Convert a Philistine: Interim Report

Further to my earlier post on the “Convert a Philistine” project, I decided to hold a classical music night at my house on Friday night to introduce some friends to classical music. I won’t go into all the details of what I did, but here are my findings so far, I think:

1. If you hassle them enough and don’t make it too hard, people will try almost anything once.

2. Wine and cheese is a good drawcard.

3. Even to people approaching with fresh ears, 20th century classical music can be less fun to listen to than Romantic music. (I think this needs to be explored further, but that was the outcome of the previous night.)

4. Taking people in-depth into the music is a good thing

5. Getting people lost along the way is not

6. My projector has rubbish contrast

 

So coming out of this, I want to refine the process to head off potential places where people get lost trying to get in to classical music. I want to make the listening experience as rich as possible, but not at the expense of some people feeling left behind and not clever enough to keep up with the music.

It’s something to aim for anyway. I’ll come back with more definite stuff when I feel like I’ve cracked things a little bit better.

More soon, hopefully.

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DVD Review: The Sugarland Express

I’ve been going back and watching some of the early films of Steven Spielberg (which reminds me, I should put up a review of Duel at some stage). The Sugarland Express was the very first film Spielberg ever directed for the big screen. Based on a true incident that took place in 1969, it stars Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean, a 25-year-old woman with an imprisoned husband and a two-year-old who has just been taken off her by welfare.

Her husband only has four months to go till parole, but she persuades him that they need to escape that very day and make their way to Sugarland to get their baby back. As if prison escape wasn’t reckless enough, they very soon end up hijacking a police vehicle and kidnapping a police officer. This sets up a huge statewide manhunt, with hundreds of police cars following the two lovebirds in bizarre caravan across the state of Texas.

Spielberg doesn’t put a foot wrong as a director – he absolutely nails the atmosphere of Texas, from the big hats to the Southern dialect to the obsession with guns. The car chase sequences (reminding me a lot of the action in Duel) are nicely choreagraphed – not the quickly edited stuff that I often yawn through in action films today. And as the scale of the case grows, Spielberg gives the film an increasingly epic feel.

What I wasn’t clear coming in, though, was how it would all pan out. The look of the film from the trailer and the opening of the film is a sort of humorous Texan romp, with liberal doses of quirkiness and humour. But it soon becomes apparent that, likeable as our two not-too-bright escapees are, kidnapping a policeman is a serious thing, and that however this thing pans out – the consequences could be very grave.

It also marks the first film collaboration between composer John Williams and Spielberg, so you might be interested in it from that angle.

I won’t say any more, because if you get bored one night, there are a lot worse ways to spend an evening than watching this film.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Ministries of Mercy (Tim Keller)

I read this last year as part of some research on how our church can start to get involved with serving the community around us. This book was a really good place to start. (The other one was The Church of Irresistible Influence – review coming soon.)

The book is essentially divided into two parts – the first is primarily theological, arguing the case for the church’s involvement in helping those in need. This might seem like a pointless thing, because didn’t Jesus talk quite a bit about helping the poor? Not to mention the early church, and the apostles?

Well, yes, they did. But despite that fact, for the better part of the 20th Century, there was a major split between those churches that valued social involvement over adhering to the tenets of Christianity (the “social gospel” we normally call it) and those who were big on the truth of the Scriptures, over and above getting involved in social issues. So it got to the stage where, if an evangelical church was to consider getting involved in any kind of social action, they’d be looked upon as being a bit suspicious – as if they were getting liberal.

So we can all thank God for this book, where Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York tackles the issue head on. He argues the case consistently and persuasively that the call of Jesus is one of not just sharing the Gospel and meeting people’s spiritual needs – but helping their physical needs as well.

This then leads into several sub-discussions that are important as well. If you’re going to help people, what are the limits? Who do you help? Should you draw a distinction between “deserving” poor and “undeserving” poor? The chapter in there on our money and finances is one of the hardest-hitting I’ve ever read, and well worth a look.

