Pages

Thursday, 30 September 2010

With the words 'Toxic Bank Anglo' written on its enormous drum, a cement mixer was rammed into the gates outside the Irish Parliament yesterday, reported the Irish Independent. The news disappeared rapidly from Australian websites and failed to make an appearance on the websites of The Guardian - the UK's leading liberal broadsheet - or The New York Times. Which is slightly odd when you think about it for a short time. It's just local Irish news? Well, maybe it is. But it's also a sign from the street that Ireland is balanced finely on the brink of financial collapse, and that's not a good sign so soon after Greek financial vulnerability appeared in the wake of recession-busting measures taken after the Global Financial Crisis. Those measures were supposed to protect the global financial system from falling more. They have mostly, but in some countries problems persist.

Street demonstrations staged in Athens a few months ago caught the attention of the world's media, giving us the opportunity to see second-hand the challenges facing Greece as it starts to come to grips with austerity measures imposed to combat a serious economic crisis.

The Dublin cement truck's neatly-painted slogan, in less dramatic guise, points to ongoing problems with confidence in Ireland's ability to repay sovereign debt, and austerity measures taken by the government to buttress the state's liquidity, which are impacting on society generally (as they have in Greece). This time the public has focused its attention on the Anglo Irish Bank, an entity the government in Ireland nationalised, according to the short Sydney Morning Herald story, in order to save it from total collapse. According to the Independent:
The incident was sparked by controversial plans by the Government to plough more than €20m into State-owned Anglo Irish Bank.
In the same newspaper, there's a story about the cost of securing sovereign finance in Ireland, which has risen to 6.78 percent. There are fears that a situation similar to the one faced by the Greek administration will develop in Ireland. It's a matter of global interest whether a second country needs to be bailed out by Europe's major economies, as Greece was when Germany, France and others stepped in to pump funds into its financial system. Another recessionary dive in Europe would have serious repercussions everywhere, including in Australia. Here, it is common for global financial jitters to result in the stock market falling sharply, and if it happened again it would become a feared 'double dip'. A strong currency will not protect us from large falls in confidence elsewhere in the world.

And it's not the first time that a graffitoed cement truck has been deployed by protesters in Dublin.
In April, a cement mixer truck, with similar wording on it, was abandoned outside a branch of the bank on Forster Street, Galway. The cabin was locked and the engine left running.
The absence of related stories from major world media outlets is puzzling, as though this simple but insistent message were of no consequence at all. Civil action in Greece, certainly, is more imposing - rioting this year led to a death, for instance - but we can now see with our own eyes that the Irish people appear to be getting fed up with a government that seems to be unable to tidy up a mess created by the same financiers who are benefiting from public largesse.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Fascinating results have come out of a new study on religion in the United States by the country's renowned Pew Research Centre, a non-profit subsidiary of Philadelphia-based The Pew Charitable Trusts, which was established between 1948 and 1979 by four children of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph Newton Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew.
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Despite being the most religious Western country, America seems to be suffering from an abundance of ignorance. Atheists and agnostics do better than anyone else in the tests, underscoring how familiarity with a doctrine breeds scepticism and, possibly, a greater ability to form independent opinions about it.

Older Catholic Southern women who only graduated from high school are the least-informed when it comes to religion and young, educated, sceptical Nothernern men are the best-informed.

Not suprisingly, one of the worst results was on being asked about whether Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country. Only about a quarter of Americans got that one right. In the history section, less than half know that Martin Luther sparked the Reformation. Just over half of Protestants, whose religion is founded on teachings promulgated at the time, got the question right.

Unsuprisingly, education level is the major determinant of knowledge, with college graduates scoring better than, say, high school graduates. Along with atheists and agnostics, Mormons and Jews did better than other groups sampled in the survey. And those who have an active commitment to their faith (who attend church at least once a week and talk about religion with others) do better than those who are more casual about observance. Participation in a youth group or religious study class helped to up the result. And while private school respondents did better than public school ones:
those who attended a private religious school score no better than those who attended a private nonreligious school.
The Pew survey also found that, as in other surveys conducted by the research centre, atheists and agnostics and Jews are better-educated than other groups polled. Nevertheless:
even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics.
And while evangelical Protestants did pretty good on questions about the Bible, they "fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism".

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

There's a scene in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) which is memorable because truly realised, unlike much of the book (a book that has come in for a lot of flak in recent times for not being as "true" as its dust jacket and title page promised). It features a posse of street-wise cats that prowls the pavement in downtown Holcomb, sashaying up to still-warm automobiles parked at the curb, and picking pieces of dead fauna out of the front grilles. It's a convenient snack for hungry felines.

I thought of this scene in the wake of the Grogs Gamut scandal that is currently animating the twitterverse and, going by the belated exposure the case got last night on the ABC's always-excellent Q and A, the commentariat and society generally. The decision by The Australian's James Massola to 'out' Grogs Gamut as Canberra arts bureaucrat Greg Jericho has been picked at like one of Capote's dead birds. First it was Jericho's turn to be splattered across the front-end of The Australian's roaring news vehicle. Then, in retaliation, tweeps from across the country bore down on Massola en masse. Now we're busy picking the pieces off the fender in an effort to understand just why a journalist from the mainstream media took the fatal step that he decided - or his senior editors decided - to take.

In any case, Massola has decided to "wear" the flak. It's the only honest thing to do. It's also typical of News Ltd to dig in and weather the storm, as it is for most people operating routinely in the public sphere.

The arguments for and against the outing are multiple. For me, the most compelling reason for it was Jericho's apparent partisanship. In a lengthy apologia (it's also been put up in PDF) published at midnight yesterday (today?), Massola admits that the fact that Grogs Gamut's tweets seemed to place his true persona firmly on the Left of Australia's ideological divide, contributed to a decision to take him out. Massola also admitted that The Australian took exception to this perception of bias. It's long been the opinion of numerous people on Twitter that the newspaper leans to the Right, and this most recent piece of evidence simply reinforces the contention.

The forces on that side of the divide have been busy, too. Herald Sun political journalist Ben Packham grumbled yesterday about a fact most tweeps understand: their own inherent bias in the opposite direction. And because I thought it glib for News Ltd to complain about Jericho's anonymity I told Packham (yesterday at 8.45am, to do myself justice) in a tweet:
So SA govt was right to ask blog commenters to reveal their identity? Seem to recall AdelaideNow was against that premise.
The argument was backed up during Q and A last night when Senator Conroy brought it up on air. The defense of transparency is simply a ruse to deflect attention away from where the real impetus arose: in News Ltd's ferocious and implacable partisanship. The last straw was the ABC's CEO Mark Scott listening to Jericho seriously, and moving to adjust the public broadcaster's coverage of the recent election to better serve its viewers, readers and listeners. But that discussion will have to take place somewhere else, preferably among people with the skills needed to accurately 'unpack' the kind of writings that make so many people on Twitter cringe.

For me, at the moment, I need to find my nail file. There are pieces of rotting flesh sticking out from under my fingernails.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Woody Allen did for failed romance what a news story does for a failed election attempt. In Annie Hall (1977) Allen humourously displays the dilineations of love-gone-cold from the point of view of a sophisticated loner with romantic sensibilities and a warm heart. But the sense of pure pity that Lasse Hallstrom generates in his Dear John (2010) is entirely missing. Allen spends a lot of effort trying to describe the social relations between his characters. Hallstrom spends the same effort looking at the enduring mystery of love and how it functions as a common element in our lives.

The social diorama Hallstrom leverages in his quest is not unimportant, but it is secondary to his main artistic aim. John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is an All-American boy and a Special Forces combat veteran home visiting his father on leave. He's muscular, quiet, and manly. He appears within a milieu we recognise from many movies out of the US. There's a beach, a beach house, a party assembled around a fire on the cooling sand. There's volleyball and old friends who are quick to offer you a drink to make you feel welcome.

Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) is the girl-next-door from an affluent Southern family. They own the beach house. But Amanda has unusual ambitions beyond those tied to economic success. She wants to help people, and this compulsion which sees her volunteer her time to help build a new house to replace one destroyed in a severe storm, will also lead to the sickening split that leads to so much drama in the film. Hallstrom has set his aim high, and forges a path directly into the centre of the American psyche in an effort to uncover something unique and universal about love.

