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Sunday, 30 December 2007

Review: Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin (2003)

Raised amid crushing poverty, Cunxin was, one day, tapped on the shoulder (as it were) when Teacher Song recommended him to a delegation of selectors seeking conscripts for a new dance school sponsored by the wife of Mao Zedong. It was 1973 and the Party was supreme, respected despite the aweful dearth of everything.

Cunxin travelled to Beijing to start training, which was tremendously painful. Diligent and conservative, he was recruited into the Party's youth league and, finally, chosen to participate in a troupe due to visit the United States.

Once there, he was struck by the freedoms available to those he met as well as the opulent lifestyle, which he did not believe was unexceptional. His yearning for fuller artistic expression is married to an aspiration to 'get out of the well'. This idiom is drawn from a story we read early in the book and that recurs over and over again.

In the story, a frog is trying to jump out of the well he is in, but cannot because the sides are too sheer and high.

Cunxin will marry an American, get divorced, defect, be ostracized by his country of birth, travel and dance, remarry (this time to an Australian; he lives in Melbourne), and be welcomed back to China.

It is an emotional story but the style is plain. It is so plain, in fact, that it appears artless. In places it is not very lively, but the tremendous release, when he finally gets what he wants, is invigorating.

One other theme is the link between creativity and freedom. The ease of access to the vice-president (George Bush snr) is effectively compared to the difficulty he had getting to talk to a local government functionary when his return to the United States for a second stint with the Houston Ballet, is threatened. We can feel Cunxin shaking with rage one moment, and shivering with gratitude the next.

Heartfelt and moving.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Delta Goodrem is 22 years old and this is her third album, and the first I've bought. The purchase was prompted by a friend's suggestion that I listen to Celine Dion. Goodrem is known to be similar. So in Armidale on my way up to Queensland, I bought both this and one of Dion's. Both are serious and talented singers who rely heavily on good diction (you can actually hear the lyrics) and rhyme (a sophisticated elegancy). But there the similarity ends.

Armidale is situated about half way between Sydney and the Sunshine Coast (my destination). I listened to Goodrem all the way up and all the way back. Non stop. I didn't get tired of it and I didn't start second-guessing the next track. I tried, in my head, to point out the positive songs (+) and the negative (-) ones, but the exercise was too much and I gave up. I would be able to do this in front of my screen, and that's a project for later.

In The Monthly there's an article on the album by "rock critic" Robert Foster, who helpfully points out that many different writers produced tunes and lyrics. He also says that the album "veers from the alarmingly banal to the inspired", which in my opinion is quite untrue. Sure, there are genres being exploited here but - who cares?

Goodrem's voice is superb in any register. She veers between soft, plaintive, erotic, sad, purposeful and kind. In any of these modes, she shines.

Each tune holds myriad complexities both in terms of words and music. None are false or tired. This may be due to the fact that each had a different composer (Goodrem herself pens several) and, as Foster points out, each competes to be the 'signature' tune that will sell as a single.

The single that hooked me is the extraordinary In This Life which has been featured on radio station Heart 103.2. But I think the new single, Believe Again, which opens the album, is superior.

Track 12 is a fascinating tune that uses an oriental flute and a plangent melody to suggest Goodrem is targeting the Japanese or Chinese market (or both).

Just stunning, the album (if listened to for an extended period of time) induces an extraordinary sense of well-being. The sonic effect seems to centre just in the middle of the forehead, behind the eyes.

My concentration during a seven-hour drive was always perfect and included a difficult final 120 kilometers on the Pacific Highway, where the speed limit goes up to 110km/hr. Even during this final phase, before the drudgery of Sydney suburban traffic, I felt totally aware and awake. My only stops were a toilet break and a sandwich. Apart from these brief pauses, the drive was continuous over the period (I left the hotel at 5.30am and arrived home at about 12.30pm).

Of course, driving the Aurion is not the same as driving the Echo, which has a capacity almost three times smaller. The new car behaved impeccably at all points, including the gruelling, three-lane final stint from Newcastle to Hornsby. Even up-hill at 105km/hr, you just squeeze the pedal and watch the tachometer lift by 5000 revs (from 2000 revs/min to 2500 revs/min), and you are already past the car you wish to overtake. The feeling is splendid.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Bee Perusco and Flower stood out tonight at the Tap Gallery Xmas party (6pm) reading (8pm) which ended on the pavement on the hoary slopes of Darlinghurst about half an hour ago.

And in addition SHE called close to 9pm to ask a question I'd already answered in an SMS some hours earlier.

Robert, whose satire is quite striking, is acquainted with physics and tells me that, as heat rises, the magnetic attraction between objects falls. If heat falls, magnetism rises likewise.

There was also something about the relationship between magnetism and electricity, but I'll need to resume the conversation on the next available occasion. They tell me there will be a reading in early February.

Why the break for the festive season? Who knows. It's a mystery.

Tap Gallery shows visual artists, too. I bought a tiny painting by Lilly Oen (half Chinese, half Dutch but born in Indonesia). It is a present and shows stylised flowers, ticked out in white. The size is about two inches square and it cost $125.

Tomorrow is the final work day of the year and I guess I'll have to contact mum to ask if she can book a room. I really think I'll go to Queensland via the New England Highway this time -- I've never seen Armidale.

They say it is quite nice.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

'Sonnets, in Plain English' are now sent to Wet Ink for consideration. It's the same title I used to submit four different sonnets to the Sydney Uni Anthology editors last week.

A week! What unnumbered events have taken place in that seemingly short span of time!

Submitted on 9 December were 'The Castaway (14 November)', 'For those Who Wrote the Book: QT & WH (17 November)', 'Reading Ugresic (18 November)', and 'The Parkville Hotel (9 December)'. All of them are what I call 'concept' sonnets. The last of these is extremely erotically-charged, in the wake of an event I attended at the Mitchell Library (but unfortunately didn't post on), 'Writing Sex'.

The event, which featured a panel of eminences, included Kate Holden. This author ties in with the poem furthermore as she was mentioned by a girl from whom I bought The Sex Mook (reviewed here) while in Melbourne for a conference.

It was during the conference, in the hotel room, that I had the experiences detailed in the poem. If it gets published you can read it then. If not, then when?

Maybe some day.

And submitted today are three more 'Sonnets, in Plain English': 'How many years have passed in your absence? (13 December)', 'Cracked polish on your fingernails gives me (16 December)', and 'In the lag twixt sighs wretched aforetime (16/17 December)'.

The dates of these, which are most definitely 'love' sonnets, are the only thing that differentiates one item from its neighbour.

For the Sydney Uni book, submission guidelines specify 12-point Courier (double-spaced). You must also include your name and the title of the work on each page. For Wet Ink you must use 12-point Times New Roman (double-spaced). But you must not include a name or title on pages containing the poems.

I always use 10-point Verdana to type a poem. It is certain that someone, somewhere, has written an elegant little piece on the joys of word processing. There may even be a poem about it for all I know. In my case, a WP is essential. Especially for a sonnet, where the ten-syllable line and the strict rhyme scheme demand the ability to rapidly alter words.

The process of writing a sonnet may involve a day. For example, the sonnet titled with 16/17 December was completed in a first draft on one day but, on the next, I radically altered it. In fact, I removed the entire first quatrain and added a new, third, quatrain.

It may also happen that the terminal word changes. This is not as common as a change to a word within a line, since establishing the terminus of a line allows you to make the one after the following line (a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g is the rhyme scheme). In a sense the fact of having written a quatrain reduces the alternatives significantly.

But I do think that rhyme possesses a value not otherwise present in poetry. Rap, for example, describes a state of mind characterised by aspiration. It exploits the elegancy commonly attributed to rhyme, in order to presuppose its author a member of an elite.

Ad-hoc rhyming is disturbingly common in otherwise free-verse poetry. Occasionally a poet known for his or her free style (which means every poet currently producing with the exception of me) will insert an ad-hoc rhyme, in his or her striving for the elegance rhyme bestows. Here's the few verses in a poem ('Diana' in 1994's The Monkey's Mask) by Dorothy Porter:

The door reads
Dr Diana Maitland

I knock twice

she's thirtysomething
maybe forty

her hair honey-blonde
streaks

falls in her eyes
she pushes it back

with a fidgety
nail-bitten hand

she's got eyes
that flirt or fight

she's gritty
she's bright

oh christ help me
she's a bit of alright!

The rhymed elements are in bold text. Note that this is a 'love' poem: where the hard-bitten, dyke private investigator meets the elite doctor and falls in love. They soon ("my hands and heart/aching/for blossom/for wild wild risk" in 'Spring', and "this time/will we just talk?" in 'Driving to her place') get around to turning it on ("her perfume/her eyes/he hot tip/of her tongue" in 'First move').

