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Category Archives: film and dvd

Revisiting “The Maltese Falcon”

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 They really do not make movies like this any more!  I watched it again on Saturday night.

the-maltese-falcon12

— You aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are you?

— Why, I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.

— The schoolgirl manner. You know, blushing, stammering and all that.

— I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad. Worse than you could know.

— Good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be…we’d never get anywhere.

— I won’t be innocent.

— Good. By the way, I saw Joel Cairo tonight. Do you know him?

— Only slightly.

— You’re good. You’re very good.

Cracker of a script. Great direction. Great acting.

 

Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.

 

First July reviews – mainly comic

star30a Dante’s Cove 2 (2007 DVD)

I watched just 15 minutes of this heap of crap. If one was drunk or drugged and with friends it may work. Fortunately my copy was free, thanks to Surry Hills Library.

star30 star30star30star30a Julian Halls, The Museum, Hobart, Knocklofty Press 2008.museum-cover240

This gets two rather dismissive lines on SameSame.com.

Halls’s strength as a comic author lies in his sharp, crisp and snappy lines. Unfortunately, the novel sounds like a guidebook in places, and a boring one at that. This probably explains why the Tasmanian government gave the project its support.

I agree about the “sharp, crisp and snappy lines” but was certainly not bored. In fact I found the novel hilarious.

It is indeed “old-fashioned”, as the publisher says.

This is a most unfashionable book: it’s funny, it’s well written and constructed — and it has a happy ending.

It’s that rarest of things in an increasingly sad and troubled world: a comic novel, a genre which has almost disappeared under the weight of political correctness, post-modernist claptrap and the self-regarding seriousness of far too many authors.

Julian Halls has created an unlikely assortment of oddball characters — and they’re all people we’ve met or close to it — and placed them in and around a mouldering, half-forgotten regional museum in Tasmania.

The complex main plot concerns the relationships between two same-sex couples, one male, one female, and the whole thing is set in motion by a blowfly; it gets even more bizarre after that, although it’s never incredible—just like real life. Several curious sub-plots emerge and they are skillfully woven into a surprising conclusion…

The museum itself reminded me of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1950s, even down to the enormous whale skeleton in the entrance hall. Its sudden descent begins the series of crazy events. You can tell Halls cut his teeth in theatre – the novel is nothing if not a farce, but a pungent one.

The artist Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851) is an important element in the plot.

17nat_conciliation_painting

Duterrau, “The Conciliation” 1840. Click on pic for more.

I liked this book.

star30star30star30star30star30a J G Ballard, Millennium People, London, Flamingo 2003

Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is one of my favourite books, and the 1987-8 Spielberg movie of it one of my favourite movies. Millennium People is a dark comedy whose targets include the romanticism of revolution, the mindless violence of events such as 9/11, and the sacred cows of the middle class on England – though there may well be a degree of endorsement of the latter.

One could also add, with this very perceptive profile in a source I don’t often agree with, that another target is the reader who, given Ballard’s profile, is probably in that same middle class. Joane McNeill writes:

In Ballard’s slapstick satire Millennium People (2003), the bourgeois residents of a gated community commit terrorist acts. They riot, clash with police, and bomb upper-middle-class establishments such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum. What are they protesting? “Double yellow lines, school fees, maintenance charges…cheap holidays, over-priced housing, educations that no longer buy security.” They are rebelling against, in one character’s words, “the barriers set out by the system. Try getting drunk at a school speech day, or making a mildly racist joke at a charity dinner. Try letting your garden grow and not painting your house for a few weeks.”

Like most of Ballard’s fiction from the last 20 years, Millennium People uses the framework of a middlebrow English novel as a way to parody the reader. For Ballard, as he explained to Salon in 1997, the novel is “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader and at every point offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”

I have his last book, Miracles of Life (2008), in line for reading. Millennium People joins my 2009 top reads.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2009 in Australia and Australian, Best read of 2009, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, movies, reading, satire, Top read

 

June review catch-up 3 — “Sylvia” (2004)

sylvia

star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.

 
 

June review catch-up 2

Some quickies.

star30 star30star30  1. Ed Gaffney, Enemy Combatant (2008)

A good courtroom drama with a strong post 9/11 twist. It may be improbable, but not so improbable as to not make you wonder “What if?” See also Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney.

star30star30star30star30  2. Susanna Gregory, To Kill or Cure (2007)

I haven’t read many in the Medieval Whodunnit genre. This one is sufficiently entertaining and informative. See also Euro Crime.

star30star30star30star30star30 3. 1945: The Year That Changed the World (DVD 2008)

This series (2 DVDs) is excellent. There are contributions from first-rate historians, one of whom, Ian Nish, taught me Japanese and Chinese history in 1962! Yes he is rather older now. If you check YouTube you will find it well represented.

star30star30star30star30 4. Frontier: Worse than Slavery Itself (DVD 1997)

Famous so-called “Black Armband” presentation of Indigenous Australia and European settlement 1830 – 1860, based on the work of Henry Reynolds. I was particularly struck, of course, by the NSW material which focussed on the Dangar family of the Hunter/New England areas, and on some of the better documented massacres of those years. The series still stands up well despite the reaction to aspects of it from the likes of Keith Windschuttle. It really is good on the role of evangelical thought as a conscience of the times.