The film is set mainly on the coast of South Carolina with its powerful horizontal features. There are the sand dunes and the endless, lapping waves coming in off the Atlantic. There is John's father's low-slung bungalow sitting comfortably amid nestling trees. There are the long, open roads of the coastal region which split the landscape between the beach and the lush hinterland with its rich herbaceous variety. Within this flat visual spectrum John and Savannah create powerful verticals, and the strength of this juxtaposition underscores their centrality in the story. It is their story in a compelling fashion that cannot be denied.

After two weeks' leave Stateside, John must return to his unit in the combat zone, but the two lovers promise to write to each other and tell each other everything that happens to them. The letters zing their way via numerous routes between two continents until, one day, Savannah's letters suddenly stop. John's dismay is palpable but the feeling worsens when, a couple of months later, he receives the letter he has been dreading most of all. His footlocker, where he stores the envelopes and their treasured contents, is emptied into a fire.

Then John is shot in the shoulder and is sent to Germany to recuperate. From there he is sent back to the US due to his father's failing health. While home, John visits Savannah, who now lives in her parent's home with her new husband, who is not at home. In fact, he's in hospital as a result of severe lymphatic cancer. They visit the hospital and John confronts his rival for Savannah's affections. It turns out it's not the guy John had suspected -- the irritating Randy -- but the separated father, of an autistic boy, who had been John's friend, Tim (Henry Thomas). After the two lovers return to Savannah's place they argue. Tim has told John that Savannah still loves him as much as she did when they were together for those unforgettable two weeks so many years ago. They seem irreconcilable now. "See you later," says Savannah as John is about to exit the house. "Say the same back to me," she pleads with quiet desperation. "Goodbye sweetheart," he says as he pushes open the screen door leading into the darkness. He goes back to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else it is he's serving. But before he leaves he sells his father's coin collection and donates the money toward purchasing the expensive, experimental drugs Tim needs to fight his illness.

More years pass and all the while Savannah and John are still in love with one another. Then, one day on the streets of downtown Charleston, John rides up on his pushbike, which he starts to attach by a security chain to a parking meter on the pavement. Glancing sideways into the front window of a cafe he sees Savannah seated alone in front of a cup of coffee. She gets out from behind the table, leaves the cafe, and stretches up her arms to embrace John on the sidewalk.

The credits run.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The celebration of Aussie boganism begins hours from when the start whistle rings out across the verdant sward in the middle of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and while there's only so much interest that can be extracted from shots of change-rooms, the camera gets plenty of help from secondary actors. The camera does more than track its way down the passages constructed in the bowels of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It also sits, transfixed, staring at groups of suited men lined up behind a desk and holding branded microphones into which they pour endless streams of verbiage - all in honour of the Australian Football League grand final that is about to start today.

Warm-up band INXS looks tame rather than iconic and sounds inadequate without the splendour of lead singer Michael Hutchence, who died 13 years ago in November. The support vocalist's breasts jiggle enthusiastically as the new lead singer - who knows his name? not me - struts across the stage constructed above one of the main entrances to the stadium's underbelly. Perhaps it's the entrance the players will use to, soon, stampede onto the playing field.

Not yet, though. A well-drilled procession of Toyota utes drags itself out of the stadium's voluminous guts and starts to drive around the field but stays in the out-of-bounds zone. On the back of each ute sits a pair of past worthies, players celebrated for something-or-other. They sit, suited and grinning, on folding teak deck chairs of the kind normally found set outside the back door of a suburban house and used for barbeques and other summertime activities where plenty of beer is drunk and lots of meat is eaten. Some of the men have children on their laps as they make their well-deserved victory lap around the stadium where 100,000 fans cram their scarves and jackets into plastic seats that cannot be removed.

Talking of deck chairs ... Advertising screened during the grand final appeals to the same, identical demographic as that of the audience. You can get your bathroom tiles grouted seamlessly. You can buy an iconic, award-winning lifestyle home that is architecturally designed. You can use a top-of-the-range welding machine in your chosen profession of tradie. If you are cashed-up and willing, the opportunities available in this modern, football-loving society are quite simply endless.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Absolute nightmare experience yesterday due to my downstair's neighbour turning up the volume on his television set to booming levels, making the sound travel up the airshaft into my little world. Some ridiculous game-show complete with a hungry-for-laughter compere and regular, explosive applause from the mouth-breathing bogans in the studio audience.

I pottered down to his landing and knocked on the door but there was no answer. So I went down to the front door and buzzed him with the intercom. "Hello?" he said when he picked up. "Look, sorry to disturb you. It's Matthew from upstairs." Silence. Then a loud 'click' was heard as he hung up the handset in his unit. I repeated the exercise. The second time I buzzed him he didn't even answer, he just hung up straight away.

Back in my apartment, I called the police and explained to them the situation. It was about 5.30pm at this time and the operator asked me if the noise was excessive. Not unbearable, I said, but it was as loud as a voice inside my room. "That's excessive," she said. She promised to send a car around soon, and hung up. I waited.

In the meantime the explosive television from downstairs continued to infringe on my privacy, making it impossible to work or even read stuff on the internet. I suffered in silence for a while, then resorted to my own television, which I switched on at low volume and settled down on the couch to watch a chat show on the ABC.

Finally, at about 6.20pm the police buzzed me on the intercom but by this time the guy downstairs had had enough of his own sonic effluvium and had turned off the television. I informed the officer of this and he said that it was better not to go up because it might "aggravate" my neighbour. What about my aggravation, I thought. But I said merely, "OK, thanks", and let the police go about their other business.

It would have been useless to bring them up as the way it works is that the officer must judge on the merits of the case whether there is a reasonable cause for complaint. It is an individual, on-the-spot decision. If there is no sound there are no grounds on which to interrupt a person's evening by knocking on their door.

I felt drained after this, and found it impossible to concentrate even on a book, so I switched off the light and spent the next hour listening to my racing heartbeat as the episode of aggravation started to morph into a full-scale panic attack. I fell asleep, at length. This morning, I feel tired but calm; a long way from the way things felt yesterday. There are still three stories to finish and another bout of noise pollution could make the whole enterprise jump the tracks.

Pic credit: Computer Arts

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The local bananabirds are visiting the flowering aloe on my balcony again. It's the second time this year. The first was back in May when this photo was taken.

For a large bird, the bananabird or blue-faced honeyeater is agile and swift. Measuring about 25cm to 30cm from beak to tail-end, they zoom onto my balcony from outside and perch precariously on the flower stems -- each flowering results in two or three bunches of blossoms at the top of a long stalk that removes the flowers away from the plant's sharp-edged leaves.

The aloe didn't start flowering until just before I moved to Queensland. That was in winter, too. I had rescued the plant from neglect when my downstairs neighbour moved house, leaving the pot sitting on their balcony between the building and the one next door. I bought a new, larger, pot at a nursery-supply business near my old flat. When the removalists came to pack my stuff, they placed the pot in a box and the plant is hardy so it survived the three-day shift which included several nights of darkness inside a container. Not all my plants survived.

The bananabirds come singly, most of the time, although today the adult arrived with an immature fellow who saluted me on departure by squirting a stream of goo onto the balcony tiles. They are the largest honeyeaters in Australia and are coloured delicately in an olive green plumage. Their faces are black-striped and bright blue and their chests are white. They are very timid and will quickly disappear if they see my head move as I turn to look at them out of the sliding glass.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I really wanted to share this brilliant little video that shows why severely-troubled gay teenagers shouldn't take ultimate measures to end personal suffering. The trauma to family due to youth suicide apart, these two guys say that things will get better: so don't do it. Absent the bullies and other sources of personal pain, life advances to places, they say, that you could not ever have imagined. These two guys have been together for 16 years and have a 13-year-old child to care for and love. Their lives are, in their own words, great.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Northern Ireland just seems to endure as a sore in the body politic of Britain. Events such as the shooting of a policeman (10 March 2009) or the shooting of a pair of soldiers by men posing as pizza delivery men (8 March 2009) continue to bother people living otherwise peaceful lives in the Isles. We thought it was all finished, done, forgotten. But it's not. And Five Minutes of Heaven (dir Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009) shows why that is the case.

It's a fairly short feature at just under 90 minutes but it stars two of the best in English acting circles: James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin and Liam Neeson as Alistair Little. Neeson's sonorous voice dominates the opening credits. "For me to talk about the man I have become, you need to know about the man I was," he says. The story begins in the mid-70s amid a group of young Unionist sympathisers preparing for a retaliatory hit on a Catholic worker.

