Friday 31 January 2020

Movie review: Shazam! dir David F Sandberg (2019)

This is an interesting family film that exploits common superhero tropes but the standout performances for me were by Faith Herman as a little girl named Darla and Jack Dylan Grazer as a 14-year-old boy named Freddy.

The backstory is a bit tiresome but once all the standard superhero stuff has been discounted as superstructure what remains to communicate messages is a good script that values diversity and underscores the importance of close personal relationships. I liked the snappy dialogue, much of which is tuned to a frequency that teenagers will grok. Even though the superhero Shazam (Zachary Levi) is powerful and tall, he thinks like a 14-year-old and so you get plenty of goofball jokes and humorous references to such mysteries of adulthood as intoxication and sex.

This movie, which I saw on Netflix, is the film for the YouTube generation. It starts slowly and in the early stages there is a good deal of material that has to be gotten through in order to set up the predictable conflict. In fact the charm of this movie is in the conversations.

I liked the way that this movie plays with such ideas as adulthood and responsibility, and I liked how it doesn’t flatter people. In fact, it’s starkly realistic. Good work.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Movie review: Assassin’s Creed, dir Justin Kurzel (2016)

This is a very good movie even though the history it uses to spin the yarn is shaky at best. Righteous gamer bros – the film was adapted from a video game – might be advised to rely on other sources for their facts.

In a nutshell the story driving this oddball action flic is intriguing and the critical and financial reception the movie received is strange; I think it should have done much better than it did. It demonstrates considerable imagination but this might be its weakness: as it doesn’t chime with conventional stories the grounding narrative was possibly a bit too much for people to get their heads around.

The movie is a kind of amalgam between ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Kill Bill’ and is typical of thrillers in that it relies on technology to furnish many of the plot devices the narrative relies on to move forward. Much of the movie is shot in a building (or buildings) that is supposed to represent a high-tech research facility in Spain, and the use of a modern-day supranational organisation (the Knights Templar) to provide dramatic momentum is not unusual; many films of this kind need a kind of main force embodied in such an organisation to provide dramatic form for their narratives.

In the film, the hero (named Cal Lynch) is played by Michael Fassbender as is the historical figure of Aguilar whose experience he lives through the agency of a machine called the Animus. He does a good job with a difficult script; the story is hard to follow and I won’t go into details here. Suffice to say that it hinges on securing possession of the “Apple of Eden”, which the Templars crave in order to abolish violence and to maintain order, so the film is a classic outsider’s take, much in the same way that the story of the Illuminati provides some people with a way to find meaning in their lives. Anti-Semites drink at the same pool.

The beauty of this film is the way it melds history and technology. I haven’t seen this kind of solution to the problem of adding drama to a fantasy film since 2009’s ‘Avatar’, though ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is without doubt the superior product. I recommend this movie for people who like action and who like scifi. For those, like me, who are interested in foreign cultures and in history, unique cognitive reverberations are made available watching this film. Great fun; seen on Netflix.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Movie review: Red 2, dir Dean Parisot (2013)

The best thing about this action comedy is Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah Ross, the love interest of the Bruce Willis character, former intelligence operative Frank Moses. Sarah is funny and whimsical, characteristics you don’t usually match with spy movies or action flics. Parker’s eye rolls, grimaces, lip-twistings, and deadpan delivery of solid one-liners do a lot of work in the face of a good deal of unimaginative stuff that is packaged as thriller material.

Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the lethal functionary of an uncaring US administration, is as boring and predictable as an umbrella in a rainshower, but Anthony Hopkins as the villain Bailey, Helen Mirren as the gun-toting Victoria and John Malkovich as Marvin do good work highlighting the way that such movies exploit common tropes for effect.

Having said that, the madness trope Mirren and Hopkins play with is somewhat overused. You’re often left to decide, watching this movie, whether you should barrack for your side or groan at another use of a tired line or a stagey plot device. Perhaps you are meant to do both.

Parker manages to keep the viewer engrossed for the duration by being prone to kissing random men and by dint of her poignant jealousy. There’s something of Goldie Hawn about Parker in this film, a fey, wise, and hilarious woman who loves strongly and who keeps her head on her shoulders while the rest of the world goes mad. Seen on Netflix.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Exhibition review: Japan Supernatural, Art Gallery of NSW

What a fantastic exhibition this is, one that brings together pieces from a range of different places including galleries in Australia (AGNSW, NGV), the National Library, and a gallery in Minneapolis, among others.

The show runs for a while (2 Nov 2019 to 8 March 2020) so there is still plenty of time to go and see it yet. Attendance when I went – mid-afternoon on a January weekday – was solid and if these numbers are repeated across the entire period you’d have to say that it has brought dividends to the gallery that put the show on.

The catalogue contains a lot of useful information, so I would recommend buying it if you can. A good preface by Mami Kataoka provides a guide to the influence of Buddhism on Japan, especially as it relates to traditional Shinto practices. Kataoka contrasts the “old Shinto” practice of revering living things with the practice, once Buddhism entered the archipelago in the 7th century, of revering also such things as rivers and trees.

For the Japanese the link between the physical world and the supernatural is special and, while the Japanese are determinedly secular in their outlook they are also notably superstitious. The real-supernatural dichotomy is evident in such cultural products as the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, the animation master, and the novels of Haruki Murakami (in his latest novel, which I reviewed here about a year ago, there is a special place in the narrative for a Subaru Forester car).  This focus on the physical world, despite the apparently magical influence of spirits or ghosts, is something different about Japanese culture though, I suspect, the same ideas are present in Chinese culture as well (“zen Buddhism” means, after all, “Chinese Buddhism”).

There is so much good stuff in this exhibition and you will want to go back to see the items viewed on the day of your visit, so do buy the catalogue. The reproductions are very high-quality and the essays are solid and illuminating.

In the catalogue I couldn’t find the reference for the painting where the detail above comes from, but this is a mother and child.

Above and below: Details from Itoya Hiroharu’s ‘Night Procession of the Hundred Demons’, c1860.

Above: Detail from Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi’s ‘Miyamoto Musashi and the Exorcism of the Evil Fox of Princess Osakabe’, 1863.

Above: Detail from Takashi Murakami’s ‘In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow’, 2014.

Above: Takashi Murakami, ‘The Embodiment of “Um”’, 2014.

In addition to the items shown here, for me a standout part of the show was the photos of Miwa Yanagi. The ‘Fairy Tale’ series she made in 2004 is just outstanding.

Monday 27 January 2020

TV review: Lost in Space, season 1, Netflix (2018)

Presumably the makers of this series thought they needed all the help they could get going by the tired tropes employed to keep the viewer’s interest in episode 7 (an escape by chariot through a field explosive with seismic events) and in episode 9 (blind, winged reptiles). Without Dr Smith (Parker Posey) these episodes would have been far less attractive.

Smith is a minstrel and a magician who, posing as a psychologist, tricks people into doing what she wants. I found her conception to be fabulous and Posey does a good job of walking a fine line between despicable and annoying. The long format this Netflix series is packaged in allows for solid character development and there are also good performances by Taylor Russell as Judy Robinson and Mina Sundwall as Penny Robinson.

As well as Posey, spice is added to a dour mix by Ignacio Serricchio as ship mechanic Don West, who flirts with Judy, a doctor. Romantic interest in Penny’s orbit is provided by Vijay (Ajay Friese), the son of mission commander Victor Dhar (Raza Jaffrey). Victor runs a moderate line in unimaginative selfishness that doesn’t rival Dr Smith’s positive evil, but that acts as a kind of foil for it. West is right when he says at one point that people take their problems with them wherever they venture. It is a wise comment to keep in mind when watching this series.

Both of the Robinson girls are interesting in their own ways and both help to keep things ticking over but sometimes the long format detracts from the charm of the production. I have already mentioned two low points, but from what I can see the only blessing deriving from the long format is the extra time available to build character.

