Tag Archives: Movies

500 people: Week 40

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

This has been the second week of the Sydney Film Festival, at one session of which I found myself seated next to the chap from encounter Nº 14 in my last post in this series (link here). We took up our conversation where we’d left off. But there were more new encounters, most of them fleeting.

1. Saturday night 13 November, in a rare nighttime outing, we had another pleasant conversation with another Sydney Film Festival-goer. She and her partner had choctops, the first time in many months she said, and regretted it instantly. We had one film in common – Quo Vadis, Aida?, which we all loved – but in general they had been a lot less lucky than we had in their choice of movies.

2–4. Thursday, I was in our local pool with Ruby. A swimming class was in full swing in the other half of the small pool. A little girl came from the class to play in our area with a woman who was clearly her grandmother. There were only four of us in this part of the pool. I said, by way of an invitation to chat, ‘It’s hard work, but we seem to be managing.’ She accepted the invitation with something equally inane. But the little girl seized the opportunity: she told me her name (A–), her age (four and a half), her pets’ names, where her mother was (at home), and quite a lot more. Her best line was, “I’ve just been in the swimming class, and now I can swim.’ Her grandmother, sensing that Ruby was feeling sidelined, eventually broke into the conversation. We agreed that A– liked to chat, and that it was a good thing there were no skeletons in the family closet. A little later the Emerging Artist joined us, and our two groups reconnected when the other grandmother called the EA by name: they knew each other from a long way back, and it’s true you can’t take the EA anywhere without somebody knowing her (I’m thinking of museums in Manhattan and Istanbul, for example). Anyhow, the third encounter in this batch was with A–’s grandfather, who had been walking around the perimeter of the pool. When I got out, he was supervising A– in the shallow pool. I tried the same opening that had worked so well with his wife, ‘Hard work but we seem to be managing.’ He looked at me as if I was slightly daft and slightly annoying – but I’m including him anyhow.

5. During the same swim on Thursday, when the swimming class was over, a lane of the small pool was roped off and a woman who used a wheel chair was helped into that lane by two other women. With great difficulty, they helped her walk the length of the pool, and then to float and kick. They spoke in what I took to be Vietnamese, and the woman who was being helped – perhaps she’d had a stroke – made quite a lot of nonverbal noise, as well as speaking very softly to her companions. Ruby was fascinated. I was reminded of Andy Jackson’s poem ‘The Change Room’ as I tried to answer her questions. The best I could manage was to make eye contact with the woman: she gave me and Ruby the V sign, and managed a smile.

Running total is 252. I’ve passed the halfway mark.

500 people: Week 39

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

This has been the second week of the Sydney Film Festival, at one session of which I found myself seated next to the chap from encounter Nº 14 in my last post in this series (link here). We took up our conversation where we’d left off. But there were more new encounters, most of them fleeting.

1. Sunday morning 7 November, we came across a ‘cupboard house’ in the park near our place. Someone has created this prototype shelter for a homeless person from a discarded cupboard, put it up in our park and asked for feedback on Insta at old.butstillgood. We were admiring it when another person arrived, ready for a chat. Once we’d negotiated the awkward ideological difference – he said, ‘There aren’t any homeless really,’ a comment which we ignored – we admired the handiwork, opened the cupboard door together, and commented on basic bedding inside. We swapped news about the shameful amount of old furniture going to waste, and also about what each of us had noticed about homeless people who live in the park and their complex relationships to authority.

Photo by Penny Ryan

2. Tuesday. During the Sydney Film Festival, the Emerging Artist and I are making sure we get some exercise by walking to most of our films – abut a 90 minute walk when the movie is on in the city. On this morning, a little before 9 am, we met a woman carrying a small child – school age, but no older than seven – pietà-like, except that the child was struggling and the woman was doing her best to run. As she approached us she was saying to the child, ‘If you knock me over we’ll be late.’ She then noticed us, and we must have both looked we’ve-been-there friendly. She rolled her eyes in mock despair, or maybe real but good-natured despair, and hurried on her way.

