Monthly Archives: August 2009

Lightning Fast Robotic Hand

Scared, anyone?

Resemble anything vaguely familiar from Science Fiction?

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Filed under Film, Random

And on the Same Day, This…

This just in, from today’s Australian:

FOREIGN-BORN athletes will have their Australian citizenship fast-tracked so they can represent the nation at international sporting events under proposed new laws.

It is hoped the changes will lead to more gold medals for Australia at sporting events such as the Olympics, Senator Evans said.

“These changes will create a smoother path to citizenship and enable Australia to benefit from the talents and skills they bring to our country.”

They will be making the same legislative changes for members of the Arts sector, I presume?

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Put the Creators at the Top

Wonderful to read this today over at Marcus Westbury‘s blog:

I wonder whether Australia’s European cultural history has somehow left us wanting to keep the artefacts and trappings of European culture while skipping the forces that led to it.

We should flip the traditional hierarchies over. Rather than place our culture centres at the top, it makes far more sense to think of them as at the bottom. It is time we placed far more emphasis on creation and development than reproduction, middle management and bureaucracy by thinking about those street-level tasks and challenges.

Time to recognise that culture — and, by extension, art — is not large and grand but small, dynamic, co-operative and competitive creation and to nurture it right at that point. Time to flip the system over and put the bureaucrats and administrators on the bottom and put the creators back at the top.

Amen to that, brother, and seven hail mary’s to boot.

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Up the Savage River

louis-armstrong

Up a lazy river where the robin’s song
Wakes up in the mornin’, as we roll along
Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love
Up a lazy river, how happy we will be,
Up a lazy river with me.

Savage River, the play by Steve Rodgers, ain’t got nothin’ in common with Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Lazy River.  Fair enough?

Matthew Clayfield thinks not.  His review of the Sydney season at Griffin Theatre, Mild Ride takes Familiar Path, would have you believe that it is, well, a mild ride that takes a familiar path:

Rodgers’s characters sail close to cliche: the naive teenager on the cusp of manhood, the father trying to do the right things in all the wrong ways (with the requisite inability to communicate and barely suppressed capacity for violence), the fugitive ex-stripper with a heart of gold.

I have to take issue with this.

I saw Savage River in Melbourne recently and loved it.  I found the writing elegant, intelligent, and sincere; the characters truthful (having spent time in Western Tas) and clearly sketched; the performances balanced, poignant, and rich with dark humour; the design simple, effective, and thematically complex; and the direction subtle, restrained, and finely nuanced.

But the production (and what I think of it) is besides the point; what I wish to draw attention to here is the slipshod way in which the writing has been reviewed.

Clayfield’s two major criticisms are that the writing is cliched and predictable.  What does it mean to say that a character is cliched?

A cliché (from the French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect.

To be accurate in describing a character as cliched, then, we need to be clear about a) what the character’s original meaning was, and, b) how, through overuse, that meaning has been lost.

Clayfield’s description of the characters in Savage River does not demonstrate that they are cliched, merely that they are based on generic types.  This is only halfway towards a valid criticism.  Telling us a script employs types is no different to telling us that it is written in English or that it obeys the rules of grammar.  All forms of expression are inherited, recycled and redeployed, artistic expression included.

Is Shakespeare’s crippled monster Richard III any less enjoyable because we know that he is built upon a thoroughly mined tradition of Elizabethan villains?

Ian McKellan's Richard III

Ian McKellan's Richard III

As Edgar Allan Poe was fond of saying, The truest and surest test of originality is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.

And, to my mind, Savage River achieves a great deal with what is surely a hackneyed subject: the Australian bucolic.  (Though I challenge anyone to find a subject that is not hackneyed in our media-saturated modern world).

I think, to be honest, what’s at the heart of all this (and it’s not just Clayfield, I’ve read a host of similar reviews and opinions) is our growing cultural boredom with politically motivated realism.  It’s perceived as formally uninventive, stylistically dull, tainted by didacticism, and worst of all, it’s old and so can’t possibly be fashionable.  Perhaps the argument could be summed up as follows: if you’ve read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, seen Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, waded through a few recent Aussie history books (Van Diemen’s Land, The Colony) or sat through The Man from Mukinupin, then perhaps you’re entitled to take a break from the legacy of Australian colonial guilt.

But isn’t this sort of thinking, at day’s end, fundamentally conservative?  What about the theatre-goer sitting next to you who still thinks Australian history is 99% comprised of  bushrangers, explorers and the Gold Rush?