The directors and writers try to make each scene count but it’s not always possible to achieve this aim; some scenes appear to do nothing other than provide the filmmakers with an opportunity to build suspense by allowing the viewer to contemplate the vastness of space, the beauty of the planet the migrants find themselves on, or else to create a sense of fear at the contingent nature of existence. I wonder if future generations will laud this as great art; I suspect they won’t.

This series has a lot in common with TV soap operas. Not that there’s necessarily anything to sniff at when it comes to soaps. I’ve been watching and enjoying ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’, for example. The way that soapies use close-ups to add relevance to otherwise dead scenes has a lot to recommend it, and the makers of ‘Lost in Space’ have clearly taken a leaf out of the book of the commercial television scriptwriter.

The weaker episodes of this intergalactic drama seemed to me to be the ones directed by Tim Southern, who appears to like odd critters and splodey bits. What the whole edifice is all meant to be in aid of, I’m not sure, but perhaps season 2 will provide more answers.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Bookbuying: 2MBS FM Book & CD Fair, Australia Day weekend

I saw the email from the radio station on 9 January and marked the date in my calendar. On Saturday with a printed map made with Google Maps I drove off, heading to Crows Nest. I turned off the Pacific Highway into Albany Street then headed south on Alexander Street and found a parking spot, paid for it (about $11) and wandered off with my rucksack looking for the site.

I found it eventually with the help of the same app. It was tucked around in the local community centre off a pedestrian mall. The books were mostly classified in categories so it was easy to find things to buy. For $62 I snagged 13 gems:
  • L.P. Hartley, ‘The Go-Between’ (1953)
  • Graham Greene, ‘The Quiet American’ (1955)
  • Peter Hopkirk, ‘Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia’ (1984)
  • Bruce Porter, ‘Blow’ (1993)
  • Ahmet Altan, ‘Like a Sword Wound’ (1997)
  • Peter Robb, ‘M’ (1998)
  • Edmund White, ‘My Lives’ (2005)
  • Orhan Pamuk, ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ (2005)
  • Ali Abunimah, ‘One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse’ (2006)
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Buried Giant’ (2015)
  • Mark Brandi, ‘Wimmera’ (2017)
  • Cyril Wong, editor, ‘Best New Singaporean Short Stories, Volume Three’ (2017)
  • David Bowman, ‘Big Bang’ (2019)

Saturday 25 January 2020

Flashback: Bridge 9340 collapse and GFC

The following photos were taken with a Canon PowerShot A530 digital camera on 2 August 2007 between 5.54pm and 6.09pm. They show the Australian TV news coverage of the collapse of Bridge 9340 in Minnesota, spanning the Mississippi River on Interstate Highway 35W. Thirteen Americans died in the incident.

The final few shots show what went with news coverage on that day of the stock market. Markets collapsed a couple of months later, and the downswing that followed took a year, during which time Standard & Poor’s ASX 200 securities index lost about 50 percent of its value. Long-term, that event was a blip.

Friday 24 January 2020

Movie review: Jack Reacher, dir Christopher McQuarrie (2012)

McQuarrie worked with Tom Cruise again, in two ‘Mission: Impossible’ films, one that was released in 2018 and one that was released in 2015. Neither ‘Fallout’ nor ‘Rogue Nation’ was very good in terms of characterisation and the plots were supported in both cases by intricate backstories that were hard to put together. I wasn’t overly impressed by either of them and the film I review this time sits in the same category.

‘Jack Reacher’, based on a 2005 novel by Lee Child titled ‘One Shot’, also has a complex backstory but the plot is well-crafted although the most prominent sentiment is a bit cloying. Tight relationships – father and daughter, those made between soldiers in the army – help to outline the main character, a retired military policeman living off a pension, who doesn’t own a car. Reacher turns up in Pittsburgh only after seeing on TV the face and name of a purported killer but he is actually named by this man when the cops talk with the man after his arrest.

When Reacher starts to doubt the story the police have assembled from the evidence left at the spot where a sniper stood, he is attacked outside a bar and (predictably) kicks some butt, but the experience makes him doubt more. He was initially asked to cooperate on the case by Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the accused’s defence attorney who is also the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins).

The irrational appears to triumph over the rational in this film, though the plot paradoxically turns on the investigative powers Reacher brings to bear on the facts in the case. The more he learns the more questions he asks and this tired fictional trope clunks away dutifully to the end of the film without relief for the audience. Cruise runs a sharp line of humour in many of the films he appears in but this tactic wasn’t used for this one, which is probably due to what I assumed to be the dour tone of the book it’s based on; injustice is the main subject.

In fact the story has the feel of an 80s police procedural, from the use of papers in the glovebox of a car to the kinds of hokey conversations Reacher holds with various people, including the manager of a shooting range named Cash (Robert Duvall) who takes a shine to the hero. And the staging and camera work fits the bill. It all falls together beautifully.

For me A standout performance was that given by Alexia Fast, who does a very good job as a young local Pittsburgh woman named Sandy. I liked the hardboiled writing behind her character, and the way she makes you believe she is who she is. Her role in the story adds something extra to her nuanced performance, which is at the same time playful and dark.

In the end I wasn’t blown away by this film, which I watched on Netflix, and this surprised me given how successful Child is. I have tried to read one of this Englishman’s books but I didn’t get very far. 

Thursday 23 January 2020

Conversations with taxi drivers: Thirteen

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts relaying conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

9 December

Caught a cab from Glebe to home. I had left my Aurion sedan to be serviced. The dealership called the cab for me, and it was Taxis Combined Services the woman at the service desk phoned; I use them myself when I need to call a cab.

The cab arrived in the service bay and she told me it was there, so I stood up from the table I was sitting at – reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph – walked out of the lounge, and got in the car. The driver did a three-point turn and a staffer directed traffic to help us get to the street.

Once we were there, I asked about his car which was, as is usual with Sydney cabs, a Toyota Camry hybrid. The cabbie and I talked about hybrids. I said that I had seen the first hybrid model, a Prius, in 1997 when I was working in Tokyo.

Does a Camry hybrid have enough power? I asked. He said it is not that powerful, and I said that was my concern. My car is a 3.5-litre six-cylinder sedan and I wanted to get a new car, so I was looking at the Camry, but all the hybrid models on offer from Toyota have four cylinders. The guy in the service bay had told me, when I had arrived, that the six-cylinder Camry was probably going to come out in a hybrid version. When, on another day, I went to the showroom, a salesman told me that no such model was planned.

The cabbie said, when we were driving next to Wentworth Park, that scientists are always tinkering in their labs trying to come up with new technologies and later, when we were next to the Fish Market, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I am a journalist and we talked about the public sphere for a while. He asked me how the business had changed since the arrival of the internet and I mentioned the fact that anyone can publish these days, that the barriers to entry are vanishingly low, and that this had dramatically altered the dynamic between politicians and the public.

As had the appearance of social media, I went on. The time between a government announcement and the appearance of the community response is so short now that the public sphere is, I said, very different from how it was a generation ago.

He said that being a journalist is “elegant” and we talked on this subject for a while, with me mentioning that, collectively, politicians and journalists are not held in high esteem by the community. He said that people will always find things to criticise, and I heartily agreed with him. “It doesn’t matter what you say, someone will find a way to criticise you,” I said. Earlier I had mentioned the extreme polarisation of the community and now he said that people are always complaining.

When we got to my street I showed him where to stop and then paid using EFTPOS. I got out of his car then went up in the lift to my apartment.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Movie review: John Wick: Chapter 2, dir Chad Stahelski (2017)

This was the second movie I watched on Netflix in one day, and I ended the session just before bedtime. After dinner I had selected an action movie because I like the ways such movies find solutions to the problem of plotting and also how, to progress the drama, they use violence often, as with this movie, in highly stylised forms.