3. Friday morning, I met the young man who had constructed the cupboard house we saw on Monday. He was taking it apart in the yard of a block of flats near the park. It turned out that the Council had emailed instructing him to remove it, he had wheeled it to this small concrete yard, where it had attracted the indignant attention of the landlord who demanded its immediate removal. As it happened, someone was sleeping in it at the time and rain was pouring down, so he – the creator – insisted on waiting until this morning to remove it. He said that someone had slept in it every night it was in the park, and that a small group of uni students had used it as a drinking and smoking room, burning a hole in the tarp while the homeless man was outside. I made generally sympathetic noises: he has no illusions that his little project is a solution to homelessness, but it has provided shelter to one man for several nights, and may have some kind of future.

4. Again on Friday morning, back in the sauna, where before the last lockdown there was a limit of three people at a time, now the limit is two. When I arrived there was one other man there. I said, ‘You have to be lucky with your timing these days.’ Neither of us was keen for a proper conversation, but we agreed that it was odd that the limit had been decreased, speculated on the reasons and agreed that the regulation was likely to be ignored anyhow. A little later, a third man joined us. All three of us sat in total silence for about 90 seconds, and hen the left. ‘Typical,’ my new friend said. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘no stamina.’ ‘And no regard for the rules,’ he said. And we went back into our separate sweatinesses.

5. Saturday, again on our way to the Film Festival, we stopped for breakfast at Zenius, a little cafe in Chippendale. It’s a rare treat for us to have breakfast out, especially in Covid times, and we both breakfasts were excellent – an avo and mash and a granola with fruit pieces.Our host/waiter was a bit taken aback by the enthusiastic praise we heaped on him and his cook. He asked if we lived nearby, and we responded that sadly no, we were just passing through, walking to town from Marrickville.

Running total is 247.

500 people: Weeks 35 to 38

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

In the four weeks after lockdown eased, I didn’t manage to be any more gregarious with new people.

1 & 2. Wednesday 13 October. Masked and flashing my vaccination certificate, I stepped into a non-essential retail shop for the first time in many weeks. My mission was to buy new shoes to replace my much loved, double patched and disintegrating old pair. I’d tried to buy a pair online, but had to return them because they just didn’t work. The two people working in the shop were fabulous: they were helpful and informative, and we also got to chat about the state of things. They don’t expect retail in the city to be back to the old normal any time this year; they too have suffered from the lack of barbers/hairdressers – the man removed his mask briefly to reveal a splendid beard which is due for the chop and which, he said, he has to shampoo daily so as not to make his mask smell vile.

3. Monday 18 October. In another post-lockdown first, I went to a movie in an actual cinema. Just a few days after I’d told someone I wasn’t interested in Marvel movies, I went to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which actually doesn’t look like a Marvel movie, at least for the first two thirds. It was wonderful to be in a temporary community watching a film for the first time in months. There was a silent moment of mutual recognition when no one moved at the start of the credits – a sign that we all knew what to expect from a Marvel movie. Maybe a quarter of the audience left after a brief postscript that came on a couple of minutes into the credits, but most of us stayed to the bitter end. As the final logos rolled up the screen, I said to the woman nearest me (a Covid-safe distance away and masked), ‘They sure make you wait!’ Just as the final scene was firing up, she said, ‘Every time!’

4. Sunday 24 October. On our morning walk by the Cooks river, we passed a young man, possibly Aboriginal, fishing with a rod and line. I seized the moment: ‘Had any luck?’ Yes, he had caught five flathead, and two had got away. I asked if he ate them. ‘No,’ he said, ‘not from here. I just do catch-and-release, strictly for fun.’ I expressed a hope that the river would be clean enough one day for fish to be edible again. He agreed, but said that would mean the river would be fished out, like a couple of less polluted places nearby.

5. Saturday night, the Emerging Artist and I broke out, walked to town, had our first meal out in a very long time, and went to the theatre. Not only the theatre, but a musical in a big theatre – Come From Away at the Capitol in Sydney’s Haymarket, where I hadn’t been since I saw Hair there in the 1970s. It was wonderful to be with a big crowd, feeling things together. I attempted to start a conversation with the man I was sitting next to, and although he wasn’t having any of it, I’m counting this failed attempt as one of my 500 conversations.

