Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Moms, Boop, arm-wrestling and athlete's foot

My son now has an American mother-in-law, and in due course, if he carries on the way he's gone so far, he'll soon be forgetting his New Zealand roots and saying and spelling her name, 'Mom' rather than 'Mum.'

Hopefully, when Christmas next comes round he'll have "gift ideas Mom" on his little list, otherwise he might be hearing from his Mom quick smart...!   Nah, she's not that sort of mother-in-law....

We've missed hearing from him and his new wife since they moved to Minneapolis a few days after the wedding.  They haven't been able to get broadband on in their apartment (flat to you Kiwis) even though it was supposed to be supplied by last Friday their time.   [Why do we call a place to stay a flat?  It's a very odd use of the word when you think about it.]   And talking of flats the musical director of the show I wrote, Grimhilda! has also been having trouble getting broadband installed in his new flat (apartment to you Yankees), so he and I have been communicating via texts and mobile calls mostly.   At least he answers his mobile.   It always irritated me that my son - the one who's just got married - would never answer his mobile.  It always switched to the 'leave a message' section within seconds.  One of those quirks, I guess, of human nature.

Recently I've been getting a regular email from HitTail with updates telling me what words people are looking at on my blog.  I often find these a little curious: usually they will be the same few words or phrases that have been popular since I began the blog, but every so often I get a list such as the one below where the words/phrases are from posts that have hardly achieved notoriety on my blog.

betty boop  blogs
armwrestling my wife
common horse liniment  

Betty Boop has only ever appeared once on my blog, as far as I can tell, and that was when I posted a video of one of the old Betty Boop cartoons and made some comments about it.  It was hardly a spectacular post.   [That's Betty being her usual coy self, in the picture on the right.]

The second phrase also turns up in only one post, intriguingly entitled: Arm-wrestling Feminist.  This has been a more popular post, though perhaps not for the reasons you might expect from the title.  I still love the line that was part of a paragraph I quoted from a World Council of Churches document: I came to a greater awareness of my gendered self when I lost to her in arm-wrestling. I stopped arm-wrestling with my wife in the presence of my kids.  Coming to an awareness of one's gendered self via arm-wrestling strikes me as a strange way to realise who you are, gender-wise.   

The last phrase connects up with a very popular phrase that leads people to my blog: athlete's hand (or foot).  The horse liniment reference comes in a story told by Dale Ralph Davis about an enterprising salesman who found that while horse liniment was a good cure for what we now know as 'athlete's foot', it didn't sell well while it was being promoted as a cure for ringworm.  The salesman invented the phrase, athlete's foot, and the horse liniment sold like a bomb.   The liniment, by the way, which goes by the name of Absorbine, is still sold today, 118 years after it first appeared.  I don't know that it's sold as a cure for athlete's foot, anymore, though the container in which it appears as a foot remedy for horses (under the name of Hooflex) looks remarkably like the one in which Gran's Remedy is sold here in New Zealand (as a cure for athlete's foot).  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Wings almost clipped

When it comes to service we tend to remember the times we've had cause to complain about something far more than the times we've been well-treated.  So by way of amending that approach, I want to tell you about ClippingsConverter.com and Jim, who's the man behind it (he's a Brit working in the US).  I'm not entirely sure of Jim's role, but I suspect he may be Clippings Converter.

Anyway, those of you who use Amazon Kindles will know that you can make notes as you're reading, or highlight passages, or do various other things.  The  'My Clippings' file includes some other things which I don't use much, so I can't remember what they are offhand.   I don't tend to use the features when I'm reading a novel, although occasionally a phrase or word will catch my eye, but when I'm reading non-fiction, I use the clippings feature a lot.  It's the equivalent of scribbling in the margins or underlining in a 'real' book.
Bird with clipped wings by iglazer

I came across ClippingsConverter.com because I'd been trying to sync the clippings for a particular book (Hannah's Child, by Stanley Hauerwas) and for some reason - and this is the only time it's happened - the notes wouldn't sync to my computer, however much I tried.  You can read the notes and highlights online at Amazon's Kindle pages, but normally I would read them in relation to my 'copy' of the book on my computer.

ClippingsConverter.com offers to upload your My Clippings file (once you've transferred it to your computer (in the My Kindle Content folder, a folder that arises automatically once you've got Kindle on your computer) and turn it into an Excel file or a Word file or even to send it to Evernote.  (Since, for the first time ever, I've used up vast quantities of my monthly allowance on Evernote, I thought I'd forgo that option this time round.)

