Sunday, 31 May 2020

TV review: Trial by Media, Netflix (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 May 2020

Visual disturbances: Ten

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

Thursday, 28 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-one

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

12 March

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

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

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

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

15 March

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

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

20 March

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

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

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

Monday, 25 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 23 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Movie review: Icarus, dir Bryan Fogel (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book review: The Pope’s Rhinoceros, Lawrence Norfolk (1996)

This book was bought on sale at some point in time. The recommended retail price on the back cover was $26.95, but in addition to the “Sale” sticker on the front someone’s used a marker to draw a line on the page-edges on the bottom of the book.

This is an ordinary production. It’s problem is not only structural and stylistic. It’s also about the characters. To start with, you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to care about. And while the first section details part of the experience of a boy in some remote European community – presumably somewhere where it gets very cold for part of the year – the trail abruptly terminates and then you are asked to sympathise with a community of monks living in a decrepit abbey in the same part of the world. Three hundred years go past in a rush, taking you (by my calculation) to the Renaissance, at which point most of the building falls into the sea.

I’m not entirely sure if this occurrence is meant to be read as symbolic of the Catholic Church’s troubles at that point in history, but here the second problem arises. In the first section the language is allusive and ornate – quite lovely, actually – and gives off a host of secondary meanings as you read. For example:
He ran to meet the boat when it came but Ewald would not speak to him with his father there and the other man crossed himself and looked away. He spent his other days wandering the island, looking for things to tell his friend. Greengages grew wild on the eastern side in an orchard overgrown with nettles and whippy ash trees. Little sticklebacks swam in the peat bog and eels came ashore at night to cross the narrow band of land, winding through the stringy grass near Koserow. He could swim underwater with his eyes open and hold his breath until he fainted. He told all these things to Ewald, but his best secrets were not his at all. They were the things he heard from his mother.
This has promise, but when you get to the monks’ story things get stodgy. Leavening fantasy is abandoned and you’re now dealing with a straight historical novel, so surprise at the book’s early charm cedes ground to dismay at the prospect of getting through over 700 pages of a brand of humour that is both arch and low:
Dirty grey light bulged in at the windows set high in the wall, pressing on the interior gloom. Humped on pallets lining the length of the dorter, monks in various stages of wakefulness stirred at the sound of footsteps. HansJurgen tiptoed between the two rows.
It comes to 45 words, and would be better delivered like this:
Grey light bulged in at windows set high in the wall and pressed on the gloom inside. Humps on pallets set along the length of the dorter: monks in various stages of wakefulness stirring as HansJurgen’s soft footfalls filled a space between the rows.
That’s one word less – 44 words – and it has more poetry (note especially the “f” and “s” sounds in the final clause); I don’t see the monk on “tiptoe”, he’s far too glum and prosaic, and why would he care if they heard him walking past their beds? A bit further down page 65 you get this purple patch:
His intrusion rippled slowly over the slumped bodies. A belch sounded. Sphincters began to loosen and release farts into the cold air. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously and added evil-smelling clouds to the fug. Urgent rustlings ceased abruptly at his approach, were furtively resumed as he passed further down the dorter. Fingery sins were being committed under rank-smelling coverlets. It was on the increase; fumblings and yieldings in the dawn’s grey silence, Onan’s sin at the dousing of the lights. HansJurgen blamed the Prior. His lectures stirred up the younger ones and threw their humours out of balance. A loud, ill-concealed grunt resounded from somewhere behind him. Spillage. Young dogs.
It comes to 109 words, and would be better delivered thus:
He rippled by their lumpy forms. Sphincters loosened, releasing gas into cold air. A belch. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously, adding to the evil fug. He imagined urgent rustlings ceasing at his approach and resuming as he passed further down. Fingery sins committed under rank coverlets. It was happening more and more; fumblings and yieldings in the grey silence, Onan let in at the dousing of the lights. He blamed the Prior. Those lectures stirred youngsters, put their humours out of balance. A grunt somewhere behind him. Spillage. “Young dogs,” thought HansJurgen bitterly.
That’s 92 words; Norfolk’s prose is underwritten and swings from a worthy, unspectacular lyricism to broad satire, which seems to tumble willy-nilly from his keyboard. In the second extract shown above the galumphing rhythm is deliberate, and has echoes of Seamus Heaney – a poetics of the uncouth.

