‘Noah’: Adequate images and cliché

Werner Herzog’s maxim — that “we lack adequate images, our civilisation doesn’t have adequate images, and I think a civilisation is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language or adequate images” — has been quoted and espoused so many times, at least in the online company I keep, that it has almost passed into cliché.

But, as Ed always likes to say, clichés become clichés because they’re true — or at least, their initial effectiveness (and often timelessness) leads to their reptition. Somewhat ironically, Herzog’s ‘adequate images’ line is about avoiding the repetitive nature of talk shows and television commercials and expressing ourselves through new visual language. And from the hip-hop montages of Requiem for a Dream to Natalie Portman’s ballerina resting in the spotlight at the start of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s ‘adequate images’ are the equal of any current director.

black swan

In Noah, Aronofsky offers more of the same, but he has a lot more money to throw at the screen (about $150m, apparently). From an unpromisingly derivative opening, Noah blossoms into a parade of breathtaking imagery, often on an epic scale. Here are some of the images I remember most clearly:

  • a bare foot tainted by the bloody earth
  • an underwater landscape slowly revealed to be comprised of dead humans and beasts
  • Russell Crowe’s face conveying gravity rather than ridiculousness, for a change
  • the Earth covered in typhoons
  • rock-and-mud behemoths, connected by chains, rising to protect the Ark
  • a divine rainbow

Noah movie

All that is well and good but if you don’t care, it doesn’t stick. The trailer for the new Godzilla played beforehand, and while it looked visually stunning, I’ll be curious to find out whether the concepts expressed in the film draw me in. You need good ideas to give those images some meaning that lasts longer than a few seconds.

Fortunately, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel breathe life into this ultra-familiar story by a) chucking in Ray Winstone as a villain seeking his own special audience with God, and b) tying it to some fundamental human themes: our quest to find a balance between justice and mercy, our alternately symbiotic and destructive relationship with our planet, and the value we place in love. These are all ideas we’ve seen before — indeed, they are clichéd — but they were expressed earnestly and poetically enough to capture my attention and imagination.

The Bible has been the primary source of adequate images and clichéd notions in our civilisation for thousands of years. Speak of a well-known Bible story, and it conjures up cultural icons and universal themes: the Ten Commandments, Jesus on the cross, Noah and his ark. Aronofsky’s vision of Noah, filled as it is with broad artistic and emotional strokes, seems appropriate.

Read a good interview with Aronofsky at The Atlantic in The ‘Terror’ of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky Interprets the Bible

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Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at Temple Junction, where three busy thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

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This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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Hoffman’s greatness now a void

The-Master-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman

I’ve been taking Philip Seymour Hoffman’s greatness for granted for well over a decade now. Where did I first see him? Was it the devoted nurse Phil Parma in Magnolia? Maybe it was the alternately sweet and acerbic film critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Or maybe it was Brandt, smiling assistant to The Big Lebowski.

I must have seen all of these films in about 2000-2001, associating Hoffman with quality in my mind. Over the next decade or so he would show up to great effect in film after film, serving each script in his own inimitably familiar way and to the best of his ability. The towering but soft-spoken intellect of Truman Capote in Capote. The hot-tempered mattress store owner/phone sex operator of Punch-Drunk Love. The charismatic cult leader of The Master. Best of all, the theatre director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, whose art slowly consumes his entire existence.

If current reports are true, it was heroin addiction that claimed his life. Hoffman gave two reference points for addiction: Owning Mahony (gambling) and Love Liza (huffing gasoline fumes). I often think back to a scene in Owning Mahony in particular, in which Hoffman’s character impassively describes his biggest gambling thrill as 100 on a scale of 1 to 100. Hoffman, who has previously discussed his problems with drug and alcohol addiction, brought an understanding to these performances that sticks with you long after you see them.

Based on the roles I’ve mentioned so far, it’d be reasonable for someone unfamiliar with Hoffman to imagine he was a serious, dour actor. However, he was quite capable of comedy, and a sense of humour shone through in most of his work in the same way a sense of humour is a constant undercurrent when you’re with your closest friends. His capacity to believably and naturally deliver the precise emotion required of a moment, combined with his often unkempt appearance, made him more relatable to audiences than most actors.

