Friday, August 29, 2014

About Elly

Last night we watched Asghar Farhadi's 2009 movie, About Elly. Two or three months ago we saw a later film by Farhadi, A Separation. The latter film was something of a revelation. It changed my view of what modern Iran is like completely. (I wrote about it here.)  About Elly does the same: apart from the fact that the women wear headscarves all the time, there's little to show that we're in a Muslim country. All the trappings of modern life are visible, and there's (mostly) an easy enough relationship between the sexes. 

Both films are about lies and lying. Or alternatively, you might say, about truth, except that truth is very difficult to deal with, and for the characters in these two movies, lies are readily available, and, in the end stand in the way of the characters being able to move forward. 

About Elly starts off in a much warmer tone than A Separation.Three couples (and three small children), a recently divorced friend, and a young schoolteacher come together for a weekend of relaxation at a beach house. Irritating things happen, but not enough to stop the friends enjoying themselves. 

In the first forty minutes or so, the film seems to be little more than an ensemble piece with a wonderful cast almost improvising the script as they go along. So it appears. Characters come and go across the screen randomly while we try and sort out who belongs to whom (and it took us quite some time; we mismatched two of the couples). It seems that the young wife of the oldest man in the group has invited the schoolteacher along in order to match her up with the divorced man, and things are going fairly well. 

Except that underneath all the bonhomie are disturbing currents, none of which we can quite put our finger on. Disaster strikes - but it's not the disaster we think has struck, and Farhadi leaves us hanging for a great deal of the movie as we see the characters deal with what is ultimately a tragedy, by constantly changing their stories, accusing each other, blaming, finding excuses, finally getting to grips with the need to tell the truth, and then not being able to.

Farhadi has an enormous cinematic ease: the camera quietly appears to be just catching things out of the corner of its eye on many occasions, but in other scenes he uses the more disturbing process for the audience of a camera that jerks and shudders in moments of great tension. The actors appear to move as randomly as in real life, yet time after time we see movements in the background that add another dimension to what's being played out closer to us. His control of his cast is exceptional, including the three small children, who play vital parts in the story.

The young wife is played by Golshifteh Farahani, an actress who turned up in another movie we watched recently, The Patience Stone. This was a highly disturbing film set in Afghanistan about a young wife who's husband has been injured in the ongoing fighting, and has gone into a kind of coma. For much of the movie she sits and talks to him, telling him things she could never say when he was alert. It's a considerable indictment on relationships between men and women in that society, and I find it hard to imagine that it would ever be screened in the country it's set in. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Carrying on listening

I've had some unexpected opportunities to sit and listen to other people's ongoing stories in the last couple of days, so it's been helpful to be reminded by Lynne Baab's latest book, The Power of Listening, that good listening can be affected by our own anxieties, or our desires to 'solve' problems, or our need to keep moving forward because we're busy - and much more.

One of the advantages of being retired is that time isn't quite so pressured. Whereas lunch times always used to be affected by the need to get back to work, that's no longer the case for me. And evenings aren't such an issue either, because I can work in the daytime and get want I want done then (such as walking the dog, or writing the sequel to my children's book, which is well on its way).

But being under time pressure isn't the only thing that gets in the way of good listening: our anxiety that we can't solve the problem(s) is another issue. And trying to solve the problem may be the last thing we need to be doing. The person may first and foremost just need to be heard. One of the things we learned when doing a course in pastoral supervision is that that someone with a problem may need most of all to talk out their issues. It's the fact of talking, and being heard, that's important, rather than your attempts at problem-solving. And frequently, in the talking out, the problems clarify for the person and some options to dealing with them arise.
Uriah Heep.
Artist: Fred Bernard

Lynne points out in one of her last chapters in the book that we require humility when listening to others. This can be difficult for people who live in an age when self-esteem, and self in general, are the 'important' things. Humility isn't something we moderns are very good at. That sense of putting ourselves aside in order to give someone else room - and doing it without making it a false action (like Uriah Heep at his worst) - isn't always easy for us.

