Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Holiday Reading

We spent four days in Bright last week, our usual sub-alpine summer holiday destination. This year we decided to stay in a cabin instead of camping, which was more expensive but less work. It wasn't quite the same however as you tend not to spend as much time out of doors. There was a fire ban on the first day of arrival but we did manage a nice campfire on the second night. I've got some nice pictures but for some reason I'm having trouble uploading them. I could, however upload the cover image of Alex Miller's Journey to the Stone Country winner of the 2003 Miles Franklin Award which segues nicely into my holiday reading report. Miller's novel, set in far North Queensland, functions as a kind of metaphor of the tenuous relationship between black and white Australians. Childhood friends Bo Renney of the Jangga tribe and Melbourne academic Annabelle Beck, recently returned to her ancestral home after a marriage bust-up, forge a new relationship based on a realistic view of their shared history. Once having stared into the face of the violence between their two families in the past they are able to set their sites on a possible shared future. The narrative drags a little in the middle section but the latter half of the book is particularly moving as both of the protagonists make discoveries about their past that force them to rearrange their present. I was attracted to the cover because I have always felt a kind of connection of some sort to monoliths. My friend Gerard Goldman at the Broken Bay Institute tells me it's part of my dreaming. Maybe so.

From the past to the future, I enjoyed a collection of science fiction short stories from Philip K. Dick under the title of Minority Report, no doubt to cash in on the Spielberg movie of the same name. I had read two of the stories already, the title story and "Second Variety" in another collection of stories loaned to Jesse by Jon Case - The Variable Man. Quite a few of Dick's stories, apart from "Minority Report," have been filmed. "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale" became Total Recall, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" became Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, "Paycheck" became John Woo's Paycheck, and "Second Variety," which Jesse and I thought would make a good short film, became Screamers written by Dan O'Bannon (he of Alien and Dark Star fame) - beaten to the punch again Jess. These are pretty engrossing stories. Some, like "Oh, to Be a Blobel," about a human who involuntarily tranforms into a blob-like creature, after having fought a battle with this species on the other side of the galaxy, seem like the prose equivalent of a Silver Age Marvel comic (not that there's anything wrong with that). Others like "The Electric Ant" are chilling meditations on the nature of identity - does a cyborg with programmed memories fear extinction if his memory tapes are arranged? If it does fear extinction it must have consciousness. Is it therefore a "person" with a "soul"? Science fiction writers are often credited with anticipating future technology. What strikes me about these stories however is how they fail on that point. These stories, written between 1953 and 1969, do not seem to have anticpated digital technology at all - everything is on tapes and computers are still huge devices housed in separate buildings!

Finally, I have almost completed a book my daughter Ellen recommended to me. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung tells the horrific tale of the survival of a young Cambodian girl whose middle class educated family members are targetted by the Pol Pot regime as enemies of the state. It's a harrowing first-person account of one of the worst incidences of genocide from that most bloodthirsty of centuries - the 20th.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

2005 at the Movies

(left: Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator).

Around this time last year, My son Jesse and I decided we were going to see all of the Academy Award nominated films and took ourselves off to Tuesday cheap nights until we had seen them all. These were made in 2004 and are all now available on DVD, but we didn't get to see them till early 2005. It was a mixed bag. Okay, we all know that Academy Award-nominated films are not necessarily the best films of the year (Shawshank Redemption lost out to Forrest Gump in 1994.) Not every actor who wins an Oscar necessarily deserves one either (Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry both have one). Still, it's a fun guessing game on the night and we'd sat through too many awards ceremonies thinking, "never heard of it," to do that again. Well, its history now, but Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby took the honours. It was a worthy follow up to Mystic River which for sheer drama was a superior piece of work. All the leads, including Clint himself looking positively skeletal in his old age, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank, put in fine performances. The euthanasia ending was contrived and unnecessary and also departed from the real story that F.X. Toole's short story was based on. The real life character went on living - a more heroic option.