It is interesting to compare the more recent SBS series First Australians (2008). Its episode dealing with NSW in the early to mid 19th century drew attention to another settler family, the Suttors of Brucedale, whose relations with the Aboriginal people were comparatively enlightened.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2009 in best viewing 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, History, Indigenous Australians, reading, Thriller

 

Bits

1. Pumping up a scandal

So much depends, it seems, on the clapped-out second-hand ute that Kevin Rudd has used as a mobile office in his own electorate. A supporter, a local car dealer, lent it to him for the purpose. Now the Opposition seem to think they have found Watergate. See what the car dealer says.

Much more serious, perhaps, are (on the surface) examples of bureaucratic idiocy in the form of infrastructure stimulus money manifesting itself on the ground in school buildings the schools neither need nor want. It does seem there hasn’t been enough needs analysis in the hurry to roll out the stimulation.

2. “End of an era”

Freestyle (Surry Hills Shopping Village) and Freestyle 2 (Elizabeth Street Surry Hills) are having closing down sales. They sell remainder books, DVDs and CDs. I snaffled Tony Judt, Appraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008) and Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008).

Books are still good trade, the store owner said, but anything on disk has gone down the tube – YouTube, file sharing, iPods and downloading, that is. So, he said, it’s the end of an era.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, dvd, film and dvd, Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, politics, reading, Surry Hills

 

Old books, old movies, old mentalities

Jim Belshaw has had a couple of interesting posts lately: Train Reading – J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth and Sunday Essay – Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle. The book was published in 1937.

In the first post Jim writes:

In some ways I got more than I bargained for.

The book is laced with comments about nationality, race and ethnicity expressed with a freedom that would not be tolerated today. I almost put the book aside after the first chapter with the thought do I have to read this stuff? I kept going because I had, after all, deliberately chosen the book as a window into a past world.

As I read I found that I could put aside my reactions.

In the second post he elaborates:

At the time Mr Curle was born, the British Empire was at its peak. It seemed natural to assume that the white race was by process of natural selection destined to maintain a dominant position. However, Mr Curle’s Social Darwinist views did not allow him to believe that any nation, people or race had an automatic God-given superiority. All three could rise or fall.

I also think it worth noting that Mr Curle had no belief in the “purity” of any race or people. He was not opposed to racial mixing so long as the mix raised the “quality” of the race or people.

In this context, Mr Curle supported the Nazi eugenics policy as it related to things such as sterilisation. However, he did not believe that there was such a thing as a German or Nordic race. He thought the Nazi expulsion of German Jews was unwise because to his mind the admixture of Jewish and German blood had done much to strengthen the creativity and strength of the German people. He still hoped that Germany would learn this and re-admit the Jews.

The reason for the desperation in Mr Curle’s writing is simple. By 1937 he had come to believe that in the absence of fundamental change, both the Empire and the current pre-dominance of the white race were doomed.

Mr Curle’s views strike us as in many respects most unfortunate, but had we been around at the time no doubt we would have found a range of views to the left and right (not taking those terms with their unfortunate linear and dichotomising effect too literally) of his. As Jim says, the fact he wrote in a certain matrix of his time and place does not prevent his being interesting. Eugenics is nowadays totally tainted, and discredited as gross oversimplification – and more, but it lives on in other guises and in other terms under the rubric of genetic engineering. I suspect we also have to thank our current so-called “political correctness” for inoculating us, if we are wise, against the racist mindset within which he was working even if at certain levels he was, as Jim mentions, reacting against it too. But even there much that he wrote seems to have been predicated on the idea of “race”.

Some of Mr Curle’s most scathing writing is addressed to what he sees as the unjustified racism of some of the working and middle class English throughout the Empire. He compares them very unfavourably with other peoples and races.

And who, in all this, are the races or peoples of the future?

It seems from The Face of the Earth that in terms of people at a purely personal level, Mr Curle is especially enamored of Chinese/Malay (this includes what is now Indonesia) or Chinese/European mixtures.

However, in the hierarchy of races or peoples driven by Mr Curle’s Social Darwinism, the future lies with the Chinese.

That idea of “quality” is itself racist thinking because it assumes that “race” is a relevant category. Culture may be; race is not.

One can go back even further. I am rather fond of a Victorian lady – she would have used the term – named Isabella Bird.

Bird was born in Boroughbridge in 1831 and grew up in Tattenhall, Cheshire. As her father Edward was a Church of England priest, the family moved several times across Britain as he received different parish postings, most notably in 1848 when he was replaced as vicar of St. Thomas’ when his parishioners objected to the style of his ministry.

