Monday 29 April 2019

Exhibition review: The Essential Duchamp

This exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is made up of a number of works sourced mainly from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where most of Duchamp’s work was housed in the years leading up to and following his death. The show was sponsored by the Terra Foundation of American Art, but many of the works in it are not American. Duchamp himself was French and he spent time at different periods of his life in America.

The show’s major drawcards are the early paintings that date from the early teens of last century. In the beginning, Duchamp was experimenting with Impressionist formulae. His draughtsmanship is adequate but is better in the black-and-white drawings on show than in the oil paintings from the same period. His paintings from this period emphasise the paint and some of the works show him trying out unnatural colours in an attempt to achieve certain visual and aesthetic effects. He also did a lot of painting in the cubist style that Picasso and Georges Braque excelled in but Duchamp’s work is not of the same quality.

He does better with his paintings of a nude descending a staircase. There are a few similar studies with this theme in the show. They are done in a style we recognise today as similar to the style that the Italian Futurists were using for their works at around the same time. WWI made Duchamp travel to the US. When the US entered the war, he travelled to Brazil in an effort to escape the bellicosity, one presumes, of the public sphere there.

From the early teens of the 20th century the work that has aged best is that which examines industrially-produced objects that are normally used in a commercial sense. There are a couple of versions of a painting of a coffee grinding machine, and his ready-mades also take their inspiration from objects that had been produced in factories for various uses. There is a bottle rack, a bicycle wheel upside-down standing on its forks, and of course the iconic upside-down urinal. In these works Duchamp presages the Pop movement of the 60s by half a century. He takes his inspiration from the products of Capital, repurposing them and emphasising their abstract qualities. He thereby gives them a new signification, and also gives the spectator plenty of things to think about. What is beauty? What is value? How are our values affected by the importance we place on manufactured goods? What is art, in fact? Who decides? What are we? What is reality?

Duchamp was motivated not only by the urge to create beautiful things but also by a certain wish to poke fun at the establishment. On show is a magazine he was involved in the production of, one issue of which has on its cover an illustration. In this design, a figure in a painting on a wall is shown thumbing his nose at a blind man being led by a dog past the artwork on display. It’s like a drawing of Flaubert taking aim at the bourgeoisie. This kind of cheekiness lies at the core of Duchamp’s enterprise and is what likely saved him from being completely overlooked by posterity. His paintings dating from before the characteristic ones he is best known for are not very good, to be quite honest.

The exhibition in fact does not contain the major works for which Duchamp is now best known, which are very large and would have been difficult to transport and insure. While this is a pity, I felt that what was offered for view was more than instructive. Also on show are some posters Duchamp designed. One is for a chess competition and it dates, I think, from 1924. The design is marvellous, with cubes coloured black and white that are set at rakish angles to one another, as though a set of boxes had been thrown up in the air. The image neatly captures the essential quality of Duchamp’s playful, iconoclastic wit and sits in the imagination with a certain degree of panache as though offering a foretaste of the commercial-art inspired works of Andy Warhol.

I had known Duchamp from my years studying fine arts at university but this was the first time I had ever seen his really early stuff, the kinds of things that are so ordinary and unremarkable, were they from the studio of any other artist, that commentators who refer to the early days of conceptual art never even mention them even in passing. In this respect, this exhibition was very welcome although the rooms were not very crowded. Most of the visitors were older people. The crowd here was nothing like the one for the Taiwan exhibition upstairs in the gallery, which for at least two weekends running was packed with ethnic Chinese visitors of middle age with their young children.

Sunday 28 April 2019

Movie review: Avengers: Endgame, dirs Anthony and Joe Russo (2019)

This extremely long movie provides the kind of storyline that you have seen many times before and have probably enjoyed. It seems that there’s an endless appetite for tales of diverse bands of comrades who face great trials in battle. But a lot of the dramatic high points are not overly convincing, unless perhaps you are an ‘Avengers’ fan (I have never seen any of the other films, although I did see an ‘Iron Man’ movie a long time ago). Many of the people in the packed cinema I sat through this movie with made what I assumed were suitable sounds at various moments, including laughter when one character or another said something they found funny, so presumably I was the outlier in my estimation of the movie in this regard.

It takes a while to get going because it has to tie in its narrative with what has come before in earlier films in the franchise, but once you get to the meat of the matter things happen fast and you are rarely bored. The character of the android Nebula (Karen Gillan) was interesting for a number of reasons and she supplied the drama with a lot of the requisite forward momentum leading up to the set piece of the final combat between the forces of good and the forces of evil (which are led by Nebula’s “father” Thanos, played by Josh Brolin). Nebula in my mind had a weird emo vibe about her that made her stand out from the largely heteronormative type most of the other superheroes conformed to. Her eyes have no whites, which is an aesthetic trick that serves to visually enhance her uniqueness for the viewer.

This franchise has some big names that add depth in many of the scenes that are not dominated by CGI. There is still plenty of acting to be done and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in my view stand out for the subtlety of their performances. Tilda Swinton has a short cameo role dressed in a yellow robe as a kind of monk and this is pretty convincing, helping to keep things chugging along nicely. In the end however it’s hard to sympathise with the principal characters that do not die (I won’t give anything away here beyond saying that some do, in fact, die) mainly because of the clunky manner with which those that remain express their sadness at the demise of the fallen. Some scenes possess the kind of mawkish emotion that you find at an official military funeral.

The comedy, also, is a bit obtuse and at times somewhat lacking in freshness. The voice of Rocket, the laconic CGI raccoon, which was supplied by Bradley Cooper, forms one point in a comic nexus that is used to alleviate the otherwise crushing weight of the multi-episode story. Other comic moments are supplied by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who starts out as a bit of a maudlin soak ensconced in a remote fishing village with a tub of beer and a big belly, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Ant Man (Paul Rudd). Captain America’s (Chris Evans) arse comes in for a bit of light-hearted mockery as well, but this kind of in-joke didn’t make me laugh.

The wisecracks aimed at his backside were partly justified on the other hand by what was overall a wooden performance by Evans. I decided that he’s meant to be dull and virtuous (until the very end of the movie, when a different facet of his personality emerges) and his character has quite a lot of work to do to make things progress. The plot is very complex, as a lot of these big-budget productions are wont to be, and it relies on the necessity of the Avengers going back in time to capture a set of powerful stones that can be used to combat Thanos, and to undo the carnage that this quiet, aloof, and arrogant character has wreaked on Earth and on other parts of the universe. In the course of their journeys they pass through some scenes that took place in earlier ‘Avenger’ movies. There are plenty of opportunities for an audience member who knows what happened before to get their kicks out of this.

The technicalities of the time-travel plot device abrade the margins of the narrative. Things get a bit hard to follow when Nebula and her own self (a twin who comes back from the future) are shown contemporaneously in some scenes. The matter of whether people can be kept alive, once they have been killed, if you go back in time to a point before their death, is explored, but this plot device is abandoned by the scriptwriters. The dialogue that supports the matter of the technical possibility of time travel furthermore is clunky because it is burdened by references to other movies that feature this standard science-fiction plot device. This is merely tiresome, but the idea that time travel is enabled due to quantum physics is not entirely credible.

You’d have to say that this kind of ensemble piece lowers the risk the movie’s producers and financiers face because it spreads out the highlights and the flat bits over a large cast of actors and a large number of characters. But there were awful solecisms in the scene in Tokyo where Hawkeye is brought into the story. Here he is shown in a swordfight with a Yakuza boss in a suit (named, I discovered, Akihiko) who is played by Hiroyuki Sanada. The dialogue in this scene is mind-numbingly stupid and its lack of subtlety (haven’t we moved past this sort of silly orientalism yet?) is made worse by the fact that Sanada is a very good actor who is famous in his home country. Having an actor of this calibre play the token oriental doesn’t chime with the sophistication displayed in the rest of the movie by the producers and the directors.

The viewer does get to feel things at certain dramatic high points such as during the battle. The fight scenes are also visually interesting, which helps to offset undistinguished parts elsewhere. I guess that you could say that the kind of thrill the battle offers justifies the cost of entry to the cinema, and the catharsis enabled by a good quantity of biffo can’t be denied (although it’s not clear if the fight the film alludes to has already happened at some point in America’s history or if it is yet to take place). Having seen the film, the thing that to me mainly explains the theatres, at the cinema where I saw the film, being packed to capacity for the past few days is the reliability of an old story well told.

It is an optimistic and fulfilling one by the standard of its own, uncomplicated terms and the film itself is well-made with a satisfyingly variegated texture supplied by a solid team of actors, a functional script, and competent direction. It contains oodles of art but unfortunately little that is new or original. It goes to show that you can make plenty of money if you give people exactly what they anticipate.