6. Sunday 31 October. In another reopening adventure, I was drawn to a display of hats at the Addison Road markets. The object on my head was unpleasantly sweat-stained, ragged-rimmed and badly misshapen. As I entered the booth, the merchant said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t offer trade-ins.’ This got us off to a good start, and we had a pleasant chat about hats, specifically the kind I like to wear. I left with a new one.

7. Near our flat a little later on Sunday, we passed a man with a little boy, possibly 18 months old. The man was barefoot, so probably lives nearby. From a reasonable distance, we saw the man, almost certainly the boy’s father, rub his hand affectionately over the boy’s head as he spoke to him from his great height. As we got close, we realised that the little boy was tearful. The man picked him up, carried him pietà-style for a little, then put him back down on his feet. By this time we were within talking distance. I said something, or maybe I just smiled, and the man responded, ‘He’s unhappy today. Something is going on.’ There was a tiny bit more to the conversation, but I was struck once again by the changes that have happened in parenting in the last hallf century: that man spoke to a neighbour-stranger like an engaged parent as if fatherly engagement was completely normal. When I was a father of infants, I was asked more than once if I was babysitting – unthinkable that the father would be simply being a parent.

8 & 9. I wouldn’t include these encounters, but since there were two of them I’m telling you about them. Within days of each other, a passing man has commented on my T-shirt. The first time was on our usual walk at the Cooks river, and I was wearing a T-shirt with semi-abstract images of bright birds. The second time, I had just walked past a couple of Council vehicles. A man in yellow jacket came up behind me from one of them and as he passed, said, ‘I like your T-shirt.’ To save me the trouble of looking down, he added, ‘The periodic table.’ And so it was.

10. On Wednesday morning 3 November, a little after 9 o’clock, we passed a young man sitting under a tree near Enmore TAFE with a baby standing in his lap, gripping his fingers and pulling themselves upright. We made smiling contact with the man and locked eyes briefly with the baby. ‘Nearly standing up,’ I said inanely. ‘Getting dangerous,’ the man said.

11. Thursday morning, we passed a woman who was grooming her dog. By grooming, I mean she was rubbing her hand over the dog’s back and releasing astonishing cascades of fur. I stopped to comment, admiringly, that she was removing so much fur with her bare hand. She said he produced huge amounts. He was a cross beagle and cattle dog, with the double coat (I didn’t understand that term but didn’t pursue it). I chatted a little about cattle dogs from my childhood that were outside dogs, then we all commiserated about how much work these shedding creatures make. Luckily, our interlocutor’s floors are all polished wood.

12. Thursday, on the same walk, we passed a group of old men teeing off at the point where the riverside walk climbs to the teeing ground. One of them said to a man who was about to swing, ‘Patience is a virtue. Wait for these good people to pass.’ We thanked them, and once we were safely behind them, I said, ‘My mother used to say, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, found seldom in a woman and never in a man.”‘ Surprisingly, the little verse wasn’t familiar to any of the men, nor to the Emerging Artist. Maybe those old men weren’t as old as me.

13. The Sydney Film Festival is on! On Thursday evening, I chatted in a celebratory kind of way with the woman sitting a Covid-safe two seats from me.

14. Saturday morning, before Quo Vadis, Aida, I struck up a conversation with man seated right next to me. We exchanged news and views abut the movies each of us had seen – there were no overlaps. It turns out that we lived a couple of blocks apart a couple of decades ago. he now lives near Wollongong and makes a pilgrimage with his wife each year for the Festival. In the movie, there’s a horrific moment when people are ordered to leave a place of refuge quietly, five at a time, and we’r pretty sure they’re going to their death. As the credits rolled we were asked to bear Covid restrictions in mind and to leave in a =n orderly manner. My new acquaintance and I said, in unison, ‘Five at a time.’

Running total is 242.

