Thursday 30 April 2020

Book review: The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion (1996)

A brilliant stylist like Joan Didion shouldn’t have to apologise for any difficulties the reader of one of her novels might experience at the end of proceedings, just as a filmmaker such as Dee Rees – who adapted this novel for the screen recently – should be able to get a fair assessment from critics of her work, however allusive are the clues left indicating what happens, in the narrative, to the protagonist.

This novel is unquestionably good, better by far than most works of fiction, though it mixes elements of the journalistic craft – the insistence on precise details, such as the time and date of a particular occurrence, and an unwillingness to commit to a fact unless it is known for sure – with the traditional features of novelisation, such as plot, character, and point of view.

At some points, the insistence upon positive knowledge of facts – something may or may not have been seen to have occurred at a precise time and in a specific place, for example – gives the story a surreal feel, as though you were listening to a barrister in court elaborating upon a case in order (as the case may be) to exonerate or to accuse someone of something. Because of this, the story can appear to be an attempt to convict an organisation or people belonging to an organisation – the US administration or, more precisely, the CIA – of doing something unconscionable in the course of carrying out its duties in a part of the world – the Caribbean and Central America – where it is known to operate.

The story is more complex in the novel than it is in the movie, but both are equally good. America’s adventures in its quadrant of the world are well-known, but it might be a good idea, for the benefit of younger people who were not alive at the time, to include here a link to a relevant Wikipedia page.

Elena McFarlane is the main character in the novel but there is also an all-knowing narrator whose identity we are not shown, and who sums up the story for the reader. The narrator is clearly someone who is, like McFarlane, a professional writer, but there are things left out – things a person who was intimate with McFarlane’s thoughts, and who was by her side all of the time, would know – that make you wonder who is telling the tale. It’s almost as though the narrator – for the benefit of those who would, at some unspecified time, become acquainted with her manuscript – were trying to paint a picture with certain delineations, certain controlled ellipses, certain regulated lacunae through which the reputations of one or more people would be allowed to escape.

It’s an impressive novel and I read it in one day, sitting, as is my wont, on my yellow-red-and-grey couch with the dye stain on the back where a shirt I bought cheaply ($15) and that was made in Bangladesh marked the vinyl with a rosy tint because I wore it one day. I didn’t notice the mark until I got up after sitting there – either reading a book or watching something on TV, I don’t remember – but I found, at the hardware store, something in a yellow bottle that did at least part of the job: remove the stain. But the reddish hue where my clothed back rested against the surface of the couch remains to this day.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

TV review: Fauda, season 1, Netflix (2015)

For fans of action thrillers, this show has definite appeal, but as well as the regular features of the genre – the raids, the guns, the licit violence, the secrecy, the power plays involving select individuals – all of which can be cathartic for the viewer, you have a very unusual physical setting: the West Bank or, to be more precise, towns in a contested space where Arabs (Palestinians) and Jews compete for influence in a bloody struggle the end of which is appears to be, still, some way down the track.

At the centre of the action are two people, one of whom is a Hamas member and who goes by the name of Abu Ahmad or “the Panther” (Hisham Sulliman). On the other hand you have an Israeli Defence Force special operative named Doron Kirillio (Lior Raz) who goes undercover in an effort to capture or kill Abu Ahmad. Orbiting around these two people, close associates – on either side – include the IDF minister as well as members of Fatah, the Palestinian authority that officially administers the West Bank. Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip, but this part of the world does not feature in season 1 of ‘Fauda’.

While the West Bank constitutes the physical space used in the series, the emotional space where the drama plays out lies amid the personal relations between members of Doron’s team – the Mista'arvim (or, “Arabised”) unit – and his family, and those between Abu Ahmad and his family and associates. Watching this show you can see how conflict can become both personal (resulting in certain behaviours) and abstract (because it can escalate to physical violence).

One shortcoming is the lack of humour evident in the characterisation of Palestinians. Only one of them, a doctor named Shirin (Laëtitia Eïdo), has a sense of humour, and this is only expressed when she is talking with Doron. For the most part, the Palestinians in the show are more than stoic, they are wooden, as though being driven to free what they see as their homeland from what they view as a foreign occupation has drained any humanity from them. One sequence, at the wedding of Abu Ahmad’s brother, contains levity, but this is an exceptional circumstance, and a very special celebration. In their day-to-day dealings with each other, the Palestinians hardly ever smile unless it is to anticipate some form of violence at the expense of Jews.

To a certain degree, under circumstances such as those depicted in this show, your allegiance to a cause defines, once you are an adult, who you are. Secrets become deadly things. Lies can have mortal consequences. Accidents can kill. To cut a long story short the stakes are high but the makers of the show – or at least of season 1 – are both inventive and fair, illustrating what life is like for people on both sides of the divide that has caused so much chaos (the Arabic word is “fauda”) globally. 

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Netflix: The world’s first global TV station

As Covid-19 works its way through our communities more and more people turn, for entertainment, to Netflix. For many who are inside all day due to self-isolation or quarantining the over-the-top (OTT) video streaming service offers a welcome opportunity to escape the moment into imaginary worlds where suspense distracts us from the mundane and its attendant sense of dread, that “fear and loathing” that, even in the absence of a global pandemic, can characterise everyday existence.

At 4.24am Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) on 22 April I saw the following graphic, posted by Andrew Neff, a marketing person who lives in San Francisco. It shows, by volume of monthly visits to various websites, the most-popular sites in the world though some services, such as WeChat (China), are not included. A note at the bottom of the page where this graphic appears says:
Brands that extend across platforms or serve the majority of their users through an app will not necessarily rank well on this list. As a result, you’ll notice the absence of companies like WeChat and Snapchat.

Netflix gets about 1.81 billion monthly visits (its grey circle is located, in the above diagram, just to the right of the red one for YouTube, which has 24.31 billion monthly visits). The numbers are as at June 2019, so the uptick in visits to Netflix since March this year is not accounted for in the above diagram. 

The graphic shown above, which was posted on Twitter at 6.01am on 23 April AEST by Turkish marketing professional Engin Dikmen, seems to show growth in the company’s subscriber base occurred as a result of Covid-19. I take the figures to be growth for the period spanning the start of January to the end of March of each year. This success was embodied, for me, in a tweet I saw, at 4.37am AEST on 23 April 2020, that had been posted by a resident of Cincinnati and Dubai named Malcolm Wolf:
Love how a Netflix subscription is more expensive than a barrel of oil. I think Netflix should increase their subscription cost, since they have been able to prove they are a necessity. Possibly the only reason quarantine has been tolerable.

This is the second post I have made on the subject of Netflix, the first appearing just after I subscribed in January. Since then, I’ve regularly posted TV show and movie reviews and by tuning into the Netflix hashtag on Twitter I can see what other people are talking about. Some ask for recommendations, which I often provide with links to posts on this blog. Some post complaints about the TV not showing Netflix properly. This can take the form of a constantly-spinning “loading” device (the small, red, broken circle that spins over the background of the Netflix logo), a black screen, or a message that says that the TV cannot find the program selected. If you get the latter message, you can try to go “back” and reselect the program, but this might not always work. If you cannot get Netflix to play and if you see any of these things, you can try unplugging the TV from the wall, pressing the "On" button on the remote control for 5 seconds, then plugging the TV back in.

Over the months it’s become clear to me that people who watch TV for entertainment are far more likely to ask for help – perhaps in the form of recommendations from others in the community – than, say, people who read books. I’ve absolutely no idea why this is true but for every request for book suggestions I see 50 for TV show and movie suggestions. It’s a culture of sharing and mutuality and people readily thank you for helping them find new material to watch. For those with limited data allowance, the issue of what to watch is material. For example, a person in Lagos, Nigeria, with the account @dhermmie, who asked on 22 April at 3.34am AEST, “Is Code 8 worth my data?”

Requests for suggestions appear regularly but comments about individual shows or movies mostly clump together. A popular show will result in hundreds or thousands of posts on Twitter over a period of about a week, only to be replaced in the hive mind by a preoccupation with another one. If you compare what people are talking about on Twitter with what Netflix displays in its “most watched” home page zone – which is specific to a geographical location, for example (in my case) Australia – the match is not one-to-one. But things people are talking about will often be included on the list of “most watched” for your region.

