Saturday, 6 June 2020

Movie review: LA 92, dir Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (2017)

This Netflix documentary looks at police misconduct in the context of racism in Los Angeles, so is (obviously) topical due to the Minnesota death of a young black man this year. In the film, a young black man was brutally beaten by police on account of a traffic violation, an event captured on video – on 3 April 1991 – as a man in an apartment nearby used a video camera he owned.

That the footage was made was serendipitous (unlike today, where the ubiquity of video cameras in mobile phones makes everyone a filmmaker) and other differences separate the two cases. For a start, even though in Rodney King’s case the video was aired on TV almost immediately, the ‘92 riots didn’t happen until the year following the event, while in the case, this year, of Minnesota man George Floyd the riots happened almost immediately.

This is because another thing is different between then and now: the speed of communication due to the absence, in 1991, of social media. Nowadays everyone is a publisher, whereas then the (mainly white) media sat as gatekeeper. The ‘92 riots – which were circumscribed by geography, and only happened in one city – happened only after the trial, in a local court, of the four police officers involved. The events in that case eerily similar to events that took place in 1965 in Watts, also in LA, and the filmmakers underscore this point by emphasising a view – expressed by some people alive in 1965 – that more such violence was inevitable given relations between authorities and the city’s black community.

The ‘92 trial was a travesty: in order to ensure a favourable verdict the venue for trial was not in LA but rather in a small, mainly white community nearby. Compounding the insult in the eyes of African Americans was an additional factor – another trial held at about the same time for which similar elements were in play. Rioting, looting and arson occurred over several days and the state governor called in soldiers. Korean Americans armed themselves, defending their businesses. Appearing on TV to talk about the riots, Bill Clinton capitalised on the president’s predicament.

To make this film, a wide variety of first-hand footage was sourced and edited in the studio so as to form a seamless narrative. It’s astonishing how much material was available. The soundtrack is excellent and mainly comprises orchestral pieces including (I guess) extracts of recordings of music from earlier eras (e.g. the 19th century). I was very impressed by this aspect of the film, though the subtitling in English was very poor – words spoken by people shown on the screen are sometimes displayed against the wrong parts, and lie on top of name straps, so even if they are timed correctly sometimes you can’t read either. In the end, I watched without subtitles.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-two

This is the twenty-second in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

23 March

Dreamt I was in my office on Tokyo (I worked at Yamatake Co Ltd from 1992 to 2001) and the unit manager was Aida-san. In real life this man was my unit manager for a short time in 1997 or a bit later.

In the dream he had got me a desk close to his, right next to it, in fact, suggesting that I would be the next manager once he retired, but there were two new employees. One was an older man with a bald patch on his head, and he was sitting near the front of the floor space used by our unit. The other new arrival was a younger man with black hair and dark features who was sitting behind the older man. Equipment that was on his desk surrounded him as he sat there.

I sat down at my desk and there was a printer directly in front of me. In fact, there was no workspace at the desk because this device was in the way. Just to the left of the printer was an Apple Macintosh that was not switched on.

My first priority for the new day would be, I realised, to find something to do. They had taken the job of writing application reports away from our unit (this happened in real life) but it wasn’t sure what had replaced that work so in the dream I decided to take out a subscription to an English-language newspaper. I had a copy of one on my desk and I looked for a way to subscribe, but on the back page there was only a URL.

The next thing for me to do, I realised, would be to move the printer and then turn on the Apple Mac to see if it was connected to the internet. On the desk I didn’t have much room to work with – everything was jammed up against everything else, and there wasn’t even room for the printer to sit in its own space on the desktop – so I decided to move the printer first. Then I woke up.

28 March

Dreamt I was in my office in Tokyo and I had two places of work, one downstairs in the PR group (see previous dream) and one upstairs in a corporate policy area.

For the second job I had a task that included going to the bank to set up a new savings account. I was delaying things, as I sometimes do when I have been assigned a discrete and important task. I had to get back upstairs by a certain time, get something translated, then get back to the street and over to the bank by before 6.30pm. I knew that a bank employee was working back specifically on account of a need to accommodate me and my errand and I had been told to see her before the end of the day. It was already 6pm when I looked at my watch and I still wasn’t upstairs in my office where the assistant manager (in real life named Mori-san) was still, I knew, working.

The problem of speed was compounded by the fact that, to get upstairs, I had to jump from the top of one object to the top of another – a crate, a piano, a cupboard, all lined up in a kind of rough circle – to make my way there. Another problem was that I was wearing work shoes with slippery leather soles. So I kept jumping and sliding around and getting more and more anxious as time went on.

All the while I was looking at this long letter that had earlier lobbed into my downstairs in-tray. I knew it had to do with the company I was in the process of helping to set up. I also knew I would have to, at some stage, type the letter into a computer. The letter was written in blue ink on four or five sheets of lined writing paper, in perfect English but in a cursive script that would be, I surmised, hard, in places, to decipher. It wasn’t clear to me if I’d have to get this task done before going to the bank. But at least I knew I’d have to get back to my upstairs office first before I could know what to do! Added to the puzzle was the fact that, regardless how many obstacles (making a kind of stairway up) I jumped onto, I got no closer to the upstairs office area with each circumnavigation of the interior of the building completed.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

“ABM@6” – Skywriting over Sydney CBD

At the end of last month I had to go into town, to the central business district, to see someone. Due to rona I hadn’t been into town for at least two months by that time, and I only went on 28 May because it was an appointment that needed my physical presence.

The virus has kept people away but there were quite a lot of people on the streets among the skyscrapers and on the bridge leading to them, where, at about 11.15am, the following photographs were taken. As I was watching the space above my head I could see the tiny speck of the aircraft crawling through it, a white dot that had an obvious – though minuscule – front and back, and it flew in circles that were tightly choreographed so that the pilot could control where the trail of particles were left in the ether. Evidently the pilot was very skilful. Time was of the essence as nature destroys traces of human ingenuity, which fade like the memory of an unrecorded conversation.

Tall buildings can mask skywriting, but it will usually engage you if there’s clear air above. For my part I couldn’t work out what “ABM@6” was supposed to mean. Perhaps a TV show …

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Book review: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust (1924)

I bought this – along with the other novels in the set (‘In Search of Lost Time’) – sometime after June 2013. The sticker on the back of the volume says it was bought from Folio Books in Brisbane (I was living in southeast Queensland at the time). The price was $22.95.

This translation is different from the one made in 1924. This one was completed in 2002. I read the first book in the series, ‘The Way by Swann’s’ (1922), in 2014. At the time, I was at first put off by the prose but, persisting with it, I caught the bug. I started the second book in the series, and put it down after reading a bit of it, but now I understand what the writer was trying to do, and think it equally as good.

The novels came out initially in French in the years 1913 to 1927 (there’s more information about the series’ publication history on Wikipedia); Proust died in 1922. If you use Google Translate on the title of this book, it appears as: “in the shade of the young girls in bloom.” The original French is “À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”. (The adjectival construction – preposition plus noun – “en fleur” means “blooming” and “fille” can be translated either as “daughter” or “girl”.) Some other English translations might be possible but you risk sounding either ridiculous or salacious.

The novel is not only about youth, although from the outset there is a kind of one-sided romance affecting relations between the teenage narrator and Gilberte – she appears to treat him like a friend, but we are not given access to her thoughts – the daughter of Swann and his wife Odette (both of whom we met in the first book in the series); the narrator is smitten by Gilberte and tries to spend as much time with her as possible. The place of the protagonist in the world is situational for the reader and he is in his teens. At times you hear the voice of an older, more experienced man who tells the story of the youth from a time that is located in the future relative to the time of the main part of the narrative. In both cases the social milieu of France at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, as in the case of ‘Swann’s Way’, forms the axle upon which the narrative turns, with a clever switch from Paris to a small coastal town, Balbec, in the second part. Among other details, an aspect of the Dreyfus case (1894-1906) is mentioned in this latter part of the novel, helping to orient the reader. The Second Empire (which ended in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, an event mentioned in ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’), was already old fashioned at the time when the teenager is stalking Gilberte. 