Mark David plays the young Alistair, a plucky buck with a revolver hidden under his bed inside a box of children's toys and a gang of apt friends who are expert in the darker arts, such as an ability to hot-wire a brown, late-model Ford so that they can drive into the Catholic parts of the city of Ulster where their target lives. The hit goes off flawlessly but Alistair is taken by the police and jailed.

Fifteen years later, and he's out on the streets again. But the authorities want their pound of flesh, which takes the form of subjecting him to a televised 'truth and reconciliation' session at an imposing castle-like pile set among green fields outside the city. Like an executive retreat or the place governments choose to stage peace talks, it's cold, impersonal and forbidding.

The drive to the place by chauffeurs ferrying Little and Griffin in high-end automobiles allows the two actors to show off some of their more intimate appeal. Nesbitt, especially, shines here. Griffin is gripped by doubt and racked by insistent flashbacks where he is compelled to hold conversations with his dead mother: who blamed the small boy who had been playing with a soccer ball outside the house when the young Alistair came calling armed with his six-shooter. Griffin's father died soon after the assassination. His mother endured for a while, but she also died of a broken heart. In his maturity, Griffin now has a wife and two young daughters. Faced with the task of confronting Little again, he almost falls to pieces.

The drama continues at the castle, where Griffin is shown a room by the seemingly-solicitous maitre-d'affaires and his posse of assistants. One of them, the gofer Vika (Anamaria Marinca), shares a cigarette with Griffin on the stone balcony. Griffin is dimayed to learn that Little's flat is austere and unwelcoming. What he wants is revenge, and the weakness of his nemesis is like a betrayal of a cherished ideal.

In the suite's bathroom, Griffin adjusts the position of a sheath-knife he has brought along with him. It is to be used to kill Little: his 'five minutes of heaven'. But his will buckles under the strain of maintaining both his malice and his essential humanity: he flees the scene. The elaborate and expensive shoot is cancelled. Making peace is not as easy as setting up a whole flank of expensive cameras and engaging a special sound technician. It's a lot messier than that, the movie tells us.

But Little still wants to meet. He takes a note containing the number of his mobile phone to a private club with instructions that it is to be delivered to Griffin. The message is received, an event which turns Griffin into a monster once again, this time in his own home. His terrified wife cries out to him from the floor, where he has pushed her down. His children are in tears with fear and confusion.

At the old house where he has arranged to meet Griffin, Little enters the front doorway gingerly and slowly makes his way upstairs (pic) where his old foe awaits. In the ensuing struggle, both men fall out of the first-floor window into the street. They creakingly pick themselves up, dust off, and retire.

A few days later, Little receives a message on his mobile. It's Griffin contacting him again. "We're finished," the message reads.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Imagine you were transported away from a tiresome job as a fact-checker with The New Yorker (um, chick-flic anyone?) and an unresponsive, ambitious boyfriend who doesn't really care whether he is with you or with a slab of smoked ham. Imagine then that you end up in Verona - home of fabled lovers Romeo and Juliet - where you embark on the trail of the most viscerally-compelling feature story that, you are convinced, will propel your career as a journalist to a dizzying pinnacle of success.

If you can imagine these things, then you are already inside the world created by Letters to Juliet (dir Gary Winick, 2010), where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) gets the cold shoulder from fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) after they arrive in Verona from New York where, unfortunately, her job as a fact-checker is doing just fine. Victor has plans for Verona but they don't really include Sophie. A chef about to start his own restaurant, he wants to talk with Italian suppliers about cheese and wine. The last thing he wants is to accompany his betrothed on a tour of the city's sights. So Sophie sets out alone. Walking the streets, she comes upon a strange sight. Dozens of women with pens and sheets of paper are writing notes and afixing them to a rustic wall. Intrigued, Sophie waits until they are gone with the daylight.

A woman arrives carrying a basket. She places each note into it and walks away, with Sophie hot on her trail down an alley, through a cafe and up a flight of stairs at its back entrance. Undaunted by the strange surroundings, Sophie follows the woman into a cosy chamber where three women sit around a large table. The notes are handed out so that the women can answer them, as 'Juliet', and have their replies sent to the hundreds of petitioners they respond to on a daily basis.

Naturally, Sophie wants to join them. She takes out her discovery from a hidden recess in the wall: a letter so ancient the paper has turned brown and dried out almost completely. It's from a young English girl who last visited the city, where she fell in love with a boy named Lorenzo, in 1958. With the women's approval, Sophie writes a response. After it is mailed, things return to normal, except that Sophie has been included by the Italian women as one of their number.

Until one day a tense young man named Charlie (Christopher Egan) walks into the chamber asking who wrote the letter he holds in his hand. Sophie owns up immediately and the two face off angrily before Charlie storms out of the room back to meet his grandmother, who has returned to Verona because of Sophie's missive. Sophie naturally follows Charlie, and they come across Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) in a courtyard. She's on a mission: to find Lorenzo and see what has happened to him in the 50 intervening years. Charlie objects strongly when Sophie offers to accompany them, but Claire approves.

They set off the next morning in Charlie's expensive black car with the stereo on loud and high hopes in their hearts. What they find suprises them but doesn't put a stop to the quixotic adventure. There are dozens of Lorenzo Bartonlinis in the city's vicinity. Sophie's experience as a fact-checker proves invaluable.

There is one man who flips them the bird. There is one with dementia. There is a playboy, a hen-pecked husband, a priest, and a letch. After each disappointment they return to their hotel, where they talk and the more they talk the closer they become. Their hearts are becoming intertwined and Claire takes on the role of go-between, finding opportunities to facilitate the feelings that develop between two young people who, at first, had hated the sight of one another. It's a very Shakespearean comedy. There's plenty of brittle word-play between the sexes, and lots of misunderstandings that the viewer watches play out from a position of complete knowledge. Frail humanity stumbles blindly onward, trying to make the best of things.

They eventually find the right Lorenzo riding a horse (of course!) near a vineyard. Of course he remembers Claire. Of course he still loves her. Sad that the romantic holiday Odyssey is over, Sophie returns to the city, and heartless Victor. She then returns to New York where, in the office of the editor-in-chief, she has her story accepted.

Thrilled to her very bones by this personal triumph, Sophie visits Victor in his kitchen. Has he read the story? No, he can read it later. The snub becomes the straw that breaks the back of Sophie's regard for her long-time boyfriend. After the split, which is bloodless and mercifully quick, she quits the scene. In the office next morning she is keen to hunt out new opportunities to shine. She is handed a letter that turns out to be an invitation to the wedding of Claire and Lorenzo. She packs and makes arrangements and soon finds herself back in Italy. It would be too heartbreaking to say that the boy had already chosen another woman, so I won't. Enough to say that there's another misunderstanding, a balcony to be entered, and a crowd of onlookers to attract who will get to watch a passionate kiss seal an everlasting pact.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Despite the sparkle and pep displayed by Tea Party candidates like Christine O'Donnell, who has just won her party's nomination to run for the Senate at the November mid-term elections in the United States, there's a lot that is dark and uncomfortably murky about the recent poll, especially for a foreigner. Shots of a jubilant O'Donnell, shots of processions of flag-carrying Republicans, shots of traditionally-dressed ersatz-Revolutionary pipers - these colourful elements of interest, it seems, to the mainstream media do little to enable the perplexed to grasp just what has happened in Delaware, a small state on the Atlantic coast that was one of the original 13 states of the Union.

And posters like this one (pic) just make matters worse. What, after all, does a retro aesthetic that owes as much to 1930s Soviet propaganda as Palin's recognisable rep as a hands-on soccer mum, mean? She's tough, outspoken and blatantly conservative - no, not conservative (that's the Democrats). She's Right-wing Radical and make no mistake about it. And she's white and handsome in a conventional sort of way. Think of her as a cross between Norman Rockwell and the Politburo. Now that's frightening!

Delaware's election was attended by who? It's a mid-term primary. But in the States primaries - which are elimination races among candidates who vie for the privilege of representing a single party - often involve a popular poll. I'm still not sure who voted in this case. It might have been a poll of registered Republicans. It might have been a state-wide popular poll.

