Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" - a movie review

(Spoilers - most of the cast dies.)

The release of Darren Aronofsky's CGI pre-apocalyptic juggernaut raises all manner of interesting questions, not least of all being this: where does this film squeeze into the whole religion/atheism debate? Come to that, does it even need to? Is it so far removed from Biblical accounts of a Great Flood that it is rendered utterly irrelevant in that context?

It seems likely that the answers to these questions – and how any one individual feels about the movie – will depend in large part on where that individual is positioned on the religion/atheism spectrum. But an even more nuanced question is the effect your personal level of ambivalence will have on your opinion. In other words, do you even care whether this retelling of the Noah’s Ark myth accurately follows the Biblical record (it really doesn’t) or whether it takes such liberties with the implausible story of an old man building a floating zoo in order to preserve the entire animal kingdom that it becomes its own rather silly piece of escapist nonsense (it does). And in the case of the latter, is it made well enough to even fill that brief?

In a word, no. But more on that in a moment.

I suspect that one can’t help but bring one’s own understanding of the Noah story to any showing of this movie. If your exposure to this story is predominantly from colouring-in books, birthday cards and Fisher-Price toys, then you’ll possibly see this as the forgettable piece of noisy fluff that it is. But like many raised as devout Christians, I can’t do that. I grew up believing that the creation story, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the talking serpent, and the Great Flood were all literally true and accurately recorded in the Book of Genesis, and as such literally took place within the last six thousand years. I no longer believe those stories, preferring to see them as what they undoubtedly are – one of our earliest attempts to explain the natural world in much the same way that Native Americans and Indigenous Australians constructed their own creation myths. And yet I found myself sitting in a dark cinema becoming increasingly agitated by the ‘inaccuracies’ in the movie. Noah couldn’t have known how to forge steel! His wife wouldn’t have had a home herbal pregnancy test! Methuselah wasn’t a magical hermit! And I’m damn sure that if Noah and his family really built the ark, they’d did it without the assistance of granite-encrusted fallen angels, stomping around the place and reducing the heathens to dust like villains from a Jerry Bruckheimer bad acid nightmare. And corrugated iron? Really? (Yes, I’m completely serious about the corrugated iron.) And steel bear traps. And gunpowder. Besides, the Old Testament clearly states that there were two of each of the ‘unclean’ creatures, but seven of the ‘clean ones’, rather than the traditionally held ‘two-by-two’ scenario. What right do the makers have to take such a liberty? Yes, I did find myself scoffing at these – and many other – gross ‘inaccuracies’. But then I’d pause to remind myself that not only was this version fictitious, but so too was the original.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
All that said, the holes in this movie and the lazy, stupidly convenient explanations to many of the glaring narrative questions raised by the original tale are, in my view, ridiculous beyond measure. How did Noah get all those animals to behave themselves on a big shared boat for a year? How did he feed them? Well, it turns out he didn’t have to, since he had knowledge of a special soporific incense to which he and his family were immune, but which could knock out a sizeable cross-section of Africa’s fauna in mere seconds. How did he make fire? Well, he had these little glowing nuggets which, when hit with the handle of a Bowie knife, flared into very useful barbecue heat beads which somehow made damp wood burn instantly. Perhaps most impressive of all was the giant gimbal on which the interior of the ark was presumably fixed. This can be the only possible explanation for external shots showing the vessel being tossed like a cork on tempestuous waters while within the ark we see Noah and his family sitting around the fire, calmly drinking soup from a cup. 

And on it goes, with a kind of bizarro-Ockham’s razor taken to most of the social and anthropological questions raised by the original story. Who did the kids mate with once the waters had receded? Each other? Mum? Some of the surplus livestock? Noah’s son Ham, in a poignant confirmation that the middle child syndrome isn’t a new thing, wanders petulantly into the wild yonder, either to die alone or, if the early Mormons are to be believed, to somehow spawn dark-skinned children. Alone.