I still haven't read the first half of Lynne's book, but the second half has been more than helpful!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Learning lines, and memorizing

I've mentioned recently that I was playing a part in the play Hamp, put on by Stageworks in Dunedin at the Playhouse.

With this play, and the one I did last year - The Sunshine Boys - I found something curious had happened to my learning of lines. In previous plays I've had to work endlessly hard to retain the lines, and even then not felt very secure. But with these two plays, once the lines have been learned, they're secure, and only a distraction (such as happened one night during Hamp) puts me off saying the right thing in the right place.

This is curious, because by rights, you'd think, being now at an exalted age, it ought to be harder for me to learn lines. And I'm not aware that I've changed my approach to learning them, except in one respect: I work through them one at a time until I can do a page or so of them from memory. Then I read the cue from the other actor, (either out loud or in my head) and (with my line covered up) recite my own line.

I learned the lines for Sunshine Boys very quickly with this 'method' last year, and the lines for Hamp came pretty quickly too, although, as always, there were one or two that remained sticky until late in the proceedings. But I didn't feel perturbed about that. I knew they'd come.

So maybe it's just a gain in confidence. Seems unlikely; I've been reasonably confident on stage these last ten years or so.

I do insist on one thing: that the lines are learned as they're written. If this isn't done, it's too easy to veer off course. You'd think that all actors (amateur actors, I'm talking about here) would learn the lines that the author gives them, but some don't. They have a tendency to partly learn them, and then, of course, they find themselves in trouble on stage, and have to paraphrase. The mind has the extraordinary ability to paraphrase, to substitute words with similar meanings, if we get into any trouble. But I prefer not to rely on that, and it's not ideal. It can be off-putting for other actors waiting on a particular cue.

Anyway, that's one aspect of memorisation. The other is that the only other thing I've really memorised over the last year or so is Psalm 119, that great hulk of a work with 176 verses, and a huge amount of similar lines. With this Psalm I had to use all the techniques I could think of to hold it together in my head. I got it to the point where I could recite it through, last year, left it alone for a while, and have been revising it this year, reinforcing things, and checking that I'm actually saying the right words in the right places.

The interesting thing is that even though I'd left it alone for a few months, the basic structural approach I'd taken to learning it survived, and kept the piece mostly in my head. Some details had wandered, and had to be pulled back into line, but having done that, the thing is once again on a secure footing. Furthermore, I'm now able to get past the techniques and listen to the words themselves, something that was quite hard to do when I was learning it.

A few days ago I wrote myself a note: now is not the time to give up memorising. I've memorised Scripture and poetry for years, mostly during the half hour walk I took to work in the mornings. But I haven't revised a lot of that material for some time, and the other day I felt it was time to put the revision work in and get some of those things back into my system.

I started with Hebrews chapter 12, something I learned many years ago. To my surprise, it was basically still intact, once I'd run through it a few times; the lines that had seemed hard to get under my belt all those years ago came back without too much effort, and already I'm feeling as though it's well within my grasp again.

The joy of memorising things is that you really get to know them. We can read something over and over and still find that we skim bits, or ignore some things. Once you start to memorise, you have to learn every word, and learn it right. This does something very good for the soul...

The Lavender Hill Mob

I don't remember ever seeing The Lavender Hill Mob before, though it's a film I've heard about since I was a kid (it came out when I was six) and have wanted to catch up with for a long time.

I finally caught up on it on DVD yesterday, and what a joy it is. It has a wonderful cast, led by Alec Guinness (with a wonderful inability to pronounce the letter R) and Stanley Holloway (seemingly full of his own importance, but a softie at heart), along with Syd James and Alfie Bass (as two small-time crooks brought in to help the completely inexperienced gold thieves, Guinness and Holloway). Charles Crichton takes T E B Clarke's daft script and gives it all he's got. What a team they were.

