Friday, October 31, 2008

Movie moments

Just finished reading Jeffrey Overstreet's Through a Screen Darkly, and thinking on his point that often it's one moment in a movie that gets through to your spirit, often in a way the moviemakers may not have considered.
Two that spring to mind come from successful mainstream movies, but the moments only marginally affect the movies themselves. The two movies are Crimson Tide and Waking Ned Devine, both entertaining, and both movies I've watched more than once.
But the moment in Crimson Tide that spoke most deeply to me was when the submarine was being prepared, in a downpour, to be sent out on its mission. On the soundtrack a wonderful male choir sang the hymn: For those in peril on the sea, with harmonies that came straight out of heaven.
In the other movie, it was music again that struck my soul. As the camera flew over the coastline, an Irish bagpipe was playing. The aching longing in that instrument had nothing to do with the comedy itself; it was something that belonged in the movie, yet was apart from it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mt Barth

I don't normally talk about the landscape much in this blog, being a fairly urban person by nature. But I was most intrigued today to discover that a New Zealand mountain is named after the famous theologian, Karl Barth.
Mt Barth (2456m) is located in the South Island of New Zealand. It is part of the Southern Alps. Named by Captain Cook in 1770, this range extends 550 km and includes 17 summits over 3000 meters, the highest of which is Aoraki/Mt Cook (3754 m).

If you're the first person to climb a mountain you apparently get the privilege of naming it. (So how did Mt Everest get its name, or does this just apply to New Zealand mountains?) The first people to climb Mt Barth, together, were a group of Christians: a Baptist minister named James T Crozier (he also named Anita Peak after his wife); his younger brother, G L Crozier (a pacifist who eventually became a Quaker); Bruce Gillies, who had married into the Crozier family; Selwyn Grave, the then Anglican minister of Kurow. B M Pinder was involved in a third attempt at the mountain, when they named Mt Heim, as well as naming the glacier between Barth and Heim: Thurneysen. In a later trip they renamed another mountain, Mt Calvin.

You can see a bunch of photographs of the mountain, and climbers on it, here.

Is Dawkins sliding down the pit to self-destruction?

Some quotes from an article by Melanie Phillips, in The Spectator, 23rd Oct, 2008. The article concerns a second debate between Dawkins and John Lennox, author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

At the very beginning [of the debate, Dawkins] made a most startling admission. He said: A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator. True, he was not saying he was now a deist; on the contrary, he still didn't believe in such a purposeful founding intelligence, and he was certainly still saying that belief in the personal God of the Bible was just like believing in fairies. Nevertheless, to acknowledge that ‘a serious case could be made for a deistic god’ is to undermine his previous categorical assertion that

...all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection...Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

In Oxford on Tuesday night, however, virtually the first thing he said was that a serious case could be made for believing that it could.

Read the rest of the article, in which Dawkins digs himself deeper and deeper into a confused mire, and seems more inclined to believe in some alien force creating life than God. As the King of Siam says, 'Tis a puzzlement.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Car seats

One of the joys of having grandchildren around the house these days is that if we want to take them out anywhere, we have to make sure we've got a car seat available. When our kids were small, car seats were unheard of, pretty much. We used to strap them in with the seat belts and go for it. At least we did once seat belts became the norm.
These days anyone with kids under five or six will be forced to have a bulky car seat permanently in their car taking up room. Now, don't get me wrong, I think car seats are a good idea, and in general I'm sure they've saved more lives than not, but they are a blinking nuisance as well.
If you want to go out with a small child, and don't have their car seat already in the car (because it's not your small child, but your son's or daughter's) you can bank on needing to get ready to leave at least ten minutes before your normal departure time, because it will take you that long to figure out how to get the car seat fitted into your car. Worse if it's one of these really fancy models, a Britax, or some other brand. Some of them require additional seat belt arrangements, apart from what you've already got. We seem to spend a good deal of time at our house these days swapping car seats from one car to another, just in order to transport small persons hither and yon.
Things being what they are, it's probably not far down the track that we'll have to start strapping elderly persons into specially made car seats, and then a few years later, strapping ourselves into them. That's if we can figure out what we're doing....

The model in the picture is a Britax Diplomat Convertible Car Seat. Puleeese.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ewan McGregor

Watched Ewan McGregor in a sci-fi movie called, The Island, the other night. Exciting piece, with a reasonable deal of intrigue about it. Great photography, and a good sense of the future not being too far distant from where we are now.
I was rather amused, however, at one point, when part of the plot hinged on Scarlett Johansson identifying whether McGregor was telling the truth or not by the way his eyes looked when he smiled.
To be honest I never find that McGregor looks sincere at the best of times. His smile is on the cheesy side, and I’m never convinced by his performances. He’s okay in this one, because he’s playing a naïve character who doesn’t know much about the big wide world. But this lack of conviction undermined his performances in the Star Wars movies, and even more so in that riotously appalling movie, Moulin Rouge. It wasn’t helped by the fact that he had to sing in it.

Just to show that I'm not alone in thinking the way I do about McGregor's mug, here's Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian: McGregor does that charmless rat-like grin a fair bit - less attractive than Scarlett's unvarying inflatable pout.

