Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Couple of not-so-top movies

In our current catch-up of various DVDs from the public library, I picked up The Barchester Chronicles, and Last Chance Harvey.  I'm lumping these two together because they were both disappointments.

Last Chance Harvey has Dustin Hoffman (he was 71 at the time) and Emma Thompson (she was 49) in it.   The ages are important, because the film puts these two together and tries to make chemistry out of it.  Both are struggling with loss - he in the sense of losing a job, and then being treated as a second-rate citizen at his own daughter's wedding (there's a stepfather in place who's much more 'attractive' to everyone).  She's reduced to dealing with a mother who can't keep off the cellphone (Eileen Atkins, who's thoroughly wasted in the role) and being set up for blind dates.  Which is a puzzle, because Emma Thompson is just too gorgeous to be on this sort of shelf - at least as she plays this character.   There's minimal backstory in both cases - other characters hint at things, but nothing is very clear, and the two actors are left to play out their roles with little information to offer us.  Even Hoffman's last minute revelation of having heart arrhythmia comes out of the blue; there's no indication that he's likely to collapse after being made to walk up several flights of stairs.

In fact there's minimal story here altogether.  If the two characters had been allowed to develop without all the other guff (what there is of it) the film would have been worth watching.  As it is, they tend to get into an interesting conversation and then the camera pulls away and leaves them mouthing words that haven't been scripted.

And one other thing, it's not surprising that Thompson looks a surprised more often than not.  Somehow when she and Hoffman get off the train at Paddington, they arrive in Trafalgar Square. They do quite a bit of walking along the South Bank too (including trailing around the second-hand book stalls that we remember from our last visit); but this is mostly to show off the scenery and the outdoor globe string lights - it has little to do with the movie.  

The Barchester series should have been worth watching.  We survived The Warden section of it, but didn't feel inclined to pick up any more, even though Alan Rickman hadn't appeared by that time.  Donald Pleasance played the Warden who's charged with living off money that isn't rightfully his; Pleasance plays this mild-mannered man as someone deeply troubled.  In fact he plays him as Pleasance, who always looked troubled on screen, when he wasn't looking maniacal.  But the character is more than that.  There's little light and shade, and little warmth (except in one of the scenes with the woolly-thinking Bishop, who just wants peace and quiet and no conflict).  Nigel Hawthorne chews up the scenery as Pleasance's son-in-law, and if the episodes had been taken at the pace he provides, they would have been excellent.  Somehow everything else is pale and sluggish around him.   Everything looks good and authentic, but the lighting throughout is very bland and ordinary, without shadows or contrast.  It's probably somewhat typical of its vintage as a series, although I don't think that can be entirely the reason.

I'd love to have seen these two novels done better (they're amongst the top of Trollope's oeuvre, I think), but somehow this series doesn't get them there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Clarinets, clarionets, Dickens, and bagpipes

I played at a concert last night. It was held at the clubrooms of a women's group that's dwindling in the way of many old clubs - in other words, as the members get older there are no younger people to replace them.  Seems to be the way of society in this present age. Maybe it'll change again once all the old clubs have died out and people figure out new ways to get together.  For all the complaints about Social Media and the like damaging personal contact, especially face-to-face contact, human beings are immensely social creatures, and will find ways to keep in touch no matter what the technology. So the idea in all those movies where people appear totally separated by the technology will probably not come to pass.

Photo courtesy of Devin Langham
What do I know? This isn't even what I started to write about. Which is that one of the women approached me after the concert and asked to see my music. She stared at the two staves (one for the right hand, one for the left) and exclaimed, 'So that's how they write it out; I wondered how you knew what to play in each hand.' This was a little bit surprising, because I would have assumed everyone knew what piano music looks like - there's enough of it around - but plainly not. And then I learned that she's a bagpipe player and has been for decades. And wants to play something that doesn't require her to blow!  (Bagpipes also have only nine notes, which is quite limiting.)

So suggesting a clarinet is probably a bit of a waste of time, since clarinets also require blowing.   The word clarinet used to be spelt, if Charles Dickens is anything to go by, as 'clarionet'.  I'm reading Little Dorrit at the moment, and finding it a bit slow. Dorrit is one of Dickens' unspeakably righteous people - the trouble is, we just don't believe in her. She's too goody-good for this world, or even the next. Maybe Dickens thought that giving her some scenes in which she expresses her sadness at the restrictions of her life might help; they don't. And her eventual husband, Arthur Clennam, is much the same. He seems almost without personality. There's one scene where he fancies that it might be nice to fall in love with the daughter of a friend. The girl is twenty years younger than him, and Clennam decides it probably isn't a good idea. I suppose all of us have had that kind of thought at some time in our lives: what it would be like to fall in love with someone different to the person we seem to be in love with (Clennam must know he's in love with Little Dorrit by this stage of the book, so it's odd that he speculates like this). But falling straight out of the thought again, as Clennam does, is a little too sudden. Most of us would give it a day's reflection, or two.  

Straying from the topic a bit tonight: I started to talk about Dickens' using the word, clarionet. He has a character who plays clarionet in a pit (theatre) orchestra. His description of this man's life is wonderful, and makes up for all the soppy stuff about Little Dorrit and her forty-year-old lover boy. In this extract, Little Dorrit goes to find her sister at the theatre (her sister's a 'professional').

Little Dorrit, as her eyes became used to the darkness, faintly made him [her uncle] out at the bottom of the well, in an obscure corner by himself, with his instrument in its ragged case under his arm. The old man looked as if the remote high gallery windows, with their little strip of sky, might have been the point of his better fortunes, from which he had descended, until he had gradually sunk down below there to the bottom. He had been in that place six nights a week for many years, but had never been observed to raise his eyes above his music-book, and was confidently believed to have never seen a play. There were legends in the place that he did not so much as know the popular heroes and heroines by sight, and that the low comedian had 'mugged' at him in his richest manner fifty nights for a wager, and he had shown no trace of consciousness. The carpenters had a joke to the effect that he was dead without being aware of it; and the frequenters of the pit supposed him to pass his whole life, night and day, and Sunday and all, in the orchestra. They had tried him a few times with pinches of snuff offered over the rails, and he had always responded to this attention with a momentary waking up of manner that had the pale phantom of a gentleman in it: beyond this he never, on any occasion, had any other part in what was going on than the part written out for the clarionet; in private life, where there was no part for the clarionet, he had no part at all. Some said he was poor, some said he was a wealthy miser; but he said nothing, never lifted up his bowed head, never varied his shuffling gait by getting his springless foot from the ground. Though expecting now to be summoned by his niece, he did not hear her until she had spoken to him three or four times; nor was he at all surprised by the presence of two nieces instead of one, but merely said in his tremulous voice, 'I am coming, I am coming!' and crept forth by some underground way which emitted a cellarous smell. 'And so, Amy,' said her sister, when the three together passed out at the door that had such a shame-faced consciousness of being different from other doors...