The switch to Balbec is clever because it takes the narrator out of his natural element, and allows for more discussion of strangers, which, in turn, allows for more character development. You see the narrator interact with new people and places, in different situations, in much the same way that, to add colour to an action movie, the filmmakers suddenly transport their protagonist to Morocco or Moscow, although in this novel the action has the flavour of real life, and not of fantasy. Proust furthermore, in order to achieve comic and psychological effects, combines real-life people with invented characters. When he is young the narrator is aware of his world in a way that only comes with a degree of maturity, but he is just old enough for this to be true. His relative youth is a source of drama in the novel and the time lag that separates the two points of view – the young protagonist and the older narrator – functions as an index of the book’s universality. 

The passing of time changes everyone’s life, and so we can empathise with the narrator as he remembers events from his past and records them for our amusement. His epigrammatic divagations combine artfully (I’ll talk about this in more detail later in this review) with snatches of realistic dialogue – in these ways it’s like Jane Austen amped up to eleventy. Its discursiveness however sets it apart from what had come before. Though I hesitate to make authoritative pronouncements with regard to 19th century literature one character I can think of, with which to link the boy, is the protagonist of Italo Svevo’s ‘Una vita’. The first draft of Svevo’s novel was submitted to the publisher in 1888 with the title ‘L’inetto’ – “inetto” translates as “inept” or “incapable” – and the book was eventually published (funded by the author himself) in 1892.

Both Svevo and Proust continue to be read profitably a century after their novels first appeared on the market. In the novel of the latter author currently under discussion, Monsieur Norpois, the smooth-talking government functionary who sits like a bookend at the outset, would – were he a notable in 21st century Paris – enthusiastically applaud the success of Proust’s oeuvre as long as he wasn’t required to actually read the thing. M. Norpois is as different from the narrator of the novel as a cassowary is from a sparrow. At the beginning of the book how M. Norpois treats the narrator – in what appears to be an avuncular, patronising fashion that is both intimate and aloof, and which might be due to his close relationship with the narrator’s father – is meant to orient the reader in the drama, but in the first 30 pages more happens that is revealing of the narrator’s mind than happens in a score of woke middle-market crime thrillers. 

Proust never misses an opportunity to make meaning by advancing the plot. If someone is mentioned even once in the text, there will be a reason – not immediately apparent, perhaps – for it, and their name will want to reappear at a later point, or even in one of the other books in the series. So while there is no fat in this novel, at the same time the author’s dense, allusive prose intricates itself with your imagination with a rich suggestiveness that is nigh unbearable, each concatenated clause tramping on the heels of the one it follows as rapidly as a moving column of soldiers, though the barrier they are meant to scale – the present moment – always retreats before them. The prose is so complex and redolent with secondary, tertiary and quaternary meanings that you struggle to make sense of it. Its difficulty constituting its primary charm: the looping, languid paragraphs resembling nothing as much as the meandering passage of thought itself, a spiralling formation that, like a child, refuses to terminate unless it’s guaranteed freedom to move at a moment later in time. The plot’s a hook to engage the reader’s attention and though in itself it achieves this goal – the novel effectively retails in ideas related to such issues as the objectification of women, chauvinism and inequality – it wants to come to grips with the very nature of consciousness, a thing – its beating heart fluttering on the pavement of Time’s diurnal like a bird knocked unconscious having flown pell-mell into a window, on the other side of which lie your dreams – which it tries to pin down on the borders of memory.

Because of the extreme length of the sentences this book will have a different effect on each reader, as they raise up, like ghosts, images and feelings that sit deep within your mind, which has hardly managed to come to terms with one clause before another is offered up for perusal. In the delay, in the spaces between clauses, your mind is still active, but suspended, as though it were on a bridge of words. The author himself signals to precisely this moment when, on page 104, he writes:
[Swann] explained that the room where [Gilberte] sometimes went was the linen-room, offered to show it to me and promised that, whenever she had to go there, he would make sure she took me with her. With these words and the relief they brought me, he suddenly bridged for me one of those dreadful chasms within the heart, which put such a distance between us and the woman we love. It was a moment when I believed my affection for him was even stronger than my affection for Gilberte.
And on page 105, we get this:
It was on one of those days that [Mme Swann] happened to play the part of the Vinteuil sonata with the little phrases that Swann had once loved so much. Listening for the first time to music that is even a little complicated, one can often hear nothing in it. And yet, later in life, when I had heard the whole piece two or three times, I found I was thoroughly familiar with it. So the expression ‘hearing something for the first time’ is not inaccurate. If one had distinguished nothing in it on the real first occasion, as one thought, then the second or the third would also be first times; and there would be no reason to understand it any better on the tenth occasion. What is missing the first time is probably not understanding, but memory. Our memory-span relative to the complexity of the impressions which assail it as we listen, is infinitesimal, as short-lived as the memory of a sleeping man who has a thousand thoughts which he instantly forgets, or the memory of a man in his dotage, who cannot retain for more than a minute anything he has been told. Our memory is incapable of supplying us with an instantaneous recollection of this multiplicity of impressions. Even so, a recollection does gradually gather in the mind; and with pieces of music heard only two or three times, one is like the schoolboy who, though he has read over his lesson a few times before falling asleep, is convinced he still does not know it, but can then recite it word for word when he wakes up the following morning. 
Like the chasm in the narrator’s heart, Proust’s sentences provide a bridge over to our own memories. The gaps between one image, one impression, and the next is wide, and there are many to cross; the mind skips, like a stone flung from a verge across a calm body of water. More than a doorway to another world, the book – like one of Haruki Murakami’s tunnels – gives access to your own. Proust hasn’t written one novel, he has written seven billion individual novels. 

Each has the same title and is a coproduction, in fact the name “Proust” becomes your name for the time it takes to read a page and you still have the same name for the next, but this “Proust” is an amphibious creature, and a fiction itself, existing only as long as you continue to read. As for whether one must equate Proust’s narrator – even though he wants, in his youth, to be a writer – with the author himself, I believe it is unnecessary. The use of this type of character allows Proust to explore such things as subjectivity but it also gives him access to a wide range of social spheres so that he can make his novel "big". Since Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ had appeared (at least a decade before Proust’s birth), the position of the author relative to his or her audience had been under discussion. ‘Au lecteur’, a powerful poem by Baudelaire, directly addresses this aspect of the public sphere, and since then the author-as-protagonist has become a common trope (cf Knausgaard’s series of novels, ‘My Struggle’, which came out in Norwegian between 2009 and 2011). Its reverse is reader-as-author, and I talk about this in a recent review of Anthony Macris’ 2019 miscellany ‘Aftershocks’.  