The value of keeping a journal

Today, being Labour Day, meant we had some spare time. It also meant that I’d start a job and get sidetracked, as I did at one point when I came across one of my old journals – pages 476- 662 to be precise, dating from October 1994 to early February, 1997.
I sat down in the sun – brilliantly sunny day today – and read the entries for the period through from October to Christmas that year. Seems to have been an extraordinarily eventful time – in my terms, anyway.
I started off playing for some singing exam, and then got roped in to play for some auditions; amongst the auditionees was Ana James, who was still only in her late teens at that stage, I think. Wrote a very long review of the local production of Les Miserables (an excellent production of a much overrated musical); talked about finding tenants for a rental property we’d not long bought; wrote about the doings of my 17-year-old daughter; discussed a loan the shop was taking out; and talked at length about getting on the Internet.
I-Day was 30.10.94. In those days it was like travelling an unknown country: the modem would play up, the Internet connections came and went with great irregularity (they went via the University at this point, and their connections were just as erratic); we could call up our provider (three times one weekend) and get extra time on credit (!) – and then go in and pay them the next day at the office under one of the local bars. Even then things were moving fast enough for a newly published book of Internet addresses to be out of date. Emails might go straight away or get held up because of intermittent connections. We joined ‘lists’ and wound up getting emails galore with people already flaming other people. But it was all very exciting: getting into the University of Honolulu’s library…!
The ‘world premiere’ of four songs I’d written to poems by Ruth Dallas happened. Ruth Dallas was at the concert, and apparently couldn’t sleep that night because she was so excited. At this time she’d was a retired lady, well-established as one of New Zealand’s best poets. We never quite get over the excitement of seeing our ‘children’ come to life again.
We altered our kitchen. Originally, when we moved into the house, there’d been a small kitchen and a small dining room next to it. We’d opened up the whole thing and made it one large room – much more convenient for a family of seven. And then, in December here we are turning it into two rooms again, the dining room becoming another bedroom. (The new dining room was in the room that’s now our bedroom.)
As well, in this month, I played again for Ana James – this time at the Town Hall. It was part of the Royal Male Choir concert, and apparently went on so long that I’d been home for an hour before it finished! And then I played for the St Francis Xavier School Musical – something I’d already been doing for several years, and was still doing a couple of years ago. They only have their musical once every two years now. I haven’t heard whether there’s one on this year or not.
During this period I also began writing book reviews for the Otago Daily Times. Dunedin being the size city it is, the book editor was Ana James’ father (!) Some time after this he moved to another editorial role, and Charmian Smith became the (very excellent) book editor. She’s just given up that role in the last couple of weeks, and…Bryan James is now book editor again!
And in October that year I also saw Forrest Gump for the first time. And then took all the kids a week or so later. I haven’t seen it for a long time, so I don’t know what I’d stll think about it, but certainly it made an impression on me at the time.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nixon in China

I’ve been listening to John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, for the last two or three weeks – just playing it over and over while I’m doing other things, or sometimes listening more intently.
It doesn’t seem to have much of a story (I read the synopsis of it in the John Adams Reader) but the music is full of wonderful stretches: exceptionally exciting one moment, lyrical in another, exhausting (for the singers, I would think) in others, and full of inventiveness. The trademark Adams slicks are there: the pumping along of a number of instruments underneath the singers, the repetitions with slight alterations of instrumentation, the vital changes of rhythm, the coconuts hammering away (as they do in the Violin Concerto), and there are also some wonderful build-ups – so huge that I have to turn the CD player down to stop the room shaking. The orchestra must be huge, and it’s full of less-usual instruments. Apart from the coconuts, there’s a piano and saxophones and a bunch of percussion. Things that you wouldn’t usually get in an opera orchestra pit.
Some of the singers’ music is wonderfully lyrical, particularly the music for the soprano. Equally she has some patches that must be a nightmare to practise: great leaps up the scale several times in a row, ending with a coloratura run-off that goes even higher. The main singer, a tenor, has a patch early on when, full of excitement, he repeats certain words over and over, or chunks of a sentence, and they come in rhythmically in more and more complex ways. He has some very high stuff too. And then the chorus gets lots of interesting music.
I imagine it would be more effective on stage – apparently the Henry Kissinger role is more visible than audible, for instance – and of course there’d be all the dancing and visual display that’s missing in a recording. Still, for the moment, the audio version will do. Whatever else, it confirms that Adams is one of the great American composers of the last fifty years.
I’ve noticed the Radio NZ Concert has been playing more of his music recently. Maybe it’s his time. My wife has just bought a 4 gig flash drive for just under $50; not only does it backup the computer, it has an MP3 player on it, and will record. Perhaps I should put a copy of the opera on it, and hear it even better. Though no doubt you’d see me occasionally walking down the street suddenly pulling off the earphones when all the percussion got into full force!


I've just been reading Jeffrey Overstreet's Through a Glass Darkly in which he talks about the way in which even the least likely movies can cause an epiphany in someone's life. It reminded me of a paragraph from the book, A Romance on Three Legs, which I talked about in an earlier post.

