Category Archives: Movies

Six months of movie-going

I just found a list of the movies I saw in the first half of 1970, the year I turned 23, my English Honours year at Sydney University. I had just left the Marist Brothers and I was awfully lonely without the fraternal community of the previous seven years, but there were movies to fill the void: the ones in the picture theatres and the ones screened cheap by the Sydney University Film Group (of whom John Flaus and Michael Thornhill were leading lights). No film courses were offered at the university in those days, but it’s hard to imagine a course that would have been this eclectic or offered such startling double bills. I wonder if such an extended binge is a common experience.

Here’s the incredibly rich list.

I saw the first four films at home in North Queensland, with my older brother (the first three) and my parents. After that I was in Sydney and briefly in Canberra.

January:
whisperers25 The Lineup (Don Siegel 1958)
27 Summer Fires (also known as Mademoiselle) (Tony Richardson 1966, starring Jeanne Moreau)
28 The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes 1967, with Dame Edith Evans)
30 The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard 1968: the poster said, ‘Patricia Neal is back,’ but I didn’t know she’d been away, or who she was)

February:
culdesac13 Hamlet (Tony Richardson 1969)
14 If … (Tony Richardson 1968)
18 Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger 1969)
20 The Searchers (John Ford 1956; John Wayne, ‘As sure as night follows day…’)
23 The Killers (Don Siegel 1964)
23 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles 1965)
24 Cul-de-Sac (Roman Polanski 1966; Donald Pleasance bowled me over)

March;
mabuseStrike (Sergei M. Eisenstein 1925)
9 Targets (Peter Bogdanovich 1968)
12 Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn 1969; Arlo Guthrie)
12 The Chase (Arthur Penn 1966)
13 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler 1969; the 1968bDemocratic Convention – ‘Haskell, it’s real!’)
20 Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1922)
21 Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1958; Marlene Dietrich; ‘He was some kind of a man’)
28 Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni 1970; amazing street art in San Francisco, and also kaboom!)
28 Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper 1969)

April:
coeurs3 Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty 1922)
3 Les coeurs verts (Edouard Luntx 1966; the scene where the juvenile delinquents break into a swimming pool and suddenly there’s a wonderful naked underwater ballet; Gus Van Sant must have seen it)
6 Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
13 Mickey One (Arthur Penn 1965)
13 Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman 1961)
16 Repulsion (Roman Polanski 1965)
17 Twelfth Night (John Sichel 1969; one of the very few films in this list that I don’t remember at all)
18 Richard III (Laurence Olivier 1955)
20 Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman 1962)
20 Guns in the Afternoon (Sam Peckinpah 1962)
23 Barrier (Jerzy Skolimowski 1966)
24 White Nights (Luchino Visconti 1957)
26 Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffner 1968)
26 Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey 1966)
27 The Enforcer (Raoul Walsh 1951)
27 Vivre sa vie (Jean Luc Godard 1962)

May: 
burmeseMinistry of Fear (Fritz Lang 1944)
1 Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger 1950)
5 The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang 1953)
9 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)
12 The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa 1956; maybe my first east Asian film, and I was gobsmacked)
12 Tirez sur le pianiste (Francois Truffaut 1960)
23 Frankenstein (Don Whale 1931)
30 MASH (Robert Altman 1969)

June:
pointblank12 Crime and Punishment (Josef Von Sternberg 1935; could Peter Lorre really be who Dostoevsky had in mind?)
15 Bedazzled (Stanley Donen 1967)
20 Ramrod (André De Toth 1947; a Joel McCrae western)
21 Point Blank (John Boorman 1967; Lee Marvin!)
21 The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski 1967; I laughed myself silly at the Aquarius Festival in Canberra)
26 The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (André Delvaux 1965)
26 Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock 1946)
27 The Power and the Glory (Marc Daniels 1961)
27 L’Etranger (Luchino Visconti 1967)
29 The Damned (Joseph Losey 1961; ‘Black leather, black leather, rock rock rock’; Oliver Reed)
29 Persona (Ingmar Bergman 1966)