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I have postponed and possibly cancelled our annual pilgrimage to the Great Ocean Road, but we’ve still put our heads together for our traditional end-of-year list-making.

Best Movies:

Because of One Thing and Another (as they’re calling it on Wittertainment), we didn’t get to the pictures very much this year, but we watched a lot of movies at home. We saw roughly 70, counting some total turkeys, but not counting the ones we watched for two minutes and then turned off, or the French comedy we walked out of at the cinema, even in our big-screen-deprived condition. There were many brilliant movies but we managed, painfully, to whittle the list down to four that we agreed on. Three of the four we saw in the theatre, sometimes even with other people. They are, in no particular order (and without links, because WordPress wouldn’t let me add them, sorry):

We each chose one more to make five each. I’ll leave you to guess who added which:

And then we agreed on a top five documentaries, two of them from the Sydney Film Festival:

Theatre:

We subscribed to Belvoir Street, but the Virus wrecked out theatre schedule. I think we got to three shows, and though it was wonderful to be there, masked and distanced, nothing blew me away.

Books:

The Emerging Artist read 46 books in hard copy and roughly 20 on her device. Of the hard copy books, a sizeable minority, but still a minority, of 22 were by women (she didn’t keep track of the device-books, but there were probably more women there, she says a little defensively). She has given me a list of her four best books in non-fiction and fiction categories. Here they are then, non-fiction first:

Non-fiction

Cassandra Pybus, Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse (Allen & Unwin 2020)

What remains with me is the sheer doggedness of Truganini’s determination to live and care for her country. She emerges as a woman who maintained her sense of herself and her culture and was adaptable and strategic in her survival. Even though we largely see her through the journals of George Augustus Robinson, Pybus manages to convey the country, the hardships endured and a woman abused but not defeated. 

Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do (Black Inc 2019)

This was hard to read, especially the first few chapters that set out the reality of violence against women in Australia. But I persevered and my understanding of perpetrators grew as well as what might be done to stop the ongoing violence. 

John Blay, Wild Nature: Walking Australia’s South East Forests (NewSouth Publishing 2020)

I haven’t quite finished this, but I’m including it for what I’ve read so far.  It’s a book that incites passion about preserving the south east forests for their sacred sites, for the diversity of plants and living creatures that create the forests and for what they provide to the human spirit. The intense forest wars are detailed but also what it is like to simply follow animal tracts in exploring the diversity of forest life.

Celia Paul, Self-portrait (Vintage digital 2019)

Celia Paul is an English figurative painter whose work I love. This memoir gives snapshots into how she creates her work, including the dynamic between the artist and the sitter. (Few sitters would endure her requirements, so her mother and sisters do a lot of the heavy lifting.) It also includes her long and tortured relationship with Lucien Freud. 

Fiction

Sebastian Barry, The Temporary Gentleman (Viking 2014)

A sequel to  A Thousand Moons and set in reconstruction era USA, this is beautifully written tale of love and kindness in the face of the horrors of racism post the civil war. Barry makes these characters live off the page and is a joy to read.

Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf 2016)

Another book set in the USA, but in modern times. It’s set in an economically depressed small town but the overall effect is not bleak. It is funny and moving and a gripping read. 

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

My standout book this year. I love the voices of 12 different women, whose stories touch or interweave with each other as we get a view of being women of colour in England. I went onto read Mr Loverman, an unusual coming out tale. Both books tell their stories with humour and humanity. 

Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars (Little Brown 2020)

I don’t think I’ve ever read descriptions of giving birth like this. Set in the maternity ward of a Dublin hospital in 1918, it gives a visceral account of dealing with an out-of-control pandemic, poverty and giving birth. It also has the backdrop of the aftermath of the war and the fight for Irish independence. 

Nino Haratischwili, The Eighth Life (Scribe 2019)

The author is Georgian and writes in German. This is the first translation of her works and I hope more will come. It’s a mammoth family saga that spans the 20th century in Georgia and its relationship to Russia and the west. I knew nothing about Georgian culture so it was a wonderful revelation.  Don’t be daunted by its size – I managed to prop it up to read in bed!