Is it that we are embarrassed by our Australianess?  Or is simply it that having something to say is embarrassing?

For my money, Savage River was a play that dealt with complex, nagging historical issues in a subtle and compelling fashion.  Not everything on the stage has ape post-theatre German or In-ya-face British theatre to be of value, does it?  What could possibly be more valuable to us than shedding new light on the lives of ordinary Australians?  Would it be any better, for example, to program another play set in an inner-city apartment, at a dinner party, with a host of middle-to-upper class characters who talk, act and look exactly like us?

Are there any other playwrights out there – other than Steve Rodgers – who have written a monologue on the art of mutton-birding?

Too many well-deserving productions are currently being canned, in the mainstream press, because of critical whimsy.  Savage River was a wonderful piece of new Australian writing and should have been celebrated as such.

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A Happy Family Portait

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The Cove

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I meant to put this up weeks ago but I got a bit distracted.

In fact, there’s a lot of things I’ve been meaning to put up.  Oh well…

There were many things I liked about The Cove.  And there were a few things I didn’t.  But I find these days I am more interested in thinking about what worked in a show than I am dissecting its shortcomings.  Which is difficult because, to misquote Tolstoy, All happy productions are alike, each unhappy production is unhappy in its own way.

Having directed a few plays, I’ve come to appreciate the myriad pitfalls and crocodiles that can wound or slay a well-intentioned production.  These flaws are invariably the same (poverty of concept / overwrought concept; poor design /excessive design; underplayed acting / overplayed acting) which means that, when we talk about a play in this way, we are more akin to a plumber than anything else, reporting on whether the tap is running hot or cold.

The point of all this is merely to say that, for me, intention – dare I say, truth – is more compelling than flaws in the glass.

But it’s extremely hard to see how a critical language can be formed around something as slippery and hotly disputed as the truth.  Our critical concepts are, by necessity, largely negative, whereas our idea of a perfect production is sublime, that is, essentially indescribable.

I’ve been turning over this question of how to approach theatre critically.  Which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to stumble across Bob Brustein recently:

I was appalled, actually, at the fact that we would end our experience of watching a play by talking about the acting, talking about the directing, talking about the technical work, talking about the management issues, but we would never, ever, talk about the play.

Sadly this remains largely true.  Most people, I think, formulate their opinion of a play by going through a kind of production checklist: what was wrong with the [insert creative element here] of the show.  This sort of thinking is not only banal (mistaking surface for depth) but, in the wrong hands, can be dangerous.

Isn’t a play more than the sum of its parts?

As Brustein goes on to say:

And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists…were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully.  But at least to try to find out what the intention was before I rejected it.

Intention screams out of a good production.  A poor production, on the other hand, is conspicuous by virtue of its absence.  These aren’t concrete rules, an inscrutable production can be rewarding too.  But the exception proves the rule: in theatre, the intention is all.

Which brings me back to The Cove.

I love the Dog Theatre in Footscray.  It’s a hidden gem of a venue.  And it’s such a healthy change for us Inner North theatre snobs to head out West (a region of Melbourne not being synonymous with live theatre) and see such talented, dedicated people making possible a night of independent theatre.

I was really there to see To Whom it May Concern, a play about an old man, soon to die of terminal illness, who cannot decide what to do with his mentally impaired son.  Riddled with cancer, in excruciating pain, the old man wants to give himself over to the professional care of a hospital.  But he cannot leave his son; he tries, but he cannot.  It’s a portrait of a universe indifferent and entropic.  It’s probably not your average punter’s idea of a good night out.  But the writing is so good (restrained, effectual, relentless in pursuit of its characters) that a strange thing happens: in the midst of this wasteland, we find humour, growing like a weed out of the cracks in the pavement.

Only being able to utter one syllable “Da” is a huge challenge for an actor.  But Matthew Molony achieved wonders with it.  And Bruce Myles, as the father, was tender, yet brutal, careful, yet carefree, and rich with bathos.  It’s a testament to the strength of these performers that they can magic up something so simple, slender, and affecting out of ultimately such a short sequence of words.

The accompanying play Somewhere in the Middle of the Night was about an old woman with dementia, losing her grip on reality, and her courageous daughter, who takes the role of death’s handmaiden.  I enjoyed this piece – particularly Jan Friedl’s performance as the mother – but didn’t feel it was on par with its counterpart. There is fine material to be mined in the role-reversal between a parent and a child.  Unfortunately Danielle Carter kept playing the issue, rather playing away from it, which made the dialogue feel self-conscious, and the silences hollow, rather than the other way round.