This movie is so extremely violent (though not at all scary; I won’t watch horror) that the problem of gun use in the United States became relevant once the credits ran. Even earlier. Keanu Reeves (who plays the eponymous character) is known for his sensitive acting and in real life he is a charming and considerate person, so you wonder why he agrees to work on movies such as this where a person dies every half-second, in some parts.

The opening sequence, which involves Wick retrieving his car from a warehouse and ends with the death of a Russian mobster, is like a distillation of the fear the filmmakers must have had about making something that will desensitise some viewers to the awfulness of gun violence. This part of the film is hackneyed and trite – quite unlike the artful scenes deployed in other parts of the product – and thus could have been intended as an antidote to the risk inherent in making it. “If you believe this film is real,” the filmmakers seem to be saying, “have a look at this bit.”

The bad writing here downplays, in opposition to the ‘John Wick’ films, the run-of-the-mill action flic, and privileges what you are about to see. The sequence is entirely contrived and not only unbelievable but embodies in a nutshell the kind of artificial glamour that, in order to entertain, such movies retail in. Nevertheless this film feels, in parts, like a first-person shooter video game where you are Wick and the zombies are the mobsters and assassins trying to gun you down. The community’s appetite for this kind of movie seems to be endless, and so the way it ends is unsurprising.

Between the scene with the Russian and the closing credits there is however a lot of material. It’s not a long film but it’s got several twists in it, so as soon as you think the movie is about to end a new plotline begins to draw you into the drama. And it’s an interesting dynamic, one filled with wealth, privilege and the feeling that you are witnessing events that only happen to the chosen few. This must be how people living in developing economies feel when they see Hollywood movies in their local cinemas in Cairo or Mombasa.

One plot device the writer uses to keep things ticking over is a clearing house for executive decisions. This place is deliberately old-school, a place where tattooed women (some young, some not young at all) receive orders by telephone – the old, Bakelite or plastic models that people alive today have either never used or last used when they were much younger than they are now – which are then distributed to a list of stored phone numbers belonging to people in the community.

One person who gets the SMS might be a busker, another might be a homeless person sitting on the pavement. As they read the messages they might look up to see, walking past, a man or woman who has just had a contract put on their head. It’s actually a good metaphor for clinical types of paranoia and embodies the sense that many people have of a distant and all-powerful elite who manage the levers of society for their own gain. The number of people in real life who believe such things is surprisingly large.

But there is a disconnect between this idea – that the entire population is witting to a conspiracy – and the idea of privilege that other parts of the movie embody. It’s a curious movie that stands up on its own two feet and is worth watching (unless you are a disaffected young American with an AR15 and a grudge). The disjunction between one idea (universal access to information) and another (a tiny elite) is, I think, where the core of this movie lies but someone with more space to fill is going to have to write that essay. 

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Using Netflix: A first glance

Login is badly designed but it’s true that I’m often grumpy and quick to make decisions without thinking too deeply about what I’m doing. I’m also typically inept when it comes to technology, especially what is delivered online. Early on Saturday morning it took me a good 30 minutes to subscribe to Netflix (easy enough) and to log in (a nightmare), including a live chat.

Getting a plan was quick and I completed this part of the process in about two minutes. I chose three films, two of which I had already watched and (somewhat) enjoyed, in order (as requested) to give the company an idea of my viewing preferences. These were ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (2018, dir Jon M Chu), ‘Aquaman’ (2018, dir James Wan), and ‘The Irishman’ (2019, dir Martin Scorsese; I hadn’t seen this but had wanted to see it).

Once set up at my PC I went to the TV and turned it on. I then selected “Netflix” in the top-level menu shown after you press the power button on the TV’s remote control. Once I had done that I was confronted by an interface in Japanese as my daughter had been the person who had viewed Netflix on this device. So I had to scroll through the controls with my poor Japanese (I had never really learned to read the language despite living there for many years) to find the place where you log out.

After a few false starts I got there eventually, but then when I pressed the button to log in I was unable to change the email address used for this procedure. The password field was blank and there was a keyboard on the screen to use to punch mine in, but there was no way to change the login email address from my daughter’s email address to mine.

Frustrated, I went back to the PC and fired up live chat. The person who replied asked me the problem and I explained. He then got me to give him my TV’s model number (later he would ask me for the year of manufacture) but he didn’t seem to understand how to solve the problem, so I went back to the TV and clicked on “Reset my password”.

The TV said I should enter my email address so that a password resent link could be sent to me, so I dutifully plugged this information into the interface. Below this was a button saying “Confirm” but there wasn’t any other instruction so I just went back to my PC and refreshed the email client software using the “Send/Receive” button. I did this several times while telling the staffer what I had done and complaining that no email was forthcoming. When this had gone on for a couple of minutes, I went back to the TV and hit “Confirm”. Dragging my sorry carcass back to the PC, I refreshed the email client software several more times.

Then, after a lag, three emails arrived from the company, one of which had a link to reset the password. Using this I navigated to a web page, put in a new password, and moved back to the TV, where I plugged it into the interface.

I got in but would have to say the process was unnecessarily complex for a service that wants to get and keep subscribers. To prove that the company can do things well if it wants to, the emails they send are complete and attentive. Here’s what the email said that was sent after I added a phone number to my profile:
We've added your phone number ending in [redacted] to your account, as you asked. Your phone number will be used if you forget your password and for important account messages. 
This is very encouraging and as it should be. It’s absolutely what you would expect from a service of this kind as it adequately fulfills a real need. When I changed my password, the email I received said:
We’ve changed your password, as you asked. To view or change your account information, visit your account.  
If you did not ask to change your password, we are here to help secure your account; just contact us. 
Again, this is exactly what I would have expected to see. Why logging in was so difficult was harder to compute. I had had problems with my digital newspaper subscription but only while overseas (logging in via my iPhone required a bit of effort). It felt odd to be stymied at every turn in my own living room.

Once I got the thing working, however, I enjoyed the tailored home page where you can browse by type of program. The interface tells you what kind of program it is you are focused on. It might be a movie; if so, you see the runtime in the first line of the description. It might be a TV series; if so, you see how many seasons it ran for (Netflix seasons seem to have 10 episodes). Most episodes in a TV series seem to last about one hour. Some TV series are limited and others run for several seasons.

This sort of information helps you plan your time. If you have three hours to kill you might want to watch a feature film. If you only have an hour, you can select an episode from a TV series. Such information is available simply by moving focus to a displayed item – each item has an image, in the same way that, in the old days, video cases had a picture on the front – and part of the screen area is reserved for the display of descriptive data relating to the item in focus. Changing focus by pressing an arrow button on the remote control lets you see information for a different item.

Once an episode of a TV series has ended the next one begins to load, so if you want to exit you have to first press the “Stop” button. On your home page, the next time you log in, you can see TV series of which you have watched a few episodes, and if you click on the same item the next ep is set in a prompt, so you can immediately begin watching it. The database remembers what you have seen, therefore, and this is convenient.

Classification (“Action and adventure”, “TV series” etcetera) allows you to browse for new material on the basis of the image and description I’ve described. If you want to see what kind of material is available behind one of these icons, you simply use the remote arrow button to bring it into focus and you can see, at the top of the screen, an item’s description. You press the “Enter” button to select it or scroll with the remote to bring another item into focus. If you select an item, you still have to hit “Enter” at the next screen to start watching it.

You can add movies and TV shows to My List on the home page by clicking on an item when it is in focus, and scrolling to and clicking on “Add to my list”. To remove from the list titled “Continue watching” (also on the home page) movies you have started but didn’t finish (and don’t want to watch more of) you can go to the Netflix page on the web and, after logging in, visit the “Account” page. There, a YouTube video told me, you can see a page full of your viewing history. If you click on the icon to the right of the movie you want to unlist, it will be removed from the list on your TV after 24 hours.