The premise is that the extremely mild-manned Guinness, who accompanies gold bullion from the factory to the Bank on a regular basis, has hatched a plan to snaffle the latest shipment. He just needs an accomplice who fits with his plan. Holloway, whom he meets by accident, runs a small factory making gewgaws (the Factory's name, in fact) for the tourist trade. Amongst these are metal Eiffel Towers which are painted gold and sold to Paris. If the towers are actually gold, and not just gold-painted, they can be easily shipped to Paris and stored there for future sale to those who are in the market for illegal gold. The two work together and everything goes well, until...

Well, you have to watch it to see how complicated it gets, but the result is a delight. There are so many wonderful details: Alfie Bass is the tiny little crook, but his shadow as he climbs through a window is enormous; Guinness wearing a knotted handkerchief on his head as they pour the gold, an angelic smile on his face; the crazy attempt to get through French customs where they're constantly sent back for yet another check by the annoying French officials; the totally daft car chase at the end with police cars chasing each other rather than the 'villains', an American driver's car aerial getting entangled with the police aerial so that Old MacDonald has a farm goes out to all the police cars, and a policeman, hitching a lift with Guinness and Holloway rousingly joins in the song.

Or the old lady who lives in the same boarding house as Guinness and Holloway and who asks, in crime detection language, if the police have sorted things out. And the woman who owns the boarding house, a harridan of sorts who's only four foot something high. Or the way Guinness is supposed to be roughed up by his co-villains, and isn't, and has to do the job himself while tied up with rope and blindfolded. It's endlessly inventive, and much of the humour is hard to describe because of its particularly cinematic nature.

The wonderful Britishness of it all is another marvellous aspect. Was Britain ever really like this, with comic faces and eccentric attitudes on every street corner? It's hard to know, but those who made the Ealing Comedies certainly thought so, and they've left a picture of Britain for us that is heartwarming and hilarious.

Oh, and watch out for the tiniest of appearances from Audrey Hepburn, near the beginning of the movie.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Listening - making a start

I was sent a review copy of Lynne Baab's latest book - The Power of Listening - about a month or two ago. With one thing and another, I haven't had time to get into it properly, but I've dipped into it over the last few days, just to get the feel of it, in particular chapter 8 The Listening Toolbox, and chapter 9, Anxiety and Listening. Because I do a little pastoral supervision work, these chapters have both proved useful in terms of reminding me about the skills required for listening in a particular situation (supervision) and listening to people in general, in conversation, whether it's a conversation that's skimming the surface, plumbing the depths, or just being enjoyable.

It's very easy to put yourself at the centre of a conversation, and after having lunch yesterday with a group of people I know reasonably well, and travelling an hour to the venue and another hour back again, I had some opportunities to consider how I was doing in the listening area. Not 100% marks, maybe, but reasonably high. I enjoy talking with people about what they're doing, finding out more about them, hearing their views. Like so many conversationalists, however, I have to watch that I'm listening to what they're saying, and not preparing to put my oar in while they're still talking. Getting the balance right can be tricky.

Of course, it's not enjoyable to 'converse' with someone who spends the entire time talking about themselves (unless that's what the conversation is intended to be about) but equally it's not enjoyable for the other person in a conversation to feel that as soon as they've told you something you come in and 'top' their story with something you think is better. It's so easy to dredge up some old story
you think is relevant to the topic, give it some frills and make it the focus.

Anyway, thanks, Lynne, for a book that's helping in this department. Even though I've read it out of order, I'll get back to the rest as soon as I can!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hamp over and done