I went to ClippingsConverter, got the file, uploaded, and then found I had to register.  No problem, except that from then on I couldn't get back into the system with my username and password.  I asked for a resetting of the password and got the most horrendous and unmemorable password you've ever seen (certainly one that's hacker-fullproof, I'd think) but this wouldn't let me log in either.

I emailed the feedback section and Jim emailed me back, saying he was puzzled about why the password wouldn't work, as it worked at his end.  Finally he offered to check out remotely what was happening on my computer when I tried to log on.   Which meant he had to set up a 'meeting' online and ring me on my ordinary phone.   At his expense.

The problem was very quickly solved: somewhere between my original registering and my subsequent attempts to log on, the username had been changed from what I'd put in to my email address - the username is similar.  I don't think the system did it; I suspect in the confusion of going back and forth I may have gone for the email address instead of the username proper.   And according to Jim, that should be acceptable.   The system should take both.

He was grateful that working through my problem meant he'd found something that wasn't quite working according to Hoyle.  So that was pleasing all round, as I guess he may have had other people with the same issue who've given up on the site.   But what was most pleasing was that someone would take their time to deal personally with a problem. even if it meant a call from New York to Dunedin, New Zealand.

Good on yer, mate!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2nd round of Auditions for Grimhilda!

Grimhilda! is a new musical for all the family to enjoy.   It will be directed by Bert Nisbet, who is well-known in Dunedin theatrical circles as both an actor and director.  The Musical Director is Jonathan Drummond, who has assisted on some of the recent Gilbert and Sullivan shows and has had experience as a conductor in a variety of areas.   The show will run from the 27th April to the 6th May this year (there isn't a performance every night).  

We have a nearly complete cast, but still have two outstanding roles to fill:

The Father - baritone.  Requires an experienced actor/singer in the 25 to 35-age range.   This part doesn't have a large amount of singing but the actor is on stage for a substantial part of the show. 

The Parrot - a character part with no singing.  A male actor of small to medium height is required. 

We are also looking for one or two male chorus members.   Age is not important. 

The auditions will be held at 127 Glenpark Ave, Maryhill, Dunedin on Sat 4th Feb, 2012.  Starting at 10.  

Please contact me by leaving a comment here, or sending me an email (see my profile)

Monday, January 23, 2012

The First Grader & Room Service

My wife and I went to see The First Grader today - we were the only people in the cinema.  Admittedly it's a small cinema, seating no more than perhaps thirty.  Still, it was a shame that no one else had the pleasure of watching this great little movie.

Most people will know that it's the story of the 84-year-old Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, who took up the Kenyan Government's offer of 'free education for all' only to discover that it wasn't really intended for older people.  Maruge has never had the opportunity to learn to read - and significantly, he has an important letter he wants to be able to read for himself - and so he goes along to school to find that he's joining the children in the primary school, much to the annoyance of the male teacher, who wants to throw him out.  The headmistress, Jane Obinchu, lets herself be persuaded that Maruge can learn, and then finds herself facing criticism from all quarters.   She's not the sort of person who gives in easily, and nor is Maruge, and between them they make a difference to the future of Kenyan education. 

We learn, in a series of violent flashbacks, that Maruge had joined the Mau Mau as a young man in order to free his country, and spent nearly a decade in various jails.  I'd forgotten about the Mau Mau, and my memory of them was that they were a villainous and murderous group who went round slaughtering white people in Kenya.  Of course that was what we heard because we were getting the white people's picture; this was in the days when colonialism was still strong.  The film gives us the chance to change our view of the Mau Mau. 

Oliver Litondo is a wonderful Maruge, and English actress, Naomie Harris (better known for her role as the very strange Tia Dalma in two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) is excellent as the headmistress.   This is a great movie - and empowering for old people too!

I watched another of the Marx Brothers movies yesterday: Room Service.  The first half was familiar from some earlier viewing, but I'd never seen the rest.   To be honest seeing the rest was no great joy; this is a piece of nonsense that could have starred anyone.   The Marx Brothers contribution is very straight, with none of the usual setpieces, no musical interludes, and only some of the wisecracks that Groucho is known for.   Most of it takes place in a single hotel room - it began life as a stage play - and it wastes the talents of a bunch of people: Lucille Ball and Ann Miller both appear, but any two Hollywood starlets could have done the roles; the women have very little to do that's outstanding.   Frank Albertson is the young playwright from the hicks, and treated as a piece of furniture or a prop most of the time. 