Saturday 27 April 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Three

This is the third in a series that started on 6 June last year with a “meditation” that I wrote. Meditations on this blog are longer pieces that have a single theme. I decided to continue with the subject of taxi drivers since I usually have quite interesting conversations with them when I go somewhere. The date shown is the date the conversation took place.

5 April

I caught a cab to the medical centre because I had an appointment with my cardiologist. The taxi driver was obviously not born here and I told him why I was on the road. He listened and then told me about a problem he had had with his heart when he had banged into the open door of his cab on one occasion. At one point he used the expression “mamma mia”, which is Italian, so I thought he was born there but it turns out he is Lebanese. He told me his grandfather used to take the silk off corn (on the cob) and roll it in paper and smoke it. His grandfather (or was it his father?) lived to a great age. He had asked me how old my parents had been when they had died, and I told him.

When we got to Missenden Road he told me that the traffic there now is very bad for cars because of the work that has been done to make the road safer for pedestrians. “It used to be ok but now it’s terrible,” he said. When we were talking about Italy – I mentioned that I had studied it when I was younger – he said that he had an Italian in his family because the Romans had colonised Lebanon. He was a funny guy, very talkative.

9 April

Coming home from the art gallery I caught a cab and the driver had a heavy cough. As we drove past the Queen Victoria Building he said to me, “When I see the statue of the queen I think she is telling people to pick up their rubbish.” I said that in actual fact Victoria had very little power, like today’s royal family, and that the majority of power in the UK lies with the Parliament. I said that the same applies in Australia. He said that this was good, that people were able to have a monarch but that real power resided with elected representatives. He approved of this system of government. I didn’t ask him where he had been born but he had dark skin and was heavyset. I said that the Chinese certainly miss their royal family, and that the Japanese were lucky when, after WWII, the Americans allowed them to keep their emperor. I told him a little about the history of the monarch in the UK. He dropped me at the corner near my building and I paid using EFTPOS.

19 April

It was Good Friday and I had gone to Newtown to have dinner with a friend. In the cab on the way home I talked with the driver, who at first seemed to be a quietly-spoken man. He could have been born in Serbia or Croatia but I didn’t ask. As we turned left from Pyrmont Bridge Road into Bank Street, I mentioned that the Fish Market was going to be moved further down toward Glebe and that the current site would be redeveloped for apartments. He was incredulous, and became animate suddenly, cursing the NSW government for overdeveloping the area. I said they should make the site into a park as so many people use the area. My takeaway from the conversation was that the driver didn’t like apartment buildings.

26 April

I had had dinner in Newtown and got a cab to come home. The driver told me that it was Good Friday for orthodox churches. I remembered that my friend and I had walked past a Greek church in Abercrombie Street on the way to Newtown. The doors of the church had been open and a young boy in a white robe with gold piping was wandering around near the entrance. The taxi driver told me that today was quiet in Newtown and he connected the two things. He said that there was another Greek church down near the train station and that there would be a procession later in the evening. I asked him if he was Greek and he said he was not. He said all of eastern Europe observed Good Friday on this day.

We went along Wattle Street and there was a random breath-testing station set up on the right-hand side of the road with patrol cars, their lights flashing, and witches' hats set up on the carriageway. The policeman in front of the traffic initially flagged the taxi driver to stop but the driver did not. The policeman waved him through with a torch. The driver told me that police don’t usually flag down taxis on Friday and Saturday nights when they are busy, but rather do it during the week when they are not busy, and when they do not have a fare. I told the driver that I had seen taxis being flagged down near the casino and he said that that was the Department of Transport checking IDs and other details. He said that they also do the same thing regularly at the airport.

On Harris Street near Pyrmont Bridge Road there was an ambulance and a police car stopped outside one of the pubs on the corner. I said that it was probably a young man who had got in a fight. The driver tonight was a gentle man with an accent and he drove very moderately, not breaking and accelerating rapidly as some drivers do, like the driver did who had taken me to Redfern, where I had met my friend.

Thursday 25 April 2019

Abusive behaviour on Twitter and journalists

The pushback from journalists started on Tuesday with a story in the SMH by Jenna Price.  This was twinned on the same day by a story on the Inside Story website by ANU history academic Frank Bongiorno  The next day ABC breakfast show presenter Michael Rowland joined the chorus with his own story about abuse of journalists on Twitter.

None of this was a surprise to me, although it did seem a bit strange that it had taken so long for the troops on the other side to organise. I have been writing about this sort of abusive behaviour on this blog since the middle of last year, and not just about that, but also about how people use social media. The reason for this series of blogposts is that I think that what we are seeing in the contemporary public sphere is something that has not been seen before. Because everyone is a publisher the ground has changed its layout. There are hills where there used to be plains. There is a mighty river flowing through the landscape cutting a channel as it goes. The dinosaurs have perished and now is the age of the mammals.

I think the way many people on Twitter behave betrays a sense of disaffection with the mainstream, just like what people who vote for One Nation feel. Same dynamic, same types of violent views being expressed, which is surprising because most of the people who abuse journalists are on the left and would prefer, say, the Guardian to the Sydney Morning Herald. Some of them think that the ABC has been captured by the right and is not fulfilling its charter to reflect the views of the majority of Australians. Being themselves beholden to a particular, narrow ideological view of the world, they combatively see other things in their world as being beholden to the opposing view. They are blinded to the truth by their own way of seeing the world. And they jump at shadows all the time.

The “watergate” case shows how this happens. I wrote about the case on the blog yesterday in some detail. What happened in this case is that a push for more information about a water buyback that the government had conducted was started on social media by one individual and it gradually escalated as it was picked up by outlets in the mainstream, particularly by the Guardian. In the end, the government had to step in to stop the bleeding, declaring that an official enquiry would be held into all water buybacks conducted since 2008. They were fearful of the repercussions for the federal election, which is due in less than a month, if they did nothing about the noise that was coming out of Twitter.

Normally, the noise leads to nothing because the mainstream media picks up on the leads and looks at them in some detail and then puts the story aside. They might publish a story or they might not. Then the situation dies down out of a lack of corroborating detail. But how does the outrage that inspires these abortive investigations occur? It all comes down to perception.

When I was getting milk to put in my coffee yesterday I looked down to the vege bin (what some people call the “crisper”) in the bottom of the fridge and saw there what I thought looked like eggs. "What are eggs doing in the vege bin?" I thought to myself. Then I looked up and saw the eggs in the door and realised that what I had thought were eggs in the vege bin were actually potatoes. The ones I had bought at the supermarket on that day have reddish skins that look a bit like the brown shells of some eggs, and they were moderately-sized, just a bit larger than your average egg. This kind of thing happens all the time in the public sphere. People see something they think is a bit strange and they jump to conclusions, assuming that what they see is evidence of something untoward, such as corruption or graft by a public official. (And even though people are susceptible to this sort of error they are critical of police who practice "racial profiling", where the cops single out a person due to their age or appearance or their gender. People are a confused mess of contradictions and paradoxes.)

It's this messiness that you see on Twitter all the time. The poor spelling, the bad punctuation, the illogical segues, the non-sequiturs, the poor structure, the cliched expression. All evidence of a lack of education and of a general inability to function in a print environment. No wonder that journalists, most of whom have a university degree or two, and all of whom live with words, find it all a bit dismaying. The impulse to attack the media that you see all the time is however just another aspect of a more general sense of disaffection that people in the broader community feel and that makes them vote for outliers such as Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. Now, of course, you also have Fraser Anning with his far-right lunacy that will attract votes in this upcoming election. Crikey journalist Bernard Keane wrote compellingly about these problems in a book that came out last year (and which I reviewed on this blog on 28 July).

But the solution to the kind of inequality that is fuelling society’s economic and political malaise is not being offered by either party. On the left, the Labor Party wants to tax people who have more money more heavily. On the right, the Liberal Party wants to give more bargaining power to employers. Neither of these things is a good idea, and in fact the constant switching between one extreme and the other is a big problem for our democracy and may in future have major repercussions for the entire electoral system, given the right circumstances. No. What we need is to take the best ideas from both sides and find a middle way that everyone can agree is a good idea. It is time for politicians to stop doing what they have always done – playing to their base – and for them to think of the whole community when they formulate tax or labour policies. They have to govern for everyone, not just a narrow slice of the electorate.