He was even capable of elevating painfully uninspired comedy into something quite enjoyable. I’m thinking of the Ben Stiller vehicle ‘Along Came Polly’, a bog-standard rom-com in which Stiller stumbles through a blandly wacky relationship with Jennifer Aniston. Hoffman plays Stiller’s best mate Sandy Lyle and steals every scene he’s in: trash-talking during a pick-up basketball game, delivering a nonsensical presentation to Stiller’s colleagues, and sharting at a party. Doesn’t sound like much, but in each of these scenes, Hoffman offers a different emotional hook we can all recognise: brashness to mask ineptitude (basketball) and ignorance (presentation), and embarrassment severe enough to demand immediate escape. All for the sake of amusement in a weak film, with genuine laughs as a result. That can’t be easy, but he makes it look like it is.

I only saw ‘Along Came Polly’ once, and that was ten years ago. I’m amazed at how well I remember Hoffman’s scenes. That’s a testament to the quality of his acting, which was so good for so long that it seems like he was much older than 46. His death is an unaccountable loss to cinema that will be felt ever more keenly over the years.

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Things of 2013

Front Page

I’m now 29 and I have no kids. No property or other investments, either. I would like all of those things at some point in the future, but they aren’t my priority at the moment. I’m more interested in travel and pursuing new opportunities in my career. Round up a few other 29-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

Most of what follows is about me.

Music

The best twenty seconds of a song I heard this year were 3:10 to 3:30 of ‘The Red Wing’ by Fuck Buttons, from the album Slow Focus.

My music listening habits never really developed past the age of 16, when I got my first computer. I come across a new album and listen to it once or for months on repeat. Slow Focus was my favourite album of the ten or so new ones I heard this year. James Blake’s Overgrown would be next, and I also really liked Nothing Was The Same by Drake.

The steady accumulation of layers and abrasions on ‘The Red Wing’ reaches a glorious, spine-tingling apex about halfway through. My second favourite twenty seconds of a song are also from ‘The Red Wing’ as it starts to devolve from 6:10 to 6:30. The album as a whole is relentlessly dark, loud, and repetitive; it calls to mind the twisted sensations of being off your face in a dark nightclub, or the sick emotion that accompanies losing something important you can never get back. It drags me through a 45-minute catharsis. My kind of music.

Oh, the best New Zealand album I heard this year was Anniversary Day by JP Young. It would be my favourite album of the year but it came out in 2012. I recommend you go and listen to (and maybe buy) it now, especially if you have any connection to Wellington. It is a genuinely great album, poetic and easy to get along with.

Politics

In my dictionary (the excellent WordWeb), the first definition of ‘politics’ is Social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power. No wonder it fills so many pages in the newspaper and minutes on the airwaves. Not here, though.

Sport

Wellington Indoor Sports Shed 1

From in front of that massive, stunted goal in Shed 1 – about waist-high and about a third of the width of the pitch – James rolled the ball out to me. I was just on our team’s side of the halfway line, the opposition goal about fifteen metres behind me. We were ahead, but we’d just conceded a goal and needed to regain control of the run of play.

I leaned back slightly as the ball reached me and tapped it with the outside of my right foot to MHS, who was over by the left sideline. As he put his foot on the ball and drew a defender, I spun round and sauntered into space a few metres downfield. Just as I was nearing the penalty spot, with no defender near me, MHS took a couple more touches and tapped the ball past his marker, into my path. In my peripheral vision, I sensed two things: one, the opposition goalkeeper was positioned slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, back near his line; two, an opposition defender was rushing at me from my right.

As the ball ran in front of me, I controlled it with one touch from my right foot and – judging that I had less than a second in which to act before I would be tackled – snapped a left-footed shot along the ground, past the oncoming defender, and into the bottom right corner of the opposition goal.

The exact same sequence of events could have happened a hundred years ago, albeit on grass rather than turf and with a plain leather ball rather than a bright yellow plastic one. I will remember it for decades, just as I remember my chipped goal from near halfway in a second XI match at high school and a perfectly timed flick off my pads for four from the first ball I faced in house cricket. Such moments in our sporting lives are timeless.

Film

I seem to be getting more bored with the movies. I went dozens of times this year, more than I have since about 2006, and I always enjoyed myself from start to finish, whether it was any good or whether the dude behind me provided a running commentary throughout (as happened in The Hunt and at least one other film I can’t remember). But I rarely left feeling inspired to talk about what I’d just seen, or to think about it a week later. The prime example of this was Hyde Park on Hudson, a film so bland I barely remember seeing it.

