Monday, June 30, 2014

Who said anything about fair?

Last evening, on a social media site, I was part of a debate around the left's collective outrage in response to the government's asylum seeker policy and "we've stopped the boats" claim, a triumphant claim immediately followed by the arrival in Australian waters (we think, since the government won't talk about it) of two boats carrying around two hundred refugees. This was written by one participant in the discussion:
Ok... So to clarify...are we speaking about illegal asylum boat arrivals? If we are I find it interesting that what you are all advocating is an open door immigration policy where right of passage is granted to the highest bidder. After all, that is exactly what is happening is it not? Those that can afford it pay for illegal passage to Australia whilst those that can't afford it rot in some cesspool of a refugee camp somewhere while they wait for their spot. Hardly sounds fair to me...
First, I don’t know anyone credible who is advocating an "open-door immigration policy". No one - not Labor, not the Greens, not even the asylum seeker advocates I’ve spoken with. What a great many are saying is that the off-shore processing should end, on-shore expedited processing should occur forthwith, and that having unattended kids (or in fact any kids at all) in detention is unacceptable. Now, Labor has disappointed many by not voting against offshore processing, myself included. But you can oppose the govt’s approach without aligning with the ALP’s approach.

The greater concern at this stage is that it seems clear that the government is using the harshness of the conditions under which asylum seekers are detained as a disincentive to seeking asylum. This suggestion seems to be reinforced by the stern tenor of the recently-leaked Scott Morrison video message to detainees on Manus. This is further reinforced by the incidents mentioned above - the kids taken from school, and the detainees at Villawood being moved in the early hours of the morning, clearly to avoid detection and protest from concerned citizens.

Furthermore, we have an Immigration Minister who is saying that unless a person's chances of being tortured or murdered on their return are 50% or higher, they'll be returned, all whilst not telling us anything about the operations being undertaken by our navy in our name, while boats of up to 150 people, down to 20ml of water per person after two weeks at sea, and with sick and vomiting kids on board, basically disappear. In other words, policy and politics trumping kindness and compassion. Not to mention “there are no boats to report” despite several journalists and advocates having actual conversations with people on board those boats. Unless they’re all lying, but this govt is daily proving itself less and less worthy of being believed, so for now (and until proven otherwise) I’m going to throw my hat in with the Fairfax journalists and refugee advocates.

Oh, and meanwhile, we have a prime minister who, in a piece of political sleight-of-hand that would make Howard and Reith proud, is quite happy to draw a loose but clear connection between jihadists and boat arrivals, despite having no evidence of any such link, in the most cynical of dog whistling exercises.

And finally, we have the oft-repeated “all they’re doing is paying Indonesian people smugglers while the real refugees are languishing” line trotted out by Bolt/Devine/Jones etc. Which might have some merit, except that one of the two boats from the weekend originated not in Indonesia, but India, and according to the "passengers" spoken to, no people smugglers were paid. 

So is it fair? Of course it’s not fair. No one is saying it’s fair, and no one is saying it’s easy. But when you’re genuinely scared for the life of yourself, and your kids, you’ll do anything. You don’t give a shit about fair. So the onus is on Australia, as the more fortunate party in this drama, to find a way to handle things that doesn’t require punishing people who have done nothing wrong apart from “jump" a non-existent queue, and find a way to get their families to relative safety.

Once again, no one is saying it’s simple, and no one is saying that it’s fair. But do we have to be cruel? Or is that the actual point? Because there must be a better way than that. Doesn’t there? 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Why I'm not embarrassed to read YA

So then there’s this, an article by Ruth Graham on Slate titled Against YA, with this tagline: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

I won’t lay out every argument Graham makes – you can go read it for yourself – but suffice to say that the tagline is exactly representative of the rather superior position she takes.

In her article, Graham makes many points with which I take issue, but I’m going to focus the convergent beam of my disagreement upon a couple of her more general points, precisely because that’s what they are – extraordinarily generalised.

As far as I can tell, all books written for adults are about people having affairs. Or people being missionaries. Or about surviving cancer, then not surviving cancer, then saying goodbye to the rest of your family as they watch you fail to survive cancer. Of course this is an absurd claim, and to make such a claim is to make it abundantly clear that I’ve only ever read books about affairs, missionaries and people failing to survive cancer. 

This from Graham’s article:
Most importantly, [YA] books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with 'likeable' protagonists.

This is a little like saying that all country music is simplistic and sentimental. One can make a strong case, using myriad examples both prominent and obscure, for precisely this assertion. Except it’s not true. And it can be demonstrated to be untrue by anyone with a more than passing familiarity with country music. 