For some people, [Glenn] Gould's playing enabled them to hear new things. Others, including those who had no special affinity for classical music, reported feeling an intuitive connection to the music when they first heard Gould playing. Bruno Monsaingeon, a French filmmaker and violinist, was in a record store in Moscow in the late 1960s when he chance upon a couple of recordings by Gould, whose playing was unfamiliar to him. When the filmmaker listened to the records, he likened the experience to a religious epiphany, as if a voice were saying, 'Follow me.' Monsaingeon would devote the next two decades of his life to making films about Gould.
A heart surgeon in London encouraged every patient to listen to Gould's recordings of Bach before he operated. A UPS driver in Roanoke, Virginia, told a Gould scholar about the moment when a few phrases of the Goldberg Variations came over the truck's radio station and she instinctively began to reach for the dial to change to a different station. But she was turning a corner and needed both hands on the wheel, so the music continued. And continued - transforming her into a life-long devotee of Gould's work.

Elsewhere in the book it talks about a man hearing the music on his car radio, insisting on his wife pulling over and listening to the whole 45 minutes or so, before he would allow her to drive on.

The quote above is from the Prologue to the book, and the photo is of Bruno Monsaingeon.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Godless Shakespeare?

If Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens set out to write a book on Shakespeare, it would be [Eric] Mallin's Godless Shakespeare. Mallin isn't just an atheist. He is an aggressive, militant atheist. He's an angry atheist. Mallin offers readings of selected plays, organized, clumsily, by the tripartite structure of Dante's Comedy, and occasionally intersperses his interpretations with cynical reflections on contemporary Christianity. Everywhere, Shakespeare gives us godlessness—a godless hell of religious hypocrites (strange, that: doesn't Jesus consign hypocrites to hell?), a godless purgatory of failed Messiahs, a godless heaven promising pleasure and sex. But who needs evidence from the plays? Mallin knows before he begins that believers are animated by "aggressive certainty," that orthodoxy is small and mean and religion an inflexible system posing senseless riddles as if they were divine profundities. Religion is rigid; Shakespeare is flexible. Religion is certain; Shakespeare richly doubts. Religion justifies immorality by invoking God; Shakespeare is rigorously moral in a Kantian sort of way. Religion gives answers; Shakespeare poses questions. Religion is small; Shakespeare expansive. We know before we crack the First Folio that he was at best a religious skeptic. QED—that is, "Quite Easily Done."

Mallin accomplishes less than his title promises. Godless Shakespeare reveals not Godless Shakespeare but Godless Mallin. The back cover copy has it right: The book doesn't prove Shakespeare an atheist, though Mallin's may be the "first book to discuss Shakespeare's plays from an atheist perspective." That Augustine's mood is as interrogative as Shakespeare, that Christianity has impressive resources for self-criticism, that his own atheism is as stiff a collar as any orthodoxy—all this is lost on Mallin.

from Bardus Absconditus
Shakespeare is the Rorschach test of English literature.
by Peter J. Leithart

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith II

What of other lies - lies which did not necessarily make us act to our disadvantage, nor took anything from us, but which just misled us? Why should we be hurt by them?

It is all because of trust, she decided. We trusted others to tell us the truth and were let down by their failure to do so. We were hoodwinked, shown to be credulous, which is all about loss of face. And then she decided that it was nothing to do with trust, or pride. It was something to do with the moral value of things as they really were. Truth was built into the world; it informed the laws of physics; truth was the world. And if we lied about something, we disrupted, destabilized that essential truth; a lie was wrong simply because it was that which was not. A lie was contra naturam. Truth was beauty, beauty truth. But was Keats right about that? If truth and beauty were one and the same thing, then why have two differnet terms to describe it? Ideas expressed in poetry could be beguiling, but philosophically misleading, even vacuous, like the rhetoric of politicans who uttered the most beautiful-sounding platitudes about scraps of dreams, scraps of ideas.

Alexander McCall Smith in full philosophical flight - while wearing Isabel Dalhousie's contact lenses - in chapter 11 of The Comfort of Saturdays.

Alexander McCall Smith I

What if we really did kill God, what then? Would we all be rationally committed to the greater good, or would savagery be the norm? To kill God: the idea was absurd. If God existed, then he should be above being killed, by definition. But if he was just something in which we believed, or hoped, perhaps, killing him may be an act of cruelty that would rebound upon us; like telling small children that fairies were impossible, that Jack never had a beanstalk; or telling a teenager love was an illusion, a chemical response to a chemical situation. There were things, she thought, which were probably true, but which we simply should not always acknowledge as true: novels, for example - always false, elaborately constructed deceptions, but we believed them to be true while we were reading them; we had to, as otherwise there was no point. One would read, and all the time as one read, one would say, mentally, He didn't really.

Isabel Dalhousie muses, in her charming philosophical way, in Alexander McCall Smith's latest book in the Dalhousie series: The Comfort of Saturdays.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Dunedin Blogs - and Lars

I've just added another Dunedin blog to the list of links down to the left: Al's Dunedin Blog.

Al(istair) uses his blog for at least three different purposes: to be skeptical about politicians and city councillors (with the Stadium issue at full bore in the city he has plenty of material); to promote other Dunedin blogs, which get visibility each time they produce another post (at least I think that's the approach), and thirdly, to promote the Affairs of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Dunedin: the Canton of Castelburn and the College of St Kessog. Yes, well you have to check out that section of the blog to get the full gist of what he's on about there! As far as I can make out with a quick look at the photos, this society likes to dress up in mediaeval gear and play out their fantasies in Chingford Park. Have a look - it might be just up your alley!

Al's a bit more organised in this respect: on my blog everything is bundled together in one large room without differentation. Thus music and the arts get lumped together with comments on atheists and Christianity, and acting in a play bumps shoulders with reviews of movies.

