Saturday, July 27, 2013

Master and Commander re-viewed

We watched Master and Commander again last night; we first saw it in 2004, a year after it was released.  I wrote about it then, and pretty much what I said then still applies.

It’s a great film in terms of putting the material across, the acting is top notch from the little cabin boys to the old sea dog. Crowe is better than he is in Gladiator, I think, where he was expected to be just a little lower than a god. And Paul Bettany, who plays his good friend, the ship's doctor, (he appeared with him in A Beautiful Mind, I later realised) is very good.  There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie presented throughout; perhaps it’s a bit too positive (in spite of the section where one of the midshipmen kills himself because the lower crew have begun to see him as a Jonah) but it means that we get a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a movie in which only men appear, and appear without fighting with each other -  they fight the French instead!  The French, however, aren't seen until the last great battle at the end; until then they're nothing more than an impersonal, somewhat ghostly ship.
Peter Weir does a great job of building up the personnel on board, bit by bit, showing us different characters often only in glimpses at first, and then gradually filling in the outlines. The characters have more than minor moments, and many of them are well delineated. The sheer complexity of life on board a small ship with 170 or so other people is presented well; we don’t get a full impression of its less-pleasant aspects, since we see more of the upper-class side than the lower-class, but enough of that is presented to keep us in mind of the fact that there is a lower-class. Weir again and again tosses in a shot that relates to the main action but isn’t explained; it has to speak for itself, and it does. In some of the more active sections we have dozens of these kind of shots that just build up the whole picture, even though the main action may be going on only in one spot. And the kids in it are good too: particularly the one who loses his arm early in the piece (Max Pirkis in his first screen role). The camera often focuses in on a face, and some of the shots are like portrait paintings of the period for a moment.  The scenes between Crowe and Bettany are very well done, and so are the supper scenes in the captain’s ‘great’ cabin.   Then there’s the music: a judicious mix of real 18th century pieces and pseudo material, nearly all of it strings.  (The captain and the doctor play duets on board, between a cello and a violin.) 
I'd forgotten quite a bit of the story, so it was almost like watching a new movie.  Technically, it's superb, with huge attention to detail.  The direction is sharp - as is the editing - and the script, which seemed when I first saw it to have a bit of a lull in the middle, on second viewing hangs together exceptionally well, considering the number of characters and our need to get to know them in some way or other.  Crowe seems thoroughly at home in the role, never missing a beat whether as the full-scale leader driven to chase the French ship to roughest seas in the world, or as the generous-hearted Captain who knows every one of his men and can identify with them, or the man willing to be criticised by his friend.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Non Sequiturial

Sometimes I'm given some odd things to write about - apart from the odd things I write about without anyone handing them to me.  The following line came out of the blue today, and on first glance doesn't appear to make much sense: Good Yamaha Stagepas 300 at Musicians Friend.  (The lack of an apostrophe didn't help either.)

I thought at first it had something to do with a stage-pass, and that someone had left the second 's' off, and was giving away 300 of them.  But apparently Stagepas is a brand name.  So there you go, something else I've learned today.  Something else to file away in the non sequitur folder, the same one in which I've just found this statement, which applies to revision when you're writing: Non sequiturs. Although these can occur with no help from technology, they are another by-product of sloppy word-processing. When text gets moved around, new transitions are sometimes needed to connect the dots.

Yup, we've all been there.  I've managed to do it inside blog posts as well. 

Recent books

I've had a rash of finishing books in the last week or so; here's the list:
Orthodoxy – (re-read, on Kindle) – G K Chesterton – 18.7.13
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce – 19.7.13
Into the Woods – John Yorke – 24.7.13
Being a Christian – Helmut Thielicke – 25.7.13
Leadership and Self-Deception (on Kindle)– Arbinger Institute – 26.7.13

As noted, I'd read Orthodoxy before, but basically I remembered almost nothing of it, so I guess it's several decades since I first worked my way through it.  It was nothing like I expected, except that being a book by Chesterton it was full of wonderful inventiveness, delightful arguments against godlessness, and marvellous debunking of people who were his contemporaries.  It makes you long for a 'Chesterton' for the 21st century.  Unfortunately, he was one of a kind.  I highlighted so much of the book on Kindle that Amazon couldn't cope and hasn't recorded many of the later ones.  At least my copy on the PC and the Kindle copy, and the iPad copy, all synched, show all of the highlightings.  I just can't access the unrecorded ones via ClippingsConverter, or Kindle online.