UPDATE at 00.18am, Friday: Qualified response from a person I know who has studied American politics: "just registered Republicans voted for O'Donnell to be the party's nominee."

It matters. The result of the election was clear: 53 percent for O'Donnell against 47 percent for Mike Castle. Castle had the support of the Republican Party's mainstream. I assumed that the poll was taken among voters who identify themselves as Republican to such an extent that they register themselves with the Party for this purpose. So it's not a popular vote, but a type of caucus vote among true-believers.

Because of this, the likelihood of a loss for the Republicans in November, when the mid-term elections are held (and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are decided as well as full terms for 33 or 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate), is great. The Tea Party seems to be splitting the Republican vote, so a lot of nominally Republican voters might feel disaffected if a Tea Party candidate is their only Senate or Reps option, and go with the Democrat candidate instead.

The alternative is that Tea party-flavoured Republicans will dominate in either or both houses after November. If this happens, President Obama will have more difficulty getting his laws passed since there will be more strident and steely opposition on Capitol Hill.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

It's not every day that you receive a momentary cerebral pang that transports you back in time some 250 years. But the other day that's what happened to me when I heard on the nightly news the speech delivered by federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott as he addressed his battle-weary and hungry-for-revenge partyroom troops gathered, once again, to hear the bad news. "We're a band of brothers and sisters," Abbott intoned with gruff and manly sententiousness as he reached (in my mind's drifting eye; it has a habit of doing this when I listen to Abbott talk; when I listen to Gillard talk I tend to concentrate more acutely despite her very weird accent) for the waiting cup of hearty sack (or claret; it's difficult if not impossible to buy sack, a type of fortified white wine, these days) which he would then raise aloft in the direction of the portrait of the Queen that (of course; you have to ask?) hangs in pride of place within the confines of the crowded room.

"Three cheers!" "Hip, hip, hurray!"

Boys, you might get away with this kind of behaviour at an eighteenth-century themed fancy-dress party ('Band of Brothers' was the self-stylisation used by Admiral Horatio Nelson's victorious team of ship captains, heroes of numerous sea-battles leading up to the victory offshore at Trafalgar where the great man was shot and died a-weltering in his own blood aboard his flagship) but it's really not advisable under normal circumstances lest unwary (and often armed) people think you're as demented as a flying fox that has just feasted on a wheelie bin full of rotting passionfruit.

As to the image used so recklessly with this post, it was a compromise (as so many, many things are in these New-Paradigmatic days we live in) and I settled on a detail from a painting called Washington as a Statesman by Junius Brutus Stearns (1810 - 1885) that depicts the first US president addressing the Constitutional Convention back in the days when sack was, after all, still widely available on the streets of Boston if not on the shores of Port Jackson.

So I'm going to coin a new label for attitudes such as the one struck by Abbott just a few short days ago: claret and beefsteak. As in "Bring out the Claret and Beefsteak and let us pass the jolly Wassail 'round, Boys!" It's a certain type of masculine celebratory stance vis-a-vis some event of moment or contradiction, in this case a political setback of great moment and significance. For politics, as we know, truly came of age in the eighteenth century along with coffee houses, tobacco smoking and gazetteers. Sure, we had to wait another 150 years before HARD NEWS was born along with the professional journalists who would produce the stuff, but the male-oriented glamour of the era is unmatched in its splendour, strength and poise.

Passing the wassail by men in stockings also involved a fair amount of singing, which reminded me of The Australian's attempt to counter the attack on their virtue by that execrable Paul Barry of the ABC's Media Watch program on Monday night, which had at its centre stories published in the newspaper about the Australian Greens. Geoff Elliot went to substantial lengths to get good, juicy quotes from a number of highly-professional and (therefore) unimpeachable sources for the story. But it was the use of the epithet "robust" in the headline that mostly caught my eye.

Hence: 'Robust' = 'Claret and beefsteak'. QED.

I expect to see more efforts from the Murdoch-owned broadsheet in a similar context. Its Right-wing bias seems to be a point of no significance if you go by the response I received from one person on Twitter. When I had, a few days ago, brought to general notice a couple of instances from my past when the independence of Murdoch editors had been questionable, he snorted derisorily in a biting tweet and called me a puling girl for being so laughably innocent. As if it was news.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Appointed on Saturday to the climate change portfolio which he assisted with during the government's previous incarnation, Member for Charlton Greg Combet has already begun the precarious process of backing the multiply-articulated political truck into the policy slot being built to accommodate a piece of carbon-price legislation that will please everybody, from the government's Green partners to the vociferous and aggressive coal industry. In a piece published on The Australian's website today, you can distinctly hear, above the formal drone of Combet's broad Oz palaver, the shrill beeps of the rig's reverse-gear warning signal. Because there are so many elements in the train, be prepared to hear that sound for a while and, underneath it all, the angry growl of the policy engine as it strains against the resistance inherent in the debate's glaring contradictions.

"The coal industry is a very vibrant industry with a strong future," he says, and quickly resorts to that tired defense, carbon capture and storage (CCS), to redeem his credibility and signal to the coal industry that he's "serious" about wanting to protect it from the incipient ravages threatened by the Green element of government, which will include (from 1 July) the balance of power in the senate. "You don't take the back of the axe to the fundamentals of the Australian economy." Remember their reaction to the mining "super-profilts" tax?

Environmental campaigner Guy Pearse told me it will cost "around 300 billion" dollars to replace all of Australia's coal-fired capacity (around 100 gigawatts or energy annually) with renewable alternatives (wind, solar, tidal), when I spoke with him for a story I wrote recently. Pearse, who has expressed interest in running for parliament on the Green ticket, is highly critical of the Rudd-Gillard government's commitment to renewables.
If you actually look at the amounts of money involved you’re talking about a tiny increase in capacity that is so far out of whack with what’s required that it’s very hard to get excited about it. 
How much money has the government earmarked for renewables? An example of how it works is the Silex Systems 100MW solar plant slated for construction in Mildura. Federal and state promises of $125 million in assistance have come to little, with around $2,620,000 dispensed so far from state coffers and the rest of both tranches of money dependent on the company reaching agreed milestones. What those milestones are is unknown, as they are protected by 'commercial-in-confidence' provisions in the relevant contracts.

Down in Victoria's La Trobe Valley, where some of the country's worst-polluting power plants operate, a group of enterprising blue-collar workers is taking measures to insulate themselves from unemployment stemming from power-industry layoffs expected to result from plant closures.

The union has established a social enterprise which is about to begin manufacturing solar hot-water systems and installing them among neighbouring residents as well as union-affiliated consumers throughout the state. They have secured a state government grant to tool up a factory and have technical support from two commercial solar hot-water suppliers in Melbourne. It is a very interesting business model that is fashioned along cooperative lines: a social enterprise where profits are rolled back into the business rather than siphoned off by shareholders. The union-based founders are savvy about the likelihood of a carbon tax reducing the workforce in their local area. They’re also ambitious, with tentative plans to manufacture utility-scale power generation plants in Victoria.

Not everyone in the coal sector is backpedalling with the same ferocious concentration as the lobby groups and the major corporations they represent that have so much at stake.

Pic credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday, 11 September 2010

At one point in the film The Blind Side (dir John Lee Hancock, 2009) Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a hard-nosed, well-coiffed and right-brainy Southern mother-of-two is having lunch with her regular girlfriends at their customary table in their usual white-china-and-clean-tablecloth restaurant in some privileged corner of Memphis, Tennessee. "You've done so much for him, he's so lucky," says one highly-primped, middle-aged matron from the far side of the flawless edge of her comfortable teacup. She's talking about how Leigh Anne has taken into her house a black youth who attends the same school as her son. Tuohy stares at her friend, offended as a proud mother by the implication of selfishness and as a Christian by the implication of self-interested charity.

"No," she intones frostily. "I'm so lucky because of what Michael has done for us." She means it and because she means it the audience is made witness to not only a perceptive mind but also a powerful but delicate realisation of life in the form of film. Just days after Leigh Anne, her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) and son Sean Junior (Jae Head) pick up a shivering Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) as he walks on the cold, tree-lined street and bring him to their home, we get to see just what someone from the wrong side of the tracks can add to the bounty enjoyed by a well-off family like the Tuohys'. It's Thanksgiving and they are settling down to enjoy a festive repast while watching the football on TV. Michael takes a plateful but, instead of heading for the sofas in the family room to join the others, he retires to the more-formal dining room. Leigh Anne espies his lonely figure slumped in its massive solitude over the meal - and rouses the rest of her brood. They come to table where the food is carefully laid out. Then Grace is said over their conjoined hands. They give thanks together in a way that a poor boy from a broken family - Michael's mother is a drug-addict who has made children with possibly a dozen different men over the years and now lives alone - is best-qualified to appreciate.