Which reminds me, I finally caught up with Lars and the Real Girl last night. I'd heard it was one out of the box, and it surely is. It takes a few minutes to align the audience with the mood and tone of the movie, but once it's got its grip on you, you're hooked. At least, I was.

Lars lives in the somewhat remodeled garage of the family home; his brother and expectant sister-in-law live in the main house. Lars is there by choice: he has a disinclination to need the close company of other people. In fact, we learn later on that he can't even bear to be touched. His mother died giving birth to him, and though his father never rejected him, he obviously left a sense of guilt/gloom on his son. The father is now dead too, so the only family Lars has is in the house across the yard from him.

However, even Lars knows that all isn't well with his soul, and in an oddball attempt to reconnect with life and the world, he buys a sex doll. Not for the reasons most guys might get one, not at all. Lars wants Bianca to be his girlfriend, and his relationship with her is very chaste. He wants other people to accept her as real, something they have some difficulty in doing - at least at first.

The film then becomes the story of Lars recovery, and of the townspeople's part in that recovery - along with Bianca's. It's quite off the wall, but once you accept where it's going, and that Lars isn't as delusional as his brother thinks he is, it's a delight. Furthermore there's very little hint of the salacious in it, and the filmmakers purposely avoid making Bianca a commodity or an object. (As the short accompanying film shows, they enjoyed 'believing' in her as a real person, and had a lot of fun with the fine line between belief and reality.)

The cast aren't well-known to me at all, especially Ryan Gosling, whom I don't remember seeing before. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are familiar, but I couldn't tell you what I've seen them in. Patricia Clarkson is a very familiar face, but again I had to check out what she'd been in to see why I recognised her. Everyone of them is great, perfectly cast. You get the sense that everyone is fully involved in the movie and in its success.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Glenn Gould

I’ve just finished reading an unusual book, A Romance on Three Legs, by Katie Hafner. I’m not much fussed about the title, which actually doesn’t make a lot of sense when you get down to it, but the book otherwise is wonderfully written.
It’s firstly the story of Glenn Gould, that extraordinary Canadian pianist who wowed the world with his playing of Bach and various other composers, and who was also (pretty much undeniably) the most eccentric genius/pianist to walk the earth for many moons. He was self-centred, increasingly a hypochondriac (he wore heavy coats in summer, and fingerless gloves), arrogant, and in general a fair pain to deal with. Yet some people got past all that and cared about him.
Secondly, it’s the story of Verne Edquist, an almost blind piano tuner, who served Gould’s tuning needs for a good deal of the latter’s later years.
It’s also the story of the wonderful Steinway piano that Gould fell in love with. It had a ‘name’ CD318, and was perfectly attuned to Gould’s needs. After having searched without success for the ‘right’ piano all over the States and Canada, it turned out that CD318 was sitting waiting for him in a hall in his own city – and he’d actually played on it as a child prodigy.
Beyond these three stories are more: the growth and success and decline of Steinway and Sons, an extraordinary piano-making company that was without rival in the first half of the 20th century, as well as the intricate way in which a grand piano is constructed, piece by piece, and then worked over until it’s tuned to perfection. Hafner goes into detail, the way North American journalists do, but here she keeps us interested from the word go.
Gould seldom comes across as someone you’d want to spend much time with. He was often devious, he dropped longstanding friends at the drop of a hat, he was obsessive about a multitude of things (including another man’s wife), he was ridiculously superstitious, and he felt the world was there to serve him. He was forgiven most of these aspects of his character because of his ability to play so wonderfully. There is no doubt he had genius: quite apart from anything else, he could study a score away from the piano, and play it perfectly once he sat down in front of the keyboard. ‘Sat down’ is apt: he always sat on an ancient chair (it eventually lost all padding) even at concerts, and it was so low that his nose was virtually level with the keyboard. Any pianist will tell you that this is an impossible and potentially unhealthy way to play, but Gould did it, because it somehow suited his utterly fluid style. [The photo shows him sitting relatively normally at the keyboard, but other photos have him sitting in a much less 'normal' position.]
Did I mention that Gould was opinionated? (Often to his disadvantage: he once missed out on hearing an older pianistic genius play because he disdained his choice of repertoire.) Here’s Hafner on Gould’s musical tastes (which admittedly varied at times):
Glenn Gould seldom played the Romantics, and even spoke scornfully of the entire 19th century piano repertoire, including Beethoven. He had a passion for Beethoven’s early sonatas but considered the composer’s middle period – the Appassionatia and Waldstein, for example – nothing but ‘junk’ (although he did record most of the composer’s major works for piano). Gould could be a fickle critic; he dismissed Mozart’s later music as either hedonistic or, at the other extreme, mechanical. “Too many of his works sound like interoffice memos,” he once wrote. Yet he was very fond of Mozart’s early sonatas, especially those with a Baroque character, and he ended up recording all of them. He liked Mendelssohn but dismissed most of his piano music. He simply ignored Schubert, while more thoroughly denouncing Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. Early 20th century composers like Ravel and Debussy didn’t fare much better. And he detested Bartok and Stravinsky; in 1952, when Gould was nineteen, he filled in a questionnaire for the CBC and placed those two musicians under the heading “Most Over-estimated Modern Composers.”