One weakness is how Netflix needs to connect to the internet at the start of a session. You see a rotating circle, incomplete in parts, much as you see something with MS-Windows when it is updating software or logging out at the end of the day. This “busy” symbol is the same as you find on your PC. If the TV cannot find the server it is trying to access you get a dialog that allows you to retry. On one occasion I had to click on the “Retry” button to get access to the database. On another occasion, as a storm passed over the city, Netflix and Amazon Prime (which I signed up for yesterday) wouldn’t let me watch a movie. Then Netflix wouldn’t even show the home screen. Then I watched an episode of a TV series on Prime and went to bed. The next morning both were working fine.

After you have finished a Netflix session, you press the “Exit” button to go back to the TV’s main menu and, from there, you can go to Prime  or to free-to-view TV such as the ABC News channel. Snacking TV is best with free-to-view because you don’t have to commit a large chunk of time. There are some things that are good about the past, so if you have 15 minutes free you might view 15 minutes of a Netflix ep or, more likely in my case, I will just scroll through the channels available on free-to-view until I find a channel that doesn’t have an annoying ad for Ole or Trivago.

Ads are beautiful things and they tell you about community standards, but with excessive repetition they pall. I do, as a general rule, like ads for cars and furniture but ads for other types of products can also be good. Production quality is usually high, although I don’t much like the demonstration segments on the morning shows, and ads often have music which, even with the voiceovers and the sales pitch, can be enjoyable. At 30 seconds they are not unbearable and you can wait out the pain. Occasionally you are shown something useful, like an ad for a retail sale, and car ads are fun because they let me understand how each manufacturer is positioning itself in the market (I just put in an order for a new Toyota).

I get similar information driving. I see a Japanese SUV – we used to call them 4-wheel drives, but that moniker is not always accurate as not all of them, I have learned, have all-wheel powertrains – and I mentally note the brand and model, toting up numbers in my head to gauge which are popular.

So, ads are not always remote from personal experience, although I’m bored to tears by those for a Network Ten reality TV show that is currently on. My free-to-view routine has me watching Channel Nine in the mornings and Network Ten in the evenings. In the middle of the day I channel-surf but, now that I’ve got Netflix, I don’t have to resort to Seinfeld reruns (not that that’s such a bad thing …). At 4.30pm weekdays, though, I’ll still be watching ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’.

Monday 20 January 2020

Movie review: The Irishman, dir Martin Scorsese (2019)

It’s very odd because I saw this on Netflix a month after reading a novel that covers similar ground. There’s even a nod to Mailer in the film, when Frank Sheeran is watching E Howard Hunt and Modene Murphy on TV as they sit in a Congressional hearing, JFK’s and Frank Giancana’s girlfriend seated among the spectators with Hunt, a CIA operative and a novelist, asking questions.

The length of Scorsese’s film mirrors the length of Mailer’s novel (at 1400 pages, the book rivals the film’s three hours and twenty minutes), so right there is another echo. A challenge absent in the novel but present for the filmmakers, is to make their actors credible for the whole period covered by the chronology – from the 1940s to the 1990s – so a good deal of the effort needed to sustain the film’s gravitas is due to makeup artists and the prosthetics department.

While the CIA sits at the core of Norman Mailer’s novel, at the centre of the film is the Mob for which the Irishman of the title works (initially) as a hitman and dogsbody. The entire film is focalised through Frank’s character. Robert De Niro plays him with panache, his wistful eyes and crooked, tense smile communicating some of the pathos inherent in the story of his life. Also good are Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, the unionist, and Joe Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino.

With its reliance on the idea of loyalty this is largely a movie about men, but women are not entirely absent. Lucy Gallina does a good job playing Sheeran’s daughter Peggy when she is a girl. She is a foil for his hubris and, like a ghost, Anna Paquin, who plays Peggy as a young woman, haunts the finale.

It’s an historical drama that uses the life of Hoffa to furnish it with plot devices. Hoffa’s disappearance forms a major point of articulation for the entire film, which is also an homage to Tarantino. Plenty of clever-but-plain shooting and also evocative dialogue of a type made popular by ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).

The cinematography is very good, with the director getting the camera to interrogate space with long panning and tracking shots, some of which involve a 180-degree turn. This movement, or looping back, is a kind of leitmotif mirroring the story’s structure, as it asks us to interrogate the past afresh, looking not at what we have been told was important but, instead, at new evidence that turns the focus on an entirely different cast of characters.

A small passenger aircraft is brilliantly deployed as a metaphor for life. As it touches down on a runway in the Midwest, not far from Detroit, you feel that, mingled with the scent of rubber, must be that of ashes: the smell of Polish incinerators as well as crematoria where evidence of crime is reduced to dust. Amid the buzz of industry and the cranking of the machinery of money, its true form is betrayed by memories of what it has survived. Mailer’s book was published in 1991 and, fittingly, Scorsese’s film ends in the early 90s at the time of the bombing of Serbia. Well worth the time needed to watch.

Sunday 19 January 2020

Book review: The Best of Granta Reportage (1993)

There are 13 pieces in this volume and each is by a different author. At one stage the volume was bought at Mary Ryan’s, a bookseller in Queensland, including Brisbane and Noosa, so it’s possible I got it while living in that state.

The back cover has a photo from Magnum by Ian Berry showing people running in a crowd. Their skin is black and the book contains, for example, a piece from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘The Soccer War’ (which I reviewed here in December)  and one by Martha Gellhorn titled ‘The Invasion of Panama’ (1990; I reviewed her book ‘The Face of War’ in December). There’s also a piece by a journalist named John Simpson titled ‘Tiananmen Square’ (1989) and a disappointing piece by James Fenton titled ‘The Fall of Saigon’ (1985).

Not all the pieces in the book are equally successful. While Gellhorn and Kapuscinski are, obviously, very good, Carolyn Fourche’s ‘El Salvador: an aide-memoir’ (1983) and Marilynne Robinson’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1985; about Sellafield nuclear plant in England) are not because they lack sufficient information to let the reader focus on the core of the piece. Fenton’s piece is bad, on the other hand, for different, though related, reasons. In his case, you are not given enough reason to sympathise with the protagonist (the journalist himself) and you are, instead, faced with what at the time must have been commonplaces but which, due to the passage of time, have become arcana only known to the specialist.

I didn’t have this problem with John Le Carre’s ‘The Unbearable Peace’ (1991). Here, the subject of the article is finely drawn and the author’s position vis-à-vis that person is adequately defined. Another good piece is Richard Rayner’s ‘Los Angeles’ (1992) about the race riots in that city. William McPherson’s 1990 piece ‘In Romania’, which chronicles one man’s experience of that country in the aftermath of the collapse of its government, is also good because the author puts himself at the centre of the narrative. Svetlana Alexiyevich’s ‘Boys in Zinc’, about the Afghan war waged by the Soviet Union, is also extremely good.

The collection is uneven and some pieces are very good while others are far less so. What seems to work after the passage of time is the inclusion of the writer in his or her own narrative. This tactic helps to give the reader clues as to how to react to the drama that is being uncovered. The narrator becomes a kind of lightning rod that concentrates the mind as you read, and lets you place in context the different ideas that you encounter during that process. Overall, a worthwhile read from an era now ended.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Odd shots, 10: The media uses hyperbole to draw readers

This is the tenth post in a series. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August 2019 but there was an earlier post on 18 February of that year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’. 

War, madness, civil strife, fire, cold: a kind of metaphor involving hyperbole (the use of unlikely expressions in order to achieve a rhetorical goal) is commonplace and so this post is one that is different from the others in this series. This time, the charge that is levelled at the media is deserved. Journalists do, indeed, use unwarranted expressions to draw readers to their stories. They do it for selfish purposes: to get people to commit the time necessary to read them.

