Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Northland Trip - Stage Seven

After Christmas in Auckland, it was time to return to the north, this time with family to spend some time in Pouto, on the tip of the North Head of the Kaipara Harbour. It is not a very big place, just a few baches, a lodge and a lighthouse: I spent the early part of my childhood here; for some reason, my eldest nephew had a hankering for us to come up here for Boxing Day. Unfortunately, he was the only one in the family not to make it. We had booked the Memorial Hall, which has been equipped with bunks since I was last here, but the green space surrounding it was so inviting, that I decided camping was the way to go. Yes! That's right; I have taken up camping.

Some random beach scenes from Pouto:
This will explain why Ninety Mile Beach had little appeal; I grew up on a superior beach, one we had always simply called Pouto Beach, but apparently all along it had another name, Ripiri Beach - it stretches all the way past Dargaville. As a kid, we'd sometimes make the 22 mile journey up the beach, always well after midnight, in order to get toheroa. This time, we drove up to Bayley's Beach, where there is a very nice cafe, for coffees, beer and ice cream, going past the old Pouto Lighthouse on the way
The beach was just like a road, smoother even (back in the days we lived there, the road out of Pouto was so bad it would take us a couple of hours to get to Dargaville). On this trip, we averaged 100 km/hrOn the way back, we detoured through Kelly's Bay, as there were rumours of a shop. Nothing of the sort was to be found, just this fellowSince my plan was to carry on up the West Coast and be back in Whangarei in time for the New Year, it was time to push off. Not before visiting my old school, however, where I walked around having a smoke, just to show how bad I am. No-one was there to see it Finally, this is the sort of scenery to be seen from the back of the school I think my brother was right: we lived in paradise and never knew it. Maybe we needed a sign:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

This is the book Ford regarded as his best: it is certainly his most famous. He wrote it when he was forty and had a few problems of his own, "an intensely lived history of unhappy marriages, agonized love affairs, and troubled male friendships" according to the introductory note to the Oxford World's Classics edition. This is the very stuff of the novel. The more I think about, the gladder I am that I have finally read it, as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Ford employed what was then an unusual technique, but one which actually makes a lot of sense in terms of realism in story-telling. Rather than a faithful rendition, starting at the beginning and working through chronologically, Ford took on the task of giving an Impressionist account (James and Conrad are vital influences in this). As Ford says, a problem with the English novel is that it goes "straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintanceship with your fellows you never do go straight forward." Instead, you form an initial impression, you discover various things about him as you go along. So "to get such a man in fiction you could not begin at the beginning and work his life through to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past."

So, in this way, things that might well be spoilers in a more conventional novel are given to the reader in the first chapter, with the novel then providing an idea of how such things come about, as well as details of the narrator's present predicament, why he
starts the novel with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard". Of course, the technique could simply lead to a lot of muddle and repetition - at one point, his narrator apologises for telling the story in a very rambling way but, really, it doesn't matter. In fact, it adds to the story, because events can be seen in a new light when we the reader have learnt more about the characters and their situation.

The novel involves two couples - the Ashburnhams (Captain Ashburnham is supposedly the "good soldier" of the title, and he is certainly kind to his men) and the Dowells. John Dowell, an American, is the narrator. They become acquainted by going to the same spa resort at Nauheim in Germany for nine seasons in a row. Florence Dowell and Captain Ashburnham both had "a heart" and were thus sent there under doctors orders: both are now dead. For the four of them their
intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose; and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us...
So close, and yet so much beneath the surface; "poor dear Florence" (Dowell) and Edward Ashburnham were having an affair, despite saying little to each other in public and having very little opportunity to be just the two of them. At the same time, the Ashburnhams "never spoke a word to each other in private". Poor old John Dowell wails
No, by God, it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison - a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along...
But then he thinks - for nine years, things went along apparently smoothly, even if he had no clue as to what was really happening
If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?
Um, I don't think so. Anyway, he spends the subsequent chapters telling the story of the previous nine years and six months. Key components are that Edward Ashburnham is a womaniser who has no passion for his wife, but she is in lockstep with him, both because she is in love with him and because she is a strict Catholic - at one point, there is a suggestion that she must stick with him as some form of duty to all women. He accepts it because, really, its for his own good; he's a soft touch, to women, to loan sharks, and to those in need. So, he's had various affairs but all has been fairly quiet for the last nine years, ever since his last squeeze died. Yes, he's been carrying on with Leonara, but there's no passion involved.

