Beautiful

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Sunrise over Table Mountain, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

I’ve said before that we live in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town can be truly breathtaking. The other evening there was an early autumn sunset over Table Mountain that took breath away and prompted a momentary social media awe-struck buzz – similar to the one in the image above. The always changing site of the unchangeable mountain is quite a backdrop indeed.

As I said a while back , though, there’s a few things about this sort of talk that bother me. I’m not an especially visual person; I like natural beauty, but it rarely moves me to awe or worship the way it does for others. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost for words at a landscape. I tend to find God in other ways.

Another aspect to strike me was the way some talked of this striking sunset in such a way as to say that Cape Town is the greatest city in the world. It seemed like an odd reflection; why does an awestruck moment have to lead to comparison and ranking? Can’t it just be beautiful and majestic in and of itself? Most of the world’s biggest cities are built around natural landmarks of some kind  – rivers, harbours, mountains. They all have a particular kind of beauty in the right light and on the right day. I’m a city boy through and through; there was, though, one year I spent in a city I just didn’t like, that as a place did nothing for me. I can still remember, however, 20 or so years on, one sunset in that city which just blew me away.

Which leads me to this: none of this was actually about the city. It was about the backdrop to the city.

Be it the mountain or river or sea or sunset or cloud formation, that’s not the city. It may be over or around the city. But it’s not the city itself. The city is people and what’s made by people. The tangible things made – buildings and roads and monuments – as well as the intangibles of art, culture and community. These are why I love cities and find it hard to imagine living in any other context. I love that dynamics and trends and ideas tend to emerge and take root first in cities. I love that big world events congregate around them. I love that in a city like Cape Town, especially a hub area like that which I live and work in (Mowbray), the nations of the world pass by my door every day.

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town - photography by Bev Meldrum

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

That can bring pain and suffering too, of course. Crime and disease spread quickest in urban environments. One summer’s day in 2005 my wife and I were moving house and job closer to central London when we found our packed car overtaken by streams of emergency vehicles. The date was 7/7.   Such things tend not to happen in more rural areas.

A few days after Table Mountain’s sun-bathed glory, a video started popping up in my social media timelines. It’s a reworking of the video for Pharrell Williams’ song Happy set in Cape Town and featuring the people of the city. It’s not the song’s official video; simply a local contextualisation. There’s two things about this. The first is that if you look up ‘genetically perfect pop song’ in a dictionary, you’ll find this song. It’s irresistible, and does what all good pop music is for. Fair warning: if you don’t know the song and you go listen to it as a result of this post, it will be in your head for the day.

The second thing is this: that the video expressed part of what makes a city beautiful. The people and the streets. It’s not everything – there’s plenty of other emotions and experience to be had here, as there are elsewhere.

This video, though, expresses for me where I find beauty – in people and the things made by them. The art, the buildings, the music, the moves. That’s a city. The mountain, the sunset? Scenery. Beautiful, of course. But scenery. The beauty is to be found in concrete and bone, steel and street.

Next time you take a retreat, consider taking a trip into the city, not away from it. Next time you talk a long walk, think about heading for concrete paving not tree-lined horizons. After all, it’s in the former that you’ll find the image of God, multiplied.

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Cape Town station, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

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Westworld (1973)

Finally catching up with a bona fide classic years too late always makes me a feel a little dirty and inadequate, but in this case at least I have the defence that is was released in the year I was born. Movie-going was thus limited. I’ve also had less motivation to catch-up with it as it hasn’t been remade/murdered for the new era. So there’s been no impetus for me to catch the original before my memory of it is forever ruined by a ham-fisted.

Actually that’s not strictly true. This was remade, of course. But it was remade by one of the greatest directors of all time, with the involvement of the original’s director/writer in the form of Jurassic ParkIn the unlikely even you haven’t seen that film, then you’ll know it’s a joyride of a film, a magnificent popcorn classic. So it didn’t ruin anything.

Westworld has the same plot, just in a different sort of theme park with different out-of-control main attractions. The special effects are … well … it’s hard to think yourself into what 1973 was like, really. So they’re not that special. What is special is Yul Brynner’s magnificent performance as the automaton who/which turns on his/its tormentors. It’s note perfect, and shows up Arnie’s efforts in the Terminator movies for the shallow surface-kissers they are. Just because a character is entirely artificial doesn’t mean he/it is easy to play well.