Hafner's biography may be incomplete in some respects; the Wikipedia article (see link under his name above) discusses a number of other matters that make little or no appearance in the book, such as his extensive writing and his compositions. There are a bunch of videos of Gould, both in black and white and colour, on You Tube.

John Gray and humanity

I’ve been reading John Gray’s Heresies, a book published in 2004. Some of the essays go back to the late 90s, but they are, for the most part, still very relevant. I don’t think Gray is particularly optimistic about the future of the human race (he certainly doesn’t see science as our great salvation and he sees our history as being littered with war and strife) but at least he’s more honest about it than the secular humanists, who somehow think we’re going to overcome all our difficulties by putting faith (yes, faith) in the willingness of scientists to work together. Here’s one typical example of his thinking, from Sex, Atheism and Piano Legs.

The need for religion appears to be hard-wired in the human animal. Certainly the behaviour of secular humanists supports this hypothesis. Atheists are usually just as ardently engaged as believers. Quite commonly, they are more intellectually rigid. One cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the who, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more freethinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves). No doubt there are many reasons for this state of affairs, but I suspect it is the repression of the religious impulse that explains the obsessive rigidity of secular thought.

Blog Poverty Day today

Today is the actual day - the 15th - as opposed to the day when I wrote the last post on the Blog Action Poverty Day.

One of the interesting things they discuss on their site are Kiva Loans. These are loans made via Paypal or other electronic means which can be used to help someone (usually in the Third World, I presume) start up a small business. The loan is eventually paid back and can be then recycled for someone else.

The basic mechanism of the lending process is here. I've come across similar approaches before, of course (the idea certainly isn't new), but this is the first time I've seen it promoted through the Web in this way. The other difference seems to be that you can combine with a bunch of other lenders to increase the size of the available loan.

The other aspect is that you can actually see who you'll be lending to: there's information about a number of people looking for loans. Some are groups who've got together - or have been together for some time - and some are individuals, like Mastura Chakalova who's been selling children's clothing for nine years in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia; one of its neighbours is Afghanistan and another is China.

The more I look into this scheme (which has been running successfully as a non-profit for at least three years) the more I'm impressed. Check it out!

Better than spending money on that Harley and its Harley parts...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty

I've just been reading a whole pile of stats from the Technorati site on the state of blogging in the world. Okay, it's probably a little loaded in terms of the US, but Europe and Asia get a good look in too. (Australasia is lagging a bit behind, but perhaps we were already a day ahead when the survey was sent out?) Anyway, it's interesting to compare those stats with the ones available for the Blog Poverty Day. Here are some of the top facts:
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
  • 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
These are tough stats, and sitting here blogging doesn't seem to be much of a way to reduce them. However, joining in this poverty action day is a start, and I recommend it to anyone else who blogs to get involved. It's not officially till the 15th of this month, but getting a head start won't matter, I'm sure.
These stats come from the Global Issues site, where there are plenty more shocking statistics.
Perhaps what's worst at the moment is the way the world's scrambling to save its wealth, when the money that's being put into saving it could save real live human beings - millions of them - around the world. Sad to say, greed still reigns supreme, especially in the US, where CEOs who do next to nothing for their livelihoods except pronounce what hundreds of real workers should do, bail out with millions of dollars in retirement funds. Well, they can't take it with them, and when they meet up with the poor in the world after death, I hope they have a good excuse for their behaviour.
Which doesn't mean that I'm less guilty because I don't happen to be in their shoes, though I do aim to help when I can.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Watched Gone Baby Gone on DVD the other night. I hadn’t heard of it until I came across it in the video store, which is a bit of a surprise now, having seen the movie. It’s top quality, and tells a difficult tale with great integrity. You certainly won’t agree with the actions of all the characters, especially that of the main character, but it’s a movie that makes you think about what the characters do.
It’s Mystic River territory, but without the three heavyweights who carried that movie. Here the main character, Patrick, is played by Casey Affleck (his taller and better-known brother, Ben directs the movie). This Affleck is someone I don’t remember having seen before, even though he appeared in all three of the Oceans movies. (Not that you remember anyone of the other eight Ocean team members in those movies, pretty much, since they’re so thinly written as characters). Casey is superb in the movie: he comes across as having strength, in spite of his relative youth; he has a moral compass that pretty much sticks on course even though all those around him disagree with his decisions (especially his final one); and he’s believable. His partner, Angie, played in a very soft fashion by Michelle Monaghan, seems almost miscast. Could such a person exist in the neighbourhood portrayed in the movie, where she’s supposed to be at home? She has intuition, sure, but she has little else as a character. She’s the only weak point in the movie, I think.
Patrick and Angie are lovers and partners in work: they’re private detectives, of a sort, and are very familiar with the extremely rough-and-ready territory they inhabit. So rough-and-ready you don’t want to open your mouth and say the wrong word at the wrong time: though Affleck’s character frequently does. The movie is littered with the f-word and even uses the c-word in one striking – and appropriate - moment. And the cast surrounding the main actors is full of actors and, I suspect, non-actors, who look so real you know you wouldn’t want to meet them in broad daylight - let alone at night.
The story concerns a missing child, a little girl, whose mother doesn’t give a damn about her, really, though she professes to. Her uncle and aunt are obviously the ones who care about her, and love her, and they employ the private detectives to bump up the lack of progress in the police case. In spite of this, the detectives get involved with a couple of ordinary police detectives (one of them played by Ed Harris, looking as though the hairdresser had a field day with his tonsure), and the story progresses from there with constant twists and turns. Morgan Freeman makes a few vital appearances, and Amy Ryan is scarily on target as the child's crass and careless mother.
It has a ‘happier’ ending than Mystic River – in one sense. But the choice that Affleck takes is tough, and there’s no knowing where it will lead him. The ending is wide open. (Apparently there’s an alternative ending on the DVD, but we didn’t have time to check it out.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