And that mention of the door reminds me of a slightly earlier passage, when Dorrit turns up at the stage door...

Little Dorrit was almost as ignorant of the ways of theatres as of the ways of gold mines, and when she was directed to a furtive sort of door, with a curious up-all-night air about it, that appeared to be ashamed of itself and to be hiding in an alley, she hesitated to approach it; being further deterred by the sight of some half-dozen close-shaved gentlemen with their hats very strangely on, who were lounging about the door, looking not at all unlike Collegians. On her applying to them, reassured by this resemblance, for a direction to Miss Dorrit, they made way for her to enter a dark hall--it was more like a great grim lamp gone out than anything else--where she could hear the distant playing of music and the sound of dancing feet. A man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him, sat watching this dark place from a hole in a corner, like a spider; and he told her that he would send a message up to Miss Dorrit by the first lady or gentleman who went through. The first lady who went through had a roll of music, half in her muff and half out of it, and was in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her. But as she was very good-natured, and said, 'Come with me; I'll soon find Miss Dorrit for you,' Miss Dorrit's sister went with her, drawing nearer and nearer at every step she took in the darkness to the sound of music and the sound of dancing feet.

The delightful incidental touches are what makes Dickens so great: 'a curious up-all-night air', 'more like a great grim lamp gone out', 'a man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him', 'in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her.' Who else has ever been able to write like this?

Friday, May 25, 2012


One of the things I love about Les Murray's poems is the way he frequently creates a poem out of a list.  But in his case, it's not just a list of names that might or might not have a relationship to each other, it will be a list of hugely inventive metaphors for a particular item.  Shower is a prime example.  He takes the idea of a shower and provides a seemingly endless array of creative approaches to thinking about the simple shower.   There's a typical Murray humorous ending to this poem as well.

I've known the poem Shower for some years, because it was one that I memorised.  However, while reading through one of his collections I came across a poem called Broad Bean Sermon.  This poem isn't quite like Shower in that it doesn't focus completely on 'explaining' the idea of a broad bean.  This second poem does give a number of metaphors for broad beans, but also delights in the idea that no sooner have you picked them all than you find there are just as many still to be picked:

Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fence-tops, you find 
plenty, and fetch them.  An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfulls more.  At every hour of daylight
appear more than you missed:

It swings back and forth between the two themes.   And here is just one section of his descriptions of the beans:

ripe, knobbly ones, freshy-sided, 
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,
beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light.

The site where the poem appears online has 'freshy-sided' but in one of my books of Murray poems, it's printed as 'flesh-sided'; in another it has 'fleshy-sided'.  None of these is clear as to the meaning, and which is correct?  Maybe all of them; other poems by Murray have variations like this, depending on which edition of his books you're looking at.

In relation to this I want to direct you to a blog by Iain Sutherland, called The Ink Jester.  Iain is a young friend of mine - he and I have known each other for years, since he was little.  As a child he played the dwarf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (I played Mr Beaver) back in the early 2000s, when our church presented a dramatised version of the book.   Iain's been experimenting with writing on his blog, and the other day he produced a list of 152 uses for a paperclip.  It's not poetry, and not intended to be, but as a list of ideas it has some delightful moments.*

Later addition: I just rediscovered a short poem that fits into this post nicely...I've been working through my list of cuttings and found one by Jonathan Potter, called You and I.  In it, the writer details several things about the 'You' of the title.

*This used to be available online, but seems to have disappeared. 

Monday, May 21, 2012


I once got into a little bit of trouble for writing a poem about grandparents - you can see the poem here and see why it might be misinterpreted.

On the other hand, one of the most popular articles I've ever published online was also about grandparents.  For a brief spell, it received dozens of comments (some entirely missing the point that it was tongue-in-cheek, as was the poem mentioned above) and earned me a bit of cash via Google Adsense.

I was reminded about these two pieces when I came across the phrase personalized grandparent gifts just now.   Hmm...personalized grandparent gifts; so like our dear friends in the US of A to find yet another marketing ploy.  Next we'll be celebrating Grandparents Day (or maybe it'll be split into Grandfather Day and Grandmother Day) - in fact, if it wasn't for the fact that the Internet is having one of its occasional down moments I could tell you whether any of these days already exist.  And I suspect they do!

Okay, an hour later...and the Internet is back again (in the meantime we've been out to see one of my aunts - for the first time in some years) and yes, there is a National Grandparents' Day, and it's been going since 1978, and, as I suspected, some places even separate out a Grandfather and Grandmother day.  Good grief.  Next it'll be National Auntie Day or Uncle Day...wait.  No need to wait - here's the gen on the Aunt and Uncle's Day.  Supposedly it's celebrated on July 26th.  I suspect it might be a bit of a have, along with Creative Ice Cream Day or Compliment Your Mirror Day or Amelia Earhart Day, and a bunch of others.

Oh, dear.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Off-screen, on-screen

Out this morning to watch part of my grandson's soccer game (he scored a goal, obligingly, while I was watching) and to walk the dog from Chingford Park to the Gardens shopping centre and back.   We'd been out with my son and his family last night - they shouted us a meal (paid for it, in case you're not familiar with the term 'shouted') - and he was saying that it seemed all we do was sit in front of computers and screens and hand-held devices and we never seemed to get out into the real world.  So I did some real world stuff this morning and walked the dog for nearly an hour, and watched 14 boys and a couple of girls play soccer.  The real world proved itself fit and well and able to provide a chill factor of I-don't-know-what, but it was pretty cold if you were standing still...which I wasn't because I was walking the dog, at least initially.  