And they do it frequently. Such things are cheap shots (or “reliable formulations”, if we are to avoid hyperbole). Having said that, the use of metaphors seems to be innate. Think of words such as “watchband” or “switchplate”, for example. In each case metaphor is employed for the purpose of nominalisation: in order to find a suitable term for a novelty. The reuse of words like this is a normal part of linguistic practice and is common to all cultures that use language (ie it is universal).

The point to be made here is that some kinds of metaphors exploit people’s tendency to focus on aberration. We are hard-wired to notice things that are different in some way. The flaw in the manufacture that will reduce the value of a product, the odd smell in the room that presages disaster, the striking countenance that introduces a potential mate, the stumble that singles out the halt individual in a herd, the swallow that promises summer. Writers use this human characteristic in order to control how we behave.

As with the other posts in this series, the examples in this survey were gathered over a period of time, in this case about three weeks in late 2019.

Military metaphors

On 17 September the Guardian tweeted, “Brazil fire warning shot to surfing rivals in Olympic qualifier.”

On 21 September on the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) website the kicker for a story read, “The comedian stands to reap a fortune as his iconic '90s sitcom intensifies the streaming arms race.” The story was about the 90s TV star Jerry Seinfeld.

On 21 September on the SMH website the kicker of a story read, “The President warned of a drawn-out fight with China over $500 billion in trade, in a setback for Australian hopes of easing a tariff war.” Once again using the language of conflict to draw the reader’s attention to a link.

On 23 September on the SMH website the kicker for a story read, “The call is at the centre of an escalating battle after the media reported Donald Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to investigate whether Joe Biden misused his position while vice-president.”

On 25 September at 3.49pm I saw a news story from The Verge in a tweet that had the headline, “Amazon reveals $180 Echo Frames smart glasses with Alexa built in.” The first sentence in the story was, “Amazon is getting into the smart glasses race.”

On 28 September the SMH put up a kicker for a story that went, “Joe Biden hopes to benefit from the coming impeachment battle. But it could also cement the view he is a deeply flawed candidate whose best days are behind him.”

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “A second big front in the US trade wars would do even more damage to the global economy and compound the damage to the US itself.” At 6.31 the SMH account tweeted, “Comment: Now Trump wants a tit-for-tat stoush with Europe, no wonder markets are fearful.”

On 5 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “We watched in puzzlement as the world unleashed an armoury of unconventional policies. Now it's our turn.” The story was about the Reserve Bank of Australia’s recent decision to drop the cash rate – the rate of interest banks have to pay to borrow money – to 0.75 percent.

Biblical metaphors

On 30 September the SMH ran a story with the headline, “'Retail apocalypse' claims another scalp as Forever 21 files for bankruptcy.” In the story it wasn’t clear where the expression came from there is a paragraph that goes like this:
Forever 21's bankruptcy is the latest in a long chain of collapses, store closures and similar bankruptcy claims, with prominent US retailers such as Sears, Toys 'R' Us, J. C. Penney, Barneys and Macy's all falling victim to the 'retail apocalypse'.
But the quote wasn’t attributed to anyone in particular. It appears to have been an invention of the journalist.

On 25 September at 1.51pm the Australian’s account tweeted, “Fallen rugby star Israel Folau conceded breaching Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct over social media posts when he was before the Tribunal in May and offered to make a public apology, court documents reveal.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the news outlet’s website.

Boxing metaphors

On 24 September at 10.23am News dot com tweeted, “Living treasure and ecowarrior Sir David Attenborough has unleashed a scathing attack on Australia, saying we “don’t give a damn” about the world. He has also taken a swipe at @ScottMorrisonMP.” The tweet came with a link to a story on its website that read, “Sir David Attenborough slams PM Scott Morrison’s climate change track record.”

On 2 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “NAB to take a heavy hit on back of more compensation payouts to clients charged for financial advice that was not delivered, refunds for dubious insurance, and software accounting changes.” “NAB” is the National Australia Bank, one of the largest companies in the country. The company had been embarrassed during a royal commission that established on 14 December 2017 by the Australian government. The final report was delivered to the governor-general on 1 February 2019.

Metaphors evoking madness

On 24 September the SMH used a kicker for a story on its home page that went like this, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison came face to face with a frenzied political force unlike anything an Australian election can produce.”

Metaphors evoking disaster due to fire

On 25 September the SMH ran a kicker for a story that went like this: “The Morrison government has moved to contain the blowback over its declaration that China is no longer a developing nation.”

On 25 September in the evening, the SMH ran a headline for a story about the Mascot Towers building that had started to show serious structural faults following its construction and after people had invested money buying units in it. The headline went, “'Absolutely gutting': Mascot Towers owners slam minister's claims.”

Metaphors evoking disaster due to cold

On 28 September the SMH ran a kicker that went, “Police uncovered a series of 'chilling' videos shot by murderers Schmegelsky and McLeod where they detailed their plans to steal a boat and escape to Africa.” The reference was to the murder of an Australian and his American girlfriend in Canada that had taken place in July. The adjective in inverted commas was one that had been used by the Royal Mounted Police.

Nautical metaphors

On 27 September the SMH ran a kicker to a story on its homepage that went, “He went to his first AFL game in 2014 after immigrating from India. Now his family home is a sea of orange.” The reference was to the Australian Football League, which uses a unique code and set of rules and is played around the country but especially in the states of Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Metaphors evoking the action of injustice

On 25 September in the afternoon a story appeared on the SMH website with the headline, “'Witch hunt garbage': Trump lashes out after impeachment announcement.”

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker that went like this, “The closest galaxy to the Milky Way, Andromeda, is cannibalising smaller galaxies on its way towards us.” This is an unremarkable metaphor, though perhaps not a very sensitive one as some might say it reflects an outdated colonialist approach to human cultural diversity.

Metaphors evoking civil disturbance

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker about the stock market downturn. It went, “It’s not just Australia where shares are under the pump with Japanese and South Korean markets joining the global rout.” At 3.25pm the SMH account tweeted, “Markets Live: $40 billion wiped away as ASX joins global rout.” The ASX is the Australian Stock Exchange, based in Sydney.

On 5 October the SMH ran a headline on its homepage that went, “I am the whistleblower who lit the fuse under a financial giant. It cost me dearly.” The kicker went, “The whistleblower who revealed serious wrongdoing at IOOF speaks for the first time about blowing the whistle and the toll it took on his mental health and relationships.” “IOOF” stands for IOOF Holdings Limited, a company that offers services such as financial advice and superannuation. According to Wikipedia the company originated in Melbourne in 1846 as the Victoria Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The story was written by the whistleblower and the first sentence went:
I am the IOOF whistleblower. It was me who lit the fuse under a financial giant and now choose to tell my story of what happened and the toll it took.

Thursday 16 January 2020

Movie review: Flickerfest 2020: ‘Best of Australian 7’

For this viewing yesterday I stuck around only for films screening before intermission. The seats at Bondi Pavilion are uncomfortable (I didn’t feel like sitting in a beanbag in the front section), the woman next to me was aloof and moved around a lot (you are always being touched by the person next to you because the seats are so close together), and the film I wanted to see was absolute last on the list. In front of it was a long (29-minute) film and its screening, I suspected, would be delayed since, during the break, people got up to get drinks at the bar.

The following photo shows the red sun at dusk above Bondi Beach, seen from the north side. I was walking down the hill and looking south to take this shot.

The start of proceedings was marked by 30 minutes of talking by the festival director, directors, producers, and actors, so I had to wait until the first film screened while all these people said nothing interesting. No, that’s a lie. One young man, Jacob Malamed, who directed ‘Invisible’ (2018) said of his film that it was “complex” even before anyone had seen it (it turned out to be the weakest of the five films I watched). In contrast, a young woman director said that she doesn’t like to talk about her films before they have screened. Small mercies!