Michael arrives at Wingate Christian School unexpectedly because his father wants him to get a good education. The father makes a point of first approaching the coach, who then petitions the board. But Michael has terrible learning problems and no home to go to. He has been sleeping on the couch of a friend but they kick him out. He survives by spending his evenings at a laundromat and relying on his rep as a gentle giant among his fellow students, including SJ, who brings Michael's plight to the attention of his mother as they drive home one rainy night in their top-of-range, late-model beige BMW. Initially, they just stop at the intersection and ask him where he's going. "I'm going to the gym," he replies. The car drives off a way down the street but Leigh Anne has second thoughts. "Turn around," she orders Sean. Pulling up beside the T-shirt-clad, lumbering youth, Leigh winds down the window. "The gym is closed," she tells him. "Why are you going there?" "It's warm," he replies. "Do you have a place to sleep tonight?" she asks.

Leigh Anne cares about Michael and takes care of him with the same protective ferocity she lavishes on 10-year-old SJ and teenage daughter Collins (Lily Collins). She learns what makes him tick. She talks to the teachers, one of whom, Mrs Smith the English teacher (Catherine Dyer) tries hard to understand why a youth of Michael's age has such trouble coping in the classroom, and who confronts the uncharitable complaints of the other teachers as they sit around in the Common Room after class. Like Leigh Anne, Mrs Smith appreciates Michael's intelligence and takes the simple precaution against failure of asking him test questions verbally, rather than just making him take tests like the other children, who are predominantly white.

The two women are joined in their endeavour later, when it becomes obvious that Michael has extraordinary sporting abilities, by Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), the tutor Leigh Anne takes on in order to ensure that Michael's grade-point average is sufficient so that he is not excluded from gaining a college sports scholarship due to poor academic results.

By focusing their attentions on Michael the three women ensure that he makes the grade. By tolerating his wife's peculiar obsession with this child of misfortune, Sean - a successful businessman who operates a string of fast-food restaurants in the city - ensures that the whole enterprise succeeds. They are undaunted by the bigotry of redneck parents shouting idiocies from the bleachers, the callous violence of the homeboys from Michaels' precinct, the incapacity of vision of coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon), and the lack of compassion demonstrated by most of the school staff.

There's plenty of scope for over-egging the cake in a film with such a story, but the screenwriters - the director, John Lee Hancock, and the author of the book the film is based on, Michael Lewis - take pains to tone down the messaging to a low rumble of righteous indignation. It could have been shrill. It's not. It's more than a competent screenplay, it's a genuine and morally well-centred piece of craft that eschews easy pathos and plumps for a more robust set of ethical cognates. Lewis' book, The Blind Side, actually has two strands, one of which is the story of Michael Oher. Wisely, the writers focus on only the one strand and they make a masterpiece out of the raw material. Of course, Lewis is a consumate writer whose reputation preceeds him.

Friday, 10 September 2010

When I was 16, I travelled with my family to the United States and we visited the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary operated by the Audubon Society in Massachusetts. It's on Cape Cod and we went there because my father had always had a soft spot for the beautiful, sensitive renderings by 19th century naturalist and painter James Audubon. The paintings are fabulous and depict their subjects in context, as you can see in the clip at right. They're also highly sought-after. Selling an Audubon book gets to be news, as happened in the last few days here. A complete copy of Audubon's Birds of America is to go on sale in London. It belonged to an aristocrat who died over half a century ago. The likely purchaser will pay millions of dollars for the privilege of owning one of the most coveted books in existence.

The sale struck me as significant because of the way that a thing made with care and consideration can accrue enormous value. Rarity attracts a high price. This is a mantra of the news industry, and is often used by online editors to beg off imposing a pay wall on news sites. Why would people pay for something they can easily get elsewhere? they ask. But carefully-crafted work is valued, because it's rare, and people would be willing to pay for it because they can't get it elsewhere.

Occasionally, good work is also free. This is almost the case on the web nowadays. I say "almost" because in order to perceive what is good you must invest time consuming a broad range of stories. In a narrow economic sense, progressive journalist Leigh Ewbank's recent post on The Punch, 'What we still need to know about a carbon price' is entirely free. To know that it's good, however, you may need to have spent time understanding the ecosystem in which it is placed.

One good location to start looking for pointers about quality is Jay Rosen's blog, Pressthink. Rosen is an academic at New York University in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where he teaches. But he also operates as a classical maven, and promulgates his ideas on the blog and on Twitter. His ideas have reach, and have started to appear in Australian media commentary since his visit here last month. He appeared on TV and wrote about his experiences in a number of places. His opinion of Australian journalism is low.

One of Rosen's ideas is to provide narrative for context that will enable readers to understand the significance of an otherwise isolated and confusing event.

Ewbank's post on The Punch does this, and it's a rare and pleasant experience to read it. He talks about the history of carbon policy up to the present time. Then he talks about the pitfalls to come for carbon policy under the newly-elected government - a government where a Green MP and three independent MPs with a preference for some sort of cap-and-trade scheme hold the balance of power in the Lower House, and where the Greens will have nine senators in the Upper House from July 2011. The game has changed, he says, but a mechanism aimed at reducing carbon emissions is by no means assured because popular support is still inadequate.

The coal lobby, for example, is a threat to the introduction of such a scheme. They lobbied successfully against a mining "super-profits" tax earlier this year, leading to the deposing of the prime minister. And the opposition Liberal-National coalition will also be campaigning hard against any such scheme despite not having control in either chamber. To counter this resistance, Ewbank says, the government needs to do something specific:
Those proposing a price on carbon should say where the money raised would be spent, and say how this would be in the national interest.
That's a start, he says. But there's even more that needs to be done, he says, before an uncertain electorate will accept a measure that is likely, at least in the short term, to result in higher prices for a range of goods and services.
The next attempt at pricing-based climate legislation can feature a national clean technology fund to invest in Australia’s low carbon future. The Commonwealth could use the fund to invest in new transmission lines, electric vehicle charging stations, and R&D grants to drive innovation in battery technology—helping to overcome non-market barriers to cleantech deployment. The government could also finance large-scale demonstration projects (e.g. concentrated solar thermal power) and clean tech procurement—the effect of which will spur industry development and drive economies of scale.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My main purpose in starting this post was to highlight how a journalist who has taken the time to become an expert in a subject can synthesize complex sets of facts and trends into a convincing narrative. A danger, sceptics might point out at this point, is that the journo then becomes an advocate. Clearly, in this case, the journalist is an advocate. And this leads us face to face with the great slumbering giant of modern journalism: objectivity. This is something I'm still working out, but those who are interested in it could do worse than read more of Rosen's blog.

There's a cost to enlightenment, as always. In my case the family trip to Cape Cod ended up costing us a pair of binoculars, which I left on the rental car's roof when we drove way. But the memories remain, and continue to help me to understand a complex world.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Beth (Kristen Bell) and Nick (Josh Duhamel) get down Italian style at the beginning of When In Rome (dir Mark Steven Johnson, 2010) and the hilarity continues at an "unrelenting" pace (this film is so goofy it's got pompoms on and outsized shoes) right through to the closing credits where the two outdo their earlier efforts by getting funky in traditional American style: hip-hop, jive and jazz. This neat inversion of dance styles brings a spotlight to bear on the enduring sense of discomfort felt in America for all things foreign.

A comedy ends in reconciliation, usually after a marriage, and the sense of closure in this film can only be achieved through the matching of the two down-to-earth, blue-blooded Yankee heartthrobs. Because the wedding that started it all - the one that brought together Beth's sister Joan (Alexis Dziena) and her new-found Italian beau Umberto (Luca Calvani) - is, simply, just a mite too ethnic and strange to qualify for the critical role of ultimate resolver of the concern, worry and disquiet that unfulfilled romance can visit on any one among us.

But Americans have always had this weird love-hate relationship with the Old World. In this film, it's as visible as mouth cancer, and just about as attractive. On the plus side, the film has its moments of real humour.