Curiously enough there's a review of a book in the ODT this morning saying the same sort of thing as my son. The book is called iDisorder: understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us.  Personally, if the book's anything like its subtitle, I suspect it's slightly overstating its case.  Yes, we do spend a lot of time in front of screens - for some of us that's our job (or has been) - but the real humans in our lives seem perfectly capable of getting our attention when they want to, and we theirs.  The real world is fit and well, I think.  I've had lunch with two guys this week, and coffee with a third, along with the meal we had out last night at which there were eight of us (and two iPads, and three iPhones).  I also spent two plus hours at the Dental School this week with real patients and real dentists (and was reading a non-Kindle book as well).  Last Monday I played at a concert for people in the Stroke Club.  We're going to see the Nuggets play tonight, and heading off to church tomorrow (where we'll assist with a very interactive church lunch) and then in the late afternoon I'm going to sing at Sunny Side Up's practice.   And if you'd asked me I would have thought I spend quite a bit of time in front of screens.  Perhaps I'm not so technology-obsessed as it seems. 

Seems like I have plenty of real life pedestrian bridges to the outside world.

Anyway, that wasn't really what I was going to talk about.  I was going to mention a couple more movies that I've watched this week - yup, both on screens (!)  The first of these was a fairly recent sci-fi style movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal (pronounced jill-en-hall, according to  It's called Source Code, and involves some real flimflam science (told us at considerable speed so that we don't have time to think too hard) about the brain having eight minutes of leftover information that can be accessed after a person has died.  Considering that the brain can't even retain more than seven numbers in its short term memory, on average, retaining eight minutes of not especially important stuff seems unlikely.  But the filmmakers manage to get away with this by having poor old Jake repeatedly going through the same sequence of events over and over in order to find out where a bomb has been planted on a train.  There's more to it than that, but I won't spoil it for you.  This is a movie worth watching, because it has some nice surprises.  And no bad language (it occurred to me after I'd been watching The Social Network the other day, that no one swore in it, or if they did it was fairly mild.  Which just goes to show that scriptwriters don't have to include endless foul language just because people in real life use it.)

Jake's supporting cast includes the delightful Michelle Monaghan, the versatile Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, who manages to overcome the fact that the scriptwriters keep on avoiding having him telling the truth about what's going on, and who is saddled with a walking stick and glasses that seem to serve no functional purpose except to show he's a (slightly mad) scientist.  

The other movie was The Searchers, the old John Wayne/John Ford combo that had a depth and sensitivity in it that wasn't always a feature of Wayne movies.  He plays himself, as always, succinct in speech, mostly unemotional when others are losing their cool, obstinate and determined.  But he's in a story that's mostly strongly written, and is surrounded by a superb cast of Ford regulars and sundry others who do a great job.  I saw The Searchers years ago, but so strong is the long opening sequence that most of it remained in my mind.  In this section, Ethan (Wayne) returns home to his brother (and his brother's family) after years of being away in the American Civil War.  He's enthusiastically greeted by all the family: his sister-in-law, his two young nieces (one a teenager, the other around ten), his teenage nephew, and Martin Pawley, a part-Indian youth who's been adopted by the family (he's played very well by Jeffrey Hunter - who would one day play Jesus Christ in King of Kings).  This group of people are beautifully drawn and we become fond of them in the short time we get to know them.  There's a brief interruption as Ward Bond and his Texas Rangers come for a coffee.  Bond is loud and shatters the quiet of the family with enthusiastic ease, and each of his Rangers is a character in his own right. We become more familiar with them as the film goes on. They've come to report that Lars Jorgenson's cattle has been rustled by a group of Comanche, and Bond co-opts Ethan and Pawley into his Texas Rangers posse to get the cattle back. They leave, but by evening there's something ominous in the air.  A murdering bunch of Comanche come to the isolated farm and wipe out all but the two daughters, whom they capture.  The leader of these Indians is actually played by a German-born actor, known by this time as Henry Brandon, but born as Heinrich von Kleinbach.  (He played an Indian in another Ford movie as well.)

The rest of the film relates, for the most part, to the long search that Ethan and Pawley undertake in order to bring back the two girls.  At first they're accompanied by the older girl's boyfriend (played by Harry Carey Jr - he turned up as an 'old timer' in the last of the Back to the Future movies); he's the son of Lars Jorgenson.  When finding out that his beloved has been killed by the Indians he races madly into the Indian camp and is killed.  There's an interlude in which the two men come to the Jorgenson farm some time later and we learn that Pawley has been the long-time boyfriend of the Jorgenson daughter (played by Vera Miles, with great energy and gusto).  She almost persuades him to stay and become a farmer in partnership with Jorgenson, but the call of the search draws him away again.  By the time he returns she's just about to marry another fellow played by Ken Curtis with an over-the-top 'gosh gee' manner.  The wedding that doesn't happen is one of the less tense and more hilarious scenes in the movie.  

Eventually they find the Comanche again, and eventually (after five years!) they rescue the girl, who's now a teenager.  There's some debate about whether she'll survive the actual rescue, given Ethan's rather ambiguous attitude to her, but she does.  (She's played by a young Natalie Wood, and in the only moment of real inauthenticity in the movie, she appears with lipstick and plucked eyebrows and mascara, in spite of having been part of the Indian tribe for several years.)

It's a long movie, with plenty of time for detail, particularly from the excellent cast.  (There's even a late addition to the characters, a young Cavalry lieutenant, played delightfully by one of Wayne's own sons, Patrick Wayne.)  The scenery is magnificent, much of it in Monument Valley, the place that frequently appeared in Ford movies.  The photography is superb and the colour is as up to date as a modern movie.  And it's full of humour, with Ethan's 'That'll be the day' being the laconic answer to several angry outbursts from other characters.  

The five-year search might seem a bit over the top as an idea, but somehow it's made to work.  Wayne's attitude of stuff-everything-else is a great part of that workability.  And there's no doubt, in the light of this movie, that he was one of the great Hollywood stars.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Busman's holiday

It's been a week or so of watching videos.  I'm kind of having a holiday after Grimhilda! you might say, although it's a bit of a busman's holiday, in that I've started on the ebook that I want to produce based on the musical, and I have a couple or three other projects in mind as well, including the sequel to Grimhilda!