July:
gospel2 Rysopsis (Jerzy Skolimowski 1964; is this the one where the old people in the bar make their glasses resonate?)
2 My Way Home (Miklós Janscó 1965)
3 Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968)
3 Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967)
3 October (Sergei Eisenstein 1928; Ah, by this time I wasn’t so lonely any more; I saw it with my girlfriend and her Russian mother, who didn’t like its politics)
Alfie (Lewis Gilbert 1966)
6 The Tall T (Budd Boetticher 1957)
6 Shame (Ingmar Bergman 1968)
8 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969)
10 The Thirty-Nine Steps (Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
10 Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea 1968; an independent Cuban film)
12 Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini 1965; my first Fellini, I had no idea what to make of it)
13 Petulia (Richard Lester 1968)
13 Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961)
20 The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964; my first Pasolini, I was blown away)
25 The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939; screened to a small audience, Flaus stopped the projector and rescreened Marlene Dietrich’s first appearance three times)
27 Contempt (Jean Luc Godard 1963; starring Fritz Lang and Brigitte Bardot)
– The Wild Angels (Roger Corman 1966)
– Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh 1970)

The Book Group and Falstaff

When we were discussing possibilities for our next book at the Book Group’s last meeting, one Grouper said he was reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,  and was fascinated by Bloom’s argument that Falstaff, the roistering old man in the Henry IV plays, was one of Shakespeare’s most important creations – ‘a great dream of reality’. He proposed that we read those plays. Perhaps our collective defences were down, but his proposal won the day.

Before the meeting:
Plays are meant for the stage rather than the page. That’s my excuse for not reading them,  but watching two modified versions: the relevant episodes of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre), and Orson Welles’s 1965 Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight). The plot, in case you need it, is that Henry IV, who became king through pretty disgusting machinations in Richard II, now fights off rebels and establishes himself as a legitimate ruler. To his chagrin, his son and heir to the crown, Henry, Hal to his friends, lives a dissolute life under the mentorship of a gross, permanently drunk old man, Sir John Falstaff. It’s no spoiler to say that Hal comes good in the end, defeats the rebel Percy Hotspur, who in the king’s eyes has all the qualities Hal lacks, and is finally reconciled with his father and assumes the crown, rejecting his former life and those who were his companions, most notably and dramatically Falstaff

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The Hollow Crown episodes have high production values, with a powerful Falstaff in Simon Russell Beale and a completely charming Tom Hiddleston as Hal. As two of seven episodes in a historical TV series that happens to be largely written by Shakespeare, they necessarily focus on the story of the king (played by Jeremy Irons). There’s a grimy realism to the portrayal of Falstaff and his world, so he comes across as a pathetic drunkard lacking in moral integrity who tries to cover the squalor of his life with witty patter and unconvincing bravado. When Hal insults him (trigger warning: there are a lot of fat jokes), it feels hurtful even at its most playful. Whatever its other strengths, this production is no help in understanding what Harold Bloom was talking about.

chimes.jpg

Chimes at Midnight is a huge contrast. It looks as if it was scraped together on the smell of an oily rag – possibly the oily rag that was left after John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Ralph Richardson and Margaret Rutherford had been paid (though who knows, maybe they worked for very little). The sound is at times painfully iffy (lots of post-production dubbing), and the acting and mise-en-scène stagey to the nth degree. But the sheer exuberance of Welles’s Falstaff carries all before it.

I loved it when I saw it in the early 1970s, and I loved it again this week.

At one point, in the tavern/brothel where Hal, Falstaff and their fellow-roisterers hang out, Falstaff proposes a play, in which he will be the king. With a cushion on his head for a crown, and his vast bulk hoisted onto a raised chair, he upbraids Hal for his prodigal ways (anticipating a scene not much later when the real king does the same), and sings the praises of the good Sir John Falstaff. The original audience would have recognised, I remember from my university days, the presence of the traditional Lord of Misrule, a peasant crowned ‘king’ in a midwinter festival so that all normal, staid life gave way to riotous living. Falstaff in his tavern, full of life, big of body, delighting in language (including witty insults hurled at his own head), is a an updating of that tradition: a bright, irresponsible double of the calculating king in his forbidding court where every word is consequential and there is very little joy.

Which made me think of Donald Trump. In Part One Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff is accused of lying. First he denies it:

What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?

Challenged to explain the discrepancies in his story, he shifts the ground. Why should he allow himself to be compelled to explain himself?

