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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 VĂ©ra (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.
Girl in the Cellar is set in large type and frequently uses words such as "immorality", "deviant creature", "tormented wretch", "evil", "martyrdom", "demented fantasies". These are loaded words quite unable to capture the day-to-day reality of the relationship between Natascha Kampusch and Wolfgang Priklopil, who held her captive for eight years.

The large type shows who the book aims at. The loaded lingo likewise. It's unfortunate because the authors (Allan Hall and Michael Leidig) themselves frequently complain of Natascha's iron grip on detail. Her refusal to tell all and instead measure out carefully what the world hears is an indicator of her mental toughness.

Clearly this personal quality helped her survive the ordeal. But it is the detail that members of Austria's community need to fully understand certain characteristics of the case, including her mildness toward Priklopil and her sympathy for his mother. Another element of surprise is Natascha's refusal to live with her own mother.

The big question is whether she ever had sexual relations with Priklopil. On this issue, she flatly refuses to speak. But other details the authors point to here also need clarification. There is the matter of some photos of Natascha showing her in provocative poses in S&M gear. There is also the matter that Priklopil and Natascha's parents frequented the same bar, and may have known each other.

What is not in question is Natascha's familiarity with the media. Further, self-taught and possessed of a large vocabulary, she is a puzzle for professional teachers. The radio and TV constituted a primary avenue of information about the world, and a lifeline when locked in the cellar.

The room itself is very small. One man, a soldier, sat in the room for a few minutes and declared it stifling. Natascha spent eight years there. The speed with which she has been able to recover is noteworthy:

I found my way back to normal life very quickly. It's astonishing, how quickly it happened. I now live together with other people -- and I don't have difficulties with that.

But these "other people" are support staff and psychologists, not 'regular' people. The authors sense spin, and elsewhere highlight the powerful machinery brought to bear on the case:

Natascha remained out of sight of the media for two weeks. Details seeped out from family members and police sources before the circus of media advisers and sharp-suited lawyers began trying to lock down the story of Natascha tighter than the Pentagon under nuclear attack.

In the 'Aftermath' section at the end of the book, you sense a lot of spin coming from Natascha's 'people' or, possibly, manufactured by the authors in order to gratify them. The implication being that, in future, these two men want to be 'in' on any action. Given the list of words I include at the head of this post, these words do not ring true:

We hope this book has shown ... that the relationship between them was highly complex. That was the key to her survival.

It is true that Natascha's intelligence comes through, especially in her tendancy to do what she was told while waiting for the right moment to escape. But it is not true that we get the full impact of the ruses used on a day-to-day basis. The reason we don't is clear: she won't tell.

She knows what the story is worth and she will release it, in due time, when she is certain she can (a) best profit from it and (b) control the message. The authors of this book are journalists. Journalists are trained to be sceptical and to ask difficult questions. The trick they need to perform is to draw out the information required to complete their picture (not Natascha's) while not antagonising the community, which is naturally positively disposed toward Natascha.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Government Inspector, a play by legendary writer Nikolai Gogol adapted for two actors, is being staged at the Bell Shakespeare company. Tickets for the performance at the Sydney Opera House cost $30. Viewers of ABC TV's news program will be aware of the play, the name of the company, and the fact that only two actors play all the parts.

This is because, at the end of a program late last week, a reporter interviewed the actors. The story was, therefore, about the actors and the quick-change segues between scenes on-stage. Both actors remarked how frantic it was. Not only clothes but make-up need to be put on as fast as possible.

What struck me, however, is the complete lack of any mention of the author's name. The ABC reporter clearly thought that 'Bell Shakespeare' and 'only two actors' were sufficient inducement for some viewers to take the time and spend the money.

The reporter did mention, it is true, that the play was originally performed in the 1830s. And he did mention that is was written in Russian. But the fact is that Gogol was not Russian, but Ukrainian. Were I Ukrainian I would be shocked and scandalised that my country's most revered author was (a) not named and (b) not identified as a compatriot.

A genius, Gogol went to St Petersburg to participate in that city's blossoming artistic and commercial milieu. He met Pushkin five years before The Government Inspector was published. To participate in the era of the birth of modern Russian literature was, for Gogol, as though a Scotsman had journeyed to London during the reign of Elizabeth I and met Shakespeare. This of course never happened.

In his brilliant biography of Gogol, Nabokov begins thus:

Nikolai Gogol, the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced, died Thursday morning, a little before eight, on the fourth of March, eighteen fifty-two, in Moscow. He was almost forty-three years old -- a reasonably ripe age for him, considering the ridiculously short span of life generally allotted to other great Russian writers of his miraculous generation.

It was a "miraculous" era. This is the most striking thing in the above passage. Not only did you see Russian poets writing in the vernacular (compare this statement from Wikipedia with the blossoming of literature following the introduction of the vernacular in Italy by Dante).

In addition, it was the great era of Romanticism. Using themes from such British writers as Richardson and Byron, the early Russian writers set about changing society. Compared to their English brothers, they had a lot to do.

Of course, the other thing striking about Nabokov's entree into the world of Gogol (a wonderfully eccentric work, first published, in 1959, by the legendary New Directions company in San Francisco) is that the man becomes "Russian". His genius compels Nabokov to adopt the Ukrainian from a small country town.

What greater accolade than to pretend confraternity, where none exists?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The death of Dean Shillingsworth highlights, says Miranda Devine, the need for paternalism "for some". She quotes Peter Saunders, a sociologist, saying "we need to distinguish between those who are competent" and "the minority" such as Dean's mother (and father?) Rachel Pfitzner who "was arrested on Saturday and charged with her son's murder", according to The Australian. Devine writes for The Sydney Morning Herald.

According to Peter Cochrane, the idea of 'competence' has been cogent in the colonial experience since locals voiced a desire for self-rule, and "London was not entirely convinced about [the colony's competence] until the end of the 1840s". By 'London', he means the Colonial Office (located at 13-14 Downing Street).

William Charles Wentworth, who emerges in Cochrane's book Colonial Ambition as the tireless champion of self-rule, "penned numerous petitions" "[e]ach of [which] addressed the question of competency". And the language used hearkens back to the origins of English liberty, the 1630s, in such principles as:

  • Access to the "full benefits" of the British Constitution
  • Liberation from disenfranchisement
  • Freedom of the press
  • Trial by jury
  • Taxation by representation

These arguments should be familiar to any student of American independence. In New South Wales, according to Cochrane, the debate settled into an argument over the make-up of the Upper House:

The very idea of a colonial aristocracy for an Upper House designed to stem what Wentworth called "the flood of democracy" seemed a wicked travesty. ... For Wentworth, liberty was nothing if not a guarantee that patrician men of property, sensibility and standing, men like him, were at the helm of state.

Cochrane's metaphor, at this point, is of a coin with two sides. On one side is "liberty" and on the other is "authority and order". According to Devine:

As a social libertarian, Saunders has always believed that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as they are not harming others. But he is coming to the more complex idea "that you have to have one rule for one population and another for another. You've got to start discriminating."

Where does this leave the underclass?