I readily confess that my issues with this retelling are almost certainly due, at least in part, to my deeply ingrained ‘knowledge’ based on a literal reading of Genesis – that God wiped out all of humanity save for the one righteous man. Perversely, after seeing Noah I now have a certain sympathy for the uniformly batty Ray Comfort, who is protesting because of how ‘inaccurate’ this movie is, and how, when the account given in Genesis is read as a literal historical record, the story is rendered almost unrecognisable from the original.

Trying to approach it with the eyes of a a non-believer isn’t much more helpful. Can this movie be viewed as a stand-alone work of apocalyptic fantasy, perhaps a story staged in a parallel universe? If we agree to approach it as a good yarn, a tense drama of one man’s struggle against the forces of evil, of an honourable man torn between love for his family and duty to his God, does Noah stand up? Can we forgive its shortcomings?

"Hold the boat! Hold! The! Boat!"
In my view we cannot, since most of these shortcomings are anathema to good film-making of any stripe. The pacing and the attention to the chronology of the story is desperately uneven. Characters drift in and out of the narrative with seemingly little connection to one another, and certainly scant underpinning in back-story. The acting is, in some cases, solid enough. Russell Crowe reprises his role from Gladiator, all steely glares, curt responses and makeshift javelins. The kids aren’t bad, and Ray Winstone is, as ever, arresting. But Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah is completely wasted (sometimes literally, it would seem), reduced as he is to a doddery grandfather who spends his twilight years in a kind of DIY bronze-age opium den, able to pull himself together only long enough to hypnotise his great-grandkids to facilitate a private conversation with their father, or to perform healing miracles in the style of Uri Geller. 

Sadly the women miss out on most of what few good lines there are, despite having fairly pivotal roles in the story. Emma Watson, playing Noah’s adopted daughter, seems to have lost all the acting ground she made in the transition from Harry Potter to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and is back to doing Hermione Granger, but without the range. And Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife is given very little to work with, and as such delivers very little. Very little indeed. Repeatedly.

Make no mistake, as pure spectacle this movie has its moments. Watching the entire world engulfed by ‘the waters below’ made the ocean scenes in A Perfect Storm look like ripples in a bath. But that simply highlights one of its greatest flaws; at no point does this feel like a depiction of a global flood. As a hundred or so of the doomed victims cling to the last remaining peak like extras in a medieval chapel fresco, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed. In fact, the flood depicted feels much more like whatever actual event spawned the original myth, probably a prehistoric flash flood that wiped out a village, ultimately leaving nothing but a sad, bedraggled goat stranded on a hillock.


More than once I wondered if that mightn’t have been the more interesting story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

12 Years a Slave - film review


(This review contains numerous significant spoilers. You have been warned.)

Some years ago a friend who is a very fine amateur photographer showed me one of his favourite images, of a woodpecker clinging to the trunk of a tree as it pecked away at the bark. He showed me two versions of the same photo. The first - the original - had the tree positioned on the left of the frame, with the bird on the right. The second version was simply reversed, so that the woodpecker was now facing right, hammering away at the dark shape that ran down the right side of the picture. 'The second one is better,' Mark said, quite correctly. By why? Other than being mirrored, the images were identical. 'The tree trunk on the right stops the eye,' he explained. ‘Since we read from left to right, our eye approaches images the same way. The first version allowed the viewer to linger briefly on the bird before "escaping" out the right-hand side of the frame. Reversed, the eye comes into the picture, and is then blocked from leaving by the tree.' Such is the psychology of the visual.

Consider now the poster for 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York free man kidnapped and thrown into slavery in the deep South, is running. Escaping, presumably, at full sprint. To the left. Back into the arms of the slavers rather than the arms of his family. To present him running to the right would be to offer him freedom, liberation. Hope. To the left lies utter hopelessness and despair.

This is a review of a film, not a poster. After all, we don't pay our hard-earned to stand in the foyer and admire the artwork. So why the focus on the poster?