What, upon compulsion? ‘Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion! If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

Then he attacks his accuser:

‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried  neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck —

And at last, confronted with hard evidence, he says he was joking.

In the final scene of the first play, Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur. When Hal calls him on it, and asserts that he did it himself, Falstaff shakes his head:

Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!

We laugh. He is such an ingenious rogue. When Falstaff says, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ we feel the truth of it, and when at the end of the second play, the newly crowned King Henry V turns to him and says, ‘I know thee not, old man,’ we don’t see the dashed hopes of an unrealistic opportunist (which is pretty much how it comes across in The Hollow Crown) so much as a terrible self-amputation that’s necessary if Hal is to assume political power responsibly. And it is necessary. If Falstaff were to have a position of influence at court, the political system would be in serious trouble.

If only someone could have invented a position of Misrule President, it might have been fun, for a week or so over summer, for a Falstaffian figure who ‘isn’t a politician’ to bully and bluster and joke at the expense of the carefully correct, to make outrageous claims for himself and outrageous threats against other people, to talk of alternative facts and fake news. So long as he did all that with panache we could enjoy the sheer gall of it. We might even laugh at his naughtiness as he robs people blind. For a week or so.

Banish plump Donald and banish all the world. Yes, I get that: we need irreverence. But elect plump Donald and wreck all the world.

The meeting:
Unusually, I came to this meeting with explicit expectations. I wanted to hear more about how Harold Bloom sees Falstaff, and I wanted to hear from a Grouper who has played the role.

It turned out that the latter played Falstaff decades ago in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he said is a romp churned out by Shakespeare on short order at Queen Elizabeth’s request. The Falstaff in that play is a much less interesting creation, though much more sexually active, and attractive. Our actor had interesting things to say about the way Elizabethan audiences were much more sensitive to verbal subtleties than we are – they would go to hear a play, while we go to see one.

As for Bloom, evidently he goes through the usual perceptions of Falstaff one by one and demolishes them. Not a coward. Not a drunk. Not an opportunist. Not a liar, a thief, a scrounger or a knave. Instead, he is a great refuser of cant, a truth-speaker, a person who puts the joy of living and the joy of relationships above all else. I may be misrepresenting, as of course this discussion happened over barbecued sausages and salad and was far from interjection free. But I was unconvinced. However, we were treated to a reading from Part One, Act V Scene 1. The battle (truly horrendous in the Welles movie) is about to start. Falstaff has asked Hal to protect him and been refused, Hal saying, ‘Thou owest God a death.’ Alone on stage, Falstaff ruminates:

calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

It’s wrong, according to Bloom (at third hand), to read this as a roguish rationalisation for cowardice. It is actually a deep challenge to the whole code of conduct built around the concept of honour, a code that accounts for an awful lot of violence and death. I was reminded of Israeli writer Etgar Keret on ABC Radio’s Books and Arts recently saying that when he asked his father what he was proudest of in his life, he said, ‘I have been in the front lines of five wars, and as far as I know I’ve never hurt anyone.’ That’s not dishonourable, but – arguably true also of Falstaff – it stands aside from the demands of honour.

My Trump-as-Falstaff thesis cut only a little bit of ice.

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:

ToYTestament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.

hnmmHe Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:

selmaSelma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.

ffm Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:

1846145066Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.

iocJean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.

1743319118Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.

1408703483Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .

9781742232430Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:

1781251088John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.

1555976905Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.

dmfpDavid Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.

talking-to-my-countryStan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.

The-Fox-PetitionJennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

Best of 2014 in 3 lists

List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:

17_dDisruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.

17_bhBoyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.

17_L Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.

14_CCCharlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.

12y12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.

17_c4We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.

tgsNick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.

Our worst movie
This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)

List 2. Books

The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):

144477963XSiri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]

1400066026Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.

1594486344James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.

0316322407Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.

I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

0702250139

David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

0571274161

Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

0855757795

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

0805057404

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.

List 3. Best ‘Me Fail I Fly!’–related headline:

5ip

Onward to 2015!

Sonnet month again

It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month). Actually, I’ve discovered that the 14-line form I’m enaoured of, the Onegin Stanza, isn’t a sonnet properly speaking, but I’ll keep the name for the project rather than opting for the even less euphonious LoSoOnStaMo. It’s my blog and words will mean whatever I want them to mean.