Okay, I think that’s enough of that. That point needn’t be laboured, except to quote Graham from later in her piece:
I do not begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction. I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives.
To acknowledge the breadth of variety within YA in one breath, but to then generalise so bluntly in the next feels lazy at worse, dishonest at worst. But to then double down by characterising John Green’s juggernaut The Fault In Our Stars as 'a nicely written book for 13-year-olds' as she does is at once arguably true and unarguably narrow. Add to this her suggestion that YA is all about 'escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia' (apparently we “defenders” of YA fiction “admit” this) followed by this quoted line from Jen Doll: 'At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable'; and you have a wilfully restrictive view of what is not so much a genre as an entire market. Restrictive and, in many, many cases, downright wrong. Demonstrably so.

But even that’s not my greater concern. My greater concern is touched on ever so slightly by Graham, when she opines: 'There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott.'

I’d go considerably further than that. I would argue that a great many of the books and stories now considered classical mainstays would, if published today, find themselves on display in the young adult section of our bookstores. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver TwistTom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles are all about young people finding their way in the adult world. Finding a place of belonging, if you will, or an identity beyond that of their childhood. Romeo and Juliet, published and premiered today, would be YA. Even the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet, calmly and systematically checks off many of the tropes often associated with the YA 'genre'. We can list them: 
  • Hamlet is an “emo”; 
  • his father is dead; 
  • his mother is in a bizarre rebound relationship; 
  • his best friend is so cool that it hurts; 
  • his girlfriend is so crazy she ends up face-down in a pond; 
  • he’s suffering from suicidal ideation; 
  • he’s talking to himself a lot
  • and in the end, pretty much everyone dies.

So Graham is right – there is no shame in writing about teenagers. As I hope I’ve pointed out, there is a long history of doing just that to be found amongst the work of some fairly handy writers. But even in making that point, I think a greater point is at risk of being missed: that there is no shame in writing as a teenager. And I don't mean teenagers who write, necessarily, but adults who write from the teenaged part of their experience.

You see, while I can’t speak for any one my YA-writing colleagues, writing as a young adult is what I see myself doing. All the time. Finding those stories that resonate so strongly with the fourteen-year-old James that the forty-five-year-old James has to tell them.

If you'll indulge me, let me offer a tiny slice of my own history. I grew up in a missionary family, and every two or three years our parents would announce that we were moving. Friends, relatives, everyone was going to be left behind while we headed off to do our Christian duty. As a result of this, I got to grow up in some fairly remarkable places. But the down-side was a crippled sense of identity. A kind of arrested social development. An itch between my emotional shoulder-blades that even now I sometimes struggle to reach. The only way I’ve found to scratch that itch with any kind of satisfaction is through my writing, so as a result, that 'trauma' (a dramatic word, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got) has also been one of the great blessings of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be doing this, right now. Writing for a living. And I love this. 

Graham, in her Slate piece, says: 'I have no urge to go back and re-read [the books I read as a child], but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.'

In response to this, I would say the following: I’m happy for you. I’m happy that the books you read as a young person set you up so neatly for all those 'real' books you now enjoy. But for every 'literary' reader such as yourself, there’s at least one of me. You see, I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about someone’s affair, or the search for the code to the identity of the Illuminati, or a glass cathedral floating down a river, or Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power. I'm not saying you shouldn't either – if you want to read about an Indian sweet-maker defying the odds to become a successful businessman, I say fill yer boots! But no, I’m much more interested in a story like that of Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Because I’m a native American kid from a reservation in Washington State? Of course not. Because I was – and in some ways remain – a kid who, like Arnold, is trying to find my place in the world.

And while I thank you for your concern, I refuse to be embarrassed by that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dear Mr Abbott...

Dear Mr Abbott,

I’d like to tell you a story.

The football commentator Warren Ryan tells the story of a player who marched up to a referee he believed to be biased. ‘What would you do if I called you a cheat?’ he asked.

‘I’d send you off,’ the referee replied.

‘What would you do if I thought you were a cheat?’ the player asked.

‘I can’t do anything about what you think.’

‘Then I think you’re a cheat,’ said the player.

Mr Abbott, we’ve all seen what happens when someone in the press says something nasty about one of your team. Your friend Joe Hockey has just this week filed papers against Fairfax for suggesting that maybe he was selling his influence. Maybe. You know, because of the evidence. It’s a little like the words Joe himself tweeted in July last year to suggest that Kevin Rudd was for sale. What were those words again? Oh yes – Access to Rudd, at a price...FACT.

But I digress. As I say, we all know what happens when someone criticises you or one of your team. That’s right – you file papers against them. Because, like, it hurts real bad, you know?