When combined, the book’s shortcomings – of character, structure, and style – threw up in front of me an obstacle that is, furthermore, emblematic of a problem literary fiction has struggled to overcome, a perception among a large section of the community that it’s difficult. This novel is obscure not because it lacks complexity but because it is not ambitious enough, and the paeans emblazoned on the back cover (on the front one, too) are confusing because they show that a lot of people found the book entertaining. Or did they read any of it before commenting …? Or know Norfolk and felt an obligation to say something nice about his latest book? Or – as he was a known author – assume that his work “must’ve been” good enough to warrant their kind regard. It’s unaccountable.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

TV review: Fleabag, season 1, Amazon Prime (2016)

This hilarious show might need a bit of patience for some viewers to get used to (see tweet below), but if you stick with it it’ll pay off. It was originally produced for the BBC and was then taken up by Amazon, so you can see it on Prime.

I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. Rumour has it the Obamas liked the show (see tweet below).

The drama centres on a young woman living in London and while all the tropes are present that should make you want to hate her, the humour is garishly self-reflexive, so that at the same time as you laugh you are also aware that what you are seeing is designed to critique such people as those who criticise Millennials for being superficial and selfish.

In any given scene the filmmakers might be showing how ostensibly eccentric Fleabag’s conduct is while, at the same time, lambasting those who might take exception to it. She is, the filmmakers want us to know saying, quite sane. The butt of the jokes is not so much Fleabag as the entire community, especially when it rejects people who are true to themselves.

The jokes are sophisticated though for some the tone and content might be a bit challenging. Don’t watch it if you are put off by scatology. I somehow doubt that the Obamas expressed a preference for this show – it’s possible but incongruous, if true – though something else surprised me while I was with it. On 11 May – at about the same time as I was watching ‘Fleabag’ on Prime – I was reading David Bowman’s ‘Big Bang’, a novel about the immediate post-war period, and came across this:
The only other establishments in Foggy Bottom were hamburger hideaways and fleabags where nervous out-of-towners took their tomatoes and paid for rooms by the quarter hour. (Out-of-towners screwed quickly, I guess.)
‘Fleabag’ is, like Bowman’s novel, a comedy with tragic elements. In one scene, in episode 2, Fleabag’s sister comes into her café to buy lunch and orders a tomato sandwich. Fleabag asks if she only wants tomato on it and her sister indicates by her expression that that’s all she desires. The cost of the sandwich is 25 pounds. (When her sister makes a face to suggest that it’s a high price, Fleabag just says, “London.”) ‘The Big Bang’ was published in 2019, ‘Fleabag’s first season was released in 2016, so it’s a strange coincidence.

The novel is about the immediate post-war period but the show pokes fun at everything and anything, from the modern career woman (Fleabag’s sister, played by Sian Clifford) to the liberated woman (Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), from Millennials (a mindfulness retreat is satirised in ep five; it was paid for by their father, played by Bill Paterson) to Boomers (such as his partner, Fleabag’s godmother, played by Olivia Colman).

Part of its demotic vibe comes from a plethora of smutty jokes. The popularity of porn has possibly never been depicted like this, and it’s there from the get-go with, in the first episode, a man doing something rather indelicate to Fleabag and then, tenderly stroking her hair, thanking her for the privilege with a kind of schmaltzy aplomb that wants to be endearing and so is doubly ridiculous. By treading a very fine line – like someone on tiptoe skirting a ledge on the outside of a building – the filmmakers are always on the very cusp of allowing the production to implode and turn into slapstick – or plunge into the street. Some of the mindfulness retreat scenes are a bit obvious in their intent, but ‘Fleabag’ contains good fart jokes, in episode three, where the eponymous character and her sister share memories of their late mother.