Both films have a cheeky sense of humour and a non-too-subtle line in social commentary; what Westworld lacked for me were the jumps, shocks and tension which made Jurassic Park such a blast. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s an overfamiliarity with CGI, or maybe it’s just the fact that I took a date to see Jurassic Park which is given its jumps and shocks was a great move. Whichever it was, there just wasn’t quite enough danger. On the plus side, though, Westworld doesn’t have Sam Neill.

I watched this film at home on TV.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Pitch Perfect (2012)

Planes are bad for our judgement. It’s something about the totally artificial nature of it all – eating, drinking, watching a wide selections of movies on demand, sleep-deprivation and time-zone randomness. Somehow that all seems to combine to rob me of the capacity to think clearly. My stomach usually does funny things too.

Which is why I rarely blog about a film I see for the first time on a plane. It’s not a good context to form a considered opinion in. Hence last year I found myself on a flight to or from South Africa watching Pitch Perfect, a musical-comedy about college a capella groups, in which stomachs also occasionally do funny things. Bizarrely, it was a film about which I’d heard nothing but good things. Every reviewer or friend seemed to have gone into it expecting little and emerged with a huge grin on their faces. Not being convinced, I only found the reserves of strength to watch it mid-air. I really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. Must have been the altitude, or free drink, or tiredness. Discard opinion instantly.

So I re-watched it this week. Much to my chagrin, it was still good. Still laugh-out loud funny. In many ways it’s an entirely conventional college movie; the plot is resolutely un-startling. Central character Becca (Anna Kendrick) goes through a regulation transformation from alternative-outsider to part of a group in which she can be herself. The underdogs do what underdogs do. Several things, however, elevate it above the run of the mill.

First the music just works. A capella has a kind of intrinsic joy which lends the comedy an energy it wouldn’t otherwise have. The scenes of live performance have an irresistible verve. Then there’s Anna Kendrick, who does little of the actual comic work instead providing a still centre for the real comedy to happen around, a real straight-woman to the rest of the clowns and comics. There’s also the fact that the script is sharp, economical and knowing, referencing classic 80s films without them feeling like smart-crowd in-jokes. And packed, of course, with loads of good jokes and quotable lines.

Along with all that, what I really liked about, what was really refreshing was that this was a comedy with women at the centre and men at the edge; where romance was a sub-plot and looks largely irrelevant. It’s proper comedy without pressure to conform or any of the drab attempts to ‘shock’ of the Hangover-type brands.The film’s surprising levels of success – enough for a sequel to be in pre-production as I write. It’s not a film to change lives, but it is a film worthy of your attention and, if Hollywood can take its lead, could shape the industry for a while to come; away from young-male centred identikit cash generators to a wider sense of what we all want to see. More power to it.

This time around, I watched this movie on TV.

I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com 

American Hustle

American Hustle has everything: a cast of today’s hot talent, a director’s whose previous film (Silver Linings Playbook) was hard not to enjoy, 70s costumes and hairpieces to invoke instant comic value and gloss, a con-trick based plot which should provide intrigue, tension, social commentary and comic potential. It has everything, indeed.

Sad to report, then, that the film is itself a con. The performances are nearly faultless in this regard; none of the major players really puts a foot wrong. It’s easy to see why the film has been laden with nominations for the acting at least. What I find slightly more mystifying is the level of acclaim the film has received as a whole. It a film about con-artists and police entrapment, about people playing roles; people who play roles so well that we never see who they are. It’s impossible for the audience to really care about any of them because we don’t who they really are. To say something about the roles people play, you need to say more than simply state that they do so.

Then there’s the story. There are fine moments of comedy and tensions – but in the end, I didn’t really know what was happening. The layers of deceit aren’t peeled away so much as they are occasionally and carelessly ripped off, leaving strands of previous layers dawdling on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross is one thing; by the end, though, its several revelations too far. I was too lost and too confused about people whom I didn’t really care to stay interested.