Good films I saw this year included 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, Before Midnight, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, The Hunt, Like Father, Like Son, Mr. Pip, Much Ado About Nothing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Wadjda, and (if I’m allowed this one) Lawrence of Arabia in glorious 4K at The Embassy. Despite its flaws – particularly a lack of balance between its three parts – The Place Beyond The Pines has stayed with me, proving that striking a resonant tone in film is less tangible than the technical combination of good characters, dialogue, cinematography, sound, and editing. The Place Beyond The Pines only had these things in patches, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Mia Farrow | Cloud Atlas

Casting a wide shadow over all my cinematic joys this year was the disappointment that Cloud Atlas was not released in cinemas in New Zealand. The distributor must have gotten cold feet at the prospect of selling Kiwi audiences on a three-hour epic with six ongoing storylines painted in broad archetypes, which seems like a fair decision when I look at that sentence, but Cloud Atlas somehow fulfils its extraordinary ambitions and offers a new kind of multi-layered spectacle in film. I watched it at home, alone on the couch wearing headphones, oblivious to a storm raging outside. It was the best new film I saw this year, and when a stranger says they also loved it, I feel like the film is recommending that person to me.

Tech

A couple of months ago, someone did a memorably recognisable impression of me. They held a smartphone close to their face, jabbed it with their index finger, and muttered, “Just… fucking… work!”

The way I treat the technology in my life has become a good indicator of my mood. The more accepting I am of my phone becoming unresponsive or my laptop shutting down unexpectedly, the better my overall frame of mind. If I’m already frustrated, I swear and click the mouse harder and bang my foot on the floor. I apologise to my colleagues for this.

The fact that my use of electronics can be seen as a barometer of my psychological state suggests how deeply I’ve involved these objects in my daily life. When you spend more than half of your waking hours with someone, or something, some irritation is inevitable. But if I lost them, it’d be like losing one of my senses.

Yellow shoes, walking

Books

In August I went to the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, putting one foot in the world that knows her as ‘Ellie’. She complimented me on my yellow shoes, and I asked her how she was feeling. “A bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” she replied, looking around at the faces and wine glasses packed tighter than ever into Unity Books. This was a couple of months before she won the Booker.

After the launch, Nik and Ant and I discussed what a positive occasion it was. A good person being celebrated for an amazing feat of creativity. I still haven’t finished reading the bloody thing because I am so terrible at reading books, but it really is great, and I will get there.

Travel

In September I went to Brisbane, and in December I went to Nelson. First holiday was alone, second was with a companion. The weather was great for both.

Walking at Anchorage, Abel Tasman National Park

People

I think it has to be Tara, four months in, as wonderful as my colleagues, friends, and family are. She plucks snails off the footpath and places them safely in the bushes. She attempts to identify each bird she sees: “Thrush? Female blackbird?” She is comfortable speaking to strangers on the phone. She writes good emails. She gives excellent gifts. Our conversations flow easily, weaving from meaning to silly madness and back. Perhaps I am overly observant, but she means a lot to me.

Also, the Internet has a slightly diminished role in my life right now but I was lucky enough to get to meet Charles, Dan, Kathleen, Isabel, Martyn, Naomi, Neha, Reena, and Sarah this year – all people I came to know about through Twitter, and who have all been teachers in some way or another. Each year brings more new connections, and some old ones rekindled. Many bleed happily from one medium into another: Twitter, then Facebook, then a coffee shop or a pub. There will no doubt be more new people in 2014 – more good people, and more effort not to spread myself so thinly.

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Thanks for coming and looking at this. The years are all arbitrary but regardless of what has happened in 2013, I hope 2014 is all right for you.