The Stageworks production of the play, Hamp, is now over and done with, and I've wound up with a cold. Not the only actor, apparently; a combination of tiredness and a cold theatre (or at least cold on the stage itself) didn't help.
It's an odd play, as I noted in my last post, and I don't know that any of the actors felt they completely got to grips with it. Perhaps more rehearsal time and discussion about the characters might have helped, but we were constrained by a short rehearsal period, and so had to do our best with the time we had.
The audiences 'enjoyed' it. I put enjoyed in quotes because it's not a play you enjoy; you kind of endure it, because it's pretty obvious from early on that things aren't going to go well for the main character. It's a bit like how you feel about Hamlet. No matter how many times you see it, he's never going to come out alive.
I mentioned the following incident on Facebook, I think: one lady couldn't bear to watch it to the end and left her husband in the audience while she went out and sat in the car. 'That poor young man!' she told one of front of house people. There were tears from other audience members, and gasps each night when Hamp basically opens his mouth at one crucial point in the court martial, and lands himself in the poo.
One man, however, only got to the end of the first act: 'Not my sort of thing. Boring.' He'd already muttered all the way through the act, and would have been in line to be throttled by the cast if he'd carried on any longer. The first act is a long conversation between Hamp and his defending counsel - there are only occasional interruptions from other minor characters. It's the sort of scene that requires top notch intensity, because there's no real conflict between the two characters, not much for them to get their teeth into. But that's the way the author's written it...
The cast consisted of young actors, in their early twenties, and a bunch of older actors - apart from two guys who came in somewhere in the middle. As a group we got on well; there was no sense that the youngsters avoided the oldies. It's strange to think that in thirty or forty years time, if these young actors remember acting in the play, the older actors will have long been forgotten. It's unlikely any of us will live to be a hundred or more!

Members of the cast in the court martial scene:
Rob Hart as Prescott, Lindsay Smith as the Midgely, the prosecutor, Elliot Phillips as Hamp, Craig Storey as the Guard, Rob Monzari (at back) as the Corporal, and Brian Kilkelly as Hargreaves, the defending counsel.
Photo courtesy of Ian Thomson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Different viewpoints

We had the opening night of Hamp at the Playhouse in Dunedin last night. There was a very appreciative audience who were obviously deeply engrossed in the play: we hardly heard a sound out of them all night, except for the occasional chuckle at one or two of the lines. I was interested in particular to see that no one laughed at the part of the play where Hamp collapses (too much rum) during the communion service. Plainly my concerns that people might find this funny were unfounded.

In fact, my perceptions, from the inside of the play, are obviously quite different to the way in which people see the play, as a whole, from the outside. My character, the Padre, opens the second act, under cross-examination from the prosecutor at Hamp's court martial, and then vanishes for the rest of the act, only to turn up as an important character in the third act. A number of the actors, in fact, only appear in the second act.

This has given me, as an actor, a slightly dislocated feeling in terms of the rest of the play. Of course I've seen the first act in rehearsal, and last night listened to it again on the Tannoy system that lets those backstage hear what's going on onstage, but because I have no connection with this part, I have to come onstage cold at the beginning of the second act, when several of the other actors have already been well warmed-up for an hour.

It's rather like being a bit-player in a movie: you turn up for your couple of day's shooting without having experience anything of what the other actors have been involved in. Not that I'm complaining: I'm quite content with the role because it's actually an interesting part - and I don't have anywhere near as many lines to learn as I did in Sunshine Boys!

I just have to understand that what the audience sees isn't what I see, and that the author of the play, John Wilson, knew what he was doing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Bekas is a Kurdish word that's variously translated as orphans, complete loneliness, parentless. It's all of those things. It's also the title of a slightly odd but quite engaging movie about two brothers who, after seeing part of the film Superman in their home village, decide to go to America and meet Superman. Perhaps even ask him to come back to their home country and kill Saddam Hussein (who at the time of the movie's story, was causing havoc in Kurdistan).

The orphaned brothers are not very old. Ten-year-old Dana (Sarwar Fazil) has a bit of a romance going on with a girl who is somewhat ambivalent towards him (it's never going to work, but he doesn't know that), and is the ideas man. The younger one, Zana (Zamand Taha), is six or seven, strident, energetic, optimistic, seldom put down for more than a moment - a considerable feat in Kurdistan, where any adult male (in fact, any older male, including your brother) is likely to beat you at the drop of a hat, often with the least provocation. It's not a place for wimps.

The boys shine shoes for a living, and naturally struggle to make ends meet. In their attempts to walk or ride to America (which in their minds is only a few inches across the map and therefore can't be far away) they run into various troubles, are separated, joined up again and nearly killed. It's a grim life made bearable only by keeping your own spirits up. No one else will do it for you.