In comments with the hashtag attached, people on occasion include spoilers, so if you care about popular shows it might be best to tune out. From time to time I might see, amid endless ringing praises for the latest flavour-on-the-month, mention of a show I’ve seen and enjoyed, which sits there like a $2 dollar coin in a wishing well, surrounded by 10-cent pieces representing more common fare people have enjoyed and whose fame they have added to with a micro-post, something washed up like a shard of dull white glass on the tideline, smoothed on its edges, harmless.

Every day I pick up two or three recommendations from other people and, using my PC, I add them to a “to watch” list on the Netflix homepage. I can then, later on in the day or on an entirely different day, perhaps two weeks hence, watch one of them on my TV. One day I might watch an Indonesian action thriller, the next an Israeli crime drama. 


Serendipity presides but it still puzzles me, despite having used Netflix for several months, how popular certain shows become. More often than not, I find myself in the minority when shows I’ve especially enjoyed – such as ‘Messiah’ and ‘October Faction’ – fail to get a second season scheduled. With many shows, an appetite grows for more seasons, or at least a further eight or ten episodes based on the same characters and with a closely-linked and carefully-crafted story. Some people say they “invest” themselves in a show, having developed emotional attachments to characters or places, and resent it when this support is removed from their lives. As though they are paying for it with their time, not just their money. In a very real sense, time is of the essence in the transaction. Without eyeballs, Netflix would not command a high share price. 

But I’m still not at all sure why anyone would need 24 hours of sound and moving pictures to tell a story – figuring in three-by-eight one-hour episodes – when with a conventional movie you can do it in two, but when a season ends often on Twitter you hear the cry, “Can’t wait for season three!” as though to live without the influence of that particular story constituted a hardship. In my view, in many shows there’s lots of flab – as in ‘Narcos: Mexico’ and ‘The Crown’ – where you see repetitive shots strung together and a pattern of similar video sequences, unravelling with a predictable a rhythm. It’s as though only by watching long-arc TV drama can people feel and appreciate the texture of time. 

You lose yourself in the flow of another’s ideas that have been moderated by convention, with its story obeying the rules and featuring the more common tropes of whichever genre it cleaves to. It all reveals what writer and academic Anthony Uhlmann calls the “analogue real” of the filmmakers’ collective imagination, education, and experience. Sounds, images, voices, faces, smiles, and eyes; the dangers and the hopes; the causes of the characters’ despair, the thrill of their loves, the end of their lives, their births, their meetings with fate; the delineations of their destinies laid out like patches on a quilt before us, which we use to wrap around our souls seated, alone or with friends or family, waiting in front of a screen. 

Waiting for the suspense to terminate, at which point in time you will be released from the grip of the passage and delivered into your routine again, like some sort of gorgeous, big-boned sea mammal washed up on a beach under the setting sun of your own desires. And regardless of any potential disappointment we might feel threatens the success of the relentless search for spiritual comfort, there’s in fact almost no limit to what you can find, though many on Twitter will from time to time say something like, “I’ve finished Netflix!” 

When I see this kind of comment – or if I see someone complaining about the company’s marketing tactics (when they ask people if they’re going to finish a series, or if they are “still watching”) – I sense myself aloof but say nothing knowing that, if only they’d tune into the hashtag and spend some time with others’ thoughts, they’d discover a world of entertainment. Time is what’s limited; there will never be enough of it to enable you to see the whole world. But now that everyone’s at home it’s hard to understand why the moaning endures when it takes so little effort to learn about a thousand new shows and movies. Taiwanese cinema? They’ve got it. Action thrillers? Yep, that too. Romantic comedies? Tons of ‘em. Scads of documentaries. Kids’ programs galore. 

A veritable cornucopia of content. And if you can’t manage to find anything interesting or useful on Netflix there are plenty of other OTT services you can subscribe to, though with Amazon Prime, which I also pay for, often the film suggested by someone is not available in Australia. And if they don’t have, for your region, what you’re looking for, they usually just suggest the most popular movies on the servers. Unless there’s a specific word match, but this mostly won’t lead to a satisfying result. So, for example, a search in Australia for ‘The Lighthouse’, a 2019 US historical drama, brings up suggestions to watch documentaries about lighthouses, and nothing related, in terms of its content, with the movie being searched for. All of this can result in disappointment, as can the fact that tweets relating to Prime are far less frequent than ones about Netflix. It’s just more difficult to find content to watch on Prime than it is to find something to view on Netflix, though Prime has more old movies on its servers, things from the 50s and 60s. If you want to watch Fellini or Hitchcock, go to Prime.

As explained in this story, Amazon provides the infrastructure service that Netflix relies on, so even given success for Netflix, Jeff Bezos will still be laughing.  All it takes to get all of it working for you is an email address, an internet connection, and a credit card. So you can dream. Awake.

Monday 27 April 2020

Book review: Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)

This novel works very well at the micro level of style – it’s sort of an 800-page prose poem – but at the macro level of narrative it’s less effective. I don’t mean to cast aspersions here, just to make a general observation about a work of art I genuinely admire. I don’t remember when I bought it, but the back cover has a sticker on it that says “12/98” along with the retail price: $19.95. On the first page, where the author’s bio is located, someone has written “B-$12” and “R-$5”, so presumably I paid the former amount in order to take the volume home with me. Though I have no recollection, now, where that transaction took place.

If the novel can be said to be “about” anything it’s like a prayer more than a statement of belief. As though the uncertainty inherent in the American experiment – something surprising in its inception and of varied success in its performance – breeds, in the hearts of its participants, a longing for security. DeLillo is of my parents’ generation, or thereabouts, so I can appreciate his misgivings about something that draws so much criticism from so many quarters.

There seems to be a wild, wilful desire among American prose writers to fashion something all-encompassing, using words – the material they possess an aspiration to wield in an effort to make something of value, something lasting – that can live up to the hype (the promise, if you will) of the whole enterprise: the four-yearly elections, the reliable holidays, the pledges, the politeness, the habit of tipping wait staff after meals eaten in restaurants, the ludicrous healthcare system, the inadequate minimum wage, the enormous sovereign debt, the guns, the endless wars, the local pride of Kentuckian or Hoosier, the vast expanses of dry, dusty countryside, the poverty, the thousands of migrants who turn up every year (legally or illegally) looking for a piece of the American Dream, the prom nights, the Halloween costumes for children let out for one autumn night on the dark streets of every suburb and town in the wide land …

Many of these experiments in nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and semicolons (among other things) fail to gain purchase in the collective (global) imagination. Or else they are casually categorised as another in a long line of such expressions of American exceptionalism worthy of note, if not of the time needed to read the damn things. So many tons of paper used and discarded, or else sent to the op-shop for some other punter (not you, anymore) to pick up for a few dollars and take home in a recycled Coles shopping bag (that possibly once contained a bottle of orange juice and a roll of plastic garbage bags). So many discards, so many failed dreams of greatness; and an inexpressible longing for peace at last.

Peace at last! The Twin Towers feature on the book’s cover and appear from time to time in the text. Like a ghost seen in a dream. Works like ‘Underworld’ are the flip-side of spy thrillers, which are books pumped out by the truckload in a vapid frenzy of production and consumption, usually badly-written and often nasty in their characterisation. As well as stylistic brilliance, ‘Underworld’ has grace with the use of credible characters, such as Nick Shay, the Bronx boy who rises to the top in the waste-management business. But the riddle of the baseball from a 1951 World Series match between two New York teams, and the associated number “13”, remained, for me, gnomic and opaque in their signification. Strangely, however, I was reminded while reading ‘Underworld’ of a painting of Robert Rauschenberg’s titled ‘Windward’ that contains images of buildings, oranges, and fire, which I wrote about in 2013. Life constantly throws up riddles for us to decode.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Movie review: The Nightingale, dir Jennifer Kent (2018)

A curious movie that involves injustice on the colonial frontier in early 19th century Australia, ‘The Nightingale’ stars Aisling Franciosi as a convict named Clare who is mistreated by a cruel soldier named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). In response, she embarrasses Hawkins in front of a senior officer. To make contact with the colonial authorities and save his career, Hawkins sets out through the bush, trying to reach Launceston, a town (still, today, in existence) at the northern extremity of the island of Tasmania which, at the time of the movie’s setting, was named Van Diemen’s Land, a separate colony of Great Britain. Separate, that is, from New South Wales, which was the entity that then existed in 1825 on the mainland.