There are a couple of delightful bit players in it, neither of whom I can quite identify from the cast list.  One, a tall, thin and gaunt-faced man plays the agent with the big cheque that will rescue Groucho and his cast from being thrown out on the street.  He's a quiet centre in the midst of the chaos - for a time.  And there's the man who's from the We Never Sleep collection agency: he's always a moment behind the eight ball, but hard to get rid of nevertheless.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Day at the Races re-viewed

I've just watched the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races for the first time since I was a child/teenager, I'd think.     I may have seen it again since then as some of the scenes seemed familiar - the thenk you that Groucho and his lady friend (Esther Muir, who did a lot of vamp-type roles) keep throwing at each other rang a distinct bell, as did the way in which the horse reacted to the baddie's voice during the big race.   But I'd forgotten much of the rest of it.

Compared to A Night at the Opera it's a considerable step-up.  For one thing, the direction and editing is much tighter and sharper, the cinematography much cleaner and clearer, and even the minor characters come across well - when they get a chance amongst the craziness.   The musical numbers are a mixed bag - as they often were in these movies.  Allan Jones does his best with a not-so-hot song, not helped by the Crinoline Chorus (one of whom never seems to be in the right place at the right time) and a totally irrelevant piece of ballet - though it has to be admitted Vivien Fay could spin in an extraordinary way.   The black singers and dancers are an improvement, and the jiving that the young people do is fantastic.   Those with their musical ears open will notice that at the beginning of the big race sequence at the end one of the tunes from A Night at the Opera turns up again: Cosi Cosa.   Since we're told in the earlier movie that the phrase can mean anything, it seems entirely appropriate that it should get a second chance here.

Examination scene: Dumont in the chair,
Ruman & Ceeley with the brothers.
The film has several big set pieces, some of them no doubt survivors from the original touring version of the show.  There's the increasingly frantic phone call between Groucho and the little-known Leonard Ceeley (he's Whitmore, one of the baddies).  It must have been a tough call doing several takes of this scene.   Or the scene in which poor old Margaret Dumont (who's also much better in this) is supposed to be examined by Groucho as Dr Hackenbush (a horse doctor) and by Sig Ruman (who's a real doctor).   Chaos is built up from almost nothing, with Chico and Harpo getting in on the act, and an increasingly furious Whitmore standing there stammering and shouting.  A horse arrives as the sprinkler system is set off.  

Muir about to have her powder compact
blown up in her face
Or the scene mentioned before with Esther Muir - who's trying to seduce whom here?  Nobody, of course, because in a Marx Brothers movie such a thing will never happen, in spite of Groucho's best intentions (and because the Hays Code was breathing down their necks at the time).  Chico and Harpo wreck things three times over until Muir is given short shrift at the end: with a piece of wallpaper slapped on her rear end for good measure.   Working with the Marx Brothers must have been accident-prone for the other actors - Ceeley goes for more than one slip, Muir is in constant danger of some flying object, and even Margaret Dumont stumbles across hazards.

Then there's the scene between Chico and Groucho - the equivalent of the contract tearing-up scene in Night at the Opera.  Here Groucho is intending to put a bet on a horse, but Chico, needing cash in hand, manages to sell him a bundle of books - one by one at first, and then in a heap - each one supposedly given the code to the previous one.  Like so much else in the movie it has lines that leap past before you realise they've quite surreal.

A friend said this film was his pick of the Marx movies: it looks as though he may have been right.

Re-viewing A Night at the Opera

While we were wandering around the enormous Costco shop in Nampa, when we were in the States, I picked up a boxed set of Marx Brothers movies for some ridiculous price.   (Also got The King's Speech which was great to see again - marvellous cast, beautifully filmed, and a literate script.)

I've been a fan of the Marx Brothers since I was a kid, but I must admit it's better to watch them with someone else who enjoys them than to watch them on your own.   My just-married son was ideal for this: he'd roar his head off and of course that caused a natural spark of laughter from me, and then we'd set each other off.  (We had this kind of moment while watching the supposed 'out-takes' for Monsters Inc when it first came out at the movies.  Both of us were killing ourselves with laughter.   It happened again with Up, when the little Japanese/American boy squishes along the side of the blimp, making a delightful rubbery noise.)