To me, this is simply one sign of the attention to detail the director and producers of this film have shown. Miss-steps? There are few, if any. The sudden jump to Mistress Shaw, a black lady of means we had hitherto not met had me briefly wondering if the projectionist had spooled the wrong reel. (But since 'projectionist' isn't a job any more, that couldn't have been it.) Of course, it wasn't a miss-step at all. On reflection it is jarring in precisely the way it was intended to be. (Read about the screenwriter's take on this here.)

Jarring moments are many in this film. Each is good for the way the story is told, most not so good for the characters. The extended scenes of violence, sparing nothing, do not feel like torture porn. Mel Gibson could learn a thing or two from director Steve McQueen about using cruelty and violence in a deeply troubling, 'please make it stop' kind of way, rather than rejoicing in the gore and splitting flesh. In the way it should be used. At no time does the violence in this film feel gratuitous. Excessive, yes, but then, slavery was nothing if not an excessive use of violence.

In one scene that had me practically hiding behind my hands, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the beautiful, delicate young slave girl and reluctant lover to the slaver owner Epps is being lashed for possessing soap. Egged on by his stony, jealous wife, Epps is determined to lash her to death, to strip the flesh from her back. Except he hasn't the guts to do it himself, so he hands the task to Northup. What follows is one of the hardest things I've ever watched. In the end, as her cries turned to whimpers, I actually found myself hoping that she had died, in much the same way that we hope a badly injured animal will soon breathe its last and feel no more pain. 

'A badly injured animal.' There it is - in one scene McQueen had managed to make me deeply sympathetic to a character, whilst forcing me to adopt some of the distorted psychology that allows the powerful to dehumanise the weak. It's powerful film-making, powerful storytelling, utterly immersing and involving and implicating the viewer.

Equally impressive were the moments of silence, and the moments of confusion. To deal with the first: in one of the brief flashbacks, Northup is in a store in New York, about to spend a far too much on a travel bag for his wife. Another black man, also well dressed, comes into the store, only to be followed in by his master, who apologises to the storekeeper for the 'intrusion'. Off camera, someone says, 'It's no intrusion'. It sounds like Northup, or perhaps it's the storekeeper. The white master's expression suggests it is Northup, but before you've a chance to be certain, the black man has been bustled out and normality returned. And you get on with the story, the 'intrusion' forgotten. And again, we become faintly complicit in the world we are watching.

One viewer review I read complained about some of the 'long, boring, pointless scenes where nothing much happens.' Perhaps they were referring to the scene where Northup is being hanged, but is then lowered barely enough for his toes to reach the muddy ground below, just to make sure he learns his lesson. Ankles and wrists bound, we watch his toes scrabble for purchase as he dances a silent, desperate dance. Meanwhile his fellow slaves go about their work around him, too terrified of reprisal to cut him down. He hangs like that well into the evening, and we watch for a full five minutes, maybe more, an eternity in cinema-time. Like the lashing of Patsey, it is long, and excruciating to watch, even from a comfortable cinema seat.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of this film is the way it forces us to re-examine that old question, 'What would I do?' Would I stand up to the SS guard, would I offer sanctuary to the Tutsi refugee being hunted by men with machetes, would I climb into the carriage and ride away to freedom, leaving other black men and women behind to continue to be slaves?

Of course, that is precisely what Northup does when his chance at liberation comes knocking, and it hits the viewer like a sledgehammer, especially as the last thing we see, just as a blur in the corner of the frame, is Patsey fainting and falling to the ground in front of the plantation house. As we wonder how he can possibly go back to his old life with a clear conscience knowing what he is leaving behind, we remember a scene much earlier in the film, where a friend is liberated at the dock and hurries away without so much as a glance back at a shocked and incredulous Northup.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Both Ejiofor and Nyong’o were rightly nominated for Academy Awards (Nyong’o won) but equally impressive are Michael Fassbender as Epps, Sarah Paulson as his cold, heartless wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the relatively kind slave-owner Ford. But the performance amongst the secondary characters which really stands out is Paul Dano, the vindictive, petty overseer Tibeats. When we first meet him, he sings a chirpy Southern ditty titled 'Run Nigger Run' which, in a sublime piece of editing, goes on to overlay a montage of hard manual labour, gleefully cruel overseers, and a pressed and ironed Cumberbatch presenting a Sunday sermon to his assembled 'property’. The topic of the sermon? The biblical extolment of owning other humans. With the sinister soundtrack of Tibeats’ song, this scene is properly chilling.