The first mention I can find for the Centre for Independent Studies (where Saunders works) in Factiva, the news database, is in a story published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 6 September 1986 titled 'The New Right: A Consumer's Guide'. In it we learn that the CIS "Began in the mid-1970s as a one-person, backyard operation by the now executive director, Greg Lindsay. Now has a budget of almost $500,000." The story leads with a declaration that Labor's hopes for a third term are "evaporating as fast as a rain shower in one of Peko Wallsend's iron ore heaps".

In 2007, we have the opposite situation, speaking only in terms of the traditional left-right party split. In fact, however, Rudd's 'new Labor' looks like Tony Blair's in its early days. Both parties have been moving to the centre for some time, like tributary streams of the same river.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

'Windschuttle for Quadrant' posters were nowhere seen in recent weeks but the decision to appoint this unpopular man (and ABC board member) to helm our most contrary public vehicle, must have had its genesis at some point in time. The issue number escapes me but I recall reading this year, or late last, in the pages of the magazine, an opinion to the effect that it was "sad" how the mag had become "proud" of being contrary.

Typical of its ideological bias, The Sydney Morning Herald's story on the appointment is just over 120 words long. Writer Ben Cubby clearly felt it deserved no more than what timorous Japanese reporters gave to the killing, in April, of Nagasaki mayor Itcho Ito.

At The Australian, Bernard Lane gives it a full page, with quotes from resident "luvvy-bashers", that weighs in at about 450 words. In the piece we learn of the mag's circluation: "6000-odd" (Online sources show a figure of 5000.)

The epithet "luvvies" is aimed squarely at "the comfortable left-wing university consensus" its contributors and editors believe has dumbed-down debate in Australia. Well may they complain. In a unit of study completed last semester, our lecturer (Prof Jim Martin) leaned heavily on texts produced in the aftermath of the 'Stolen Generation' report, to teach us about power and its deployment in language.

Prof Martin also used childrens' books, newspaper photos (especially colour ones), 19th century news stories, magazine ads, and a variety of material to make his points. Nevertheless, the reliance on verbal utterances by Aborigines who had been separated from their parents during the 20th century as part of a deliberate government plan, was memorable. Its a kind of paternalism we don't see.

Nevertheless, writers, such as Louis Nowra, now ask for some old-style paternalism to curb abuses perpetrated by Aboriginal men: unemployed, too much time on their hands, paid by the government to do nothing, they prey on kids. Sometimes the children die. Much of this is due to Windschuttle's influence. Like Pauline Hanson, who lifted the lid on the multicultural debate we had to have, and who still makes the headlines even ten years on, Windschuttle can be credited with injecting some much-needed air into a homogeneous concoction.

Most interesting for me is the comment by the incumbent editor, Paddy McGuiness, that the mag was based on "the conservative spirit of Samuel Johnson" who, Lane tells us in an indirect quote by dint of proximity, Paddy dubs "the literary colossus of 18th-century England".

Johnson did, in fact, write pieces against American independence, for example. And he was, it's true, in the pay of the king (to the tune of about 300 pounds per annum, I believe). But what Johnson had that no Quadrant writer I've encountered has, is an inimical and dynamic style that defies reproduction.

Johnson purportedly hated to write the regular articles that appeared with his name, in a variety of journals. He would, we are told, dash off a piece at the very last possible moment, and wherever he happened to be at the time. The result, in The Idler and The Rambler (which signal by their names a kind of casual elitism now absent from public debate), is comment that entertains due to a vibrant, fluid style no amount of rework can equal.

Johnson was a natural. He looks a bit like Windschuttle but our man will never come close to the dazzling prose style Jane Austen (who also hated democracy) loved so much.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

I was going to discuss Phoenix, the University of Sydney Writers Journal (2006) but the prose is uniformly dull and the poetry didn't push many buttons either. They're all compliant with the maxim 'show not tell' yet missing is a daring needed to keep me reading past the first para.

Given a choice, I'd spruik Micah Horton who, in the society's meetings, sports a black felt hat. His poems contain an accuracy of expression missing in all the short stories (many labelled 'extract from a novel', depressingly). For example, this from 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik':

You walk to the station
through a horror cliche underpass;
lonely streetlights, furtive bed rolls and
cask bladder pillows,
walls cast with calligraphic scrawls.

Past the high-siding banks, where
immigrants slip through
hurricane fences to snip
wild aniseed in scented explosions.

(end)

You can see something original but not quite under control and yet there's the lingering suspicion he's taken inspiration from a late-night stroll through the local streets in anticipation of a favourite CD when he goes home. Alone.

The word 'immigrants' sticks out and, being a standard nominalised formulation, does not link directly to what he's looking at. Where's the pathos signed to? Nevertheless, I like the 'wild aniseed' and the 'scented explosions': the irony is self-referential and high-minded. But what kind of immigrant does so? More likely, he's thinking of a segment seen on SBS TV about border crossings between South Africa and Zimbabwe. If so, his is a cry that derives much of its power from the failure of our standard, breast-beating post-colonial narrative to provide answers.

We're all afraid of being just that much better than the rest. Or, at least, most of us.

I was going to write about this little volume which even boasts a stamp of official approval in the form of an intro by the head of the masters in creative writing progam at the uni, and an essay, 'Evolution of a Poem', by Australian poet Judith Beveridge. You can hear the rounded vowels of the elite, the tenure, the obeissances of grateful students. But does it damage the end product?

Instead of writing about the book, I want to talk about the visiting speaker, Jack R Herman of the Australian Press Council. The body was established in the mid-70s in an attempt to prevent mooted federal legislation, to cover print journalism. Broadcast media are regulated by another law and the Press Council is a self-regulating watchdog.

They have four permanent office staff but Jack didn't go into the sources of funding. Details of the composition of the council were, however, forthcoming, but I didn't think it important to note many. Of most interest is the fact that the chairman (the word is enshrined in the council's constitution, apparently) is an ex-linguistics professor who, we're told, studied under Noam Chomsky (the uber-guru of post-colonial convention).

In the past, the chairman was always a lawyer. The Web site shows that all the journalist members have Anglo names. What a surprise! It's endemic in the industry and few senior journos can count a funny name as part of their credential to report on our highly-diverse society, ethnically speaking. And only one woman: Prue Innes, appointed in August.

Jack was great fun, though. It's really true that journalists know a heap of stuff. They're also very up on what goes and what does not, in terms of printability. Today we dealt with three complaints handled by the council. Since establishment, they've had about 10,000, most of which are settled prior to adjudication. Member firms are obliged to print a prominent retraction after an adverse finding.

This kind of stuff is easy, unlike the really tough elements of journalism such as details of defamation law. We sat for two hours discussing the pros and cons of cases such as Rodney Adler's complaint following the printing of a photo of him with his son about to board a "first-class" flight to ski in Europe. The story appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald immediately after the collapse of Adler's insurance company, HIH.

The problem is obviously that his son, then aged 14, was shown prominently, in full-face and clear enough to recognise him if you saw him on the street. The complaint was thrown out, we're told. The reason is "off the record", according to Jack. If I tell you, they'll have to kill me.