The show offers people a convenient shorthand for a whole range of conduct that they might otherwise have trouble discussing. Because it’s all inside your head there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of mentioning sodomy or mendacity within the family, you can just ask, “Did you watch ’Fleabag’?” If the answer is “Yes” then you have already made a meaningful connection, and might even have an opportunity to laugh together with your friend or acquaintance or relative about a particular gag that caught your fancy. It’s like one of those porcelain figures that doctors used to use in China before the revolution, which gave patients a chance to point at a part of the body rather than actually name it.

Fleabag’s straight-to-camera segues – riffing off a conversation she might be having with someone in the drama – are knife-sharp, demonstrating how quick the human mind is to judge. This speed is what sits behind our use of personas – masks that we wear during our waking hours to fend of adverse assessments on the part of others we meet – but these, in turn, are one of the objects of Waller-Bridge’s relentless irony. The objectifying gaze of the individual living in the community refracts in an endless sequence of gags that always delay closure. The show is best when they are multiplying and expanding, embracing the viewer as well. “Did that just happen? “Did she really say that?” “Now, she’s talking to me as if I’m in the room with her, but how am I meant to respond?”

The ledge tilts under your feet as you do double- and triple-takes. There’s rarely anything solid upon which to base the form of virtue, but in the attempt Waller-Bridge unearths pathos. While the show takes a look at such complex subjects as suicide and love, the viewer him- or herself is the real subject. By casting a light on a paradox – the flaw in the glass is what reveals the world’s true nature – ‘Fleabag’ is humanistic, going to the heart of who, as a species, we are.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Movie review: The African Doctor, dir Julien Rambaldi (2016)

Titled ‘Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont’ in France, where it originated, this is a very French film though the music, in places, is like the soundtrack of a Disney movie. Based on true events, the story intelligently addresses issues associated with globalisation in post-colonial times.

In 1975’s France a doctor named Seyolo Zantoko (Marc Zinga) from what was then known as Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of Congo) graduates from university and, at the afterparty in a city pub, he gets to talking with a small-town mayor (Jean-Benoît Ugeux) who is visiting Paris. The mayor’s from a town near the capital and the two chat about the possibility of working there. The mayor, according to Seyolo’s friends, comes to the afterparty every year because he has had trouble finding a doctor who will move to his corner of the world.

Seyolo agrees to relocate to Marly-Gomont and bring his family with him. He calls his wife Anne (Aïssa Maïga), who is in Kinshasa, and she and the rest of the extended family think it’s Paris the family will move to. They all celebrate while Seyolo tries to tell them that it’s “near” Paris and not Paris itself. But in vain. The family of four arrives – Sivi (Médina Diarra at about 12 years old) and Kamini (Bayron Lebli at about eight years old) are of course with their parents – and it’s raining. The mayor didn’t bring his car to meet the bus, so they all get wet.

Anna is angry about the town’s diminutive size but worse is to come as the villagers shun the new arrivals, and refuse to use Seyolo’s medical clinic, preferring to drive to a nearby town and use the doctor there. Sivi also has unrealised dreams. She wants to become a soccer player but her father says the sport is for idiots. He won’t let the kids watch TV either. The family manages discord and occasionally friends visit – migrants who live in Brussels, in the nearby nation of Belgium – to create a more wholesome kind of community for the Zantoko family to enjoy.

Beginning with a farmer named Jean (Rufus), Seyolo starts to win over the townspeople but some of them make trouble for him and Anna. The forces of good and the forces of evil are ranged against each other. Who will win? 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Book review: A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World, Rana Mitter (2004)

This Oxford University Press publication was bought at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney Uni, where I worked from 2003 to 2009. It was bought on sale. A sticker on it shows a date (August 2006, which probably indicates when it was put on the shelf) and a price of $14.95. It was later remaindered for $9. Such an index of success; the author was born in India, but is British, and works at Oxford University.