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A new Brand of democracy, the unfocused revolution

In the last month or so, British comedian and writer Russell Brand has called for a revolution against a political establishment that, in his view, serves the wants of corporations and those who wield political power while casting aside the needs of a majority of the general public. Brand has been speaking and writing passionately and eloquently around this topic for some time, particularly in The Guardian, and he’s gained plenty of notice on social media for it, but his interview with the famously hard-hitting political journalist Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight brought him into a new realm of Facebook and Twitter shares:

If you don’t see yourself as part of the powerful establishment in Westminster-based society – and very few do – then it’s easy to climb aboard Brand’s revolutionary bandwagon. We live in a world in which legislation is passed with a purported mandate from a slim majority of the population, whether or not they all understood what they were voting for; if you are part of the 40-something percent that didn’t vote for the mob in power, your opinion is discarded. Then there are cases such as the GCSB Bill in New Zealand, which allows the government to spy on its own citizens, and which was not part of any political agenda at the 2011 election but is now law by governmental decree, whether the electorate wants it or not. A lot of the political process appears to me, looking in from the outside, to be tied up with balancing the desires of powerful lobby groups that often represent large corporations. Meantime, poor folks in UK council estates or state housing in South Auckland struggle from paycheck to paycheck without anything approaching an equal voice in the democracy.

Brand followed up his rant on Paxman with an editorial in The New Statesman titled ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’. As far as I can tell, Brand’s revolution starts in the mind but veers off disconcertingly into whatever you care to make of it:

“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”

Notice that he condones the London rioters – who destroyed hundreds of small businesses and made life hell for the people living in the streets they pillaged – on account of their spontaneity, then pleads vaguely for a lack of judgment or harm. The rest of the editorial is similarly rambling, unfocused, and inconsistent; certainly eloquent, brilliant in places, but amounting to what? Is Brand’s voice that of the disenfranchised, venting a scream of raw frustration? It can’t be: in the same piece, Brand relates a story about attending a Reclaim the Streets march while working for MTV and getting called out by someone clearly lower on the ladder of wealth and entitlement than he was. How can he speak for the disenfranchised when he is such a prominent citizen? And he is even helping?

Robert Webb, best known for his collaborations with David Mitchell on Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look and a contemporary of Brand in British comedy, responded in The New Statesman with a rebuttal to Brand’s apparent cry from the heart. Webb reminded Brand that effective democracy demands engagement, with particular condemnation of Brand’s call to abstain from voting:

“I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.”

Webb went on to strongly criticise Brand’s call for revolution, reminding him of the death and destruction wrought by revolution in the past. Indeed, for a recent example, Brand need only look back as far as those ‘spontaneous’ London riots. Webb’s practical response was to rejoin the Labour Party and helping the UK’s main opposition party fight a Conservative government he believes “scapegoats and punishes unlucky people”; to actively engage with politics in an effort to further legitimise it by adding his voice as a paid-up member; to literally buy into democracy. In response to Webb’s response, Brand invited Webb to check his privilege: “If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They’re not coming for you if you’re from Oxbridge. That’s my open letter to Robert.”

It was about this time that Russell Brand offered up, for me at least, the final straw:

Russell Brand | V for Vendetta | Protest | Smartphone

When it spills from the pages of The New Statesman and The Guardian into the town square, Brand’s revolution looks the same as every other impractical anti-establishment protest of the last few years: a V for Vendetta mask and a smartphone, both manufactured on production lines in East Asia by workers paid a pittance. Brand was presumably tweeting to his ~7.3m Twitter followers about the power and collective energy of the occasion, rather than scrolling idly through BuzzFeed listicles, but it hardly looks inspiring after all the promise of his language.

I posted the above photo on Facebook with the sarcastic and cynical caption ‘This is what revolution looks like’, which many seemed to take in earnest. It led to a debate with a friend, who wrote the following:

Brand’s response to Webb is better than Webb’s response to Brand. It’s about disillusionment with a system that repeatedly fails a group of people and repeatedly serves another, with some minor variation for those in a privileged position (such as Webb).

To which I replied:

I think Webb’s view is considerably more coherent and practical than Brand’s. The Westminster system of democracy, which seems to inevitably lead to two parties exchanging power, seems far from ideal but I can’t think of anything better; certainly not revolution, whether through violence or apathy. Brand may articulate the views of the disenfranchised eloquently and compellingly, but as this photo shows, his cries (so far at least) don’t add up to anything more than V masks and smartphones for all.

After some more back-and-forth, my friend later came back with this, with which I agree:

I think Brand’s disillusionment with the results of the current system is pretty much spot-on, but beyond that it’s hard to see what kind of system would produce better results while still being morally acceptable. It’s a dilemma. Disillusionment is easier than the search for a solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that disillusionment may well be justified. Some form of democracy obviously remains the ideal, but presumably Brand wishes rednecks didn’t vote (we’ve all been there). My dissatisfaction comes from how certain groups have power to distort the system (i.e. media influences voters, corporates have access to lobby politicians well beyond the influence of poorer people etc.), and I think it’s entirely reasonable to pursue reform in that direction. Just a thought.