Another story, about a shooting murder of two men in a remote Queensland town, drew the ire of local residents, many of whom knew the deceased and learned of the deaths via the Cairns paper. Clearly, in this case (which was upheld), the paper would not have been so targeted had it been a metropolitan daily. The modern nation state has a monopoly on violence, one of the concommitants of the rule of law, and out back they're not used to casual gun activity that leads to the death of innocents.

The third case, which was at the back of the handout (so nobody read it), dealt with the use of the word 'bludger' in association with a photo of an Aboriginal family. The money they had wasted, the paper averred, might have paid for a carer for a man with a mental disability.

Of most interest, thanks to Jack's cranial repletion, is the fact that 'bludger' derives etymologically from 'bludgeon' (a weapon like a cosh), a word in 19th century England meaning 'pimp': someone who "lives off the immoral earnings of women" (I remember Jack's phrase). Surely such a description contains a stunning double standard. Who's immoral? The man by association with a prostitute?

Monday, 22 October 2007

Control, the story of Joy Division, concentrates on the lean days prior to commercial success and thereby admits to its own redundancy. Ian Curtis, the lead singer, has teeth like David Bowie and albums of the British singer to listen to.

Shot entirely in black-and-white, Control dissipates aggression and focuses on the creative process, where a group of four young men from Macclesfield (a town my ancestors came from) inhabit a locus of blessedness. The post-punk imperative veered toward glam but kept the lid on, true to its working-class roots. This is a testament to the many important projects that have led to improved conditions for the common man.

Unfortunately for Debbie (Samantha Morton), and despite his apparent groundedness, Ian wanders. A beautiful, young diplomatic attache from Belgium does an interview and will later meet up with the boys. But before I could see the denouement, I left the theatre.

The main problem is the speed. It's just too slow. And although the colour scheme and presence of numerous songs lift the production out of the canonical Hollywood mode, I just felt like there was more excitement in the music (and what it meant to me as an undergraduate) than we get on-screen.

My summation? Worth a visit, but not suitable for permanent habitation.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Irrfan Khan is Captain in A Mighty Heart and he's not a nice man. The torture scene shows a man with a beard hanging from the ceiling of a room. Captain is coaxing information -- in this case names -- out of the hanging man. At one stage he looks to the left a bit, at which point the hanging man screams. The implication is blatant but the filmmakers, intent on not offending the Pakistanis (staunch allies of the Coalition of the Willing), keep it out of frame.

Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl is a cardboard-cutout figure and the husband, Daniel, is a bland, vanilla figure. He gets no sympathy because he is not a player in the drama. Jolie's faux-French accent is incredibly irritating. If these are journalists, then it's no wonder the copy we are given to read about the conflict, is so dull.

This film demonstrates the theory of Richard Stanton, which I wrote about yesterday. Daniel Pearl's kidnapping is the 'local' angle and as a result the imagining of Karachi is dead-on convention.

What do we see? We see a bustling, chaotic metropolis comprising highly-ornamented buses, almost-defunct taxis, men in white garb wandering across the road. It's a typically Western take on Asia: there's no meaning because there's no attempt to understand the structure behind it all. We can see the same thing as soon as we get off the plane in a large, Asian city. To do this kind of thing requires no intelligence and no skill.

To underscore the 'chaotic' nature of the community, we also get a whiteboard covered in names linked by black lines. These are the relationships between those responsible for Daniel's abduction. Again, there's no structure. There's no attempt to give meaning to the series of interconnected lines.

There's no empathy. The jihadis are imagined as a canonical 'other' and the 'system' in which they exist also has no meaning for us. On the other hand, the rich Pakistanis who dine at the Pearl's house are just like us: middle-class, well-dressed, fond of wine, conversation. But there's no effort needed to imagine these people.

The result is a lazy movie that panders to the same political ideas as the right-wing opinion writers in any daily broadsheet. They can kiss my ass.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Tilda Swinton (pic) is Karen Crowder, the uber-baddie in Michael Clayton, a George Clooney vehicle currently in cinemas. Oldies like me will remember her especially as the lithe girl in Derek Jarman's Carravaggio. As an older woman it seems inevitable that she take on a different kind of role. She has not been prolific.

The movie picks up on a memorable scene from Pulp Fiction where Harvey Keitel played a 'fixer' called in to clean up following an accidental shooting in a car. Clooney is an everyman (even the film's name is on a 'down' curve) with financial problems related to a bar he purchased as an investment. He also gambles. He looks the part: slightly rumpled in the classic Peter Falk mode.

The aesthetics are far more interesting than the story, which follows a familiar trajectory where a large, multinational corporation involved in chemicals is accused of the deaths of some 400 individuals due to harmful side-effects of a product. A report that is central to the plot, numbered #229, details the nature of the harm caused. Swinton is legal counsel in the firm and it is her job to divert a class action suit.

Clayton (Clooney) is brought in because Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) the senior attorney for the plaintiff undressed during a briefing and, having neglected to take his medication, is in the middle of (what those in the business call) an 'episode'. He's the key to success but he's off with the fairies.

Underscoring the villany of uNorth, the chemical company, are two, very competent operatives whose intent is to erase any vestiges of the report Edens possesses.

Aesthetically, the movie is, like Clooney, muted, grey, fuzzy, 'real'. It stands in direct opposition to such (spectacularly successful) U.S. TV dramas as CSI: Miami, where the fully-saturated colours almost obviate the need for either good acting or a plot. Here, as the equally-designed Web site shows, we are in the 'real world', a locus of equal evil. The further implication is that the (usually incompetent) bad guys will be effective. People will get rubbed out, quickly and quietly.

Not even Clayton is immune, but there is space for a stunning face-off with Crowder during which the implication of her indiscretion causes her to not only tremble around the mouth but actually fall to her stockinged knees. Also, the scenes where Crowder (Swinton) is in her room preparing for the cameras and other challenges, are wonderfully imagined.

I give this an eight out of ten if only for the celebration of dullness it (happily) espouses. At last, an intelligent film about the middle class shot in a way that validates the humdrum reality of most peoples' lives. Nevertheless, the knee-jerk demonisation of big capital is not entirely satisfying. The tune may be new but the words are old hat.
More sale book purchases yesterday, this time from the Sydney Uni Union bookshop in Wentworth where several shelves'-worth of ex-library books are priced from one dollar to four.


I guess ex-library books are put on sale if nobody borrows them, so it's likely some of these will be boring. Two treat Milton and the Puritan revolution, when the British Commonwealth was established. Milton, a poet of astounding power and possessed of extraordinary visual sweep not dissimilar to modern computer graphics-generated landscapes, was also heavily invested in the reforming process, performing writing duties for the new regime. He died blind but used an amanuensis to complete later works.

Also here is an early book by Umberto Eco on semiotics (a field I would love to understand better). A curiously-titled tome by Barbara Harvey, Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages, and published by the venerable OUP, promises interesting reading. The chapter headings in another, The Liberation of American Literature, are: * The Colonial Complex, * The Puritan Myth, * The Southern Pattern, * From Revolution to Reaction, * The Frontier Force, * From Sectionalism to Nationalism, * Liberation. This promises good reading.