Clare’s goal is to take revenge on Hawkins. In preparation for her journey through the unpopulated bush, she finds an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), paying him a shilling with the promise of another when they reach the party that has gone ahead and that comprises, in addition to Hawkins, a sergeant named Ruse (Damon Herriman), a private named Jago (Harry Greenwood), two adult convicts and a boy of about 11 years named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell).

The bulk of the movie comprises a chase through spectacular bushland but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the level or frequency of violence evident in the film, nor by some of the writing which seems, in parts, to owe a bit too much to modern crime drama. You wonder how anything at all gets done in the colony with the quantity of killing and brutality evident in Kent’s Van Diemen’s Land. On the other hand you have cultivated gentry walking calmly down the main road to Launceston. The dissonance that arises from watching the film, which has some great scenes in it, is remarkable. A musket of 1825, furthermore, is not the same thing as a modern pistol, and the status of convicts in the colonies was I think not as bad as the film portrays. Nevertheless, this film, which I saw on Amazon Prime, is well-shaped and at least effective in conveying a message, however odd that message is. Clare is certainly more convincing a character than the dastardly Hawkins.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Movie review: Lady Bird, dir Greta Gerwig (2017)

A coming-of-age story involving Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), this film is competent and charming but not earth-shatteringly good. It’s narrow in its scope – which is perfectly fine, especially for a directorial debut – and chronicles the final year of secondary school of a girl growing up in the California capital of Sacramento.

A bright, misunderstood, and inventive teenager who is surrounded by people who disappoint her, Lady Bird goes to a private Catholic school though her parents are not wealthy. I’m not sure about the significance in the US of this combination of factors, so I can’t really comment on what they are supposed to mean for the viewer, but it’s clear that Marion and Larry (Tracy Letts) believe in education as a means for achieving agency. They’re not happy, for example, when Lady Bird gets into trouble on account of a sharp comment she makes about abortion.

As Lady Bird begins to find her way in the world she makes mistakes. The editing for this film is done in sharp, sudden cuts that serve to keep up the pace, to diffuse anxiety, so as well as keeping dullness at bay they maintain a lightness that matches the film’s gentle humour. Watching it there’s never really enough time for either boredom or worry to develop in the viewer’s mind.

The secondary characters are nicely put together by Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing. Odeya Rush is good as the vapid but smart Jenna and Timothée Chalamet is good as the slightly obnoxious and very self-confident Kyle. If more toxic, these two characters would have been less interesting. Sentimental thrills await anyone who puts the time in to watch this 90-minute film, and so I recommend it with the reservations already noted.

Friday 24 April 2020

Movie review: Knock Down the House, dir Rachael Lears (2019)

This Netflix original documentary tracks the congressional campaigns of women aiming for the Democratic nomination for four lower house seats. The movie shows grassroots campaigns led by ordinary people – Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for example, is a waitress at the beginning of the film – in order to bring real change to American politics. One of the main policy areas the women addressed in their campaigns was healthcare and a theme that recurs often is the influence of money on politics in the US.

‘Knock Down the House’ is, despite the drama contained in the title, a sensitive portrayal of ambition and shows how individuals must invest themselves in a venture of this nature; for these women – Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Cori Bush (Missouri), Paula Jean Swearingen (West Virginia), Amy Vilela (Nevada) – campaigning becomes personal and compulsive. Their reactions are honed to be fast; they have to be quick on the draw in order to effectively engage in such activities as doorknocking and public debates. Handing out leaflets on city streets is just as important as developing effective policies or as raising funds from donors contacted by telephone. In each case, the candidate is supported by a team of committed individuals. The movie helps to clarify what is involved in the process of politics. We often criticise politicians and, now with social media, such treatment is more visible than it has ever been, but we mostly don’t think about how it affects people who are, on a daily basis, intimately involved.

The movie does four things that are tied to the notion of ambition. Firstly, the movie is aspirational, both from the standpoint of the actors and of the filmmakers themselves. It is a kind of primer to a process of renewal, as well as being an act of witnessing the ceaseless striving, for authenticity and its attendant success, that takes years of hard, continuous work and that might end up with a defeat at a poll. When filming began, well before 2018, the year in which the elections took place, it was not at all clear who would win and who would lose. But even if none of the movie’s subjects had been successful, it is clear that such efforts can bear fruit after a delay of many years. (Michael Lewis’ ‘Trail Fever’ (1997) demonstrates how this was true of the ’96 Republican races; policies expressed at that time were echoed strongly in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.)

Secondly, the movie clarifies the dynamic that conditions relations between different political players: between the candidate and her staff, between the candidate and potential voters and sponsors, between two competing candidates (for Ocasio-Cortez the opposition was Joe Crowley, representing the establishment in the form of the “Queens Machine”).

Thirdly, ‘Knock Down the House’ serves to illustrate America’s extraordinary diversity. You get to see a range of different contexts in which politics is performed – from the bright green valleys of the Appalachians to the parched, brown streets of suburban Nevada; from the busy thoroughfares of the Bronx to the leafy avenues of suburban St Louis. The cinematography is excellent, adding charm to a product that, in itself, was always going to be very interesting. It must’ve helped that the director is a woman; the movie opens, for example, with Ocasio-Cortez putting on her makeup in preparation for an important event.

And always there’re the voters, average people with their own taste in clothes, a range of hairstyles; an entire inventory of middle America. For some readers of this post, the idea of democracy in the USA might seem old-fashioned due to known deficits that persist in many states, as well as at the federal level. Because people like the women shown in the movie are aware of such deficits, the movie’s title serves as a potent reminder of an ongoing struggle. So, fourthly (and, possibly, most importantly), ‘Knock Down the House’ shows how some form of representation of the individual – his or her wishes and aspirations, his or her problems and wants – can exist even under the most trying conditions.

I found this movie to be solid; it is also understated and careful: an appropriate response to a situation that deserves, because of the privileged position that the US maintains in the world, closer scrutiny both by Americans and by people living in other countries. Well worth the time needed to watch.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Movie review: Tigertail, dir Alan Yang (2020)

What a find! This delicate family drama offers up a burning portrait of otherwise ordinary reality taking in four generations of a family of Taiwanese. It is focalised mainly through the character of Pin-Jui (played by Hong Chi-Lee for the scenes when he is a young man, and by Tzi Ma for the scenes where he is a man in his late 50s or early 60s). In fact three actors play Pin-Jui: there are some scenes at the beginning of the film when Pin-Jui as a child is shown playing in the countryside – among the rice paddies and by a stream – with a new friend, Yuan, whom, later when he is a young man, he will meet under different circumstances.

The two young people spend time together and sometimes they dance to rock-n-roll. The transition from nine-year-old to 20-year-old is handled with no unnecessary flourish; the narrative skips quickly, like an old-fashioned record hitting an obstacle in its groove, and suddenly you are in a small bar and Pin-Jui is dancing with a svelte Yuan (played at this age by Yo-Hsing Fang). Crisp, efficient storytelling operates in its own bright register of fact and feeling.

All without much introspection (perhaps this is the missing piece at the root of Pin-Jui’s dilemma) though, paradoxically, the filmmakers dwell a good deal on the past. The idea of the hometown is, for example, elaborated early on. In Japanese the word is “furusato” which is often, in their cultural products, a place of pilgrimage. The Mandarin word for “hometown” is “jiaxiang” though the ideograms used differ in Taiwan and in China.

But the story mainly focuses on Pin-Jui’s and his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). He is not very good at expressing his feelings and she, who grew up in the US, finds it hard to talk with her father. For many, such a low-key premise might appear at first glance likely to place too great a burden on the spectator – intergenerational conflict in a Chinese-American family might seem to be a too-simple prism through which to view the world – but there is suspense and the film manages to keep you guessing right to the end.

A lot of it is set in interiors. With this kind of contextualising ‘Tigertail’ resembles works coming out of the Japanese cinema, where the individual is mainly seen in the light of where he or she lives, where they work, and who they associate with.