The second half of the book details more practical matters. How do you get such ministries off the ground? (Keller recommends mobilising small grass-roots groups, and if some of the ministries take off and get series, putting more resources behind them.) There’s also a really helpful framework on how to deal with people who could potentially become dependent on the church for handouts – by putting limits on your support to them in a spirit of grace (you want to help them support themselves) rather than a spirit of vindictiveness (“They’re always scabbing off the church – let’s not give them any more time or money.”)

There’s not a lot of books floating around in evangelical circles on this topic, so I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject get a hold of this book. Better yet, grab some church friends, read it together and then start seeing what sort of needs you can meet within your local community. Really encouraging stuff.

5 out of 5.

 

Book Review: Carrie (Stephen King)

This is Stephen King’s first published novel and reading it now, it’s easy to see how he burst on the horror scene like a new force. Like James Herbert and The Rats, King also started with a particularly nasty but real part of life, and then took it to an even darker level.

In the case of Carrie, the issue that was being dealt with was school bullying. It tells the story of Carrie White, an overweight, plain-looking girl with a overbearing religious mother. Because she stands out, in terms of her strange clothes and naivety, she is the victim of relentless teasing. The twist, which King introduces early on, is that Carrie has telekinetic powers – she can move objects using her mind alone.

To make this more believable, interspersed regularly throughout the book are excerpts from various books, news articles and scientific journals – all analysing, several years later, the Carrie White situation. At first these excerpts are a bit strange, because they keep interrupting the narrative, but they’re cleverly placed. As the story continues, the “non-fiction” excerpts start to discuss an event known simply as “Prom Night”. You’re not sure exactly what happened on Prom Night, but you realise very quickly that it wasn’t good.

And so the novel starts to build up a sense of impending doom which only intensifies as the story heads toward the Prom Night. I must confess that I did kind of have a heads up on this because for years, I’ve seen the image on DVD covers of Sissy Spacek covered in blood, with a raging fire in the background and heard something about a prom night going disastrously wrong.

But still, nothing quite prepares you for how expertly King pulls off the Prom Night. It is indeed the horrific finale to everything he has been preparing you for. But what makes it so horrific is that, at all times, we are clear that what brought this situation on is “man’s inhumanity to man” – both that of Carrie’s sadistically religious mother and the viciousness of her schoolmates. Especially poignant, I thought, were those people who sat on the sidelines, wondering if they could have done anything different to make a difference in this girl’s life and avoided the disaster that occurred.

For me, it was a clear reminder that the true horrors in life are sadly not things that writers dream up – they’re real events that occur to people around us all the time. Are there Carrie Whites in your life?

4 ½ out of 5.

 

Book Review: Blockade Billy (Stephen King)

I said earlier on this blog that I’ve been trying to read some more Stephen King and I thought that what I would do is go back to the beginning of his published work, but also try and stay on top of his published work from 2010 onwards. So to that end, I sought out the very slim volume of Blockade Billy, which was put out in early 2010, after King’s rather massive Under The Dome. This is perhaps not the best book to start with if you’re embarking on a journey of reading Stephen King.

The story is a narration by an ageing ex-baseball player (to Stephen King) of an incident that occurred when he was playing for the New Jersey Titans baseball team in 1957. Short of a catcher, the team managed to get hold of William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, who came in to help them out. The young man was an excellent baseball player, but after he joined them, increasingly disturbing things started to happen on and off the field.

I can’t really say any more because it’s a very short novella and anything more would give the entire story away. As someone who’s not very knowledgeable about baseball, I must confess that I was scratching my head over some passages trying to work out what they meant. But the overall story made sense to me, and I thought it was an enjoyable little tale, with a suitably shocking ending. (Enjoyable is probably not the word, but you know what I mean.) Not worth the $25-$40 that I’ve seen it selling for in the stores, but worth the $5 on the Kindle store if you’re a King collector.