We went to see Tricicle tonight. This is part of the Otago Festival of the Arts, and consists of three Spanish mimes (who occasionally speak or make noises): Eduard Méndez, Antonio Del Valle, Fedor De Pablos. These aren’t the original three guys, apparently, but members of a sister company that tours internationally. I’m not entirely sure that I understand how it all works, even after reading the info on the website, but the original three members are still working together after thirty years, and still producing new shows on a fairly regular basis.
What we saw tonight, I think, is some of the best sketches the original company produced. If these three guys are the originals, they’re certainly well up to scratch, and their performances are top notch. They had the audience in fits from the very beginning, and there was little respite at any point afterwards.
There’s lots of interaction with the audience, so it was worth being downstairs. Apparently the people upstairs missed a lot of went on in the stalls, where newspapers were tossed back and forth between the performers and the audience, or people were picked out for a boxing match, or a pretty girl was invited to blow kisses, or some people supposedly upset one of the performers and was given dirty looks for ages afterwards.
The highlight is the skit with the three dressed as babies, in nothing but floppy and possibly poo-filled nappies. They totter around the stage threatening to fall over constantly, and their arms flap around in a fairly useless fashion. They play with a giant size ball, knocking each other over, or themselves, and in general create chaos with the minimum of material.
In other scenes all three are boxers in the same ring, or two are tennis players trying to hit a ball that’s actually connected to a long rod held by the umpire, or their three hoons trying to work out how many things they can do with three toilet seats, or a couple of them are airhostesses on a rather dodgy plane (that was when the newspapers got thrown everywhere, the audience joining in with delight). There’s a long sequence in a dentist’s waiting room that builds up more as each one of the cast comes in. There are some props in this: a metal lamp that each of the cast gets their head caught in at some point, and is later used for a variety of other less lamplike purposes; a couch that insists on making rude noises when sat on, and an armchair that apparently has no seat, so that whoever sits in it almost vanishes. There’s a very supple coat rack as well.
But often there’s hardly a prop in sight. The three have utterly flexible bodies, and faces, and do most of what they make us laugh with, with these alone.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Dear old Uncle Harold

For the last few weeks I’ve been working my way back through the Beethoven sonatas again. I haven’t played them much for a couple of years or more. I think I got a bit sick of them, or felt I just wasn’t playing them well. Anyway, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying going back through them one by one, working on some passages to get them right: including passages in one that was probably the first Beethoven sonata I ever learned – except it doesn’t look as though I ever learned these particular tricky bits properly. Must have fudged them. How I managed to get away with that with my teacher I can’t imagine.
I mentioned a while ago, when I was playing through the Mozart sonatas again, that I was getting irritated by Franklin Taylor, who edited the edition I have.
The editor of the Beethoven volumes, Harold Craxton, isn’t much better. He doesn’t tend to add dynamics, unless there’s a very valid reason to do so. On that side, I give him credit. The layout of the music is excellent. It’s his introductory comments that are over the top. They have a real pompous uncle feel about them, the sort of pompous uncle who’s never done anything wrong and looks down with disdain on those who do. Especially people still learning their craft.
For Sonata number 7, for instance, we find this: In some early editions a very silly person inserted a crescendo leading to a fortissimo end. If people still exist who do not see the point of a pianissimo arpeggio without pedal and with an exact final crotchet, why consider their interests?
Or, after discussing some particular point, he writes: The Slough of Despond and the Serbonian Bog will be drained before all such possibilities are exhausted.
Will they indeed?
Or, in relation to the Pathetique: Remember it is very unimportant whether you take six months or six years in screwing this Allegro up until you can break speed-records, but that it is very important for your own harmonious development that you should not play it badly at any stage of your practice.
Or, in relation to the 3rd Sonata: Some students ask for an edition in which such passages [cadenzas] are written out in full-sized notes, chopped into ordinary bars by machinery. Their trouble is that they do not want to learn music, but simply to be taught a set of parlour tricks.
Dear me, Uncle Harold. How can my poor playing ever meet with your approval?

Does Google do an automatic crawl?

For years I was put off automatic cars because of the trouble we had with the original automatic we owned. It was a lovely car - can't remember the model, but it was white (if that's any help!), and I was using it to drive round Dunedin while I sold brushes for Bon Brushes. One of my less inspiring occupations.
The lovely white automatic broke down one day and was pronounced beyond repair, because, supposedly in those days, once the automatic bit went the car had had it. Despair and much gnashing of teeth. Fortunately some friends of ours lent us a little Mini for the interim until we managed to get our own car again. (I can't remember how we managed that, now, but we must have done it some how.)
We now own another automatic, a Mitsubishi Chariot, and we've been assured that the days of automatics breaking down beyond repair are long gone. I was reminded of all this because I was just reading about steering racks, and thought I'd check up on the Chariot's while I was there.
I don't actually have any idea what a steering rack is, and the site didn't make me any the wiser -except that it's obviously something that makes the steering work, in some way.
Someone who won't be any the wiser either is the person who put in the search query: I want to know how Google crowl. Now I'm flattered about this, except he was obviously asking how Google crawled. Yet again people don't know how to spell a simple word and consequently make themselves more confused than ever!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Weekend reading