Further cogent ideas will surely be found in The Liberalization of American Protestantism, by Henry J. Pratt of Wayne State University (Detroit). Many of the books are dated in the sixties and seventies. Historiographical paradigms have shifted radically in the years since, so it's entirely possible that I will find those books irrelevant.

Following these purchases I went over to the Wooley Common Room for the launch of a new book by one of my lecturers (pic). Richard is unconventional and possibly very shy. He has worked as a journalist but now heads the public relations coursework program at Sydney Uni.

His thesis is that journalists do not treat international events correctly as they always aim to find a local 'angle' for any story. This, he holds, distorts the focus of most stories in the 'world news' section of newspapers because by imagining events through a local lens, the true nature of an overseas event loses its internal logic. Possibly the most accessible word would be 'trivialisation'.

Demonising non-Western countries as an oppositional 'other' is, he thinks, another result of this effect. Rather than focusing on what, in, say, Japan, is true and relevant for the Japanese, our media frames the issue using outmoded concepts. The method used, he avers, is at least three hundred years old and, thus, inadequate for our purposes. The implication is that this tendency is actually harmful because it corrupts relations between nation states.

I've started reading it and should finish by the end of the weekend. Richard is different from most media theorists in his use of accessible language and a propensity to give examples, so that even an unschooled reader can grasp the meaning. While canonical exponents such as Mayhew and Habermas provide me with tremendous satisfaction, I find it difficult to recycle the actual concepts they use, due to their lexical novelty and grammatical obtuseness.

Given the opportunity, I'd say that in Leon Mayhew's The New Public, the author seeks to characterise the modern public sphere as 'distorted' by the pervasive influence of professional public relations practitioners (aka 'spin doctors'). That's his thesis in a nutshell and Mayhew, though he died in 2000 in California, is a died-in-the-wool liberal.

Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989, though published in German twenty years earlier), the primary point of reference for media theorists, grounds his ideas in an ideal vision of England in the 18th century. Especially toward the end of that period when individuals (the word would be applicable only at this time in its contemporary sense) congregated in coffee houses to discuss commerce and politics.

But Habermas' thesis breaks down under the most casual scrutiny. The franchise was extremely narrow (only men with a taxable income at a set level) and, in any case, women did not frequent coffee houses but would gather in social groups to do needlework together, or read aloud from a novel. I prefer a broad franchise even if the cost is the involvement of professional communicators.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Sarah Tiffen's Mythica (available from the Ginninderra Press Web site) "continues to probe the spiritual and social themes revealed in her first book, Learning Country: Song Cycles from the Heartland".

"Stories of her home country, on the western plains of New South Wales, reveal a powerful response to place and a visceral sense of nostalgia, landscape and love."

Publication of her second book was "supported by" a grant "obtained by" the Poets Union. Tiffen participated in an ABC Radio National broadcast on 9 September 2006. Otherwise, there is no notice of her online. It's a pity. Her poem 'Rain Event in the Whispering Country' in the October 2007 issue of Quadrant is exquisite.


Leeton, where Tiffen lives, is in the Riverina, a bioregion and electoral district. Along with most of NSW (80 per cent according to a recent broadcast) it is in drought. Of particular note, and to my astonishment, the town was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, the accolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright who also designed our nation's capital, Canberra.

'Rain Event' opens with a long, earnest paean to the moon ("woman-steeped", "bringer of blood") that slides around narratives of birth and incorporates flashes of landscape, agriculture, and companionship ("'this means rain,' he said"). What more perfect utterance than this:

       Her rich tangerine fullness, like a swollen areola
in the full breast of that night.
She leaked her salty hindmilk down
spilling out on the brooding cattle country,
on sweet-faced Angus, and
filling the Lachlan languid through dark floodplain.

The octosyllabic third line quoted is stunning (I overuse this word - must find synonym to exploit). It is unusual in English, I think, but I'll need to look into this some more to cope with the poem. I certainly intend to buy her two books.

And "Lachlan languid", though blatantly obvious, works to good effect especially after "filling": the rivulets wash down before us, standing on the banks. Tiffen is not afraid of the self-evident, and this is both rare and refreshing.

In the second section, "The rain rose like a crowd/calling itself joyously", so we can hear the patter on tin (Colourbond?) and the frogs starting up in unison, sleek celebrants of the downpour. In fact, "the chainmail of rain" convinces us of it, despite daily notice to the contrary. It's as though it had never rained. Those ads from the seventies ("It's Saturday night, the work is done, we're going into town") crowd up before us but the metallic savour of their blank appeal is missing and, here, we feel a rush that is both sexual ("the matched rising in our bodies") and martial ("the downed shields of glassy puddles").

It's a meeting of disparate elements, where the pure phenomenon of light becomes fleshy, muscular, intimate, to be applied with a palette knife:

It fell in smoky curtains of cloud,
the land pressed lavishly by the spun velvet of
blue upon grey upon darker blue and purple,
horizons of indigo shades backing onto themselves,
fold after fold of the thick, mohair light,
mauve and darkling, close and pregnant with knitted moisture.

In the third section the rain is over and the land "soak[s] the water into itself" and, again, the sexual imagery ripples like sultry laughter across your skin: goosebumps:

Round and shiny, like a milk bottle lid,
the pinned two-dimensional moon, incandescent, small and hard
against the night's felt board,
channelled the brittle frosted light from beyond the Universe's
darkest holy blue.

Alas, there are only three sections. Gerard Manley Hopkins? Certainly, this is 'nature' poetry, possibly even the woman is a practising Christian (are all our best poets believers?), and definitely post-Romantic.

There's nothing safe here, except that it is a woman's poem: assured, independent, but comfortable in the endless clasp of companionship that is keen to keep it endless. Nevertheless, miles better than "Yummy farm chicks fcuking in the stables", which is a recent contribution of the 'Net to my innocent inbox.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

A small win for dementia and, especially, for the carers of Chinese dementia patients (pic). The story, in today's Torch (a local tabloid in my area) is the first of its kind in Australia. A similar-themed op-ed piece sent to Adele Horin at The Sydney Morning Herald drew a phone call. I'm now trying to get the gatekeepers to allow another release, this time to the metropolitan broadsheet.

Requests to my team mates (both young Chinese women) to identify likely journalists working at any one of several national Chinese dailies have produced no suggestions. But doing all the work in these assignments is becoming normal. I can't pull out a whip to goad these young Asiatics into action (sigh).

The deliverables that resulted in this short, 300-word piece totalled about 8000 words. There was a media release, a profile, a feature, an op-ed piece, a backgrounder, and a fact sheet. About 60 photos were taken so that one could be published.

It was all worth it. Getting an issue like this into the press, and being the first in Australia to do so, gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I worked with the client (the local city council) for two months. I attended dozens of events and meetings, and participated in three interviews.

Negotiating with staff at the Australian Nursing Home Foundation was the hardest part, though. The stigma attached to the disease when it affects a Chinese person is so strong that many things in the original product were watered down. Names were changed, photos changed, the suburb where Mary lives was diluted (to 'inner-west').