As with so much good cinema, it’s hard to say that this is a movie to enjoy, so much as one to appreciate. If there is a weakness in 12 Years a Slave, it is its slightly hamstrung narrative arc, entirely by virtue of being a true story. But if the final scene ends with what feels like something of a cliche, it is rightly followed by an awkward moment as the viewer, along with Solomon Northup, is forced to wonder, ‘What happens now? Does life just go on? Do things go back to normal? And how can they, knowing what we now know?’

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Hi Pot, this is Kettle" - Miranda Devine screams hypocrisy on behalf of the right

This is the original Devine piece in question, from The Daily Telegraph...

_________________________________________
And this is my response...

The temptation with anything written by Miranda Devine is to immediately dismiss it as shrill and unreasoned, based on a long and established history of writing shrill, hysterical op-ed pieces for Fairfax, and now Murdoch. In any other forum she would be labeled a troll, and the best evidence of this is in the dreadful tone of the majority those commenting on her blog. Perhaps they are trolls themselves, but the tone is so uniformly dreadful that one has to assume these people actually think this way.

But, despite this temptation to dismiss Devine’s latest blog post, I will attempt to address a couple of the points she makes.

 First, I find that the use of the word hypocrite is fraught, not least of all because it tends to attract a “tit for tat” series of accusations. “That was only one time, but it wasn’t as bad as when someone else did some other much worse thing.” “Yeah, but what about when this guy said that thing about that other guy?” ”Sure, but remember when you called me this after I said that?”And so on, ad nauseum. Achieving nothing.

But, that said, let’s do some of that anyway, ergo… Devine railing against the Abbott effigy-decapitators and the Abbott-haters on Facebook. Any reasonable person will argue that that kind of extreme protest is unhelpful at best, utterly destructive at worst. As Australians, I would hope we’re collectively better than that. And someone needs to explain this to Andrew Bolt, for instance, or to Larry Pickering, who is adored by a small fringe on the right, but otherwise ignored and dismissed as the rabid loon that he is by pretty much every reasonable Australian. See what I mean? Both sides of the debate can play the indignation game, which leads the concept of hypocrisy into an Inception-esque meta spiral of dreams within dreams, hypocrisies within hypocrisies. So it’s a potentially endless exercise in accusation and counter-accusation.

What is equally pointless as an exercise, be it academic or practical, is to waste time pointing fingers at the previous government and accusing them of causing this mess. The culpability of Labor/Greens in contributing to the failure of Howard’s border policies is undeniable. Lives were lost. Many lives. Contrary to what many on the Right would have us believe, no one was happy about this. No one was crying “crocodile tears”- to suggest such a thing is despicable (if not surprising) on Devine’s part. So yes, under Howard the boats had stopped. The camps were largely empty. However, what this admission doesn’t address is the methods the Howard government employed to develop, enforce and maintain those policies, aided in part by Peter Reith’s proven and willful omission of truth around the children overboard affair (for instance) and the rising tone of public outrage which followed (and ultimately ensured an unlikely election win). But even Howard and Reith in their worst moments were nothing compared with Abbott and Morrison, for reasons I’ll attempt to explore momentarily.