The sequel?  At the moment it consists of a couple of pages of notes, but my collaborator and I haven't sat down and talked it through as yet (we only had a brief conversation one night after one of the performances) so it's early days.   And our church, Dunedin City Baptist (I feature briefly in their slide show at the top of their home page) - formerly Hanover St Baptist - is celebrating its 150th Anniversary next year, so I'm loosely thinking about doing something in the way of a drama/sound and light/something on Rosalie Macgeorge, who was the first Baptist missionary sent out by the newly-formed NZ Baptist Missionary Society.  We don't know an awful lot about her, but I'm hoping to be able to find out more than I already have (otherwise it might be a short piece!).  She was quite a pioneer, a woman well ahead of her time in how she thought about doing mission work, from her insistence on living with the people she was attempting to bring into the church rather than in a separate European compound, as was the norm; to her dressing as one of the people; to her refusal to take the wage paid by the Mission Society so that the people didn't think she was a wealthy foreigner.  She lived for only around six years in the mission field, became very ill and died on her way home to New Zealand.   She was only 31 when she died.

I've also been memorising poetry again - I'd stopped during the latter stages of the Grimhilda! production period because I found I just didn't seem to have the mental energy to cope with memorising.   Anyway, after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, I got going again, and have got four new poems pretty much under my belt, using some of the techniques Joshua Foer discusses in his book and some learned previously.  I've also started memorising music again, something that I've only done spasmodically in my lifetime, because I always felt I wasn't very good at it.  Like any kind of memorising, however, you only get good at it by doing it, and keeping on doing it.

For some time I've been 'collecting' poems from the Writer's Almanac that comes out each day as an email.  I don't keep them all, by any means, because some just don't grab me for one reason or another, but I've got about 160 on Evernote. One I'd like to learn, though it might be a challenge, is Barbara Hamby's Ode to Hardware Stores, a delightful poem with at least six beats a line and full of detail.  She mentions, at one point, nearly every nail you can think of, but she doesn't get onto acorn nuts, fortunately, or any of their innumerable brethren.  Equally naming her poem as an 'ode' is perhaps a little overstating the case, but it's done tongue-in-cheek.  As Stephen Fry says in chapter five of his book The Ode Less Travelled: 'In English poetry it [the Ode] was once the most grand, ceremonial and high-minded of forms, but for the last hundred years or so it has been all but shorn of that original grandeur, becoming no more than a (frequently jokey) synonym for 'poem.'"  Hamby's ode/poem is a great chunk of a thing full of wonderful words, plenty of rhythm and lots of energy.

Anyway, back to the videos - or DVDs, I should say.   Last night we watched The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher, and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Dennis.   It's not a biopic in the usual sense.  Although it does take us through some of the political years, seen in flashbacks, it also focuses a good deal on the relationship between Maggie and her husband, and the dementia that was creeping up on Thatcher at the time the film is set.   Some American reviewers have complained that it's too British and doesn't explain enough about what's going on politically or historically.  That's right, it doesn't.  Some reviewers complain that it's not a 'proper' biopic, in that it doesn't take the person's life as the arc of its narrative.  And that's right too.  The scriptwriter and director (both women) have set out to do something different.  Being artists in what is still very much a man's world they have considerable sympathy with the way Thatcher was very much a woman in a man's (political) world.  But they don't forget that Thatcher was also domineering (especially in her later days) and wouldn't brook disagreement very readily.   She was unwilling to give an inch when the Falklands were invaded by the Argentinians, and was both loathed and admired for her strength in protecting what was still essentially a far-flung British colony.

But all this is undercut by the dementia she shows in the present - her continual hallucinations in regard to seeing her deceased husband (who keeps popping up to annoy her, it seems) and her very slow sense of what's happening mixed with occasional signs of her old passionate self.

Meryl Streep unfailingly gives reality to her portrayal of Thatcher; she has the ability to inhabit a personality in an almost uncanny way the voice, the behaviours, the stance, the characteristics of people she plays.  It's not just a performance; it goes way beyond that.  (Her uncanny and hilarious portrayal of Julia Child is a standout in this regard, but her performance in Mumma Mia was a disappointment, perhaps because she was playing such a one-dimensional character.)

Jim Broadbent and Harry Lloyd (apparently he's the great-great-great grandson of Charles Dickens) play Dennis Thatcher at different periods in his life; both are delightful performances, merging well into each other as the story swings back and forth in time.  The crazy humour that Dennis has is linked well between them.  I enjoyed the film, and was a bit surprised at the critics' dismissal of it.  Perhaps they didn't like the idea of a woman being at the centre either...?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Extras disks

Two of the three DVDs I borrowed from the Library last week had an extra disk with them, with 'additional features.'   I wonder how many people actually ever watch all these extras?   When we bought the DVD packs for the Lord of the Rings series I remember watching the additional material, though in fact a lot of it was excess to requirements: it added little to the movies, except for extreme film buffs (and I do enjoy background information about movies).  Some of these 'extras' are about as much good to me as Gurkha cigars.  Not that I've got anything against cigars, per se, but I've never smoked, and don't plan on doing it now, and cigars, Gurkha or otherwise, have no real appeal.  I actually quite like the smell of cigars (which for some reason my fingers insist on typing as cigards (?)) and I flatted for a while with a young man who smoked Gauloises, which have a distinctive smell of their own too, but I never fancied actually getting on and smoking them, just because I liked the smell.

Chishû Ryû on left 
Well, that was an interesting digression.  The extras disk that came with Tokyo Story included a documentary called Tokyo Ga by Wim Wenders, the German filmmaker.  It was interesting, but I got interrupted about half way through, and didn't go back to it, because while Wenders came at his visit to Tokyo in his inimitable fashion, he took his time about doing so, and there were long sections in the doco where very little actually happened.   Yes, it allowed us to just 'live' in the moment and observe, but it didn't really impact on Ozu's movie to any great extent, and sometimes seemed indulgent.  It did help in letting me know in advance what patinko is (it's a pinball game that's played obsessively in Japan) so that when it was mentioned in Still Walking,

I knew what they were talking about. And there was a scene where Chishû Ryû, who played the father in Tokyo Story (and also appeared in 52 out of the 54 films Ozu made!) went to Ozu's (anonymous) grave and poured water over the gravestone. I'm not sure what this signifies in Japanese culture, but the doing of it turned up again in Still Walking, twice.