To kick off the month, here are some hasty lines about The Butler, Lee (‘Precious’) Daniels’ movie featuring Forest Whitaker (brilliant), Oprah Winfrey (also brilliant) and half a dozen big names in cameos (I especially liked Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan):

Sonnet 1: A night at the movies
A tiny audience saw The Butler
screened at the Chauvel last night:
a history lesson – I’ve had subtler –
meant for us, as we are white.
Rape, murder, and a double lynching
in living memory, with no flinching
from those in power, and then the fights:
bombs, burning crosses – civil rights,
Panthers, afros, ‘Nam. The lazy
eye of Forest Whitaker, who serves
eight presidents deadpan, observes
with anguish. Though Miss Daisy
would have liked him, here’s the thing:
he wasn’t dissed by Doctor King.

End of year lists 2012

As if it isn’t enough to be shopping and wrapping and cooking and unwrapping and eating and searching for lost dogs and blocking our ears to keep out the piped carols, it’s the season for drawing up Best-Of lists.

The Art Student’s best five movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi 2011): ‘Definitely the best movie this year. We got to see how complex it all is for secular Muslims in Iran.’

Lore (Cate Shortland 2012): ‘Up there with A Separation. You don’t believe you can watch yet another film about Jews and Nazis, yet here it was, original and fresh. I hope it wins an Oscar. I liked Somersault too.’

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011): ‘Creepy,’ she said, ‘but good.’

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino 2011): ‘I loved the great humour, the art, the spectacular musical event.”

The Sessions (Ben Lewin 2012): ‘I liked having nudity and sex without it being voyeuristic.’

My best five movies, chosen fairly arbitrarily (with arbitrary reason given) from a short list of 19 that included all five of the Art Student’s picks:

Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor 2012) features a main character who walks around the city reading. I identified. It also reminded me of the pleasures of Eric Rohmer movies.

Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (Lian Lunson 2012) pips The Sapphires (Wayne Blair 2012) at the post for my musical of the year. It’s a concert movie that invites us into extraordinary intimacy with a brilliantly musical family. Martha Wainwright sings ‘First Born’, which her mother wrote for her brother, and which we played a lot when our firstborn son was being ‘the first to crawl’.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki 2011) made me feel irrationally pleased with myself or recognizing the oddly deadpan directorial style from Drifting Clouds, which I saw and loved decades ago.

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011) was a moderately enjoyable film until the final moment, which resolved a plot point I had been half-awarely worrying over, and vastly expanded the movie’s meaning.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh 2011): In spite of the phenomenal consumption of alcohol and other drugs, which would normally be enough to put me right off, I loved the unsentimental, unprurient portrayal of two characters who are completely taken with each other, including sexually.

The worst movie: We both picked Sophie Lellouche’s bland, self-indulgent Paris–Manhattan. But don’t take this as a solid judgement on the film as it might have miraculously picked up after the first hour, which is all we could bear. If we had to name a movie we stayed the course for, the Art Student would pick Skyfall, which she just plain hated, and I might have to pick Bernie, because Jack Black’s creepiness and the creepiness of the subject matter were from different universes.

The Art Student’s best books (she wouldn’t be limited to five), listed here in no particular order, with links to my blog entries or the book’s LibraryThing page:

1bmMartin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2011): ‘Full of surprises and delights, about the way an artist sees the world.’

090787181XIrfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004): ‘Compellingly tells of the transition from a feudal society to modernity as a result of war. Also wonderful was the insider child’s view of life under the veil.’

20120704-175516.jpgHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012): ‘I’m glad it won the Booker. I’m completely hooked on the story, and looking forward to the third book, although having fallen in love with Cromwell I’m not looking forward to his death.’

1920898581Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy (1996): ‘A must-read for all Australians, especially those who think the dispossession of Aboriginal people all happened in the distant past.’

1ccStephen Gilchrist, editor, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (2012): ‘I’m only half way through this but it’s a great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.’

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (2012): ‘I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down even though a lot was uncomfortable.’