The film is careful about how it makes plain for the viewer differences between the Asian and the Western approach to forming identity. In one scene, Pin-Jui and Angela are shown standing outside a house. The camera sees them through a window and then tracks back, through another window, so that there are now two frames outlining the two figures. An image that uses the house as a frame within a frame, all within a movie shown on your TV screen inside your house. So, you as the viewer are inside the film as much as Pin-Jui or Angela are inside it. You have your own family stories and they serve to define you in ways that are predictable and commonplace, but that are the more special for that. Place and tradition, emphasised throughout the movie, influence people across generational divides.

The movie also provides what seemed to me (though I’m by no means an expert) to be an uncomplicated yet elegant version of Taiwan’s history. This includes, of course, the lure of Modernity as embodied by the USA. It is a good exponent of the genre of cross-cultural cinema. 

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Odd shots, 11: Covering demagogues only serves their interests

This is the eleventh post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The 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’.

Times shown in this post are Australian Standard Daylight Time except after 6 October 2019 and before 5 April 2020 when they are Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Most of what follows is about US President Donald Trump, so if you’re allergic to such commentary maybe skip this post. I’ll start on 28 August when on Twitter New York University’s Jay Rosen commented at 8.38am, “You know that thing where Trump gets rewarded with media attention for doing something stupid, racist, tradition-busting, or outrageous? I wrote a thread about the options journalists have when they feel caught up in that kind of cycle.”

Rosen’s tweet pointed to one from 12.57am on 19 August put up by Julia Ioffe of GQ Magazine, who said, “This is the fundamental problem of Trump: he provokes by saying horrific things that cannot go unchallenged, but in challenging them, you rev up him and his base to double down in delight (and sincere belief) and horrify you more, which means you have to challenge it again, etc.”

This problem had appeared in the Australian context prior to the May election when Fraser Anning, a right-wing populist, was trying to generate support in the community by saying things that reminded people (everyone; although he denied it, saying that that outrage was a media beat-up) of the Nazis. But Anning was not reelected to the Senate in May last year, so he no longer offers a dilemma to journalists working in Australia.

For American journalists Trump will, however, continue to do so. He was (unsurprisingly) back in the headlines on 26 September when at 6.45am the account of MSNBC, a US media organisation, tweeted, “.@NicolleDWallace cuts away from President Trump's news conference: ‘We hate to do this, but the president isn't telling the truth ... what Trump appears to be trying to do is to turn his own impeachment into a big deflection.’” The tweet came with a video. In response to this, at 4.53pm on the same day Amy Remeikis, a Guardian Australia journalist, tweeted, “Cutting away from a press conference because the leader isn’t telling the truth - and then debunking it in real time.” Then, at 6.20pm on the same day Paul Bongiorno, a columnist with the progressive Australian news outlet The Saturday paper, tweeted, “will Australian networks be game enough to do this? There is plenty to fact check. We are drowning in a sea of bull shit [sic].”

On 27 September at 7.07am David Corn, a US journalist who is the Washington, DC, bureau chief of the news outlet Mother Jones, tweeted, “My latest: Trump's intelligence chief offers a timely reminder: Trump is a liar. Don't let this slip by. Please read, RT, and share.” In response, Mehdi Hasan, a columnist of US media outlet The Intercept, tweeted, “This is a key point but will be forgotten fast: if, say, Obama's own intelligence chief had gone to Congress & basically said Obama is lying, it would have been a huge story. But Trump, as ever, produces so many controversies, that most don't get proper attention. Frustrating.” Corn responded to this, perhaps unfairly, with some sarcasm, “I wish I had time to read your tweet, @mehdirhasan. I am sure you are making an intelligent point. Gotta run.....”

Rosen reappeared in my timeline on 27 September at 8.42am when he tweeted, “Treat it as a hypothetical. Suppose one party — far more than the other — begins to rely on fictions and conspiracy theory to hold itself together and project normalcy. Can a news organization dedicated to both impartiality and factuality cope? In theory, yes. In practice, nope.”

Then on 7 October at 12.18pm Rosen tweeted, “’He's destroyed the information space, so everyone thinks it's just us vs. them.’ Philosopher @jasonintrator Jason Stanley, author of 'How Propaganda Works,' on CNN. This is why the problem goes way beyond ‘how to cover’ the president.” The tweet came with a link to a CNN video in which Stanley answered questions put to him by a CNN anchor. CNN is a US cable news channel. Trump uses “bald-faced lying”, Stanley said, so the situation now is different from how it had been in the past, when administrations had lied but the truth was still important. Now it isn’t. The president knows what he says it untrue, Stanley went on. It’s just “us vs them” now. “It’s about winning and losing,” he said, “It’s not about the truth.” He talked about the “division of the information space”. “The information space is corrupted,” Stanley said. “The president has destroyed the information space.”

How to counter this tendency? the anchor asked. “We have to return to what’s true and what’s not.” Focusing on the facts, not a horse race (a term Rosen uses often but which Stanley didn’t use). “Not us vs them.” He said that totalitarian regimes like spectacle, where politics is like a game.

Three days later, on 10 October at 8.03am a US account named Bill Maxwell with over 59,000 followers tweeted about some more weirdness from the Orange Liability:
Holy shit! 
Trump on the Kurds: 
"They didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us with Normandy." He says they're only interested in fighting for "their land."
Trump suggests he has no problem with Erdogan being "tough" on the Kurds.
At 9.10am on 19 April this year, author and media analyst Thomas Baekdal tweeted, “Newspapers, you seriously need to stop reporting from Trump's press conferences. This is no longer about making people informed. This is Trump having a very specific political agenda to misinformed and to confuse people, and using us in the press to spread it.”

It was other politicians, too, not just Trump. So, for example, Jonathan Groves, a retired academic and former editor with 2141 followers, tweeted on 3 October at 8.22am, “The era of the live interview should end. @NPR just granted a politician five full minutes to misrepresent what’s in the White House call log.” “NPR” is a US non-profit news outlet. Groves’ tweet came with a link to a podcast titled, “Republican Rep. Jim Banks Discusses The Latest Impeachment Inquiry Developments.” Jim Banks was at the time a member of the lower house of the US Congress representing an Indiana electorate.

“Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick earlier called on Americans to sacrifice their lives, telling Fox News that grandparents across the country should be proud to die from the coronavirus if it meant the younger generations could get back to work,” tweeted Australian Dave Ewart at 12.03pm on 18 April this year. It seems as though the contagion wasn’t just one infecting the lungs, but also the mind, possibly inciting Trump in return to call on the citizens of some states, during the Covid-19 crisis, to arm themselves and rise up violently against their elected representatives.

But it wasn’t just in the US that people were getting frustrated with the kind of rhetoric that is strong on surface and weak on content. On 1 October at 4.17am Guardian columnist and left-wing activist George Monbiot had tweeted, “Can we please stop calling them ‘populists’? It creates an association with popularity, and suggests they are closer to the people than other politicians. Let's call people like Trump, Johnson, Modi, Morrison, Bolsnaro, Duterte and Orban what they are: Demagogues.” Morrison is the prime minister of Australia, Modi is the president of India, Bolsonaro is the president of Brazil, Duterte is the president of the Philippines, and Orban is the president of Hungary. Boris Johnson (the UK prime minister) shouldn’t need any introduction from me.

And journalists were sometimes the butt of comments from people in the community. For example, on 7 October at 1.07pm Jay Van Bavel, a social neuroscience professor at New York University, tweeted, “I’m so tired of watching partisan hacks argue with one another on political talk shows—I hear so many logical errors, lies and conspiracy theories. I’d vastly prefer a show with a historian, political scientist and legal scholar who slowly explain what’s happening.” A call from the bleachers for an expert rather than a politician – but where does the amateur end and the professional start? Who is to decide if not the voter?

Monday 20 April 2020

Book review: Trail Fever, Michael Lewis (1997)

I read a few chapters of this book and put it aside, but came back to it after reflecting, at leisure, upon how entertained I had been by some of the early chapters. So, I happily finished this fascinating though ancient work of literary journalism. Its subtitle is also ludicrous (‘Spin doctors, rented strangers, thumb wrestlers, toe suckers, grizzly bears, and other creatures on the road to the White House’), evoking within the reader’s mind – and adding a poignant dash of camp that reinforces the notion that Lewis was more a part of the mainstream than his predecessor was – Hunter Thompson’s chaotic 1973 work: ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.’