Incidentally Ryû was only 49 when he played the old man in his late sixties in Tokyo Story. Apparently it wasn't uncommon for Ozu to use him to play men of a variety of ages. The interview with Ryû in Wenders' documentary is perhaps the most interesting thing in it; at least, it was the most interesting thing in the section I actually saw. Ryû came across as a surprisingly humble actor, a man who'd understood Ozu to be his mentor throughout his career (even though there was only a year difference in their ages), and whom he trusted implicitly. If Ozu said he wanted a scene played this way, Ryû would play it that way. He didn't ask questions about motivation or backstory, he just got on and did as he was told, and the result was always effective. Ozu seldom did many takes on a scene; he knew exactly what he wanted (he would even attend to the details of the set and the actors' clothing until they were to his satisfaction), and, somewhat like Hitchcock, he had the movie planned in his head long before filming actually began. What he 'saw' is what appeared on the screen. Nevertheless, for one scene in which Ryû appeared, he remembered that they had around twenty rehearsals, and some twenty takes. Ozu commented at the end that Ryû didn't seem to be quite on form that day, but it was said as a matter of fact rather than as a criticism. Ryû remarked in the interview that he wasn't that great an actor; he had none of Ozu's intellectual capacity.

So, yes, occasionally an 'extras' disk does have something of real value in it!  All right, I eat my words.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Knife and utility

Sometimes, as you may have noted if you've read this blog before, I like to go through my clippings file (which of course is a file in the computer sense these days, kept on Evernote) and see what comes up when I try for a particular word or phrase - in this case: utility knife.

Well, the phrase on its own isn't there, but there are plenty of instances of either utility or knife.  Here are a couple of examples: 

"Amazon has quietly become 'a massive utility' that is either on the sending or receiving end of one percent of all the internet traffic in North America."   One percent!

And one related to knife: an Eve de Castro Robinson piece of music entitled: Knife Apple Sheer Brush.  It's a kind of flute riff-cum-improvisation on some words by Len Lye, the animator and creative artist.  You can hear it online at SOUNZ, the website for New Zealand music.   It's only just over five minutes long, and is played by Bridget Douglas.  Not sure who the words are spoken by. 

Still Walking

Having watched one Japanese movie (Tokyo Story) a couple of days ago, it was interesting to watch another, Still Walking, last night.  Still Walking was released in 2008, so it's nearly fifty years younger than the other movie.  Yet it has lots of connections, and seemingly the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda has used Tokyo Story as a kind of model for his movie.

Both are about families, and a visit by one part of the family to another: in the first the parents went to visit their various children; in the later movie, the children come to the parents for the anniversary of the death of the oldest son, who died saving a boy from drowning.   So there's an absent, deceased son in both the stories too.  And a daughter who speaks her mind and doesn't mince words.

In the earlier movie, the parents are a lovely couple who've grown past disputes and bitterness.  In this movie, the father is constantly bitter - pretty much at everyone (he's the sort that would never buy anniversary gifts for wife) - and his wife, until late in the movie, seems to be a lovely woman, always feeding everyone and been the hostess.  However, after a visit from the boy who was saved from drowning (he's invited every year) she nags on about how fat he's become and how untidy and how little he's made of himself as a young adult.  And then she goes on to tell her other son that she only invites the young man to vent her anger on how much she hates him for being alive when her son is dead.

The son she tells this to is a struggling artist, reduced to doing restoration work when he can find it.  He's a great disappointment to his retired doctor father, but he's the most sympathetic character in the movie, a man not only struggling with his job but with his fairly recent marriage to a young widow.  She has a young son that he's having to get to know as well.  (Interestingly, he's far more European-looking than anyone else in the movie.)

The daughter is another one of these blunt characters who's happy to move on and leave the deceased brother behind.  In fact she and her husband are planning to move in with the parents and remodel the house to suit their needs.  This doesn't seem to be being met with much favour, and we never find out whether they actually go ahead with this.  She has a bit of a dope of a husband, although he's a lot more fun than his counterpart in Tokyo Story.

It's an interesting movie, but not as engaging as its older 'brother' because there's a lot more bitterness floating around and much less warmth and humour.  I enjoyed it, but it leaves a fair amount of gloom in its wake.

Writing for adults...

This delightful comment from author Diana Wynne Jones turned up this morning in an email...

Writing for adults, you have to keep reminding them of what is going on. The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only need to tell things to once.

I had a bit splurge on reading Wynne Jones last year...and perhaps I could have done with knowing this before my friend and I collaborated on Grimhilda! - we tended to make sure people heard important things at least twice, if not three times.  But then it may be different in the theatre, where important points can be lost amongst all the hurly burly. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tokyo Story

I watched Yasujiro Ozu's movie, Tokyo Story, on DVD a couple of days ago.  It dates from 1953, and I kept having the strangest feeling that I'd seen it before, though I certainly don't remember doing so.  But at the beginning, in particular, and occasionally throughout, there would be a shot that clicked as being one I'd seen in the past.  Some of them seemed strikingly familiar, yet the film as a whole doesn't ring any particular bells.

Be that as it may, this film comes with a considerable reputation: Sight and Sound is quoted as saying (on the DVD cover) 'One of the three greatest films of all time...' (unfortunately we don't know what the other two are, though critics 'worldwide' voted it amongst the top five best films ever made); BBC Films says, 'A simple story simply told...widely considered one of the great classics of world cinema.'   And Halliwell, that doyen of movie-listing, puts it as Number One in his Top 1000 movies.  With all that, like it or not, you're coming to a masterpiece, when you sit down to view this movie.   And it's certainly a striking movie.  Shot after shot is visually satisfying; there are many shots where there's hardly a human in sight, but they add to the overall atmosphere.  The cast is uniformly good, right down to the bit players, and the story, for all its simplicity, is moving and detailed.