0007149530Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008): ‘Fascinating portraits of scientists in the late 18th century, when science and romanticism were closely joined. Particularly good on Banks and the Herschels.’

0670033804Sebastian Barry, The Long Way Home (2005) and On Canaan’s Side (2011): ‘Two completely absorbing novels. The first is probably the best novel of the First World War I’ve read, and the second extends the story to Irish immigration to the USA, and the past catching up with you, written convincingly in the voice of an 80 year old woman.’

My best books, which I’ve kept down to just five by declaring the AS’s list off limits:

20120224-180529Fàbio Moon & Gabriel Bà, Daytripper (2011): A gem of a comic book by twin brothers from Brazil, this is a string of connected short stories that celebrates a human life as a miracle of survival.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (2008): A story of colonial India that manages to be a gripping romance at the same time as blasting any romantic nostalgia for the Raj to oblivion.

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (2009): it was a toss-up between this and Tohby Riddle’s miraculous Unforgotten for my picture book of the year. This is a different kind of miracle from Tohby’s – it opens a space for a multitude of voices to speak about the lethal indifference to Indigenous Australians on the part of he British atomic test at Maralinga, and about the resilience of the Anangu people.

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002): I choose this over Gibson’s brilliant 26 Views of the Starburst World, which was published this year, because the earlier book made me understand something of the colonisation of my North Queensland home that I had read about previously but managed not to grasp.

Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (2012): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Possibly the major revelation was Byron’s Don Juan, but I haven’t finished reading that, and I might have chosen Liquid Nitrogen anyway, as I feel that Jennifer Maiden’s stories, meditations and dialogues help me to live in the modern world.

A note on the gender balance front: I would have thought my reading was fairly every spread between male and female writers, but numbers don’t cater to wishful thinking. According to my blog statistics, I read 34 books by men and 22 by women.

End of year lists 2011

Here are the Art Student’s best five movies for the year, in no particular order. That’s five out of roughly 43 movies we went to. (If you don’t know a movie the title links to  its IMDb page.)

Inside Job: A documentary about the Global Financial Crisis. The most memorable thing is that at the end Obama kept in something like 20 key positions the same people whose advice had led to the policies that brought about the collapse.

Of Gods and Men: The AS knew this was on my list and wouldn’t give me a comment.

Win Win: She liked this for its moral complexity and understatedness.

The Guard: This made her laugh. She liked being seduced by someone who did bad things.

Bill Cunningham New York: She was exhilarated by this and loved it as a model of a kind of integrity that may well be disappearing from the western world.

And mine:
Bill Cunningham New York: See the Art Student’s comment above

Of Gods and Men: Interestingly enough, this is also a study in integrity, and though it’s fiction, it ends with a profound letter written by the actual man it’s based on.

Source Code: An SF Groundhog Day that I found completely delightful.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: There seems to be a theme emerging: what I loved about this was that its main character had done bad things with good intentions and took responsibility for his actions. It also cast yet more unflattering light on the US authorities’ response to ‘terrorism’.

Toomelah: I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival, introduced by Ivan Sen in the company of two young actors. Perhaps that’s why I saw it as an ultimately hopeful, though unsparing, look at life in a crushed, neglected and dysfunctional Aboriginal community.

About books, the Art Student claims not to be able to remember back past the last book she read, but she’s happy to have Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in her top five books for the year. This year, following the shocking VIDA statistics on gender bias in literary journals, I decided to keep track of whether books I read were by men or women, and a quick count shows, astonishingly that I read 25 books by men and 23 by women. Compulsive honesty has me acknowledge that many of the books by women were very short. the most dubious inclusion being a YouTube video of Harvard Professors reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.  My top five, a list that might look quite different if I did it on another day:

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. What a painful pleasure to re read this! I can’t think of a character I’ve hated more, while being fascinated, than Sam Pollitt.

Francis Webb, Collected Poems and a number of ancillary books.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House. I’m that much less likely to win a game of Humiliation now that I’ve read this. I completely understand why Claire Tomalin read this twice when researching her biography of Dickens – she wasn’t prompted by duty but by pleasure.

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. Phew! We’re into the 21st century. After the necessarily careful correctness of, say, Kate Grenville’s novels about early contact in Sydney, this exuberant, multi-faceted, generous, funny, heartbreaking novel is like a blast of clean air.