It starts in Rome (city of love) at a fountain with a statue of a woman who, it is said, represents the evergreen emotion: 'amore'. Beth steps out of the wedding reception amid all of its pungent celebratory weirdness and straight into the fountain, where she picks up a handful of the coins that have been tossed there by others in search of that elusive but inspiring experience. A star shoots across the heavens as she drops the errant coins in her clutch purse, bringing with them the hearts of four men.

Back in New York, Beth is busy. As an art curator (who said this was a chick-flic?) she's ambitious as well as cultured-to-the-gills. Nick has returned, too. As a reporter, he's encircled by a wholesome ordinariness that is embodied in a set of friends of an unremarkableness so studied it makes his earlier dreams of finding fame in football seem absolutely, unquestionably reasonable. What could be more All-American than a football career for a college jock? Ah, Beth. If only your life could be so solid.

It's not, of course. The amorous searchers from the Eternal City have tracked Beth down and they blithely run roughshod over her peace of mind. Who are they anyway? Oh, just a crazy bunch of All-American mistfits. There's Antonio (Will Arnett), a shoe salesman from Newark who dreams of being an Italian fine artist. There's Lance (John Heder), a prestidigitating emo whose magic tricks are only slightly less annoying than his anime-inspired haircut. There's Gale (Dax Shepard), a buff-torsoed advertising model whose love for himself is only exceeded by the loathsomeness of his head-scarf. And there's Al Russo (Danny De Vito), a widowed sausage manufacturer. Basta.

Sure, they're goofy and unpreposessing. But at least they're ours (ie they're American) and so their efforts to get Beth together with Nick at the end of the film redeem them in our eyes because they bring the two lovers together for the kiss that will cement the unquiet affections that are pulsating like Mexican hurricanes in each of their hearts. Our sense of closure is ruffled only momentarily by the fact that it takes place at the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum, a really (really!) very-slightly Romantic setting with its endless spiral corridor and shiny, white walls.

Ultimately, the movie says "choose someone like yourself". It's not xenophobic, precisely. On the other hand, it's hardly promoting adventurous spirits. As such, the message goes against one of the primary human genetically-encoded strategies: seek out new territory. It tells us to appreciate what you recognise, based on narrow principles of taste, as good. It's not openly xenophobic but it comes very close to being highly critical of anything that comes from outside a narrow selection of love interests.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally was reportedly emotional during an announcement today that legislation had passed through the state's parliament with bi-partisan support amending the constitution to recognise Aborigines as the state's first people. The law contained a clause ruling out the possibility of compensation claims.

It is a symbolic measure and serves a function similar to Kevin Rudd's historic Apology of early 2008. The ABC's NSW news page reported the event:
The Aboriginal Land Council's Bev Manson says the change is an important first step.

"This is a significant constitutional step in the right direction," she said.

"I can only hope that it will not be the only step. There are very few mechanisms for our people in this state which provide a basis for protecting our rights available as first peoples."
The newly elected Gillard government is expected to move to introduce law for a referendum to amend the national consitution along similar lines. Independent MP and Gillard backer Tony Windsor has expressed interest in such a measure. Windsor's seat of New England contains the site of the Myall Creek Massacre memorial. NSW MP, Minister for the State Plan, and Minister for Community Service, Linda Burney is a patron of the memorial.

Pic credit: AAP: Tracey Nearmy

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

This unexpected tableau by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin dating from around 1740 - some 50 years before the French Republic was proclaimed - reveals much about how rabbits have traditionally been valued in Western society. For their meat and not their measure.

It's not a Windsor knot or an Oakeshott but, rather, a Rabbit and Copper Pot - a curious combination of elements hinting unequivocally at the destiny of rabbits everywhere they are found (even on the NSW mid-north coast, I'll wager).

The long-delayed election result, which I viewed on the TV hanging on my dentist's wall after having patiently undergone painless root canal therapy, is less unequivocal. The New Paradigm in Australian politics is still in force. No longer will decisions be made in the party room after more or less deliberation by a group of like-minded individuals, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and whose careers followed similar trajectories.

Parliamentary debate will mean something, now, that it hasn't for some time. It must be stressed that the decision of Bob Katter, the independent from north Queensland who won one of the three crucial seats in the 21 August election, to back the Coalition, is conditional. Likewise for the two other independents - Rob Oakeshott of Lyne and Tony Windsor of New England. They have agreed to allow Julia Gillard to form a government. What else they will allow will depend on the priorities of their constituents and, by extension, country voters throughout the nation. Strangely, the support of two independent members of parliament for the Labor Party may result in greater gains for country Australia than decades of support for toothless National Party representatives.

The situation remains extremely fluid. The wishes of Tony Crook, the Western Australia Nationals member for O'Connor, will again come into play as he will be free - due to the anomalous relationship that exists between the Liberal Party and the National Party in that state - to vote on the cross benches if he wants to.

It may be written by the commentariat in the very near future that the National Broadband Network won the race for Labor. But other things also have come into play, not least the willingness of both NSW independent MPs to talk about global warming as if it really were an issue for government to address. Certainly, Oakeshott supports a decisive push to reduce carbon emissions.

As for Tony Aboott, his days are probably numbered. With support for Kevin Rudd (the prime minister until his removal by his party in June) plumetting in the wake of his abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Abbott has much to answer for. Similarly, Gillard must be feeling relieved. Had she not gained the support of the two NSW independent MPs it would have been curtains - if not a pot - sooner rather than later.

Which brings me back to the painting at the top of the post. Readers will notice the colour of the pot. Copper always oxydises, of course, and when it does it turns brown.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Produced, directed and written for the screen by the openly homosexual fashion designer Tom Ford, A Single Man (2009) is vigorously and unrelentingly situated in southern California of the early 1960s. Sets were designed by the same crew responsible for the visual appeal of hit TV drama Mad Men. The screenplay is based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood.

Most of the drama revolves around two unrelated points, although the fact of Professor George Falconer's (Colin Firth) homosexuality causes a wee bit of angst in the viewer, especially as the story takes place during a period when sexual orientation was not openly discussed and deviation from the heterosexual norm was relatively less easily tolerated than it is today.

First there's the gun Falconer stashes in his bag as he prepares to kill himself following the accidental death, in a car crash, of his 16-year lover. Falconer prepares everything in great detail and he takes the gun to the campus - and, disconcertingly, the bank - because he must purchase shells to load it with.

But the main point of dramatic effect comes along with the attentions of a young student, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult). As a member of faculty, Falconer would have qualms about becoming sexually involved with a student enrolled in his English literature class. Potter's moves on Falconer generate a fair bit of tension and this seems, in the end, to neutralise his self-destructive impulses. Unfortunately for Falconer, he has a stroke during the night and dies on the floor of his bedroom. Potter is sleeping beyond the sliding door on the couch.

The door, the couch, the car, the parking lot, the classroom, the campus kiosk - everything, in fact - are present in authentic form and guise. These elaborate props are as fresh and modish as a red moped parked outside a trendy cafe on an inner city suburban street. It's most unnerving that Ford included one of his own dogs - named India - in the script. This focus on externals does not irreparably damage the film's ability to move the viewer. What sucks the life out of the drama is the the story's small scope. It's an itsy-bitsy movie that has been made to compete with its enormous fashion sense.

Sure, Potter is gay. There's enough gay paraphernalia in the film to sink an amphibious pink Jeep. When the young man finds the picture of Falconer's dead lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), hidden beneath the Band-Aids in a bathroom drawer we know - at that precise point - that Potter is queer. There's some comfort in that. But what on earth is Falconer going to do with the young man?

Nothing comes of the sexual friction the two generate. Nothing comes of anything, in fact. The main concern of the filmmakers is to make sure that the bath robe that Falconer will die in is the right shade of brown to match the carpet. It is, of course.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

It's not every day that you get to see a film as ambitious in its scope as Everybody's Fine (dir Kirk Jones, 2009). Sure, we can enjoy watching Robert De Niro's mobile countenance. Here, among other expressions, he grins, looks surprised, scowls and smirks. But it's not a 'vehicle' for the famous American actor in the same way that it's not a 'vehicle' for any of the other big names it features on its credits roll. It's especially satisfying because it's something newish that we've perhaps never seen before. A coming-of-age story for the baby boomer generation.

