Saturday, November 16, 2013

Excellent mini movie: First walk on the ice.

Excellent mini movie. Congratulations to the writer, director and cast. Structurally strong: begins with mystery (face hidden), has rising tension (what will her reaction be, how slippery is the ice), a good second act turning point/point of greatest reversal (at 0:09), a strong third act buildup (the reaching hand) then has an unexpected climax. Early runner for the Oscars.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Almost invisible again.

African American author Ralph Ellison's landmark book about dis-empowerment, and ultimately the journey to empowerment Invisible Man was recently banned by a school board in the U.S.A. It is not important so much that a single school district in the U.S. had chosen to ban a book as to look at the reasons why, and examine this issue in the wider sense. Read the article here

Each individual case needs to be looked at in its specifics, but in cases like this where the book is 60 years old and has been held in libraries since the 50's, a magnifying glass needs to run over why - now - it has been judged to have transgressed some social standard. There is often a repressive and oppressive gene in boards pretty much anywhere, but individual opinion can't be decoupled from the potential of structurally ingrained prejudice. 

These kind of episodes are concerning, and are important to highlight and speak back to. Often the concerns over content and appropriateness and judgements about literary value (laughable, in this case) are beards for suppression of narratives that run counter to traditional power. Terrible irony that 'Invisible Man' itself was subject to an attempt to render it invisible. 

This particular example demonstrates several things:

1) the potential for agendas to come into play at any time, and skew the mix of what is available to our culture, to their own ends
2) that the post-colonial era and its divorce from the colonial past is sometimes only a sheet of paper deep
3) that people, readers, writers, political activists, or just people who care, can fight back. That oppression loves a vacuum, and generally dislikes being daylighted. We can make a difference.The ban was overturned. 

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952

Monday, September 23, 2013

A few thoughts on theatre

On the weekend we went out to Unitec in West Auckland to see a production of Australian author Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet.  This was put on by second year students from Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts. It was an enthralling production, fast paced, full of movement - though not sacrificing depth and resonance for the speed and movement. While watching, a few thoughts struck me.

Firstly Tim Winton is one of the great chroniclers of the lives of the Antipodean working class. His warts and all portrayals are steeped in a sense of storytelling history, full of Australian vernacular (that NZ audiences can relate to easily), and they often reflect the lives of people whose lives resonate with characters from our own NZ and Australian past. At AUT today I did a lecture on ‘What is most personal is also most universal’ (quoting American psychologist Carl R. Rogers.) Winton’s stories reflect that principle, with his characters’ lives and conflicts riffing off our own, with authenticity and a refusal to compromise to any formulaic concepts of happy endings, characters who act as the ‘love interest. His stories detail the lives of the ordinary, though aren’t predictable. We know them, but we get to live them anew.

Another of Tim Winton’s stellar pieces of work, The Turning, has recently been turned into a movie. Watch the trailer here. The Turning, a short story cycle/composite novel does not seem a book to easily re-script as a film. I’m reminded of Robert Altman’s film ‘Short Cuts’ taken from nine short stories and a poem from by Raymond Carver, which never really worked as a coherent whole. I am hoping The Turning fares better.

Second thing that struck me is the physicality of theatre and its sense of three dimensional space. Physical in that the running feet are in the room with you (as an audience member), that the lighting effects include the audience, that each seat in the house has a different angle on the characters and action. If well used, and in this production it was, it can give an intimacy unique to theatre. I’ve seen a few too many productions that were 90% sound (mostly dialogue) and functioned almost as a radio play with some interspersed movement to keep your eyes awake. That physicality, the sense of being in the same space as the cast’s muscles and facial expressions and even momentary ‘fluffs’ gives the experience an extra tension, a special sense of the ‘now.’  

Third thing: just how vital live theatre is to the (storytelling) arts scene. Fortunes seem to wax and wane with theatre in New Zealand, and it’s important for funding bodies to recognize theatre’s intrinsic worth as both entertainment and as a context for developing writers/actors/directors. I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the demise of the Downstage company in Wellington, and I guess individual stars rise and fall, but live theatre as a concept and a unique medium is critical to the world of storytelling.