For that reform to be pursued, Webb’s Labour partisanship still seems more effective and meaningful to me than Brand’s outright dismissal of the establishment. Brand’s great trick is to paint all politicians with the same grubby brush: a self-obsessed, money-hungry, cronyish lot with zero interest in the lives of those who struggle. This is true in some cases, but it is not the whole truth; many politicians enter public life with the express goal of making a positive difference and helping people to have their voices heard, and they work hard for decades to pursue those goals. And just so you know, I went to an expensive private school as well. Does this mean that like Paxman and Webb before me, Brand can cast my opinion aside in a single line?

Genuine democratic change, which remains the best option available to us, demands an electorate that is well-read and politically engaged enough to understand what is wrong, vigilant enough to call out those who do wrong, and optimistic enough to see a future that is more right. Then you have to keep reading, and stay politically engaged, and stay vigilant, and stay optimistic – in as much of your life as possible and for as long as possible – to promote what you consider a better society.

You also have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that not everyone will agree with you. Here’s what another friend said in the same Facebook thread about Brand:

But he has at least started a debate. And a smartphone gives him an audience. Can’t just stand in the town square and ring a bell anymore. And you can’t send pictures via Milo tins and a piece of string. I’m sure when they develop a vegan, biodegradable, solar powered, decaf phone made under good working conditions, he’ll be into it. Or not. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about a bit of hypocrisy to get his point across.

If one thing’s for sure, we’re all hypocrites in some way or another. I’m no exception. Neither is Robert Webb, and neither is Russell Brand. And my friend is right: Brand has started a debate that has helped clarify some of my ideas about democracy, and mobilised me to engage more in effecting social and political change. I’ll just be moving in a different direction, away from the messiah.

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Filtering Brisbane

The sky seems bigger here in Brisbane. I’ve come from Wellington, where the hills surrounding each suburb have the effect of closing in your view of the space above. I can see why some people feel claustrophobic there. Brisbane, by contrast, is built on a river plain and opens out into the incomprehensible vastness of Australia beyond: that continental expanse, which serves to both magnify and diminish everything around — even the stars.

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On the Airtrain, the airport-to-city train, jetlagged and slightly strung out. All I see or hear are keywords. A few graffiti tags sneak through the filter: ‘NWO’ on a silo, ‘EAT THE RICH!!’ above a spray tan salon, the sun baking everything into the dust.

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The fellow tourist with the huge bag and the foreign accent isn’t sure whether he should get off here. After looking him up and down a couple of times, catching the confusion written all over his face, a woman in her sixties asks him where he wants to go and confirms that this is his stop. Then, after a pause: “If you’re ever unsure, never be afraid to ask.” She says it like she’s scolding him, pointing out his folly in not asking. “We love to help.”

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Public Notice, Brisbane

Public Notice, Brisbane

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I listen to Australian radio for a living, and the ‘Straya’ of my working life is spoken in clear, lightly accented English. It leans one way politically, then the other, but is unquestionably politically engaged. It veers evenly between the arts, gossip, scandal, activism, bigotry, and sexism. It’s apparent after an hour in the country that this picture is a narrow, blinkered view, not necessarily representative of Straya as a whole.

A group of four young men aged roughly 19-25 walks past me and all I can catch from their conversation is “had about four loaves of garlic bread”.

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My airbnb host is very upset that Tony Abbott is her new Prime Minister. “He’s going to fuck the Great Barrier Reef!”

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Brisbane ashtray

Brisbane ashtray

*

The State Library of Queensland is a brilliant building, superbly designed and full of treasures. Along from the Talbot Family Wall, which is covered with pictures of women (and men) from Queensland’s history, groups of teenage girls congregate in study rooms and actually appear to be studying.

Being an outsider, I wasn’t sure if I could enter this wing. Of course I could! But is it okay to take photos? Please do!

*

At a panel discussion on literary magazines, former VoiceWorks editor Tom Doig notes over the last decade an exponential increase in MFA creative writing programs around Australia and the world, in which graduates go on to teach the next batch. “It’s a literary Ponzi scheme,” he jokes, and everyone in the room laughs, including the people who are currently studying towards an MFA in creative writing.