The film has some humour, but in general there's little understatement of the stark poverty the boys live in. They wear the same clothes day in and out, don't appear to eat very often, and even have to berate customers to get them to pay the proper price for their shoeshining. A few older people help them at times, but for the most part they're on their own. And at journey's end, things don't seem to have made a lot of progress, though at least they're out of Saddam's clutches, for the time being.

The cast is mostly amateur, which means that people turn up here who would never appear on screen otherwise, their faces marked in many cases with the sheer difficulties of life. The two boys are good-looking, and convey all the emotion needed in their roles. Taha has a voice that would kill a goat a twenty paces - some viewers have felt he has only one vocal mode: full-bore shouting. He may be excused in this because of the sheer need his character has to be heard when so many ears around him are deaf to his cries.

The film was written and directed by Karzan Kader, and is based on his own story of escape from Kurdistan. He had previously made a short film version of it; this full-length one has no feeling of being expanded for the sake of it.

Playing the Padre

I've been rehearsing the play, Hamp, over the last few weeks. It's a Stageworks production, and performances begin next Wednesday (the 13th, August).
I'm playing the otherwise unnamed 'Padre'. He doesn't appear until the beginning of the second act, when the court martial of the title character takes place. He has three pages of dialogue at that point with the prosecuting counsel, and then vanishes again until the third act, when he comes into his own.
He's a no-nonsense character, has a true Christian faith, but is deeply troubled by the events taking place around him: not just the War itself, but the particular problems relating to Hamp's trial. His anger rises to the surface quickly, and often, because he's forever having to face men who treat other men too casually, and who regard Army rules as of more value than human life. It's a difficult part to play, but rewarding.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Worth Dying For

Worth Dying For is the first Jack Reacher novel I've read. I've heard a good deal about the series of books featuring this character, so, when I was in need of something fictional to get into, I thought I'd give one of them a go.
This book is well on in the series (the 15th) and Lee Child, the author, writes with enormous confidence about his renegade, retributionist righter-of-wrongs. Reacher hardly ever puts a foot wrong - he's that sort of character - except on one occasion when he gets his nose well and truly busted, something that several other characters in the story also suffer. In fact, if you want to remember in future which Lee Child story this is, think broken noses. They're as common as daisies here.
Reacher is dropped off at a remote crossroads in Nebraska (we later learn there may have been more to this than mere coincidence) and walks into a situation. The local doctor is in the only bar for sixty miles, in a motel (the only one for sixty miles) and is pretty drunk. He gets a call to help one of his patients who's been beaten in what appears to be a domestic violence issue, refuses to attend, and then has to change his mind when Reacher's righteousness plugs in. Which conveniently unwinds all the rest of the intricate plot.
I found the violence almost too much at times (it often gets described in detail), and the revenge/retribution elements at the end of the book seemed to have an amoral aspect to them, however satisfying it may be seeing all the baddies gradually get their just desserts. Reacher is a vigilante kind of character - at least in this book. He seems to be able to act above the law without qualm because he knows he's right. And yes, the police in this story haven't done a very good job of sorting out the disappearance of a young girl many years before, nor do they have any great part to play in dealing with the present day situation. On top of this, Reacher aims to drag the local people up out of their victim status (they've been bullied for at least a couple of decades by a trio of brothers), and does, though it takes a good deal of doing.
In other hands this story might have been a piece of nonsense, but Child has absolute control over his material, whether it's describing a weapon or car in detail, or what a fight does to a human body, or detailing the bleakness of the winter Nebraska landscape and its isolated inhabitants. The dialogue is consistently good, and trying to stop at the end of any of the chapters is quite some task. Furthermore, there are some wonderful twists in the plot, mostly concerning who is driving whose car or vehicle at a particular time, and the consequences of doing so. The baddies dispose of minor baddies, and Reacher often gives them a helping hand surreptitiously. The finale is perhaps just a little contrived, but it certainly cleans things up for good.
I wasn't going to get another book in the series out of the library. But I have.