His wonderful book takes a longer view of Chinese history in the 20th century, launching its narrative in 1919 when there was an incident of some renown in China – the May Fourth Movement began at this point in time – and then it looks at the country’s struggle to accommodate modernity. The Qing dynasty had collapsed in 1911 and there was subsequently a power vacuum that various actors attempted to fill, the Communists being one of them.

It’s salutary to note that the CCP wasn’t by any means destined to win that struggle but Mitter doesn’t just concern himself with politics and also looks at such things as the status of women, and private enterprise. Nevertheless, politics was important as it linked with people’s identities. The incident in question happened as a result of simmering tensions between Chinese people and foreign nations that operated in coastal settlements (such as Shanghai), but it exploded violently after an international meeting in Paris decided, following WWI, to give the German concessions to Japan. Mostly involving students, the incident resulted in no deaths but one man was badly beaten with a metal object and a house was burned down.

In China the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s was an aspirational time, with publications circulating ideas associated with modernity – such things as freedom, equality, democracy, science, and the nation – at least among the part of the community that was literate. Universities attracted students, who formed communities in surrounding suburbs, both in Shanghai and in Beijing. These debates were mainly urban in nature until, later on, the Communists changed the nature of the debate by bringing into it the rural poor.

The war against Japan, which started in 1937, changed the tone of proceedings, and debate became more polarised, even acrimonious. Now, it wasn’t possible to talk publicly about things in the same way that it had been even a few years before, when debates had been relatively free.

Chinese people associated with the movement didn’t restrict their purview to countries such as the USA, Britain, and the newly formed USSR. At least as far as they might be models to follow, countries such as Hungary and Turkey offered more interesting examples of how to embrace modernity. Both of those countries came into existence as a result of WWI and their experiences and the policies of their political parties formed part of the context for discussions in China about how to change things to “save” China, which implied protecting it from foreign interference. This often involved talking about how to deal with China’s heritage, including Confucianism. Was it an asset or a liability? What to keep? What to reject? How to deal with a term like “socialism”? How, even, to translate it?

It’s worth noting also that socialism was a policy also of the Nationalists and so the way that people’s lives could be improved sat at the forefront of the minds of most intellectuals and other people, many of whom were animated by the ideas they retailed in. This, regardless of which party or group they were allied with. It’s also worth noting that the memory of the May Fourth Movement remained strong and was leveraged by the CCP in an effort to create cohesion in the community, though the free-thinking that initially characterised it was, ultimately, discouraged by the Party. As Mitter says of the Cultural Revolution, it “wanted the technology, but not the means of creating the knowledge that went with it”. This is still mainly the case in China today.
The Cultural Revolution, like the Qing, wished the end results of technological modernity, but to fit them into a frame in which they were constructed as purely Chinese products. Yet the xenophobia (expressed as anti-imperialism, but in fact violent anti-foreignism) meant that this was always a well that would run dry eventually: the techniques that had been learned from the west before 1949 and then the Soviets until 1960 could be adapted to Chinese circumstances to a certain point, but the desire simultaneously to create a Chinese knowledge base drawing on western modernity without any foreign input, and furthermore condemning any association with foreign knowledge (Soviet or western), led to a dead end of spectacular proportions.
Millions of people died because the internationalism that had characterised the May Fourth Movement was jettisoned even as, in an attempt to shore up power, Mao celebrated its dead figureheads.

The interplay of economic factors, geopolitical ones, and ideas animates Mitter’s narrative. At different points in it, ideas associated with the May Fourth Movement add drama through historical personages, the men and women who held them and who often expressed them in publications. How ideas themselves are reified constitutes a key point the book tries to make. Ideas are appropriated by people – for example by Party cadres – and are used to achieve specific ends. So while internationalism returned to China in the 1980s, in 1989 the search for more political openness in the form of democracy would be bloodily crushed.