The reason this endless blame game is so pointless is because it doesn’t fix the problem we are faced with now. Right now. Not just locally, but internationally. Not just in terms of actual, skin-and-bone and mental human suffering, but in terms of our international reputation (as if that matters one bit when compared with real personal suffering.) Naval vessels wandering into Indonesian waters up to six times in a month, turning boats around against the wishes of our peaceful neighbours, and a growing feeling overseas that Australians are, well, hypocrites (to quote a teacher here in Hong Kong this very week, who marvelled at our ostensibly anti-immigration stance considering we are, if nothing else, a nation of immigrants.)

Again, none of this is fixed by tossing around accusations of hypocrisy. And none of this is fixed by trying to deny that with the possible exception of the impossibly idealistic Greens, leading into the last two elections both sides of our political scene were entirely willing to exploit a growing xenophobia by endlessly chanting the “stop the boats” mantra.

And certainly none of this is being fixed by Scott Morrison, who is, in my view, approximately 180 degrees from the “competent, methodical” operator that Devine would have us believe he is. Rather, I see him as completely out of his depth. None of it is being fixed by using sneering, snarky descriptors like “crocodile tears” when the concern being shown by the “hypocritical” left. And in addition to not being fixed, it is being exacerbated by Morrison’s steely refusal to tell us anything. When he does tell us something, it turns out to be half-cocked, or just plain wrong, even a barefaced lie. The man who died last week was not outside the compound (and therefore outside of his department’s care) as Morrison plainly told us, but very much inside. And whilst he was not murdered by Morrison (an admittedly inflammatory and mischievous turn of phrase by Milne) he was almost certainly murdered. He did have his head crushed, possibly his throat cut. It’s hard, even impossible to know specifics, since more than a week  later, an autopsy has not yet been performed on the body which is being guarded by the very people suspected of causing his death. And as we know from history, when there is an information vacuum, suspicion and conjecture emerge to fill it. If there’s nothing to hide, perform the autopsy and tell us what happened. Unlike almost everything else to do with this situation, this bit is actually quite simple. Unless there’s something to hide.

On that point, Devine waxes outraged about Angus Campbell being asked if there is a political cover-up. “How dare he,” she shrieks. Well, personally I think it’s a fair question. We’re not at war, and yet we’re apparently on a war footing, at least where information is concerned. A military commander is overseeing a clearly tense situation, but is gagged by his minister, citing “operational matters”. The situation is not allowed to be covered by the press. Parliamentary questions are restricted to Dorothy Dixers without supplementary follow-ups. Cameras and SD cards are confiscated and wiped at the behest of a private security company, apparently acting on orders from the minister. Translators lose their jobs for simply saying what they saw, ministers storm out of press conferences after ducking and weaving… again, if it’s NOT a political cover-up, tell us what we need and deserve to know, so we can understand the real situation. And don’t tell us that the silence is to keep the people smugglers in the dark – the LNP wouldn’t shut up about boat arrivals pre-September 2013, but now any discussion of the situation amounts to “shipping news”.

Part of the remit of the minister is to take ultimate responsibility for what occurs within his portfolio. But Morrison shows no sign of this. In fact, he only seems interested in blaming the last government for this mess, rather than doing anything about it. We get it – the last government’s policies were costly. Terribly and tragically costly. We get it – Morrison didn’t personally murder anyone, just as Rudd, Gillard and Bob Brown didn’t drown anyone. We get it – it’s a complex situation. But while ever it remains shrouded in this kind of secrecy and we accept it, we end up with the odd bloodstain on our own hands.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Who do we really want to be?

Earlier today I promised a rant, and now I'm almost ready to write it. 

But where to begin? With Tony Abbott insisting the a national public broadcaster has a certain unwritten obligation to cut the government some slack, and giving the navy the benefit of the doubt? With the Defence Minister seeing no need to look into significant allegations against military personnel, preferring instead to assert without investigation that there is no case to answer, and that anyway, the ABC is being treacherous, borderline treasonous? With 22 perfectly reasonable questions to Messrs Abbott and Morrison being met with the same ubiquitous catch-all: "In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised"? Or perhaps we could go international with our outrage, and question the political implications of this government treating our sovereign neighbours with the same contempt they show the Australian people who put them in power. Perhaps the apparent ineptitude of naval crews to read a GPS and chart well enough keep their vessels out of Indonesian waters. Or maybe the boast that no asylum seeker boats have reached Australia for x number of weeks, mainly due to them being intercepted by armed patrol boats and turned around.