As for me, I read 72 books (counting journals), but don’t know how to pick best books from my year. My weirdest book was Rhoda Lerman’s The Book of the Night. Frankest but non-porny sex scenes were in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. Most transformative of my sense of the place I live was Grace Karsken’s The Colony, of my childhood home was Diane Menghetti’s The Red North. Most transporting novel for adults was Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light; most exhilarating book for children Tohby Riddle’s The Astronaut’s Cat; most beautifully produced book of poetry that delivered brilliantly, Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics; most memorable comic was Jeff Lemire and others’ Black Hammer. Whew! I’ve done a quick gender etcetera breakdown in an earlier post (here).

We saw a lot of great TV, but these lists can’t go on forever. That’s it for 2020. Feel free to name your own Bests and make recommendations in the comments. Stay safe and active in the climate emergency; stay socially close but physically distant until the vaccine has saved us all. That is, Happy New Year!

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are once again in Victoria for the New Year, and squeezing in our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We saw about 50 movies this year. It’s an approximate figure because we don’t know if we should count the two we walked out of or the ones we watched on TV. We each gave every film a score out of 5. Four films scored the full 10. Here they are in random order (click on the images for my brief blog reviews):

We each chose one more to make five each:

Of documentaries seen in the cinema we agreed on a top four, all seen at the Sydney Film Festival:

A special award for earliest walk-out of a movie goes to Etan Cohen’s Holmes and Watson. Having seen less than a quarter of an hour of it, our only regret was not leaving earlier.

Theatre (best and worst):

We subscribed to Belvoir Street again and there wasn’t a single dud. As for naming a best, we couldn’t go past Counting and Cracking, written by S Shakthidharan and directed by Eamon Flack in a Sydney Town Hall transformed into a huge Indian fort set. I want to give a special mention for Biggest Disappointment to Paul Capsis reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at the Old Fitz, directed by Dino Dimitriadis which was inexplicably beyond terrible (and cost $50 a seat).

Books:

The Emerging Artist read 35 books in hard copy and roughly 17 on her device. Of the hard copy books, 22 were by women. She has given me a list of her five best books in non-fiction and fiction categories, but couldn’t be induced to dictate any comments. Here they are then, non-fiction first, none of which I’ve read (yet), all of them with explanatory subtitles:

And the fiction (the last two with links to my blog posts, which don’t claim to represent the EA’s opinions):

As for me, I don’t know how to pick best books from my year. Reading À la recherche du temps perdu, the first two novels so far, has been a delight and a fascination. Moments from Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip keep surfacing vividly months after reading it. Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs knocked me back on my heels. Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay Australia Fair changed my understanding of the meaning of elections. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter and Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole make me look at the people around me differently, with greater respect for their unseen struggles and heroism. I’ve read much wonderful poetry, and rediscovered brilliant books for very small children. I’ve done a quick gender breakdown in an earlier post (here).

And that’s it for 2019. Please feel free to name your own Bests in the comments, and may all my readers have a fire-free and climate-change-mitigating New Year!

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.

Theatre:

It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.

Books:

Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

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.

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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.

Ngurrumbang update and some very old news

It can now be revealed that Melburnians will have a chance to see Ngurrumbang on their home turf in May. No need this time to travel to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide or central Spain, just head off to the Australian Shorts session of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image 7.30 pm on 9 May.  The whole program looks fabulous. (Sadly, that set of films won’t be part of the Festival as it travels around the country in the next three months.)

And other news: I was interviewed yesterday for a project about resistance to conscription at the time of the Vietnam War. Gulliver Media’s Hell No! We Won’t Go, which may one day become a film, is shaping up at present as a collection of interviews with draft resisters and conscientious objectors. I was a conscientious objector and happy to delve into memory as part of this project to preserve part of our history that is threatened with occlusion.

I also delved into a diary that I kept at the time (my CO hearing was either late 1970 or early 1971), which prompts me to offer the following unsolicited advice to anyone in their early 20s who is keeping a diary: no one, including yourself, is going to be interested in your half-baked witticisms and introspective anxieties in 40 years time; what they’ll want is NAMES, and DATES, and PLACES.