Thompson was, unlike Lewis, self-educated. But both journalists display a politically progressive approach to the world, and both are also enormously funny, though in different ways. Lewis grew up in Louisiana and Thompson grew up in Kentucky, but the differences separating the two books come down to matters of style rather than substance. In the intervening years, Thompson suicided (2005) while Lewis wrote and published a number of books on money and sport. The younger man also edited other books.

In ‘Trail Fever’ Lewis chronicles, in sometimes absurd and often hilariously funny ways, the 1996 presidential race, starting with the Republican primaries at the beginning of the year. What is so striking about it is how it shows how the seeds that bore fruit with the election, in 2016, of Donald Trump existed well before Bill Clinton (in the year 2000) opened the way for China to sell its goods in the US market by granting it “most-favoured nation” status.  In the failed ‘96 Republican presidential candidates Pat Buchanan (who supported protectionism) and Morry Taylor (who wanted to reduce taxes) you see the seeds that would grow and, 20 years later, flower in the Midwest.
Buchanan and Taylor also anticipate with their ideas Trump’s dictum “drain the swamp” and had libertarian ideas that reflected a distrust of insiders and what Lewis terms “rented strangers”: the faceless men and women who gravitate toward politics in the hope of securing a well-paid job providing advice or some other form of service to a candidate or member of Congress. Lewis writes:
The Outsiders – the agitators, the troublemakers, the champions of lost causes – are temperamentally unsuited to treating politics as if it were a rigged fight. The Outsider is by nature indiscreet, unstable, and risk loving and as a result will rarely land himself a seat in power Alley. (Pat Buchanan’s drift from Insider to Outsider mirrors the drift in American politics away from large-bore crisis management and toward small-bore career management.) Occasionally the Outsider may call himself a Democrat or a Republican, but he can’t be contained by either party, because his enemy is not the other party but the entire system. He has a taste for the structural issues: campaign finance reform, global trade. The current crop of Outsiders – Buchanan on the right, Perot in the center, Jesse Jackson on the left – stood together against the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, and for campaign finance reform. Each in his own way speaks to the dissatisfaction with politics that 70 percent of Americans claim to feel. Each in his own way is guided by some mythic view of the past. And each in his own way addresses the central problem of politics: that an awful lot lies beyond its reach. To succeed, an Outsider must grab for what he knows he cannot have. He’ll probably never get it, but he might knock it loose so that someone else will, one day.
Now we know who that someone is. Tyre manufacturer Morry Taylor produced a manuscript – which remained unpublished at the time Lewis’ book went to print – titled ‘Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix Washington’. Lewis spent a lot of time with Taylor, even after Taylor was eliminated from the race to secure the Republican nomination. On Taylor’s relations with most of the media:
Morry can be persuasive when he wants to be. For instance, he is normally withering on the subject of journalism; asked to define “journalist” he will say, “People who can’t add.” Now he tells me that I’m different from other journalists because “unlike those other guys you’re not inserting your private opinion. You just listen and tell people the truth.” I nod to myself: How true. 
The smile behind that last sentence is wide, however, because Lewis is just as acerbic and opinionated when writing about Taylor as he is when writing about, say, Buchanan. The book has 25 chapters (including a prelude and an epilogue) and at the end there is a humorous vignette where Lewis gets caught up in the conspiracies surrounding Clinton that, as the days ticked away toward the beginning of November and became colder and colder, took on a life of their own and accelerated. But it’s a storm in a teacup. These passages are especially funny because, in this case, it’s Lewis’ own reputation that is at stake, rather than a politician’s. He has spent the better part of 300 pages beaming a spotlight on the personalities, the characters, and the words of a set of men and women involved in politics, and now when he becomes a central player he has to be as honest as he was then. It’s truly hilarious. 

This book is a gem not just because it is funny but also because of the insights it contains about America’s democratic deficit. For example, on Jesse Jackson:
The Jacksons and the Buchanans have been folded into their respective tents. You can see that Jackson is struggling: because their concerns are not explicitly addressed, the poor don’t vote; because they don’t vote, their concerns are even less likely to be explicitly addressed. How this resolves itself, God only knows.
The thing to keep in mind if you are a progressive in the US, however, is that Buchanan’s and Taylor’s ideas remained current in the hearts and minds of a significant slice of the demographic, emerging finally in 2016 in Trump’s campaign speeches. (For the book, Lewis made a visit to the border and interviewed a Mexican who was trying to get over the fence into the US.) Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination but, in the future, Lewis’ book suggests, someone with similar ideas is going to come along and successfully steal his thunder. 

In a sense this book was waiting for me (it had, of course, sat unread in my library for years, but that’s not what I mean here). A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the future of US politics, musing on the likelihood of something worse than Trump emerging on the Right. This book buttresses that notion. Just as the Democratic primaries held today will probably presage the emergence of a candidate with similar views a generation hence, the same thing can happen on the conservative side of the political spectrum. We’ll have to see what form such a persona might take.

Sunday 19 April 2020

TV review: Unorthodox, Netflix (2020)

Working on a number of levels, this diminutive miniseries – it’s only four episodes, and Shira Haas, who plays the lead (Esther, or Esty for short) must be no more than 150cm (five feet) tall – is not just powerful, it has refreshing poise. This is rare at a time when multi-season dramas are the rule rather than the exception.

The title is more like a question than a statement. Who is orthodox here? And does being in the minority allow you to abuse the privilege? The ideas motivating the characters in ‘Unorthodox’ also seemed to me, as I watched it on the TV, to have universal applicability. It is redolent with meanings that help the viewer interrogate some of the most profound life questions. It’s about being part of a group (or a team) and about individuality as well. If you predicate your worth on belonging to a claque, what are your obligations to outsiders?

As the newly liberated Esty lifts the veils that had shrouded the world, we see it through fresh eyes. It’s only because of her lack of guile that certain things are revealed to us. The show is not just about intolerance versus curiosity, belonging versus freedom, self versus collective, pluralism versus dogma. It is also about meaning versus excess or, to put it another way, consumerism versus truth.

Also biology versus persona; what, in the end, is innate to us as humans and what is overlaid upon that substratum by tradition and social conditioning? Such questions have possibly never been as important to answer as they are in our post-Cold War age. How restrictive are “universal” values or, to put it another way: should the point of view of the majority always prevail? And even if you have unlimited diversity, do you then succumb to a temptation to cleave to “shared values” and exclude those who, for their own reasons, reject plural viewpoints? What, in the end, are human rights if they lead you to compromise the most cherished notions of self? If you were in such a group and it became the mainstream (you must ask) would you then have to invent an enemy whose ideas you could continue to reject? All of these things might arise in the viewer’s imagination while watching this fabulous drama or, given enough time, afterward.

Its basic elements are quickly sketched out with the narrative alternating between the “now” of the story, where Esty flees from her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in New York City, and travels by air to Berlin, and the “before”, a thread that details her marriage to Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav).

The community sends Yanky and Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch) over to Europe to bring Esty back into the fold, and replace with order confusion and the bad feelings it inspires. For her part, Esty goes looking for her mother Leah Mandelbaum (Alex Reid; Leah had long before left the orthodox community) having nowhere to live once she arrives unaccompanied, short on cash, and wide-eyed at the novelty of life in a world so unlike the place where she had been brought up, one with predictable rules, comforting customs, and a supportive social network.

But that’s not all Esty leaves behind. There are also the whispers, the restrictions, the intrigue, the meddling relatives, and the lack (!!) of smartphones or internet. Wilbusch’s Moishe is particularly good, adding a dash of chaos and darkness to what might otherwise have been overly predictable characterisation.

I especially enjoyed how, in the show, Jewish tradition possesses echoes that endure in our secular world, and not just due to what happened in the 20th century. There’re two interesting scenes featuring lipstick to make a point. One is when Esty goes to the restroom in a club and a young woman standing at the sink compliments her on her short hair (it is kept short for religious reasons). Esty replies she likes the woman’s lipstick, and the woman offers to let Esty try it, so she does. The brand name printed on the tube’s outer sheath is “epiphany”. This is an ancient word that means the manifestation of God to the gentiles, embodied by the Three Kings of Christian lore.