Other than that, there are no rhymes (I'm at page 72 at the mo). Which proves that, for Porter, rhyme means something different, something extra. This is, after all, the point in the story (there are two major plotlines: the love story and the search for a girl, then the killer of the girl, aged nineteen) where Lizzie first meets Diana.

Here's my own production, at the same point in the cycle (cycle? Is love a cycle?):

13 December 2007

How many years have passed in your absence?
Eternity obeys your pounding heart.
The sudden changes of your countenance
Ratify this moment, in which I start

Like the wild jerboa, lithe kangaroo
Of another desert, millennial
Denizen with an equal urge to woo
And win, and wean off desire. Finical,

Admiring yourself (seemly reticence!),
In me you find much to admire: curtains
Kept closed must strengthen desire; absence
A breeze that keeps kissing these rock-strewn plains.

You reached inside and broke off a corner
Of your heart, and placed it in my palm, girl.

Note: the image at the top of the post is a clip from an original Photoshop production that uses material from the Internet and photos taken while watching TV.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Germaine Greer on Austen was too tempting, so when the notice appeared on the Sarsaparilla blog, I put my details into their system immediately. Professor Greer's lecture, 'Jane Austen and the Getting of Wisdom', drew me not only to Melbourne (by car) but down Swanston Street among the crowds of home-bound workers, to the RMIT Capitol Theatre.

It's an original structure, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. An ideal setting for an original mind. I did not expect her to focus on Mansfield Park, which has always been my favourite Austen novel. But her ideas were not so very divergent from mine, especially when she compared Fanny to Mary Wollstonecroft, pointing to the scene where Fanny and Edmund are outside the drawing room looking up at the stars.

Percy Shelley was a "totally liberated personality" and Greer even agreed with me (after I took the mic to ask a question) that the study of 18th-century English poetry is a sadly neglected arena for the docentary profession. "I agree completely," she said when I suggested that such writers as Richardson, Cowper and Crabbe could profitably be studied in schools. Cowper, I said as I stood amid the rows of (mostly) secondary-school teachers listening rapt, with me, to the eminent academic, was the only 18th-century English poet Nabokov praised when preparing the notes for his 'authentic' translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

The next two days were wonderful and I met some very interesting people. I listened to a number of other smart women (few men participate in Austen scholarship, it seems, though her first boosters, in the 1920s, were mainly men). Standouts for me were Jocelyn Harris, Sarah Ailwood, Mary Spongberg and Penny Gay.

Most interesting was Harish Trivedi, a professor at the University of New Delhi. A man of uncommon parts and an extraordinary grasp of the source material, Harish infuriated me to such an extent that I had to leave the lecture hall, my pulse racing at over 120 beats per minute. The lies, half-truths and baseless accusations he levelled at Western societies was not in agreement with the astute mind I had already encountered outside another lecture theatre.

We became sort of friends, however, as I drove Harish to the terminal dinner and back to his lodgings at Ormond College, Melbourne University. My final recommendation to him was to read Other Colours, the recent collection of non-fiction by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk manages to do what most subaltern scholars and writers do not: explain the significance of Western culture to an Easterner. My source at La Trobe (which sponsored the event) tells me Harish is reading the book.

The conference's tagline ('"I dearly love a laugh": Jane Austen and comedy') was not always the point of reference for speakers. More often than not these women tried to focus on the way that Austen surpassed any novelist prior to her era (and most since).

What I'd like to see, if I had my druthers, is a good, long peek at Samuel Johnson's prose. In my book, the good doctor was a major influence on the young Jane. In fact, by my reckoning, few before him and few since have equalled the sinuous, lithe and elegant movement of his short prose pieces.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Michael Specter started working for The Washington Post in 1985 and became a staff writer with The New Yorker (cover is of the 3 December 2007 issue) in 1998. In between he worked in Europe for The New York Times.

'Darwin's Surprise' in this issue is about endogenous retroviruses which, Specter tells us, "infect the DNA of a species [and] become part of that species". Unlike regular viruses, retroviruses reverse the 'flow' of genetic code from DNA to RNA:

A retrovirus stores its genetic information in a single-stranded molecule of RNA, instead of the more common double-stranded DNA. When it infects a cell, the virus deploys a special enzyme, called reverse transcriptase, that enables it to copy itself and then paste its own genes into the new cell's DNA.

In this way, 'endogenous' retroviruses "alter our genetic structure" and it is a scientific fact that disabled retroviruses "make up eight per cent of the human genome".

Specter shows that the success of a species in one generation may cause it to be susceptible to a new retrovirus in a later age. In fact, the propeller-heads have shown this to be true. Our current problem with HIV is, they say, the result of our success in combatting another virus, called PtERV, four million years ago. Gorillas and chimps, who died in large numbers at that time due to this virus, are now immune to HIV.

But he goes further, noting, with gravitas conveyed by a researcher at the Institut Gustave Roussy, near Paris, Thierry Heidmann, that "without endogenous retroviruses mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature";

That led to live birth, one of the hallmarks of our evolutionary success over birds, reptiles, and fish. Eggs cannot eliminate waste or draw the maternal nutrients required to develop the large brains that have made ammals so versatile.

Heidmann says that retroviruses, being "two things at once: genes and viruses", "helped make us who we are today just as surely as other genes did." It is a fascinating story.

Also in this issue is a piece, also long (in traditional New Yorker style), by Geraldine Brooks. It chronicles the entwined destinies of two families of Serbs, one Muslim and one Jewish.

It is a story of redemption and really is worth reading, although the odd-sounding names make it hard to follow at times. In it, a kindness given by a man in one generation, is returned in the next by a woman, and finally rewarded by the entire state of Isreal in the next. It ends in the mid-nineties when the war in that part of Europe was sizzling across our TV screens.

It is a war, as this story shows, for which the statute of limitations, in terms of the stories it may produce, is nowhere near ended. For this reason, we should study such authors as Dubravka Ugresic, whose experiences in Croatia during and after the period of turmoil, make good reading.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Doris Lessing on the Internet: it has "created a world where people know nothing", writes Asher Moses in The Sydney Morning Herald. But Moses leaps to the defence of the Net:

  • "Lessing ... barely acknowledges the internet's positive side"
  • "She said little about the opportunity for internet users to freely browse reams of information they may otherwise not have the time or know-how to seek out"
  • "She also ignored the fact that blogging has given a voice to millions who would otherwise be writing little or nothing at all"

Lessing says the Net has "seduced a whole generation into its inanities" and in a way she's right, but the real issue is not what we see on the Net. It is, rather, that the Net allows us to see what was previously obscure: most people are happily ignorant.

Moses also quotes Andrew Keen, a Net pundit whose ideas have appeared before in the newspaper. A book, The Cult of the Amateur, that purports to lament the poverty of most that is available online, actually points to a solution. Rather than fewer dilettantes, we need more.

In fact, a reason for the poverty of most blog posts and Web sites is not that they are produced by amateurs. The issue may be that those who actually possess the most knowledge are put off by the tribalism and savagery of much commentary. Especially in blog comments, these two aspects of online behaviour are to be regretted.

Putting forward an idea that diverges from the orthodox position of any blog (every blog has its own ideological banner, be it liberal, conservative, religious right, or anarchist), is sure to attract flames. And because people say online what they would hesitate to say face-to-face, the burden is on the dissenter to either expect flames or to go elsewhere.

Which may simply mean they refrain from commenting on blogs, which is a result that cannot be good for the quality of online content.

There is no evidence that, for example, book sales are suffering due to the advent of the Internet. The reverse is likely true.

But the fact remains that a strong online brand is essential if you want to attract numerous visitors to your site. This is why, despite early fears that the Net would decimate their readership, newspapers such as the one Moses writes for, are experiencing a significant rise in the number of hits per month.

In short, the communal experience most surfers treasure may end up being the downfall of many sites, as their readers realise that, in the end, the quality of the content is what matters. The challenge for established brands is to ensure that their content meets the expectations of their target demographic.

I expect fragmentation to continue. This will mean that blogs will become more specialised. This has certainly happened in the magazine world. Once upon a time, magazines were eclectic. They were also, at the same time, largely the province of a small elite. This is now no longer the case.

Whether there is room for generalist blogs is a matter of speculation. Some are already there, such as 3 Quarks Daily. This blog aggregates items from numerous sources, mainly online newspapers and magazines.

In the realm of lit blogs, a few maintain the frequency of posting required to sustain themselves. Most people have half-a-dozen or so favourite sites they visit daily.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Review: Hunting and Gathering, dir. Claude Berri

I fully prefer the French title (Ensemble C'est Tout) because it sums up the film more precisely. And, when it comes to French comedy, la precision c'est tout! Especially with the uber-gamine Audrey Tatou (pic), playing Camille, a girl who, the blurb tells us, "is doing her best to disappear".