Without this kind of behaviour by politicians the country will just continue to swing from one side to the other and the people who really need help, people who are feeling excluded from “the system”, will become more and more extreme in their demands. Bad behaviour on social media will escalate. At the best of times there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of unhappiness that opportunistic politicians line up to corral and steer in order to fulfil their own agendas. Extreme emotions might suit demagogues like Fraser Anning but they can only be bad for the polity. We need sensible heads who truly represent the centre, not just craven ideologues who say they are in the centre but who, in actual fact, are just talking to a small section of the electorate. If the landscape has changed, if the mammals are now in charge, then we need a new type of politics to ensure that government can effectively respond to the new world we all live in.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Water buybacks and pressure from social media

Twitter has had another conniption, this time about what it thought was maladministration by a government minister in relation to water buybacks on the Murray-Darling river system. This new cause celebre was labelled, naturally enough, “watergate”, following the pattern that demands that every government scandal has to have “gate” in the label used to refer to it in pubic. In response many people put a water droplet icon on their Twitter profiles to show they were angry. The Guardian picked up on the story after it had initially been covered by some members of the ragtag collection of "indie" media outlets that are available online.

The first Guardian story I read on the issue showed that the federal Dept of Agriculture responded to journalists (even though we are now in the caretaker period due to the upcoming federal election) and the minister involved, as well as former National Party leader (and former Deputy Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce, commented on the record. In the story, South Australian senator Rex Patrick was quoted asking for a royal commission. People might remember that this is the guy who wants to shut down the cotton industry with a blanket ban on growing the crop.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media copped a flogging (even though the ABC News channel carried the story on Monday morning and other news outlets later picked up on it, including the Herald Sun and the SMH). Journalist Michael West, who runs a blog where he publishes stories he has worked on, followed the money trail and got a lot of support online from people in the community. This kind of comment is typical (it went up in the #auspol hashtag on Monday 22 April at 9.45am): “Brilliant, thank you Michael for your unwavering courage and stand for the truth.. Sadly, it is a rarity, amongst so many others in your profession. We are with you..”

The main thing that seems to have incensed people was that the company behind the scheme to sell water allocations to the government had its base at the time in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. The other thing exercising people’s imaginations in this case was the intrinsic link between the buybacks and the Murray-Darling river system, a part of the world that had been so visible in the news earlier in the year when, due to the drought in the eastern states, fish started dying in the Darling River near the NSW town of Menindee. The Caymans link was the smoking gun the mob needed in order to see a conspiracy requiring prosecution, like a criminal trial. It was like the night of the long knives all over again.

People like Patrick and the Greens leader Richard Di Natale are opportunists who see a mob assembling and then see a benefit for themselves. If they can get in the good books of this disparate collection of voters, they think to themselves, their political prospects might improve. So they start talking to the media and getting their names into tweets and into stories. The Guardian sees potential paying subscribers in the mob so they set up a live blog to cover the unfolding drama. In this case they put Gabrielle Chan, a reputable journalist who wrote a book about rural Australia that appeared last year, in charge of the feed. One or two reliable journalists put the water droplet icon in their Twitter profiles, but I didn’t see any journalists who are part of the mainstream media who did.

Over the course of the day on Monday I had conversations on Twitter with three different people who displayed different levels of outrage about the “scandal” but none of them was able to show me that there was anything untoward in the purchase of the water allocations from farmers that were at its core. A second Guardian article on the same day, in the afternoon, also contained no new news as to whether anything wrong had been done. After Barnaby Joyce appeared in an interview with Patricia Karvelas on the ABC’s Radio National channel in the evening, the Guardian ran another story which, as before, failed to make any case of wrongdoing. Melbourne’s Herald Sun ran a story late in the evening but I don’t have a subscription so I couldn’t read it.

On Tuesday morning the Guardian ran another story, and the SMH ran one too in which the following appeared: “Critics say the government paid too much for the water and that it will not produce environmental gains.” The new Guardian story found no evidence that this was true but it said on the other hand that the deal between the department and the company that sold the water rights was tainted by the use of ministerial fiat (Barnaby Joyce was the minister at the time).

So instead of maladministration the media has uncovered, completely by accident, a case of corruption (potentially so, in any case). A suspicion that Angus Taylor, who is now a government minister, profited from the sale because he might have been associated with the company that sold the water rights, was not substantiated but there might be more revelations because there will be an enquiry by the federal auditor-general that has been ordered by the current agriculture minister. This move takes some of the heat off the government because the enquiry will doubtless be held after the federal election, which will take place on 18 May.

This particular case reminds me of the way that the Paladin “scandal” played itself out on social media earlier in the year. But where Paladin was not pursued by the mainstream media, they gave a lot of attention to events in the watergate case. The Paladin case centred on a company that had provided services to the government on Manus Island, where Australia used to operate a refugee camp and where a number of refugees the country has so far refused to accommodate are still living (in the general community). As in the present case, the mainstream media picked up on the story but they showed that there was nothing untoward happening that would require a minister to step down or anything as dramatic as that.

The main point to take away from all this is that many people don’t trust the mainstream media to cater to their needs, and prefer less reliable outlets that have proliferated in recent years, outlets that they personally identify with because these outlets are not in the mainstream. They read (and sometimes pay for) the stories these outlets publish on the web and promote links to them in their tweets, retweets, and with likes and comments.

The water buybacks case was very personal for a lot of people furthermore because of what happened to a person named Ronni Salt, a Twitter user with the handle @MsVeruca who had her account suspended due to legal action initiated by Angus Taylor. Another person on Twitter who had a letter sent to her by Taylor’s lawyers was Margo Kingston, a freelance journalist who is working to get a number of independent candidates elected in Coalition-held seats at the upcoming federal poll. Kingston posted the letter she had received on Twitter and people rallied behind her as they had rallied behind Salt. Salt’s account being reinstated was cause for general celebration.

What you see in operation on social media in fact is the same dynamic that led to the emergence as a political force of One Nation, a party that attracts the protest vote, a segment of society constituted of people who feel disenfranchised and left out of “the system”, and who are looking for a champion to take up their cause and to give them a voice. The progression of events – from a few tweets by an individual on Twitter, to a steady flow of stories in the mainstream media that are embarrassing for the government, to an official enquiry – has been instructive to watch because in the current case (unlike in earlier cases) the sustained attention has unearthed something that deserves to be remarked on.

Most of the time, the mob is left baying at the moon. The watergate case proves that consistency works. If you cry wolf often enough, eventually a wolf will appear. In fact the case, which saw people explode with outrage time after time as each new nugget of information appeared in the public sphere, showed Twitter behaving just like a stopped watch, which of course we all know is correct once a day. But for each case like watergate there are 720 others that are like Paladin where all the chatter produces a lot of heat and little light. It was notable also that in the end the biggest revelations in watergate arrived via the mainstream media, where they could actually have an impact on the broader community. That is to say, an impact in the lives of people who do not use social media all the time.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Movie review: Kalank, dir Abhishek Varman (2019)

I had never seen a Bollywood movie before so this was a real eye-opener for me. The form is melodrama of a type deserving of a place in a daytime soap timeslot and every word, glance, eye movement, head turn, and gesture is laden with a tonne of signification. The muscles in the faces of the main actors, and even their neck muscles and nostrils, are given full workouts here.

Nothing is left to a scheme as uncertain as the kind of nuance that top-rank Hollywood actors are renowned for and the best Californian scriptwriters pride themselves in, and there is no subtlety in the action at all. For this reason the actors’ faces are given a lot of work to do. The gorgeous Alia Bhatt (she has the most amazing eyes you can imagine) as Roop and the rugged Varun Dhawan as Zafar, especially, are given plenty of screen time as the director navigates his way through the complexities of modern Indian history.

Everything you see and hear is jam-packed with meaning, truly laden down with it, in fact, and so there is not a chink (not the merest sliver) of time that is not fully exploited by the director in his effort to entertain you. This is pure kitsch of a type that Hollywood would consider itself to have weaned itself away from in the 1960s.

Despite these reservations the feelings that the audience experiences are completely authentic and so the movie works in a way that most Hollywood dramas simply do not. The physical thrills that you have when watching it are rare in conventional cinema. There are other things, to do with the storyline, that differ drastically from the ways of traditional Hollywood romantic comedy, where true love always wins out, but to say too much on this score would ruin the movie for anyone who has not seen it and wants to.

The story is hideously complicated and for English-speakers who do not know Hindi the challenge is to grasp all its twists and turns at the same time as watching the action unfold. To make things harder still some of the subtitles are a bit dodgy. To simplify the plot to the point of excess: men die and women cry.

It starts when Satya Chaudhry (a mournful-looking Sonakshi Sinha) asks a childhood friend named Roop to come to her house to be a companion to her husband, Dev (Aditya Roy Kapoor’s permanent four-o’clock shadow I highly suspect is anachronistic given the period that is the subject of the movie, but it is necessary to enable him to compete with Varun Dhawan for our esteem). Satya is sick and has only a year to live. Roop refuses to go unless Satya convinces Dev to marry her, and the marriage duly takes place. Once she is ensconced in the gigantic Chaudry mansion, Roop is asked by Satya to cooperate with the family in its daily routines, and even to go to work in Dev’s office (the family owns a newspaper). Roop agrees to this last item only on condition that the family will allow her to take singing lessons from Bahaar Begum (Madhuri Dixit), who runs a brothel in an insalubrious part of the city called Hira Mandi. The city is a place named Husnabad that is located in what today is called Pakistan but which at the time the move takes in, 1945, was part of what was known as British India.