Anyway, back to the Marx Brothers.  I watched Go West the other day, since it was one I hadn't seen before.  It has its moments, some appalling over-acting, some dreadfully unfunny spots, a fairly incomprehensible plot, and a great climax that's reminiscent of Buster Keaton's movie with a train - The General.  Apparently Keaton had some involvement in this movie too, which might explain the ending.  But there are some brilliant Marxian moments.

Last night I watched A Night at the Opera, a movie I've seen two or three times before.   The scene with everyone getting squashed into the tiny stateroom remains a classic, and funny to watch on your own, but the tearing up of the contract, bit by bit, seemed sluggish without someone else to laugh along beside you.  Margaret Dumont, who supposedly never actually quite 'got' the Marx Brothers sense of humour, does one of her grande dame parts, and has a noticeable second of forgetting a line in an early scene.   The climax is totally daft, with the brothers causing absolute chaos at the opera, but the scene that struck me most last night was the one onboard the ship when the people from a variety of nations are celebrating on deck, during which Harpo and Chico do their usual musical interludes.

Chico goes first.  He's surrounded by a bunch of kids, and it's hard to believe the scene was ever rehearsed.   Chico, of course, has played this particular kind of piano piece a thousand times, so rehearsal would hardly have been necessary for him.  All the director had to do was put the camera in the right place (and leave it there), get the lighting right, and say Action.   The kids watch Chico playing with amusement at first, then laugh spontaneously, and then with a huge joy.   The joy increases when Harpo takes over - on the piano at this point (when he plays the harp a bit later it's more directed than in this section).  He literally plays with his fists for a few seconds, which has the kids in fits, and then he bangs down the lid on one of his fingers and then on the other.   The kids are besides themselves, particularly when both of his wrists go totally floppy and he has to flick his hands up to get the wrists to straighten again.

Nothing else in the film is quite like this.  There are some moments where you suspect Groucho has thrown in an ad lib because either Chico has just given him a line that wasn't in the script or Harpo has done something totally off the wall, but otherwise the movie is more organised than some of their other films.   And though some of their famous routines work well enough, like the one where they shift beds between two rooms to drive the detective insane, they've obviously been done umpteen times on stage, and have a somewhat overdone air about them.  

Still, what a loss it would have been to comedy if the films had never been made, and all people had were memories of a strange group of brothers who made thousands of people laugh.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Another report on child poverty based on research done on nearly 1300 Christchurch kids since 1977 tells us what: that if you're born poor you're likely to continue to be poor; if you're born in a better-off family you're likely to do well.   Hardly a staggering revelation.

'Child poverty' is an emotive phrase and does its job pretty well, but what it somehow indicates is that the children are poor, rather than that the families they come from are poor.  There's no point separating the children from the families.   A more realistic phrase would be 'family poverty' but for some reason we don't want to go there.

And on top of that, we still have the general mentality that the poor, if they try hard enough, will pull themselves up.  Some poor families do.  But with the inequality between rich and poor increasing, it's the poor who have a long way to go to catch up with those on just the lowest rung of the rich ladder.

There's political talk of tackling inequality, but it's got an uphill battle against the political mentality that the wealthy deserve what they have, and deserve more of it.  It's always seemed ironic to me that those who are already well off get more benefits just by being well off.  Is your name well-known?  You'll be first in the queue at the famous restaurant.  Are you on the rich list?  People will fall over themselves to give you more stuff.  How does that make any sense?

From the time they're born many rich children live in incubators that keep them from knowing what goes on in the wider world.  Their worldview is limited to the 'deserving' rich that they find themselves surrounded by.  (Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions, and many rich children actually break out of this incubation and discover the rest of the world.)   People tell them that they deserve what they get (the TV ads that insist that women should look good 'because you're worth it' is an offshoot of this idea) and of course they believe it.

Being told I deserve something (unless it's a good whack around the head) is something I've usually reacted against.   We came into an unexpected inheritance a few years ago - a friend told me we deserved it.  Why?  Had we been particularly good in our behaviour?  Had we done heaps of things for other people?  (The answer is no in both cases.)   On what basis could we possibly have deserved it?  It was gift, and we were exceedingly grateful for it, but there was no way we deserved it.

The poor don't deserve what they get either  - or don't get.  Circumstances can easily drive someone into poverty; none of us are immune from it (including those rich people who've had startling falls from grace).   Of course there are some who are in poverty because of their own behaviours; but the majority, the vast majority, are not.