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book is I’m tempted to name the one I’m currently reading, but this really is a wonderful book, all the more shocking for the care with which it marshals its evidence and argument. I want to push it into the hands of everyone I know.

Please quarrel with these lists, add your recommendations, etc.

Five audiences

The Art Student doesn’t blog, except by remote control, as in saying to me, ‘You should write on your blog about…’ This is one of those posts.

In the last week, in spite of my otherwise debilitating head cold, we’ve been to five cultural outings. This is a brief review of the audiences. (Distances in brackets are from our house to the theatre.)

1. The Drama Theatre of the Opera House: Nina Conti’s Talk to the Hand (7.9 km)
We got a pretty good look at the front row of this youngish, well-heeled crowd, as Nina and her monkey held them up to ridicule one after another. The foul-mouthed monkey made a series of outrageous remarks, shocking sweet, well-bred Nina. ‘Are you married to her?’ the monkey asked one man, indicating the woman next to him. ‘Sometimes,’ the man said, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty good response. ‘What do you mean, sometimes?’ Nina asked. ‘Well, at other times she’s [insert your own misogynist end to sentence].’ Even the monkey was taken aback, and moved on quickly. The joke was in danger of failing as the audience promised to be even more obnoxious than the monkey. The same man called out further insults about his wife later in the evening. Of course, it would be wrong to tar the whole audience with his brush, but whenever Ms Conti or one of her dummies called for suggestions, the replies were mostly sex- or bum-themed. The show was fabulous, but the audience had a significantly vocal leavening of misogyny and middle-class yobbery.

2. Gleebooks: Gerard Windsor and Giulia Giuffrè in conversation about the latter’s book, Primavera (3.7 km)
The smallest, most serious and most mature of the five audiences. When we arrived, the two performers were mingling with the audience-to-be. Someone asked me, ‘How do you fit in?’ and told me Giulia had commented with pleasure when she saw some strangers arrive. (I probably count as a stranger: I met Giulia a couple of times in the early 70s, but she didn’t remember me.) Someone from Gleebooks  introduced the event in 10 seconds flat (‘perfunctory’ doesn’t begin to cover it), leaving Gerry to say who he was. This only deepened the sense that we were at an intimate gathering – friends, family (Giulia’s 20-something daughter was there, and spoke briefly), colleagues.

3. Seymour Centre: iOTA’s Smoke & Mirrors (3 km)
In many respects similar to the Nina Conti audience, this crowd were hip rather than heeled. An older woman in the front row opposite us kept her face fixed in a scowl the whole time except for one brief smile. She applauded politely at the end of most items, and winced when the stage lights fell on her, as they did often. But the great bulk of the audience applauded enthusiastically not only the songs, acrobatics and magic tricks, but also iOTA’s sexually ambiguous clown-crying-on-the-outside musical performance. When the lyrics got, as they say, explicit, the crowd was unfazed, but when a decorous striptease ended with the unveiling of the stripper’s beard there was no noisy clamour for more intimate exposure. This audience, with nothing to prove, seemed happy to be entertained and challenged.

4. Dendy Cinema Newtown: special advance screening of Sunshine and Oranges (1.6 km)
This was a 6.30 screening for Club Dendy members, of a movie about Margaret Humphries exposing the secretive deportation of 130 000 children from the UK to Australia. There was a lot of silver hair in this packed house and, at least near us, a smattering of English accents. The Art Student thought there was a preponderance of women, not young, but not yet of a certain age, who could have been social workers. I was struck by the number of phone screens that stayed lit up until the last possible moment, by which I mean several seconds after the film began.

5. The Factory: Fear of a Brown Planet Attacks (.7 km)
Another packed house. My guess is that the vast majority of the audience were young Muslim Indians or Pakistanis.Here we were definitely in the minority, as white people and also as people over 40. There were plenty of hijabs and other headscarfs, but I didn’t see any older women in saris or salwar kameez. Aamer Rahman’s performance of a Bollywood song in (I’m guessing) Hindi provoked a lot of recognising laughter. And when Nazeem Hussain, the other half of Fear of a Brown Planet, did a caustic impersonation of a white Australian calling him ‘Zeemo’, ‘Nazzer’ and so on, he had the audience right there with him. Racism was mocked. A child ran about noisily at the back of the large auditorium for most of the show’s second half, and no one got into a state about it. Perhaps the White People were a little more subdued than usual as we left, but my impression is we were among people who not only had been entertained but also had had significant issues named out loud.