*

I hear bells along the South Bank promenade and move to one side as another cyclist glides gently past. This city seems quite well equipped for bikes with its many cycleways and plenty of signage directing cyclists along a certain path. Later, I hear the father of a family walking in the opposite direction warn his children to be careful because “there’s idiots on bikes”.

*

Just about everyone around South Bank, particularly the beach area, is wearing bugger all on this beautifully sunny, 25-degree day. The South and East Asian men — I presume mostly Indian and Chinese — generally wear collared shirts and pressed trousers. I’m somewhere in the fashion no man’s land between the two, which is exactly where I belong.

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

*

An unfamiliar city used to feel like a small, well-lit spot surrounded by an endless dark, invisible expanse. Now I can go into a tourist information centre and ask clearly for the information I need. The darkness is now an unmapped haze to be brought into focus, and I’m growing up. Can I get an aegrotat pass on my twenties?

*

Kathleen takes me to a show where an actor playing the Queen refuses to shake my outstretched hand, having accepted all others, and later a naked crotch is thrust at me. Good times. Before the show, we eat dumplings and talk fitness, travel, and the Queensland government.

She’s sunny and friendly, and when she posts a photo of us to Facebook, a mutual friend neither of us has met comments, ‘Well done, you two!’ Nice moment. I mean to catch up with Kathleen again later in the week but for one reason or another, I don’t get round to it.

*

The IGA supermarket in Kangaroo Point is playing ‘Computer Games’ by Mi-Sex. I thought they were a New Zealand band? And now a kid’s having a tantrum in the next aisle over, and another over by the beans. There’s a correlation between ‘Computer Games’ and tantrums.

*

I’m sitting and reading in that relentless sun at Mowbray Park when a dog barrels up and licks my ear with force, then starts rooting around in my backpack. “Leave it!” cries the owner, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, the dog gambols off to the next hapless sunbather. We came here to relax, he came here for a laugh. “Leave it!” Again and again, person after person. Train your dog!

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

*

On the train to the Gold Coast, a bloke in a singlet sits down next to me with a pie and an energy drink. He scoffs the pie loudly and swigs the energy drink in gulps, and I avoid eye contact.

Later, I see several more people drinking energy drinks at Pacific Fair Shopping Mall in Broadbeach, including a woman in her 50s pushing a full-ish Kmart trolley.

New cast member on 'The GC'

New cast member on ‘The GC’

*

Peta is good company, talkative and insightful, not remotely as icy as her measured words on the page might suggest. We used to write for the same website, when I lived in India and she lived in the US, and are meeting for the first time. Our conversation focuses primarily on craziness.

At the restaurant in Broadbeach, I look over to another table and see a young Asian woman wearing a wide hat and blue shirt, talking to herself as she taps away at her phone. Peta’s phone rings and she answers it, absentmindedly holding an edamame pod in the same hand.

*

There’s a frozen yoghurt shop called YO-LO. You only live once, so why not come to the Gold Coast and eat frozen yoghurt?

*

Junk food is my life’s addiction. I used to smoke, but only for a couple of years; on the other hand, lollies, crisps, ice cream, and chocolate have been nearly impossible to resist for close to three decades now. In some ways, you never grow up.

*

Music distorts your perception. ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’ by Arcade Fire in the headphones twists Brisbane into fairytale.

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

*

The haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe in West End is spectacular. Thanks for the tip, Nik. I’m curious, though: what is this older couple next to me talking about?

She: “Nothing is boring. It’s just not.”
He: “[inaudible]“
She: “We don’t have deep conversations!”

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

*

Reena, eight months pregnant, can’t even look at TV ads for McDonald’s beef burgers. She couldn’t drink tea for most of her pregnancy, either, until her mother arrived from Maharashtra and made it the old way with lemongrass and other spices.

For me, her mother made utthappam: pancakes made from rice, white flour, and urad dal, with onions, tomatoes, and chillis mixed through. It was like being back in India, like a step back in time. I hadn’t had utthappam for years. Reena hadn’t been able to handle onions for months, having previously wolfed them down raw with her meals. In her mum’s utthappam? No problem.

*

Back at South Bank, again — God, I love it here — a teenager in a group of teenagers spies a turkey. “Oh fuck yeah!” And he’s off sprinting after the poor thing. It gets away, so he makes gobble noises himself as the group walks on down the promenade.