The echoes of ancien regime France are apparent but not over-done. This is not Jane Austen, nor is it Dickens but, rather, the kind of comedy we are accustomed to from the French. It is also wonderfully charming, tender, funny (chuckle-friendly), and sexy. On this last point, however, I would like to register my protest over the type of kiss we're used to American films delivering. I'm tired of the romance being destroyed by these twisting, energetic, full-on smooches. I want something more real (this is not the way people kiss, conard!).

A resume of the plot is out of the question, although having something like this online might be of use. I just don't have the patience. But I want to testify here that I am completely in love with Phillibert (the aristocrat) because he is generous, kind, unprepossessing, chivalrous, intelligent, charming, and quite unimaginably perfect.

If only the ancien regime had behaved like him, there would never have been a revolution (conard!).

However, I will say that the treatment of Paulette is ravishingly beautiful. If this is the way the French think the world should be, then I want to live there, at least for a while (just to see if the image is lived up to by the reality; I suspect it is not). Paulette has a stroke and the blokey Franck, her grandson, takes Mondays off to look after her.

Franck lives in Phillibert's apartment and Phillibert rescues Camille from certain pneumonia when he carries her down the stairs from her freezing garret into his spacious apartment. Camille alters the boys' reality, not only because she is an artist, but because she is practical and honest.

They bring Paulette to the apartment to live while she recuperates, and Camille stays at home from her cleaning job to look after her. When she is better, they return her to her house and garden, her cats and dog, and her chickens.

Camille also falls for Franck and requests that he make love to her. But she is not prepared for a commitment. It is Franck who wants to be her boyfriend, not the other way round.

Being a comedy, everything turns out well in the end, but it is the journey and its delights that will ensure this film stays with its viewers for some time to come.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Review: Hitman, Xavier Gens (2007)

Starring Timothy Olyphant as a suitably robotic 'killing unit' (complete with barcode tattoo on the back of his head) and with model-cum-actor Olga Kurilenko who appears always dressed in little more than the idea of a dress, and with a screenplay by Skip Woods based on a video game, this is a real eye-opener.

The genre's primary point of reference is The Bourne Identity but the idea of a secretive organisation and a hitman trained to do one thing is as old as the James Bond franchise. The following blurb from the Web site does not appear in the film:

"Bred from the world's deadliest criminals, raised by an exiled brotherhood of the church. His purpose: to rid the world of the evil that infects it. Most believe his very existence is a sin, but others know he is a necessary evil."

We get a representative line-up of 'typical' Russian characters direct from the filmmaker's tour guide. From the fat police officer intent on obstructing Interpol to the glum secret-service agent, from the plausible sociopath who is the elected president to his brother, an arms dealer who surrounds himself with nubile women and opulence.

Interpol is represented by Dougray Scott and his sidekick Michael Offei. But their involvement in the hitman's rampage is not clear. In fact, the plot is as thin and skimpy as one of Olga's head-turning garments.

This criticism misses the point, however. The film is merely a sequence of highly-choreographed scenes where the following elements are of most importance:

  • Virile brandishing of automatic handguns
  • High-tech gadgets designed to kill
  • Ferocious dominance of the woman in all cases by the active male
  • Gritty street scenes in a decayed city (St Petersburg)
  • Opulence of past eras compared to decadence and greed of the present
  • Use of fists, feet, swords and guns to eliminate adversaries

The deployment of these elements is handled capably, however. All credit to the filmmakers. There are many original camera angles and the use of dark tones to create a Romantic gloom is satisfying, especially when it serves to underscore the protagonist's solitary nature. In fact, Number 47 is something of a Frankenstein's monster.

In contrast, Kurilenko is quite happy to appear without a top and it is true that she has nice breasts. Her physical availability and lissome grace are in stark contrast to her ready use of four-letter words as well as Olyphant's mechanistic personality. He seems totally uninterested in her as a sexual entity. It is clear that we see here elements imported from the massive, and growing, online porn industry.

One last criticism, though. The soundtrack on the Web site cannot be turned off. A control is located at the bottom of the screen, but when you click it to turn it off, it merely restarts the music from scratch.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Review: Journeys: Modern Australian Short Stories, Barry Oakley ed., 2007

I included notice of David Malouf's piece in the previous post, but it is not the best here. The title is furthermore confusing as at least two items in the book are non-fiction. One is Robert Adamson's 'On the trail of Ptilorus magnificus', which chronicles early transgressions in Neutral Bay and nearby suburbs, where the poet grew up.

The other is Helen Garner's 'At the Morgue', which gives a glimpse into the world of the mortuary, in this case the one in Melbourne, "half a mile from the leafiest stretch of St Kilda Road, in there behind the National Gallery and the Ballet School and the Arts centre with its silly spire and its theatres and orchestras and choirs".

Garner is always good value and in this case the rule is true. Unexpectedly good is Margo Lanagan's 'Rite of Spring', where a boy (or girl, it's not clear) is given a task that includes reciting names while sitting atop a windswept peak and wrapped in a heavy coat. In the story the dominant figure is the mother, who seems to scold frequently but whose good offices are eagerly sought by the child.

Lanagan seems to be a routinely-published author and after having read this little gem, I shall certainly seek out other work.

In the case of Steve J. Spears' 'What Do I 'Do' with Cancer' it is not clear whether we are in the realm of fiction or non-fiction. Likewise with Ken Haley's excellent 'September 11, 2001'.

In this piece, a wheelchair-bound traveller in the region bounded by the Black Sea and the Aral, meets various characters and forms impressions of very foreign cultures. Being there, at that particular point in time, causes a frisson of remembrance in the reader, but its effect is neither long-lasting nor deep. For Day 157 (4 October): Vanadzor to Dilijan, we get this:

The Saruhanyans may live a long way from the big smoke but they are as clued up as anyone in New York or Sydney. The TV is tuned into Moscow these nights and they glance at it sidelong from the dinner table, as if Frankenstein's monster had taken up residence in the living room. Once their thoughts are translated, I know they await the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan any day now. They are quiet Christians, and the invasion of their land by Muslim-Arabs and later Persians - is unforgettable in folk memory.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Review: The Sex Mook: What Is Our Sex?, edited by Julian Fleetwood (2007), Vignette Press, East Melbourne

Fleetwood's introduction contends that "this book is rough" and that it was done to produce "honesty and openness" but the most satisfying element is that this is a manifesto. It is a very polite one, but a manifesto nevertheless. It's been a while since I read such a thing.

Good are 'Do You Love Me?' by Louise Ellis Carter, which describes the satisfactions of role-play, 'Our Sex Is Not For Sale' by Emily Maguire, a run-down of the highly manufactured character of most sex in the media today, and 'Nympho' by Nithya Sambasivam, a poem about finding your legs in a Western society when you're told to want something else.

The good thing about the collection qua collection is the shortness of the pieces. Most do not go over three pages, including Leticia Supple's 'Private Time', which describes what a young woman gets up to when she locks her bedroom door. Not all of the collection is this good, and much is forgettable. But it's a start.

It's also welcome from the point of view of equity. There are pieces that are more forthrightly about the politics of sex, such as Peter van der Merwe's 'On Not Being Gay', and 'Herpes Male Seeks Herpes Female...' by Anna Krien.

I kept waiting for someone to allude to the father of sex writing (Henry Miller) but he seems to belong to a white, male orthodoxy that is no longer in style. A recent movie by some French people of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley reminds us that some things still need to be said.

One of which is that conflict can be liberating. In a piece in today's The Sydney Morning Herald, Cate Blanchett reminds us that "You don't want to be surrounded by yeah-sayers" and she's backed up by David Malouf.

His story in a nice collection I'm currently reading (Journeys: Modern Australian Short Stories, Five Mile Press, 2007) 'Elsewhere', includes a classic line about the inner-city elites among whom Andy Mayo (from Lismore) finds himself when his sister-in-law dies (probably from AIDS, though it's never specified).

After the funeral, Andy and Harry (Debbie's father) drive to a house somewhere in the suburbs for the wake. There are a lot of people who totally ignore Andy and the bereft father. Andy feels "He was in the middle of it" but:

No one paid any attention to him, though they weren't hostile. They just went on arguing.

Politics. Though it wasn't really an argument either, since they all agreed.

This is superb, although without doubt the best items in the book belong to Robert Adamson (actually a section from a memoir, Inside Out: An Autobiography) and the inimitable Cate Kennedy, whose 'Dark Roots' (about a woman of 39 with a lover aged 26) starts on page 79.

Also of note is a story by the erstwhile High Court judge Ian Callinan, 'The Romance of Steam', which chronicles a train journey from Sydney to Brisbane and hunger among the three hundred women in uniform on board, during WWII.