No, I'm going to keep it simple, and talk about this picture, published by the Guardian a couple of days ago. And rather than a rant, it's going to be more of an appeal to common decency and human empathy. You know, all bleeding heart "small-L" liberal. The kind of thing that gets Sarah Hanson-Young labelled as "evil" by some on the right.

So, to the details as we understand them. 34 people, including children as young as 18 months, were ordered into a purpose-bought orange lifeboat, turned around, and sent back. Not even taken to an Indonesian port, but simply turned around and told, "You have enough fuel to reach Java", after which they had little choice but to do just that.

Now imagine the scene, 48 hours since they've eaten, running ashore on an uninhabited coastline, opening the door and disembarking. What happens then? Where does one go? 34 people standing on a beach in the dark, hungry and lost.

Of course the response from some will be that these people should have thought of that before they paid people smugglers to ferry them to Christmas Island. I imagine that's what the government is hoping - that prospective asylum seekers will think twice. What little information the government has given us would suggest that this is exactly what is already happening. So job done, I guess.

Under the circumstances I think that Marty Natalegawa is being remarkably restrained when he describes the tow-back/turn-back policy as "not really helpful". I would suggest that a better way to describe such unilateral decisions around sovereign boundaries might be "potentially damaging". This has the real potential to cause diplomatic headaches that will make the temporary ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia shrink into utter insignificance. As the Guardian says, "Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast." Does this mean more staff with boat-hooks and fenders to stop the lifeboats from landing? Does it mean having Indonesian navy vessels on patrol and ready to repel Australian ships that "accidentally" wander into their waters? A standoff on the high seas while an orange lifeboat bobs innocuously between them? All real possibilities.

So what is to be done? I don't think anyone considers it an easy problem to solve. (Well, except for those who argue that we should just shell the boats out of the water, but those kinds of nut-bars don't get a say.) For some time now both sides of politics have been culpable in demonising the desperate. I guess it's about playing for the middle ground, but that doesn't make any of the slated policies satisfactory. And it certainly doesn't excuse this bullying approach from the current government, not just towards the asylum seekers, but towards Indonesia, and towards the free press and Australian electorate who quite rightly expect better responses than "no comment". 


I think it's time to ask this question, and to answer it honestly: how do we want to the seen by the rest of the world? What kind of people do we want to be? Who have we become collectively, and are we actually happy with that? Modern Australia is a multicultural country made up predominantly of boat-people, a nation which has always prided itself on how highly it values mateship and a fair go for all. It's kind of hard to make that claim at the moment, wouldn't you say? The way things are going, we're going to have our work cut out to represent ourselves overseas as anything more than a bunch of privileged, whining xenophobes who don't give a shit about how hard things are for anyone else. 

But perhaps worse than that, we'll be seen as a democratic nation that is happy to vote in a government based pretty much entirely on who they aren't, before settling for letting them do whatever they please without expecting any kind of accountability. Are we really that country? God, I hope not.

Monday, July 22, 2013

An open letter to Kevin Rudd

Dear Mr Rudd,

It was good to see you over the weekend, or at least, good to see you on the TV. I don't attend church much these days, so I was always unlikely to run into you there, but I did catch a bit of footage of you patting your minister on the arm and sharing a joke of some kind as you went into the House of God. And I have to say, you looked ever so relaxed and happy, with your cable-knit over your shoulders like a Hilfiger model. And you had every right to be relaxed - it was a beautiful day, you were amongst friends who were almost certainly telling you what a great job you were doing, and I'm sure that you and Therese had a lovely traditional lamb roast lunch planned for afterward. Aren't clear Australian winter days just the best? How lucky are we to live here? But I'm sure you know that.