Ray was an entertaining biopic that covered the darker side of Ray Charles with his drug addiction and marital infidelities. The best parts of the film were the musical segments and Jamie Foxx's eerily realistic portayal of Ray. I had the joy of seeing Ray Charles perform live a few years ago here in Melbourne at the International Blues and Music festival shortly before he died (yes, we had music and blues!), and I knew I was seeing a legendary performer.

Finding Neverland was an interesting portait of the playwrite J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Johnny Depp puts in an unusually subtle and subdued performance as Barrie and Kate Winslett played the mother of the children he befriends with her usual ability. It was refreshing to see a film about a relationship between a man and boys that was genuinely "nothing 'sus." Freddie Highmore (along with Dakota Fanning), is the best child actor working today and when his eyes fill with tears at the end of this one it's hard not to be affected.

The film we liked least was Sideways. Morally reprehensible characters are hard to like, especially if they have no redeeming features. Paul Giammatti (who plays Miles) is a good actor and his character is a little more sympathetic but Thomas Hayden Church's "Jack" is a complete loser who decides he's going to "enjoy" one last dirty weekend by having sex with strangers before he gets married. The dialogue is crude and Jack's behaviour adolescent. It's like National Lampoon for "grownups" which believe me is anything but grown up. Miles is the film's conscience with his disapproval of Jack's stupid behaviour and his hangdog demeanour throughout the film does bring forth some sympathy. It was well scripted and had its reflective moments. I just don't think it was an Oscar-worthy film.

Our personal favourite was Scorsese's The Aviator and it was a bit of surprise to see it fail to take out either the coveted Best Picture or Best Director awards, as it's the sort of film the Academy tends to favour (big scale flms about the American myth), and the much dissappointed Marty was due for at least a sympathy vote. Leonardo DiCaprio suffers from being thought of as a bit of a matinee teen idol, but in fact I think he is an underrated actor who has put in some fine cinematic performances, and this is one of them (perhaps his best). His depiction of Howard Hughes' descent from boisterous and boyish enthusiasm into madness is brilliantly accomplished. Cate Blanchett also shines as Kate Hepburn. Jesse and I always enjoy movies about movies and a considerable amount of The Aviator deals with Hughes' forays into film making. (He made the WWI fighter plane movie Hell's Angels, the steamy western The Outlaw and the original Scarface.) The aerial sequences are brillantly shot and the entire set design recaptures the early twentieth century ambience well.

Hotel Rwanda was not nominated for Best Picture but was the "worthiest" film of the year, in the sense that it had the keenest social conscience and was a slap in the face to the U.S., the U. N. and the rest of the world as they stood by and did nothing during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Christian references appear throughout the film (Paul Rusesabagina's wife, played by Sophie Okenedo, conspicuously wears a cross, a priest and nuns are seen refusing to leave their Rwandan friends when the evacuation of all whites gets underway.) But the person acting in the most Christian way is Rusesabagina himself (Don Cheadle), who performs a series of self sacrificial acts in order to protect the lives of the innocent. Lt. General (ret.) Romeo Dallaire (the character played by Nick Nolte) has written a book about his experiences called Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. You can read an interview with him about his experiences at the website of the Carnegie Council of Ethics and International Affairs.

Jesse will still be in the US for this year's Academy Awards so it won't be as much fun this year. Other films we liked in 2005 - The Proposition and King Kong (both reviewed elsewhere on this blog), Batman Begins, the best depiction of the Dark Knight yet (including Tim Burton's), and War of the Worlds, another great addition to Spielberg's canon of work (and a much-needed recovery after The Terminal). Films I didn't like - Wolf Creek. It' s just too sick in its violence. We didn't walk out of the cinema but I can understand why a lot of people did. Jesse's comment afterwards about John Jarratt's serial killer - "I just don't feel comfortable living under the same sky as a person like that." Sin City I actually did like because of its ground breaking comic book style and its film noir ambience but again it was the sicko violence that didn't appeal to me and the totally gratuitous nudity that added nothing to the story. George Romero's Land of the Dead was boring, unimaginative and cliched, especially for someone who's supposed to be a zombie movie master (both Shaun of the Dead and the low-budget Aussie flick The Undead, made for half the cost, were superior). The best Aussie fright flick was Lost Things which managed to make the beach in broad daylight seem like a scary place. One to watch for - Jesse O'Brien's movie about a mother and toddler's fight to survive against zombies on a suburban Melbourne train. So far it's only an idea - are there any investors out there?