Had a bit of a splurge of novel reading over the last couple of days. From the tip shop I picked up a copy of a novel by Thomas Keneally called A Victim of the Aurora, and read it Sat/Sunday. Began a novel by Ruth Rendell which had been sitting unnoticed on our shelves for some time, and read it Sun/Monday. It’s called Going Wrong.
Both are odd stories, in their way. The first concerns an Antarctic expedition at the turn of the 19th century. A murder is committed at the base camp, and eventually the murderer is found out. But it’s hardly a straightforward murder mystery. In fact, the ending is more moral than you expect.
Rendell’s book is equally not your usual murder story. Its main character, through whom we see everything that happens, is a youngish man who’s made a mint in drug dealing in the past, and now is going straight - mostly. He’s besotted with a woman a few years younger than him, and misconstrues everything about her and her family by twisting other people’s motives. We can see the truth – generally speaking – but he, frustratingly, never seems to. Again it has a more moral ending than we expect. To say more in either case would give the game away.
Both books are excellently written, stylish, and literate. They require the reader to think through the puzzles, which are quite dense in both cases – not so much in terms of clues as in terms of human behaviour. And in both cases we come to like the villain, because we understand them more than some of those around do. Rendell in particular makes it hard not to like her main character, even with all his inverse snobbery, his out-of-date manners, his inability to see things clearly. He’s human, underneath his wrongheaded behaviour, in a way that we can well sympathise with.
Alongside his mystery, Keneally gives us a huge amount of insight into living in the Antarctic before the First World War, while Rendell’s story is chock full of detail about the way people dress, drink, eat; what sort of furniture and ‘props’ they surround their lives with.

Ten Commandments for Bloggers

Godblogs, a gathering held by the Evangelical Alliance on 23 September, was designed to give Christian bloggers an opportunity to network face-to-face and think through a Christian approach to blogging. The group, aged from 18 to 87, reflected on how to honour God with their blogs and in their relationships online. The following Ten Commandments were one result of their meeting.

1. You shall not put your blog before your integrity.

2. You shall not make an idol of your blog.

3. You shall not misuse your screen name by using your anonymity to sin.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by taking one day off a week from your blog.

5. Honour your fellow-bloggers above yourselves and do not give undue significance to their mistakes.

6. You shall not murder someone else’s honour, reputation or feelings.

7. You shall not use the web to commit or permit adultery in your mind.

8. You shall not steal another person’s content.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your fellow-blogger.

10. You shall not covet your neighbour's blog ranking. Be content with your own content.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

God and the New Atheism

After reading Antony Flew’s There is a God, a few weeks ago, I found John Haught’s book, God and the New Atheism, a bit of a fizzer. He has some good things to say in his arguments against Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but he’s repetitious in his writing, and the book looks as though it’s been produced in rather a hurry, in order to cash in on the current interest in the Christian/Atheist debates. Maybe I just don’t like Haught’s style, and that’s put me off. However, I finished reading it this morning, so whatever he has to say, I’ve now read (!)
Flew’s book was inspiring, by contrast. Here’s a man who has the integrity to say he was wrong about the way he thought previously. This seems to me to be the mark of a true philosopher: as Flew says, he follows arguments to their logical conclusion, even if it means given up long-held beliefs.
Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris remind me more of fundamentalists in various religions: people who are so set on a few basic points that they can’t see any other arguments. (The original Christian fundamentalists had far more breadth to their beliefs; unfortunately their name has been adopted for a group who are narrow and backed into corners.) Philosophically they're much more like teenagers in need of acne treatment than people who've grown up and really argued through all the issues. You find plenty of their adherents on the Net: people who have no willingness to listen to anything beyond their own narrow views.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


I read Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, two or three years ago, when I was ploughing through his books at a rate of knots (having only just discovered him). A friend lent me the DVD, and it only clicked that I knew the story when they started talking about the village of Wall. From then on in, it was pure enjoyment.
Roger Ebert is surprisingly fuddy-duddy about the movie. James Berardinelli much more equable. Furthermore it actually tells the story better than the book did, which must be highly unusual. I remember that the last stretches of the book were somewhat rushed, or underwritten, as though Gaiman had run out of time or energy. Here in the movie, they have room to breathe, and the climax is truly a climax.
I can’t say I’m overfussed about Robert de Niro’s turn as a gay Pirate ship captain; that’s definitely a departure from the book. But since Gaiman had considerable input into the movie, he must have been happy with it. And it works well enough in the context of a fantasy world where nothing is quite what it seems. I seem to remember too, that the last of the nasty brothers was despatched well before the end. Here he survives until the last scene, which is more appropriate.
Charlie Cox is an absolute delight in the main role of Tristan; he and the role are one. Clare Danes does an English accent pretty well, (and is wonderfully down to earth) as Gwyneth Paltrow has done in a couple of movies – in fact, there’s a considerable resemblance between the two. It was almost as if Paltrow had dubbed Danes’ voice – or maybe they both have the same person dubbing for them?
There are a host of other names in the cast, from Michelle Pfeiffer at her gorgeous nastiest to Peter O’Toole having a day in bed as the revolting old king. Ricky Gervais gets a double comeuppance, first having his voice turned into that of a chicken’s, and then being dealt to with a sword because he can’t speak properly. There might be certain customers who think both were appropriate! Cox gets turned into a mouse at one point, Kate Magowan is a bird as often as a woman, Jake Curran becomes a goat, then a woman and a goat becomes a man in the form of Mark Williams, who manages to retain a great degree of goatiness. This isn’t a world where you want to meet the wrong person.
Nathaniel Parker turns up briefly as the grown-up version of the young man we meet early in the piece – he’s played by Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian, for those who don’t recognise the name). Here he isn’t the handsome Narnian, just a good-looking young village boy, with a taste for adventure.
Berardinelli, for some reason, compares the movie unfavourably to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re worlds apart: the humour is quite different, particular the black humour, and there’s a sense that anything could happen here, whereas LOTR has a much more focused logic about it. Perhaps it’s the old problem of Yanks not finding British humour quite so appealing. Ebert certainly seems to have had a bad lunch before he saw the movie.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief

