failures or successes for that matter don't count for a hell of a lot. A sustained body of failures or successes is another matter.

I think this is the toughest part of what we do. I know failing isn't bad...but it sure feels bad!

8: A great deal can be learned about creativity in studying the sciences and in developing the scientific attitude: i.e., Question, Hypothesis, Experimentation, Evaluation, etc. 

Lissitzky gave his equation for design as follows: Problem, Invention, Art. 

My own view of his equation is that the first two are primary and the third is a function of how well one has dealt with the problem and invention. 

'Art', like talent, is out of your hands, don't even think about it. Develop a deep and abiding commitment to excellence. The rest will take care of itself.

9: Nobody's perfect.


In contrast to Mumma Mia

Meant to mention a movie I watched on Maori television last weekend: Schatten die Zeit, or Shadows of Time. I thought it was going to be one of those romantic movies with a hopeful ending, but it turned out to be a film in which the choices taken in a matter of seconds affect the rest of a character’s life. Consequently it was full of sadness, because people were forever just missing the moment. For all that, it was wonderfully directed and shot, had a superb Indian cast (it’s set in Calcutta, apart from the earliest scenes), and was full of poignant images.
The two main characters are played by six actors in all: two youngsters in their early to mid-teens; two adult actors who get most of the screen time, and two elderly actors who appear in the bookends of the story. Thus the cast list looks like this:
Ravi: Sikandar Agarwal/Prashant Narayanan/Soumitra Chatterjee and Masha: Tumpa Das/Tannishtha Chatterjee/Sova Sen.
The two youngsters are particularly good, and their ‘love’ story is handled with great sensitivity and care.
The world surrounding them is venal to the core – this isn’t a pretty India in any sense, and nearly everyone is out to make an extra buck or sell someone for a few more rupees. Consequently even the integrity of Ravi as a boy eventually becomes soured in adulthood, even though he holds out for virtually half the film. Masha is less able to maintain her integrity: after being sold by her father for a pittance (he proves her strength in a kind of employment screening by slapping her hard across the face) she escapes from becoming yet another in a long line of girls taken by a slimy character who appears every so often. Then she flees to Calcutta only to be turned, almost immediately, into a child prostitute. And while she survives in this life, and eventually becomes the wife of a wealthy official, she hardly has a good time of it: towards the end of the movie she’s back where she started, amongst the prostitutes (now with a small boy). We don’t know much about her subsequent fate, except that in the last scenes she’s still alive as a grandmother, looking considerably older than Ravi as an older man, even though he’s the same age.
It’s one of those gloomy European movies (it was made by Germans) that has this idea that fate will grind you down, come what may. In a scene in which the two lovers finally manage to get together, Ravi says that he wants Masha to remember that this was the time when he was happiest. He says this with the saddest possible look on his face.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Viewers galore!

In February this year, the New Zealand Herald published a list of things that are great about the country of New Zealand. The other day I had another look at the list, and added a few comments of my own.

My article appears on, one of the many offshoots of the site. For some reason it's taken off; it's had more readers than any other article I've published on that site - at least in terms of how long it's been on there (about three days). I don't know why it's taken off, that's the funny thing, but it's already been dugg on Digg quite a few times, and it's probably visible in other places too - I haven't yet checked.

Anyway, it's a pleasant surprise. After months of slogging along on Triond with very slow viewing stats, it's great to have something go over the top.