PS For interesting theological reflections on the horror genre see Bryan Stone, "The Sanctification of Fear: Images of the Religious in Horror Films," Journal of Religion and Film Vol. 5, No. 2 October 2001 and Brian Godawa's "A Theology of Horror Movies."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

iPod Therefore I Am

Apologies to Dylan Jones for the use of his inspired book title. What has been on my iTunes list this past year and (at least since October) on my iPod shuffle?

Wilco's A Ghost is Born continues to convince me of Jeff Tweedy's genius. Though the most experimental of Wilco's albums to date this album is still brimful of startlingly good melodic hooks and inspired instrumentation. It's just that none of it follows a standard song format. (No verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, close here). "I'm A Wheel" has incredible drive and for some reason reminds me of trips to the Speedway at the Sydney showgrounds when I was a kid. Something to do with the sheer rock and roll energy of the thing. Anyone with enough audacity to rhyme "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9" with "one time someone in Germany said 'Nein!'" and pull it off as though it makes some kind of sense has to have something going for him. In "Theologians," Tweedy sings, "Theologians, they don't know nothin' 'bout my soul." This has a tendency to put one in one's place. Then again, he goes on to sing, "I'm an ocean of emotion / I'm a cherry ghost,' so maybe theologians could tell Tweedy a thing or two.

It's good news that there is now finally an ITunes Australia store. However, for Dylan fans it's a big disappointment as there's virtually no Dylan to be had. One little gem I did discover was Dylan's cover of Jason Wade's "You Belong To Me" from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. The vocal style and instrumentation sounds like Dylan's World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You but the song itself is better than most of the songs to be had on those mediocre outings. Also Dylan's cover of "I Can't Get You Off Of My Mind" from the Hank Williams tribute album Timeless is a wonderful little slice of rockabilly.

I found a CD single in an OP Shop of Tom Waits' "Make It Rain" from the 2004 album Real Gone. It's a tortured prayer from a broken heart, a desperate cry to the heavens.

I want to believe
In the mercy of the world again
Make it rain, make it rain!

I'm not Able, I'm just Cain
Open up the heavens
Make it rain!

I'm close to heaven
Crushed at the gate
They sharpen their knives
On my mistakes

What she done, you can't give it a name
You gotta make it rain
Make it rain, yeah!

The portrait of Waits shown here is from Heidi Baracks' Red Series You can read an interesting review of this album by Zeth Lundy on Pop Matters.

The Diary of Alicia Keys has confirmed Alicia's status as the new Aretha Franklin. Revisiting Joni Mitchell's Blue after a 20 year absence has been a revelation. Gillian Welch has still not topped Time the Revelator. Two albums from Frank Sinatra (In the Wee Small Hours and Songs for Swingin' Lovers) have helped me "get" what Time magazine meant by announcing him the entertainer of the century. Johnny Cash's American IV The Man Comes Around, including his version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" was a magnificent swansong album for "Johnny of the Cross." Next blog entry: Best films of 2005.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day Sermon (Hebrews 11)

We have just lived through the 365 days of 2005. Enoch, one of the heroes of faith recorded in Hebrews chapter 11, lived for 365 years (Gen. 5:23). He walked with God all those years - one year for every single day we have just lived in the last calendar year, and then he simply “could not be found” for God took him away.

Well, we are all still here. God has not taken us away yet and unless he does so this year we have another 365 days to live through before next New Year’s Day. How will we live those days? As people of faith? As those who belong to the great list of heroes of the faith given here? Will we face our trials with faith and courage as our ancestors did or will we shrink back?