So when I hear that ministers of Parliament are 'setting up a ministerial committee on poverty' I groan inwardly.  Unless there's a major change of view about how things work in the world, I don't think it will do a thing.   And that major change hasn't happened for a long time.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I must admit when I first heard the phrase, log bed, I thought it had something to do with a place where you put logs, using the word bed as you might in flower bed.   Nope, wrong again.   (Story of my life.  Has brief moment of self-pity.)

Log beds are, of course, beds made out of logs.  Not big logs, mind you; little manageable ones, like those in the picture of the rustic bed on the right.  Log beds don't have to be rustic; the wood can be honed to a less natural shape.

I've just been searching through my cuttings to see what other articles I had that mentioned beds in any way.  Such is the nature of the search engine on Evernote that beds featured briefly in several items, such as a man who'd had a stroke struggling with words like bed or blanket, but being able to use words like postillion or tardigrades, or Peter Bregman writing about motivation and saying that if you want to go to the gym it's a good idea to leave your gym clothes by your bed so you get into them first thing in the morning. 

But bed picked up and turned up as part of bedevil, and bedeutung, and stabbed, and described, and slubbed, and bedraggled, and grabbed, and the discovery that bed is one of the words you should avoid in tweets.  It will get you nowhere.  

Slubbed, incidentally, for those who don't know the word, means:  of textiles; having a rough surface; "a sweater knitted of nubbly homespun yarns."   Which introduces us to nubbly, which apparently means much the same as slubbed.   Trust English to have more than one word for the same idea. 

You could use the words slubbed and nubbly about the bunk beds in the photo, couldn't you.  They have a rough surface, though they're not exactly made of textiles, I guess. 

Well, enough rambling for one day.   Onto to do the ironing.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Two books

While travelling to and from the States in the first couple of weeks of this year I read two books (wasn't time to read more; plus, on the way over I had a cold and didn't feel like doing anything).   One - I read this on Kindle - was Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.   The other was a book I picked up because it was going for under $5US in a bookshop at San Francisco airport.  (Of course by the time they'd added on the tax  - why don't they just include it like sane nations do? - the book was slightly over $5, which niggled my NZ equanimity a little!) This one was The Anthologist, by an author unknown to me: Nicholson Baker.  This turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable book that I finished while waiting at the airport and on the flight home (including a patch at what was, by then, about 3 am NZ time).

This is listed as a novel, and it does tell a kind of story from the viewpoint of its narrator, a self-deprecating character called Paul Chowder, a sometime poet.  Chowder's lady friend has recently left him because he just can't, or won't, get on with the introduction to his anthology of poems that rhyme.  The suspense in the book hooks on these two facets: will he get his 40-page introduction done by the deadline?  Will his lady-friend return?

But far more of the book hinges on Chowder's (or perhaps Baker's) views on poetry that rhymes, and how that's much closer to the human soul than free verse (even though he has such a writer's block that he can't write such poetry anymore).   He also offers in the process his views on innumerable poets, giving snippets from their biographies, critiques of some of their poems, the connections between different poets and how that affected what they wrote, and much more that's related to the topic.  It's a grab bag full of wit and some wisdom, some strong views and some snide ones, and numerous hilarious stories about all sorts of things, related and unrelated to the novel's 'story.'   It's thoroughly enjoyable and quite unlike any novel I've read.  The subject matter appealed to me, which helps (it's not long since I finished Stephen Fry's book on writing poetry, The Ode Less Travelled), but Baker is so engaging in this book, whether he's pretending to be Chowder or not, that I found it hard to put it down.

The author of the other book, Alan Jacobs, is someone I follow on Twitter (his Twitter name is @ayjay).  The quotes he collects that appear on one of his blogs - More Than 95 Theses - are worth following alone, but he's also written several interesting books, including one of C S Lewis (The Narnian) that is a better biography and discussion of Lewis' works than any I've read.

His new book is a paean to the joys of reading, a discussion of whether reading is going downhill or on the rise (it's the latter), a discussion on whether it's necessary to follow slavishly through books like The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You died, or whether it's better to read on a Whim (and he explains that a Whim with a capital W is somewhat different to a whim without the capital).   He shows that reading isn't limited to those books that are important, and that in spite of what such critics as Harold Bloom say, reading Harry Potter and the like (and even trashy novels) definitely has its place.  He also talks about the fact that we have different views of the same book at different stages in our lives: what seems wonderful when we're young can be dry years later (he found Absalom, Absalom! a revelation when young, but difficult to enthuse about a couple of decades later) - or vice versa: a book that's impossible for us to read in our youth may open itself to us when we've lived longer.