Roop wants to use her role as a reporter to write stories about Hira Mandi and on one of her forays to the ghetto she bumps into Zafar who is a blacksmith. A relationship develops that is diametrically opposed in nature to the sterile one Roop shares with Dev. The plot becomes dense when it emerges that Zafar has links to Dev’s family that Roop doesn’t know about. To make things even more convoluted, Bahaar Begum also turns out to be intimately linked with Dev and his father, Balraj (Sanjay Dutt). The plot, as the saying goes, thickens further after the intermission when it becomes clear that Roop and Zafar are in love.

There is also a secondary thread that relates to the attempt by the Chaudhry family to promote industrial modernisation. Against this push in the community are ranked Abdul (Kunal Khemu) and Zafar on the side of the metalworkers who they say will be thrown out of work if the modern British steel mills arrive in the country. Dev is staunch in support of the steel mills with his editorials, just as he is staunch in support of a political settlement that allows both Hindus and Muslims to live together in one nation.

When it comes to communicating these things, some critics will be repelled by wooden dialogue, blocky sentiments, and inauthentic stage settings, but no-one who is remotely human can ignore the charm of the dance scenes. These function something like punctuation does in a novel or poem, providing dramatic release and helping to build suspense. The ways that the dances are mixed with and involved in the scenes that surround them is very fine work indeed, and you find yourself engaging with the whole production in a very positive way. I cannot find any fault with this kind of fictionalising except to remark that it is a shame it doesn’t happen more often.

The political and religious themes that animate this film are woven in very intimately with the family story that lies at its centre. This, in turn, is tied closely to the love story that characterises the relations between Zafar (who is Muslim) and Roop (who is Hindu). So much is happening you can be forgiven for missing a beat here or there but one thing is for sure: for Indians marriage is a very important institution indeed. The film allows its director and producer to examine marriage in detail. What makes a good one? What is the role of love in marriage? What are the obligations that marriage places on those involved? How does a modern marriage differ from that of one’s parents?

The ending is all of a piece with the entirety, and somehow here you find yourself feeling that you are watching a story made for children, where everything becomes personal and has a direct connection to you. The emotions and ideas possessed in these final scenes by each of the characters – Roop, Dev, Zafar, Abdul, Balraj; even Satya and Bahaar Begum are included despite the logical impossibility of that occurring due to the exigencies of the plot to that point – have all the bright colours and staggering force of classical mythology.

It’s like a chorus line of minor deities in an Indian’s emotional pantheon and it is singing a song with a melody and lyrics about good and bad, true love and legal marriage, Muslim and Hindu, rich and poor, working class and middle class, revenge and tolerance, friendship and sectarianism: as each dichotomy is explored, included, mixed in with the emotions the viewer is experiencing throughout the film, sides are taken (the film’s title translates as “stigma”). I found this brilliant film to be fully satisfying in a way that I had not felt since I watched Disney animations as a child. Here you have a whole universe of interlocking ideas and feelings that are elucidated in an intelligent and comprehensive way. It is mesmerising and beautiful.

One other thing that struck me as being an important element of the film is the place of revenge in Indian history. Is it good or bad? What are the licit limitations that should be placed on people who seek it? What does this emotion tell us about India and Indians? Such as these seem to be existential questions for people living in the subcontinent, you would have to say.

A secondary theme that is given fair play in the movie is the education of women. It highlights just how different is the intended audience for this film, compared to that of a typical American product.

Saturday 20 April 2019

Book review: The Postcult Heart, Susan Bradley Smith (2018)

One thing about contemporary art that annoys me is that sometimes a work that is hanging on a wall or standing on a plinth in a gallery can only be understood with the gloss that accompanies it. This kind of thing seems to me to negate the point of the artwork itself, since a work of art should be comprehensible at first glance and if you need to explain it for it to have its full meaning understood then it has failed at its primary purpose. This book of poetry fails for just this reason. If you don’t read the gloss then nothing in it makes any sense.

For a start there is no perceptible narrative. It is all subtle texture and endless periphery, there is no solid core upon which to hang your feelings. The narrator appears to be a woman (but, again, you need the gloss to tell you this) but apart from that fact, and something at one point that alludes to child sexual abuse, you have very little to go on if you want to make sense of the book. There are many poems about love and a few that talk about infidelity, but for the most part you are left unaccompanied by the author as you make your way through her verses, and like a child in a dark wood you probably wish you had some breadcrumbs to throw on the ground to guide you home.

Thursday 18 April 2019

A day trip to Wollongong

There was a quantity of quiet drama on this day when I took a train trip to this city south of Sydney. A highlight was seeing ‘California’ optimistically rendered on the façade of a tiny red-brick block of residential units, but more on that later …

Just after nine o’clock in the morning I left home and went to the light rail station and caught the train to Central Station. I had checked the times for the Wollongong service earlier and knew that it left at 10.10am so I checked the big noticeboard installed in the Grand Concourse and then went to the platform and sat down on a seat to wait. On my right was a young man with a number of bags at his feet, including a sleeping bag in an orange sack. A bit later, an elderly man sat down on my left. He talked occasionally with a woman who remained standing. When the train arrived I got on and took a seat on the lower deck.

When the train leaves Sydney proper, just after Sutherland, the bush closes in and you are for a long time surrounded by trees, ferns, and rugged slopes. From time to time a bridge takes you across a ravine and then you are in a tunnel. On the way down I was sitting on the western side of the train, and on the way back I was on the eastern side of the train. On the way back the setting sun shone through different windows depending on the direction the train was heading in: north or south or east or west. The tracks for a long while snake up – or down – the escarpment that leads from the Royal National Park to the seaside strip where the city that was my destination rests in splendid isolation.

When the train arrived at my stop my friend was waiting on the platform and I greeted him with a handshake then used the toilet; it had been a long ride. We walked along the street until we came to a new-looking shopping centre. He took me down some stairs and inside there were colanders affixed to the ceiling. The columns supporting the structure were encased with rolling pins. We went to a member’s club that has a poppy on its façade representing lives lost in war. He had me sign in with my drivers’ licence. I ordered a Toohey’s New and my friend ordered a glass of shiraz.

We sat down at our table. It had been 13 years since we had last met. Before that, we had known each other in the years I was an undergraduate at university, at a time in the 80s when I lived in Glebe. Neil had been involved with a literary magazine and I had also become involved. It was an exciting time, with editorial meetings held on the second floor of a bookstore on Glebe Point Road and young people from all over the metropolis belonging to a kind of collegiate society.

We moved to the dining area for lunch and ate corned silverside. The meat came with a white sauce, roast potatoes, roast pumpkin, and steamed vegetables. I had another New and my friend had another shiraz.

After companionably talking our way through our repast we went to the city art gallery, which was almost deserted except for a group of people seated on chairs near the entrance to hear a talk. The building’s foundation stone had been laid in 1954 and the façade has the – for that epoch – anachronistic stripped classical style that you see in some buildings in the nation’s capital that date from the 20s.

The staffer at the front desk asked us to subdue our voices so that the visitors assembled nearby could enjoy their event, and my friend and I retired to a room off the entrance hall where hung prints from the Northern Territory that had been made by Aboriginal people. They were in many different styles, including the customary abstract type of work with its distinctive cross-hatching. After looking around this room we went into an adjacent room and then headed upstairs to see other exhibits. One room here was filled with monochrome works dating mainly from the 1970s. The abstract style and indeterminate content of these works was complemented by a number of brightly-coloured screen prints from the mid-80s that had been made to promote social inclusion such as subsidised housing.

When we had regained the pavement outside, we ducked into a club where Neil filled out a sheet of paper for a football tipping competition. We walked east and crossed a surprisingly busy, narrow road near a football stadium. With some amusement we took in the crumbling façade of the ‘California’ unit block with its curved Art Deco balconies, Neil bringing the edifice to my attention with a droll verbal flourish. Fittingly, across the road stood a block of state-owned units that had been named ‘John Curtin’ in honour of a former Labor prime minister, and later painted a suitably dull grey colour.

We went into a pub near the water where they brew their own beer and ordered glasses of a local IPA that to my mind had a flavour like strawberries. We took our seats and continued our conversation facing the Norfolk Island pines and the sea. Later we caught a bus and I got off at the train station. My friend continued on it in the direction of his home.