But his final big thing, wow, that's the biggest ever in a way. He and Leonara have this semi-adopted daughter, Nancy Rufford - she kind of slips into the narrative under the guise of the "poor girl" and it takes a while for it to become clear who she is. One night, however, "something happened" to Edward, that took him completely by surprise - he sees the poor girl in a new light, as a woman rather than as someone in his charge, and discovers her to be the only woman he ever loved.

Now, the thing that makes this novel different to most is that, having discovered this sudden passion, he makes no declaration, is careful to take no action of any sort towards "possession". He recognises the tabu, recognises his position as her stand-in father and also recognises that to say anything would be a "final outrage" against his wife. And so, he goes mad. The thing is, so does she, once she finds the cause of his behaviour, such is her utter devotion to him.

As for John and Florence, he, as soon as he saw her he "determined with all the obstinacy of a possibly weak nature, if not to make her mine, at least to marry her." As it happens, he never made her his, just married her
I do not know that my courtship of Florence made much progress at first. Perhaps that was because it took place almost entirely during the daytime, on hot afternoons, when the clouds of dust hung like fog, right up as high as the tops of the thin-leaved elms. The night, I believe, is the proper season, for the gentle feats of love, not a Connecticut July afternoon, when any sort of proximity is an almost appalling thought. But, if I never so much as kissed Florence, she let me discover very easily, in the course of a fortnight, her simple wants.
All it took was for him to have lots of money, to be a gentleman of leisure and to enable her to enter English society. "And - she faintly hinted - she did not want much physical passion in the affair. Americans, you know, can envisage such unions without blinking." He must have been referring to himself, as she had her own sources of amusement which did not involve him, poor dupe. I felt for him when, two hours after Florence has died, Leonara chose to talk openly to him, to suggest he might marry Nancy and to thank him for being a brother to her in her troubles
'You are all the consolation I have in the world. And isn't it odd to think that if your wife hadn't been my husband's mistress, you would probably never been here at all?'

That was how I got the news, full in the face, like that.
But the poor girl cannot be married, as she has lost her reason, something needed by the Anglican church to marry. So, John Dowell, who might also be called a good soldier, finds himself very much where he started, "as attendant, not the husband of a beautiful girl, who pays no attention to me."


Thursday, February 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

This is a movie which has garnered a lot of critical acclaim along with popular support, with nods towards the possibility of Oscars success. I see a long list of reviewers at Metacritic have given it 100 out of 100. I don't remember a longer list. But then there is the occasional voice in the wilderness: I find it quite funny that I came out of this movie with almost exactly the same response that I now see Stephanie Zacharek of Salon had: she called it an "austere folly". Numerous letter writers have panned her as someone who basically doesn't have a clue. To me, the film seemed like a grand failure, a flawed masterpiece - a movie which had the bones and intents to be a truly great one but which somehow miss-fired, along the lines of Heaven's Gate, although not quite so dramatically. The cinematography is brilliant, so too is most of the acting but, well, there's just something missing with the actual story.

To be fair, even its most ardent fans seem prepared to call it an eccentric epic. Its director, Anderson, has certainly taken some risks: the first fifteen minutes tell the story of 15 years in the lives of the central characters without a word being said. Blink and you'll miss the fact that H.W. (Dillon Freasier), claimed by Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) as his son is in fact an orphan created when his father dies in a mining accident. So, are we to believe Plainview later on when he claims that he only took H.W. around with him because it helped him raise money and get land for his oil drilling operations:
his targets seemed sympathetic to his "family values" claim and were quite chharmed that this solemn-faced boy of 9 or 10 was Plainview's "business partner".

It seemed to me that there were two main narratives at work here. The first was simple: the making of the oilman, Daniel Plainview. So we see him hard at work down a silver mine in 1898, then having modest success with an oilwell a few years later and much more success in 1911. Finally, someone is speaking: Plainview is making a sales pitch. He has several wells producing and is fully equipped to commence drilling on his own account just as soon as any landowner with prospects of oils lets him do so. Throughout the movie, we see him persuading others to give him what he wants; on the whole, what he says to get what he wants is false. I love the mention in the Age
of his "honeyed yet faintly off-key rhetoric".

His big break comes a while later, when a fellow with an oddly blank and pale face (Paul Dano) sells him information about a place so flooded with oil it is seeping to the surface. This land is about 100 miles from the Californian coast; oil can be extracted and, instead of being reliant upon the rapacious railwaymen to find a market, can be piped directly out to Californian refineries.