The colouring of Norpois at the end of the novel, like how the older narrator relates to his younger self, means that this character is full of ambiguity. It is like with people: you might like someone 90 percent of the time but for the remainder you are disappointed. In fact, nobody comes off smelling like roses – the narrator is unreliable, just as Bloch, who is Jewish, says things with a distinctly anti-Semitic cast. Proust intends to confound and puzzle where other authors tend to lead and reassure. For Proust it is evident that all must be free to make up our own minds: he won’t decide for the reader, in advance, who is “good” and who is to be censured. And, furthermore, to make a bald calculation – like solving a mathematical problem – whereby Proust uses his narrator to talk about his own life might be to commit a logical solecism, though not having completed the whole series, and never having read a biography of the author, on this point I reserve my opinion. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Visual disturbances: Eleven

‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’, Marcel Proust, trans. James Grieve, Penguin, 2002 (originally published as ‘A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur’, 1919), from pages 296-7:
We drove down towards Hudimesnil, and suddenly I was filled with a feeling of profound bliss, which I associated with Combray but had seldom felt since those days, rather like the feeling I had once had from things such as the steeples of Martinville. This time, however, nothing came of it. It was just three trees which I had noticed, set back a little from the steeply cambered road we were on, looking as though they stood at the entrance to a covered drive, and making a pattern which I knew I had seen somewhere before. I could not manage to recognize the place they had, as it were, been separated from; but I sensed that it must have been somewhere familiar to me, long ago; and as my mind stumbled about between a former year and the present moment, the countryside round Balbec shifted and faltered, and I had to ask myself whether this whole thing was not just some figment, Balbec merely a place where I might once have been in my imagination, Mme de Villeparisis someone out of a novel, and the three old trees nothing but the solid reality that meets the eye of a reader who glances up from a book, his mind still held by the spell of a fictional setting.
I gazed at the three trees, which I could see quite clearly; but my mind suspected they hid something on which it could have no purchase, as our fingertips at the full stretch of our arm may from time to time barely touch but not quite grasp objects which lie just out of reach. 
Having come home from a walk in the city where, before lunch, I took – just after midday on 28 May – the following photo, I read the passage inserted above.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Grocery shopping list for May 2020

This post is the seventeenth in a series and the third with rona. 

1 May

Drove to Woolworths and bought salmon fillets, smoked hake fillets, bacon, sliced sorpressa, oats, a sultana butter cake, bhuja, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). I had to go back into the store after putting the bags in the car boot as, initially, I forgot the oats. At the carpark exit, I drove straight out after the automatic boom gate opened; the company had newly installed a payment system where, on entry, a camera takes a photo of your number plate and there’s no paper ticket to carry. Later on, in the afternoon, I popped out on foot and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero at the bottle shop.

3 May

Drove to Woolies and, getting out of the car, out of my pocket dropped the $1 and $2 coins I had brought for the shopping trolley deposit. You need to leave a “gold” coin in a device on the trolley to use it. Standing outside my car, I heard a coin hit the ground and scatter, so I dropped to my knees to try to find it, but failed to do so. Obeying a hunch, I opened the car door and saw the $1 coin sitting on the driver’s seat where it had fallen out of my pocket, to where I returned it.

I walked upstairs to the supermarket and bought (see receipt below) sliced pastrami, lamb soup, lentil soup, a container of “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg”, olive oil spread, a cos lettuce, bread, Jatz crackers, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

Back in the carpark, I inadvertently found, on the pavement next to the car, the dropped $2 coin – I’d unwittingly stepped over it on the way inside – then drove home and unpacked, putting everything away.

6 May

Popped in at Woolworths and bought fillet steak, milk, Bega cheese, lentil salad, couscous and pumpkin salad, apples, blueberries, Tim Tams, bhuja, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

The witch’s hats outside the entrance of the store had been taken away and Coles had announced that from Friday 8 May trading rules would return to normal, but with opening hours extended and stores opening their doors at 6am. Previously, the first hour of trade – from 7am to 8am on weekdays – was reserved for certain categories of shopper, such as the elderly and those employed in essential services (firefighters, police, nurses etcetera). 

8 May

Went across the road to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

11 May

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) a barramundi fillet, sliced Hungarian salami, sliced sorpressa with fennel, sliced ham, Edam cheese, lentil salad, an oakleaf lettuce, apples, blueberries, a sultana butter cake, bhuja, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

12 May

Drove to Woolies and bought tomato soup, lamb soup, pea and ham soup, a container of “spiced roasted cauliflower and winter veg,” bread, instant oats, bhuja, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). After unpacking everything and putting it away I had to remind myself, again, to wash my hands. Ended up with perfumed hands!

14 May

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) salmon fillets, smoked hake fillets, cauliflower soup, tomato soup, milk, blueberries, sundried tomatoes, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). On the way back home it rained.

16 May

First day of reduced restrictions for cafes and restaurants. Walked to the pharmacy and while in the arcade I popped in at Coles and bought (see receipt below) pork chops, artichoke hearts, coleslaw, couscous and pumpkin salad, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). After I got home it rained.

19 May

Drove to Woolworths and bought couscous and pumpkin salad, bean salad, tomato soup, lamb soup, “butter-chicken style” soup, blueberries, sultana butter cake, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). As I was checking out a shop clerk came up to me and suggested that, using her login, I multiply the bottles to make the addition and, once I had understood her meaning, I asked, “Why?” She retreated to her spot near the exit of the area of the floor in which the automated machines sit and I completed the transaction without her help. As I was leaving the area she said, “Thank you, and sorry for that.” I hadn’t seen a need to take up her offer given how the company had put up signs all over the place, even on the floor of the garage entryway, telling people to keep their distance.

21 May

Drove to Woolies and bought (see receipt below) an oakleaf lettuce, blueberries, apples, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). In the afternoon, I went to the bottle shop and bought two six-packs of Carlton Zero.

22 May 

Popped in at Woolies while out, and bought roasted cauliflower and kasundi salad, coleslaw, bread, Tim Tams, and milk.

25 May

Drove to Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) rump steak, lamb cutlets, sliced pastrami, sliced roast beef, sundried tomatoes, a jar of chargrilled capsicum, pickled gherkins, Bega cheese, lentil salad, a container of spiced roasted cauliflower and “winter vegetables”, pea and ham soup, lamb soup, an oakleaf lettuce, apples, blueberries, wholegrain mustard, bhuja, Calbee “Harvest Snaps”, milk, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar). 

Later I had to pop in at the tailor’s, and so stopped by Woolies and bought instant oats, Tim Tams, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

26 May 

Had an errand to do and while out I stopped by Woolworths and bought smoked hake fillets, a Nile perch fillet, sliced ham, an oakleaf lettuce, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

27 May

Had an errand to do locally and while I was out I popped in at Coles and bought flavoured, no-sugar mineral water.

28 May

Had to go to the CBD and on the way back I stopped to have a haircut, then popped in at Woolworths and bought (see receipt below) fillet steak, eggs, hummus with harissa, rollmops, mushrooms, tomatoes, chillies, an onion, a container of sundried tomatoes, a carrot cake, sesame crackers, and bhuja.

29 May

Drove to Woolies and parked, then popped into the tailor’s for a moment to pick up dry cleaning. At the supermarket, on the way back to the car, I bought couscous with pumpkin, lentil salad, cauliflower soup, and flavoured mineral water (no-sugar).

31 May

Went to the bottle shop and bought a six-pack of Carlton Zero, then to the convenience store and bought Jatz crackers and Doritos.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

TV review: Trial by Media, Netflix (2020)

This entertaining show deals with a range of events. Episode 1, ‘Talk Show Murder’, is about daytime talk shows and how “gotcha” journalism can have unwonted effects. But the role of the media in ep 2, ‘Subway Vigilante’, and ep 3, ’41 Shots’ – about shootings and the court cases that followed them – is at issue mainly because Bernhard Goetz (the “vigilante” in ep 2) and Amadou Diallo (the victim of police excess in ep 3) were widely discussed by the community. 

I’m not an expert in the laws of any US states, or of law that operates federally in that country, and even in the case of Australia, where I live, there are details about the legal process that are beyond my ken, but though this show is interesting – each episode a snapshot of America’s public sphere at a specific point in time, from the 80s and 90s to the noughts and the teens – I felt like the label at the top was employed a tad promiscuously. 

Each ep deals with different issues and, similarly, the way an expression like “trial by media” is used might, depending on the jurisdiction you live in, differ according to custom and habit. What I think about when I read these words is not necessarily the same as the meaning the filmmakers had in mind when they picked them to attach to their productions. For me, the expression “trial by media” refers to unwarranted (and, sometimes, illegal) exposure of facts salient to a court case that prejudices a jury, making the enactment of justice difficult or impossible. In the court cases featured in eps 2 and 3, the judge’s ability to find an untainted jury was indeed compromised, as it was in the case in ep 5, ‘Big Dan’s’, which followed a 1983 rape in New Haven, Massachusetts. 