I used the toilet then boarded the train and sat in the carriage to wait for it to depart. A group of youngsters was carrying on in the next carriage and they migrated to the upper floor of mine. I was grateful to hear nothing more from them for the rest of the journey. Past North Wollongong, flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos occasionally abandoned the train tracks when they were frightened by the moving train, flapping their wings to gain altitude and avoid the engine. South of Coalcliff the train passed an abandoned industrial plant we had left behind us on the way down. As the train left Sutherland Station and the city vista opened up a large, pale moon appeared in the north-eastern sky above Botany Bay with its red vessel loading gantries. I got off at a platform at Central and waited at the front of the building for the light train to appear. Eventually I saw it coming up the hill toward the station, its headlights in the dusk shining like beacons.

Once home, I cut up two pork medallions, that I had defrosted a day or so before, and a fistful of spring onions that were still edible. I braised the pork with the greens and near the end of the process put in pepper and soy sauce, then put the lid back on the pan to make sure the meat cooked through. I had no rice to eat it with as I had not cooked any. It was tasty and I ate it all. Lunch had been very Australian, so dinner’s oriental inspiration made a contrast.

And I remembered the white flock – perhaps the seeds of a plant – that had suddenly drifted past the windows of the train carriage on our way down the mountain, suspended in air like a wish. Just floating in space like an idea without the words to express it. And the cockatoos …

Above: Unknown artist, 1840-1860. Illawarra landscape. This colonial-era painting shows the distinctive Australian eucalypts and the hilly precincts of Wollongong.

Above: This print is titled ‘Michael Long’ and is dated 2002. It was made by Marrnyula Mununjgur (born 1964). It was made in Arnhem Land and it shows an AFL game. The style is naïve.

Above: This work by Gary Shead is titled ‘Thirroul’ (a town the train I came south on passed through on the way to Wollongong). The print, which is dated 2002, shows DH Lawrence, the English author, standing in a street in the coastal town. He came to the region and wrote a mediocre novel about his impressions of Australia. To the right of the author and his wife, dressed in stuffy city attire, are three local lads, two of whom are not wearing shirts, and one of whom is wearing a singlet.

Above: This photograph is by Jean-Claud Gautrand and is untitled. It is from the artist’s ‘Vanishing Fortress’ series. It was made in 1974 and was a 1980 gift to the gallery from Patrick White, the novelist.

Above: This painting by Brisbane native Michael Zavros is dated 2001 and is titled ‘Very Very Important’. It is simply hilarious.

Above: A dodgy Art Deco apartment block named ‘California’ located near the Wollongong waterfront.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

At Shelly Beach in autumn

Waves on the rocks sound like applause. From the next bench over the sound of voices arrives and I know there are two people sitting there but I cannot hear what is being said. The breeze is on my skin, and in my ears it is like tiny thunder. Someone walks by wearing sneakers and I hear her footfalls on the concrete pavement. Down at the pool a young, fit man has just left the water. He has tattoos on his chest and he walks up the incline and then on the path with bare feet. Children’s voices emerge from the park behind me. An old man wearing a cap walking on the path says “Good morning” to me as he passes. Two sulphur-crested cockatoos alight in two trees, calling to each other with raucous voices that sound like something hard tearing. Notre Dame cathedral is burning but I am on a park bench at Shelly Beach admiring the blue.

Back on the main drag where all the shops are I eat some sushi with the friend I had come down to meet and then on the way to the train station she ducks into the op shop and a bit later I follow her inside. My friend is looking through pictures stacked in a basket near the door. She takes out a few items. On the shelf above the room is a large landscape that she likes. On the wall there is a kitsch street view with what looks to be a representation of a place in Hanoi. We carry the pictures – these two plus two prints of Monet paintings that are framed elegantly, and a piece of framed embroidery depicting a Japanese Buddha with Mt Fuji in the background – to the counter and she pays with a transaction card. The woman behind the desk goes to a room at the back of the shop and finds a large bag for us to lug the big pictures home in. The train is all stations to Hurstville then after that it skips a number of stops and we get off near the airport and walk through a park to my friend’s apartment.

Once we are inside she gets a black plastic electric drill out of a cupboard and some packets of screws and other random hardware out of a drawer in a low table. I put a narrow bit in the drill and ask for a pencil. She chooses the places she wants me to hang the paintings and I set about putting into the walls the screws she needs anchored to hang them on. There are six things to hang and I find six odd screws among her stuff. The Monets go up in the bathroom. The landscape and the Asian street scene go up in the living area. The Buddha goes next to the front door. Another picture goes up in the kitchen.

When the work, which she supervises, is done, she is demonstrably happy with the result. She says it is “yuanfen”, a Chinese word that means something like serendipity does in English but with the added implication that the purchases were fated to take place. And it might well be true. The same day as the day before our Shelly Beach outing, in 1874, Monet’s 1872 work 'Impression: Soleil levant' (which translates to 'Impression: Rising sun') went on exhibition and French critic Louis Leroy coined the term 'Impressionists'.

After we put away the tools we head to the supermarket to buy food – fillets of a fish with reddish flesh, a range of different mushrooms, a packet of pine nuts, a bottle of olive oil – then carry our purchases back to the apartment. Once inside, I help by cutting up some carrot. Then I cut corn kernels off their cobs and cut up the fish and peel some cloves of garlic. I take an already-open bottle of chardonnay out of the fridge, screw off the cap and pour myself a glass.

While she attends to the cooking I look up two artists whose work I think the landscape resembles: Albert Namatjira and Hans Heysen. There is something about the trees in the work she purchased. She comes to the dining table and looks at the images on my phone. She discovers that the oil painting she has just bought is a copy of a Heysen. The original is titled ‘Droving into the Light’. Where she had been happy she is now mildly outraged but her disappointment is temporary when I point out that many artists copy the work of famous painters. That, I say, is how they learn. I also note that the copy is a good one and only cost $35. After the meal has been eaten I leave to go home on the train and she looks up more information about Heysen. When I get home she messages me: “He is very very good.”

In the end the art delivered what it always promises. Whether it’s a Medieval cathedral or an amateur’s copy of a realist painting, art is objectively valuable and it means something to us all. And a day spent in the sun by the sea is a blessing even if it is unseasonably warm.

Above: The visitor shelter on Shelly Beach sits next to the rocks.

Above: A Norfolk Island pine in the park at Shelly Beach with a council ute parked under it.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Book review: The Orchardist’s Daughter, Karen Viggers (2019)

This engrossing novel is only one of perhaps a dozen or so that in recent months I have read that deals with the issue of domestic violence and that is set in an Australian country town. There seems to be a plethora of talented women writers in this country who are putting the likes of Tim Winton to shame with their stories that both keep you turning the pages and that explore life in all its facets with a careful eye.

Viggers’ novel is focalised mainly through three characters. One is Leon, who works with the state government’s parks department looking after public facilities in a small town in southern Tasmania. Leon wants to fit in but logging is a big part of the economy in this part of the world so he is stymied in many ways by a number of townspeople. Another character the narrative is focalised through is Max, Leon’s neighbour, who is 10 years old and who has a problem with a bully at school named Jaden, who is the son of a local policeman. Leon adopts one of the puppies that Max’s family dog Rosie produces, and teaches Max how to play AFL. The other main character in this novel is Miki, the titular character. Miki lives behind a takeaway shop in town with her brother, Kurt, who is her legal guardian until she turns 18. Miki and Kurt had been brought up in a very religious household but the rest of the family had been killed in a fire that had been caused by a log leaving a fireplace while they slept.

There is one final character who is used to focalise the narrative, but this occurs only in one chapter. This man is Toby, who is a local forest worker who volunteers with the fire service and who plays AFL with Leon. His part in the story is fairly minor but is crucial at the end in order to tidy up the threads that Viggers deploys to tell her story of male stupidity. It seems that every second male in the story is a violent psychopath but in my mind the overwhelming emotion that animates it is pity.

This is a novel written in the old mode and it belongs spiritually to a time when novels were still imbued with a value that they have to a certain degree lost. Viggers’ confreres are people like Flaubert and Tolstoy and Charlotte Bronte. The kind of drama that Viggers uses in her book has echoes of the great novels of the 19th century, when people died violent deaths or madwomen were discovered living in the attic. There is something cathartic about reading a novel like this, but in some respects this strength is also a weakness as there are few opportunities to create poetry that do not link directly to the themes the novel retails in.

The problem of Jaden is the first thing that the author deals with. Max flees into the bush with Bonnie, Leon’s dog, as he tries to escape the fears that he has built up surrounding the figure of Jaden, who is older and stronger. But the problem of how to fix Miki’s dilemma is more difficult, and in order to achieve this, Viggers is inspired to again put life in danger. Kurt’s controlling nature erupts one day and he lashes out, hitting his sister in the face several times. Then he goes off in his ute with a gun, seeking revenge.