Does anyone still remember About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson that came out in 2002? Both are road movies, too, strangely.

Franke Goode (De Niro) has never harboured special desires for happiness. For 30 years he handled a production line that placed PVC coating on telephone wire ("I coated 11,000 feet a month," he tells one young woman on a train as it forges its path through the ever-changing landscape), to support his large family. But he is given a special concession by the filmmakers. They want to work out how he can be happy now that his wife has died and his children have all left home. This is the sequel to the matinee main event, the upshot of all that happens after the lights go up and the audience makes its way out into the bright reality of the midday street. What happens, you may have wondered as you negotiated the crowd, when the perfect scenario you've just seen play out on the screen begins to crack around the edges, when the petrol gets low in the tank and it's time to pull over for a refill on the road to the next stage of life?

What happens to a man whose wife was the only conduit he has had to the dreams of his children?

Once she dies and something goes seriously wrong, how to communicate with those complex, rebellious people who once depended on you for their daily bread, and more. What happens when none of them will tell you the truth because you have never allowed them to fail? Now that you can't compel them to comply with your commands, and there's a mishap to discuss, they simply avoid all contact. They lock you out. Are you therefore a failure as a father?

Yes, it's a classic case of the emperor having no clothes. But it's engineered with enough specific detail that it has a valid centre of gravity. It works in so many, small ways. The detail is all-important, making it a pleasure to watch. If you are careful there is much to learn about the lineaments of regret in Frank's shrunken world. Rosie asks him at one point: "What about you? Didn't you have any dreams that you wanted to see come true?" "No, never," Frank replies. "I just wanted to provide for my family. Keep down a job and provide for my family."

Frank does really spend a lot of effort putting together a holiday meal for his children - who live in the far-flung metropoleis of New York (David, an artist), Chicago (Amy, an advertising executive), Seattle (Robert, who plays in an orchestra) and Las Vegas (Rosie, a dancer) - so that they can comfortably assemble for the first time since their mother's death eight months prior. It's an annual event, after all. Frank's self-important fussing at the supermarket while he buys the best cuts of meat and the best bottles of wine, and a fancy new $600 barbequeue, speak openly of the pride a man feels at the fact that he is able to support his family. It's the same pride that caused him to ignore his children's wishes, that caused him to tell David, the youngest boy, that it was not enough to be a painter - he had to be an artist. ("A painter paints walls and dogs pee on them.") The same pride that made him a good provider made him fail as a father.

And the kids don't come. One by one, they beg off travelling to the old, white-faced family home with its velour armchairs and well-cropped lawn. Devastated, he does the only responsible thing. He visits his doctor to stock up on medication for the trip he needs to make. The doctor advises him against travelling and warns him off flying. He decides to take the train and buses. Arriving in New York, he spends the night asleep on the stoop of David's apartment building because the young man is not home.

Undaunted, Frank heads for Chicago to meet with Amy (Kate Beckinsale), who lives with her son in a large, modernist-inspired house set in leafy surrounds. The house screams of vocational success but the family dinner that night is Chinese take-away and Amy's son, Jack (Lucian Maisel), is inexcusably rude to his father. Amy begs off playing host to Frank for a few days, inventing an excuse that puts the ageing King Lear back on the road the next morning. He follows it to Seattle, where he comes across Robert (Sam Rockwell) playing percussion in the local symphony orchestra.

Poor, dim Frank slips back into the same old routine. Do you smoke? You know what? I quit! I thought you were a conductor? I'm happy playing percussion, it's low stress and I get paid for it. I thought you wanted to be a conductor? Look, if it hasn't happened by now, it's never going to happen. Isn't it all wasted? What do you mean 'wasted'? There's a fantastic little scene where the unpreposessing Robert, moping around with Frank outside the theatre's stage door, introduces his father to the conductor. A moment later, the man has disappeared inside. There's time for no more than a handshake and a quick 'hello'. Robert is just the guy on drums.

This time, Frank doesn't even stay the night, but because he hasn't adjusted his watch properly he misses the train to Las Vegas. He hitches a ride with a truckie and ends up getting mugged in a train station. His medication is smashed underfoot by the feckless young derelict but Frank makes it to the city where Rosie (Drew Barrymore) picks him up in a stretch limo and takes him to a luxurious apartment that is so obviously not hers that Frank's persona visibly shrinks - once again - as he sinks to his real level in the world. His wife is no longer around to lie to him. There's nobody on hand to tell him everbody's fine.

After staying one night in Las Vegas Frank boards a plane where he has a seizure in the onboard toilet. When he lands in hospital, the children finally gather - around his sick bed, now - and the truth comes out about David's drug overdose and death in Mexico. That night, Frank dreams that David comes to his room. Words of comfort are spoken - the type of words that contain all the love, but obscure all the realities, between a father and a son. They are possibly the only words that a child, finally, can say to a parent.

Fortunately for Frank - and for us - there's a reprieve and his copious brood gathers at the white clapboard house for a Christmas lunch with all the trimmings. At the supermarket, he again fusses self-importantly at the meat counter and in the wine aisle. The bird has to be the biggest. The wine has to be the most expensive. There's a new tree to buy and it must be top-of-the-range. But, ah, the sweet pleasure when Robert admonishes him to cut the leg to make sure that it is cooked through. Oh, the exquisite delight when Rosie puts her arms around him when they bring up his wife's annual propensity to overcook the turkey.

And look! See Rosie and her new lover (the same girl with snappy black hair Frank had met briefly in that fantastic Las Vegas apartment) feed his first grandchild.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

This is the scene in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (dir Marc Lawrence, 2009) that neatly sums up what the film is ultimately, and regrettably, about. If you tether a reliable franchise to something immoveable and aggressively milk it for everything it's got, you risk getting kicked in the leg by an irate cow.

Both Hugh Grant - who plays the husband, Paul, a man so eager to please his wife he bends over too far backwards - and Sarah Jessica Parker - who plays the estranged and still-angry damsel, Meryl - are lucrative Hollywood comedic properties. In the film, Meryl has separated from lawyer Paul because he slept with another woman while on a California business trip. Now, look guys. It's been 15 years since the Los Angeles vice squad nabbed Grant in a car on the street getting a blowjob from a prostitute, but it seems as though we haven't forgiven him yet for this peccadillo.

Real life enters the story via another avenue, too. Meryl is a celebrated boutique real-estate agent who has just had her picture placed on the cover of New York magazine, a scenario mirroring Parker's success through the Sex and the City franchise. But the film never extricates itself from the self-referential mire these elements induce. Time has simply been too unkind to both of the players. Grant is too mature for this sort of thing - he's got a rather prunish mien that militates against the boyish earnestness his regular schtick depends on for its success - and Parker looks a tad stringy in the facial region. How to suck another romantic comedy out of these two ever-more-wrinkly properties must have seriously engaged the minds of the studios for months, if not longer. This film is the result of a process of elimination.

Adding drama, to take attention away from this stale formula, is vigorously attempted. Grant jumps the shark pretty early-on in the film. They've just arrived in Ray, Wyoming, a sleepy little hamlet set firmly within the bear-infested red zone of American politics: God-fearing, Republican, laconic and blunt. The bear takes Paul by surprise and he gets out of his scrape only after copping a face-full of capsicum spray from the hysterical Meryl. The episode serves to relocate them to the doctor's office. This guy's mother has a house up for sale but little luck attracting a buyer. One unamusing event helps to cement Paul and Meryl in the town's affections. There are others, too. It's all so drole you just want to die laughing.

They're not cemented in our affections, regardless of how hard the filmmakers try. The pair come to Wyoming on the witness relocation program after seeing one of Meryl's New York clients get killed. The hit man is now on their trail and the only safe place is out in the side-splittingly rustic boondocks. Meryl plays into the hands of the determined assassin whose task is to take them out, by making a call from the doctor's office to her adoption agency. The agency calls Meryl's New York personal assistant, Jackie (Elisabeth Moss). The killer visits Meryl's office and bugs Jackie's handbag and office desk. Soon enough, he's on the road like a virus in a late-model sedan.

Meanwhile, back at the Ray Rodeo, we espy the fake cow suit that we know (we just know) Meryl and Paul will use at some point down the track, since Meryl is stupid enough to go against the orders of her local minder, US Marshall Clay Wheeler (played by a dour Sam Elliot), by making that phone call. But she's a typical New Yorker: she can't stop herself talking when the opportunity presents itself to do so.