The thing these people do not understand is that, by bringing the issue to the fore, we are taking a step toward eliminating stigma. It's like Tennyson's The Kraken which, risen from the dark-green depths, dies on reaching the surface of the ocean.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Letter sent on 20 May to my cousin John Bishop, a lawyer and historian, while he resided in South Australia with his mother. He replied on 27 June. Geoff Dean, my mother’s brother, now has Alzheimer’s. His daughter Clare lives near Taree.

Subsequent conversations with mum reveal that Harry Dean did not ‘turn’ when Stalin sided with the Allies but, rather, had been a committed member of the Party since the 1930s. Apparently he was wont to say that "Socialism was living Christianity" and, to prove it, he gave his entire library to the Party in his will.

Dear John,

I enjoyed talking the other day. My interest in family history is something of an embarrassment. (Because recent, not because I possess it.) As I mentioned, it began when I read some books by Jane Austen in my cousin’s library. The shared accommodation I lived in was 15 minutes’ walk from Geoff Dean’s house in Beecroft. I would walk down to see him and borrow books from Clare’s room.

It got me that a writer could be so advanced, considering she died in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Subsequently, I visited Fisher Library where, as a graduate, I retained borrowing rights. Their eighteenth-century and history holdings are very good and I was able to find a lot of books to feed my growing interest in the 18th century and, subsequently, the 17th and 16th centuries.

As a result of these readings, I have become curious about my forbears. My father, a staunch monarchist, is constitutionally unable to discuss, for example, the Commonwealth, without getting very upset.

I seek to understand events leading up to what I have come to consider the great ‘civilising’ century: the nineteenth. Dad takes things more personally, coming from a generation for whom ideas stood for more than they do nowadays. For him, 1649 was simply a disaster. For me, it represents a point of departure.

But my greatest interest has been the eighteenth century, when the ‘middle classes’ really started to come into their own. I enjoyed taking a course, last year, dealing with literary journalism, because the roots of this genre lie in the 18th century, especially with Defoe.

My mother, too, rebelled against her father’s deep-seated ideologies. As you may know, he was a member of the classis of his church (Presbyterian) until Russia entered WWII. At that point, his constitutional earnestness really kicked in and he became a Communist. His sincere gratitude made him support a regime he, like most other ‘fellow travellers’ in the West, was largely ignorant of.

She, too, would be horrified to think that her father’s ancestors were precisely the people who called most vociferously for Charles I’s beheading.

I comprehend but lament my parents’ intolerance of the ‘stages’ that led to parliamentary democracy. Some of these stages were more violent than others. But my father’s detestation of the church in any of its permutations prevents him from coming to grips with many events that contributed to the rise of the middle classes. Talk about Wycliff, Hus or other early protestant demagogues and he blocks his ears.

You must excuse my passion on this count. As children, my brother and I were endlessly regaled with stories of dead monarchs at the Sunday lunch we always had. My mother would be incapable of entering into these talks and, in any case, her stance vis a vis her father, and her lack of an advanced education (she never attended university), prevented her from positing a contrary argument.

My father is a canonical patriarch. And like John Howard, he has a ‘best of all possible worlds’ attitude toward the Westminster system. As if parliamentary democracy emerged fully-formed from the pockets of kings, like a letter patent given to a well-behaved courtier! While he sees Elizabeth I as a moderate influence (her job admittedly was hugely complex due to the effects of the humanist project initiated at the beginning of the 16th century) I cannot ignore the fact that Christopher Marlowe was most likely murdered at her behest. Dad would just say something like ‘they were tough times’ and leave it at that.

Howard’s push for more ‘narrative’ history in schools is as simplistic and bemusing, for me, as my father’s love of Elizabeth I. Does Howard want us to understand how power was devolved from the top to the bottom? If so, we must question how much he understands of this process. I suspect Julie Bishop is equally ignorant. My father certainly is, and he is in the same mould as they are. Full understanding tends to push you to the Left.

I cannot see how an understanding of Australian history can be achieved without looking back at least to the Renaissance, if not to the late Middle Ages. Australia, in my mind, owns those histories as much as the United Kingdom or the United States of America, do.

I think that ignorance of history is, indeed, a brake on progress. And on bilateral relations between nation states. If people in third-world Muslim countries understood how long it took to secure prosperity for the masses, they would be less likely simply to see the West as a decadent bully.

It is hard to blame them for their ignorance when our own citizens, whose ownership of the franchise was so hard-won, know little also. So much is taken for granted at home that it is hard for most Aussies to understand why third-world leaders treat authority as a commercial opportunity. Governments in England in the 18th century were equally corrupt.

Do you ever communicate with Julie Bishop? I find it richly ironic that I, as an ideal exponent of her vision for education (tertiary level, postgraduate student, interest in history, belief in the value of liberal democracy, full-time employed, home owner) would never vote conservative.

I hope this letter finds you in good health.

Regards,

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is about to get married when her husband is killed during a violent confrontation with several young men from ethnically diverse backgrounds, inside Central Park.

Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) is investigating a murder he suspects was perpetrated by the husband of the deceased. He also comes to be involved in the investigation of several killings the shell casings show to have been carried out by a single person.

Mercer's first case becomes important when Bain learns of it and takes an interest. She has access to him in a legitimate capacity in her role as a broadcast journalist. But she's also the person doing the killing, dressed in T-shirts and jeans and carrying an automatic pistol purchased on the black market.

Adding depth to this apparently straight-forward revenge fantasy is Carol (Mary Steenburgen) who is Bain's editor and who realises, when listeners start sending comments on Bain's post-traumatic broadcasts, that her star performer has hit a nerve. People are sick of violence.

The modern state has a monopoly on violence and there are good, historical reasons why this is so. But in The Brave One the law is manifestly incapable (as demonstrated in the other case Mercer is working on) of bringing the guilty to justice. It's an indictment.

Who the target of this film is (or are) is not clear, however. But seen in the light of the post-Atta world, things make a lot of sense. If the global watchdog (the United Nations) is incapable of applying its high-minded rules, then someone has to take matters into their own hands.

It's not hard to come to this. And the cross Bain dons following her ordeal, and on the verge of beginning her campaign as a vigilante, is eloquent, if heavy-handed. Combined with the T-shirts and jeans, the shoulder-slung urban tote, and the nightly prowl (she says she can't sleep), this little fashion item tries lamely to hide its original meaning, and intentionally fails.

It's the redeemer in the temple tossing out the tables of the money changers, all over again.

On the plus side, the movie is engrossing on first viewing, but stale on the second. The sexual dynamics between Mercer (who is African-American) and Bain (whose husband-to-be was a black from south-east England, going by the cockney twang) segue into a professional relationship that culminates in Bain shooting Mercer in the shoulder to cover up the trail, so that Bain is not herself brought to justice for her vigelanteism.