I found myself unable to tear myself away from the book past a certain point, although for my reading of it there were several days when I left it aside and put my mind to other things. It’s a real page-turner and has all the dramatic moment of a thriller. This aspect of the book is most noticeable toward the ending when a lot of different strands of the narrative are tied up together to form a nexus of emotional release for the reader that is consonant with the types of themes the book deals in.

Viggers takes a patient look at masculinity, and is not unaware of the biological imperatives that motivate many men in their daily lives to behave in various ways. It is this kind of appraisal of the realities of the world that makes her book eventually so sound at heart. Leon and Miki on one occasion help a wildlife ranger to find Tasmanian devils so that the breeding population can be maintained in order to safeguard the species from extinction threatened by a deadly facial tumour. The male devils are naturally combative just like human males are. This is something that is borrowed from life, just as is Max’s liking physical sports. The need for men to compete with each other physically is examined in several scenes in the book, as when Leon is playing AFL with his local team or when Shane, Max’s father, is shown making sculptures out of wood with a chainsaw at a forestry industry event. This aspect of male psychology is however contrasted with the need that women have, as emblematised by Geraldine, who runs the town’s tourist office, to read books and to share their love of fiction with female friends.

In addition to the main theme of male aggression there is a secondary, and possibly related, theme of the natural world and how best to care for it. I say “possibly” because there aren’t explicitly linked by the author but there is a feeling in the book that part of the problem we have with the environment is a generally male-driven need to exploit it for gain. Miki’s love of the bush is one index of this idea. The theme is touched on at several places in the story and serves to provide it with additional depth.

Monday 15 April 2019

Foxtel’s “Grave of Thrones”, heavy on death, was actually a walk in the park

For a few days this month Australian cable TV company Foxtel set up a series of pastiche gravestones, outlandish sculptures, and faux crypts in honour of the fallen in the massively-popular ‘Game of Thrones’ franchise.

The exhibit, in the Fearnley Grounds in Sydney's Centennial Park, started on Friday and finished yesterday evening. I went with a friend who has a friend who is a massive GoT fan. I parked the car in the park (boy we were lucky to nab the slot, the crowds were tremendous, with cars backed up out the gate and down Darley Road and west along Alison Road) and we walked up the circuit to meet this friend. At least 500 people were milling around with their mobile phones, taking selfies and photos of family and friends. The crowd gradually turned over so over three days probably tens of thousands viewed the lugubrious installation.

Most visitors when we were there were aged in their 20s or 30s, so it was overwhelmingly a young crowd. Neither men nor women predominated. Some had children with them. Some of the children were toddlers and others were aged up to about 10. There were a few older people, but not many. One older Asian man was taking a lot of photos of a young Asian woman wearing a fantastic black costume with lots of lace.

The people were from all over the world. There were different skin colours and accents. There were fashionable haircuts and leather jackets. One young man wearing aviator sunglasses had a ponytail on the top of his head. Some of the people were better-dressed than the rest, and a few looked like they were from the theatre world, but for the most part people were dressed casually.

The autumn sun was still out at 4pm when we met up, and you could see the dust that people’s feet kicked up suspended in a golden haze of air and light where the sun shone through the trees. The subtle atmospherics generated by the modulated light from the waning sun lent a fittingly nostalgic air to the temporary graveyard where people slowly made their way from one attraction to the next. At one stage a large and noisy flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew overhead, heading northeast.

“Ours is the fury,” read one stone-like crypt. “Kneel before your king,” read a plaque set in a strange concrete sculpture like a human head that had what looked like flames coming out of its scalp in a form that resembled a crown. Made of concrete but looking heavy and authentic and as though they had been carved from sandstone, the displays often had real moss growing on them. Some had rusty chains staked around them on iron spikes.

A weird kind of goth aesthetic animated the whole scene. The place was quiet, as though the constant reminder of mortality that emanated from the fake gravestones had quelled people’s socialability. Few voices were audible and mostly people just ambled around in silence, happy as larks. They revelled in the macabre panoply of kitsch. There weren’t enough headstones to satisfy the crowd’s appetite for yet another name in the show’s gruesome list of suicides, gorings, and cold-blooded murders.

This atavistic yearning for simplicity and predictability highlights the complexities of the lives of the people who came to gawk and snap photos. The fictional world that the TV series has as a backdrop for its violence and drama seems to offer people an escape from the realities of modern life, with its KPIs, performance reviews, redundancies, on-again-off-again relationships, marriages with children, and all the tomfoolery of performing your civic duties in a modern, pluralist democracy. With everything that goes on in the lives of these people, I thought to myself, it’s no wonder that they crave black-and-white values, dramatic demises, an endless roll of colourful characters, and bald plots satisfyingly studded with gory deaths.

Near the entrance to the precinct, printed on a red corflute stand, were some messages for visitors. “Thank you for coming and paying your respects,” the sign read. “Please be mindful of the dead,” it went on. “Do not touch the gravestones,” it warned in a slightly bureaucratic tone that more closely matched the intent of the sign. “Please also take care when walking around the grass and trees,” it ended up, mindful, no doubt, of occupational health and safety standards that apply at such events. (The area has pine trees giving shade and leaving needles and cones on the grass.) So the modern world was close enough at hand, but there was still allowance for people to behave in a relaxed way, and to have fun. Spotted around the grassy area were Foxtel staff wearing orange-badged black T-shirts and one or two security guards with IDs stuck in plastic pouches attached to their sleeves.

Each display had on it the cause of death of the character being honoured, along with a short cryptic code standing in for the series number and the episode number, to give people who have watched the shows a hook for their memories. I have seen none of the episodes. But I’m in the minority, it seems. This is the generation that grew up reading Harry Potter books in their teens, so the fantasy genre suits it to a “T”. These people have grown up with entertainment full of marvels and larger-than-life characters, and they seem to be immune to the emotional demands that so many deaths inflicts on viewers. I would probably find it all exhausting, so it was something of a relief to be able to sample a taste of the aesthetic of this fictional world and have a short walk in the park at the same time.

Above: Me standing in front of one of the larger displays, which had the figure of a sort of wolf on top of it.

Above: People ambled about on the grass among the displays and the trees, happy as larks.

Thursday 11 April 2019

Labor’s electric vehicle policy proposal might not work

Since the Liberals have started their pushback against Labor’s electric vehicle policy proposal (to set emissions intensity for the whole fleet of vehicles at 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre) there has been a flurry of outrage from progressive journalists. The Liberals are being unreasonable, the thinking goes. There is no “carbon tax” proposed by Labor and the Liberals are just trying to inflame the passions of the electorate in advance of an election it looks set to lose.

All of this hides a number of important questions that we need to answer if we want to arrive at a policy that can actually work, which the Labor policy may not do.

As things currently stand, the technologies involved in the production of electric vehicles have certain limitations. One is range and another is charging speed. Because of these limitations, which are set by the laws of physics and cannot, unlike government policy, be altered easily, the Labor proposal to limit emissions from an individual vehicle to 105 grams of CO2 per kilometre (on average, across the whole fleet) might be unworkable in the Australian context.

At present the most advanced plug-in electric vehicle that I have heard of has a range of 539km for a Model S Tesla (which by the way costs over A$100,000). Many other plug-in EVs have a much shorter range, such as 280km for the Hyundai Ioniq and 335km for the BMW i3. This kind of range will get you less than a third of the way from Sydney to Brisbane, so to do that trip you would need to start in Sydney with a full charge and still need to recharge at least three times en-route in order to arrive at your destination without being towed. Possibly more than this.

Then there is the matter of charging speed. Labor politicians are saying that you can get a full charge into an empty plug-in EV in less than ten minutes and I’ve seen a press release from engineering firm ABB saying that their fastest charger can put 200km-worth of power into an EV in eight minutes. That means that for most plug-in EVs it would take about 20 minutes at least for a driver to get a full charge into their car. That’s the absolute very best scenario, and in many cases conditions won’t be as good as this and people will have to queue for longer to get their cars charged, and it will take them much longer than this to charge them. Imagine driving to Brisbane and having to wait two hours each time you need to top up your vehicle with power. It might take days to get there.

The only way that you can extend the range of an EV is by using a petrol engine in the same vehicle, giving you a hybrid power system. This kind of engine uses the friction involved in braking to charge an on-board battery. But a hybrid car produces more than the quantity of emissions that Labor has said it would mandate as the individual average limit for the fleet of vehicles. The Toyota Camry hybrid (which has a 2.5-litre petrol engine), for example, produces emissions equal to 142 grams of CO2 per km. (The current light-vehicle fleet emissions intensity is 192g per km of CO2.) There are also hybrids that you can plug in, and these have a lower emissions rating, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander which is rated at 41g per km.