The Unitec cast of 'Cloudstreet,' 2013.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Divine Muses - ten years of celebrating National Poetry Day

Friday 16th August was National Poetry Day and a large and varied number of events were organised to celebrate it in Auckland and around the country.

The Divine Muses, the brainchild of Siobhan Harvey, was the event I went to. Siobhan (and friends) has been organising and running this event for the last ten years. I think I've managed to get to eight out of the ten events and every one has been an interesting and worthwhile evening of free poetry readings by established, emerging and new poets.

This year it was held in the Gus Fisher Gallery on Shortland Street and had an exceptional line up of stellar poets, including Riemke Ensing, Albert Wendt, C K Stead, Kiri Piahana Wong and Siobhan herself.

The theme of the evening was memory and loss and what struck me as each of the poets mentioned above read their work was the very deep integrity and clarity of their observations, thoughts and feelings written in language that sparked and sparkled, even when reflecting on grief and death.

It was a privilege to be able to listen to some of our most respected and well known poets, to hear the fire and ice still encapsulated in their words and to join with others to celebrate them and their work.

Well done Siobhan for another excellent evening. And I can't resist adding the last section of a poem by Riemke Ensing - After Matisse (for Jean Horsley, painter) -  that I have on the wall above my desk that seems to sum up some of the feeling of event:

                      ... We may imagine
                         but are swept away
                         by the dark. The canvas
                        is still white. The artist
                       for that fierce impulse.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Wonderful quote by Pablo Neruda

Couldn't resist sharing this quote I saw on the Teachers and Writers Collaborative Facebook page by the great Pablo Neruda.

In two short paragraphs it seems to sum up so many aspects of writing, both prose and poetry. It's a powerful illustration of why 'show don't tell' matters in writing, not just because it's  a technique to master in order to make your work more immediate and alive, but because of the physical, emotional and spiritual resonance of all our interactions with the world, and with the way these interactions shape and change us and the world. I particularly love the phrase, like a text for troubled lyricists.

Ah, to have such insight and eloquence...

"It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things - all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and finger prints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hands obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades we live by, inside the law or beyond it."

(Pablo Neruda, quoted in, Illuminations: Great Writers on Writing,


Thursday, May 2, 2013

The annoying falseness of reality

Reading about English actor Ben Kingsley playing a part Maori character and the associated complications (Maori Cliff Curtis as Colombians and characters from the Middle East etc) reminded me of when I toured ten years ago with Cherokee writer/broadcaster Thomas King. He spoke of a woman he met in Europe (on a train, I think) who refused to believe he was Cherokee, and said 'You're not the Indian I had in mind.' By that she meant that he didn't fit the stereotypical 'Indian' of so many film narratives. It was an interesting case of the fictional narrative replacing the real narrative, and the audience then taking umbrage at the 'falseness' of reality. Reminds me of both Umberto Eco and his riffing on the 'hyper-real' and Baudrillard and his 'Simulacrums.'

The fictional portrayal is often more convenient, for the dominant power and its audience, than the real one. It allows both engagement and disengagement, simultaneously. Engagement with the piece of the narrative which keeps the 'other' in their place, providing comforting views of their differences, and often putting them safely in a separate timeframe. At the same time it drops the curtain over the grit and sharpness of the reality - of its 'nowness.'

It is interesting though that the other displaying their otherness is only welcomed when bid by the dominant force, not when confronted in its own context. An example would be the anger of the Australian government at the Aboriginal activists at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. The games contained convenient references and illustrations that highlighted the Aboriginal experience deemed fit for international viewing. The reality was very different.

It makes me think also of the reaction of the Danish politician in NZ recently, against a Maori welcome. It seemed to me much  of her anger was that no-one sought her permission to confront her, especially in a surrounding that seemed so 'European.'

Complicated territory to negotiate, and having to go through so much BS narrative doesn't help us confront the reality. Narrative is used in many ways, and for many very different reasons. 

Thomas King wrote a poem about his experience, and it underpins this multi-person reading in this excellent short film.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Those aren't your memories, they're somebody elses.