It is up here that the second narrative starts: Plainview comes into conflict with a very religious young man, Eli Sunday, also played by Paul Dano (I have no idea where is brother is supposed to have got to - apparently it was not the original plan that both brothers be played by the same actor, but the fellow had been signed up to play Eli found something else to do, and Dano had about a week to get up to speed). At first, Eli seems innocuous enough, but Plainview is immediately dead set against him. So there is this great scene, where it has been agreed that Eli will bless Plainview's new derrick, and Plainview will introduce Eli as a man of the soil. What does Plainview do? He introduces Eli's sister as a young woman of the soil and gives the blessing himself, with Eli looking on. Ultimately it is revealed that Eli is a preacher, with his own church, that "of the Third Revelation", and the capability for an extremely histrionic form of preaching.

But I think it would be too simplistic to describe this second narrative as a fight between good and evil; you have to put capitalism in the mix and, while capitalism is shown to be an evil force in Upton Sinclair's book Oil which inspired this movie, I don't think the movie makes that claim for capitalism. In fact, I think the movie might even be more generally concerned with zealotry of any stripe: we have a narrative focussed upon strife between two zealots, two men who really have nothing but the thing they have devoted themselves to. This explains something which has troubled many critics: there are no women in the movie, not until H.W. is an adult.

I'm not too sure there is any good in Daniel; yes, he seems to have genuine feeling for H.W. but maybe it is simply a means to an end. Daniel is ultimately awful to H.W, really awful. He also might have some sort of brotherly feeling for the fellow who turns up and claims to be his brother, but generally treats him as another worker, no closer than his second-in-command. Again, he is awful to this fellow as well. There is a certain inscrutability which masks everything he does, although it is clear he has no time at all for religion. This provides a context for two successive bargains between Daniel and Eli: Eli will help Daniel get the land he needs if Daniel will allow himself to be baptised. Later, a couple of decades later, when things have turned bad for Eli and his church, Daniel says he will buy some land Eli can procure if Eli will renounce his faith and declare it to be superstition.

The very end puzzles me, as it seems completely gratuitous in light of Daniel getting his own way in everything.

Catering For Vegetarians

I had to pay a visit to Oamaru last night as two of my favourite musicians were playing the Penguin Club. They sang and entertained with wry stories about spending days on the road until about eleven. As I had had to make a quick exit from Dunedin and even then arrived at the Penguin Club after the thing had started, I'd not had a chance to eat. Surprisingly, Oamaru does not have many options for food at 11:00 on a Tuesday night - no McDonalds, no Subway. I was thinking it would have to be an awful service station pie, but was surprised to find a fish and chip shop might just be open. The street sign had been taken in, but there was still a sign on the door saying open. I stopped outside - there was a woman wiping the door, but she paused in her activity when she saw me watching her, trying to decide if she was just doing the last cleaning up before going home, or was in fact open for business.

I took up the only way of finding out for sure - I went in. While she was cooking my fish and chips, I had some time to investigate the menu. Unlike most fish and chip shops I have been in, and in fact unlike any fish and chip shop of this particular style, which had a range of western and asian foods on offer, there was a Vegetarian Menu. Taking pride of place at the top of the menu? Cinnamon donuts. Then jam donuts. Something called a "jam rap" was last - the only plausible vegetarian dinner item was a chopsuey fritter (sounds worse than a service station pie, to be honest).

But my fish and chips from JRS Diner were better than expected. As were the musicians at the Penguin Club. Of course, I expected a lot from Victoria Girling-Butcher and was not disappointed (except for missing half her songs) - she did a bunch of Lucid3 songs, along with what seemed to be a couple of new solo ones. But my expectations of Age Pryor were not high - I'd only seen glimpses of his performances in the past and been left underwhelmed, so last night's show was a revelation. I'd only ever seen Paul McLaney as part of a bigger lineup, never doing the solo singer-songwriter thing. He still strikes me as the most unlikely looking musician - I was watching him closely last night as he did his thing, and decided that he looks like a pastry chef, mainly because I have no real pre-conceptions as to what one looks like. He sings fantastically, however, and ain't bad on the guitar either. The best song of all, however, was when they all joined in together at the end and sang Dylan's I Shall Be Released.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Hard Candy, a film by David Slade (2005)

When I saw this movie, Juno had not quite arrived yet, but someone mentioned that Ellen Paige was also in Hard Candy so when I saw it on the shelf in the video store, I grabbed it.

Wow! I do have one objection: the character she plays is an impossibly sophisticated 14 year old girl (Paige was, I think, 18 at the time). I found myself in the early parts of the movie asking "how old is this girl?", but still, wow!