*

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

*

In Myer, a huge and essentially faceless department store, ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics plays over the PA. It’s September and they’ve already got most of their Christmas displays out. Some of us want to be abused.

*

“I think every boss I’ve had over here has claimed to have bikie gang connections,” says Paul. He slips into a perfect working-class Aussie accent: “’You keep that up, cunt, and I’ll get me bikie mates onto ya, come round your house and fuck you up.’” Paul’s workday Australia, of tradesmen and sleeve tattoos and the mining boom, is one I will likely never touch.

Paul is literally my oldest friend. He still seems so much wiser and more experienced in life than I am, just as he did back when we were five years old.

Paul and I

Paul and I

*

Here’s an old-school bus driver. He announces every street and points out landmarks. “There’s the ‘Gabba!” He has shoulder-length grey hair. “Nicely done, on yellow, woo-hoo! The 235 has arrived!” He wears glasses. “Good morning, young man! Good morning, young lady!” He’d be somewhere between 50 and 65 years old. “10:36, we’re a minute and a half late!” All delivered in exactly the same faux-dramatic tone, almost like a defence shield. “Thank you, have a nice day!”

At my stop, two buses arrived at the same time, and I had to signal to the rear bus — his bus — that it was the one I wanted. The driver was impressed: “You should’ve been a traffic cop!” Well fancy that! Maybe I should’ve!

“Ah, the bus is leaking.”

*

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

*

Time to leave. My airbnb host drives me to Fortitude Valley railway station and we don’t hug goodbye, though we got on reasonably well.

In the station, there are posters advertising New Zealand. Despite the facetious sentiment of ’100% Pure New Zealand’, and as enjoyable as Brisbane has been, I’m really looking forward to closing in the sky again.

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#NZFF: Bleakfest

(‘Bleakfest’ is the name of a real thing that my friends Amy and James did last year — a night of the bleakest films, screened back to back in a dingy Hataitai flat — but I’m nicking it for this section of my NZ International Film Festival, during which I felt like the Earth was a crusted, burnt-out husk.)

A Touch of Sin | First story | Western-style

I did a strange thing. Instead of just rambling my thoughts about Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin here on Jdanspsa Wyksui, I compressed them into a hopefully coherent form and submitted them to Stuff Nation, the often questionable user-generated content arm of Fairfax’s Stuff.co.nz news website. Here’s an excerpt:

In Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin – one of the more bitter and cynical films I’ve seen in a while – China’s power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, while the majority of the population is left to pick over the dust in their masters’ wake. [...] What happened to the glorious idea of China for these people? Far from being marginalised, they are in the thick of the mainstream. Their aspirations for more money, more power, and more freedom lead them to fight against the current with whatever tools they have available to them – but the flow is always stronger. 

You can read my full review here, which I end by saying that the film is worth seeing. My bitterness and cynicism straight after the screening overrode any attempt to judge the film’s quality, but the more time elapses since I saw it, the better I think it is.

On the other hand, Amat Escalante’s Heli is the absolute bleakest of the bleak, and impossible for me to recommend. Imagine a family of three generations that lives a purely functional life in a shack in Mexico, their lives as parched of emotion as the barren landscape that surrounds them. Then, imagine those lives being wrenched and battered by a mostly accidental run-in with a drug cartel. One reviewer walked out during the central sequence of chilling gang violence: “Life’s too short for that amount of bleak”.

Notes on Heli, Mexican film | Walkout

My notes for ‘Heli’

Heli is the name of the main character, a young man in his early 20s who appears to be the main breadwinner of the household. There’s also his dad, his teen sister, his wife, and his baby daughter. Before the gang comes knocking, he moves from the breakfast table > to his job at a car manufacturing plant > to the dinner table > to bed, without ever cracking a smile. After the shooting and torture, his face remains as flat and emotionless as ever; the only question is what rage he will find in himself, and at whom he will direct it.

The following things are also presented in Heli, with the same passion-free realism as everything else:

  • A teen romance
  • A gynaecological exam
  • Two dog killings
  • A boot standing on a human face
  • 2.5L Coke bottles
  • A sex scene

Heli teenage girl

I’m guessing Escalante’s point was to simply show the plain reality of gang infiltration into Mexican society, and its effects on regular lower-class families. Okay, great: I feel the hopelessness, the flatness, the limit on aspiration. And I don’t plan to see this film ever again.

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