All but the first of the events happened within walking distance of our house. It’s as if we live at the junction of different worlds. Ah, city life!

End of Year Lists

The Art Student proposed that I post about my best five books, best five movies and worst three movies for 2010. And hers. Being an obliging fellow, and at the risk of exposing myself as a philistine, here they are. Do nominate your own favourites in the comments.

The five movies most enjoyed in 2010 (in no particular order):

By me:

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd’s first feature, so human and yet so vile. (When Jacqui Weaver was being made much of in the US for this performance, Michôd reportedly said to himself, ‘About time.’ To which I cry Amen!)

Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole, what some people would undoubtedly see as a fundamentalist left feminist feelgood movie – and what’s wrong with getting to feel good about a victory?

Peepli [Live], directed by Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, a wonderfully ebullient satire on the way the media in India just like here makes spectacle out of misery – a comic commentary on P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Temple Grandin, made for TV by Mick Jackson, starring Clare Danes as Temple Grandin, the woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who revolutionised the treatment of cattle in US slaughterhouses.

In the Loop, exuberantly enraged, foul mouthed satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Peter Capaldi, which I found cathartic.

By the Art Student:

City Island, a genial comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta, starring Andy Garcia, and Julianna Margulies playing a very different character from Alicia in The Good Wife on TV.

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring culture jammers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and any number of corporation representatives being taken for a ride.

Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater.

Peepli [Live]. At last we agree on one.

Fair Game, the pic about Valerie Plame, directed by Doug Liman.

The film that most cried out for a thumbs down from both of us

Rob Marshall’s Nine. At least they had the good taste to wait until Fellini was dead before defiling his work in this way. The fault lines in our unanimity of taste showed when the Art Student had trouble choosing between this, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, both of which I enjoyed.

Five favourite books read in 2010

By me:

I listed 121 books in my Reading and Watching blog during 2010. I didn’t finish all of them, but picking five favourites is necessarily pretty arbitrary because so many of them delighted and enlightened me. However, here goes.

China Miéville, The City and the City. Science fictional policier, marvellously taut and convincing us to believe in an impossible world.

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda. Written by an Australian, this tells the story of a Japanese man who fought against and killed Australians in the jungles of New Guinea, and his resolve to honour his comrades who died there.

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season. I read this in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. It is a very rich introduction to the culture and recent history of the nation created by the first successful black slave revolt of modern times.

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain. This may not be the best book of poetry published this year. Many people would probably give precedence to Les Murray’s Taller When Prone or Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. But Jennifer Maiden gets my gong.

Marilynne Robinson, Home. If I ever convert to stern Presbyterian Protestantism, it will be because of this book and its predecessor, Gilead. I love the characters’ unrelenting quest to love with integrity.

By the Art Student, in her own words:
While I have read quite a bit of fiction that I enjoyed, the books that stand out are all non fiction.

Reza Aslan, How to win a cosmic war. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. The book is a clear and compelling account of the past and current drivers of religious fundamentalism – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. It shows the common threads in religious fundamentalism while focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What is interesting is Aslan’s description of the difference between Islamic nationalist groups (which the West should learn to love) and internationalist jihadism. By fighting the former, Aslan argues, we are pushing alienated young western-born Middle Eastern  Muslims into joining the latter and terrorism.

Carol Duncan,  Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums. This includes a fascinating account of the development of public art museums after the French Revolution liberated the Louvre. It mainly focuses on the development of public galleries in the USA and England, but links these developments to a popular movement to have art galleries in all major western cities (including Sydney). But most interesting are the struggles about what galleries were and are for, how they should be funded and what they should show. In the USA, private philanthropists were the driving force in establishing galleries, allowing them to build spacious monuments to benefactors. The down side was that those benefactors wanted control beyond death, so that many galleries are filled with replicas of ballrooms and indifferent art that are never to be changed. Duncan’s final chapters critique current public galleries’ approaches to their art and audiences, making it clear why many people find the experience of visiting galleries unsatisfying and alienating.