Other ways the two come off looking like square pegs in this sleepy rural town? Meryl, seeing Wheeler's wife Emma (Mary Steenburgen) try out a new gun at the local discount barn, says "Oh my God, it's Sarah Palin!" Jokes like this are unsubtle and they're also ineffective. Emma and Clay come out of the clash of civilisations (Meryl is a member of PETA, Emma keeps the refrigerator liberally stocked with large hunks of bloody meat) looking well-ironed and unflappable. Meryl and Paul resemble spoilt adolescents with no inkling as to the important things in life, such as trusting your husband and risking being hurt in love. The blue-red split in American politics is meant to be the source of much hilarity. It ends up being an unequal contest between down-home wisdom and half-baked sophistication. Though Meryl and Paul win over the rednecks in the end, it's just a pity that they don't win over the audience.

Friday, 3 September 2010

What else is there to say about the already exhaustively commented-on Kick-Ass (dir Matthew Vaughn, 2010)?

OK, so you're a hormonally over-compensated teenager who gets the brush-off from the pretty girls at school and hate it so much you want to eat handfuls of stones dipped in lizard vomit. Your name's Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Welcome to your adventure, chum.

You're not cool, not athletic, and not even exceptionally well-endowed in the cranial sector. You're a serial masturbator living in a single-parent household on an entirely ordinary street in a fiendishly-boring suburban backlot without trees or enough money either for decorative driveway coatings or ornamental water features. You're fed up being held up and having your mobile phone taken by the intellectually-handicapped street punks who infest your quarter of the city like bipedal cockroaches and you think it's time to make a difference. It's time to stand up and be counted. Time to affirm without hesitation that there is a thing called 'good' in the world and, because you know what it is, you send away a mail order for a kick-ass full-body suit you discover in a discount catalogue.

Your first foray ends badly: a knife embedded in the stomach followed by a hit-and-run encounter with a late-model sedan driven by a Captain Kirk look-alike. "Rats," you say, but you're not daunted. You get out of hospital filled with enough metal rods and pins to set off the detector stationed at the school entrance and sufficient pluck to don the green uniform once more.

Your second foray gets videoed on the iPhone of a rubber-necking neighbourhood drop-out and posted to YouTube, where you discover instant celebrity. Your hit count skyrockets faster than the blood pressure of a fifty-five-year-old bottle-a-day man forced to run a half-marathon and you set up a MySpace page where you can chat with the legions of adoring fans who fawn on you after seeing you single-handedly confront four well-muscled boofheads and protect the target of their ill-concieved but all-too-common rage.

Oddly, the good-looking girl thinks you're gay - because you asked the ambulance staff to tell the police you were found naked (you are keen to protect your true identity) and the police report gets into the media and onto TV - but you play along because you think it might allow you to touch her lithe, young body. (You're absolutely right, dude. Congratulations.)

Then something happens that you could never have imagined in the remotest corner of your fevered imagination. Intent on saving Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) from any more anxious encounters with a pesky drug addict, whom she routinely meets at the needle-exchange office where she volunteers nights, you encounter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). In addition to saving your sorry green ass by neutralising a roomful of angry black men armed to the teeth with various bladed weapons, you find a soul mate. Your life will never again be the same.

The back-story on Macready father and fille involves beyond-the-law's-reach drug lord and downtown-penthouse resident Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) goes to your school every day in the back of a hienously-expensive black luxury car driven by a massive black boombah whose facial expression drifts between subtle extremes of fierce and nasty. Damon Macready did time in the slammer after a set-up engineered by cops working under D'Amico's instructions. His wife was killed. Now he's interested in only two things: training his 11-year-old daughter Mindy to maim humans and getting back at one of the most evil men in the one of America's biggest, ugliest cities.

D'Amico thinks Kick-Ass is a pest. Young Chris is keen to curry favour with his distant but powerful father and offers to lure the masked avenger into a trap. To do this he becomes the fourth ersatz superhero in this highly-educational tale: Red Mist.

But the trap is short-circuited by Big Daddy, who thus becomes the object of D'Amico's most intensely-felt loathing. His ultimate wish is to see the costumed vigilantes burn, and he gets it. Using YouTube, D'Amico's goons transmit footage of his revenge to the watching world but the plan only half succeeds. Big Daddy fails to make it out of the warehouse but Hit Girl saves Kick-Ass's ass and they escape into the dusty night and the lamplight.

Back at the Macready's studio, an austere space decorated entirely with handguns, rifles, automatic weapons and the occasional bazooka, Hit Girl shows Kick-Ass the family's most recent, and most coveted, online acquisition: $300,000-worth of rocket-propelled vertical-levitation equipment that comes handily armed with twin, shoulder-mounted Gatling guns. They lay out their plan for final retribution. An eye for an eye. A daddy for a daddy.

It's time to kick ass. But elaborately-orchestrated violence is not the only feature this interesting little film offers viewers. There's also the love story and Katie, who Dave yearns for with the sort of intensity that adolescence alone bestows on the conscience and on mortality. The quest for companionship is a severe test but Dave pulls it off with a little help from his mail-order green jumpsuit and at-times blood-spattered face mask. It's all based on dreams: authentic, self-driven personal achievement. Simply, she falls for him and they get it on with a seriousness that cannot be argued with. Dave's buddies watch, open-mouthed. The fat one gets to go out with Katie's best friend. Go Dumbo!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Review: Who Rules the Waves: Piracy, Overfishing and Mining the Oceans, Denise Russell (2010)

When a nation's economic interests are threatened military forces may be called in to settle matters, hence the striking image the book's publishers have used on the cover. Somali pirates, for example, now operate well outside of the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and European and American navies have at various times in the recent past patrolled the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in order to stem losses resulting from ransom demands after tankers and other vessels have been captured by pirates using fast boats and the machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that are in such plentiful supply in the war-ravaged country.

But piracy is not Russell's only concern, and it's not the only theme involved when guns are brought to bear. In 1995, just two years prior to the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea being ratified, Canadian and Spanish naval vessels were seen posturing aggressively on the high seas as Canada attempted to protect migrating fish stocks inhabiting the waters off Newfoundland. Spanish trawlers were damaging the stocks, Canada said, which regularly moved in and out of its EEZ. These types of encounters in open waters still occur. Witness a current conflict involving Britain and Iceland over a mackerel fishery in the north Atlantic. The conflict echoes a similar battle between the two countries that was fought in the mid-1970s over herring and cod fisheries that Britain coveted and Iceland wanted to secure for its own use.

That conflict led to the setting up of EEZs to a distance of 200 nautical miles from a country's coastline.

Now, Russell is advocating for a new maritime regime that gets rid of EEZs and concentrates international focus on conserving the sea for all humankind. The concept of the EEZ militates against conservation, she says, because it makes us think of the oceans as a place where resources are available to be exploited. Rather, we should think of them as a common patrimony that we hold in trust for future generations.

The arguments are complex and Russell, an honorary research fellow in the Philosophy Program at the University of Wollongong and previously associate professor and head of department at the University of Sydney, has clearly spent many years researching the things she writes about in the book. Starting with a look at the roots of maritime law in a dispute over the Vatican granting exclusive ownership of the Atlantic Ocean to Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, which is addressed in the writings of Dutch jurist Grotius, Russell covers an extraordinary range of material encompassing such diverse subjects as undersea cultural heritage (basically, ship wrecks and the cargo they contain), the impact of oil exploration on whales, the sea gypsies of Southeast Asia (a fantastic section), fisheries management, and the sea claims of indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

In addition to environmental philosophy, animals and ethics, Russell is also interested in epistemology, philosophy of psychology/psychiatry and feminist philosophy.

As should be expected from a researcher working customarily in academia, sometimes the writing is a bit dense and involved. This is not surprising where the legalities of maritime jurusdiction are so complex. But it is difficult for the reviewer, on one reading of the book, to quickly summarise the arguments in favour of the main thesis, which is that EEZs should be abolished and a new UN convention ratified along with the establishment of governing bodies that could more effectively manage the region for the benefit of all people. Maybe this quick screed is, in fact, enough to make some people want to read the book. There's a lot to enjoy in this weighty little volume. For me, the hook was its focus on fishing - a subject I have a personal interest in.