The movie was made in 18 days, by a largely new team, for around $1 million. Apart from one scene, the entire action occurs in a single house, and for 90% of the time, only two people are in it - Jeff and Haley. As the movie went on, I was reminded of Richard Linklater's Tape, both in the way the action was shot in such a confined space and in the way in which one character confronted the other with a particular truth.

It is quite a mission for actors to carry a movie under such circumstances, but they did it, Ellen Paige in particular was amazing.
They "meet" in an internet chatroom: the movie starts with Haley agreeing to see Jeff at a local cafe. From the start, she's playing a dangerous game with him, talking the talk of a much older female. It is she, not he, who suggests they go back to his place. I was fearing the worst; sure, he was "nice" but we've all seen these movies before, and know why 32 year old men take 14 year old girls home. There, she plays with him over the making of a screwdriver, saying that she'd been taught never to accept a drink she'd not seen made. So she makes one for them both.

This is when the true purport of the movie starts to emerge: she has drugged him ("that advice about watching your drinks being made, that's good for everyone") and ties him up.
She spends the rest of the movie on the attack: about how she'd been in various chatrooms in different guises but he only ever talked to her when she was 14; that as an adult, his place was to stop her coming to his house, and to not give girls ("and I place emphasis on the word girl") alcohol. Then she's at him about his work - he's a photographer, and has photos of half-dressed young teenaged girls.

The morality here is left ambiguous: we've not seen the photos, so can't judge and, frankly, Haley is coming across as a psycho and Jeff as quite a decent guy, one I had trouble believing ill of.
But this is a careful construct by those making the movie: underneath Haley's rage is a missing girl named Donna (her picture had featured earlier, in the coffee shop). Haley is convinced that Jeff did her in, and is going to torture Jeff to get at the truth. It takes a long time - he even faces castration without confessing. My belief in his innocence really only started to shift when Haley finds his secret cache of truly disgusting photos and a photo of the missing girl. At this point, she has him pretty well set up: she's sent out various messages in his name, there is some incriminating evidence and the love of his life is about to turn up.

What to do - face the music or hang oneself, against Haley's promise to clean everything up? It is never quite clear what Haley's involvement is with this missing girl, but she has mentioned another guy, Aaron, who was involved: Jeff blames Aaron and claimed he only watched, but Haley seems to have some secret source of information to the effect that that is not how it was (my theory is that she knew Aaron, maybe he was her brother or maybe she'd put him through similar treatment).


Have Mercy On Us All, a novel by Fred Vargas (2001)

This thoroughly enjoyable book is my second experience of French detective fiction writer Vargas. It is the opposite of hard-boiled - almost 100 pages pass before anything sufficiently alarming to involve the police happens.

These opening pages are devoted to introducing the central characters. There is former ship's captain Joss Le Guern, who (wrongly) spent time in jail after his ship went down, taking all hands. I had thought that this was going to be the dominant aspect of the story - the ship sank because its owners cut corners with safety, but Joss took the blame and was blacklisted from all French ports.

But the story took off on a whimsical detour instead. After a "visit" from a long deceased ancestor, Joss has taken up the curious calling of town crier in a Parisian suburb. It is surprisingly lucrative - he reads out messages at a minimum of 5 franc a pop:
Five: For sale, litter of white and ginger kittens, three male, two female. Six: Could the drum players making jungle noises all night long opposite number 36 please desist. Some people have to get some sleep. Seven: All types of carpentry, especially furniture restoration, perfect finish, will collect and deliver. Eight: The gas and electric company can go jump in a lake. Nine: Pest control is a complete scam. There are just as many cockroaches as before, and they take 600 francs off you for nothing. Ten: Helen, I love you and I'll be waiting for you tonight at the Dancing Cat. Signed, Bernard. Eleven: Another rotten summer, and now its September already. Twelve: To the attention of the butcher on the square. Yesterday's meat was old boot leather, that makes three time this week. Thirteen: Come back Jean-Christophe. Fourteen: Cops means perverts means pigs. Fifteen: For sale, garden apples and pears, tasty and juicy.
Three times a day, he reads out a similar batch to a fairly regular audience, who must also accept a marine weather forecast and a daily story from maritime history.

There is former school teacher, Hervé Decambrais, who has also had a run in with the law and who now runs some sort of counselling service and a small boarding house; one so desirable that Joss secures a place there. There is his tenant Lizbeth and their neighbours, Damascus and Marie-Belle, who run a skate shop. Everyone in this community seems to have elements of their past best not talked about.