I saw it in several bits, which didn't help its reputation, and, as a result, found it longer than it actually is -it runs to 136 minutes.  Nevertheless, even interruptions couldn't stem its strength, and it's a movie worth watching, and one I'd probably watch again.

The story is straightforward: an elderly couple take the long journey from their small coastal village to Tokyo, in order to see their older son and daughter.  The younger daughter lives with them at home, still, and we only see her at the beginning and the end.  There is another younger son (living in a town closer to his parents) who doesn't appear at all in the movie until more than three-quarters of the way through - and comes as a surprise.  We thought we knew who all the family members were.  Then there is the daughter-in-law - her husband was killed in the war, some eight years before the story takes place.   There are sundry other in-laws and grandchildren (one of them the most obnoxious you'll find in a movie).   The older daughter's husband has no opinions of his own, and all his ideas are put aside by his wife: there is no doubt she considers herself the future matriarch of the family.  What's more, she can never open her mouth without grumbling about something, or without causing offence, however hard she tries.  The older son is a doctor whose wife does as she's told, and struggles to control the obnoxious grandchild mentioned above.

Both the older daughter and son work from home, so their lives are often interrupted with work.  Worse, the elderly parents are seen as just another interruption, and neither the son or daughter can wait to move them on to someone else, or to a hotel by the sea.

The only one of the family who is different is the widowed daughter-in-law; try as she might, she can't help showing love to her mother and father-in-law, and takes time off from work to show them the city, and cares for them quietly.  She is the one most affected at the end of the story by the elderly mother's sudden death.  

So it's mostly a study of people - and not just the family; there are a few other minor characters who appear for short periods, notably the elderly father's old friends who live in Tokyo and with whom he goes on a drinking binge (for the first time in many years).  Of course his older daughter is appalled, especially when he arrives home drunk - with one of the other drinkers - and assumes that she'll put them both up for the night.

Much of the movie proceeds at a quiet pace - there's no 'action' a la Hollywood, no surprising denouement.  Everything we learn about these people we learn early in their first scenes, and there are only occasional further revelations.  So what makes it so watchable?  It's hard to know, except that people-watching is something we all do if we're willing to give the time over to it, and the people here, for all their ordinariness, are immensely watchable.  The mother and father are a lovely couple, well-past the quarrels and difficulties of their earlier lives; the children are a mixed bunch and their selfishness is a bit surprising, but perhaps not as much as we think.  The one shining star, the daughter-in-law, may be a bit too good to be true, and yet she doesn't come across that way.  We believe in her, and her modesty, humility, generosity, and warmth, which are consistent in every appearance until the very end, when she breaks down because of her mother-in-law's death.  The fact that her husband had been somewhat brutal to her should have put her against this family, yet she has somehow surpassed all that, and is even resigned to loneliness, if necessary.  (Her parents-in-law are both insistent that she should forget her former husband and make herself available to a new man.)  It's interesting that Ozu uses one of his particular techniques with this character, that of showing her almost full-on when she's speaking to another character (especially the older couple).  This has the effect of making her seem to be speaking to us, the audience.

But beyond the people there is the detail in the movie: each house is a little box full of all manner of household items carefully placed not only for the residents, but to delight the eye of the viewer.  Each garden with its rustic tables and particular flowers and urns and decoration is part of an overall vision. The photography is the best of black and white, although it lacks that sharpness of definition that seems superior.  Interestingly enough, the music has a distinct Western feel to it; though there's a element of the Japanese style, the score could easily be used in a film made in the USA or Europe.

I've got the movie out for a week....I may try and watch it all in one go, if I get the chance!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Social Network

Facebook is a marvellous website for millions of users, and has made billions for its founder, but at what cost to integrity?

We watched the movie The Social Network a couple of days ago. It has a wonderful disclaimer at the end saying that it's basically fiction and any connection between real personalities and the dramatised characters is entirely coincidental.   I know this is the normal disclaimer, but it's a bit of a surprise on the end of this movie, which features the creator of Facebook, the creator of Napster and various other people who were involved, and calls them all by name.

All that aside, it's a marvellous movie, and has (West Wing's) Aaron Sorkin's scriptwriting hand all over it, from the opening scene in which Zuckerberg and his girlfriend (she is a fictional character, apparently) have a full-scale debate (at typical Sorkin speed) about their relationship, to the ongoing interruptions to the narrative which tell us what's going to happen further down the track and show the marginally more mature characters trying to deal with the financial wheeling and dealing they've been involved in: everyone's suing Zuckerberg, who just sits there making sarcastic comments and getting everyone's backs further up.

It's an extraordinary achievement to have brought all this together in a dramatised form so soon after the events, and the cast does a great job of presenting a bunch of characters who aren't particularly viewer-sympathetic: Zuckerberg especially.  Jesse Eisenberg makes a marvellous socially inept Facebook founder, and Justin Timberlake is obnoxious as the overweening Sean Parker, the originator of Napster.  It's ironic, that at the end of this movie, the creator of Facebook has so few real friends.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Juno and the Paycock

Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is one of those plays you hear about but don't really see any more.   It was a huge hit when it was first produced way back in 1924, and within six years Alfred Hitchcock was given the task of directing the film version.  Unusually, (perhaps restricted by the contract he was then under) he stuck to the original script to a great extent, only opening out the one setting in the play occasionally, notably at the beginning, when Barry Fitzgerald (who played the Paycock in the original stage production) is seen briefly as a rabble-rouser.  

I've just watched the movie online - the copy is a little erratic: it sometimes cuts the tops of people's heads off, and in some shots it looks like it's not centred properly.  All that aside, it's great to see a top-flight cast giving this classic play all they've got.

The play doesn't entirely translate well to the screen: as it shifts increasingly from semi-farce to tragedy, the transition seems a bit over the top.  Perhaps in the theatre Juno's last speeches would be more effective.  On screen they don't quite work - for me.  It's not that we haven't been warned that tragedy is on the way: the son, Johnny, is a perpetual dark cloud in the background of the comedy scenes, but the other two disasters (daughter Mary's out of wedlock pregnancy, and the loss of the inheritance they'd all been banking on) seem just a little forced.  We can appreciate what O'Casey is doing without actually feeling as emotional about it as he intends.  This may, of course, be caused by the play being almost 100 years old, but I think it's more that some of the intensity that a theatrical performance would give is lost in the cinematic version.