A paradox seems to lie at the heart of China. Nationalism gave birth to it as a modern country but an unwillingness to embrace ideas from outside – an unwillingness that is rooted in the very idea of the nation – makes it hard for the leadership to change direction. Unless the outside idea is in the interests of the Party. So a narrow point of view manacles China's future. And bitterness inculcated by the effort to overcome the humiliations of the 19th and 20th centuries has led the CCP to try to do to other countries what it had done to its internal opponents during the Cultural Revolution. Again, nationalism is at the heart of this dynamic: it is "us" versus "them".

Mitter also suggests that in the absence of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, China risks a return to backwardness, like the Qing. He offers advice to China’s leaders, suggesting embracing pluralism, wisely pointing to Taiwan as an example of an ethnic Chinese country that went – in the space of one generation – from dictatorship to democracy. Let’s hope the Party follows their lead but in the years since the book was published there have been few indications of a willingness on its part to do so, although Chinese people do discuss politics among themselves (even if they mostly keep their discussions off social media) and the diaspora grows larger every year, sending new ideas back home.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Movie review: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, dir Stanley Nelson (2019)

I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary though I felt, the next day, that the filmmakers lost some dramatic opportunities.

I'm not a big user of music and I have never been into jazz, but I am familiar with the kinds of music that Davis created because they are regularly used for soundtracks for movies and TV shows. If you knew nothing about Davis and decide to try this film, you would have already been prepared – whoever you are and wherever you live – for some of what you will see. You might know nothing about the events of the musician’s life but you will – without doubt – have heard his music at some point in your life. It’s that famous.

This explains the tendency of some of the interviewees to idolise the musician, despite his obvious faults. The movie uses a good deal of footage taken from videoed interviews conducted with people who were related to Davis, who worked with him, or who wrote about him. It also uses footage from other sources, including what was taken at concerts Davis gave at different locations in different countries. Then there’s archival footage – for example from when Davis would go on tour in Europe – that was filmed by people close to him at the time. All of this material is fused skilfully into a harmonious whole for the education and entertainment of the viewer.

Davis was no saint but the hushed tones that some people use when talking about him – people who knew him when he was alive – are off-putting. What happens to Davis’ first wife, Irene, is not clear, furthermore, though it appears that he had good relations with his children from that marriage. On the other hand, the film (as far as I, a complete novice, could discern) is factual or, at least, it’s thorough.

Like a colossus, Miles Davis straddled generations and was, like David Bowie, someone who was able to change his style quickly, unexpectedly and, sometimes, radically. But you can see the development, over time, of a stately oeuvre, something lasting and important. It wasn’t completed without a certain degree of disharmony. And the man himself, it is clear, was prone to suffering – as many people are – to alleviate which he used easily available means.

Perhaps the example of Miles Davis, or people like him, was behind my father’s decision to steer me away from the visual arts to a corporate career. I can never know. An unassailable truth, however, is that creative pursuits are highly rewarding, in a way that few activities in life are. It’s important to discover your true metier, your avocation. This film shows creativity in action in the life of one man. If you like music of any kind, watching this film will give you pleasure. If you are interested in creativity of any stamp, likewise. It can be profitably watched by a wide range of people, not just those who like jazz, bebop, funk, or pop music.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Book review: Big Bang, David Bowman (2019)

I must’ve bought this volume at a charity sale, as there’s a sticker on the dustjacket saying “$5”. The author died tragically young about eight years ago. He was aged in his 50s. His novel was a major project; according to Wikipedia, which I must rely on for information, he worked on it for a decade. It comes with an introduction – which I didn’t read – by a more prominent American writer.

Bowman’s novel is packaged as nonfiction but it is clearly not such. A lot of questions arise when you read it. Some relate to the ability of the author to know certain things about the lives of his characters – who are all based on real people – but there are other things that are not clear, such as the present of the authorial “now”. On page 175, for example, you find this: “World War II remained alive in everyone’s mind in 1954 as 9/11 is still alive in 2013.”