While finding very little to help my recollections of the court case, and shrivelling with embarrassment at the angst and pomposity of 23-year-old me (which makes me look even more kindly on Lena Dunham’s Girls),  I did find one or two entertaining snippets. On Les Murray:

I met Les Murray at Dianne’s party last Saturday night, a man who is not shy about quoting from his own someday-to-be-written ‘Table Talk’. Among other things he said wh I found interesting: ‘There is no Tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the Tao, you’d walk.’

On David Malouf, perhaps from conversation in the English Department common rooms, which I’d forgotten I ever shared with him:

Dave Malouf  ‘don’t think Polanski’s any good’, but when pressed likes all except Rosemary’s baby, on the grounds that it moves away from the class vision wh MUST be part of his Communist framed sensibility – and WILL NOT see Fearless V Ks.

Having recently read the script of Rosemary’s Baby, I think he was right about that. But I hope he relented and saw The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I hope is as funny as I remember.

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: 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).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
130_ibwt
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
140_bj
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
140_swt
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
1r
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
1geh
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
140_20f
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
136_past
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
140_a
No (Pablo Larrain)
140_no
Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)
140_p

Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

Martha Ansara’s Shadowcatchers

Martha Ansara, The Shadowcatchers (Australian Cinematographers Society 2012)

This book’s subtitle – ‘A history of cinematography in Australia’ – might lead you to expect a dry narrative of technological change with perhaps some discussion of industrial issues, economics and politics thrown in. The dramatic cover image of cinematographer Lacey Percival shouldering a Model 2709 Bell & Howell camera while picking his way over rocky terrain does, however, suggest something else.

Fortunately, the image is more truthful. There is plenty of text, including ample technical information (how else would I have known that was a Model 2709 Bell and Howell?). There are essays on the history of movie making in Australia (based on extensive interviews as well as documentary records), biographies of a number of significant figures, eloquent quotes from some of the key players. But this is actually a gorgeous, exuberant picture book. In her introduction, Martha Ansara, herself no mean cinematographer, says that the photographs were generally chosen not because of the ‘importance’ of their subjects but ‘because of the expressiveness of the image itself’. If this meant that some highly acclaimed cinematographers didn’t make the cut, I guess she was prepared to live with the fallout. From my perspective, the decision has paid off brilliantly: page after page, image after image, the book is a delight.

I’d heard of Frank Hurley (the first person to film Antarctica), Damien Parer and Neil David (war cinematographers, who died on the job), John Seale and Russell Boyd (whose names keep tuning up in credits of great mainstream movies), but would have been pressed to name many more. From the dedication page, with its list of 20 Australian cameramen who ‘lost their lives catching shadows’, presumably covering conflict, the book was a revelation and an education. There’s an image from 1906 of the Salvation Army Limelight  Department Staff, complete with slouch hats. There’s a naked ABC film crew, backs discreetly to the camera, shooting on a nudist colony in 1971. Another news crew wades, water up to their armpits, through a Papua New Guinea swamp in 1974 carrying a salvaged reconnaissance camera.

Plenty of TV news is here, and some commercials, but I was most captivated by the images from film shoots – Withnail and I (DOP Peter Hannan) or Driving Miss Daisy (DOP Peter Jannes), say – where the actor in full character  exists in a parallel world with the person focused on the task of making the image work. Or the ones from movies like The Tale of Ruby Rose (DOP Steve Mason) where the landscape was such a powerful presence, and here we see the crew, or perhaps just the director and DOP, going about the business of capturing it.  The effect is not so much to demystify the magic of the movies as to extend it.

I haven’t read the whole thing yet — I bought it as a birthday present for my son, and now I’m tempted to splurge and buy a copy for myself. It’s a wonderful book, but don’t take my word for it. It has its own web site, complete with sample pages. If that doesn’t whet your appetite,  I guess you haven’t got a pulse just aren’t into the movies