Just watched To Catch a Thief for the first time in forty years or more. It’s entertaining, though hardly suspenseful. Things that might have had the audience gasping back in the fifties, such as the car chase, are tame by comparison with more recent similar chases, and the story itself is pretty mild.
Still, as lightweight Hitchcock, it’s good value. The script (and on set cast additions to it) are subtle and full of innuendo, and Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams make the most of the lines. Landis plays Kelly’s mother in this movie, but Grant’s in North by Northwest. Here he’s too old, in truth, to be Kelly’s lover; in the other movie, he’s almost the same age as his screen mother (she was only six years older than him, in fact.) But his charm is undeniable, and the edginess between him and Kelly is intriguing. Apparently he didn’t want to do the movie, having pretty much retired (!), and there’s a certain misogynistic streak in his playing off against Kelly.
A great deal of the film is actually studio-shot: even though the company spent time in the Riviera, the use of VistaVision meant that many of the location close-ups weren’t satisfactory (the backgrounds got blurred), and in the end there’s a lot of use of filmed back projections against which the actors work. It might have looked good at the time, but in the DVD version I’ve just seen, the contrast between the real actors and the back projection isn’t satisfactory. Grant particularly seems to come off badly: his sunburnt ‘look’ is often too dark in contrast to the filmed scenery behind him. (This might be to do more with the DVD copy than the original film.)

Spoilers Galore

I didn’t read Roger Ebert’s review of Derailed before I watched the movie, because he said there’d be spoilers in his review; the same applies to this one. If you haven’t seen the movie, and want to, don’t read any further.
Derailed takes a good deal of time to set itself up, and for quite a bit of its first twenty minutes or so, doesn’t seem like much of a thriller. However, all the set up is essential for the later part of the movie, and is in fact the most logical section of the movie, all up. Derailed is exciting enough in its own unusual way; certainly every time the villain (Vincent Cassel) appears things turn pretty scary. He’s one of those uninhibited creatures who can walk into the hero’s home without batting an eyelid and set about charming the wife and the daughter as though this was all perfectly normal. And then, as soon as the wife and daughter are out of the way, he literally grabs the hero by the balls and threatens him again. Nastiest of all, he manages to survive being shot late in the movie in order to turn up for the final scenes.
Derailed is one big scam: both the audience and the hero are fooled by it for a good deal of time, but it’s when the scam is finally revealed, and the hero (something of a worm) turns and becomes proactive that things cease to hold together. A major shoot-up late in the piece that leaves four characters dead is dramatic, but almost as full of holes as the characters; and the possibility that the villain could survive this without the hero knowing, or, apparently, the police (!), is absurd in hindsight. This section is a bit of a cheat really. But then the whole thing is about cheating. Jennifer Aniston plays a woman who’s job is to ‘cheat’ in the financial area – or so she tells us. In fact, she’s cheating the hero and the audience rather than anyone financial. The hero cheats on his wife – almost – and gets himself into big blackmailing difficulties as a result. We find out late in the piece that he’s cheated on his boss, by ‘borrowing’ some money from the firm, but he’s also cheated on his wife in a different way by siphoning off the hard-earned savings they’ve put together for their diabetic daughter’s future. While his intentions are good – in a sense – they just put him and his family into deeper and deeper holes. And even the boss cheats, by allowing a big account holder to walk all over the hero in an early scene without supporting him in any way. There’s another piece of cheating gone on before the movie starts too: the hero has covered up for an ex-con who’s working in his firm. Again his intentions may have been honourable, but they seem unwise in hindsight.
In spite of my quibbles, this is a satisfying movie to watch: it’s well put together, the cast are excellent (Clive Owen has the worn-out and sometimes bewildered face of Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, and Aniston is miles away from her Friends character); the photography, design and direction are all top quality, and even with the cheating ending, it still works. Some of the minor characters are a bit underwritten: Owen’s lawyer never seems to get off one note, and the black detective who turns up late in the proceedings might seem threatening, but Owen gives him the brush-off in every scene they have together. Equally, we never know why his boss appears to be so unsupportive, or why Owen’s wife (who seems young enough to be his daughter) is apparently remote.
Obviously I’m pretty much alone in liking the movie (Ebert says it’s okay); however, there’s a fairly friendly interview with Clive Owen on the movie here.