In short, it's a fairly subtle take on a topical issue. Following such work as George Gittoes' in Miami, we should hope to see more analysis of the impact the standard post-colonial dialectic has on real lives. Nobody should have to fear a walk in the park.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Effie Mitrofanis' pieces at the 'A Gathering of Threads Exhibition', held (10 to 14 October) at the Southee Pavilion, Sydney Showground, stood out for me. Hung in the 'tutors' booth', Effie's long, diaphanous hangings sparkle with controlled creativity.

Many pieces elsewhere in the show were worthy of remark but the organisers didn't allow photos without specific consent, so I didn't bother. A great majority of items followed a traditional bent, including the gorgeous pieces by Sue Gude, whose passion for Japanese traditional needlework has encouraged her to study the discipline for over ten years.

Competition pieces by two women with Italian names also caught my attention and I wished to be able to snap away so I could send images to mum. I reckon she would have truly been engrossed by the variety of styles in the room.

Mitrofanis' skill is in combining areas of heavy work with plain blocks of solid colour. Her aesthetic is demonstrably Modernist, and reminded me of paintings of the sixties and seventies, where abstract ideas combined with organic elements to form a synthetic agglomeration of competing paradigms. It is in the competition of these ideas that the work remains fresh. Mitrofanis clearly has very strong ideas, otherwise she would not be able to work them out so coherently.

Other items on display indicated a similar aesthetic program but none equalled Mitrofanis' for vigour and flair.

I normally take little interest in needlework but a colleague's involvement prompted me to drop by on my way home from Ikea.

The Embroiderers' Guild NSW Inc. was established in 1957 as a branch of the Embroiderers' Guild London and attained independence in 1971. It has approximately 2000 members across the state. The Guild Rooms are located near Concord West train station. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the guild and an organiser told me they plan to hold an exhibition annually.

Friday, 12 October 2007

At the end of Death at a Funeral the entire audience was roaring, watching Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan) straddling the roof naked. He had earlier had to take a shit, splattering Howard (Andy Nyman) in the process. This is after the dwarf broke out of the coffin, insane with a potent mixture of mescaline and acid.

The drugs originated with Troy (Kris Marshall, pic), the brother of Martha (Daisy Donovan, pic), who is "studying to be a pharmacist and making illegal drugs on the side" according to the Wikipedia article on the movie. Marshall is most famous for his role as Nick Harper in the 'sitcom' My Family which was launched in 2000 but ran here in Australia until very recently. A great fave of mine, it is.

In fact, the number of actors here coming out of good, solid TV roles is surprising. Apart from Marshall, there's the 'star' of this film, Matthew Macfadyen, known for his work on the top-flight British spy series, Spooks. And his "his wife and former Spooks co-star", according to Helen Barlow, plays Jane, Daniel's wife.

For my money, though, and despite Keely Hawes' gorgeous dial, Donovan is the woman who adds most to this flic. Her strained looks -- at her boyfriend, her father, and Justin (Ewen Bremner; who is "only coming to the funeral to meet with his one night stand") -- almost see her eyes popping out of her head. But what eyes!

Moving onto what the film is 'about', we must note the classic British preoccupation with appearance. Even the house, which is situated in the countryside, possibly in the south-east, with its bland wallpapers, muted colour scheme, perfectly-aligned hung prints, and flowering wisteria, bespeaks 'respectability'. The parson, like the rest, will eventually go a little gaga.

Of course there's a message, but it's the roar of satisfied laughter that closed my session that I'll remember. Audience reaction is not all that common in my usual cinemas (the last time was the burst of applause at the end of Die Hard 4).

On the way out I noted the poster for Atonement, labelled 'coming soon'.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Peter Carey's His Illegal Self is due out in February according to Perry at Matilda. I mentioned it back in March.

Carey doesn't make the list of likely recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is due to be announced next month. Oz and Murakami are on it, so that's some justification for my rabid endorsement of these two supremely talented writers. As an Israeli, Oz is more likely than Murakami, whose compatriot Kenzaburo Oe won it in 1994.

I don't normally acknowledge lit prizes, or not recently at least, but the Nobel is different from all the rest.

In Carey's new book, for which Perry is indebted to Amazon for the blurb, the protagonist is named Che. It is "an achingly beautiful story" says the Knopf Web site. The story involves "the love between a young woman and a little boy", which seems likely to cause comment among the politically correct. What form that love takes is, however, not detailed at all. At all.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Andrew Hutchinson has a face like an axe and he utters advice rapid-fire. The room contains perhaps 25 souls including Sydney Writers' Society president Julianne Wargren and his Random House editor Julian Welch. Many are undergraduates, all want to write, some will succeed but possibly very few as well as Hutchinson himself.

"I have a responsibility to be honest with the subject matter," he says when asked about the nature of the book's theme -- date rape. "Every little thing needs to be exactly right." He spends a long time thinking about a book or story -- of which he has had many published -- before putting pen to paper. The first draft is always in longhand.

"American films make violence too comical." But most Australian literature is long-winded, he opines. He admits there is "some confronting stuff" in Rohypnol and that with his publisher he prepared at length for some tough questions. It was compared with A Clockwork Orange (which, he admits, isn't such a bad thing) and there were some who didn't like the content. "There's no justification for violence," he adds.

The book began three years ago when he read about Bilal Skaf and the gang rapists perpetrating violence in Sydney's west. "It was terrible," he recalls. "I couldn't understand that." He wonders why the others who took part in the crimes didn't refuse to do so. "Who's doing this?" he asked himself. "I wanted to look at the history behind it," he says. Asking the question as to why things happen, he thinks, really drives his writing.

As he talks his hands move rapidly, sketching out the line and length of a story or novel. Whichever he is talking about. His hands chop at the air and carve out volumes of possibility that he has filled with words. He writes, leaves the draft for three weeks, then reads it again. This permits distance, from where he can asses the true quality of his production. He may have thirty stories "on the go" at any one time. A novel, he points out, is just like having thirty short stories that are connected.

Growing up in Kinglake, a small country town in Victoria, there was no lake. So he made his own comic-strip books and wrote "stupid things about beetles". Asked to write two pages for a school assignment, he would turn in ten. "I was trying to write Robocop," he remembers in his deadpan manner, stringing his sentences together so as not to disappoint the audience, who are hanging off every word.

"I've always been OK at it. I was always good at writing at high school. But bad at maths." We all laugh. In year 11 he wrote a poem about Sandra Bullock that was published in the school magazine.

"At the end of year 12, I was a bit of an activist." He objected to the notion that you are forced to choose your career at such an early age. "I don't know what I'm doing on the weekend, let alone what I'll be doing for the rest of my life." He almost got into RMIT. Almost. So he worked for a while and tried to write a novel. After 20 pages he realised he'd exhausted the subject matter.

A stint at Box Hill TAFE allowed him to "get into what makes the writing work". He spent his spare time watching arthouse films. They made him think about something the next day, he says. Entering short stories in competitions led to some wins. "I never got a letter saying 'this is absolute crap'," he laughs. We join him. He knew he was on the right path.