If you’re only a casual dabbler in the man’s work, you can probably give this one a miss altogether.

3 1/2 out of 5.

 

CD Review: Bach Cantatas vol. 24

Volume 24 of this series, despite the Buddhist monk on the front cover, contains Bach’s cantatas for the Third and Fourth Sunday after that Easter, so they cover that territory of Jesus being arisen and leaving his followers on earth. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the second disc (the fourth Sunday), despite having some great work from baritone Steven Varcoe and the usual top stuff from the orchestra and choir (I think the cantatas are starting to blur together a bit) but the 3rd Sundays cantatas, on Disc 1, contain some great stuff.

The highlights for me are the opening chorus of BWV 103, featuring a highly dramatic and angular melody that dives down into the depths, as the chorus sings of its weeping and lamenting. But the one that’s probably worth the price of admission is the opening of BWV 146, which features a highly dramatic concerto opening for organ and orchestra, which was later turned into a famous keyboard concerto of Bach’s. I have heard the version played with piano and orchestra before, but hearing it on the bright and spectacular organ at the Schlosskirke in Altenburg – an organ which Bach himself would have played with – was just an awesome experience. So while this volume didn’t jump out at me as much as some of the others, I still look forward to future volumes.

4 out of 5.

 

Film Review: 127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle has recently given us fairly large-canvas stories in his movies – the slums of Mumbai in India in Slumdog Millionaire, the reaches of outer space in Sunshine and a deserted London in 28 Days Later. So it’s highly unusual that for his latest film, he decided to set the whole thing in a canyon with a guy who had his arm pinned for the title 127 hours and thus couldn’t move. How do you get a 90 minute movie out of that? Also, this is such a classic Americana tale – man against the mountain, the solitary hero believing in himself and rising above his obstacles. You can almost hear the trumpet solo in the soundtrack just thinking about it.

But surprisingly, Boyle brilliantly avoids all the potential pitfalls in bringing the true story of Aron Ralston, the intrepid canyoneer who found himself stuck and had to go to the extreme measure of amputating his arm to escape alive.

Given that the vast majority of the audience knows the story before they even enter the cinema, Boyle has opted for an approach of allowing us to experience, as closely as we can, what the experience might have been like for Ralston. In the brilliant opening prologue (it’s about 15-20 minutes before Ralston gets stuck and the title of the film appears), actor James Franco as Ralston takes us into the energetic world of canyoneering, riding his mountain bike across the open landscape, meeting girls, going swimming (the swimming hole sequence – while visually spectacular – is the one fictional component to the whole thing), and generally having an adventurous time. All of this serves to put us, as well as cinema can, into the emotional world of Ralston. We felt (at least I did), just how much fun it is out there in the canyons.

This same visceral sense of being in the moment then flowed into the narrow crack where Ralston gets trapped. Once he’s stuck there, over the course of the rest of the film, Boyle takes us logically through all the steps that led to Ralston’s final escape. First of all, his logical (and often ingenious) ways of surviving in the canyon, then, as the hours turn into days – the state of his mind. We see his random thoughts, daydreams and visions as his situation starts to severely affect his mind.

What I found most interesting is that the film had set Ralston up fairly quickly as a man who really moves in a completely different direction from the rest of society (also illustrated visually with some fairly neat split screen shots at the beginning). However, when he’s stuck in the gorge, it’s his parents, friends and ex-girlfriend that appear to him. This really spoke to me – that idea that no matter how much we may enjoy blazing our own trail and doing our own thing – in the end, we all need other people.

So, in that respect, this film became the exact opposite of the lone man overcoming his obstacles story. It’s that anti-sentimental approach by Boyle (a British filmmaker) that allows it to avoid clichés and actually become a truly great film experience.

Final note: as for “that” scene – it is fairly graphic, and if you’re not used to watching that kind of thing, you may have a hard time sitting through it. I was certainly thinking that if it went for much longer that I might stop looking at the screen. (The excellent sound-design doesn’t help either…) But then, I think you’ll already know by now whether you think you can watch this or not. But don’t let this put you off it. I think it’s a film well worth watching.