I almost didn’t get there. I drove to Bondi in the car. It was a big outing for me and the evening represented a change from recent months when I had been largely housebound, especially in August, September and October. I only started going out in November a bit in the car because I wanted to buy some appliances.

To get a parking spot in Bondi is a struggle and I drove through the Cross-city Tunnel, up Bayswater Road, along Edgecliff Road, down Old South Head Road, and into O’Brien Street. Then I turned north on Glenayre Avenue and east into Blair Street, coming out at the top of the rise at Military Road, where I found a park in front of a motor scooter. Out of the car, I walked to the beach and bought a bottle of soft drink so that I could sit down in a café’s forecourt.

The first item on the schedule was ‘For the Girl in the Coffee Shop’, directed and written by Rebekah Jackson. The setting for this nine-minute film is a café, and a young man named Will (played by Rory O’Keefe) comes in and sits down with a coffee and his laptop. He’s in the habit of doing this and he’s also in the habit of writing about the girl at the next table (Mia, played by Tequila Rathbone). But the dynamic is a bit more complex than it seems at first glance.

It’s remarkable how much you can fit into nine minutes. This short film contains a whole world of emotions and desires. Even the barista (Jacki Mison) does a good job of portraying her role. I was impressed by this and thought it adequately developed.

‘Backpedal’ (2019) written and directed by Dani Pearce, was more experimental and had the feel of poetry. The story (what there is of it) is hard to follow but a kind of narrative forms that involves a death. The narrator is a young woman played by Brenna Harding, and she is recalling events from earlier in her life. The gloss on the IMDB website fills in more than, perhaps, every viewer will take away from the film. I thought that the theme of youth was interestingly handled, and Pearce uses special props to good effect, particularly a full fish tank in which a male actor lies to play his part.

Next was the standout, in my mind: ‘We Need to Talk’ (2019) written and directed by Brendan Galinie stars two actors, Katarina Scholler as Sunday and Nicholas Jaquinot as Charlie. The two friends are sitting outside their share house in the evening talking about things. The conversation turns to fraught territory when Sunday mentions a night in the recent past.

Scholler does a very good job of playing a Millennial and the issue of violence against women is competently investigated in this film.

The final film before the break was ‘Trapped’, a 1994 film that had its world premiere on this night. It is by Tony Bosch and deals with profound themes. Overall it is competent although one of the leads – an Australian actor playing a WWII soldier in Papua New Guinea (I couldn’t find any details about this film online) – isn’t entirely convincing with heavy makeup in the final scenes. But this was a good film that topically looks at Japanese spiritualism; topical because of the ‘Japan Supernatural’ exhibition on at the moment at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I had shivers down my neck at the end of this film.

The ones I missed were ‘The Widow’ (2018), ‘Darker, Darkest’ (2019), and ‘Utopia’ (2019) and I regret my early departure because the final film was the one I had bought a ticket (on 20 December) to see. The walk back to the car was uneventful, as was the drive home along Bondi Road, Syd Einfeld Drive, Ocean Street, and through the Cross-city Tunnel. In the car I listened for a while to 2Day FM but it had two people talking like drunks so I switched to 2MMM.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Book review: Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman (2003)

This intriguing farce – or (extremely dark) social satire – has a structure based on Jane Austen’s dictum on the scope of her novels. Her “small piece of ivory” quip, contained in a letter sent to a correspondent, has now become legendary though, at the time it was written, it was reserved for the consumption of an individual. In Perlman’s novel people are either stupid or bad, and they are all connected in one way or another despite the grades that separate them in terms of social class and occupation.

This is a very Melbourne book. Sydney, the northern capital, has the harbour and so you only need money to secure a position in the upper echelons of society, whereas Melbourne doesn’t so, it seems to me, indicators of class are more important, especially ones that cannot be displayed (though football is a great leveller down south). It seems that the barriers to entry to the ranks of the privileged are higher in the southern capital, but this is just my opinion.

I have no way to prove what I only feel to be true but Perlman went to a private secondary school in Melbourne’s east before graduating twice from Melbourne University. You would assume that what he writes about Australian society especially as it relates to children must have some basis in fact, but it is a fact that most of Australia’s managerial class lives in Sydney, as do most people involved in finance (the stock market is located in Sydney).

This is the second book from its time I’ve read recently that has crimes committed against children at its centre. The other was Bret Easton Ellis’ 2005 novel ‘Lunar Park’ (review published this month). Perlman’s book is also the second book I’ve read in recent times written by a barrister that takes a dim view of Capital and its workings. The other was by Sydney barrister Richard Beasley. Both men belong to an elite but disapprove of its ethos. An informed critic can be lethal.

Which brings me back to reflecting on how greed impacts the lives of individuals. This is the subject of Perlman’s book. This is what it is “about”. How does money change a person’s destiny? What forces are at play that go to make people happy or unhappy? What about pleasure and the ways that it is exploited in order to organise society?

Anthony Macris’ 2012 novel ‘Great Western Highway’ examines these ideas as well but where Perlman differs is that at the core of his novel is a crime. In order to help us fathom it the author takes us into the lives and into the very consciousnesses of a number of imagined individuals. The narrative is focalised through several characters in different ways. In one case a section of the book recounts a conversation between a psychiatrist and his patient, a man who is linked to the father of a child. The child is linked to another man by way of a crime and in another way as well (but I won’t spoil the book for those who have not read it). The father is linked to this man in a number of ways as well, notably through the man’s girlfriend.

The intricacy of the plot makes the book resemble an antique miniature, with poor perspective doing nothing to spoil the beauty of the artwork in the viewer’s eyes. In fact, strangeness in the work’s conception enhances its beauty. A flaw endows it with charm. The flaw in the novel being, of course, the proximity to one another, for the purposes of the plot, of the seven major characters that function within its mechanism.

The work reads like a who-done-it but the elaborate secondary elements it uses are where the real action happens. The tight plot is just the architecture upon which the poetics are suspended. The author is ambitious but he understands how compelling crime novels are for the average reader and, ironically considering the subject of the book, in response to market forces he has devised a hybrid that might have been better if it had read a bit faster. I got through over half the book but then felt swamped by the minutiae Perlman serves up, and stopped reading.

One major shortcoming is how Simon lacks appeal for the reader. His explanation for why he committed the crime he completed is not credible and the half-baked explanation he provides to justify his actions is all of a piece with a general dissoluteness. Despite the mental health issue in his life, I didn’t really see why he is supposed to be an interesting character.

The book would also have been better with more thorough proofing; there are some errors in here that are unfortunate but overall the quality of the copy is serviceable. I bought this book at the Duporth Book Exchange on the Sunshine Coast, probably in 2006 or in a year soon afterward. I hadn’t read it until now.

Monday 13 January 2020

One man’s view of ‘Sydney Today’, a Chinese-language news website

The following interview with a Chinese-born Australian was made on 30 November 2017. I got it transcribed in October last year and am publishing it today. The subject of the interview is ‘Sydney Today’, a Chinese-language news website delivering news to the community in Australia and, presumably, wherever people who can read Chinese are based. I have changed the name of my interlocutor. 

Editing this for publication it struck me how often, when I had paraphrased what I had been told, I was faced with a “No”. But this dynamic seems to me to be par for the course in the public sphere. We seem to have an urge to say “No” hard-coded into our DNA.

MdS: So, do you work in Australia, are you a student? How did you get to be in Australia?

Mark: I am an Australian citizen now. But 10 years ago, I came here to study and, after fulfilling the criteria of the residency, I applied for the visa and also, I got the Australian citizenship a few years ago.

MdS: Sydney Today is one of the most popular media outlets in Australia. It’s a website only, right, they don’t publish a printed version?