Getting a mentorship with Christos Tsiolkas was the bext big break. He got to a certain point with the manuscript and then knew he needed help. His confidence in Tsiolkas was buttressed when he read that the older writer liked Palahniuk's Fight Club ("everything since has been crap," he reckons). Over 10 months they met about 10 times at Tsiolkas' house in Melbourne.

In the process they both read the draft out loud and compared the two points of view. They would try to see if their opinions, expressed in the delivery, matched. The process enabled him to "tighten it up" and he sent it to Jane Palfreyman at Random House (since relocated to Allen & Unwin, who will publish Tsiolkas' next book).

Hutchinson's next book is "also extreme" he says. "It's about a guy who's so in love with this person nothing else matters."
Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is indeed, as Melbourne University Press' page says, about "the larger question of biographical truth".

It is in three sections. The first deals with the facts surrounding the two women's sojourn in the French countryside during the thirties and forties. Because Malcolm is a journalist, she concentrates on Stein's and Toklas' Jewishness asking, among other things, how they avoided deportation when others didn't. Malcolm has an ingrained curiosity as to truth in terms anyone can understand and so instead of focusing on the writing itself (said to be often opaque), she targets actors who may be embarassing to the protagonists.

The second section deals with the apparently innovative The Making of Americans and, particularly, a researcher named Leon Katz. For me this section of the book is unquestionably more compelling than the other two because Malcolm addresses the craft of the academic. She includes discussions held with other Stein specialists and this adds freshness and vigour to what is in general either completely ignored by biographers of famous writers, or rendered in a sketchy and unsatisfying way.

In the final section, Malcolm looks at Toklas' life post-Stein, who died in 1946 from stomach cancer during surgery held to cure it. Stein's large collection of Modernist art is not enough to support the ageing companion (wife?).

Sex is an issue Malcolm attempts to register and the attempt provides insight. Being a lesbian in those days must have been hard. In this light, Stein's remarks as to what people wanted following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, is instructive.

The thing that everybody wants is to be free ... not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, they want none of these things they all want to feel free, the word discipline, and forbidden and investigated and imprisioned brings horror and fear into all hearts, they do not want to be afraid not more than is necessary in the ordinary business of living where one has to earn one's living and has to fear want and disease and death ... The only thing that any one wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.

Malcolm's book is also, again drawing on the MUP's Web site, a "work of literary biography and investigative journalism" and, being both, delivers insight (Malcolm clearly enjoys Stein's work) but does not rest until each avenue is exhausted. If a thread seems to be loose Malcolm will be in there with her fingers, picking away at it until it either reveals its source, or snaps off: a dead-end.

I read the book in an afternoon. It is a slim volume of 227 pages and has many photos in black-and-white. The wide margins make it very pleasant to read. An interview with the author is located on the October 2004 page of The Believer magazine (which I've never read), so we see how much work went into this tightly-written work. It is clear that Malcolm intended from the start to ensure no-one ceased reading due to boredom.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Ashraf Barhom (Colonel Al Ghazi; pic) and Ali Suliman (Sargeant Haythom) who play members of the Saudi security force in The Kingdom are both Israeli natives, though Palestinian.

Paul Byrnes, who reviews the movie for The Sydney Morning Herald is, like me, confused as to truth in representation. For Byrnes, the premise is "ridiculous", the reason for the FBI inerstion "highly believable", and the plot "implausible". During the opening credits we're given a potted history of Saudi Arabia in terms of its connection to the world (primarily the U.S.) which is valuable, and which closes with a schematic depiction of an aeroplane flying toward a tall building.

Once inside the narrative, key individuals who are to make a decision as to whether an FBI crew is required to investigate the bombing inside the U.S. compound in the kingdom, are named and labelled. So the line between fact and fiction is narrow. According to Byrnes, the bomb site "is modelled on the Khobar Towers in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, which were bombed in June 1996".

The FBI send a motley crew which is headed by a black (Jamie Foxx) and includes a woman (Jennifer Garner), a Jew (Jason Bateman), and a loose cannon (Chris Cooper). On arrival, they are locked in a basketball court and told they will be let out at sunrise. "When's sunrise?" asks Fleury (Foxx). "When I say it is," responds Al Ghazi (Barhom).

Saudi intransigence is better taken "with a bucket of salt" says Byrnes. It makes for good drama, though. Byrnes also castigates the makers for aiming to "flush out Saudi belligerence" by using a woman and a Jew. Obstruction by the authorities, however, causes friendship to emerge between Fleury and Al Ghazi and this is one of the best elements of the film.

Unlike his superiors, Al Ghazi is keen to find and bring to account the perpetrators of the crime. This is set up when Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven), who plays a bland functionary, congratulates the team for locating some likely suspects and killing them. For him, the PR value of the result is of primary importance. Fleury and Al Ghazi, however, know this is not the end of the trail.

On their way to the airport the team are ambushed and one is captured, causing a fantastic chase sequence inside a 'hostile' sector of the city. "You only have to look at who dies to see which audience it is trying to send home happy," writes Byrnes. Granted. Nevertheless, the gritty on-the-ground feel and the dynamics between Fleury and Al Ghazi mean that the film needed to be made.

It is as Byrnes says "a fast-moving thriller" and should be understood as such.

It is in the loaded dynamics of politics and culture, in scenes where individuals react to each other under given situations, that the value of this movie ultimately lies. One such case is when a soldier says it is 'haram' for Mayes (Garner; a forensics expert) to touch a dead Muslim. In another, special agent Sykes (Cooper) wants to get dirty by draining the crater of the second bomb ("This hole is the case"), but can at first find no volunteers.

Cooper, who played John Larouche in the wonderful Adaptation (based on the non-fiction novel The Orchid Thief by New York Times writer Susan Orlean), is my fave for the flic.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Evan Almighty's Web site is as conventional as the advertisements running regularly on Sydney's Christian radio station, 103.2 FM. Whether you want Christian Super or "Everyone's favorite funny man", stationery supplies or God's "perplexing request to build an ark", these vehicles of capitalism will deliver them to you.

With a smile. And a wink. You know you're being manipulated but it doesn't matter: Evan Almighty is to Western culture what Bollywood is to Indian: a madcap romp with a message.

Suits = 'bad'. Corrupt politician = 'doubter'. Confused wife = 'ripe for redemption'. The masculinist bias buried in the film is highlighted by (a) Joan Baxter (Lauren Graham) taking the kids to her mother's but returning when God (Morgan Freeman) gives her a neat lecture in a restaurant, and (b) the 'two-by-two' shtick that is based on an old, but well-known, fairy tale: the Bible.

But despite the heavy-handed messages, the main ones are valid. Acts of random kindness ('ark', get it?) and the maxim from Matthew: 'ask and you shall receive'. I do believe that these two elements provide many advantages and, since humans are social animals, it makes sense that they work.

Wrapping this up in a big, dopey 'combo' pack (biblical teaching with a large side of goofy dancing) also makes sense in the same way that such congregations as Hillsong (financial success is God's way) are. We make fun of them at our peril.