It’s a shame, as there’s so much I should like, and so much that could be said by this director and these actors making this sort of film. If it’s meant to reflect a shallow and empty hall of mirrors in American society, then it’s a disappointingly successful one. Sometimes you need to do more than reflect. Much to admire, but in the end relatively little to actually engage and enjoy.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Telling a better story: gender discrimination and restitution

Some of you may remember a blog I write a while back to try and get inside the issue of restitution in South Africa. It appeared in a few places and you can read it by clicking here. A couple of weeks ago I gatecrashed a twitter conversation on the issue of restitution in gender discrimination, offering that blog post as an example of how to begin a conversation. That seemed helpful, and resulted in me wondering aloud to one of the people in the conversation if the story could be rewritten to look at the issue of gender. The net result is that I have done so, and you can see the result at Natalie Collins’ God Loves Women, which you can access by clicking here.

That post is neither a last word nor a first word. It’s simply a contribution to help us think. I’ve written it because I think men need to do something about our inherent status of unjust privilege  over and exploitation of women in different spheres. I wrote it because I want to start doing something. A few months ago I was asked to speak on a course; I looked at the line-up of speakers and turned it down, giving my reason that there were too many male speakers and not enough female. I suggested a couple of women I knew who would do a better job than I would have done.

I had real fun doing that. I’ve not done much like that since, and I need to. If you’re a man, so do you. Join me, and let’s tell a better story.

You can read my story about gender privilege here

Words In Lent’s second week

Wind whipped and sand secreted

Temptation touches the hungry soul.

Why not? Why shouldn’t?

Itself it is not wrong.

We live in grace

So he must forgive.

You need to eat, to look

To be known, to be seen.

These aren’t bad,

Aren’t dangerous,

Aren’t sins

So much as they are

Necessary in times of trial

And lack.

So extending a hand,

Swallowing a morsel,

Taking a moment,

Cutting some slack,

Temptation transforms

And is gone, replaced

By regret and satisfaction.

The point is we can’t,

The strength is weakness,

The grace found only

By knowing we’ll fail.

Listen and you’d

Hear heaven laugh

If the price wasn’t so steep.

After 40 days he was

Hungry, says the word.

Absurd, of course

He was. Still he resists,

Still he uses the word,

Still he knows himself

And who his father is.

He resists then, and later

To the point of shed

Blood that weakness

Might not be the

End and giving in

Not mean giving up.

So we give up

For 4o days a year

To remind and renew.

Or we take on

To be more like

Him who took

On flesh, being

In very nature

God, not considering

Equality is something

To be grasped.

 

Also in this series: 

Words at the start of Lent

Words at the start of Lent

It’s a hard thing I ask of you.

Hard, but not difficult.

I ask you to take up a cross.

Mine was, is, real and hardened, splintering and splintered.

Yours is most likely harder to see, but no less costly.

Yours is not the weight of the world, but at times it may seem so.

It’s in your nature to make nothing into something and something into nothing.

Seek not to find that trap.

 I say take up your cross.

Do not think only of laying down coffee or Facebook or chocolate.

I say take up your cross.

Do not only of more reading,

Prayers, services, projects and giving.

Crosses cost everything.

Your tendency is to the

Simple arthimatic, of adding or subtracting one.

You talk often of taking up your cross

Like you do shopping or habits or exercise.

It’s not like that. I speak from experience.

The experience of blood, sweat and tears.

There is glory to come. I see it and live in it.

It is yours; now in part, in full to come.

Cross and glory go together like

Blood, sweat and tears.

So the cross? Your cross?

Made to measure, fitting well.

What do you give up, take on?

What is enough when it demands life, soul, all?

A living sacrifice.

You, here and now.

For ever.

Everything you were, are and will be.

So for 40 days lay down or take up.

Discipline or abstain.

Facebook or chocolate.

Pray, read, worship,

Serve, give, study.

Attend, worship.

By all means.

Do so with

Full hearts and minds.

But do not think that in doing so

You have found a cross.

Those may be good, but are not all.

I ask for your life.

No more, no less.

Each day.

I take what you give gladly for I know it costs.

It costs and hurts and aches and rips.

As it did for me.

40 days, then.

To show the content of your life.

Take up your cross

As I did mine.