But over time the word has gathered other meanings as well. It can also mean an eclaircissement, or awakening. It’s just one of many telling little details that dot the narrative of ‘Unorthodox’ like stars in the night sky, or like rhinestones on a cowboy’s shirt. The way that tradition can live on in people’s behaviour in a modern world is a prominent theme in this quality production.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Visual disturbances: Nine

“The coronavirus story is unfathomably large. We must get the reporting right,” tweeted, on 11 April, the Guardian’s media reporter Amanda Meade. But as often happens with big, complex issues, Covid-19 experts took a pounding yesterday when it was revealed that modelling had grossly overestimated the disease’s incidence.  At 9.25am Australian Eastern Standard Time, the story’s author, Liam Mannix, tweeted, “New official government modelling suggests we're on the course to *eliminating* COVID-19 in Australia. A month ago models forecast 110,00 [sic] daily infections. 2 weeks ago epidemiologists said elimination was very unlikely.” How the landscape changes as a speculative line of theory converges upon reality!

Others had, it became clear, picked up on the same threads. “Climate Science Deniers Turn to Attacking Coronavirus Models,” tweeted, the same morning, Professor Christopher Wright of the University of Sydney (my alma mater), including with the headline a link to a story on Scientific American’s website.

My story, for what it’s worth, also risks being tendentious but for a different reason than applies to those pessimistic medical scientists. I don’t want to disassemble the consensus on global warming, I just want to point out how fickle are humans.

We follow trends. There’s something about us that makes us do so. We are social animals; we like to share and so we can rally together when our survival is threatened, as East Gippsland blogger Peter Gardner noted on the morning of 21 March. His tweet included the headline of a story on the website of news provider The Conversation, which ran: “Coronavirus response proves the world can act on climate change.” Western Bonime, a resident of California, reprised Gardner’s theme, tweeting, “COVID proves that it is possible to mobilize the entire population of the Earth in days. The key to creating that same level of collaborative overnight pivot for climate change may lay in creating that same levels of personal fear of death from the loss of our planet.” This was dated 6 April but was put into my feed on 10 April by the president of WWF, Pavan Sukhdev.

And indeed: what about climate change? “Emissions are likely to plummet in the first half of 2020. But we’ve already emitted so much the ice sheets won’t notice,” tweeted UK journalist Patrick Galey on 24 March at 6.30am Australian Eastern Daylight Time. With operations of the airline industry severely hampered and people mostly staying inside their homes to work (online) and to converse (online), the rate of carbon emissions had slowed globally, but polar ice sheets, as Galey pointed out, still shrink.


My story has its origins three months earlier – on Saturday, 21 December – when French journalist Francois Rigot DM’d me on Twitter asking if I’d be interested in being the fixer for a documentary about the bushfires for which he was visiting Sydney to shoot footage. A fixer organises interviews, helps with navigation, books hotels, and does other miscellaneous tasks that often require some local knowledge to complete easily.

I don’t know why he contacted me but from time to time people do this if they want to find a journalist. My personal website has been up on a server with my ISP since 2007, so I have a public presence in addition to the blog. There’s also the LinkedIn profile. On the website are stories I have published, including many with an environmental theme.

After Rigot contacted me I made an ad on a Facebook group that freelancers use, and a woman named Ashley – marvellous how fate lends us of her bounty – expressed interest, so I put her in touch with the man and they organised things between themselves.

On the same Saturday an artist whose work I have bought before, named Zuza Zochowski, advertised a work on her Facebook timeline, saying she would give it away if someone would donate money to the NSW Rural Fire Service. I asked for a link, which she posted in a comment, and then I went to the organisation’s website and got the account details I needed. Using my internet banking interface I completed a transaction and grabbed a screenshot of the receipt, which I saved to hard disc. Then I loaded the JPG to the artist’s post in a comment. I gave her my street address in a PM and she posted the painting, which arrived at the post office near me in the first week of January.

I never heard from Rigot again but I did hear from Ash, who not only thanked me but included in her email information about the difficulty of the task she had accepted, which included travel in addition to some tricky personnel issues. She had used contacts of mine that I had detailed in an email to the videographer.

The oil painting of African violets shall be sent, this year, to my framers so they can get it ready to hang on a wall.

On 9 January an auction started in the social media feeds of artist Craig Waddell, who I follow on Facebook. He put up an image of one of his paintings – a green and mauve landscape in his signature gestural impasto style – inviting bids from people and promising that the person whose offer was highest, and who made a donation to the Wildlife Information, Rescue and Information Service in the same amount, providing a screenshot of the transfer as proof, would have delivered it to his or her home. There was a deadline and I was, regrettably, pipped at the post.


On the final day of December I put up a post that, among other things, chronicled changes in the Sydney sky, and now here are some photos of my TV. They were taken with a Canon PowerShot SX620 HS compact digital camera I bought in early January at Officeworks. It’s not as good as the other digital cameras I own because it’s not easy, using it, to blur images; the logic driving the camera’s focus function is too perfect.

In the second week of January I took a pair of old cameras to be fixed. They are a Canon PowerShot A530 bought in 2006 and a Canon PowerShot SX130 bought in 2012. On the 24th of the same month I phoned the camera shop and agreed to prices to have the devices fixed, then at the end of February once they had been fixed I went to the shopping centre to pick up the cameras.

The following photos were taken on Sunday 5 January between 2.17pm and 2.25pm. There are 16 photos in this selection but on the day I took more than this, with most of what I made being unsuitable because it was too sharp.

Friday 17 April 2020

Book review: Adventures in Correspondentland, Nick Bryant (2011)

In shortish chapters that don’t tax your patience this memoir by BBC reporter Nick Bryant divulges little known aspects of a foreign correspondent’s life. It is as engrossing as Peter Greste’s account of his time in the Middle East, though in many ways different from that book. For a start, Bryant was never jailed for doing his job, as Greste was; what struck me most forcefully reading ‘Adventures in Correspondentland’ is the author’s sense of humour. It’s there in the ridiculous title and the amusing illustrations on the front cover. There’s also the prose, although at times I felt it could have been tightened up a notch so that it might read more smoothly.

Not all memoirs by journos are readable, as Les Hinton’s deplorable effort demonstrated. Perhaps News Corp knew of their man’s literary deficit and so promoted him to somewhere in the organisation where he wouldn’t be at risk of writing anything. Bryant, on the other hand, can write well, his carefully crafted sentences delivering each anecdote with confidence but also with frequent, silent laughter. It’s like being regaled at a dinner party by a competent raconteur, someone with a capacity to see an interesting story and to tell it with flair.

Bryant takes the reader behind the scenes to show him or her what life was like in, say, Afghanistan at a time of radical change. The book starts mid-story, in Afghanistan at the middle (to that point in time) of his career, and each chapter focuses on a different period. There’re sections of the book about Lady Di, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, 9/11, Guantanamo Bay, and Steve Irwin’s death. It wasn’t certain to me, while reading the book, who he intended his audience to be though for some bizarre reason known only to himself and his editors he calls university “college”, so perhaps he was hoping it might do well in the States.

It serves as something of an apologia, in two respects. Bryant firstly regrets the failings of some foreign correspondents due to what he admits can be a ghoulish appetite for evidence of bloodshed and other kinds of calamity. He also appears to regret not being more critical of the US administration in the years immediately following 9/11. In respect of the first charge, Bryant is at pains to absolve himself, as well as most of his colleagues, of voyeurism. As for the second charge, his apology is somewhat mealy-mouthed and docile.

In general there’s a certain aloofness from the concerns of the common man. To underscore my point he also decries globalisation on account of its homogenising effects, but by doing so only makes his own position as a rich westerner more obvious. For poor Indian 15-year-old girls it might be far preferable to get a job at Starbucks than in a brothel, and while he goes out of his way to condemn child prostitution he is also able at any time get on a plane and go somewhere in the first world, for example the US, where he now lives.

Bryant knows the absurd when he sees it but nevertheless genuinely admires the US and seems loathe to condemn it on any level. Despite having studied American history at Oxford Uni it looks as though he long ago drank the Kool-Aid.

His stint after India was in Australia and his privilege is evident in the fact that though his opinion of that country is largely correct, you can tell that he has always had enough money to support himself as he doesn’t seem to adequately value such things as a decent minimum wage and free access to most medical services that is available to the majority living Down Under. Sadly there are no comparisons made to arrangements that obtain in the old US of A. Like his opinions about multinational corporations operating in the developing world, this lack of objective good sense was reinforced for me by his expressed distaste for the British monarchy; he’s genuinely puzzled by Australians’ loyalty to the House of Windsor. Bryant might not be aware of any personal bias – he comes across as blithe, erudite, yet not overly self-aware – though a genuine interest in history makes you feel confident, in a general sense, of his perspicacity. Unlike Greste – who as the BBC’s foreign correspondent covered Afghanistan in 1995, and who was arrested in Egypt in 2014 while working for Al Jazeera English – Bryant’s a puzzle.