Elsewhere, there is Chief Inspector Adamsberg, who has just been promoted to lead a crack murder investigation squad, and his assistand, Danglard. These two are chalk and cheese: luckily, each recognises the importance of the other. Danglard is a by the book, exercise of logic sort of policeman. Adamsberg is intuitive, a woolgatherer, one who takes long walks to solve his crimes: of course, he is extremely successful. He reminds me of Columbo, with his vague ways (much is made of his inability to remember names), his poor dress sense (Decembrais came across him during his mishap with the law, and thought he was in custody himself, such was his general appearance and demeanour), his solutions which seem to come from nowhere but so often prove to be right ("I said woolly, but I could have also said magical") .

One day, two apparently unconnected things happen. Mysterious signs start appearing on doors in Parisian apartment buildings. Adamsberg starts to investigate, despite his promotion and the lack of any murders, simply because he did not "like" the signs, and finds a lot of them. The second event is that Joss receives the first in what proves to be a sequence of odd messages:
When manie woormes breede of putrefaction of the earth: toade stooles and rotten herbes abound; The fruites and beastes of the earth are unsavoury; The wine becomes muddie; many birds and beastes flye from that place.
Decambrais, being a bookworm, finally works out what these passages are: they are extracts from a variety of narratives about the plague, which he sees as a warning. It is at this point that Adamsberg gets involved - he is not very interested, not until he hears that these messages started on the same day as the signs on the doors, and then hears that these signs were used to ward off the plague. Then people do actually die.

There is quite a lot going on in this novel about the differences between appearance and reality: many of the characters have found themselves in jail because it appeared they were guilty, whereas the reality was otherwise. Similarly with the plague, which has its tokens e.g. blackened skin. If those tokens are present, will people believe the plague to be present?

Someone is responsible for what is going on; as I read through, I got as close to solving the mystery as to decide that, well, it has to be one or more of the characters we've already met if the novel is to have any sort of sense to it, but i never really worked out who it was. Adamsberg's solution depended upon a mixture of orthodox police work, historians (Marc Vandoosleir, who was a central character in The Four Evangelists, is a medievalist and plague expert) and, ultimately, upon his own special technique of going for a walk.

There seemed to me to be a funny sort of pun involved in the thing that finally triggered his understanding of who was responsible; he arrives at his answer when a flash of a diamond catches his eye - is this a sort of punning reference to the flash of brilliance with which he solved the crime?

There is an intriguing story told about diamonds, one I am not sure how much credibility to give. When the plague struck, it was the poor who were most badly affected: the scientific explanation is that the plague thrives in situations of poor hygeine, so those who were well off tended to be cleaner and less vulnerable. But a belief developed that gems were good at warding off the plague (because rich people all wore gems and did not die). Diamonds were best of all, and so they became the thing to give to one to protect them from the plague, particularly if you wanted to keep them safe to marry them. In other words, our custom of diamond engagement rings is derived from the plague. It is a nice story but I haven't found much to establish its truth (but then, I have not looked very hard). I do know that Pliny saw diamonds as being proof against poison, but that's about it.


Northland Trip - Stage Six

After hitting the cape, it was time to head south in order to meet up with family in Auckland for Christmas. Since I still had a wee bit of time up my sleeve, I thought I'd do a bit of the second leg of the trip, by exploring the very top of the west coast. This meant a quick trip out through forestry to see Ninety Mile Beach, a quick decision of "not much too see" and then voyaging out past Awanui towards Herekino. There, I was faced with the road south, which curved off to the left, or the road with no sign straight through "town" (i.e. past the pub, and avoiding the kids playing in the road).

I didn't actually know where I was headed, but this is where I ended up
I found myself surrounded by small churches
I don't *think* this is the same one
In all, I'd say there were four or five, all in the same area (which turned out to be Whangape, when I finally found a map). I am still not entirely sure where this is
It was another inlet, nearer to Herekino, off to the left (north west) as I approached Herekino. Heading south on the main road to Broadwood, more churches
After hitting the #1 highway, it was a quick trip to Whangarei, except that I became disturbed by the fact that several petrol stations, starting at Ohaewai, had fallen into disuse. After Kawakawa, you have this one, just out of town
and then the one at the Ruapekapeka turn-off
the one at Towaiand finally at Hukerenui
This is of little moment to the passing motorist, who can simply think ahead, but the farming communities around these service stations will now need to go to Kawakawa or as far south as Whakapara just to get petrol.

By the time I hit Whangarei, I'd had enough of beaches, so for something different, I caught up with some old acquaintances

and went in to explore the new library
This is just a random nearby tree, very pretty!