I picked up this collection in Wagga Wagga, a town of some 60 thousand souls where it was still 31 degrees Celcius at 4pm and 29 degrees at 5pm. The sex book was bought at Federation Square, central Melbourne. The two young women behind the table brought my attention to the nicely gift-wrapped books it held. I just picked up a naked copy from the pile and paid.

I had immediately beforehand bought two Russian modernist novels, The Silver Dove by Andre Bely and The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov. This table was run by Three Bears Books and I plan to contact them with the email address provided to get some Russian Symbolist poetry. The kind Nabokov always talks about.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Review: Angel, dir Francois Ozon with Romola Garai (2007)

Garai is perfect for this role. We last saw her in a supporting role as the Romantic girl who marries William Wilberforce, a role asking for passion and a felt expression. Fast-forward seventy years and we get a teenage Angel Deverell amid the red-brick ordinariness of a lower-middle-class suburb of a northern manufacturing town. Dickens country.

Angel wants to write and she does, but it is not just the ideal personification of Romanticism that we can enjoy here. The exquisite costuming captures each age perfectly. We start in the 1880s with 'Victorian' starch and move inexorably onwards -- like Angel's publishing success -- to the years just prior to the Great War.

Each set of costumes is a perfect fit, a stunning achievement, truly. With the war come less confining dresses and, after it is over, we see flapper dresses with straight lines instead of curves. Angel, however, is a bohemian.

Here, we see how the Romantic ideal fed into a gritty realism (Angel's love is Esme Howe-Nevinson, a Modernist painter) that would squirt forward in the thirties and forties with full-blown rebellion against received modalities. This is, therefore, a movie that contains essential lessons for any person wanting to understand the emergence of The New.

As such, we can surmise that Modernism is an extension, in a real sense, of Romanticism in a way that Romanticism was not an extension of the mannered figuration of the mid-18th century. Reynolds is not the father of Turner, but rather Poussin is. The centre of art-practice thus swung across the channel, from France to England, and back to France.

This is overly simple, but then again so is the movie. It is something of a woman's version of Citizen Kane and, I think, equally to be admired.

Five stars!

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Review: The Tent, Margaret Atwood (2006)

Time Out is a London-originated entertainment magazine that has just been launched in Sydney (3 November). We used to buy it in Tokyo to find the right cinema showing the right movie. Lisa Mullen's review there of the book (no date, sorry) includes the observation that reading it is "a curiously intimate experience, like peering into Atwood's skull and watching her brain's synapses twitch and sizzle".

Mullen also calls the book a "beautifully packaged collection of oddities". Drawings by the author (reminding me of Orhan Pamuk's recent book of non-fiction, which also contains the author's illustrations) are scattered throughout but seem not to be used to a specific purpose. Like the structure of the collection itself, they are 'free-form' and not 'pointed'.

As to the "habitual Atwoodian territories", I'm hardly in a position to speculate. Nevertheless, the contents are definitely 'pointed' and do canvass 'issues', as fables habitually have done, over the millenia. In the old days a fable would serve to educate without attracting the unwanted attention of powerful men. Nowadays, perchance, it serves to achieve impact without seeming to instruct. Nobody likes being told something they don't already know.

Prose poem might also be a way to describe what's in here. If so, then these are either reworkings of old themes (Mullen's view) or first drafts of something still to come.

At this dim season of the year we hunger for such tales. Winter's tales, they are. We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire. The sun sets at four, the temperature plummets, the wind howls, the snow cascades down. Though you nearly froze your fingers off, you did get the tuplis planted, just in time. In four months they'll come up, you have faith in that, and they'll look like the picture in the catalogue.

This set me off on a tangent along which I bumped into my old friend, which starts on page 2883 of The Norton Shakespeare (edited by Stephen Greenblatt). Most scholars agree that The Winter's Tale (1609-11) is a fable detailing the vicissitudes suffered by Elizabeth I at the hands of her extraordinary father, Henry VIII. But it could equally be read as a prophesy of what would come, in 1660, when the prince returned to his grateful subjects.

In it, a young girl is abandoned on a distant shore because her father doubts his paternity. She falls in love and ultimately returns to her home. Her mother, also spurned by the jealous king, is likewise reinstated to her proper place.

There are, however, deaths.

Greenblatt's intro to the play starts by noting Ben Johnson's complaint about plays that "make nature afraid" (Bartholemew Fair (1614)). And certainly this and The Tempest, which debuted around the same time, are extraordinary in terms of the theatre, and what it could achieve.

Atwood seems, in her book, to be seeking an authentic voice and these prose poems seem to be ideal for the purpose. They make you think and their fragmented format and evocative language sidestep conventional demands in terms of plot, coherence and 'development'.

The book is, therefore, a new departure and, possibly, a new method for remaining attuned to the zeitgeist without overburdening the reader with explanations and justifications. A writer should never be asked to do this, but our preference, these days, for 'engaged' fiction, means this is a real danger.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Brazilian police sentence, without trial, a 15-year-old girl to a month in a jail cell with up to 34 male prisoners who rape her "innumerable times" says a legal body representative (reported in The Daily Telepgraph). Following her incarceration on 21 October, "an anonymous caller tipped off the media" reports The Sydney Morning Herald.

Para State, where the events occured, is in the north of the republic and has 5.2 million residents. The capital city is Belem, which is home to 1.4 million people.

The expert, Miere Cohen, says that the crime for which the girl was imprisoned, is unknown. Ana Julia Carepa, governor of the state, vows to dispense "exemplary punishment". The girl "said she's able to recognise the police officers who locked her up and the detainees who raped her".

Brazil's prisons are notorious for gang activity. Its cities are also known for gang warfare. Brazil is a Catholic country.

The Christian Science Monitor published a story in 1996 detailing child sex in Brazil, where Jack Epstein reported that police in Bahia State's capital Savador were "known for harassing child prostitutes with beatings and demanding sexual favors".

"We [police] have long been part of the problem," concedes Police Maj. Gautier Amorim Neto. "Now, we want to be part of the solution."

This kind of boilerplate statement is less visible nowadays (remember the story ran over a decade ago), but is typical of dysfunctional organisations where change may require high-level, exemplary punishment.

Judge Afrânio de Andrade Machado in a Bahia city "condemned 15 of the city's leading businessmen to prison terms of eight to 24 years for the 1992 sexual abuse of two girls, aged 9 and 13", reported Epstein.

Cedeca (Center of Defense of Children and Adolescents) was involved in both stories.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Review: Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia, Dubravka Ugresic (2003)

I have a lot of time for this Croatian emigre and Holland resident (the book was first published in Dutch by Breda in 2001 as Verboden te lezen!, which is I think slightly different in meaning to the English title).

Most of the items in the book date from the late 1990s. As such, they predate the seminal moment of the first half of this century. You can tell immediately by the standard post-colonial bias she possesses but that also, it is salient to remark, lacks the hysterical cast of much political non-fiction published since September 2001.

It is, if you like, a work of the intersticial years: those following the fall of the Berlin Wall and preceding 9/11. A time of possibilities during which the tone of voice of a woman of such evident learning as Ugresic echoed in a void.

Nevertheless, the reading here is salutory and highly entertaining. Ugresic has an old-world practicality that expresses itself in a muted authority. She knows wtf she's on about but she's not going to tempt fate (or the higher authorities, such as those who control passports and residence permits) by indulging in triumphalism.

Indeed, her emigre status (despite belonging to the elite) gives her words a stubborn resolve generally lacking in those of us permitted by custom and law, to flaunt authority (because it ultimately resides in us).

Of particular note here is her observation that the literature industry developed within Communist Russia resembles that which dominates in late-term capitalism. The uniformity sought by publishers, the reliable forms and themes of the contemporary publishing industry, set her antennae quivvering. She is suspicious and so this book should be read by every publisher in the free world.

Lest we forget.

The book also has a charmingly light feel. Each essay is short and dense, but easy withal. No item takes more than five minutes to read. And the pace is regular, like the beam of a lighthouse that scans the walls of nearby houses just as easily as it shoots its ray into the darkness hanging just above the ocean's skin.

A truly delightful read written by a fair witness (the 'new elite' predicted by Heinlein in Stranger in A Strange Land). May she enjoy her fame.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age ends with a lie. The triumphalism is irksome. Defeating the Spanish Armada is dealt with by Bill Bryson in his new biography of Shakespeare in two pages.

Again, there are inconsistencies. Bryson says no English ships were lost. The movie tries to build tension at this point by relaying news of losses to the flagship.

Further, the movie borrows shamelessly from The Lord of the Rings, viz the lighting of signal fires to announce the enemy's approach.