Keene’s writing is obsessively concerned with our most basic existential nightmares.  His plays throw up, again and again, a world that is simultaneously callous and caring, inhumane and humane, and ask: how are we to live?  This textual intention, I believe, would have been better served had all of the pieces (perhaps not all eight, but four, five, even six) been performed together.  Through greater juxtaposition, as in a collection of short stories, these fragments might have started to body forth a darker, shadowy whole.  As it was, this possibility was only hinted at.

Oh and where was the cove by the way?

A short disclaimer.  Lok Tan & Geoff Chan – the sound designers – are close friends of mine.  They have composed for the Whale on a number of occasions (Macbeth Re-ArisenMelburnalia, and Melburnalia No. 2).

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Paul Krugman talks SF

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Autocorrecting your spreadsheet is bad enough, imagine HAL9000 in charge of autocorrecting your spreadsheet?

Paul Krugman, whose column I read at the NY Times, was recently in conversation with SF author Charlie Stross in Montreal.

It’s a unique discussion, not least because it involves a dismal scientist trying to bridge the gap with a fictional scientist.

There’s a lot of interesting questions raised, like why the rate of technological change hasn’t been able to match the predictions of SF classics like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music.

Says Krugman:

What you came out believing if you went to the New York’s World Fair in 1964 was that we were going to have this enormously enhanced mastery of the physical universe. That we were going to have undersea cities and supersonic transports everywhere.

And there hasn’t been that kind of dramatic change.

My favorite test, which shows something about me, is the kitchen.  If you walked into a kitchen from the 1950’s it would look a little pokey, but you’d know what to do. It wouldn’t be that difficult. If someone from the 1950’s walked into a kitchen from 1909 they’d be pretty unhappy – they might just be able to manage. If someone from 1909 went to one from 1859, you would actually be hopeless.

The big change was really between 1840 and the 1920’s, in terms of what the physical nature of modern life is like. There’s been nothing like that since.

And Stross on Genomics:

They have sequenced quite a few mammalian and other genomes and it’s getting cheaper all the time.

Craig Venter came up with an interesting project a couple of years ago to sequence the Pacific Ocean.  If you have a bucket of seawater, it contains probably on the order of a billion organisms most of which are viruses, probably single virus particles in that bucket from a number of species. It turns out when they did shotgun sequencing on a bucket of seawater 98% of the genes they discovered were hitherto unknown.  About 90% of those unknown genes were from viruses and we have no idea what the host organisms of them were…basically, viral soup.

There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about how the genome works. It’s not, as was widely thought in the 50’s and 60’s, a blueprint. It’s more like a very very messy snapshot of a running computer program.

I wonder if they got a few floating genes from Moby-Dick in that bucket?  That would explain why the sequencing went haywire.

And on my favourite hobbyhorse, AI, augmented intelligence, and general crackpot conspiracies:

PK: We’ve gone for augmented intelligence, not artificial intelligence.

PK: And it’s the weirdest thing – by finding the eigenvector with the largest eigenvalue you end up in effect doing a computer meld of many peoples’ intelligence without knowing it.

CS: Actually, Amazon is very big on human intelligence emulating AI.  They have a system called the Mechanical Turk where they pay people piecework to do basic tasks and farm them out using the network and if you want to throw money at a problem, you can find a hundred thousand pairs of eyes to work on it if you can divide it up suitably.

PK: Whatever the algorithm that Amazon uses to make recommendations…

CS: That scares me.

Scares me too.  If you want to read on, here’s the full transcript.

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The Hunt for Moby-Dick

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Those who partake in the fiery hunt should take note:

Philip Hoare is a formidible opponent, and when it comes to Moby-Dick, chances are he’s already been there.

Not only has Philip written a bestselling non-fiction book – an account of his obsession with whales, historical whaling and all things Herman Melville – but he has also been commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary about his monomania and the writing of his opus.

Called The Hunt for Moby-Dick, the doco follows Philip as he journeys around Nantucket, New Bedford, and other nautical dens of salty sea dogs, and even swims with a live sperm-whale off the coast of the Azores.

All I can say is, me next, me next!  I’ll catch the first flight to the  Azores!

And check out Philip yarning on in this BBC podcast.  It’s about Moby-Dick and the way in which society’s attitudes to whales have changed since the book was published in 1851.

As the old whaler says, It wasn’t so much the romance – it was the cash!

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