He writes about abandoning books without guilt - this is something we find hard when young; it seems 'wrong' to have got so far through a book without finishing it.  (I've begun to keep note of those books I've abandoned, with an explanation as to why I didn't persevere; perhaps this helps assuage the guilt!)  And, as he says, abandoning a book at one period of your life doesn't mean you can't come back to it at another stage.

He has a wonderful section on annotating books - whether we should do it with page-turners, and why we should keep a pencil handy when reading more serious works, particularly non-fiction.   His comments here reminded me of Billy Collins' poem, Marginalia.   (Billy Collins gets a few lines in Baker's book too: a few derogatory lines, because Collins is so successful and Chowder isn't!).  He discusses why we think we need to read faster.   (A blogger wrote that Mark Driscoll, the masculinist pastor of Mars Hill Church, claims to read a book a day.   Jacobs doesn't call that reading.)   And he looks at the value of reading poetry: a poem is usually short, its measure can be grasped quickly, but it requires several readings to get to grips with it.  This re-reading (and memorising too, if you can) is valuable for our overall reading.

Reading this book on Kindle meant I could highlight and make notes as I went along.  I think I've highlighted and noted more on this book than on any other recent one, such was my enthusiasm for what Jacobs has to say.  Of course, I believe deeply in reading anyway, so he doesn't have to convert me to anything, and much of what he says here is relatively familiar territory.   It's useful to have it under one cover, as it were.  Incidentally, he's a considerable fan of Kindle himself, and offers reasons as to why it's a valuable addition to our ways of reading.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Items of Interest

Two articles on the same page of yesterday's Otago Daily Times caught my attention.  One from the regular column giving some history on people buried in local cemeteries.   This week it featured Otago Harbour's first pilot, the aptly named Richard Driver.  He was one of the area's earliest European residents, although when he was a young man he almost didn't survive an attack by local Maori when he and several of his fellow crew-members stepped onto what is now known as Murdering Beach.  Fortunately he was saved by Motoitoi, the daughter of Kahutia: she threw her father's cloak over Driver and soon after married him.
This is where my interest in the story rose: he had three daughters by Motoitoi, and, after she died, a son by his Maori housekeeper.  That's four children.  In 1849 he married a 17-year-old called Elizabeth Robertson.  She bore him three more children, and then seven more who were all born dead.  That's fourteen children in effect, with Elizabeth being pregnant ten times up to that point.  Once they shifted from the area they lived in, she bore him eight more children.  Thus she was pregnant eighteen times.  He was the father, to all intents and purposes, of 22 children, beating J S Bach by one.  (Though far more of Bach's children actually survived.)

He produced 15 living children - it's not surprising that the writer notes: their descendants today number many hundreds. 

The second article begins: A baby's cries are tuned to trigger a uniquely fast response from adults, research has shown.  Scientists compared volunteers' reaction times while listening to babies crying, the sounds of adults in distress, and birdsong.   Right.  We all respond quickly to birdsong.   The study's leader noted that it is almost impossible to ignore crying babies on planes and the discomfort it arouses.   Well, well, there's a finding for you.

So far this would have been all right - it's basically yet another study that tells us what we already know, but that's hardly uncommon.   Innumerable studies are done to show us that what we know is what we know.  However, the sentence that niggled me (because of the sheer lack of any scientific basis) was this: Evolution has decided that it is a good thing for us to look after our young, and there is something in the acoustic properties of babies' cries that evokes a very basic response that appears to be hardwired in ancient parts of our brains. 

I don't think 'evolution' (which is a person or thing) has ever decided to do anything.  Nor, from my understanding, do we have 'more ancient parts' in our brains.  This is literary science, the kind that tells stories about research but doesn't actually base these stories on anything factual.   It's metaphor, not science. Science is based on experiments that can be replicated not just once, but over and over.   There is no experiment that can show evolution ever 'deciding' to do something.   This is typical of the idea that pervades science: that evolution can be regarded as being responsible for anything and everything, without anyone actually showing this to be the case.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beat the Devil

Continuing to use up the additional broadband we took on for this month, I began to watch Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood.  Unfortunately it was all in Russian, without subtitles. Still, it looked good!