And while it opens with plainsong coming from the mouths of 'sinister' monks in Spain, the music depends largely on the kind of stereotypical atmospherics this kind of melodic construct offers, and which has been used again and again over the years (even Simon Schama relied heavily on it) when depicting 'ye olde Englande'. It's not good enough.

Remi Adefarasin's cinematography, however, is excellent. A lot of shots are oblique and interesting. Further, many shots of individuals in moments of drama are taken behind a screen of some sort, providing a nice counterpoint to the insane reliance people in those days had on religion to define themselves. Bryson mentions sumptuary laws (Alexandra Byrne's costumes are not only spot-on but dramatically satisfying) and here we see how individuals were largely defined by rank. Walsingham's wife, particularly, is very good in this regard.

I wept in many places. Nevertheless small details irked. Of particular note is the Scotch accent used by Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). It is unlikely given that she spent the first 13 years of her life in France. It is further not adequate that the Scotch used in the (louring, Romantic) Scots scenes is so close to English pronunciation as to be almost identical. Scotch of the time contained many words not used in English. Subtitles would be preferable.

As to the lie the film ends with, it's the assertion that, while Spain went bankrupt, England "entered into a period of peace and prosperity". Nonsense. Within thirty years the people Elizabeth purported to protect (the word 'Puritan' is a derogatory introduced around this time) by keeping the Inquisition at bay, would be fighting against Mary's grandson for control of the revenue.

The result of the struggle would be, far more than Elizabeth's triumph over the Spanish, the establishment of a power-sharing situation on which all modern nation states that can claim to be democratic, are based. The triumph is not with people like Walter Ralegh or Francis Walsingham, but with people we never see in this film.

Bryson, in his Shakespeare biography, pours scorn on the Puritans because they closed the theatres. In the film they are totally overlooked. But it is in their continued existence and in the prosperity their endeavours gave rise to, that we find the surest signs of individual "conscience" (the word is Elizabeth's, just prior to the 1688 battle).

Another signficant character is John Dee, ERI's necromancer and the man she apparently turned to for future prognostication. Dee stands, with Francis Bacon, at the head of a succession of inquirers that lead up to the discoveries of Newton 100 years later.
Review: Shakespeare (2007) by Bill Bryson.

The book is part of the 'Eminent Lives Series' of HarperPress that also includes Mohammed by Karen Armstrong (an eminent specialist on religion) and Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens (a Vanity Fair columnist). The bias is clearly, in the series, towards accessibility.

Bryson is prolific but clearly spent time on the book, which includes a list of 36 "principle books referred to" on three pages at the back. In brief, he takes the 'new historicist' method and makes it less scholarly than accessible. The 'new historicist' method is a West Coast innovation used in the peripheral material included in my Norton Shakespeare, which Greenblatt edited (although the primary material is from the Oxford edition).

Greenblatt also wrote a monograph (which I reviewed in July 2006) of which I said that the author's "immense scholarship is worn lightly". The same holds for Bryson's book.

But it's got no surprises if you are a dedicated enthusiast. Rather, Bryson includes most of the material you know already, and in an engaging and competent form. You will not, however, come away with much that is new or innovative. Bryson is neither a scholar nor a critic. He keeps his opinions to himself.

This can be a relief if you are more interested in such things as the current temperament of academia regarding Shakespeare who is, it must be honestly admitted, the most-well-known writer in the world.

Bryson tries to assess the relevance of things Shakespeare himself would have traken for granted. The irony in his dedications (to the longer poems and the sonnets) centres around fashion: while those he adulates are now nonentities, the bard's own currency has never been so valuable.

This thing of how posterity handles a poet is also frequently the cause of amusement, as where the high-Romantic literati, troubled by Will's homosexual attitudes in many of the sonnets, ascribed his figures to the ability to imagine love from the point of view of a woman. In this way they could brush under the carpet the unwholesome idea and grant additional cachet to the poet, who was so skillful.

Like Greenblatt, Bryson demonstrates with his easy manner considerable command of a vast amount of material. The simple statistic (there are around 4000 new books on WS every year) is the most telling. James Shapiro's commendation, printed on the jacket, actually sums the book up pretty neatly: "Vivid, unsentimental, witty, and fast-paced." Nothing less would sell, although one must also remark on the size of Bryson's name on the cover: celebrity holds cachet now, where birth did in Will's day.

All-in-all I'd recommend this performance to a potential buyer. It was my own insight that a book of criticism is like the performance of a play. Each successive exponent will be different, and may draw on the gains of earlier ones. For me, when I did a lot of WS reading, to read another's words on this most mercurial of poets, was much like taking a seat in a large theatre.

Bryson pretends that it is a small one, and writes in a frank and yet suggestive manner, that gives much food for thought.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Julia Zemiro looks like Her.

Zemiro hosted the If Awards, the Oz event for locally-made films. Tonight The Home Song Stories (which I reviewed in August) won five awards. It's a bio-pic by Tony Ayres, a Chinese-Australian.

The love sonnets were written on 27 October (two items: 'Were we alone in this metropolis' and 'I don’t know if it’s good or bad'), 28 October ('I park my car, walk to the café'), 30 October ('You say that she has eyes that sum you up'), 31 October/1 November ('I lay an open book on the table'), 2 November ('Silence please. I’m in awe of the power'), and 4 November ('I drive through Petersham again').

Awards, and especially the speeches they generate, are always just slightly off-key. There's something degenerate about the drone of job titles you hear ("I'd like to thank my co-director and my other co-director"), and the sweaty pleasure a recipient exudes when standing at the dias.

It's not cool to be so overwhelmed by the acceptance of your peers. Worst of all are the sweet endearments ("I can't name you all but you know I love you") that spring like posies of cut flowers from their lips. Their awful graciousness ("I'd like to recognise the original owners of this land").

Their smug fulfillment. Safety in numbers. Money is involved.

Thank god for Zemiro. A real, live woman who admits to swooning over Mel Gibson at the Belvoir Theatre in the seventies, with her mum waiting outside, in the car, urging her daughter (with two friends, natch) to get the young man's autograph.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

John Samahah is a natural actor. Tonight at the Australian Poetry Slam he did three skits that were very funny. The poor viewer response to his YouTube site is a great shame.

What gets me though is that he's the spitting image of the guy in the Greater Union ad ('feel like a star'). Not the guy who drives the brown, late-70s Honda Civic and prints portraits of himself to give to his office colleagues, but the rotund individual at the corner shop who has to catch the keys.

"It's not me," he said when I asked. A thoroughly charming man.

On YouTube, John has 13 videos posted. Watch them, they're classic. If you thought the Chaser was good, you'll love this stuff. It's got an edge and is genuinely amusing. And John himself presents brilliantly; obviously a man of great dramatic talents.

The reading was OK. Too much of the same stuff, though. Certainly too much rap. Bea doesn't agree. I met Bea three readings ago in Glebe and when she's not cadging fags, we chat about poetry.

Last night I didn't stand close enough to the mike (she said) so she didn't hear my pieces. Mark Mordue, who compered as well as read some stuff (published in the Ilumina 2007 anthology), picked out two lines (one of which I stole from a work colleague).

Returning home, I worked on one of them, removing some false clauses and working to sustain one or two metaphors. I guess that in a sonnet you would want to have two, at the most.

I also put together another one. This is not part of the earlier series, which is a series of love sonnets. The new one is a 'concept' piece and employs a single metaphor that has elements stolen from Tennyson and Cowper. It is 'about' the single-pitch thematic content of most of the open-mike poetry available in Sydney.

Out of the three readings I've recently been to the same, tired drama is played out: the 'disgust with politicians' theme. In fact, this contempt, bred from familiarity, is one of the triumphs of democracy. The sense of fatigue that most political debate generates leads to the citizenry rejecting the whole, sorry drama.

I also spoke again with Kayat Fadeel who was absolutely chuffed to receive a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He was with his Asian girlfriend and I was surprised to hear him demand a cigarette from her, as we stood on the pavement outside the venue.

There was one girl who delivered a stunning poem, but I didn't collect her name. Apart from her, there was not much worth writing home about and, as I started with, just way too much rap coming out of the voice boxes of a bunch of middle-class urbanites.

One guy (this is too precious) actually performed a rap number that was quite slick. The content, however, was how rap celebrity corrupts its beneficiaries. Bizarre! the irony was so thick but it seemed the performer was unaware of this element.

Bea came fourth. Miles Merrill actually offered me a slot but I turned him down. I was irritated as the situation in terms of gaining a slot is absurd. Only the first 15 who contact the organisers get to read. A further five people have their name drawn out of a hat. The problem is that they do not tell you, beforehand, that this limitation exists. As a result, you need to contact them immediately the event is announced, to gain a turn at the mike.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of Lu Jiamin (61 or 58 depending on which report you read), "a political economy professor working at a university in Beijing", and winner of the inaugural Man Asia Prize (which Sharon at Bibliobibuli has spoken about on several occasions). Both Jonathan Watts at The Guardian and Donald Greenlees at The International Herald Tribune have covered the story.