But merely having trouble finding an untainted jury – something that is unremarkable – doesn’t automatically mean that there has been “trial by media”. While in all cases examined by the filmmakers stories communicated by the media operated on the minds of people – including jurors – in some cases, the defendant’s notoriety worked in his favour. This was true for Richard Scrushy, the CEO of a health insurance company, who was tried for fraud in his home state of Alabama; his case is dealt in ep 4, ‘King Richard’. This wasn’t always true of the case in the final ep, ‘Blago!’. Here, at times the media worked against the interests of the defendant, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and at times it worked in his favour. 

Open justice – the idea that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done – is the main thing at issue in all of the eps. The case shown in ep 5 – where the judge let broadcast media into the courtroom – is an extreme one, demonstrating that the legal process can materially suffer from too much exposure, depending on the degree to which it occurs. On the other hand constitutional protections in the US privilege the media in the legal process.

You might build, in your mind, reservations about such freedoms if you take the stories in this series to heart. While in recent years, “fake news” has become a watchword everywhere, this show demonstrates that the media has always operated in a contested space, and is often subjected to intense scrutiny by parts of the community. Perhaps this is what the filmmakers were trying to communicate by choosing the title they used to bind these stories together (it is often the media that is on trial). It’s a puzzle, though just putting the words “trial” and “media” together in the same clause brings to the fore certain ideas. 

There is plenty of drama especially if, like me, you are not American and have little memory of the stories told. The show in fact reflects a degree of parochialism; events are framed in ways that an American will understand but sometimes there is an elephant in the room. For example, discussions of ethnicity appear in eps 2, 3, and 5 but a more important issue struck me: in the first three episodes there’s a shooting as a result of which a person dies. Americans seem to find it less challenging to talk about racism than to talk realistically about easy access to firearms.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Movie review: Banking on Africa: The Bitcoin Revolution, dir Tamarin Gerriety (2020)

This documentary, which I saw on Amazon Prime,  is short – significantly less than an hour long – and I had the same reservations about it as another reviewer. On Cointelegraph, Jack Martin writes about the use of backgrounding – explanations of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies – which are interspersed in the film with segments explaining how such containers of value are used in Africa. He writes:
To be fair, the film achieves this balance well, but leaves me wanting to discover more of the individual projects which are changing Africa for the better. Yes, the [printed] report has such information, but a majority of viewers probably won’t even realize that report exists.
The report he talks about (“The State of Cryptocurrency in Africa”) was given out by a sponsor of the documentary, a company called Luno which, writes Martin, “has a strong presence in Africa, having originally headquartered in Cape Town.” Cointelegraph’s reviewer was glad to see, however, that Luno didn’t feature in the movie. Watching from Australia, I was unaware of the company’s involvement until I read Martin’s article. If I hadn’t done so, I would’ve remained ignorant of a key facet of the movie.

Nevertheless, it is interesting on its own merits not only because it shows why, in a place such as Africa – excuse me while I stuff the whole vast continent into one short name – cryptocurrencies might actually be useful because infrastructure – banks, for example – might be unable to cope with the demands consumers place on it. For a start, people might not pay their bills on time, or even at all. But if a power company asks to receive payment in advance of electricity consumption, a family or an institution – such as a school (the example used in the film) – might not have the wherewithal to pay, in which case they simply go without. How about setting up a website to enable a person living in a European country to send money to pay for the electricity consumption of a school in South Africa or Botswana? This is what Uziso, a South African organisation, has done. It has even sourced special equipment that can be installed at the site where power is to be used.

A cryptocurrency’s ability of to be something other than a vehicle for speculation is explained, though I wasn’t thereby automatically swayed in its favour. The film also tries to go into detail about the mechanics of cryptocurrencies, but rather than becoming too abstract I felt, again, that the information delivered was too little; I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already heard from other sources.

Like Martin, I wanted more information about how cryptocurrencies are actually being used in Africa, but such information requires time and effort to gather and, therefore, money. This movie is a good first draft, but a longer work is needed to deliver what is promised by the title.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Visual disturbances: Ten

‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’, Marcel Proust, trans. James Grieve, Penguin, 2002 (originally published as ‘A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur’, 1919), from pages 283-4:
Before lunch-time, I kept toing and froing between my room and my grandmother’s. Unlike mine, hers did not directly overlook the sea, although it had three different aspects: on a short stretch of esplanade, a courtyard and the countryside. Its furnishings were also very different, including armchairs embroidered in filigree and embossed with pink flowers, which seemed to be the source of the fresh and pleasant smell one encountered on entering. At that late morning moment, when rays of sunlight came in from more than one aspect and seemingly from other times of day, breaking the angles of the walls, setting side by side on the chest of drawers a reflection from the beach and a wayside altar of colours as variegated as flowers along a lane, alighting brightly on the wainscot with the warm tremble of folded wings ready to fly away, warming like bath-water a country mat by the courtyard window, which the sunshine festooned like a vine, adding to the charm and the decorative complexity of the furnishings by seeming to peel away the flowered silk of the armchairs and unpick their braidings, that room where I loitered for a moment before dressing for our outing was a prism in which the colours of the light from outside were dispersed, a hive in which all the heady nectars of the day awaiting me were still separate and ungathered but already visible, a garden of hopes shimmering with shafts of silver and rose petals.
Having come home from a walk in the city where, before lunch, I took – just after midday – the following photo, I read the passage inserted above.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Book review: The King in the North, Max Adams (2013)

I bought this sometime after November 2013. I was living in Queensland and that year my daughter had come out to visit. I was looking after my mother at the time; the following year she’d be diagnosed with dementia. My father had died two years prior.

Up north I met a lawyer whose surname was Oswald, which is possibly what prompted me to buy this book. It cost $40. On occasion I would drive mum up the mountain to Buderim. She liked the bookshop there as she could potter around looking at things while supported by her walker, which has three wheels and so concertinas closed when you pull the handles together. Since that time, the book has sat unread on one or another of my bookshelves.

For people moved by such shows as ‘Game of Thrones’, this book can provide ballast. Robb Stark appeared first in George R.R. Martin’s 1996 novel, then in the TV series that followed from 2011. In both of which he is known as “king in the north”. Adams was clearly intent on capitalising on the success of such inventions, and he also knew that Oswald inspired J.R.R. Tolkien in making Aragorn for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (the novels were published between 1954 and 55, and the films were released in the years spanning 2001 to 2003). Adams’ book has a strong sense of drama and is anything but dry. It has a well-shaped narrative arc – you want to find out what happens to Edwin and Oswald and Oswiu and Aidan – but it differs from its brethren in important ways. While ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are merely animated by ideas derived from history, ‘The King in the North’ gives you that history in black and white. 

Adams creates nuance. His prose is flexible and often beautiful, able to convey the most subtle meanings with, sometimes, long secondary clauses dropped into the flow of words to capture an idea or to suggest further possibilities evident in the series of facts, along with their revelations. He also spent a good deal of time in the north of England, tramping around and getting acquainted with the buildings, rivers and hills he wanted to talk about in the book. 

To make it comprehensible to us, and to fill in the gaps left in extant records, Adams often interpolates an opinion as to what may have happened at any given point in time, and borrows from more modern dramatic art, for example suggesting a tactic used as part of a dynastic struggle. On page 288 he makes his method explicit:
Early Medieval kings were not much more prone to sentiment than tyrants of any other period. They ruled by expedient in an expedient world. Their political decisions were made, by and large, on the sort of criteria familiar to observers of modern politics. Political histories tend to consist of the repayment, when in power, of pledges made on the way up. Presidents, prime ministers, dare one say archbishops and popes, media barons and bankers, all face the dilemma posed by a system of patronage whose rules are as unchanging as human nature. What one pays to whom over how long is a nicety of the game. Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a trope with a long pedigree.
Where concrete evidence is lacking, Adams will suggest the route used for a voyage, or the site of an important battle. But beyond such bellicose or political concerns – though religion was, as the passages quoted below shows, used to govern as much as to enlighten – Oswald’s story is really the story of the Christianisation of England. 