As an alternative I turned to Beat the Devil. The only thing I'd heard about this was the title - I had no idea it had such a fabulous cast and that, supposedly, it was rewritten as they went along.  I'm always a bit suspicious of these sorts of stories - the script being handed to the cast as the scenes were being shot. Knowing something of just how difficult it is to pull a movie together in the first place, and then to keep it ticking, it always strikes me that such stories may be more than a little apocryphal. Still, when an authority like Roger Ebert quotes such stories, you have to wonder if they're not at least partially true.

Anyway, Beat the Devil has almost no story to speak of.  It was based on a novel, but it seems that the connections between the novel and the film may be few.  Having got a marvellous cast together, John Huston, the director, lets them rip. They almost don't need a script; they could probably have made the thing up as they went along.  However, there is a semblance of a plot about uranium and Africa and colonialism and such.  Truman Capote is credited with scriptwriting, but whether there really was a Capote script or not is moot.

Humphrey Bogart is the ostensible hero, but barely makes a showing in this department. He just plays Humphrey Bogart, pretty much as he always does, and gets away with it. He hardly breaks into a sweat (except when pushing a car uphill and then watching it run away by itself downhill.) He has two leading ladies, after a fashion: Jennifer Jones as an English woman who lets her imagination run wild to the extent that even the audience isn't quite sure when she's telling the truth or embroidering it. And Gina Lollobrigida who undercuts her glamour with quite a witty performance.

It's the quartet of rogues who make the movie what it is, however.  Robert Morley leads the charge playing Robert Morley (who else did he ever play?) aka Mr Peterson; Peter Lorre plays a German called O'Hara, using his baby face to its fullest advantage; Marco Tulli plays the Italian of the four, munching his lines with great vigour; and Ivor Barnard plays what must be one of his scariest roles as a murderer who looks like a civil servant - until he opens his mouth and goes on with enthusiasm for Hitler and Mussolini's worthwhile ways.

Edward Underdown, as the stiff upper lip Englishman who turns out to be not quite such a posh gent as he claims, seems at first to be the only actor taking anything seriously, but by the end even he's chewing the scenery with gusto.

The camerawork by Freddie Francis is a delight, though the bright Italian sun seems to have flummoxed even his expertise in some scenes. Would it really have been intentional to have two of the actors' faces in the shadow while their stomachs reflected the sun?   Probably not. And Huston directs the whole thing for laughs - not the laugh out loud kind, but the quiet amusement gained from seeing a bunch of artists thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Two Canadian dance movies

Due to a bit of a hiccup with some overuse of the broadband this month, we wound up having to get some additional gigs to see us through.   Of course, now we have an excess of gigs and are trying to use them up before their expiry date on the weekend.  Consequently, last night, I checked out some movies I wouldn't normally have chased up and in a moment of serendipity came across the site of the National Film Board of Canada.  (I'd started to look at the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac, but it didn't grab me, and Hitchcock's Spellbound, which is supposed to be available online turned out to consist of only the first five minutes...with Asian subtitles plastered all over the picture.  Likewise, Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, which I haven't seen for decades, isn't available outside the States, apparently.)

But I spent a glorious hour or so watching two shorter movies, both of them focused on dance.   The first was Flamenco at 5.15 which features Susana and Antonio Robledo as they take a class of young Canadian ballet dancers and show them what is involved in dancing flamenco.   Though it's supposed to be a single class, I suspect it's actually a compilation of several.   Be that as it may, it's just a wonderful celebration of youth and vitality, and of the enthusiasm of the older couple as they impart all their longheld knowledge.

Antonio plays the piano - he began his career as a concert pianist and got 'sidetracked' - and gives lessons on the various ways clapping is used in the dance form.  Susana works on the movement, and the sublime subtlety of expression that this particular form of movement can convey.   The youngsters are a wonderful bunch - none of them looks any older than fifteen - and have picked up the rhythms and gestures and steps with skill and the sort of enthusiasm only youngsters have.   Check out the boy with the mop of hair who breaks into a great grin several times during the documentary.   He's a delight, and he gets the crowning moment of the movie to show off his work.