For news junkies his book, though now a tad out of date, offers plenty of interest; it brought back memories of a time that, unsurprisingly now, seems more and more remote. And Bryant is even-handed: he sees the good side of George W. Bush but laments almost-universal fawning on the US establishment following 9/11. Personally, I don’t remember much about what was in the news in the period immediately after that day because I’d just returned to Australia from overseas and when it dawned I hadn’t yet taken the community’s pulse (I arrived in Sydney on almost the same day the Twin Towers were hit). But I remember the time around 2003 when public rhetoric began to be inflected differently because of the crisis that had started to overtake the Middle East and that, regrettably, is still at issue.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Movie review: LA Originals, dir Estevan Oriol (2020)

Starting its storytelling in the 1980s, this documentary film charts the lives of two Chicano (Mexican-American) men from Los Angeles. Mark Machado (Mister Cartoon) is a graphic artist who creates a name for himself making tattoos, and Estevan Oriol is a photographer who also makes videos. Their emergence as a creative force coincided with (and in fact depended on) the rise of hip hop.

LA gang culture has its own chroniclers, for example moviemakers. Such cultural products as ‘End of Watch’ (2012) and ‘Training Day’ (2001) illustrate, in a way that ‘LA Originals’ also does, the formation of an aesthetic argot, a demotic register born of a combination of drugs, music, and violence, particular to a specific place and time, that can have international appeal. Richard Poplak’s ‘The Sheikh’s Batmobile’ (2009) also describes how such things can take place in an era of global Capital.

The scenes in ‘LA Originals’ set in Iraq at the time of the 2003 US invasion – the second time in a generation such a war had been waged – are especially telling as to how this process can work. Such scenes made me mindful of George Gittoes, an Australian artist and filmmaker. In 2006 and 2007 on this blog I looked at his work, some of which is inspired by what he saw in the war zone.

Mr Cartoon’s art was readily absorbed, reified, and sold by big business. The influence of two people from a marginal US demographic achieving agency struck me as somehow emblematic of our times, even though their art perhaps represents more evolution than revolution. Migrants often turn out to be, either in themselves or through their children, among the most productive members of any pluralistic democracy they enter. But Tom Wolfe, in a 1963 essay included in his 1965 book ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’, chronicles the appearance of a similar type of art and its attendant subculture a generation before Estevan and Mr Cartoon started out on their respective trajectories.

Their kind of art combines kitsch with menace but its influence might, in the long term, be transient. The jury is still out as to its importance; time will tell. Nevertheless the movie, which uses thousands of photographs as well as clips of video footage, is worthwhile spending time with. It charts a phenomenon that sums up so much about today’s world and can be profitably watched by anyone interested in understanding how art and money can, under the right conditions, operate in tandem rather than (as usually happens) in parallel.

Before getting to the end of this review I want to quote a passage from journalist Michael Lewis’ ‘Trail Fever’ (1997; the book will be reviewed shortly on this blog). Here, Lewis is accompanying a failed Democratic presidential candidate on a working tour of Las Vegas. The man’s name: Jesse Jackson. At a hospital, where Jackson had gone to see Tupac Shakur, a hip hop artist who had been shot and who would die of his wounds, they meet promoter Don King.
Like Tupac Shakur, he wears not one but two gold watches, one on each wrist. An absurd display of wealth, on the one hand; on the other a funny parody of mainstream success culture: if you are going to turn your wristwatch into a status symbol, why have only one?
Most people under the age of 50 today, of course, know who Tupac Shakur was, but almost no-one would know, if pressed for an answer, that Bob Dole lost the presidential race in 1996. To underscore this point, on the day before this post was published, at around 11.05pm Pacific Time, a Californian resident with the Twitter handle @Andrew714 tweeted, in reference to this movie, “Can anyone tell me who does the song that starts at the 1hr 8min 16sec mark? It's not in the credits, been searching for days.”

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Movie review: Horse Girl, dir Jeff Baena (2020)

What is it like to live with psychosis? Some mental illnesses – for example schizophrenia, the most spoken about of them – can involve experiencing delusions. ‘Horse Girl’ accurately renders what it is like for a person to have delusions but it does so by alternating between the point of view of the person with the mental illness and the person – in different scenes it’s different people – who is with her.

Some people might misunderstand the significance of some scenes, for example the dream scenes early on in the piece where Sarah (Alison Brie) sees herself lying down in a white room. As she turns her head to the left and to the right she sees two people lying near her: a man and a woman. If you misunderstand the purpose of this scene your comprehension of the creation of meaning on the part of the filmmakers will be compromised. I’ll touch on this issue again later in this article but I won’t spoil the plot.

The writing is as good as the casting. John Reynolds’ Darren (Sarah’s love interest), Molly Shannon’s Joan (Sarah’s colleague at the art and crafts shop she works at), Debbie Ryan’s Nikki (Sarah’s flatmate), and Jay Duplass’ Ethan (Sarah’s social worker) all perform vital roles without which the drama would not work. They all play it straight, with enough emotion to show how strange is Sarah’s behaviour but without overdoing it. The balance is perfect.

The opening scene elicits the kind of low-level anxiety the movie retails in: you see the sky through the branches of trees and the camera simply zooms in on the cloudless blue expanse. This shot has two roles, one of which is to establish a baseline of emotion for the viewer. From the start: strangeness.

Foregrounding is also done by the next shot, which shows a hand holding scissors that are cutting cloth. The cloth motif recurs again and again in the movie. The shot of the cloth being cut humorously but dramatically signals to the term “schizophrenia”, which is also commonly and confusingly (because inaccurately) known as “split personality”. Laid over the top of it is a conversation between Joan and Sarah that centres on the topic of ancestry. This is another of the movie’s major themes and it links to the images showing cloth being cut because of the necessity of a kind of twinning involved in reproduction. To create a human an embryo splits into, then two again, then again and again etcetera until a foetus is formed. Reproduction also necessitates a man and a woman, with the structure of the DNA itself having two strings of proteins. Genesis 2:20-21 says
God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then [God] made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The peach coloured cloth that Sarah likes even resembles flesh; the tarot card reader in the shop (Mary Apick) says it’s a calming colour. In hue the colour peach is similar to the colour of Willow, the horse Sarah visits from time to time, and it’s even closer to it in tone. To borrow from the Bible serves neither to cast aspersions nor to seek to secure unwarranted gravitas; it’s rather to show how Sarah’s fecund imagination lends strong meaning to small things. The feeling of awe and even of fear that a delusion can inspire in the heart of the person experiencing it might only accurately be reflected by mirroring the effects on believers of texts such as this. One man’s horse is another man’s nightmare.

If you live with a disease, such as schizophrenia, that involves delusions you can sometimes feel that the universe is talking to you. You see correspondences between things that might not actually exist. Your sense of perception can also be altered, so that you think you see or hear something that isn’t really there. To illustrate these things, the filmmakers make Sarah experience what are known as “ideas of reference”. These are notions inside the head of the person with the mental illness that have a single, unifying theme. Everything seen or smelt or heard or touched or tasted links back to it.

The science is correct in this movie and I was completely convinced by it; it has justifiably garnered critical applause. I fear that some critics have misunderstood some aspects of the movie, however, and so it is likely that many viewers will also do so.

A couple of years ago I read a sci-fi novel by Christopher Priest titled ‘The Affirmation’ (1981) that renders in some detail what it is like to have delusions. Since that time, ‘Horse Girl’ is the only cultural product that I have seen that does the job as well. Or even better than that wonderful novel! 