I can imagine your other reason for looking so relaxed is the knowledge that pretty soon you won't have to worry about losing the job you've taken back after you lost it the first time. I know how much it hurt to lose your job like that – the wobbling chin was a dead giveaway. So of course you did the only decent thing a visionary such as yourself could do: rather than acknowledge that people couldn't work with a micro-manager as ill-tempered as yourself who liked to speak grandly of our most important challenges without doing anything about them, and thereafter throwing your considerable talents behind the elected leader of your party, you took every possible opportunity to white-ant her. Of course I take your point that it was for the good of the party and the country, although I can't help wondering (forgive me for thinking out loud here) that your nemesis' – sorry, democratically elected leader – might have been better able to focus on policy and earning recognition for the hundreds of pieces of legislation she managed to steer through hostile parliamentary waters, rather than having to fight on several fronts. But that would have hurt even more, I guess, if she'd actually been recognised as an effective PM rather than a dead duck. Not that you could have done much about that as foreign minister. Oh, wait, my mistake – there was quite a bit you could have done as a senior front-bencher with such peerless oratory gifts. But that's all water under the bridge now, I suppose.

Oh yes, you certainly had your eye on the prize, and for that I must give you credit. You established what your goal was, then you stopped at nothing until you achieved it. After all, some things are more important than others, aren't they, and when you see regaining the leadership at the expense of your own party as your most important personal challenge, you go for it. So yay you! We Aussies like a battler. (Not if they're a red-headed female battler with a big bum and a voice like a dentist's drill, obviously, but your kind of battler. You know, the kinds of people who have survived Kokoda and been interrogated by David Koch.)

I've got to give you a gold star for something else, Kevin. You said that you've learned a lot from your time 'out in the cold', and I believe you. After all, you seem to have learned that you can't fight on too many fronts at once, which is why you've introduced party rules to make sure that the next upstart Labor MP with the audacity to suggest that your posturing, bullying and policy capitulation is incompatible with your high office will be slapped down with a copy of the ALP Constitution. In other words, you're leader until you decide you don't want to be any more. Now that you're in. Because the first time it happened hurt just too damn much, and no one should have to go through what you went through, right?

And speaking of pain, I applaud the perfectly reasonable plea you made to the Lower House the day after you phoned for Julia's taxi. You remember the speech, where you suggested that politicians try be more gentle with one another? I had the TV turned down quite low at the time, but I'm certain I heard you say, right at the end, 'Starting … now.'

You know who else implored us to be a little more gentle with one another? Jesus. You know, the guy from the church. He also said something about taking in the weary and the needy and the oppressed and the hungry, if I remember correctly, although it's been a while since I was in church, whereas you were there on the weekend.

Look, I know you're going to claim that you just want people to stop getting in those boats because when they do, they drown. You might have a point, but it's not a terribly good one. Unless it's just me – I mean, I found myself agreeing with Paul Sheehan this morning, so maybe it's me who's lost his marbles. All I know is that a long time ago I used to wear a wrist band with WWJD inscribed on it. (The 'J' is for 'Jesus', by the way.) And I'm very confident that of all the things Jesus might do, announcing a policy like yours would not appear on the list.

You know what else Jesus would do if he were living in Australia right now? Refuse to sing the second verse of our national anthem. I'm sure you know it – it's the verse that talks about people coming across the sea, and how we have boundless plains to share. I reckon Jesus might have a bit of an issue with the disingenuity of that one. What do you think?

Oh, it's very complicated, I know. No one's suggesting it's not, Kevin. Besides, there's the very real possibility that you could effectively use this hardline policy to blunt Abbott's 'stop the boats' mantra, and thereby get yourself another three years as PM. And if you do, then maybe you'll be in a position to review and soften that policy. Except we all know what happens when a Labor PM says they'll do one thing but then does another, or says they won't do something, then goes ahead and does it after the political circumstances change. Like Julia Gillard saying we'd never have a GST under any government she led. Wait, that was someone else – hers was the carbon tax. But you take my point, I'm sure.