What works best now is the superb comedy that the principals indulge in, especially the so-called Captain (the 'peacock' of the title) and Joxer, his drinking partner.  These two are played by Edward Chapman, an established stage actor in his first screen role, and Sydney Morgan, another stage actor who seldom appeared on screen, but directed a great many movies.  They're a wonderful team, and the detail in their characters is a delight.  Sara Allgood was also a stage actress, having worked in the famed Abbey Theatre, and having originated the part of Juno on stage.  Along with Chapman she appeared in at least one other Hitchcock movie.  She has the difficult role of being the mainstay of a somewhat erratic family, and being made representative by O'Casey of much more than just her matriarchal status.  John Laurie (a Scotsman), who plays the son, Johnny,  made a bigger impression in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a few years later.   Here he has little to do except for occasional outbursts; most of the time he's in the background of scenes, burning with a kind of gloomy intensity.  His big moment at the end doesn't quite come off, for me, but again it's the sort of role that might be more effective in the theatre.

Hitchcock brings his talent for comedy to light here throughout the movie, but the main scene in which he and the actors revel in O'Casey's script is when they're celebrating (along with the local barmaid, Mrs Madigan (Maire O'Neill, who played the part of Juno in a 1938 TV production) their new-found fortune.  There's huge comedy over drinks drunk too quickly and within the singing that takes place, and the interruptions of the long rambling stories Mrs Madigan indulges in.  This kind of comedy appears in a number of Hitchcock's films, especially those made up until the 50s, where a bunch of British actors would have delightful group scenes in which detailed characterisation was to the fore.  While comedy was almost always a part of Hitchcock's movies, the later films tend to sprinkle it more thinly.

Incidentally, on the imdb site, Chapman, who's the father of the family, is listed as only being 29 when he made the movie, which makes him younger than Laurie, who plays his adult son.  I think there may be an error somewhere, or else he manages to look (and act) considerably older than he actually is.

I also caught up on a short propaganda film Hitchcock made during the war, Bon Voyage.  This is a curiosity: it's made in French, with even the English characters speaking French (although one of them keeps on going on about the way his French is affected by his Scots accent).  It's about a young RAF man who's 'rescued' from France and sent home courtesy of the Resistance.  Except it isn't the Resistance but a German spy posing as a Resistance man.  As the story is retold (after our initial viewing of it) we discover that the spy is systematically killing off the Resistance people who are involved in the story without the hero's knowledge, and has used the hero to take an important piece of information to Britain.  A good deal of the story is told in dialogue rather than action, which is perhaps an indication of the frugality of the budget.  Nevertheless, it's well enough done, and worth catching up with if you're a Hitchcock buff.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Same meat, different gravy

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer has one of those eye-catching titles that publishers love (Driving with Plato, for instance) but which actually have little to do with the book's contents.   In fact it wasn't the title that caught my eye, but the subtitle: the art and science of remembering everything.  I've read a number of books on memorisation, and, since I'd been given a gift voucher for Marbecks by the cast of Grimhilda! I thought buying and reading another book on the subject (for free, as it were) wouldn't go amiss.

I'm glad I did, though initially I thought the book might just cover the same ground as many others.  At one point, Foer discusses an interview he had with Tony Buzan, the guru of memory work, and a person Foer doesn't seem to have too much time for.  He quotes something Buzan's chauffeur said about the writer's 120 or so books: Same meat, different gravy.  (I wonder if the chauffeur still has a job?)  Same meat, different gravy is pretty much how I've felt about Buzan's books too.  Not only does he uplift from writers of the past about memory work, but he repeats his own theories, and promotes his system of Mind Mapping to a great extent.  Foer notes, in relation to Mind Mapping: my own impression of Mind Mapping, having tried the technique to outline a few parts of this book, is that much of its usefulness comes from the mindfulness necessary to create the map. Unlike standard note- taking, you can't Mind Map on autopilot.  My sense is that it's a reasonably efficient way to brainstorm and organise information, but hardly the " ultimate mind- power tool" or "revolutionary system" that Buzan makes it out to be.  (page 206).  That's pretty much my own feeling about Mind Mapping, though Foer does give examples of its very positive use in at least one particular environment. 

Anyway, the book is only partly about Buzan (he's unavoidable if you're writing about memorisation), and apart from him Foer charts a great deal of territory that was unfamiliar to me.  He does write about doing memory work, and some of the techniques are familiar, but the rest of the book is full of intriguing real-life characters.  Foer began his interest in memorisation when he covered the US Memory Championship.  He became somewhat obsessed with the subject, and amazingly, a year later he was able to enter the Championship himself - and win!

Foer's mentor was an eccentric 25-year-old Englishman called Ed Cooke, a grandmaster in the International Memory Championships.  Foer was trained in the techniques of memorising as required for the US Championships, as well as being given a good deal of advice about the whole process of what it takes to train your memory to remember.   Foer was able to go to Cooke's home in the UK more than once - each occasion is a highlight in the book.

The book swings between narrative and discussion of the processes of memorisation - and the necessity of it, something that Foer and the others regard highly compared to those in charge of education in general.   Memorisation of material (especially stretches of important text) leads to greater understanding of your world and the culture you come from.  It's not surprising that the lack of training children to memorise has resulted in youngsters leaving school with a minimal understanding of who they are in the wider scheme of things.

There's an interesting section on savants, in particular Kim Peek (the original Rainman, who at the time the book was written had been memorising the telephone books in his local public library for ten years, and who had an extraordinary range of facts at this fingertips) and Britisher, Daniel Tammet, who I've written about previously on this blog.  Tammet comes in for a deal of criticism in the book: it seems that Foer thought he may not have been as 'autistic' as he claims.  Certainly Tammet is unusual not just in his ability to memorise and retain material, but in his social skills, which are superior to those most autistic people have.  He's worked hard to make them so, however, as he notes in both his books, and as Foer mentions here.