Mark: That’s right. Because Sydney Today has their own website and also Sydney Today has their own official account with WeChat and WeChat is the most popular socialising network-type one just like a popular Facebook, is for Australians. For the Chinese people who live in Australia, and if they want to read the news in their own language, normally they just get on the WeChat and just read the articles from Sydney Today.

MdS: So, Sydney Today is more popular than, for example, New Express Daily or Sing Tao?

Mark: So, we have Sydney Today, we also have Australian Chinese Daily and we also have, I think it’s called, Australia Mailer or Australia Chinese Mailer. So, they are about the three of our major media companies in Sydney. The Australian Chinese News Daily, that used to be one of the most popular media companies because that newspaper it was, well, popular but nowadays everybody is reading the news from smartphones. Nobody really purchases the paper-based news anymore so, the Australian Chinese Daily, that company is getting less popular [compared to] Sydney Today.

MdS: Right. Do you think that especially young people rely on Sydney Today, or is it old people as well?

Mark: Actually, it’s a mixture of young and old. For the older people, they can only read the news in Chinese, for the older people who don’t speak English, and then the Sydney Today has many, many interesting articles. For the young people in Australia, they have a good education, they have a good English knowledge and they are able to read the news in both language but, somehow, the news from [unclear] always quite interesting so, it trigger people’s interest to read it.

MdS: Hm. Do you know how long Sydney Today has been operating in Australia?

Mark: I am not sure because I use Facebook more often than WeChat, but normally the Sydney Today spend their major energy on their WeChat official account. But I think it should be six years? That’s just my random guessing. It’s getting so popular now.

MdS: I understand, because of the conversations that I used to have with [my friend], I understand that the Chinese government is always monitoring the activities of Chinese language publications in Australia. Is the same true of Sydney Today?

Mark: No, because Sydney Today is based in Sydney. According to my understanding, as long as the articles [unclear]

MdS: Sorry, I can’t hear you.

Mark: I am saying, my understanding is, because Sydney Today is a Sydney-based media company, so I don’t think there is anything to do with the Chinese government.

MdS: Right, okay. How would you describe Sydney Today’s attitude towards politics? What sort of approach does it take? Is it more favouring the Labour Party or the Liberal Party or is it both, or it doesn’t matter?

Mark: Actually, I think it doesn’t matter because Sydney Today, I read a couple of articles from Sydney Today, what they do is, when there is news from the major Australian media platforms, they just translate it into Chinese, and publish into their platform. So, they don’t have a clear obvious stance of a preferred opinion, they just translate news from the local Australian media company. Translate the news to Chinese and repost on the Sydney Today media platform. So, normally, they don’t write their own news, they normally just translate it.

MdS: Yeah, but they change the – they don’t just publish exact translations, they change the story, especially at the beginning of the story, to make it more interesting for a Chinese reader, right?

Mark: That is right, and that is what I am really concerning about.

MdS: Okay. For example?

Mark: We are only talking about Sydney Today, this media company, right? We are not talking about Chinese language-based media in general, so, you only want to talk about this specific company, Sydney Today, right?

MdS: [Yes].

Mark: Hm, let me think. I think it … For example, I’m not sure if that article is translated – it's from Sydney Today, but I’m quite sure it is from a Chinese-based company and this is very common behaviour among the Chinese language-based media company. So, when they translate a Australian news into Chinese language, they do not really change the content quite a lot, however, they change the title of news quite a lot to attract the readers.

MdS: Yeah, that’s right.

Mark: So, for example, I think before the – April there was a long weekend, right? I mean, there was a public holiday in April. So, the local news says, the police are targeting the drivers who are speeding, targeting the drivers who drive with negligence. Then there was a Chinese platform – I think maybe from Sydney Today, or maybe it’s from Australian Chinese Mailer, another Chinese language-based media company. So, they put a title like – I think the title was something like this: the traffic authority want you to cry over the weekend, or something. I’m sorry, I can’t really recall how they – the exact title.

Basically, they are writing something really, really bizarre to get your attention and so the reader will think, oh, what’s going on? Then when they read the news, actually it is very standard news.

MdS: Yeah. So, would you – I mean, the word I’m thinking of is, sensationalism. Is that an accurate word?

Mark: Actually no, I think I would say the title they make for the reader is very stimulating or something, so, they want to stimulate your interest, get your interest. After you read the entire article and realise, oh, see the title is saying something very, very shocking, but after you read the entire content of the news, you realise it’s nothing extraordinary.

MdS: Right. So, you think that they’re not honest about the use of headlines?

Mark: The use of what?

MdS: Headlines, the titles.

Mark: That’s right. Yes, you are quite right and it is quite common among the official account in WeChat. So, they want to attract the readers as much as possible and once they attract a large amount of readers, and they have a very good advantage to dealing with – they’re advertisements for a company. Because they get paid by how many readers could follow their official account.

MdS: Yeah. We call this type of story, clickbait. Have you heard that term before?

Mark: Yeah, I think so, click view.

MdS: Clickbait. We call it clickbait.

Mark: Oh, I see.

MdS: So, it’s a bait – it’s like when you go fishing and you put bait on your hook, and you want someone – you want a fish to get your hook, so you have to put bait on the hook. So, it’s called clickbait, to get people to click.

Mark: Oh, yeah, that’s right.

MdS: Yeah. So, do you think that this is different from other Chinese language media in Australia?

Mark: It really depends. I think for a large Chinese language–based media company, they use this kind of trick way too often, way too often. Yeah, so, what they do is, they write a really shocking – they write a headline to draw your attention and then the content of the article is quite – it’s less extraordinary. That is very common among Chinese language–based media company.

MdS: So, not just Sydney Today but other companies as well?

Mark: Oh, of course, of course. I think Sydney Today use this kind of trick quite moderately, but there are some other Chinese language–based media company, they overly use this kind of trick and it’s getting really, really annoying nowadays.

MdS: Hm. Yeah. But people continue to click, I guess people – even though they think that the media organisation has a bad reputation, they still continue to click, right?

Mark: That’s right, and the reason why the media company with the bad reputation could still get enough reader because, in Sydney, we only have three or four major Chinese language–based media company. So, of course, from these three or four companies, we don’t really have other choice.

MdS: So, there’s a big appetite for Chinese language–based media in Australia, is that right?

Mark: Sorry, would you ask that again? You say there is a big advertisement, right?

MdS: Big appetite. There’s a lot of demand for Chinese language media in Australia.

Mark: Yes. Also, because the Chinese language is different from the English language, culturally and linguistically. If some Chinese editor could have played with the word a little bit, for the article to translate into Chinese could be 100 times more interesting. If you’re going to change the content a lot, if you play with language, it could enhance the flavour, the attraction of the article.

MdS: So, what is your main complaint about Sydney Today? What is it mainly that you don’t like about it?

Mark: Let me see. The reason why I don’t like about it is about the contradiction, because you see the Sydney Today reports the article from an Australasian for families [of the] Asian. That article is talking about the link between the same-sex marriage and the Safe School Program. So, this article is promoting and calling for all the Chinese people to vote ‘No’ against the same-sex marriage, claiming that if we allow the same-sex marriage to be legalised, our children will – the future of our children will be jeopardised because the school will be forced to carry out the content of the same-sex material in the school curriculum.

Which is a very, very – I mean, the way how they present the fact, is very distorted and very misleading. That’s why, I think – so such a very unreliable article. Sydney Today should use its discretion: should I report it or not. Because that article itself is very clearly unreliable.

MdS: Yeah, that’s right. Even if the readership knows that it’s unreliable, they continue to click. I think that Sydney Today knows that people have a big appetite for sensational headlines and so they are giving people what they want.

Mark: Yes, because the title of that article is attractive enough to let the Chinese reader to click their fingers, to click that article, to read the entire article.

MdS: Yeah, but it’s not the only problem you have with Sydney Today, is it? Same-sex marriage is not the only thing that you don’t like about Sydney Today. Is that right?