When looking through You Tube for teaching resources recently for a class on mapping out and writing dialogue scenes (spoken lines and body language), one  of the scenes I considered but didn't ultimately use was from the movie Blade Runner, specifically the scene where Deckard (Harrison Ford) tells Rachael (Sean Young) that she isn't real - that she is a replicant - a genetically engineered organic robot. The memories she has have been planted, her past is fake. To Deckard's surprise, the emotional connection Rachael has to this fake information is very real. The short scene is underplayed and very poignant.

Sean Young was never better than in this scene.

The line about the spider's egg hatching and all the little spiders crawling out and killing their parent, is metaphorical for one of the film's themes, dealing with robotics and artificial intelligence and who ends up controlling who.

The film itself has been hugely influential, with it's constant twilight going to dusk, and the sense of dirt beneath the fingertips grounding a whole new breed of science fiction and later leading (indirectly) to concepts like cyberbunk. It banished the men in shiny silver suits moving in stainless steel rooms with pristine floors that peopled so much 1950s/60s science fiction to the outer margins.  

The success of the film also saw a resurgence in interest (and a new interest from Hollywood) in the novels of author Phillip K. Dick, whose novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' is the prose work the movie is based on.

Reaching in and grabbing out...

Watched an interesting interview with China Mieville, the English fantasy and science fiction novelist. You can watch the full interview (28 minutes) here.

Mieville's novel The City and The City (2009) is a nightmare noir, combining classic 40's detective story tropes with the kind of encroaching darkness explored in dystopian future and cyberpunk novels. Certainly one of the more interesting stories I've read in recent years.

I can certainly relate to Mieville's line in the interview:

'My head, like most people's head, is a kind of washing machine full of jostling nonsense....and both my academic and political interests on the one hand, and my fiction interests on the other, reach in and grab out from that shared arena.'

The interview is conducted by American librarian of some repute, Nancy Pearl. I attended a Writers Festival a few years ago in which Nancy was one of the guests in a small group that I was in that traveled to a small retreat for a couple of days. I have rarely met anyone more in love with (and knowledgeable about) books.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On reading your work in public

This is my first post for 2013 so Happy New Year and may all your New Year's resolutions be happy and achievable ones.

Apart from spending some  - okay, quite a lot - of my time lying on the couch or sitting on the deck reading as part of my summer holiday, one of the things that has occupied me has been reflecting on the experience of reading my own work in public at the Inside.Out open mike evenings held once a month in Cafe 121 in Ponsonby. This is pretty much a new experience for me and one that I still find nerve wracking. (The only other time I read in public was a few years ago when I won second prize in a short story contest and, sadly, I can only remember before and after the reading not the event itself.)

I would have thought being a teacher (in the tertiary sector) for over twenty-five years would have knocked the nerves right out of me and I'd be capable and confident but, alas, it isn't so - reading my own work is not the same as teaching.

Part of my anxiety is to do with the thorny issue of voice. Do I read in my own everyday voice in a conversational way as though I'm just talking to friends or family, or should I be  much more overtly 'dramatic'  and take on some kind of public reading persona?  Many poets do this and have a special voice they use when reading or reciting.  Is it 'me' who should speak at all or should I be channeling the character and speaking in their voice like an actor would? Then there's the voice of the piece itself, its emotional structure, mood and tone, all of which would be so much easier to convey if it was a song (rather than prose) and the words were only part of the story and supported by the music.

One of things I do to help me work through these issues around voice is to listen to an old CD I have of Lauris Edmond reading her own poetry. There's something about her voice, as well as the poems themselves, I find comforting and sustaining. Somehow she is completely herself, grounded, no bells and whistles, no smoke and mirrors; there's a quiet plainness in the way she reads that makes me want to listen. The rhythm and intonation of her speech are familiar to me, and, most pleasing of all, she never feels the need to shout to get my attention or involvement.

Apart from trying to get to grips with nerves and feel my way towards an authentic reading voice, I've  realised how useful preparing to read is for me as a writer. It makes me think very carefully about what might capture and hold an audience, what images will resonate, what language is clumsy or overblown and what sections need a lot more work. It's a reminder that reading writing out loud, even if only to yourself, quickly shows what works and what doesn't.

The other up side of the experience is, of course, the priviledge of listening to others read their work and to get that sense of being part of a local writing community.