Best acting award from me goes to Jonah Hill as Eugene Tenanbaum, the geek of Capitol Hill who worships the parquet his boss, Evan Baxter, walks on. Eugene's machine-gun delivery and know-it-all earnestness strike me as particularly to be valued, if met with in an individual near you.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

John Birmingham's delightful little tour de force in this month's Australian Literary Review surely is unequalled in recent times for brilliance of execution. The politics and, shall we say, 'angle' Brimingham adopts (? does he really believe this stuff?) are largely beside the point.

Or perhaps it is only by adopting a reactionary and anguished tone of mind (new coinage?) that the writer today can muster the righteous indignation required to power through others' debile counter-arguments. For Birmingham seems to presage the downfall of modern democratic life.

To backtrack, the writer takes four, apparently dissimilar books, and weaves from an analysis of each, a tapestry with a single pattern. The first is a memoir by a former British Islamic cultist. The second is a Western classic: Clausewitz on war. The third is a history of a battle between Rome and Carthage. The fourth is the autobiography recently penned by Australia's favourite Army general: Peter Cosgrove.

'The power of pure will' is Birmingham's title, and it aims to shock. His dexterity will ensure readership. But he misses many points, especially in his primary thesis surrounding the likelihood of Western capitulation to an Islamic super-state: the Caliphate.

For Islam is ultimately a personal religion. This is both its strength and its weakness.

It means that a 'terror' organisation can reform from almost nothing, due to the lack of an 'official' chain of command. Knock out the head and, like some primitive creature, a starfish perhaps, another takes its place. In this 'natural' cell-like structure the terror organisation need fear no conventional foe, such as is currently ranged against it.

The weakness is visible, however, in the sheer impossibility of a super-state emerging. We see this in Iraq, where dozens, if not more, tribal groups compete for the spoils of office (as happened conventionally in such primitive democracies as that of eighteenth-century England), even as the top office -- that of the President -- languishes in complete impotence before the fractious character of the people it purports to lead.

If, as Birmingham roars with all the power of his considerable intellect, there is indeed a true war on terror, it cannot be defeated without reaching into the heart of the individual. Educating the English working class so it could sit at the same table as the nobility took hundreds of years.

Educating Islamics in the ways of any of the various socio-cultural projects that have slipped, groaning, out of the skin of their predecessors, in the West, through the ages, will require some further adjustment, to put it mildly. Imagine for a moment that governments relied on real people to spruik their 'initiatives' (second-hand ideas torn from the pages of dead poets' books) rather than public relations practitioners.

Imagine if tired post-colonial dogma were replaced by a more vigorous and meaningful set of imperatives. Think for a moment whether what those who have taken Australia's new Citizenship Test, have said, were worthy to be examined in any of the 'leading' cultural journals?

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Royal North Shore Hospital has been copping heaps of flack over the past week or so. I know because I've been listening to 2UE. But until I read Rosemarie Milsom's gripping account of her own miscarriage at that august institution, I didn't know how much pain can hide behind a headline.

My exposure to 'shock jock' ('tabloid' in radioland) opinion started when I was trying to navigate my way to the Westmead Coroners Court last Friday at around 9am. The time as well as the place was unusual; normally by then I'm securely ensconced behind my keyboard fuelling the hearth.

On air was John Laws and he told us that the NSW premier, Morris Iemma, had deliberately underfunded RNSH because of its 'silvertail' cachet: it nestles in among the multi-million-dollar houses that run over the hills to the north of this city like ranks of perfume bottles, giving off the scent of a secure retirement.

As I started to read Milsom's piece, the thought that was uppermost was: how did she do this? It's beautifully-written, engrossing, colourful, dramatic, bristling with talent. There's no way a regular Sydney Morning Herald reader could write like this, I thought.

'Continued Page 4', I read as the RNSH nurse hands her a plastic '...'?

Usually, I don't flip the sheet at this point. I like to browse, and so I read a couple of other items on page one, pretty much all of pages two and three, and am preparing to skip the sequel when I recall how impressed I'd been with the prequel. '...container and asked me to give a sample etc.' I read.

The surprise (though not really, considering the quality of the writing) lies at the bottom of the third column on page four. Milsom is editor of Sunday Extra, the supplementary mag that comes with The Sun-Herald. I should have known: a journo.

Journalists have a pretty low ranking in the loveable stakes, as my episode of Number3 (Channel Ten, 8.30pm) tells me. In this case, a city journo has it out with an FBI agent. Both are women. Women battle with their tongues, men with their fists.

But this piece ('Painful memories of losing a small, perfectly formed son') shows what all women share, and it's something we guys can only sit back and watch. Or, even better, sit up and provide back rubs, if that's what they need to get through labour. It's truly a miracle. And Milsom shows us what a journalist, and only a journalist, can do to bring the absence of a miracle to life.

Monday, 1 October 2007

John Toliopolis drives a Hyundai to and from his painting business in Queensland. Anna Broinowski, whose documentary Forbidden Lie$, is in cinemas now, doesn't tell us what kind of visa he's on but you can be sure I'm not the only viewer who would like to know. Toliopolis, who does not have U.S. citizenship, is Norma Khouri's husband (the one she denied having when interviewed at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2003).

He has a strange Goodfellas accent that kind of declares: 'mob'. He's obviously a charmer but I for one would prefer not to have his company work on my house, especially if I were at work while it was being done.

Khouri, on the other hand, is highly articulate and her success with publishers is not hard to fathom. Caroline Overington, the Australian journalist who, along with the Sydney Morning Herald's Malcolm Knox, appears in this film, simply does not believe anything Khouri says. After watching this doco, it's easy to understand why.

The film is excellent. It is stylish and self-referential, pacy and thorough: Broinowski tries to join all the dots but Khouri seems always to be one step ahead of her. She initially thought Khouri was the scapegoat in a sly campaign by male journalists to demonise her:

"I had this feminist line running in my head," she told The Australian Womens Weekly in February, "that this was a typical witch-hunt ... with mostly male journalists out to make her look evil. That's why I thought I would make this film."

To make the film she travels to Jordan, London, Chicago and Queensland. She talks with doctors, journalists, policemen, experts in psychotic behaviour. She really does try hard. But in the end it's the film itself that wins.

There's something happening here that (a) still needs to be resolved (and FBI investigations are on-going), (b) needed to be aired. It's difficult not to speculate that the only way this story could be aired was in the particular fashion a youthful girl from an immigrant background on-the-make, could manage.

She's certainly got the world's attention. Khouri refuses to deny 'Dahlia', the young, Muslim girl allegedly murdered by her father for dishonouring the family, was real. Here she brings ever more extraordinary evidence to light, but it doesn't wash evenly. Gaps and bald patches multiply under Broinowski's relentless gaze.

The most recent bit of evidence is first revealed here, in the doco. If you don't want the mystery spoiled, stop reading.

Khouri claims her father sexually abused her from the age of four. You can't get more damning evidence that that! Would this, if true, partially help to exonerate her of the outrageous fabrication of Dahlia's story?

It just might. But Overington and Knox will not be deterred from suspicion. In any case, the story has not yet ended. Not only Khouri, now, but Toliopolis, belong, at least in part, to the global community. They are a two of new kind of celebrity: the glamorous fraudster.