Tammet's abilities in the numerical area are queried: this is the particular area Foer is concerned about, and wonders whether Tammet hasn't just learned and practiced the techniques most memorists use.  He mentions in passing Tammet's ability to learn languages (Icelandic in a week) but doesn't elaborate on how Tammet is supposed to have used 'ordinary' techniques to learn these, which is a pity.  I think Tammet, in spite of Foer's criticisms, has extraordinary brain capabilities (caused by an epileptic fit as a child, it's thought) and is probably much more likely to have an 'opening' in his brain that allows him to achieve what he does.  It's usually the case that savants - or what might be called their opposites, people who have lost their ability to retain new memories (and these appear in the book too) - have had some major brain trauma as a child or adult.  This brain damage reconfigures the brain in some way, so that the normal balance is upset.  Sometimes this results in an extraordinary use of the brain; sometimes it debilitates it to a huge extent.

I must say I thoroughly enjoyed this book - admittedly it's a topic close to my heart.  I did feel a bit let-down, however, to find that in spite of there being a chapter entitled How to memorise a poem Foer didn't come up with anything terribly helpful in terms of learning how to memorise text.  This is something, in fact, that most writers on memory techniques avoid, preferring lists of things or remembering names instead.  But text, such as poetry, and Scripture, is what I find memorisation is most useful for, and the orators of the past learned huge chunks of text as a matter of course. This omission is curious, because at one point he mentions how his mentor, Ed, "had long ago learned the bulk of Paradise Lost by heart (at the rate of two hundred lines per hour, he told me), and had been slowly slogging his way through Shakespeare."  How Ed did this isn't really discussed, except in a brief page or two in this same chapter.  

All this talk of mental building (as opposed to metal building) has got me going on memorising stuff again.  I learned a poem yesterday (improving my approach to the memorising by incorporating some of what Foer writes about), and will get back to doing this regularly.  The more you memorise, of course, the better your retention gets, and even in the last two or three years I've found I've improved my retention rate for poems by the slightly different approaches I've been taking to learning them.  I'd love a more foolproof method, but in the meantime will have to go with what I've got.

Years ago, my wife and I worked through a series of cassette tapes on improving your memory by Kevin Trudeau.  He used pretty much the same techniques as Foer writes about here, and Buzan discusses in his 120 books.   We had a great time with these tapes, and certainly achieved what we were supposed to achieve, but lost our skills as soon as we stopped using them daily.  You have to keep at it.  Like any other skill, as soon as you start leaving it alone, the skill level drops.  Foer talks about the OK Plateau in relation to this.  This is when you think you're good enough at a skill and don't push yourself to improve further.  Most of us have skills of some sort at this level.

Good memorisation requires daily practice, and not only daily, but practice that pushes you further and further (it's like playing the piano and challenging yourself to keep on doing stuff that seems beyond you).  For years I've learnt poetry and Scripture while walking to work - or, now that I've retired, while walking the dog.  I've put this aside over the last few weeks because it felt as though my brain was tired with all the work we were doing on Grimhilda!  The result is I have to get up and go again.  Is it worth it?  I think so.  Foer gives plenty of reasons throughout the book as to why it's worth it (and competing in memory championships is the least of them).  One of the best, I've found, is that actually memorising a poem or chunks of Scripture means you get to grips with what they're saying, far more than you ever would if you just read these off the page.  If for no other reason, that's why I'll keep practicing.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Red, and Rothko

I went to see the pensioner, John Bach, in John Logan's play Red last night, at the Fortune Theatre.  I mention Bach's age only because I see that he's just one year younger than me.  The physical and mental challenge of his role in Red would be a challenge to any actor, let alone someone who's verging on 66.

Red would have to be one of the best plays I've seen at the Dunedin's Fortune Theatre, not just because the play itself is great, but because of the energy and focus and interplay between the two actors who inhabit the stage for the entire ninety minutes duration.  Neither of them gets more than a minute's break.  The other actor, the much younger Cameron Douglas, is more than a match for Bach's many years of experience in the theatre, movies and television.  He has the advantage, perhaps, of playing someone close to his own age, so can identify with the young man's thinking and behaviour.  Nevertheless, the role requires considerable work, and never lets him off lightly.

Red explores everything that can occur between two artists of different ages: experience, philosophy, the old giving way to the new, the thought of death when life seems abundant, the contemplative versus the active, the selling-out of the soul; whether art is for all time or merely to be hung on the walls of an expensive restaurant - and ignored.  And why we should produce art at all...

There are wonderful moments of confrontation, with either one or other of the actors going full blast at his counterpart.  There are some wonderful moments when a mere look changes how you feel about one of the actors.  There are sudden moments of humour.  And there are sections of deep emotion, especially when the young man, known only as Ken (and never actually called by name during the play, as far as I can recall) gradually reveals the horror of the day he woke up to find his parents had been murdered in their beds.

Rothko, by contrast, barely mentions his past: he throws off a horror moment in his own life as something he's not sure whether he actually remembers or has just been told about.  His Jewish name has been discarded long before.  We know nothing about his private life outside the studio, so it's ironic that Ken angrily tells him at one point that Rothko knows nothing about his life outside the studio, and isn't interested in finding out.  The two men exist inside the room.  We know of only two other characters: both of them are spoken to on the telephone (which never rings), and the first of these, the one Ken is conversing with briefly in one scene, is anonymous.

And the room is wonderful: it threatens to spill out into the audience; it's untidy, yet it's always being tidied; its walls are covered with paintings from the series of murals Rothko is painting (or canvases in various states of preparation) - and there's another one we never see that's hanging on the 'fourth wall'.  The sink down in one corner is the sort of sink you see in a mechanic's workshop: except that this one is covered in paint that will no longer wash off.  In that curious and slightly unusable space that the Fortune is 'blessed' with (to the audience's left) there are shelves stuffed with items that are ignored, forgotten.  There are high windows way above the reach of the actors through which light barely penetrates (Rothko doesn't like natural light); there is pale ceiling lighting in the room, and there are lamps that shine throughout one or two scenes on the enormous prepared canvas at the back of the stage, a canvas that the actors actually prepare in tandem at one point, working under and over and in front and behind each other in a passionate and energetic sloshing on of yet more red paint.  No doubt Peter King, the set designer, had ideas from other productions of the play to work from, but he's converted the Fortune stage into something that no longer seems a stage, and done it marvellously.  

The play is based on events in Rothko's life though the character of Ken is fictional.