But Bowman died in 2012, so he must’ve cast the “now” of the authorial present into the future, to a time when he might no longer be alive. This slippage is emblematic of the novel as a whole, a place where secrets and facts that are harboured by people – Howard Hunt, the novelist and CIA operative, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jimmy Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Joseph McCarthy (among others) – exist in a penumbra of possibility, a place where being is still emerging in a vague locus of existence filled with small dramas that, at some point down the track (we know from history), will turn into action and appear as tonic events. The most important of which is the assassination of JFK in November 1963.

This is the magic of Bowman’s masterpiece – it is undeniably a masterpiece – a book so complex and subtle that it’s hard to know how to position him in the authorial fraternity. The title is equally hard to pin down. People keep having car accidents or getting shot. Or else the “big bang” might refer to the atomic bomb, or the post-war baby boom. Or the gunshots that took out the president. The author himself was born in 1957, which makes the title hint at another kind of release – in this case parturition – or, at least, from Bowman’s point of view it does.

‘Book one’ takes up just over half of the volume, and takes in the years 1950 to 1959. ‘Book two’ starts on page 365 and takes in the years 1960 to 1963. There is also an epilogue that continues the mystical tendency of the end of the final chapter. I was deeply moved by the complexity of Bowman’s poetic vision, by his ability to transport the reader from the concrete parts of individual lives, to universals such as eternity, history, and fate. There is something deeply otherworldly about this “nonfiction” novel, something both great and pathetic. That so much responsibility can be foisted upon one man, the hopes and aspirations of not just one nation but of the entire world …

However you categorise it, this is another one of those big, encyclopaedic American novels but you’ll never get bored as there are hundreds of individual threads of stories to unravel as you progress. All during your time with the book a sense of indeterminacy it engenders highlights a feeling that life is contingent on pure chance. You might wake up tomorrow, you think, or you might not.

While the prose is rooted in fact – each section starting out like a newspaper article and with details pertinent for the reader appearing, with a wry lilt (the footnotes are especially glib), at precisely calibrated points in the narrative – it is infinitely suggestive, like a curtain blowing around crazily in the gap created by an open window, through which you might, as the fabric drifts this way and that, glimpse the future beckoning.

With maybe a sound like angels. Whether they are angels of death or angels bearing another kind of message will depend on who you are.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Dream journal: Twenty

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

6 March

Dreamt I was in New York in a multistorey carpark with a group of friends, three people that included a couple (a man and a woman) who were aged about the same as me, and a man of the same age. In the dream I was significantly younger than I am now.

The four of us were on our way to a dinner appointment and were getting ready to get in a rental car to drive there. I was walking around the carpark, looking at the cars because they were different from the ones sold in my own country, and one was a big, flat-nosed blue car that, like the other cars I saw, was quite dirty. Americans, my friends and I averred in comments we made to one another – we were all Australians – didn’t clean their cars as much as we did at home.

Near the front of the blue car were a couple of guys sitting around, talking, on chairs. They looked like they’d been there for a while, as though this was where they usually came to socialise. There was a table for them to use, and what (in memory) looked like a refrigerator. They had all the appearance of being in their living room. The apparition of two people in this setting didn’t strike me as odd although I didn’t interrupt them; the one closest to me looked quite tough and at the time I wasn’t really interested in starting a conversation.

Beside a different car I walked into a cloud of what looked like enormous mosquitoes and I was confounded because I had all these insects plastered to me as I continued around the perimeter of the carpark’s floor where we were. There was no boundary barrier, in the form of a guardrail or balustrade to stop you falling off, and in real life I have a fear of heights; I was attempting to get past the front of a parked car. “What kind of creatures are these?” I thought to myself. They weren’t biting me and they weren’t small, like midges we have back home. What were they?

Still surrounded by a cloud of bugs, I eventually came back to where my friends were standing and talking and I walked up to a diner or kiosk that had been constructed on the floor – it was serving food – and, with my hand, pointed at a can of insecticide that was on the counter, asking if I could use it. The waitress who was working there didn’t want to give it to me because, presumably, I wasn’t a paying customer, but after some negotiation the four of us managed to get hold of the can of spray and used it on the swarm of bugs around my head and torso.