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Book review: Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose, ed Michael March (1994)

This book comprises mainly short stories, but includes an assemblage of occasional prose and verse, as well as a piece of literary journalism (and one short story ironically subtitled ‘A Novel’). The contents are so varied as to belie the precision of the title. Prose it is, but the picture that emerges is saturated with complexity and nuance, though not all stories are equal in quality. In his introduction, Czech novelist Ivan Klima backgrounds the choices:
This anthology shows how writers ‘inside’ were generally resistant to a bipolar vision. Their world is not orverrun by corrupt Party secretaries, members of the secret police, or unwavering dissidents: it is full of ordinary people, loving and hating each other, committing rape, suffering, dying, waging pointless wars; here (as everywhere) trees blossom in spring, sons love their mothers, husbands long for a mistress; here (as everywhere else in the world) there are rogues, saints, eccentrics and lunatics, but most people have their ordinary joys and worries, prepare weddings or pig-slaughterings, some get drunk, others have higher aspirations, seeing that even in situations outwardly lacking in liberty those who try may find a good deal of freedom, while others go through life as a witness observing the strange theatrical spectacle offered by an existence full of paradoxes.
While the struggle was real and many people got out and lived elsewhere, or else tried to get out, the word “description” barely assists a curious person, looking for something to read, to grasp the nature of the range of things in this collection. Stories, some of them, so strange and beautiful that you are not sure if you are dreaming or if you are awake. Self-referential, humorous, tragic and funny. A kaleidoscope of ways of seeing and understanding reality, as diverse and challenging as anything that might have been published in a country in the world. But published, of course, only after the Iron Curtain had come crashing down.

If you consider the date of this collection you must think how difficult it would be, now, to publish a book with the same title. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached and the Soviet Union, having lost the Cold War, made its unsteady way toward adopting a new name and a market economy. But in 1994 no-one could have anticipated how Eastern Europe would look after a generation had elapsed. If you had asked the editor of this collection about such things he might have said that democracy would lead to a flourishing polis in any of the countries where lived the writers – most of them still, in 2020, still alive – with works published in this book. March could never have anticipated that the democratic deficit that is visible in so many Eastern European countries is echoed in other parts of the world notably, since 2016, in the United States of America.

But because the stories in the book are, many of them, so good, we can forgive the book’s prescriptive title, though “description of a struggle” might better have just been left off the dustjacket with its photograph taken on a street in Prague in 1968. The nearest approximation to the truth seems to have presented itself to the book’s producers as the best candidate. Whose struggle does the title refer to? To Eastern Europeans’ struggle? To the Cold War between the West and the USSR? To the struggle of the individual to find and maintain a place in the world, a struggle common to people wherever they live? To our struggle to grasp the nature of reality itself? To all of these things?

Another struggle is the one needed to get these authors’ work recognised on the international stage. Only one name had I come across before, that being Ismail Kadare, from Albania, whose short story ‘The Concert’ is here. It deals with Chairman Mao and is satirical, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the best of the bunch. The book’s diversity is overwhelming but Estonian writer Viivi Luik’s short story ‘The Beauty of History’ seems a suitable stand-in for the signification embodied in the title. Its use of code words and cyphers progresses, as this three-page story completes, into a cryptic meditation on a police state during a cold war.

Surprisingly, trees feature in a significant number of stories, such as Laszlo Marton’s lovely ‘The Sunken Apple Tree’, a family tale with magical elements, that was translated from the Hungarian. It tells of a child who died. In Hanna Krall’s ‘Retina’, translated from the Polish, there is a village near “dark green wooded hills”; this piece of literary journalism (or, possibly, fact-based fiction) deals with the Red Army Faction, a German terror group. In Drago Jancar’s ‘Repetition’, which was translated from the Slovenian, a group of armed men, possibly partisans, comes across a village where, “The glimmer of early morning light penetrated through the branches and trunks of trees, blinding the men of the night.” What they find in the village is disturbing and seems to presage disaster.

There are woods and trees also in Rein Tootmaa’s ‘We Gaze Up into the Tops of the Spruce Trees’, which was translated from the Estonian. It is a kind of love story, or a chapter from a tale of love, but it is also another thing entirely, full of longing and a sense of the impossibility of happiness. In Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu’s ‘The Dream’ you are also not quite sure what is real and what is imagined by the narrator. Trees appear in this story as well:
That night I dreamt of a key which someone had left in the forest. I had just descended a gentle slope into a dell where the beeches had grown sparse and slender, and the black soil between their trunks was dappled with bright white and yellow patterns of light. The sun shone dazzling through the branches swaying in a green breeze. The trees’ bark was peeling off and it gave forth a bitter tanic fragrance. A mist, caused not by vapour but by ennui and nostalgia, was coolly spilling into the eternal morning.
Jurga Ivanauskaite’s ‘Two Stories about Suicide’, translated from the Lithuanian, mingles sadness and humour to create a gentle sense of pathos. The second of these stories, ‘Danguole L. (1960-87)’ involves a young woman on a ship who invites a stranger into her cabin. It turns out they have met before, though he remains faceless. The uncanny is also there in Teodor Laco’s fairy tale ‘The Pain of a Distant Winter’, translated from the Romanian, which is about a child and his mother in a forest. Family also features in Czech writer Eda Kriseova’s haunting ‘The Unborn’, which has strong supernatural elements and which has at its core a planned child.

Another Czech story has a husband and wife at the centre of the narrative. This is Alexandra Berkova’s ‘He wakes Up’, which seems to be taken from life and recounts the events in a man’s day. Her story is wryly funny. Humour is found in a number of stories, including Jerzy Pilch’s ‘The Register of Adulteresses’, which is set inside a house and which was translated from the Polish. ‘Bohumil Hrabal’s ‘The Pink Scarf’ is a whimsical story set at the time of the uprising in Prague, and centres on a young man who, at a wedding, appears to wear a snake as a scarf. In ‘Down the Danube’ by Peter Esterhazy, a Hungarian man is travelling and giving an ironic account of his journey. Slovakian writer Rudolf Sloboda’s ‘The White Dog’ is also full of laughter and sadness. Sometimes the humour is acerbic or dark; a pig takes centre stage in Romanian author George Cusnarencu’s ‘The War’.

Metafictional elements are strong in Peter Nadas’ ‘Vivisection’, a Hungarian tale focalised through the eyes of an art student who is attending a drawing class. The story asks us to think about how reality is constructed, and questions the validity of the authorial position. The author, born in 1942, worked for a time as a journalist. In ‘The Secret of my Youth’, translated from the Albanian, Mimoza Ahmeti uses metafictional elements to interrogate both the narrative process, the state of the world behind the Iron Curtain, and the promise of happiness offered by countries in the West. Ahmeti’s story reminded me of Ivanauskaite’s contribution. A Hungarian, Lajos Grendel, who was born in 1948 and published his first novel in 1979, uses, in ‘The Contents of Suitcases’, the idea of the novel to question the very likelihood of existence. This stunning story which, like Nadas’, could have been written in any country in the world, was dedicated to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Other global themes appear, such as anti-Semitism in Jan Johanides’ ‘Memorial to Don Giovanni’, which was translated from the Slovakian. Some stories have different institutions at their core, such as Romanian author Ana Blandiana’s ‘The Open Window’, which is set in a prison and which avails itself of magic, or Piotr Szewc’s ‘Annihilation’, which recounts the adventures of two policemen out one night on the streets of a Polish town. In ‘Mina’, a story by writer and journalist Pawel Huelle, the subject is madness and a Polish mental asylum sits at the centre of the narrative. This is a lovely story full of longing and regret. In Czech writer Ondrej Neff a librarian is entranced by dust and his behaviour confuses villagers.

A sense of sadness also pervades Svetlana Vasilieva’s ‘The Time of Peonies’, though there is laughter in this story as well. It was translated from the Russian and is like an allegory; it uses tropes common to depictions of the USSR, such as hoarding and kleptomania. At the centre of the drama, appropriately, is a policeman. Appropriate because this list started with a story about codes and espionage, or perhaps codes and terrorism.

What is certain is that the long shadow of Russia still extends over the nations in which these 22 writers appeared in order to give us their unique and incomparable gifts. It’s probably worth mentioning that the stories picked out for notice here – and there were many stories I didn’t finish reading – mostly have indeterminate endings. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as good short stories often seem like a light switch has been flicked suddenly, illuminating for an instant an otherwise dark room. For that instant you can make out figures moving across the floor or a man sitting at a table talking on the telephone (as in Jerzy Pilch’s story). Then, just as suddenly, the switch is snapped off and the room again goes black. Night, light, night. Like life itself.