And while Adams is at pains to find similarities between us and them, confusingly, at other points, he says that people of the British Isles in the Dark Ages were different from modern Westerners, particularly in respect of their ideas about the divine and the eternal. For example on page 242, Adams tells of what happens following King Oswald’s death, when his brother Oswiu went to Mercia to reclaim his body:
We do not know if Oswald’s brother Oswiu fought with him at Maserfelth … What we do know is that he brought up Oswald’s infant son Oethelwald, probably at his own court and that, a year after Oswald’s death at Maserfelth, he ‘came thither with an army’ and took Oswald’s remains away with him. Oswald’s head – with its gaping sword-slash wound – was given to the community on Lindisfarne and buried in the church there; his hands and arms were encased in a shrine, suitably made from silver, and interred in the fortress at Bamburgh, probably below the church dedicated to Saint Peter, now ruinous, which may have had an early crypt. Here they became, Bede tells us, objects of great veneration. As Aidan had predicted, they remained ‘incorrupt’ until the time of Bede.
And on the next page we read this: 
In keeping the arms and hands Oswiu was ensuring that some of his brother’s luck passed to him; in donating the king’s head to Lindisfarne he was aiming to ensure the continuing success of Aidan’s mission. Christian as he was, Aidan would not have been in any doubt of the potency of that gift and the continuing promise and virtus which came with it.
On page 362 Adams elaborates on this point:
Throughout this period [from the late 7th to the late 11th century] the potency of the relics of Cuthbert, Aidan and Oswald was maintained, enhanced by miracles of healing and prophecy and by donations to the community. The relics contained in the shrine embodied not just the virtue and God-given power of the ancient kings of Bernicia but something of the ancestral luck of the Northumbrian race. It is difficult for a sceptical and cynical twenty-first century secular society to fully grasp the power and importance of such objects and the places associated with them unless one turns to face Mecca, or Jerusalem. This is powerful magic.
There’s no reason why both a hard-nosed pragmatism and a distinctly animistic sense of divinity embodied by physical things can’t both apply, each at different times. Adams throws up his hands trying to sort it out as this, from page 371, shows:
Whatever the complex psychological reasons for attaching personal success in health and fortune to the veneration of the relics or memory of a read royal martyr, it seems that Oswald’s luck did not run out on the battlefield at Maserfelth: his presence, potency and charisma were still being felt hundreds of years after his passing, reinforced by Bede, Alcuin and other chroniclers and by the preservation and multiplication of the physical properties of those virtues.
The kings might have wanted to benefit from the rationality of the Roman mindset but they knew that their subjects’ loyalty was easier maintained by catering to their taste for hallowed loci. International and local. Stick and carrot.


Christianity had been brought to Ireland earlier than Oswald’s reign, but it wasn’t within the orbit of Rome. There is also evidence from archaeological digs that other Christians lived in pockets in the part of the island (that would become England, Wales, and Scotland) before changes took place as a result of Oswald becoming ruler of Northumbria and overlord of other kingdoms.

Adams took upon himself a herculean task. To make his story about an English warlord (due to realpolitik at this point in time it’s inaccurate to call England a “country”) he used a wide variety of materials, sourced from different places including chronicles of the Middle Ages – the period immediately following the period in question – as well as more recent information, such as that produced as a result of archaeological and textual studies. 

Herculean because so much conjecture is required to make sense of it all. The chronicler known as Bede was often unreliable because he sought to produce a sophisticated account of events of the past in order to demonstrate to his readers that the adoption of Christianity was divinely ordained. Unlike in ‘Game of Thrones’, much cannot be known with any degree of confidence, but by speculating aloud Adams produces a nuanced and entertaining narrative filled with such tropes as a warlord who strikes savagely at dawn, a victorious atheling who bestows charity on his loyal subjects, and a vindictive warrior intent on eliminating his rivals in power. What makes such dramas as ‘Game of Thrones’ so compelling is that, at the time, the identity of the polis existed solely in the person of the king. The fragile nature of the polis meant that people’s idea of their world was different to what obtains in people’s minds now. This difference lies at the root of the compulsion to watch such TV shows. It’s an atavistic yearning for the simpler dynamic of the schoolyard. The staid dynamics of office politics, with its allegiances, untold secrets, and harboured grudges, are transposed onto an antique setting where differences of opinion are sorted out not by email or in a meeting, but at the point of a sword. 

It’s a Romantic and nihilistic craving for absolutes that relishes the assurance available from the closure implicit in death – the TV show was so wildly successful the Australian distributor a year ago installed fake graves in a popular Sydney park – but the Dark Ages were not, as some like to think, a time of unalloyed horror and savagery. The term, in any case, is a 19th century one, and belongs to a time about which, now, we have our own opinions. On the other hand, people’s relationship with their world in the year 630 AD was not the same as it is now. Magic was actual and spirits existed in people’s imaginations as vivid beings. So the appeal of the Bible’s message must’ve been compelling as it would have let the common folk see the world through different eyes. 

Even if a taste for holy relics indicates that some things about paganism survived into the Christian era, enlighten Oswald did, though a lot of the excesses of his successors would eventually be overturned in the Renaissance as Henry VIII reprivatised monastic land holdings. 

Nevertheless, under Oswald, the establishment of a monastery at Lindisfarne was pivotal for England from the point of view of its idea of itself as it allowed for the production of records. Records which, later, could serve as material in the making of such ideas as the nation. Kings would also mimic the monks, and start to keep records, so engendering the first traces we have of a stable polity in England. The marriage of religion and the king represents the beginnings of the idea of the kingdom as something separate from the person of the king. The nation – or, as we now call it, the state – as a continuing and versatile institution would become one able to harbour further innovation and would enable the realisation of the individual’s full potential. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Movie review: Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics, dir Donick Cary (2020)

Using a range of materials including interviews with actors (alive and dead), old public information films, cartoons, and interludes with a character named Captain Good Trips (played by Otis Cary) this Netflix documentary intends to be part of a wider debate about such things as LSD and magic mushrooms.

While it is informative the inclusion of Anthony Bourdain (who suicided two years ago) and Carrie Fisher (who died in 2016; she is known to have abused drugs) takes some of the shine off the product. And for someone of my generation – brought up in the 60s and 70s – there’s not a heck of a lot of new information to be found here. I dropped acid on one occasion in the mid-80s when I was in my twenties. I was at a sporting field in Leichhardt – in fact it was Taverners Hill, nearby – with an Englishman named Gary, who was a friend of mine in Sydney. Nothing happened and I never repeated the experiment but the problem with illicit substances is something I was aware of at the time: they can cause health problems. Drugs can lead to people being admitted to hospital, to spending time in mental institutions, to losing their jobs, to the breakdown of marriages, and to poverty. A "bad trip" might sound benign, but it can be traumatic.

Watching Cary’s film I wanted more viewpoints. Hearing about Sting’s trips is fun in a goofy way and Deepak Chopra is amusing on account of his willingness to ascribe to the use of psychedelic drugs all the achievements of the generations that brought us the post-war counterculture, yet more hard science is really needed to make the film truly reflect the range of viewpoints that are out there in the wider community. A psychiatry professor named Charles Grob adds some much-needed expertise but the filmmakers could’ve profitably located more of such people. Someone for example who’d advise against the use of psychedelics. Hacking in the odd segment from a dicky 80s anti-drug propaganda film doesn’t address the real issues, and just makes reservations – no matter how warranted – about such substances appear to be relics of the stone age. 

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-one

This is the twenty-first in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

12 March

Dreamt I was talking to an entrepreneur about insurance. I know this man in real life and his name is George.

In my dream, I was telling him that, if you are in a creative industry, you can get insurance for a lack of inspiration. Insuring yourself against such an eventuality, I said, makes good business sense, and I encouraged him to take out a policy with a local provider. If you cannot create work, my thinking went, your business suffers. We spent a good deal of time talking about this.