I asked one of my friends to grab the swarm and pull it off me but, then, aware that it was getting near the time I usually wake up, that’s what I did and so I don’t know, now, how the dream turned out and whether I got rid of the bugs or not.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Book review: Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe (2000)

A sticker on the front of my copy shows that I bought it second-hand for $3. The recommended retail price ($21) is printed on the back, visible under a torn sticker, the significance of which I can never know.

Here lie traces of the past. Another is evident in the photo on the front cover, which cannot have been taken close to publication day – Wolfe was born in 1930 but in this photo he looks to be aged no more than 50 – so it was at least 20 years out of date when the publisher and author decided to use it. The dog jumping gaily between the author’s legs in a blur of asymmetrical abandon hints at another relic: the screaming jets heading, down the tunnel of history, toward the Twin Towers.

The candy colours used for the cover remind you of Wolfe’s pedigree (more reminders of the past; after WWII Wolfe was a front man in the literary journalists’ push to reshape the way reporting was done) but, like the essays in the book, the myth of the dandy, the man-about-town now appears dated, like another book from 2000 – a history of magazine the New Yorker by American journalist Ben Yagoda – that I tried to read on the same day I took up ‘Hooking Up’.

As a stylist Yagoda doesn’t entertain and Wolfe falls short of his goal. He riffs like a jazz player but needs a score to guide him. Improvisation overburdens the facts he marshals to his cause, making you wonder if he’s really being objective in his assessments in each case. Like Icarus, Wolfe aimed high. And his higher purpose in writing the book – a piece of American exceptionalism – fails because the heyday that such works sought to herald, like ice on a summer pavement, quickly evaporated.

The first piece is about hook-up culture, but the book’s broad remit suggests other readings for the book’s title, which rhymes with “looking up”. Who looking up to whom? Or, were things finally, on the eve of the new millennium, looking up? Perhaps the phrase should be understood literally: since the Cold War had ended America’s curve was trending up after a hook-shaped reverse.

I wished Wolfe had spent 300 pages writing about Intel’s founder Robert Noyce alone, or entomologist Edward O. Wilson alone. In his essays there’s not enough time to adequately elaborate his ideas or, even, to outline the achievements of his subjects. He is content to do a sketch based on a modicum of research and then, while celebrating Trump’s America, try to predict the future.

There’s no doubt the country continues – as it has always done – to innovate and to throw out new inventions and technologies and ways of thinking. It is a vast, kaleidoscopic community containing – like the microprocessor (which Noyce’s company, Intel, invented) – an array of elements. This diversity is its strength and when planning his book Wolfe displays a preference for stories where the subject was born outside the major cultural centres. Wolfe himself was born in Virginia. Noyce was born in Iowa and Wilson was born in Alabama. A kind of oblique or erratic shape made Wolfe happy, as did poking a stick in the eye of what he thought of as the staid elites of the country’s north-eastern quadrant. In the article that lends its title to the book’s front page, Wolfe points to the demotic fashion trends of the 90s – low-slung jeans, T-shirts, garish sneakers, baseball caps – which were first made popular on the West Coast, so his choice of garb also strikes me as an index of a certain ingrained contrariness. (“They might change to suit the times, but I’m not going to.”)

With ‘In the Land of the Rococo Marxists’, a kind of Trumpian libel of intellectuals of all stripes, he celebrates the multicultural nature of America, its ability to attract people from all over the world through migration, though new arrivals tend to gravitate to the major urban centres, such as LA and New York, and not to the places where Trump would reap his rewards 16 years later.

The impetus behind the book reflects an overt and hard-nosed triumphalism and is intended as a rebuke to Europe, so it is an artefact belonging to a time when the cultural cringe still pressed upon the minds of American intellectuals. I wonder if those days are, now, in the past or if they returned after 2016.