With pure-electric plug-in electric vehicles, the emissions ratings are virtually zero. The Tesla Model S, for example, emits 0 grams of CO2 per km at the tailpipe, where such emissions are measured. But given that many vehicle users (for example farmers and tradespeople) won’t be able to buy anything other than a petrol-powered vehicle, that means that a lot of car users are going to have to buy plug-in-only vehicles, since another large cohort of drivers will need to get a hybrid due to the practical limitations of the technologies involved.

It should be noted of course that as time goes on the technologies involved in the production and operation of EVs will improve, so some of the limitations discussed in this post might not exist in 2025, when the fleet emissions target is proposed to come into effect. But in order to get to that target we'll have to change our buying habits now since not all cars in the fleet will be new at that date.

It’s not clear what would happen if the necessary laws were passed and the target was not reached. As far as I know, retailers and manufacturers are obliged to ensure the target is met. What will happen if it is not, has not been made clear at this point in time.

When it comes down to it, Labor’s EV policy might work if enough people do what they haven’t so far been doing: buy plug-in EVs. In 2017, only 2200 plug-in EVs were sold in Australia so we know that there’s currently not much appetite for them in the market. By 2025 the underlying technologies might have improved but we don’t know what’s going to happen on that front, so it’s all a bit up-in-the-air as we speak. On the other hand the Liberals need to get back in their cage a bit and think about what they can do to help make the policy a success.

One thing the they might constructively suggest to ensure a strong take-up of EVs by the community is a way to get strata managers and bodies corporate to decide to spend the money needed to make sure that parking areas in apartment blocks have the charging stations residents need to juice up their cars overnight. This would go a long way toward helping Labor to make its policy plan into a reality. It would also be a simple, effective method of getting people to make the switch to a lower-emissions vehicle.

I should like to thank a number of people on Twitter who helped me to find the information used to make this post. Without their help, I would have been struggling for much longer to come to grips with the issues involved. The mainstream media coverage of this issue has been patchy, lacking in detail as a general rule, and has the wrong information in some cases.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Book review: Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, Yusuke Kimura (2019)

These novellas bring the disaster of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami into focus using traditional fictional devices. The events of March 2011 are here brought to the fore in conventional narratives that embody some of the emotions that were engendered at the time, and that still animate Japanese society even eight years after the disaster occurred.

In ‘Sacred Cesium Ground’ a woman named Nishino goes to spend a few days to help run a farm in Fukushima where there are beef cattle that have been affected by radiation and that cannot be used. Nishino normally lives in Tokyo with an abusive husband and finds a congenial community in the northern region where her participation is valued and where she finds the kind of meaning that is not provided by her life in the capital.

In ‘Isa’s Deluge’, a middle-aged man named Shohji goes back home to Hachinohe, a city in Aomori, in the north of Japan, to meet with family and friends. In a discussion with his cousin Hitoshi, Shohji encounters stories about an uncle named Isa who was a bit of a tearaway. He also visits his father at a relative’s house, then goes to a middle-school reunion. At this function, he experiences a kind of fantasy that is influenced by the alcohol he has drunk.

In both of these stories the differences between the experiences of people living in the north of Honshu, the main Japanese island, and people living in Tokyo, is emphasised. The gap that separates people in the north who experienced the earthquake and tsunami and the people in the capital of Tokyo is of primary importance for both of these narratives. In fact, the stories in this book are mostly about that gap, that empty space in the body of the polity that people fill with their desires, their aspirations, and their fears.

The second of the stories is the more conventional, but both novellas have a delicate structure that makes them liable to be overlooked. In the first of these stories the burden of responsibility for the force of the narrative lies with a collective of people, in a way that readers of Kenzaburo Oe’s novels will be familiar with. In the second of the stories, the burden of responsibility for the narrative lies mostly with one character, so this story is perhaps easier to understand. Both stories are competently constructed and have credible narrative arcs that build suspense from a lively beginning and that terminate proceedings with bold éclat.

In a real sense, the events of March 2011 have to be understood in terms that these stories make clear: as a kind of psychic violence enacted on the whole country. Making sense of the events of that month, and the ensuing years of reconstruction and compensation, is a task for all Japanese people to engage in, but not all will be able to do it comfortably and without difficulty. This book is part of that process, and so it will mean more to Japanese readers than to people living outside the archipelago.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Exhibition review: Heaven and Earth in China

This exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales features items from Taiwan (but the sales material says they come from "Taipei"). Most of the objects in the exhibition date from the Qing dynasty period, so they are relatively late historically speaking, and were made in the period after a sea route to Asia was discovered by the Portuguese.

One item that is an exception to this rule is a lovely, enormous funerary urn with a tripod base from the earliest stages of Chinese culture, around 1500BC. These big bronze vessels had a symbolic meaning for the people who used them, and they were mainly used by the elites. The workmanship they display is exceptionally high, so they are very beautiful. You wonder what meaning the people who used them assigned to them.

Half of the items on display are paintings and half are other types of manufactured goods, including a carved rock, a ceramic statue of an elephant with a vase on its back, and a copper bird made with cloisonné inlayed colours. There is one large black-and-white painting from the Qing era that is a good 20 feet long. It shows a variety of scenes from inside a walled town and from the outskirts of the town, including shops, boats, and a wedding procession. Just marvellous; very detailed like a cartoon.

One thing that stood out for me when I visited the gallery to see the exhibits was that most of the patrons in the rooms were Asian. It’s funny how most people in the broader community will readily say that they support minorities but when it comes to taking an active interest in foreign cultures, people aren't all that engaged. The exhibition is on until 5 May.

Saturday 6 April 2019

Book review: The Exphoria Code, Antony Johnston (2017)

Like a lot of spy procedurals, this book’s plot is complex but there is plenty of good characterisation that gives the narrative the kind of depth you need to feel involved in the story. The book also examines some different themes, themes divorced from national security in the digital age, such as mental illness.

Brigitte Sharpe is an MI6 operative specialising in computers and hacking and she becomes involved in a security breach involving a secret drone software project when a friend of hers, who she only knows online as Ten, is killed in suspicious circumstances. Giles Finlay, Bridge’s superior at the SIS, sends her to France to uncover the mole they suspect has infiltrated the software development facility that is located there, and she takes time out of her schedule to drop in on her sister, Izzy, and her niece Stephanie and brother-in-law Frederic.

Having grown up in France, Bridge has an advantage onsite, and she soon discovers who has been sending details of the programming code for the Department of Defence’s drones to the buyer. But the suspicions SIS has about the source of the plot start to fray and Bridge is soon back in London trying to neutralise the threat.

This competent fiction has many layers and not everything that you suspect is true, or even relevant to the greater plan that the author has dreamed up. In the first phase of the denouement, traditional means are privileged and there is plenty of hand-to-hand fighting and wielding of guns. But once the narrative comes closer to its true ending it recovers some of its IT bona fides and Bridge’s roots as a university hacker return to the fore.

There is something about this author, who made his name initially in comics, that reminds me of Stieg Larsson, who wrote ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. There’s an authenticity of vision and a dedication to the technological potential of this kind of fiction that makes me remember Lisbet Salander and her devious ways.

Bridge has a similar vulnerability, for a start. In Johnston’s novel there are many deviations from the main storyline, often delivered at a point of high drama, that give you information about the main character so that you can identify with her more. You feel the author’s commitment to a larger cause, a broader palette, a wider set of colours, as he constructs his narrative with an eye to finding a home for Bridge within the labyrinthine corridors of power in the national capital. And secondary characters such as Stephanie are given a fullness and completeness that help you to form emotional connections to the people featured in the story.

Bridge is a fitting successor to Salander for her native guile and cleverness. She is a brilliant and idiosyncratic performer who has a heart that you can sense beating in her chest. In the end, you are transfixed by her intricate mind and by her generous heart, which is still recovering from the death of a former operational partner. But even more than that: you are transported to another place and to another world of realities, a place that seems so close to our own but that ends up being just out of reach.

Friday 5 April 2019

Social media is bad for journalism

Social media is great for sharing links but the quality of material being produced in recent years is not encouraging. BuzzFeed for a start, with its quizzes and text-poor stories and endless sequences of quoted tweets, is a bad sign.

Then you have the newspapers that pimp their stories to get subscribers. The quality doesn't matter to people as long as the bias conforms with their own. Some, like the Guardian, ask for donations and run campaigns to fund stories on specific topics. But with the groupthink evident on social media begging for ideologically-bent material in preference to objective stories written by ethical journalists, it's hard to see how we can be well served by such organisations.

You also have "indie" media which is run on a shoestring and which runs complete nonsense that people applaud and retweet endlessly, as though the vomit they are promoting were some rare souffle offered up by the kitchen of a Michelin-starred chef.