The second film is called Lodela.  I almost gave it away in the first minute when the male dancer seemed to be doing contortions that were impossible, but fortunately stayed on.   This is a sublime piece of filmmaking: it celebrates the human body in detail: hands, fingernails, eyes and eyebrows, nostrils, legs and arms, torsos, and the intricacy of bodies shifting around each other.  Two dancers, one male and one female, appear in it.  These are José Navas and Chi Long; Navas also choreographed much of the film.   The filmmaker is Phillipe Baylaucq, and the film is described this way on the site: Inspired by the myths of the afterlife, this allegorical dance illuminates the soul's quest by exploring movement and the human body in new and astonishing ways.  An evocation of the origins of the world.  A hymn to the beauty of the human form.  A celebration of movement.  A metaphor for life and death.  A film without words. 

The afterlife aspect didn't particularly strike me as relevant in watching the movie, which has minimal 'story' - the man appears first seemingly striving to break through the large circle of light he inhabits.  After some time the woman appears and they engage in delight and joy and desire and (briefly) aggression, and who knows what else.  Eventually the man moves through the light and is seen no more, and the woman closes the piece.   But that's the barest of descriptions.  Constantly, as I watched it, the film seemed to be about the wonder of the body and how beautiful it is.  If it achieves nothing else for the viewer, that's enough.  You can throw in allegories and metaphors as you like.   This is a wonderfully conceived piece of abstract dance that knows what it's doing without having to say it out loud.

The dancers are clothed in the briefest of garments, and there's a warning about there being nudity and sexuality in the film.   But there's no offensiveness in the nudity (the woman has no upper garment, basically) and as for sexuality, this film is as pure as any great work of art that celebrates the fact of male and female.  You won't find eroticism here, not in the usual sense anyway.

It's full of breathtaking moments, one of them occurring early in the piece when the man, seen crouching upside down on the light (the large circle of light plays its own part in the dance) suddenly extends to full length as though he's dropping downwards, held on only by the soles of his feet.   You have to see it to understand what a creative idea it is, and you realise a moment later that you're watching him with the camera upside down, but when it happens you gasp.  The man spends quite of a bit of his time at one point upside down, in one section dancing on a line while the woman is 'above' him dancing not completely in unison, but with her steps counterpointing his.  Momentarily they will be out of sync with each other and then suddenly their feet synchronise on the line again.  It's utter magic.

The magic is only broken once after this, when the screen fills with duplicate versions of the couple.  For me this was the only shot in the film that disturbed the flow.  Other than this, the dancers, the light and shadow, the music (itself often abstract, but always effective), the camerawork and the editing all combine to produce an extraordinary film.   Catch up with it if you can.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bit of a HitTail catchup

I've been keeping a diary of my time away in Boise, and will be posting some items on the Travel Diary blog in the next few days.   I'm obviously still on Boise time, since instead of sleeping through this morning from exhaustion after some thirty-six hours travelling (broken, but only in a sense, by stopping off at my daughter's place in Auckland for the day) I was wide awake at 4.30 am.

So I thought I might as well do something useful...like blogging!  Firstly I've just checked out the HitTail top four search words for this week: as usual a pretty mixed bunch.  

One item is the meaning or interpretation of Winnie the Pooh .  I certainly have no authorative view on this: the only time I've mentioned it, I think, was in this post, and that's relating to a pseudo interpretation of Winnie's meaning from Frederick Crews' Postmodern Pooh.  Pseudo and humorous, in fact.   Looking back over the number of searches relating to this topic on my HitTail account, it seems that there must be some study being done on this topic in some US University at the moment.   Perhaps some English professor has set the students a tongue-in-cheek task...?  It sounds like something Alan Jacobs might do  - I've just read his book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction - about which there'll be more in another post.

The Mousetrap script turns up as well.   There have been any number of references to Agatha Christie's play, The Mousetrap, in this blog, as this list will attest, but most of these come from Aug/Sept last year, when I was acting in the play.

The third item is Aotearoa Circus NZ, (the correct name is Circus Aotearoa) which I wrote about back in March last year.   Since then a commenter had been to see the Circus, and left me a rather negative note about it.   Certainly the circus was a little threadbare - which I noted at the time - but wasn't lacking in talent.  The person commenting seems to have had a bit of a rough time at this circus: certainly the troupe were rough and ready, in some respects, but I didn't see anyone in the audience the day I attended getting their hair pulled, as apparently happened to this person.

Last but not least we have Chrissy Johnson.  In spite of not having written on this blog for nearly a fortnight, due to being in Boise, Idaho most of that time, here's our old friend - who usually appears under the name of Chrissy Popadics, turning up again.  She's the wife of one of the (former?) football players in the Boise team, and I mentioned her again recently because of the new Boise connection my family now has - my new daughter-in-law comes from there.