Tag Archives: Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s Ongoing Moment

Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment: A Book about Photographs (©2005, Canongate 2012)

0857864017This was a gift from a photographer friend who says she rarely reads a book all the way through. She dips here and there until she has had enough. The Ongoing Moment could have been written with her in mind. When I wrote the top line of this blog post, I first wrote the book’s subtitle as ‘A Book About Photography’. That may not be a completely inaccurate description of the book, but its actual subtitle comes closer to the mark. There are 105 photographs reproduced in its pages, most of them muddy and far too small in the edition I read. Dyer’s discussion of them – and of perhaps as many again –  is organised around themes that he says emerged as he immersed himself in what appears to have been a sea of photographs.

He writes about photographs of blind people, of men in overcoats and men in hats, of hands, backs, steps, doors, roads, service stations, barber shops and, perhaps most movingly, park benches. These subjects allow him to explore the distinctive styles of different photographers – and those wonderful moments when a work by one photographer looks exactly like something by another. He finds or invents narratives that link images created decades apart, and at times I don’t think he knows which he’s doing. He has a considerable gift for describing an image in an illuminating way.

He discusses works by more than 40 photographers – most of them of the United States, though he says in his introduction that he didn’t set out with that intention. One of the key questions about a photograph, he says, is whether it is of something or by someone.

There are delightful skerricks of gossip, wonderfully apposite quotation from Whitman, Wordsworth and other poets, a constant, confident play of mind. There’s a moment of snark in the acknowledgements that should win some kind of award.

I’m not well versed in photography. In the first days of my relationship with the Art Student, we bonded over a Diane Arbus exhibition (neither of us had previously heard of her, and we both realised at about the same moment that she wasn’t mocking her subjects). We recently visited a huge Paul Strand exhibition in Los Angeles. I’ve peered over her shoulder as she did assignments on Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. This much knowledge, plus my passing familiarity with some Australian greats (who of course are beyond Dyer’s southern horizon), enriched my experience of reading the book. I expect it could be enjoyed by people who know an awful lot about photography, who would find it an interesting personal take on aspects of this huge field. Equally, for people who know next to nothing, it serves as an unsystematic introduction to 20th century US photography – or not so much un- as eccentrically systematic. It’s like spending a couple of hours with a well informed and witty friend who chats enthusiastically as he shares his shoebox full of photographs.

Geoff Dyer’s Tarkovsky’s Zona

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A book about a film about a journey to a room (Canongate, Text 2012)

1zThis book about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker came with plausible recommendation from the Book Club. Ignoring the back cover’s reassuring assertion that the book ‘fascinates from start to finish – even if you haven’t seen the film’, I decided to fill a yawning gap in my cinema-literacy and watch the movie before reading it. And I was underwhelmed, not to say bored. It may be one of the greatest films ever made, but for this viewer it’s mostly laboured, inconsistent, portentous and yet inconsequential, and dreary. ‘I do know,’ Dyer writes on page 10, ‘that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.’ So I guess it’s too late for me in my mid 60s. Admittedly I watched it on a small screen, but I suspect that if I’d gone to see it in the cinema when it was first released I would have quickly and irreversibly nodded off, and only partly because in 1979 I was a sleep deprived parent of a one-year-old.

Still, I’m always fascinated when someone I respect differs wildly from me about a book or movie, so I settled down to read, expecting to have fun. (I’d heard Geoff Dyer read hilariously from his Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanesi at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival – at a time, it seems, when he was going on the Stalker marathon that led to this book.)

Zona isn’t a learned dissertation. It’s pretty much a blow by blow account of the movie, interspersed with making-of anecdotes, snippets of autobiography, descriptions of how other films have been influenced by Stalker or referred to it, comparison to other films (Dyer found Antonioni’s L’avventura intolerably boring, and perhaps this kind of book about that film just wouldn’t work at all), and reflections both serious and self-mocking on his own lifework as a writer. He probes at the reason the film has fascinated him so much: hallucinogenic substances may have something to do with it, though not, in his opinion, because they impair one’s judgement. In true essayist style, he chases off on detours, airs his snobbery (noting that Stalker has been compared to The Wizard of Oz, he tells us he hasn’t seen the latter film and ‘obviously’ has no intention of seeing it now), throws harsh adjectives at films he doesn’t like (Godard’s Breathless is unwatchable, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is vacuous, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is absolutely repellent and silly), and quotes more or less casually from a vast range of cultural touchstones: Kundera and Wordsworth, Rilke and Billy Collins, Coetzee and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Cate Blanchett and Igmar Bergman, Bob Dylan and Bjork, Christian Marclay’s The Clock and James Turrell’s light sculptures. There’s a very funny account of his idiosyncratic response to Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris, and an amusing account of some missed sexual opportunities.

I can’t say the book ameliorated my indifference to Tarkovsky in general or Stalker in particular. I don’t know that I’d enjoy going to the movies with Geoff Dyer, and even less watching television with him. But I have enjoyed spending a little more than 200 pages in his company as he engages with a movie that he has watched many times and been fascinated by for more than 30 years.

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.