At some points I was going through security gates of a kind that you often find in office building lobbies. There was also a judge with whom I spoke.

The conversation had started with George and I talking about copyright. In real life the man who introduced me to George is a lawyer who takes on many cases to do with intellectual property, and in the dream I was telling George that it is important to insure yourself against the possibility that a firm sues you for breach of copyright. I don’t know if, in real life, you can get this kind of insurance, but by my untutored reckoning in the dream it was on the cards.

15 March

Dreamt I was in a Muslim country and was being groomed to serve as a male prostitute. They took me along a path to a man who complimented me on my eyelashes, which he brushed up high with the blade of a spoon. When I demurred and tried to run away men with pointed sticks chased after me, threatening to kill me, so I gave up and stopped running.

Then I was a tourist in Japan walking along a street and I saw a man, who had been with me in the previous part of the dream, walking along as well. There was nothing about his demeanour to tell me what his job was.

20 March

Dreamt I was back in the 1920s. Part of the dream was in New York, where I was trying to get to a dinner appointment with someone with whom in real life I once worked. I had to go along a street and I had the choice of walking there or getting a taxi. A cab pulled up alongside me as I stood on the street, offering me a ride, but I declined the offer and decided to walk to the joint.

I was also in another place, and it was also in the United States, and also in the 1920s. I was checking the spelling and punctuation of documents that were transcripts of interviews that had been made by someone I knew in the dream. He had interviewed young men from a poor part of the country who were addicted to opioids, while I was in a city; the transcripts came to me via a kind of teletype machine attached to the wall of the space I was in. A good deal of one transcript was incomplete because the young man being interviewed had a poor command of English and because the person doing the interview was not a native English speaker.

Another part of the dream had me in Tokyo trying to get to my workplace. As with the other parts of the dream, it was the 1920s. The building I was in had lifts, but the one I got in had a ceiling that was so low I had to stoop to enter the gondola; standing up straight would have been impossible. I had to get back to my floor but I didn’t remember the number of the floor, so I pressed “12” and got out where the lift stopped. Then, using the stairwell, I walked downstairs, trying to find the right floor. Two of the floors were given over to assembly rooms, so evidently weren’t the ones I was looking for. Eventually I found the right floor; it was the third floor.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Book review: The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters, Anne de Courcy (2000)

My copy of the book used to belong to my father, and there is a bookmark I found sitting at page 157 – less than halfway through the volume, a point at which Oswald Mosley, Cynthia Curzon’s husband, sets up a right-wing political party in the UK – with, stamped on it with blue ink, the date of my birth. The bookmark had been made by a library and the date was when a book mum or dad had borrowed – not this book, mind you – was due to be returned. By that year, it is certain, dad’s memory had started to decline in efficacity, so was possibly one of the last books he read. The three Curzon sisters belonged to his mother’s generation.

The book tells a story that can have global significance and while it contains a lot of information about the three Curzon sisters, links to the contemporary zeitgeist aren’t deeply explored until about page 150. Cynthia Mosley, the middle sister, became a Labour member of Parliament but little room is given over to exploring her ideas as they related to the issues of the day until Tom – her husband and also a member of Parliament – split off from Labour to found the New Party. For the first 150 pages of the book, de Courcy restricts herself to examining personal correspondence, and neglects to highlight for the reader such things as books that the women might have read or newspapers they might have subscribed to. What were formative influences on them, apart from family and friends, growing up?

Tom (Oswald) Mosley’s defection from Labour was prompted by his desire for the government – of which he was a part – to adopt Keynesian economic policies, and invest in infrastructure so as to boost employment (unemployment rose after 1929 as a result of the drop in the value of traded equities known as the stock market “crash”, and preceded what would later be known as the Great Depression). We know, now, how right Mosley was because governments in 2020, all around the world, have been pouring money into the pockets of consumers as a result of the novel coronavirus. That Tom subsequently became a fascist is indicative of how, at the time, ideas that related to such things as equality and equity were fluid and shifting but it appears from available records – in this case a diary note that reflects what his sister-in-law was thinking in September 1939 – Mosley’s politics stemmed partly from a concern for the welfare of the working class. As in the case of Mussolini, Tom’s shift was from the left to the extreme right. Irene, the eldest Curzon sister, wrote in her diary in that month:
I asked [Tom] his views on Hitler etc and he said he was only out for Britain and a safe place for her, but I think he sees in himself a potential smasher-up of all our capitalist systems when the disruption of communism creeps over Europe and toward us, and with anti-Semitism as his pillar of hate he will arise from the ashes of conservatism and profitmaking.
Problems faced by the working class would become apparent to the women during the war as a result of children being evacuated from London to the country. The independently wealthy Curzon sisters – children of a viceroy of India, who by now was dead – at this point in time saw children who had been physically and emotionally stunted due to the circumstances of their upbringing, and this experience would affect the three of them deeply.

There is a lacuna partly veiling how their political views were formed in childhood. For this part of the girls’ lives, the effect produced resembles watching a silent film without any text. I risk being a touch over-critical in talking about these ellipses, since de Courcy goes into a lot of detail once the girls are grown and have entered into the world independently but, early on, there is rarely mention of literature, music, paintings, or the media. Itemising such things can be useful, just as it’s pertinent for the reader to know that the girls’ father, Lord Curzon, when he first met Tom, thought he was Jewish because of the size of his nose or that, at the beginning of WWII, Tom tried to get Irene (the eldest Curzon sister, and his sister-in-law) to pay with her own cash for the upkeep of one of his houses.

De Courcy uses a very wide array of material from private correspondence and other documents. That she was able to secure access to them is a tribute to her character or, at least, is an index of her personal standing in the community. If she had not been a credible witness – and had not been able to convince people that she would be a reliable chronicler – it is hardly likely that living relatives of the women in question would have allowed her to read – and quote from – letters and diaries they controlled.

As well as covering in strenuous detail such tonic events as the abdication of Edward VIII – Alexandra (Baba) Metcalfe (the youngest Curzon sister) was the wife of the king’s closest friend – de Courcy’s story reveals how different, compared to now, people of my grandmother’s generation were. I sometimes have problems with how the past is depicted in fiction – I panned Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’ and had a mixed reaction to Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Part of it is due to something that is evident when reading de Courcy’s book, which seems to show why religion was so central, in times past, in people’s lives. Even for people growing up as recently as the beginning of last century a personal God was necessary for many reasons. Medicine was far more basic then. The law was different, especially inasmuch as it affected people’s intimate relationships; divorce was a very different type of thing 100 years ago and homosexual acts were, in Britain at least, illegal. There seems to have been more emotional lability generally; people would break down crying for no apparent reason, women would faint suddenly when in company. Tempers flared, endangering close personal ties that were, in the days before governments started to take more responsibility for people’s welfare, so important for individual survival. In this world of multiplying secrets and lies, religion helped maintain community, providing guides to conduct that went above and beyond the whims of people living in the world. So, a higher power could serve to moderate aberrant and capricious behaviour on the part of powerful men and women. It also provided a living vernacular of values that helped frame events, and make them manageable when they might otherwise seem arbitrary and confusing.

Two generations ago the gap between private and public realms was wider than it is now, and what de Courcy has done to illustrate this fact is stupefying in its broad remit. The depth of the undertaking is almost surreal in its focus on specifics, tiny scraps resuscitated from oblivion – words on pages kept for decades among family papers by one person or another – and given new life in a strong narrative. It’s a stunning memento of the 20th century, and remains – because of the direction in which that politics, in pluralistic democracies around the world, has veered in recent years – strikingly relevant in the 21st.

Perhaps de Courcy could see how things were likely to go, even as far back as the 1990s when, it is evident, she was working on her book. Nothing could have alerted her to 9/11, but possibly trends had begun to emerge in her world that were heralds for Donald Trump, or the conservative political leaders who have appeared in countries as diverse as Hungary and the Philippines.