4 ½ out of 5

 

Book Review: The Rats (James Herbert)

I’ve been rather reticent to write anything about the horror genre for a while, because I’m still trying to work out how, as a Christian, to approach it. It’s one of those many grey areas that Christians fall into in the 21st century. Christians are notorious enough as it is for judging the quality of a piece of art by the amount of violence, swearing and sex it contains – and excusing those which have “a good message” buried under all that.

But how do you handle the horror genre, which is renowned for being of full of nasty stuff, and often doesn’t have “a happy ending” at the end of all that? And what kind of people like horror? To those who do not like the genre (and I’m aware that that is probably the majority of filmgoers/readers out there), they have a suspicion of those people who like horror. Are they really closet torturers and murderers, getting their kicks from reading about horrid things done in fiction? Do they have dark thoughts? In short, “how can anyone like such horrible stuff?” is their thought – I’m sure.

(I just ran this past my wife and she completely agreed. “How can anyone like watching this horror? I’ve got enough bad stuff fuelling my imagination without having to add horror.”)

But because I’ve recently started re-exploring the works of horror authors James Herbert and Stephen King (British and American, respectively, but both were first published in 1974) and some others, I’ve been questioning what is it about the genre that I enjoy, what do I get out of it, has it got redeeming qualities, etc?

I don’t know if it’s an acceptable answer, but I have two thoughts so far and I might think up more as I go along:

1)      First off, horror is unable to escape from a moral compass. It’s quite simple – for something to be horrible, you have to first of all have a revulsion to it. If we don’t have a revulsion to it, then it’s not horrifying. One of the more noticeable trends over the last few decades, which I don’t have time to explore here, is how the horror genre is struggling because the things that people used to find horrific are now passed off as entertainment. (Here’s a simple example, not actually from the world of horror, but enough to give you an idea: When Steven Spielberg made his WWII film, Saving Private Ryan, it had the most realistic gore ever seen in a war film up to that point. However, since Ryan, it has now been common for all battle films that aren’t afraid to get beyond the American PG-13 rating to feature higher and higher levels of gore, played out as entertainment. Thus, we now have films like 300, which feature endless decapitations and sword-thrusts, with the maximum gore possible, but it’s actually meant to be a fun feature of the film. The sense of horror has shifted.)

2)      Ultimately, I think it comes down to storytelling. Those of us who like good horror like the power of the storyteller’s craft. I think most of us who like fiction (unless you like to dive in for a bit of quick escapism) want a story to totally engross us. We want to be moved, we want to feel things, we want to share the experience. And horror (or the several dark genres that have spun off that) works because, if the writer is good, it can be some of the most immediately visceral and thrilling writing there is. We feel things straight away, because the writer knows how to push our buttons. When a horror writer is on his game, the stories (while unpleasant) can become far more engrossing and far more powerful than any other type of literature. And when it’s over, we can shut the book, because it’s just a book. I don’t know if I’ve done justice to the lure of the genre, and I don’t expect to convert anyone to this type of story, but that’s the attraction for me.

Which brings me to The Rats, the first novel published by British author James Herbert in 1974. This book really marked a watershed moment in how horror was written. Previous horror stories (if you ever pick up an old anthology of the classic stories) often held back on the details. Some of them, such as Dracula, are beautifully written, but they don’t really elicit that sense of dread any more. In fact, they almost seem like mild diversions.

The probable cause for this is that there are far worse things out there in the world than in these stories. James Herbert knew that, and he has consistently used that as the starting point for his stories. He paints a picture of a very seedy 1974 London featuring seedy locations and seedy people. What he succeeds in doing is painting a world where there’s lots of dark things going on already and then he adds in a horror element. It may not be so shocking to readers nowadays, but back then, the descriptions of alcoholics and other sordid characters would have been in-your-face enough, but then Herbert brings in the rats…

About the size of small dogs, the rats suddenly appear in the poorer parts of London and starting attacking people – both good and evil alike. They usually attack in packs and kill you straight away, but even for those who survive, they carry a toxic virus that kills within 48 hours. Like the best creature stories (The Birds, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc), Herbert very quickly ramps the tension up from small isolated rat attacks to a terrifyingly plausible scenario where rats really do rule the city.