Mark: Yes, and also, I do not exactly like the way how Sydney Today write the advertisements for their clients. For example, I’m not sure if it’s because I have never dealt with Sydney Today as a client, but my understanding is if you are – for example, if you are a restaurant owner, and if you want your restaurant name to appear on the Sydney Today website, you can pay them the fee for the listing, so they could put your restaurant name on the website and write a story about the restaurant, as a promotion. There was an article, it’s also – it’s not written by Sydney Today, but it is reposted by Sydney Today, word by word.

MdS: Right.

Mark: So, I think it's a very small worry - I believe it’s a worry. So, there was an article about this restaurant. The article claim that the owner of the restaurant travels thousands of kilometres across half of the entire China, to look for some good ingredients for the hot pot – you know what is hot pot?

MdS: Yeah.

Mark: It’s kind of the Chinese cuisine, right, it’s more spicy, puts different foods into the boiling water with some really good ingredients. Basically, this article write a very sensational story about how this restaurant owner travels half of China – you understand that China’s a very huge – travelled half of China, so it’s a very big thing, to look for very special ingredients to make their very special cuisine and once you go to the restaurant, and eat, you will be so satisfied, after you eat a meal, you also want to lick the remaining food on your bowl or something.

So, basically, this article is really, really sensational and if we use our common sense, this article itself is a lie. Because if you want to study how to make the cuisine in a professional way, you should go to the local school or you look for the master chef from local. You do not travel that much just to study the art of food, because if you travel to different regions, and they have the different idea about how food could be prepared, it will never work in that way. But, anyway, that article is really sensational, really stimulating. And Sydney Today repost this article on its website.

MdS: Hm. Right.

Mark: So, basically, I believe it’s a very normal restaurant with a very normal owner. However, somehow, they write a entire large story about it and, if we use our common sense, and it looks like the story itself wouldn’t be that true.

MdS: Yeah, but it seems like they’re not honest, Sydney Today. The way that they treat information, everything is designed to get profit, I think that’s the main aim. Is that right, would you agree with that?

Mark: Yes, yes. Because on one hand, the media company, like Sydney Today, are using a very intriguing, stimulating headline to get the attention from the reader, so reader will be intrigued to read the entire article. On the other hand, I think that the reader has something themselves to be blamed, because nowadays, the reader has a very little interest in reading good quality articles, so they are only interested into reading some interesting, intriguing, stimulating article. I think both parties, the reader and the media company, both of the parties need to be blamed somehow.

MdS: Right, yeah, I understand what you’re saying. So, there’s responsibility on both sides.

Mark: Yes. Actually, [our friend] forwarded me her website, so she also has a website, and her website also do some advertisement for restaurants, and I really like the [unclear] on the website. The way how she does the advertisements. So, she wrote a very beautiful story about a restaurant, it’s nothing extraordinary, nothing unreliable, it’s just very comfortable to read. There is nothing beyond the truth. But, unfortunately, nowadays, few readers are willing to be patient – sit and enjoy reading the good quality articles, and nowadays, I would say, the readers’ tastes are getting very different.

MdS: Right, yeah. I understand what you’re saying. I think that it’s difficult for all media companies to make a profit and I think that – especially with .. the value that you can capture from online advertising is going down because the number of potential stories that you can advertise on is increasing. So, the pay-per-view, when the reader views the ad, that’s one view, so the amount of money that the advertiser can get for each view is going down, so they have to get more views.

Mark: That’s right. I am interested in a matter of conversation, there was a idea just flashed into my head. You know, because nowadays, we have smartphones and we have the laptop, and it’s so handy to get the news from anywhere, from our Facebook, and our WeChat, our online platform is flooded with different news and the people – but the news stories, articles, I think a lot of these are coming [I say] more [then] before, right, but we still have 24 hours a day. So, we only have the same amount of time as before but now we are dealing with 10 times, or even 100 times, more information from the internet.

So, nowadays, I would say that readers are very, very impatient. So, they are going to read the news, if they don’t get interested into the first 10 seconds, then they are going to move on to the next article until they find something could get their interest up after 15 seconds of reading. That’s why they have to – I think the media companies are forced to make their headlines very eyeball-grabbing, very attractive.

MdS: Yeah, it’s an attention economy. The media is working within the attention economy so you have to get people’s attention, otherwise you can’t do anything. You’ve got to get people to read your stories.

Mark: Yeah, that’s why and not only they have to get the attention of the readers, but also, they have to get the attention of the readers within the first 10 or 15 seconds of reading, because nowadays, readers are getting impatient if they do not get interested in the first 10 seconds, then they move on. You see, in the past, we are only dealing with very limited number of the information, but we have the patience of reading the entire article, digest and then make the judgment of how good or bad it is. But nowadays, these readers don’t really read through or think a lot about the articles. They just want to [unclear] articles in a shallow way and they want to read anything that could interest them in the first few seconds.

MdS: Yeah. On the issue of the same-sex marriage survey that the government ran, the seat of Bennelong, which is where a lot of Chinese people live, actually voted …

Mark: Seat of Bennelong, which suburb is it close to?

MdS: Epping.

Mark: Oh, I see.

MdS: Yeah, so, Bennelong is a seat where a lot of Chinese people live and Bennelong actually voted, ‘No’. I think it was 50.2 per cent voted against the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Mark: Yeah, that is very disappointing but that is very predictable because Chinese people don’t really have a strong voice against the gay and the lesbian. However, they believe that if we have a large population of gay and lesbians, their children could be influenced on their sexuality. Which is so far from the truth because, actually, the people’s sexuality is with our genes, right, it’s not something that could be influenced.

But there are many, many Chinese residents here, they believe if their children are spending too much time with gays and the lesbian people or if the Safe School program runs in their children’s schools, then their children will be taught to be gay and lesbian, will be induced to [unclear] the sexuality, which is very, very far from the truth. Because, actually, I believe the Safe Schools Program is not promoting the gay and lesbian behaviour, it’s only promoting the equality, the way how we respect the gays and the lesbians, not the gay and the lesbian behaviour. So, we are promoting equality and respect, mutual respect, not the sexuality and the sex itself.

However, some Chinese media companies, they just change the word, play with the word, and twist meaning of the fact and then they induce the Chinese readers to believe that if we have the same-sex marriage, the Safe School Program will be pushed through our schools in Australia, and then their children is going to have – spend a lot of time to discuss gay and lesbian issues in their school, and then their sexuality might be influenced. So, this is a idea that the Chinese media companies try to deliver which is very misleading.

MdS: Yeah. Okay.

Mark: Okay. Do you have any other questions?

MdS: Not really. I think we’ve covered everything, but I think that the main – that was the main thing that you were worried about, is that particular issue, but it’s not just that issue, it’s other things too. Sydney Today is twisting the truth, especially in the headlines, in order to get attention in the media space.

Mark: Yes, but to be honest, because yesterday, we were asked about how we inform conversation today, that’s why I spent some time to go through the Sydney Today’s website, so I was trying to find some good examples for you, for you to write the article. But actually, I did not find a lot of the very typical examples to have, because most of the reader read that article, actually it’s not written by Sydney Today but it has been reposted by Sydney Today. So, the writer is from other Chinese language–based media company.

But, anyway, once Sydney Today reposts it, I believe, they should have the responsibility of checking whether or not they should repost it or not. So, that’s why I no longer spend enough time to read the articles from these Chinese language–based websites and also, sometimes if I see very interesting, very intriguing headlines, and I try to control myself, I told myself, don’t read it, because if I read it, I will be wasting my time to processing this information. So, for me, it’s about self-control, because I have read a lot of articles like this: it’s a very ordinary fact, however the way how they present it is very extraordinary.

MdS: Yeah. I understand. Okay. Well I’ll turn this off.