While showing an aspect of British history that is rarely discerned, the book also allows us to examine what is valuable in its culture. Churchill’s concern for habeus corpus must be noted in respect of Tom, and it’s remarkable how the Curzon sisters’ early flirting with fascism failed to restrict their later access to society. During WWII Baba was close friends with a man who was the UK’s ambassador to the US, and Irene would go on to be elevated to the peerage on account of her many community activities. She was tireless in support of a wide range of causes (Baba would be awarded an OBE on account of her work for Save the Children, a major undertaking that occupied her time after the war). This ability of British society to accommodate diversity is quite striking, it seems to me, and if anything can serve as an emblem of the book, this is it.

Whatever gave de Courcy the idea to realise her vision, it is wonderful that she did so as it has allowed generations living now – and will allow those that are yet to be born – to examine in forensic detail aspects of a political movement central to the 20th century, that was born there, but that didn’t die.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

TV review: Shtisel, season 1, Netflix (2013)

This fresh lens was originally aired, like ‘Fauda’, by Israeli satellite TV network yes. It is different in many ways from another Netflix show dealing with the Hasidic community: ‘Unorthodox’. In fact ‘Shtisel’ is practically a situational comedy and is the reverse of the more recent program – I’ll explain this point later in my review. A woman living in Italy (see image below) found reason to compare the two shows and, though she is Muslim, ‘Shtisel’ was able to convey meaning to her in a positive way. The tweet could, of course, be a plant but I choose to view it as legitimate commentary.

The show runs to two seasons and at the beginning of season 1 focuses on a time in the life of Akiva Shtisel (Michael Aloni must be about 27 years old) when he is looking for a bride, but soon just as central to the drama is his father Shulem (Dov Glickman was, when the show was recorded, easily twice Aloni’s age). Because events are low-key and gentle, not high-toned and violent, there is plenty of opportunity to examine in detail such abstract concepts as the nature of ritual and faith and how they relate to the individual in his or her daily life. Jerusalem – where most of the drama is set – is, like the characters, shambolic and slightly raw. This quirky show is certainly different from most of what I have recently been watching on Netflix. People of faith – who make up the majority of the world’s population – can find in it interesting stories about things familiar to them. Many of them will follow other religions (as the tweet shown above demonstrates).

Each episode has a well-defined narrative arc and a theme or central idea and the endings are vigorous. Each day I’d watch one episode (timing it to run just before dinner so that I could catch ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ at 4.30pm on Network Ten). I loved how ep 7 ends, with Shulem walking out the school gate, an event that is timed to coincide with a solar eclipse; earlier in the ep he’d taught his students – primary school children, all aged about eight years – about the solar system. To do this he uses a device with the sun – a lamp that can be plugged in and switched on – sitting at the core and with the planets balls (set on metal arms) that can be rotated around it on an axis. The kids are entranced, and later, when he is talking at home with his son, Shulem will use the sun as a metaphor for manhood; they’re talking about Akiva’s romance with Elisheva Rotstein (Ayelet Zurer), a bank clerk.

Akiva is a talented artist but teaches on and off at the primary school where Elisheva’s son Israel (Yoav Sadian) is enrolled. The Jerusalem of ‘Shtisel’, unlike the New Jersey of ‘Unorthdox’, is a city that embraces difference, regardless of the strictures of religious observance. There’s a way for Akiva to turn his hand to profit outside the school, and to find a place to sleep when Shulem banishes him from their home.

In each episode there’s also gentle humour; something that might be treated with offhand casualness in another show – for example, something as simple as a pay-cheque discrepancy – might, in ‘Shtisel’, become (as it could do in real life) a major event that different characters not only must deal with, each in their own way, and that could change the direction of a person’s life. Like the axial pin of Shulem’s model of the solar system, sentimental concerns form the centre upon which everything is mounted – the show asks for example what it means to be a good man or woman – though other issues are addressed, such as how Jews are seen by the rest of the world. Once you start to ask such questions it suddenly has global significance because you reflect on historical links to parts of the drama. How Akiva’s sister Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin) earns a living, when her husband Lippe (Zohar Shtrauss) goes AWOL in Argentina, draws your attention to questions that have been asked – often in ugly ways – for centuries, and money appears as an element in such plot devices as wedding planning involving Shulem and the father of Akiva’s betrothed Estee Gotlieb (Moon Shavit).

Israel incorporates (at least) two distinct communities – the Hasidic and the secular – and how they bounce off one another demonstrates the value of diversity. The religious community might actively discourage the watching of TV shows – Grandmother Malka’s (Hanna Rieber) son and grandson regret that her favourite TV program is ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ – but surely there’s little difference between a story of the Old Testament and an American soap opera …? Both use characters to achieve dramatic effects in order to move people’s imaginations, both use a language – visual or textual – and both give meaning to people’s lives. And the joy! The way that someone like Shulem – who doesn’t use the internet, who has no TV at home, who expects to arrange a marriage for his grown-up son – thinks and feels turns out to be comprehensible to a secularist who lives in a pluralistic democracy like Australia.

This complex and intelligent production provides context for discussions being held in the public sphere, and can have wide appeal.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Movie review: Okja, dir Bong Joon-ho (2017)

If you are vegan, this movie will press all the right buttons. If, like me, you eat meat, it can still be rewarding as the filmmakers are wise to the dynamics of an often acrimonious debate being carried out in the public sphere. This London-based individual liked the film:

For some, this kind of product speaks to who they are. In an ongoing discussion about what kind of food people should eat, many argue that eating meat is ethically questionable (some would put the proposition more forcefully than that, and say it is criminal). The term “factory farming” is used a lot by different people, and ‘Okja’ certainly exploits this notion with a degree of vigour.

Whatever your views, the movie is worth spending time with, if for no other reason than because it gives you the opportunity to see some fine special effects. Okja is a sentient, giant pig-like creature living in the Korean forest with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of a man (Byun Hee-bong) ostensibly chosen by the fictional Mirando Corporation to raise the beast. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a flamboyant TV personality and naturalist named Johnny Wilcox who comes to Mija’s house, when she’s a teenager, with a video team and handlers – including, of course, a translator. When Okja is taken away, Mija is devastated, and so begins her journey.

Apart from Gyllenhaal, who helps develop that part of the movie that is about the difference between East and West, Tilda Swinton is fine as Lucy Mirando, the head of the eponymous company, and Giancarlo Esposito is very fine as an employee named Frank Dawson. These three characters are matched in their Swiftian cast by Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of a shadowy group of vigilantes – or, if you prefer, troublemakers – named the Animal Liberation Front. Jay and his team are ethically minded, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, so the laughs fall seemingly at random.

The way that Johnny Wilcox comes across – loud, superficial, brash, and weak – comically plays with Asian stereotypes of Westerners and how Mija and her grandfather are imagined by the filmmakers is emblematic of a mostly forgotten idea that modernity is alien and inauthentic in an Asian context. Bong also wrote much of the screenplay so his vision is behind the filmmakers’ archaeological effort to celebrate an antique notion of the holiness of the ordinary, harking back to a kind of animism – used even today in a Japanese religion called Shinto – that appears to have been abandoned (but that, in fact, lives on in subtle ways; living in Tokyo today is not the same as living, say, in Sydney). The remote fastness, at the top of a mountain, as a site for the getting of wisdom, is ancient in such countries as China. In fact, ‘Okja’ would’ve appealed to many people living in a country like China or Japan in the first half of the 20th century. But this toying with stale tropes, ideas that embody such feelings as intolerance and shame, is made reasonable because of the humour used in the conveyance. Nevertheless, Bong is saying, we can learn something valuable about the past if we take seriously our own search for authenticity, and don’t just use it – as Mirando and Dawson do – as a mere marketing gimmick. Mija is different not just because she doesn’t speak English very well; her character is also expressed in how she uses objects.