Here's just one longer example of Chesterton in full flight (and he's only just getting started at this point):

I do not see how this book can avoid being egotistical; and I do not quite see (to tell the truth) how it can avoid being dull. Dullness will, however, free me from the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth. I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though, of course, I have had ordinary human vain-glory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths.

And a much shorter one, what might be called a Chesterton one-liner:

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.

I've already written about Rachel Joyce's book in another post, so I won't elaborate further on it here. 

Into the Woods, which is subtitled a five act journey into story, has a blurb on the back from scriptwriter, Jimmy McGovern, along the lines of 'when I first saw this book I thought, not another book on scriptwriting.'  McGovern goes on to commend the book however, and overall, I would too.  I think its great feature is using examples from movies and TV shows we've all seen, though some of them it overuses (Thelma and Louise, in particular), and there is some other repetition which felt as though he'd run out of pertinent examples.  Yorke is good at insisting that the underlying structure (or the purposeful attempt to go against that structure) of virtually all stories has been around as long as good stories have; it's almost something we can't avoid if we want to make a good story.  Of course it's often used badly, and unimaginatively, but the essential structure also makes its presence felt in the best movies, TV and books.  If that structure is missing, or if the writer doesn't appear to be aware of it, the creation, in general, fails. Certainly the viewer or reader is aware that something is not quite right with the work. Yorke offers some argument against his own thesis, but manages still to say that even those who rail against the structure tend to use it unconsciously, and lays out the way in which they've done so: Being John Malkovich, for example, turns out to be 'properly' structured, even though its creator Charlie Kaufman claims it's not!

I picked up Helmut Thielicke's book earlier this year and have been reading it a chapter at a time when so inclined.  I don't know that it's his best book, by any means, but as always with Thielicke there's some good stuff in it.

Leadership and Self-Deception is a bit of a phenomenon, apparently.  I was alerted to it by a colleague who said that it could be useful for reading in relation to the pastoral supervision work I do.  Seemingly it's used in big and small companies around the world as a way of helping staff to work together for 'results' and good relationships rather than destroying each other.  But I found it's also useful in terms of thinking about my own relationships with other people, and I've been particularly reflecting on a work relationship I had a few years back that seemed to sour when it shouldn't have.  It gets to grips with blame, and self-justification.

It's written as 'fiction' though what that actually means is that the theory behind the 'getting out of the box' thesis is written out in dialogue form with three or four fairly cardboard characters instead of being presented as straight non-fiction.  The narrator comes across reasonably well as a 'person', but those teaching him are a bit bland in terms of personality.  Nevertheless, the material itself is of value, and, if taken on board, would certainly be of help within a family or a firm. It boils down, in essence, to do unto others as you would wish to them do unto you, and it's perhaps not surprising, when you go and investigate who the Arbinger Institute actually is, that the man who initiated the ideas in the book and its subsequent self-perpetuating life, C. Terry Warner, is a Mormon. His books in general, though listed as self-help, come out of a stream that uses Christian underpinnings to show people how to live (without necessarily having to become Christians).  

Accompanying and pianos

Due to a fellow-accompanist having a serious problem with one of his eyes, and needing to rest for a few weeks, I've inherited a bunch of accompaniments for the upcoming Cleveland Awards on Sunday week, and the junior singing competitions a couple of weeks later.  On top of that I'm going to be rehearsing with a clarinettist (not the same one as last year) whose usual accompanist is away for several weeks.

Suddenly having to learn a bunch of pieces, some of which are actually making me work.  It's very good for me, but it's a serious intrusion into my otherwise quiet and moderately-paced life as a retired person.

One thing about accompanying singers in these situations is that it's all acoustic: we don't have any of the difficulties of dealing with amplifiers (one of our major bugbears at church) or M-Audio microphones or the like.  Acoustic is good.  You come to appreciate it more and more when you have to deal with a battery of techno gear, much of which refuses to work as it should because it's been plugged in where it doesn't want to be.  And so on.