No surprises in these facts:

  • Rong is an ex-Tiananmen Square protester
  • The book, Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), celebrates an ethnic minority, and
  • Criticises the Han majority
  • Chronicles the writer's experiences during the 1966-76 cultural revolution
  • From 1967 to 1978, he lived on the Inner Mongolian steppe

However, there are some curious facts that are more unexpected:

  • The book is a publishing phenomenon in China
  • Where it has sold two million legal copies (and with an estimated 10 times that number of pirated copies)
  • The propaganda minister has praised its style
  • It has been the subject of literary debates
  • It has been the subject of management motivation courses
  • It has been the subject of military training lectures

Rong did not attend the award ceremony in Hong Kong but he should be heartened by the response to Sharon's blog post about how "Asian story arcs differ significantly from Western ones", according to Nuri Vittachi, a prime-mover in the establishment of the prize who was shouldered out of the judging panel by other experts.

Vittachi has complained that the prize is 'too Western' and also chronicles the evolution of the set-up. These are his 'facts':

  • Vittachi had the idea originally
  • And was also the main speaker at the presentation at which Man Group plc gave the green light
  • But Peter Gordon wanted to play a senior role in managing the prize, and
  • Gordon set up a separate organization, chaired by himself, and Vittachi was forbidden to play any role in it
  • The set-up now is "strictly expats only", with no Asian authors involved in any significant roles in administration or judging

Says Vittachi. But here are the real facts. The admin people are, as follows:

  • Mr Peter Gordon (Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival),
  • Prof. Christopher Hutton (Head of School of English, University of Hong Kong),
  • Prof. David Parker (Head of English Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong) and
  • Ms Sue Gourlay (Man Investments)

The judging panel, however, is slightly more Asia-centric:

  • Andre Aciman, Egyptian
  • Adrienne Clarkson, Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated to Canada in 1942
  • Nicholas Jose, Australian who's done a stint (1987-1990) as "Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy" in China

Bizarrely, the Web site of the prize does not contain any mention of the award, while there are numerous media reports available. According to a blog post:

The prize winner was announced at a celebratory dinner at Cipriani Hong Kong. Jiang Rong was awarded USD 10,000 and the book’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, was awarded USD 3,000.

The Bloomberg site tells us the book was published (in Chinese) by Changjiang Art and Culture Publishing House. But The China Daily site tells us it was published by Yangtze Literature and Art publishing House. This link gives a long precis of the book's contents.

Penguin will publish it next year in English.

The China Daily link is interesting in what it displays as the elements that would appeal to China's ruling apparatus:

Jiang argues that agriculture has made people adopt what he calls a "sheep-like temperament."

"They are tame, meek and passive, doomed to be beaten and bullied. On the other hand, the nomadic steppe people have guts and bones just like the wolf."

And:

He describes how [wolves] are considered the embodiment of all the features that any creatures, including man, should possess in order to earn a dignified survival in the harsh environment.

Superior in wit, grit and patience, they are aggressive, relentless, and intractable. On the other hand, they always play by the rules of the game, killing only when hungry, as the maintenance of a wholesome steppe society mandates, and preparing at any time to sacrifice for its team.

Here is some true, battle-hardened Asian essentialism. Rong's earlier subjection to the Party's hegemony over ideas only makes his writing the book now ("Jiang said he prepared for the book for 25 years, then spent six years writing it") more interesting.

The parallels with Tokyo governor Ishihara are striking.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Vale NM: 31 January 1923 - 10 November 2007

Photo: detail of NM debating William F. Buckley, Jr.

Paul Byrnes thinks Lions for Lambs "a movie that engages with the biggest political issues of our time" and this, he says is "a cause for celebration". In fact, Byrnes says, director Robert Redford has "revive[d] the political movie". Which is patent nonsense. Recent blockbusters such as The Constant Gardner and this year's A Mighty Heart both fit the bill.

What this film is 'about' is spin.

The three strands Byrnes elencates all include individuals "addressing" the "issue" of the 'war on terror'. But Byrnes is correct to point out that this script is ideal for the theatre. Its launch in a vehicle designed for movie houses merely means the producers wanted the broadest range of outlets possible.

Andrew Garfield (pic) plays Todd, a political science student faced with an hour in the office of his lecturer, Dr Stephen Malley (Redford). The issue here is how to "make a difference". Malley tells Todd the story of two students who gained admission to the university through a sports scholarship, Arian (Derek Luke; who is black) and Ernest (Michael Pena; who is hispanic).

The two students appear at the start of the film, when the helicopter they are in is shot at while it flies over Afghani mountains. Ernest is hit and falls from the aircraft, Arian jumping, blind and into cloud, after him. He doesn't think, he just jumps, not knowing what is below.

The raid is introduced by Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) during his one-hour meeting with Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a journalist. His aim: to convince her to write a 'good' story about "the implementation of a new strategy". Naturally, she isn't swallowing it whole.

A further, great, scene takes place back at her office. Here, the ANX editor (Kevin Dunn) tries to get Janine to run the story just as the senator gave it to her. He is frustrated by her scruples. As happened when she brought up historical precedents with Irving, the editor is frustrated by her broad grasp of history, specifically that of Vietnam. He practically threatens to fire her.

It should also be noted that Janine got the story because she was the first journalist to recognise Irving's potential five years earlier, when he was just starting out.

So the film is really about how we 'imagine' events at home and abroad. The constraint seems to be bandwidth. It is just not possible, it seems, to imagine the Taliban (whose soldiers are shown in a satellite link-up advancing toward the two black smudges representing the American soldiers, stranded on a mountain pass) in any other guise than a manifest, irrational threat.

Also of note is the tag cloud on the Web site.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Review: Rohypnol, Andrew Hutchinson.

Christos Tsiolkas worked on the book and wrote a clip for the front cover but by page 31 I was irritated. At the talk Andrew gave on campus speech was rapid and abrupt. He writes like this. Single-word sentences. Abrupt clips of conversation (two lines only). Short chapters (which my friend Tony says is due to the petercaryism of literature today).

But there's absolutely no poetry, no risks taken. It's a small, safe world where bad things are supposed to happen. We're promised violence and cruelty of a casual kind. So I wanted it early and I wanted it to make me sick.

The first chapter sees two guys drag a schoolgirl into a car. This is by far the best scene. You can hear the voices, smell the recently-cut grass. Hear the purr of the sedan's engine as it idles close to the curb just prior to parking.

But everything after that, although slightly faster-paced, is ruined by a sense the writer is just not 'into it'. He's going through his paces in preparation for the grisly bits. Well, sorry, it's not enough.

Let's talk briefly about Salinger and Murakami: two writers often spoken of in tandem. Here, too, is disaffected youth compelled to perform casual acts over which little control is brought to bear.

In their books, however, we feel the 'soul' of the protagonist. We 'know' them and they are, in actual fact, out of step with the world (as youth frequently is). This is because we can see the frame but it's one we've been conscious of in our own lives. There's some element of lived experience.

Here, however, the cut-out characters seem to roll on rails, or casters. Like that TV commercial where an office copying maching goes to prison (for jamming: 'it was the paper' goes the punch line). At the end we see the copier at the foot of the prison wall, a rope swinging behind it.

Unfortunately, Hutchinson's immaturity shows. He has had it too easy. His run-of-the-mill masculinity has opened several doors and he's just making the same kind of sketch here that got him published in the past. But this is a novel: stamina is key.

Undoubtedly this book will get some attention but I forsee it dropping pretty quickly from the publisher's list. There's nothing new here, despite the hype (Tsiolkas is without question our best writer currently). Just enough to get over the line.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Review: Other Colours: Essays and A Story, Orhan Pamuk.

It is more than a "grab bag" (William Grimes, writing a review for The New York Times) and certainly more than "pen-and-ink doodles" (Charles McNair, Paste magazine). Los Angeles Times writer Richard Eder gets closer (at least not denigrating ephemera for being true to itself):

Pamuk sees in [Dostoevsky] someone bred to Western rationalism but with literary instincts that drew on his sense of affront at the West's blindness to the spirituality of the Russian people.

But he misses the point. Pamuk's feeling of kinship with the Russian Romantic author is due to a radical disconnect between what it means to be outside the castle, wanting to belong, but hating the self-satisfied airs of those who unthinkingly ape its residents:

Behind Dostoyevsky's great anger and hatred for the Westernizing liberals and the modernizers who propagated Fourier's determinist utpoianism in Russia during the 1860s was his fury at the way they basked in the limelight of their ideas, embracing success unabashedly and without question.