Right now I’m actually not in the best place financially to defend myself against saying bad stuff about you, Mr Abbott, and with Joe needing the lawyers to get heavy with one of the three independent mainstream media outlets in Australia, I doubt that you want the trouble either. That’s why I’m going to save us both some trouble by not actually calling you anything.

That’s right. I’m not going to call you a liar, even though I think you are. I think you told everyone one thing before the election but had no intention of following through. I think you and Joe confected this entire ‘budget emergency’ so that you could pursue your long game, which is to help the big end of town get bigger without interference from those pesky peasants. I think you deliberately denigrated the economists here and overseas who tried to tell us that the budget emergency wasn’t. And I think you lied when you told us that John Howard’s poll numbers also fell after his first budget when, in fact, they did the precise opposite. Likewise, I wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re an ideologue, but I do think that. Nor would I say that sometimes invoking Godwin’s Law is exactly the right thing to do.

Something else I’m not going to say is that you definitely found it funny when that retired lady called you at the radio station and told you that she has to work on a sex line to pay the bills. But I think you found that distressing and degrading story quite funny, mostly because of the smiling, and the guilty look at the camera when you remembered what a camera does, and I think it made you look creepy because I think you’re creepy. I also think you found really odd parts of Joe’s budget funny, because I saw you laughing and grinning during the sad bits, which was most of it. And I think you looked like a petulant jock when Bill Shorten was giving his budget reply speech.

And Mr Abbott, I wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re definitely a coward for not turning up at Deakin University because you were frightened of the students. But I definitely think you are, just as I also think you don’t give a shit about students or Australia’s higher education system as a whole, or in fact education in general. Again, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you were happy to take your free university education thanks to the reforms brought in by that awful socialist Gough Whitlam (even though you weren't actually an Australian citizen at the time), only to be equally happy to make this generation of students pay more. But I do think you were happy to take your free education, and I think you’re a complete bastard for making it so much harder for young Australians to get educated enough to land a good job and eventually join you in your leafy, beachside electorate. 

Some of the other things I’m not saying about you, (because lawyers), are these: that you’re scared of gay people; that you are either oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the overwhelming evidence in support of the idea that climate change is being caused by people; that you want to undermine state health and education so you can blame the state governments for the inevitable GST hike; that you don’t care all that much for women, indigenous people, asylum seekers or the disabled; and that you keep knocking back invitations to be on Q&A and 7.30 because you’re between skins, and it takes so much time to rub against the corner of the desk before peeling off that last layer. But I do think that all of the above might be true.

That’s right, Mr Abbott. I wouldn’t dream of saying that you are quite possibly the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had, a man who is a terrible leader and a gormless, cowardly, hypocritical bully. But be in no doubt that I do think each of those things.

I also think you should read something other than the Murdoch press, accept that your personal numbers are now unsalvageable, and resign. But you won’t. You definitely won’t. And that much I do know.

Thank you. I shall waste no time reading your reply.

James Roy

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mean, mean bastards.

This won't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but today, the day after Joe Hockey's first budget, I'm thoroughly pissed off.

Why am I so angry? I could provide a long and exhaustive list which includes but is not limited to cuts to the ABC/SBS, the increase in the retirement age, the 6 month freeze-out of Newstart applicants, the smack-down of the arts, and the half a billion dollars cut from important Indigenous programs.

But in the interests of my own mental health I'm going to limit myself to two of the new tax/levy/surcharge increases.

So, a thought experiment. Imagine you're a single parent. You have three young kids. You're already finding things to be a bit of a struggle, but you're getting by on your minimum wage. Just. But then one of your kids gets sick. It's nothing life-threatening - just an ear infection - but a visit to the doctor is required.

Now, I bet you think you know what I'm about to say. An extra $7 to see a doctor, even a bulk-billing one, right?

I know, it's only seven dollars. It's not really such a big deal, and besides, now you can get in to see a doctor more easily, since the time wasters have been scared away. Sometimes Andrew Bolt does make sense!

But there's more to this story than finding the price of two coffees in order to get your sick child to a doctor. Because hidden in the less fashionable corners of the 2014 budget is the extra five dollars per PBS script. So that single parent is now up for an additional twelve dollars on top of the cost of those antibiotics. And the ear drops, so that's actually nineteen bucks. Nineteen dollars MORE out of pocket than would have been the case. Chris Bowen is right - this is not what Medicare was set up to be. This is not universal health care. This is a clear and cynical move towards adopting the US health system. Mind you, considering how well it's worked for them... Oh, wait, my mistake - it's been an utter disaster.