The kinds of extremism that thrives in social media, on sites like Twitter and Facebook, is precisely the wrong kind of influence you want to have operating on journalism. In the old days, university graduates used to complain about the hysterical headlines produced by the major urban tabloids. Words with the same kind of rhetorical audacity as statements that are made by politicians intent on demolishing the arguments of their opponents. But with social media this same kind of rhetoric is ubiquitous. 

In fact, it even infiltrates the public personas of leading mainstream journalists. For example: "The amount of methane released from the pile of bullshit to be uttered by the govt on climate change policy over the next 5 weeks is going to severely increase our total emissions..." Now this comment, made just before the 2019 Budget was released, might be true, but the person who said it is a prominent columnist for a mainstream media outlet. This is a man who has built a reputation on the back of carefully considered articles that use a lot of graphs and that rely on numbers for impact. But here he is raving like any louche pleb from the boonies with an internet connection and too much time on his hands.

It's precisely this kind of thing that makes Channel Nine's new social media guidelines so necessary. The company recently introduced guidelines (that apply equally to employees and to contributors) that limit the amount of personal opinion can be included in social media posts.

It makes sense, objectively speaking. If you won't listen to what both sides of politics are saying, how can you be trusted to provide an unbiased assessment of the policies of any political party? And being perceived to be objective is as important as actually being objective. If you are a journalist who wants to be taken seriously, why would you things in public – where people are watching all the time – that are unworthy of attention and that even contain base slurs?

But the tribal dynamic of social media – where people back political parties like they barrack for football teams – makes editors and journalists pander to the lowest common denominator, to the plug-ugly dimwit who publishes drivel and who cannot spell, doesn’t know how to use punctuation, and who struggles even with basic grammar let alone with things such as expression. More and more, newspapers are giving people what they want regardless of the truth, and even outlets that claim to belong to the mainstream are sucked into the vortex because that’s where the money is to be made. If you flatter people they will reward you with dosh.

Thursday 4 April 2019

Book review: Exploded View, Carrie Tiffany (2019)

I read the publisher’s material at the front of the novel after finishing it and it said that the man in the novel, who the girl, a teenager, refers to as “father man”, is not her biological father. Reading the book, this fact is not evident but knowing it explains much about the characters and the things they think and do.

What is clear is that the girl hates the man and the reason why becomes clear in some brief words the author includes in the narrative, which is entirely focalised through the protagonist. It contains rich colour to reflect the breadth of the girl’s imagination, but facts that contribute to the creation of a plot are scarce. I won’t spoil the story for people who have not read it and who want to, but the majority of the drama is enabled by the inclusion of a few salient details within the matrix of the girl’s stream of consciousness.

The story is set in the 1970s and the narrative contains numerous popular culture references, notably the TV shows ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and ‘MASH’. There is an alarming lack of music in the house the girl lives in with her brother, her mother (who reads romances, and writes the titles in a notebook so that she doesn’t borrow the same ones from the library when she goes to replenish her supply), and the “father man” who drinks VB, drives a Holden, and follows the cricket on the radio.

A novel of the individual interior, it is something of a tour-de-force, stretching the boundaries of the form with a savage poetry that is emblematised by the girl saying, during a trip across the country in the man’s car that the whole family is forced to take, during which she is made to sleep on the floor of the backseat of the car, that she is a knife. The way that she describes the world around her, notably on this road trip, but also during scenes that are closer to home, some involving the next-door neighbour, who she calls “fat lady”, has the sharpness of novelty about it, a kind of effortless poetry where the borders between the self and the world are still unclear.

The title comes from the language of automobiles, and is used to describe those graphical representations of the inside of a car engine, or some other working section of a vehicle, that show the different parts and their relations to one another when assembled. The girl has a fascination with cars and the man runs a repair shop behind the family house. The book’s preamble says that the business is unlicensed but, again, this fact is not contained in the narrative. The girl gets up in the middle of the night sometimes and takes cars the man is working on for drives on the highway that runs past the family house. Sometimes she sabotages the cars that he is repairing.

The novel is quite short and is easy to read in a day or so even if you don’t press it. The scope of the venture is quite narrow and if the book has a shortcoming it is a lack of structural complexity. But to compensate for this two-dimensionality in the book’s architecture you find within the confines of the child’s imagination as represented by the expression used in it a whole universe of observations and a fresh catalogue of metaphors and similes. This aspect of it is vibrant and lush even if the motive behind the girl’s sadness is so tawdry.

I felt it deeply, even though, as mentioned, there is little in the way of a story to rely on here for emotional prompts. It all happens in her mind, a place that is fecund and productive. Such sadness, such pathos, hardly needs a name, but it does have one.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Book review: Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett (2016)

It’s very strange, but this is the second novel I’ve read recently with a trans-Atlantic setting that involves a family and that has depression as a major theme. The other one was James Wood’s ‘Upstate’, which came out in 2018 and which I reviewed on 30 November of that year. The other thing that the books have in common is trains, since both of them contain scenes that involve travel from New York to places north. In Wood’s book it is to Saratoga Springs, a town in the north of the state of New York. In Haslett’s book Alec travels by train on one occasion from the city of New York, where he works as a journalist, to Boston.

Another thing links both books: they do their jobs well. (If a novel can have a “job” to do, that is, which is something that is highly questionable; art should not be roped in to carry out the same sort of function as a piece of journalism or a book of nonfiction.) In the case of Haslett’s book however the scope is far wider and the effect of the work is commensurately larger.

Haslett looks at the fortunes of a family that spends most of its time in America and is, therefore, a middle-class American family. In his review he takes in the life of the parents, John and Margaret, and John’s diagnosis before they are married. The book starts with the death of Michael, their eldest son, and then goes into reverse, chronologically speaking, but by the time you get to the end of the first section of the book (there are three sections in total) John has suicided. The book is otherwise broken into sections that jump by a number of years each time, which carries you along the family story in increments, and each section is focalised through a different member of the family.

Suspense is created by the presence of signal events such as, on one occasion, the news that Celia, John and Margaret’s daughter, delivers to Alec, her brother, about her pregnancy. There is also the troubling presence of money worries, especially as it affects Margaret, who has to go to work once John is dead. There is for instance the problem of Michael’s debts. This burden on Margaret is exacerbated by the existence of medical bills (the US has a strange and almost unique system of funding for medicine, and so it is hard to understand how this kind of thing can weigh down an ordinary family, but it can in that country). Alec, who is gay, tries to help her to manage her finances but the problem of money remains throughout the book as a series of important plot devices.

What is so great about this book however, in addition to the long and concentrated glance it dedicates to mental illness, is the writing. Some of the sentences are mesmerizingly long, like something that Proust would have written. Some of the more complex inventions are overly difficult, on the other hand, making it hard to understand what the writer has in mind. Overall, the emphasis on style gives the book a gravitas that the author aspires to achieve. The writing often functions like good jewellery does: the complex sentences and hard concepts work like settings to hold up the stones, which are the characters and the scenes, allowing you to see things that would otherwise have remained hidden.

And even though this is a fairly routine family saga the suspense never wanes, right up to the glorious ending, which takes you a bit by surprise, and is contained in one of Margaret’s narrative sections. You want to know how things turn out. You care about these characters. The things that are important to them, and their opinions on the world, are relevant. I think this constitutes the most substantial achievement of this book.

The other thing that is a relief is the subdued tone that is used to convey the drama the book contains. As in another recent novel (‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer, reviewed here on 29 December of last year) small events are given their due importance, so it is possible for Haslett to investigate nuance and complicated things. The big, emotive punctuation marks that are deployed in the plots of books of genre fiction are replaced by less intrusive but, actually, equally important things. With his long sentences he lifts up the covers on life to examine its interior, and he shines a light on events that are actually quite mundane but that often get ignored out of a misplaced sense of propriety or because of a feeling that they are not important enough for general regard.

The character of Michael is especially interesting. In some of the sections that are focalised through him we are given writings that he makes in response to certain circumstances. The section that takes in the family’s journey from the US to England by boat when Michael is a teenager is a comic triumph. It elegantly demonstrates his precocity and underscores the importance to him of the major theme that will follow him through his life: his interest in slavery. Another section is narrated with the same kind of verve and love of words as the passages that are narrated by Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ (1955).

Halsett uses Michael’s obsession also to interrogate the nature of the postcolonial understanding of the world. Often you get Alec or Celia cogitating on Michael and giving their own opinions of his attitude to his particular hobby-horse, and this kind of wry take on what in many circles lies beyond the possibility of criticism serves to give depth to the narrative and to help draw Michael in more suggestive strokes than would otherwise have been possible.

This is an intelligent novel by an accomplished writer.