Swinton and Gyllenhall and Dano might be mere foils for her authenticity, but though Bong laughs, at the same time, at himself, he takes his method to an extreme by inaccurately depicting genetic modification (GM). His vision is much the same as what Margaret Atwood used for ‘Oryx and Crake’ (2003). Atwood’s vision of the future includes a type of animal called a “pigoon” – a cross between a pig and a raccoon – that has, unlike Okja, a mean streak. In reality, GM is nothing like this and nowadays is used to develop new varieties of plants. In any case, a scientific form of animal husbandry is older than history; humans have been engineering animal forms for as long as agriculture (which some say started 12,000 years ago) has existed.

Bong needs his ideas to work in harmony within the confines of the artwork, so in the context of this review these are quibbles. But the problem of food bullying is real, as Michele Payne, an Indiana resident who writes about food, showed on 20 May at 5.01am Australian Eastern Standard Time, tweeting: “Is it OK to shame people about their eating choices if it's not socially acceptable to shame people on race, religion or sexual orientation?” Payne is vocal in this regard, and others on Twitter are equally vocal in their support of lifestyles that eschew the eating of meat. The debate continues and Bong’s movie is unmistakeably part of it. The movie didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on Tahsin Upa – whose tweet sits at the top of this review – as it felt like I was being manipulated by filmmakers wanting to make a political point. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

Book review: The Flood, J.M.G. Le Clezio (1967)

I bought it at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney University probably in 2009, the year after the author won the Novel Prize in Literature. The recommended retail price was $24.95 but I paid $22.70 as I was a member of the co-operative, which has recently been taken over by a private company. Things change. In 2009 I was still working at the university and I would, in March, leave my employ there and start out as a freelance journalist.

When the book was translated, it had only just come out in French so presumably that release had been met with some success. If it hadn’t been successful in French, one would guess, it wouldn’t have been so quickly translated into English. (If that isn’t confusing enough, in 2009 I read part of ‘The Flood’ but, for some reason, didn’t complete it.)

This isn’t the only reason why there was something familiar about Le Clezio’s prose when I started to read the first chapter – the first 43 pages contain a preamble. I wrote something like it (though not as penetrating in its insights) a couple of years ago, when I made a post about lying in bed. In fact, that post would eventually result in the “dream journal” series on this blog, which I have kept up as there’s a steady supply of content due to the fact that (surprise!) I go to sleep every night and when I do I usually dream. Sleep is a blessing and so, to me, are my dream journals.

Le Clezio’s preamble astonishes. Very little “happens” in the conventional sense of character and action, but there is an almost infinite quantity of signification conveyed in such simple constructs as someone contemplating a discarded cigarette packet in the roadway, or a girl riding a bicycle down the street. Once you start on the main narrative, you will find similar efflorescences of meaning. Startling eructations of visual data combine with the semantics of sentiment – the way that the external world impinges on your consciousness and is processed by the isolated brain encased, as it is, in bone and skin – forming a mesmeric world within which the reader bathes, like a pilgrim at the Jordan River’s stony verge, to the sound of a chorus: a polyphony appears in tandem with such “as found” artefacts as a transcript of a taped missive, writings in a child’s notebook, and an extract from a publication. This aspect of the novel marks it out as topical; Brutalism had been born in England a decade earlier, an aesthetic response to Modernity with a similar relationship in respect of the world.

A multiplex authorial voice suggests a healthy relationship, on the part of the author, with the Other. Where Brutalism sought to position itself as an ethical alternative, for those operating as architects and engineers – as a more authentic relationship with the world might be possible through the use of materials “as found” – Le Clezio is reaching back to such luminaries as Rimbaud and Proust and Joyce in order to furnish himself with models in order to formulate, in text, an analogue for the individual’s existence in the world. A mark of his success is evident when Francois Besson, the novel’s protagonist, buys a newspaper at a kiosk and it’s as though you were like seeing the world afresh – for the first time!

Authors of experimental novels use what has gone before but approach the problem of rendering subjectivity in their own fashion. The problem with consciousness is that, like physics at the quantum scale, the mere act of observing thoughts changes their trajectory. You have to approach them unawares, stealthily, like wildlife stalked in a forest or on a savannah, if you want to see them as they really are. While textual renditions of consciousness must be literary in nature, rather than mere reflections of reality – how can you show something that exists only as electrochemical pulses along microscopic filaments on a mental loom? – in order to produce something like ‘The Flood’ you, as the author, must be in a habit of observing the world in a certain way. You have to open yourself up to your emotions and link them to objects and people and places around you, though what you end up making cannot, in a pure case, be an unmediated reflection of the world, as a face is reflected in a mirror.

Le Clezio, I think, manages to come close to rendering the mind’s flow in the continuity of the world’s being. People often talk about mindfulness. On 17 May for example I saw one person, a woman named Elaine Helm, who is in marketing and who lives in Seattle, take a stab at starting up a conversation. At 3.30am Australian Eastern Standard Time she tweeted: “My favorite mindful activities are active ones. What do you do to practice noticing your thoughts, feelings, and things around you without distractions?” Such people should read Le Clezio’s stunning novel of ideas.

I’m pretty sure that after reading Le Clezio’s book you will view the world with new eyes. If nothing else, reading it gave me a sense of myself in the world. When Besson walks out on a mole in a storm or when he talks with a blind beggar you understand that the world is large and that, in a profound way, we are connected with all things, including other people. The scope of the book is as vast as the author’s ambition. He tries to come to grips not just – stylistically – with the problem of perception and how to render reality as text, but also with such eternal concerns as eternity, the pursuit of meaning, and death.

A suicide lies at the heart of the drama that unfolds as Besson walks around town or travels into the countryside, but you are confronted with even larger themes, things that you might never have thought it even possible to contemplate. Even the existence of the subjective self is questioned by the startling prose Le Clezio produces in order to offer a meeting of minds, halfway down the tunnel – of the book.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Movie review: Icarus, dir Bryan Fogel (2017)

This film about doping in sport won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, so it comes well recommended and can appeal to a wide range of people. There’s not an awful lot of chatter about the movie on Twitter, though I did find this from a person named Lee (with no indication on his profile as to where he lives):

The story starts when Fogel asks an American doping expert to help him improve his performance in advance of a gruelling bicycle road race. Fogel has had one go at the Haute Route – he doesn’t say which one, using the name of a series of races to stand in for one of them – and came 14th in the raking at the end of it. Now, he wants to improve his ranking at another Haute Route. In the event the Californian decides not to help Fogel achieve his goal, instead referring him to someone known to him by the name of Grigory Rodchenkov, who works at a lab in Moscow that provides testing services for athletes.

Rodchenkov starts to give Fogel advice on how to dope – which includes injecting substances into his thigh and buttocks – and Fogel gets advice, at this stage in the process, from a clinic in the US. But since, in order to compete, you must prove you are clean, he is taking urine samples, under Rodchenkov’s tutelage, and freezing them. The question then arises: where to get them tested? This is where things start to spiral out of control. What happens next will open up a pandora’s box and unleash forces that Fogel could never have imagined might have an interest in his bike race, or in his life.

To strengthen the points the movie wants to make about corruption, Fogel puts Rodchenkov on camera reading extracts from George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ (1949). Rodchenkov’s history of depression and his bookishness compound the mystery embodied in the narrative. Some aspects of the drama have a veil drawn over them but even if the story seems incredible it is a compelling watch.

The film’s soundtrack is really interesting, adding impact at carefully chosen points. The editing is crisp and efficient, but it’s a bit hard to read subtitles as well as on-screen labels – the name straps used to identify a person being interviewed in front of the camera – so you need to pay close attention. Parts of the film are in foreign languages as media reports are used from time to time, and they originated in a number of different countries. There are also parts that are spoken in Russian by people close to the story, for example those who appear on Skype.

Stories continue to emerge in the public sphere that touch on the same points as are dealt with here. For many, sport must no longer be worth the time needed to watch.