On the other hand, in favour of something technical: during the winter I tend to practice on the electronic piano we bought for the musical last year.  I can do that in a warmer part of the house: the baby grand is on the cold side of the house, in a room that only gets sun in the later part of the afternoon (which means, in winter, not a long patch of sun at all).  The only tricky thing about this is that I've felt for some time that there was perhaps a slight difference in width of the keys on the electronic piano as compared to the baby grand.  It turns out to be fractional, but I'm sure it makes a difference!  As a pianist I should be used to pianos in all shapes and sizes, and I've certainly played some doozies in my time: ones with missing notes, or notes that stick, or ivory broken or gone completely; ones that are plainly out of tune, or haven't been tuned in many moons, ones that have no 'give', or no depth, or no volume, or no guts.

And then of course there have been some beauties.  While in New Plymouth for the Brass Band solo competitions last week, I played on three very nice pianos.  One was the grand in the hall where the Slow Melody contest was held.  It was a delight. and unfortunately I didn't get another opportunity to use it.  The other two pianos, both uprights, one that we practised on and one that was the performance piano, were both good quality with no flaws.  It makes a huge difference when you're playing for a competition; nothing is more off-putting than having to deal with a piano's 'issues' while trying to do your best for a soloist!

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

This is a delightful book, wittily and sharply written, and also full of humanity. It's the story of a retired man who, while at breakfast one morning, receives an unexpected letter from an old friend. Before the day is over he has decided to walk from the South of England to the North, in order to 'save' her from the cancer she has. His harridan of a wife is naturally puzzled by his sudden change of character, and is angrier at him than ever.  However, nothing in this book is as it seems at first, and gradually we discover that there are secrets we've not been party to early in the story that change our views of the two main characters, Harold and Maureen.  
 This could have been just a 'road' story, but Rachel Joyce makes it much more than that by gradually unpeeling the backgrounds of her characters' story. It's also a novel full of faith and hope and charity and forgiveness, even though the two main characters more than once claim not to be ‘religious.’ I’m not sure why this needs to be said: at the end of the book, Harold, who has by then walked hundreds of miles to ‘save’ his old - and long-lost - friend, Queenie, finds her dying in a hospice run by nuns, and the nuns are presented as warm and loving, not as caricatures as is so often the case in modern novels.
The book is perhaps more humanist in tone than religious: it has a basic feeling of the good that’s in humanity, even though some characters are either well off the rails (certainly at the beginning) or get right for a while and then go off again.  But the people Harold meets on pilgrimage, for the most part, are helpful and giving, without requiring anything of him.  And he learns to live with less and less as he goes on, because he knows that there will be people willing to provide for him.
It’s a complicated book – Joyce isn't however trying to say that everyone is good, and the world is all as it should be. Harold only proceeds with his journey because of an exaggeration a young and somewhat disinterested woman in the local garage tells him. Perhaps it's even a lie. We learn over time that neither Harold nor Maureen are entirely truth-tellers; their lies are hidden from us, the readers, and only gradually revealed. Furthermore, they haven’t acknowledged these lies to each other over more than twenty years, nor asked for forgiveness.  Neither of these characters are ‘saints’ so it’s not surprising they don’t call themselves ‘religious’, but the reader is certainly in sympathy with them. As we learn more and more about the crisis that precipitated the downfall of their marriage, we realise that Maureen, who starts out in the story as an absolute horror to live with, has never acknowledged that it’s not her husband’s fault that she’s the way she is, even though she’s blamed him. When she starts admitting the truth she begins to change, though not overnight.  
 Is ‘Queenie’ a saint, like those saints of old whose shrines people made pilgrimages to?  We never learn more than what Harold tells us. Given the nature of the other characters, it’s probably unlikely that she's a saint in any sense, but we do learn that she's had courage to stand up in the past to the only real 'villain' in the story. 
There's a sense of 'cleanliness' about this book.  In spite of the behaviour of the main characters towards each other, neither has ever been unfaithful in their marriage. This may be surprising given what we learn about the nature of Harold's upbringing, and the seeming designs the widower next door might have on Maureen.  But it makes a refreshing change: so many novels rely on characters committing adultery as an excuse for crisis or action.
Joyce is about to publish her second novel.  I'm pretty sure I'll be reading it!

Monday, July 08, 2013


I'm currently teaching one of my granddaughters to play the piano.  At this stage you spend a lot of time getting the pupil to play in time, that is, making sure they understand the relationship of each note to another in an almost a mathematical sense.  One crochet has to be as long as another crochet, a semibreve has to be held the length of four crochets and so forth.  It's all very relative.  With a fast piece the crochet is shorter than it is in the slow piece, and as a longstanding player of music, you take this for granted, often failing to realise that it's not as obvious to a pupil as it is to you.