But for the single parent we met earlier, a shift in public health philosophy is the least of their concerns. They're too busy trying to decide what they'll do without so they can get their kid to the doctor and pay for those meds. Unless they hit the local emergency department... Oh, wait, that's being headed off as we speak, with talk of adding the co-payment to emergency department visits.

This is a real issue, not a fanciful "extreme example". This exact situation is going to be played out many, many times over if this budget passes.

Now, based on past experiences I fully expect a number of rather strident responses to these, my bleeding heart ravings. If you think you might be tempted to do this, take a hard look at yourself before you post, and ask whether you're responding out of ideology or a place of kindness. If it's the latter, then let's talk. But if it's the former, don't bother. I'm really not in the mood.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kylie - a tribute

This is a tribute to my friend Kylie, who passed away last Friday. She was one of the kindest, coolest, sweetest, toughest people I ever met, and she will be greatly missed.

I remember meeting Kylie for the first time within my first couple of weeks on Wade Ward, the adolescent unit of the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Cystic fibrosis kids spent weeks on end on our ward, usually having a “tune-up”, sometimes fighting infections, and all too often spending their last days with us. Over the years, as treatments improved, less kids were passing away at the kids’ hospital, since they were transitioning over to adult care, and having transplants.

Photo of Kylie by Stephanie Kent
Kylie was cheeky. Tiny and cheeky, and we connected immediately. She had a laugh like an ewok, all giggly and manic, and a quick smile. But she also had toughness and directness like you wouldn’t believe. On more than on one occasion she had to call me into her room to read me the riot act. ‘Listen, I know you’re having a shit night out there,’ she told me one time, pulling her oxygen mask to one side, ‘but at least you can breathe. So why don't you take a breath, shut the f*** up and get on with whatever it is you gotta do, because no matter how bad your shift is, you get to go home in four hours. Now, I’d appreciate it if you’d hand me that magazine on your way out – I’ve got boys to fantasise about.’

I remember the day I accessed her portacath for the first time. It was high on her chest, next to her collarbone, and as I was doing my thing, her top slipped down. I slid it back up in the interests of modesty, but it slid back down almost straight away. This happened again and again until, sensing my embarrassment, Kylie dead-panned, ‘It’s just a boob, James.’

We were still laughing about that about a year ago, when I last saw Kylie, all grown up but just as cheeky. We had a few private jokes, Kylie and I. One was more absurd and ridiculous than the others. 'Knock knock,' she’d say.

'Who’s there?'

'Fire extinguisher.'

'Fire extinguisher who?'

'Stand real still while I hit you with this fire extinguisher.'

It wasn’t always a fire extinguisher – sometimes it was a chair, or a pot plant, or a medication trolley, or a 'cappa-cheeneo machine' in the worst Texan drawl she could summon. Some nights, in the middle of a hellish shift, she would phone the desk from her room, and when I answered it, she’d just say, ‘Fire extinguisher!’ and hang up. Then I’d hear that crazy cackle from her room down the hall, and it always lifted my mood.

And you could always bring a smile to Kylie’s face, no matter how much pain she was in, by adding the word ‘wang’ to any other word. The original idea came from a mitchell and Webb sketch, but we stretched the joke to the limits of its usefulness, and far beyond. 

But there was so much more to Kylie than toughness, directness a
nd laughs. She was so incredibly kind. Long after she would have been forgiven for curling up on the couch with a stack of movies, long after her countless post-transplant complications, she was still dragging herself out to speak at events, to support kids with chronic illness, and to improve her counselling and youth work skills. She once told me that since she was one of the last standing from her generation of CF kids, she felt the burden of responsibility to speak on their behalf. It wasn’t always a burden that sat comfortably up her little shoulders, but she accepted it nonetheless.

A year or two back Kylie asked me for my advice on writing a memoir. ‘I want to tell my story,’ she said, ‘but I don’t know what to write about.’ When I asked her what she meant by that, she said, ‘There’s so much. Should my book be about living with a chronic illness, having transplants and spending most of my life in hospital? Or should it be about my family having to accept that I won’t be around forever? Or should it be about my friends who’ve died, like Rachael and Lisa? Or maybe it should be about Ben. I guess there must be other people like Ben out there who love someone like me. Maybe there’s things that they need to know. All I know is that this book needs to help people.’

‘Can’t it just be about you?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got quite the story to tell.’

She just shrugged. ‘I’m just me,’ she said. ‘I’m not that exciting.’

I disagree, Kylie-wang. I thought you were fascinating.


Cystic Fibrosis Australia can always use more support – please go here to find out how you can help.

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?’