What is faith anyway? It’s defined for us in verse 1 - “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is the substance (the Greek word is hypostasis) of what we hope for. It is the “title deed” of things hoped for. (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews, 277.) If I have the title deed to a property, though the deed itself is not the property it is a guarantee of my possession of that property. In the same way our faith is a title deed to what God has promised.

Verse 6 gives us a bit more content and helps us to understand exactly what are these invisible things of which a person of faith is so certain. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We are people of faith then, not only if we believe in God but if we believe that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.

I like the way J. B. Phillips renders this verse - “The [one] who approached God must have faith in two things, first that God exists and second that it is worth a [person’s] while to try to find God.” A person of faith is a person who knows it is worth while to seek God and then having found him to live for him. As the great stories of the ancients demonstrate in this chapter, faith is not mere belief. Belief is a passive thing, whereas faith is active. I believe that 2 + 2 equals 4 but I can’t get very passionate about that. Faith on the other hand is a living and acting confidence in the invisible God. It involves a willingness to act as though living for God is a worthwhile proposition, as the great stories of the heroes of the faith given here make clear.

The writer of Hebrews draws his examples from across the entire range of the biblical story. He begins with creation in verse 3, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” He then goes on to characters from the Book of Genesis - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (in verses 4-22). He then moves right into Exodus with Moses, the Deliverance from Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea in verses 23-29). Then it’s into the historical books from verse 30 on with the story of Jericho, Rahab, and then Gideon, Samuel, Samson, and David.

These are all people who thought it worthwhile to seek God and having found him to live for him. They walked with the same God we do. Joseph Hart’s eighteenth century hymn makes this clear:

The God who created the skies,
The strength and support of the saints,
Who gives them all needful supplies,
And hearkens to all their complaints:

This, this is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend
Whose love is as large as His power
And neither knows measure nor end.

Not only did these ancients live as people of faith they also died as people of faith. “A church had a bulletin board decorated with pictures of soldiers who had been killed in service to their country. A little boy was looking up at the board when the pastor came up. He asked the little boy how he liked the board. The boy asked what it was about. The pastor explained that the pictures were the men from their church who had died in the service. The little boy said, “The morning service or the evening service?” Verse 13 tells us "All these people were still living by faith when they died." The people listed in Hebrews 11 died in the service of God. They lived faithfully and they died faithfully.

“Some were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection.” This may well be a reference to the Jewish martyrs written about in the apocryphal book 2 Macabbees. Eleazar the faithful High Priest was tortured (the Greek verb strongly suggests the rack), and then his mother and seven sons were all tortured confessing that no matter what was done to their bodies they would get better ones at the resurrection. They could have allowed themselves to be released from their imprisonment and suffering but they had a better and more lasting release in mind that allowed them to endure their suffering with seemingly superhuman patience.

Those who were said to have “wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” maybe also be the Maccabean martyrs who hid in caves from the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes and refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath Day and so were cruelly slaughtered. If so then our writer has taken us from Abel right through to the very edge of the arrival of the Messiah onto the scene. He has given us a potted history of the world up to that time.

It is clear from this list that some of the heroes of faith escaped martyrdom while others did not. Yet they were still heroes of faith either way. Elijah escaped the sword of Ahab and Jezebel but Elisha lost his life. Jeremiah was delivered from Jehoiakim but his fellow prophet Uriah was slain by Jehoiakim. Herod Agrippa I killed James the brother of John with the sword but Peter escaped the same fight. “By faith one lived by faith another died.” So it’s not that faith delivered people from their trials but faith was the quality with which they faced their dangers regardless of the outcome.

I like that story about the family getting ready for a trip for the first time to Disneyland the next day. That evening as the Dad was putting his son to bed, the boy hugged his father’s neck and said, "Dad, thanks for tomorrow."... People of faith are those who can thank their heavenly father for things not yet experienced but certain because promised.


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