Pamuk talks of the "jealousy, anger and pride of a man who cannot make himself into a European".

The appeal to 'spirituality', which in D's case took the form of pan-Slavism (a form of nationalism within the Romantic trope of self-sufficiency) the LA Times guy points to, is a mask. Nabokov's sneer is sensible here, like a Cheshire Cat in a slasher film.

But Pamuk is across all this. He talks ('Forward to Tristram Shandy') of the grand narrative that is "the logic behind all great legends, religions, and philosophies". In other words he speaks in a language comprehensible to any person with a Western background.

But there's more. Often he talks of the coffeeshops and barbershops of Istanbul which "served ... as places where news, legends, and rampant rumors, outright lies, and tales of wrath and resistance were fabricated and enriched to undermine the pronouncements of religious leaders and the state".

It is in this locus, within this trope, that Pamuk does what few people from a subaltern culture will normally do: admit that (a) the developmental level of their nation is backward (compared, for example, to that of the English-speaking world). Even if they do this, they will never admit that (b) democracy and pluralism are of potentially universal application. For many leaders (Japan, Malaysia) essentialism is the name of the game.

Refreshingly, he not only writes about D but also those from other subaltern nation states, of particular note being Junichiro Tanizaki. Pamuk referring to Tanizaki is a token of signal significance, placing the Japanese writer well above his competitors, such as Yukio Mishima (with whose nephew I worked in Tokyo).

The link between Istanbul and Europe, in the context referred to above, is Habermas, the German sociologist for whom 18th-century London stood as a high point in Western civilisation, and for whom the London coffeeshops served as arenas of discussion, commerce, and scandal-mongering. Just as in Istanbul today.

To mention 'grand narratives' in this context is to point more insistently to the German. In this sense, Other Colours is a complex, rich and rewarding underground network of essential infrastructure referring to which allows a reader to understand the novels of this massively-talented writer, better.

We can gesture of course to My Name Is Red, where (wrapped in the typically Western trope of a murder mystery) the essentialism of the 16th-century Ottoman court is exposed as a sham. The Venetian painters were right, Pamuk now tells us. Perspectival painting changed the world because it placed the human animal in a proper guise, no longer only comprehensible in relation to a supreme being.

Pamuk's breadth of knowledge puts most Western residents to shame.

I usually do not post a review of a book unless it's all read (or, if it's bad, when I get to the extremity of my patience) but in this case there's enough -- more than enough -- in the first 211 pages to warrant this post. The relevance of the book is striking, given such utterances as this, by an Afghani politician, Malalai Joya, talking with Australian journalist Glyn Strong (Good Weekend, 3 November 2007):

I believe no nation can donate liberation to another nation. Democracy, human rights, women's rights are not something that someone gives to us. We must ourselves make sacrifices to achieve these values.

Here's Pamuk singing from the same score ('Where Is Europe?'):

No matter what language they speak in their homes ... a good many Istanbul intellectuals have read this work [Albert Sorel's L'Europe et la revolution francaise], but, as I know only too well, they did not read them as a French reader might, seeking connection with their memories and their own pasts, but rather searching within the pages for some sense of their future, of their European dreams.

Richard Stanton in his new book (All News Is Local, McFarlane, 2007) says this, in precisely the same locus of relevance:

... democracy is ... an inductive or empirical model. It must by its nature be imagined historically through the long-run establishment of its institutions. It cannot be grounded in anything other than history.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Miles Merrill is from Chicago and the other guy, too, who was an organiser of this event, was North American. Of course, the concept of a 'slam' comes from Chicago (1986) and is, essentially, a competition where showmanship counts for more than honesty and truth.

The big issue here, however, is not the poor quality of many entries, but, rather, the fact that you do not know, in advance, that only the first 15 arrivals are guaranteed a spot. In addition, five late-comers are drawn from a hat. Thus 20 people get to read.

This seems somewhat unfair, as no such detail is provided in the advance publicity. If you went to the previous event you will know these things. An uninitiated prospective participant, however, is in the dark and hence unheard.

Only one performer touched me and I do not remember her name. I do remember that she was nervous. Her first item, read shyly, was overtly sexual, explicit even. The second I don't recall. By the third item, though, she was in her stride and confident. When she left, I congratulated her. Her delight was delightful.

I spent the third session talking with a woman met in the street outside the pub. We chatted for ages and shared cigarettes. There was a guy I know from the Internet. There was a Turkish guy I thought was a Maori. And there was an Iraqi who was so happy to have the opportunity to tell us that there are forests in his country, his hands shook.

Who knew?

I mean, have you ever seen a forest in any news coverage of the hostilities? In addition, we discussed the allusive nature of Arabic, how you can say three things with one sentence. It was fun.

The next event is on Thursday 15 November and, I tell you, I shall be early!!

The competition is sponsored by the NSW State Library. The finals will take place at their location on 30 November. The national grand slam is on 7 December, also at their location.

So if you want to hear two love sonnets, come to the Tap Gallery, 278 Palmer Street Darlinghurst next Thursday. I mean: who the f**k writes f**king sonnets?

But tonight I had no dinner.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Shibuya - Kiwi - Grunt - Dismemberment - Death Proof is a stunning justification and a precious reminder of the power of rejection as Tarantino reimagines himself following the appallingly bad movies that preceded it (the Kill Bill franchise).

Shibuya: At a movie house right smack in the centre of Tokyo's main groove (a locus of trade, love hotels, labyrinthine alleys, overpriced coffee shops, gangsters and a dog on a monument) I walked out into the buzz and bustle following Pulp Fiction. The year: 1994. I remember Karen didn't like it but Darrell and I wafted into the street (a street so crowded you either shuffled with the mass of humanity or weaved in and out, careful not to bump your fellow humans off the footpath).

We knew there was something different and we knew that the rules had changed. What we didn't know was that, 13 years later, and again playing a cameo role (in this movie Tarantino is a bartender wearing a cowboy shirt with black-and-white-checked shoulders), the boy from the video store would again come up with the goods.

Vanessa Ferlito plays Arlene. In the scene (pic) Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell; here Tarantino has done for Russell what he did, in Pulp Fiction, for John Travolta) asks this gorgeous-looking woman: "Are you afraid of me"? Arlene: "Yes." Stuntman Mike: "Is it my face?" Arlene: "No, it's your car."

It's your car.

There is no obvious category in which you can reliably place Stuntman Mike. 'Psychopath' sort of fails to reach the level of evil he represents. Something like 'unadulterated cruelty' comes closer, and it's especially because, in this conversation-rich experience, Stuntman Mike is extremely eloquent. Charming, even.

Four dead girls and Stuntman Mike is in hospital. Here, we get a nice interlude placed neatly between the scenes of raw auto-porn that constitutes much of the film. The throaty growl of an eight-cylinder car at full throttle makes up a decent part of the soundtrack. The bar scenes that open the movie are accompanied by some fetching tunes, probably from the 70s (the era the film seems to borrow from most heavily), but it's the effect of speed and the inherent danger of it, that form the nexus of allure that defines the appeal of the film.

Arlene's lap dance is a fascinating vignette of ersatz desire since, although it's Stuntman Mike who gets the benefit of her performance, it is only when behind the wheel of his car that he expresses his real urge: to demolish, obliterate, ransack, and dismember. The ultimate experience of the modern age: to destroy using the products put at our disposal by the efficiency of industrial production married to private enterprise, and the empowering drive of a universal franchise.

The logical next step is to pursue total control by exploiting these achievements. As for the law, well, that interlude is a Socratic exchange of wisdom between the older cop Edgar McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son Edgar (James Parks; the real-life father-son combo is delightful). If he does it again, says the older cop, he'd better not do it in Texas.

Change of scene (and the film shifts to monchrome; these nice touches of cinematographic elegance are ideal analogues of the excellent script, written by Tarantino himself) to Lebanon, Tennessee.

And here we get a beautiful little surprise: Zoe (Zoe Bell, playing herself) is a Kiwi. But is she as beautiful as Vanessa Ferlito? It doesn't matter as much as another thing. Karen was wrong, I was right: Tarantino is a genius.

I walked out of the cinema into the underground carpark, got into my 200-kW, V6, beige Toyota, and drove home alone but happy.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Vladimir Nabokov: Bergsonian and Russian Formalist Influences in His Novels by Michael Glynn appears to more-fully articulate an April 2005 article published in the European Journal of American Culture in which the critic "seeks to counter a contemporary critical orthodoxy that presents Nabokov as a transcendental or Symbolist writer".

Further: "To value the word as symbol ... was in Nabokov's view to detract from the intrinsic value of both word and world and [Glynn] suggest[s] instead that Nabokov enjoyed an epistemological affinity with Russian Formalism." Glynn sets himself apart from "such eminent Nabokovians as Brian Boyd and D. Barton Johnson".