And as time goes on, and children play more complicated music, you begin to teach them that the first crochet isn't necessarily quite as long as the second crochet, or vice versa, because you give more emphasis to one than the other.  And that one bar may be stretched out longer than the previous one, even though they're both strictly speaking the same length.  I've just been practicising a piece for the Brass Band competitions with a cornet player, and of course there are different 'speeds' for different sections (meaning that the crochets, for instance, aren't the same length in the fast section as they are in the slow) but even within the sections, notes are stretched, sped up and generally twisted according to the mood of the piece at that point.  Music is actually hugely fluid, and this is a difficult thing to teach. 

I saw a film years ago, a documentary about Isaac Stern going to China after the Cultural Revolution, called From Mao to Mozart.  There were plenty of young Chinese musicians after the Revolution, and they were playing Western music, but they had no sense of the feeling, the rubato, the shifting of pace that is common to this kind of music. Western influences in China during the Cultural Revolution were banned, and the musicians lost touch with the way the music was played.   They played strictly in time, and of course, it sounded like clockwork.  There's a time and place for this in music, but it's rare by comparison with the normality of pulling music about like plasticine.  You get to a stage in life where you never think about this, you just do it. 

As a footnote to that movie, I remember a pitiful scene in which a music teacher told us how he'd been locked in the equivalent of a cupboard for some long time during the Revolution; the Red Guard did horrific things to artists.  In spite of that, after the Revolution's worst excesses were over, he continued to teach. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Pensioner's Morning

Just a typical enough day in the life of a retired person...

1. Walked to town for an appointment at 9.30 with Work and Income. I arrived early, but on Wednesdays they don't open till 9.30 so had to shelter from the light rain with several other people who'd arrived early.  Had to explain to the person I see each time that W&I had got it wrong.  He agreed, and sorted it out (I hope), but still didn't answer my question as to why, if I'm forced to send in an annual review, W&I then chooses to ignore the figures and bases their information on the previous year's figures!  I said someone needed a slap on the hand.  He didn't disagree.  After two months my wife and I still haven't discovered what's going to be deducted each fortnight from our pensions to compensate for the fact that we earned too much money last year over our allowed $100 per week.  That's $100 between us, not each.

2. It hadn't been raining when I walked down.  It was definitely raining when I came out of the office and I had to run (yes, run) from verandah to verandah, and finally popped into a two-dollar shop where I bought a $6.90 umbrella.  Apparently inflation now means that a $2 shop is actually a $6.90 shop.  Still, it kept me drier, and at $6.90 some poor person somewhere in the world is getting a fraction more income per day than if the umbrellas were $2.

3. Caught the bus home again.  Fortunately the timetables have changed and so the Kenmure bus that would normally precede my own Balaclava bus by a couple of minutes, preceded it by ten, and I was able to get home earlier. As it happened there were two Kenmure buses at the stop at the same time.  Don't ask. 

4. Came home, had a coffee, and then straight into a practice for the up and coming National Brass Band Competitions to be held in New Plymouth in a couple of weeks.  The cornet player is shouting me the trip to New Plymouth (as he shouted me a trip to Australia last year).  Plainly I'm still capable of playing a few notes on the piano in the right order.

5. The cornet player and his wife, after the practice, dropped me back down to town, this time with my old umbrella, which is about twice as big as the $6.90 one I bought earlier, and actually keeps the rain off more than just my head.  (Not that I was ungrateful for the smaller umbrella.)  I then went to a meeting with the group of people who were on the CAIRA Supervision course with me a couple of years ago.  We meet roughly once a month for about an hour to catch up on how we're doing in our pastoral supervision of various people.  Ate a savoury scone and drank coffee.  Discussed re-registering (which is due) and Interactive Drawing Therapy, which one of our group had learned about at a course.  Sounds like an interesting approach, and he's going to give us a chance to experiment with it next time we meet.

6. Had some time to spare (you know, that spare time retired people have oodles of) and so went and had a coffee with another member of the group.  Realised this was the third coffee in a row.  We are former work collegues, so caught up a bit on who's now doing what, and on our respective families. 

7. Sorted out various books on the Kindle into folders while travelling home on the bus (again).  This time a Balaclava, which picked me up outside the coffee shop and dropped me outside my house.  So convenient! 

8. Home.  Perhaps time for a short kip once I've posted this....