John Hirst, Sentimental Nation, the Making of the Australian Commonwealth. Federation? Surely the dullest topic in Australian history. But to my surprise this book was a wonderful read of the decades-long fight for federation. Depressingly familiar in some respects (the Murray–Darling debate, immigration, taxes, mining, Commonwealth–state power sharing) it was also a wonderfully inspiring account of democratic processes that gave Australia a constitution. There were three Constitutional Conventions, with 60 men voted from  the colonies to draft, debate and redraft the constitution over 12 weeks each time. Once agreed on, the constitution was subject to two referenda before being passed. Town hall meetings were held in every suburb and town in the country, each meeting often taking four hours while every section of the draft was read aloud,  explained and debated. Hirst makes the back and forth of politics come alive with a contemporary feel.

Richard in the Era of the Corporation

Patricia Hill, Alice Neel. Alice Neel (1900 to 1984) was a US artist who painted mainly portraits of ordinary working people over from the 1920’s until her death. She was a socialist and worked as part of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal initiative) during the Depression. She only received recognition of her work in the 1970s, partly because portraiture was out of fashion in Modernist American art circles,  partly because of her left wing views and partly because of her gender. I love her work. Her portraits are often distorted yet capture absolutely a sense of the person and their context. She saw herself as painting ‘definitive pictures with the feel of the era’, pointing to her portrait of her son in a business suit, ‘Richard in the Era of the Corporation’ as a good example.The book is largely Neel’s own words taken from interviews conducted by Hill. An inspiring read for someone at the very beginning of an art career as she approaches 60.

Do tell us your bests of 2010 in the comments

Outnumbered vs Modern Family

In Monday’s Guide (liftout for the Sydney Morning Herald), Jim Schembri’s preview of award winning US family sitcom Modern Family began ‘Really, is there anything funnier on TV at the moment?’

‘Yes,’ we replied in my house, ‘resoundingly yes!’

Not that we don’t enjoy Modern Family, or appreciate the way it’s rejuvenated the US sitcom. But has Jim Schembri seen Outnumbered, which screens over in the corner on ABC 2 just after whatever deep-pocketed advertiser brings us  Modern Family on Ten? Perhaps not, as the Guide doesn’t even give it a synopsis – just ‘8.00 Outnumbered. (PG)’

Outnumbered is an English show about a family consisting of two parents and their three young children, plus occasionally the husband’s mother. There’s no diversity of culture or sexual identity, It’s a straight up the middle of the road nuclear family. What makes it shine is that the three young actors – aged 7, 9 and 13 or thereabouts – aren’t working form a memorised script. They’re told what’s going to happen in a scene and then let loose in front of the camera. The adult actors, who are working from a script, then have to deal with whatever lollybombs are thrown their way. And the young are brilliant improvisers, especially the two younger children, playing the characters Ben and Karen. (The older boy is more on his dignity, so doesn’t have quite the same scope.)

You probably need to see it, but favourite moments include an argument between Ben and Karen about who would win in a battle between a fairy and a boy armed with an increasingly alarming arsenal; a bizarre riff on what might be concealed in a big black beard, or Karen’s chat with her mother while she is having nits combed out of her hair: ‘Can I keep a nit as a pet?’ ‘No. Why would you want that?’ ‘I’d talk to it.’ ‘But nits can’t talk.’ ‘Yes they can. They talk nit language.’ ‘Well, you can’t have a nit for a pet.’ ‘Then can I have a giraffe?’ ‘A giraffe is too big.’ ‘What about a lion then?’ ‘Lions are too dangerous.’ ‘Could I have a nit town in my hair?’  and so on.

My single favourite exchange occurred after Karen had wrought havoc by authoritarian rulings at her father’s doubles tennis game after an unwary player suggested she might be the umpire as a way of keeping her entertained. Chatting with her mother that evening she says she wishes girls could grow beards because then they could be ferryboat captains. The mother says she can be one of those without a beard. ‘An ayatollah then,’ says Karen. ‘You’d make a good ayatollah,’ says the mother wearily. Score one for the adult team, or just possibly for the writers. In Modern Family it’s always the writers.