Bird was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel. In 1854, Bird’s father gave her £100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland, but time spent in Britain always seemed to make her ill and following her mother’s death in 1868 she embarked on a series of excursions to avoid settling permanently with her sister Henrietta (Henny) on the Isle of Mull. Bird could not endure her sister’s domestic lifestyle, preferring instead to support further travels through writing. Many of her works are compiled from letters she wrote home to her sister in Scotland.

Travels

Bird finally left Britain in 1872, going first to Australia, which she disliked, and then to Hawaii (known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands), her love for which prompted her second book (published three years later). While there she climbed Mauna Loa and visited Queen Emma.

There was a copy of an 1877 Leisure Hour in our house when I was a child which contained a serialised version of her Australia Felix – but unfortunately this is long gone. I do have a cheap reprint, however, of her The Golden Chersonese (1883) and even if she finds a Chinese dragon dance may be “devil worship” she can also be very observant. She writes well. Read an extract on Singapore.

…Here is none of the indolence and apathy which one associates with Oriental life, and which I have seen in Polynesia. These yellow, brown, tawny, swarthy, olive-tinted men are all intent on gain; busy, industrious, frugal, striving, and, no matter what their creed is, all paying homage to Daikoku. In spite of the activity, rapidity, and earnestness, the movements of all but the Chinese are graceful, gliding, stealthy, the swarthy faces have no expression that I can read, and the dark, liquid eyes are no more intelligible to me than the eyes of oxen. It is the "Asian mystery" all over.

It is only the European part of Singapore which is dull and sleepy looking. No life and movement congregate round the shops. The merchants, hidden away behind jalousies in their offices, or dashing down the streets in covered buggies, make but a poor show. Their houses are mostly pale, roomy, detached bungalows, almost altogether hidden by the bountiful vegetation of the climate. In these their wives, growing paler every week, lead half-expiring lives, kept alive by the efforts of ubiquitous "punkah-wallahs;" writing for the mail, the one active occupation. At a given hour they emerge, and drive in given directions, specially round the esplanade, where for two hours at a time a double row of handsome and showy equipages moves continuously in opposite directions. The number of carriages and the style of dress of their occupants are surprising, and yet people say that large fortunes are not made now-a-days in Singapore! Besides the daily drive, the ladies, the officers, and any men who may be described as of "no occupation," divert themselves with kettle-drums, dances, lawn tennis, and various other devices for killing time, and this with the mercury at 80 degrees! Just now the Maharajah of Johore, sovereign of a small state on the nearest part of the mainland, a man much petted and decorated by the British Government for unswerving fidelity to British interests, has a house here, and his receptions and dinner parties vary the monotonous round of gayeties.

The native streets monopolize the picturesqueness of Singapore with their bizarre crowds, but more interesting still are the bazaars or continuous rows of open shops which create for themselves a perpetual twilight by hanging tatties or other screens outside the sidewalks, forming long shady alleys, in which crowds of buyers and sellers chaffer over their goods, the Chinese shopkeepers asking a little more than they mean to take, and the Klings always asking double. The bustle and noise of this quarter are considerable, and the vociferation mingles with the ringing of bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms–an intensely heathenish sound. And heathenish this great city is. Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples, and Mohammedan mosques almost jostle each other, and the indescribable clamor of the temples and the din of the joss-houses are faintly pierced by the shrill cry from the minarets calling the faithful to prayer, and proclaiming the divine unity and the mission of Mahomet in one breath.

How I wish I could convey an idea, however faint, of this huge, mingled, colored, busy, Oriental population; of the old Kling and Chinese bazaars; of the itinerant sellers of seaweed jelly, water, vegetables, soup, fruit, and cooked fish, whose unintelligible street cries are heard above the din of the crowds of coolies, boatmen, and gharriemen waiting for hire; of the far-stretching suburbs of Malay and Chinese cottages; of the sheet of water, by no means clean, round which hundreds of Bengalis are to be seen at all hours of daylight unmercifully beating on great stones the delicate laces, gauzy silks, and elaborate flouncings of the European ladies; of the ceaseless rush and hum of industry, and of the resistless, overpowering, astonishing Chinese element, which is gradually turning Singapore into a Chinese city! I must conclude abruptly, or lose the mail.

Given her always uncertain health she was one very feisty woman, and it is good we have her work. But we also see time and again that the past is indeed another country. We enter it at a certain peril. We can’t possibly say “heathenish” today in quite the same assured way, can we?

Last night courtesy of Surry Hills Library I was transported back to my earliest years through a double bill DVD of I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and Since You Went Away (1944). The second is the better movie, but both have fine performances and some lovely black-and-white visuals. The music on the remastered sound-tracks is also really good. Both movies offer much to think about in terms of the world-views they partake in, not all of them worse than our own, I should add. For their time both movies are in some respects rather enlightened. I enjoyed them, but was reminded of my own age and that, again, the past is another country.

I have added relevant video to the side-bar VodPod.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2009 in Asian, best viewing 2009, book reviews, film and dvd, History, Jim Belshaw, memory, movies, Postcolonial, racism, reading