Boyd strikes me as a capable biographer (though he didn't ask such hard questions as the inimitable Stacy Schiff, whose Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): a biography stands, for me, in front of everything written about the Russian author yet). As for D. Barton Johnson, it should be enough that he has a ridiculous name, to dismiss his ideas.

I have the email asking me to pre-order, from Amazon, the book by Glynn (US$$74.95 - about $100 in our currency). But I also have a volume, purchased probably a year ago, and unread, containing 14 essays (including one by Boyd), and published by CUP. A veritable N-feast!
Geoffrey Gates' blog is named 'Perpetual Locomotion', which derives from a book he wrote, and published, A Ticket for Perpetual Locomotion. Today he linked to me and I decided to use this event as a launching pad for a small hypothesis.

First, though, it's salutory to inspect the rate of posting there: seven posts since establishing the blog in July 2006. My blog has run over 730 posts in a period just a few months longer. His Sitemeter counter is registering two visits per day.

Most posts are to mark a significant event and generally the blog is not a run-by-run ouverture of the creative process (he's working on novel two now). Although I frequent Gleebooks, who stock(ed) the novel, I've not seen it. Or read about it; no reviews have appeared in the mainstream press, afaik.

Which brings me to the hypothesis: Why are we so critical? What does it mean to be critical? What basic need does it meet?

Given the opportunity, most people want to air a view, regardless of the topic. This is why vox pops always deliver reasonably good content for TV stations with an 'issue' to inspect. They are guaranteed several perspectives, and will probably choose the one that delivers most evidence of disaffection.

My opinion (if you're even slightly interested) comes from study done this year, particularly two units concerned with the art of PR. A highly-loaded acronym, I vow. What is the 'public sphere' and how did it become so important in recent decades? Why is it so disappointing for me to see a writer's blog so little (a) visited and (b) updated?

I believe that we are:

  • Social animals, and
  • Conditioned by genes to use language

Given these characteristics, it is inevitable that we live our lives within one or more narratives. The story may be different at different times of our lives, but the need for an over-arching narrative (PR theorists call this 'grand strategy') is so convincing I'm tempted to shut down my Facebook site.

My sqeamishness is due to my tendency to say what I think. Given the plethora of fora frequented by individuals with similar narratives as me, the opportunity to participate in them is almost overwhelming. But it's not politic to air a view in public. In fact this, I believe, is the reason for the current popularity of (a) celebrity and (b) sport.

Neither make any ideological claims (overt at least) on us. Within the narratives that play out in these arenas of aspiration, we may even discuss important topics with work colleagues, total strangers met at the train station, or our home-loan provider.

No danger. And it's fun to speculate in terms anyone can understand (we are nothing if not democratic!) as to whether failure can be turned into dazzling success. Or vice versa. Possibly Geoffrey Gates hopes I can help him to move beyond the dismal evidence of seven posts in two years, and win readers.

Given my own Sitemeter daily total, however, that's unlikely. And here's another thing: my blog is full of opinion (my opinion). Many people (myself included) prefer facts to another's spin. For this reason, I rarely read the op-ed page of my daily broadsheet.

At university, furthermore, you are almost forced to be critical. It's part of the paradigm of study: to question the foundations of everything you encounter. This bias (age-old) may, however, become outmoded given the current impulse of universities to think of themselves as vocational training institutes, rather than loci of higher learning.

To take that paradigm, though, and subscribe to its tone and method in the workplace, is quite another issue. Possibly, we need to stick with Paris Hilton and Toma Lomu, and eschew the more meaty fillings provided by books of history, literature, essays, and criticism. It is in these that I have always found my crucible of desire to fill most sweetly.

Yet I was told, by the man who makes my furniture, that those of his friends who are most 'academic' usually watch programs traditionally poo-poohed for having little substance. Is this the 'postmodern' paradigm kicking in? Are we to attune ourselves to commodities (culturally speaking) and ignore serious writers such as Geoffrey?

For myself, I love CSI: Miami (I posted on it in April) because of the super-saturated colours. The original CSI, set in Las Vegas, is not as sweet on the retina. Then we've got, more recently, CSI: New York, starring Gary Sinise. This version is more hard-boiled, issues-driven, 'serious' (Serious Sinise - a new nickname). Three flavours of the same basic product (Jerry Bruckheimer; also responsible for Cold Case).

Channel Nine's Damages (I also posted on this Glenn Close vehicle) is spun as a 'serious' item and the aesthetics reflect that.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The movie Waitress seems more suited, to my mind, to monochrome. It celebrates a white-picket-fence, apple-pie, down-home America belied by the method of dying of writer/director/actor Adrienne Shelly, at the beginning of last November. "A 19-year-old Ecuadorian illegal immigrant and construction worker confessed to slaying the actress, who he left hanging by a bedsheet from a shower rod in the bathroom of her Manhattan office/apartment," says IMDB.

The presence of Andy Griffith as the slightly-cantankerous but good-hearted pie-shop owner, signals to an ethos Americans probably would like to believe they still possess. In actual fact, today's highly-heterogeneous world, where issues can become multi-faceted (not simply polarised), means this film celebrates past glories.

Yet the scene where a pregnant Jenna (Keri Russell) is in the kitchen with her lover, Dr Pometter (Nathan Fillion), cooking, dancing, singing...

Every old rock song could be said to derive from the song Jenna sings here, as she remembers how her mother would show her, a little girl, how to cook pies. It's the ur-anthem to a new life that also seems to be captured in Southern spirituals: singing a way out of heartache seems a way of life in the New World.

Of course, these popular songs made canonical in the American 'imagining' of themselves, first belonged to the British. But in England, in the 19th century and even in the early 20th, such songs were not privileged by the common-sensical utilitarianism epitomised in American culture.

The passage from the horror of a nasty husband (brilliantly played by Jeremy Sisto) into the arms of the Connecticut doctor, and finally, by way of a winning entry in a pie contest, to setting up her own shop with a new daughter -- this series of events is driven by a practical femininity and an earnest belief in herself.

Russell is both beautiful and strong-looking. It's a classical girl-from-next-door look, and it's distinctly Anglo. And it's not as if Earl set her up in a trashy trailer with a junked car in the front yard, either. The decor in their house is pure middle-class aspirational. But this outward respectability makes his detestable attitude even worse.

What Jenna finds in the arms (perhaps not the best word -- she's the one who first jumps his bones, after all) of the worthy Dr Pometter, whose patrician youthfulness promises plenty in several senses, is not love but a sense of her own worth. To be the object of desire is empowering. The less said about the good doctor's red-haired wife, the better.

The movie is, ultimately, a set-piece with an acute angle. There's less violence than possibly exists, in such cases, in real life. There's a deep sense of unease generated whenever Earl come down the road, tooting his fucking horn. There's a camerarderie within the slim confines of the pie shop. And there's a deep wisdom in Old Joe's scepticism, a stern practicality softened by memories of past romance.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Farish A Noor's The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia's Subaltern History is a series of impotent yelps that by some alchemy were posted on the Web site malaysiakini over a period of several years. In 2005 it had a second printing. The very subtitle contains the seeds of his own defeat although, clearly, Noor is an educated man.

But what kind of education has he had? The most prominent method is postmodernism which, angled full-tilt at colonialism, has resulted in a strong brew. But ready-to-wear. Noor's dialectic 'imagines' the world in such a way that prevents him from either moving forward (he distrusts contemporary Malaysian politicians) or moving back (he despises the English overlord). So he spins on a narrow axis, waving his arms, and shouting 'not fair'.

"The technocrats and securocrats have responded to the emergence of these sites [Web sites not controlled by the traditional governmental arms of censorship] with alarm and suspicion," he writes in the first essay ('Many Other Malaysias').

In 'The Sultan Who could not Stay Put (Part 1)' Noor then shifts aim and coughs up the standard post-colonial theory that has prevented emerging economies from reaching their full potential. The colonial system is a "sorry state of affairs", where subjugation by the british is "part and parcel" of an inhuman hegemony.

Because of the "universal standard of all progress" applied by the Brits, Malays were disadvantaged. The words of a white rajah are "boorish" and any methods of discrimination were "simplistic categorisations". Honours from the British crown were "poisonous gifts".

This trope continues to preoccupy Noor in the present age, where favoured status accorded by the U.S. are "gilded baubles".

Noor's prose is, typically for former colonial subjects, long-winded and slightly archaic, as if he were afraid that any innovation or concession to readability might be mistaken for weakness. He refuses to even consider alternative narratives, beyond the standard post-colonial one that so many Western academics and pundits produce, ad nauseam, in the respected periodicals of record in countries like Australia.

The book was a gift so I am slightly ashamed to give it so poor a ranking, but execrable it is, truly and verily. Forsooth.