Look, please don't get me wrong. I sincerely hope you give Mr Abbott the mother of all canings when election day arrives. I want to see his lip quivering as he realises that it wasn't enough to just be constantly negative without outlining any alternatives. But that doesn't mean I'll ever like you, Kevin. In my opinion such an eventuality would hinge on exactly the same reasons as your win back in '07 – elected not so much for who you are than for who you're not. Heaven help you if Malcolm Turnbull decides to roll his leader.

Anyway, I should leave it there, since it's time for lunch. I think I'll stroll down to the shops and use that  walking time to decide what I'll get. So much choice! Do I want sushi, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, some pasta or a pizza, maybe a gozleme or a pide, perhaps a curry. But most likely that great Aussie dish, the kebab, which is really just a lamb sanga, after all. Can I get you anything while I'm there?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Writing quote XVI


I want to do a piece where I go to the Alps and talk to a mountain. The mountain will talk of things which are necessary and always true, and I shall talk of things which are sometimes, accidentally true.  

(Bas Jan Ader, Dutch performance and conceptual artist)

Ader’s body of work is not large in volume – a few photographs, a handful of short films – but to many in the artistic community his work is considered profound, especially when one looks at his personal story and his deep grief around the death of his father, wh
o was executed by the Nazis for harbouring Jews when Ader was a very young child.

When Ader was 33 years old, he packed a tiny sailing boat with a few supplies and set out to sail solo from Cape Cod to the other side of the Atlantic. Ten months later his yacht was found drifting, but his body was never recovered, leading to speculation: did he fall victim to his own harebrained scheme, was he literally on a suicide mission, or did he simply expect to probably fail, thus turning his final voyage into his ultimate piece of performance art?

I thought of Ader when I was watching German Wanderlust, a BBC2 documentary by Julia Bradbury. In it, she visits one of Ludwig II’s hunting lodges near Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The proprietor of the place, which stands in the shadow of a great mountain, owns a number of old photographs of the lodge taken in the time of Ludwig. Showing her one, he says, with typically Teutonic dryness, ‘This is the house - you’ve seen it [as you were] coming up. It’s quite different now, because the roof is very different.’ Then he points at the mountain in the photograph. ‘[But this] is the same mountain, because mountains don’t change every two hundred years.”

The natural world isn’t permanent – we know this all too well. But some aspects of it change more slowly than others. Under most circumstances, a snowflake is far more delicate than a tree. Glaciers are slow but measurable, the ocean permanent but far from still. But significant geological formations like mountains are perhaps more permanent – more solid, if you like – than pretty much anything else in the natural physical world.

To Ader, the Alps offered solid emotional and philosophical grounding that spoke of permanence. He needed to hear that, to be reminded that there are truths beyond what we understand. His contribution to this conversation would be one of subjectivity, humility and accidental enlightenment. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Writing Quote XV


It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer. Those who do not do this remain amateurs.

Gerald Brenan (British author and historian)


Seems obvious, doesn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times people, on learning what I do, have said, ‘Oh, I’d love to write a book!’ To which the obvious, if not slightly antagonistic response would be, ‘Would you like me to lend you a pencil?’

What we writers do is a seductive proposition. At its core, our lot is to tell stories – lies, even – for a living. We get to make things up, say what we think, research topics that interest us, create worlds, play God for a season, discover wonders we might never have discovered otherwise. And at the end of that, the fortunate amongst us see our work produced and handed over to an audience, at which point the tight shoulders and long nights and innumerable cups of coffee are magically forgotten. Yes indeed, it’s a very seductive proposition.

But it doesn’t come easily. It very rarely happens by accident. Like anything that’s worth having, it takes serious work to acquire and maintain.

There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. After all, an amateur has something no professional has – the option of walking away when it gets too hard.

So, which are you?