There are some brilliant set pieces in this book (the most striking being a chapter where hundreds of rats line up outside a school to attack the children) and never has mankind felt more at the mercy of creatures than in this story. I first read this when I was 15, and have still been amazed by it to this day. It was made into a movie once (a very unsatisfactory story, from what I’ve heard, that has never been released on DVD), and I think it would be a great story for a filmmaker to revisit one day with modern technology, but for now, we have to live with the book.

What lifts the game on this one is that Herbert grew up in the East End of London, in some fairly filthy parts of town – he remembers a time as a boy when a rat came through the door of the house. And so, through this genre of horror, he was making a social comment about London at the time, and what goes wrong when there is a lack of concern for the living conditions of poorer people. Unusual, but highly effective way of making a point.

4 ½ out of 5.

 

Book Review: The Third Day, The Frost (John Marsden)

The third book in the Tomorrow series picks up where things left off, with Ellie and her friends still stuck out in the bush, with an invading army all over the countryside in Wirrawee. There’s definitely a feeling of increased trauma in this book – nothing is fun, nothing is going very smoothly any more.

It covers fairly similar ground to the other books for the first three quarters, with another typical John Marsden action set piece in the middle involving blowing up a harbour that will translate quite well to the big screen when they get around to filming this book, I’m sure.

This third outing in the Tomorrow series was somewhat less philosophical than the others – probably because there wasn’t a great deal of time for the characters to do much thinking – so there wasn’t the same sort of “teenagers rethinking their parents’ morality” ideas coming through, which made this book probably the least subversive of the ones I’ve read so far.

What I didn’t see coming was the shift to a new location (which I don’t really want to say any more about) in the last quarter of the book and what happens there. Needless to say, it’s one of the most traumatic experiences our heroes have had yet and the writing is some of Marsden’s most powerful.

All in all, another exciting read in one of the greatest Australian action series ever written, but not quite as memorable as the first two.

4 out of 5

More Sleep and Financial Incentives

My wife and I were talking about the exercise/nutrition situation in our house, and we decided that we’d split half her piano tuition income into extra of what we call “Fun Money”. For those who are budgeters, you probably know what I’m talking about. After all the income has been allocated out to bills, expenses, groceries, petrol, and whatever else – fun money is the money that’s left that’s yours to spend on whatever you like – books, DVDs, trips to the movies, or (in the case of my wife) coffees from coffee shops.

However, the one thing we’ve never really budgeted is the money from a couple of piano lessons my wife teaches, and so the money usually gets diverted into other extra expenses that come up.

But this time, we decided that we wanted to see if we could both challenge each other to the 200 Sit-Ups challenge (along the lines of the Hundred Pushups I’m already working on) – and if both of us can keep it up, then we get extra “Fun Money”. I’m not sure why, but the idea of an extra 20 bucks to spend in a month is highly, highly motivating. But it now means I need to add sit-ups to the list of exercise … I’m sure it will work.

The other one I need to work on, as well, is the old nemesis of the late bedtime. Late bedtimes are rather insidious. They seem like a good idea at the time, because they contain more fun stuff – extra TV, extra reading, extra chatting with my wife. But then they also lead to a later waking time – and it’s early in the morning when the beneficial (but less fun) activities of exercise and writing get done. (At least for me – I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like doing anything productive after 9pm, so if it doesn’t get done in the morning, it doesn’t get done.)

So I need to work on that as well – though a sneaky part of me just wants to let it ride until daylight saving is over because then my body clock will be perfectly ready for the new 6am… We’ll see.