Category Archives: Books

Two Hands?

I was intrigued by a recent article in the NY Times on the current dominance of small plays.

According to the author this is largely a result of economic factors.  Rising costs, tighter budgets, stingier punters, all have helped bring about a renaissance in two and three handers.  This ‘much lamented shrinking of the theatre’ is a phenomenon which we in Australia have long been familiar with.  Our industry has contracted even more severely – for we were never so big to begin with – to the point where Australian playwrights write small, practical plays as a matter of course.  When was the last time an Australian playwright penned an epic on the scale of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Country?  And why would they when they know it will never see the light of day.

But is economics the only thing at work here?

I don’t doubt how strongly controlling financial factors can be. But it seems something else is going on; a bigger, broader aesthetic shift taking place.  Here are a few highly praised artworks from recent times that spring to mind.  (This is an utterly unrepresentative and completely personal survey but anyway.)  In fiction, the all conquering The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  In film, last year’s game-changing Samson & Delilah by Warwick Thornton.  And in theatre, David Harrower’s Blackbird which I can’t help but feel has been the most influential play of recent years.

Despite the difference in art forms, there’s a connecting thread. It’s a sort of minimalism, a distillation of content and character, a return to what is essential about a form.  Whether it be the sparse, apocalyptic prose of McCarthy, the hunger and silence of Thornton’s Australian faces and landscapes, or the jagged, rupturing dialogue of Harrower, all three eschew complex representational affects in favour of a brutally honest aesthetic.  It’s a kind of hyper-realism; a heightened realism that paradoxically achieves its effect by a reduction of detail.  No flights of fancy, no glossy celluloid moments, no chorus lines of boa feathered girls, no multiple perspectives or cut-up narratives.  Just a plain old artistic sock to the jaw.

Blackbird

My gut instinct is that this is partly being driven not by economics but by changing audience expectations. We are such highly-trained and specialized consumers now: people are innately very canny when it comes to cinematic and theatrical technique.  From watching thousands of hours of television and film your average punter can cut through surfaces that would have bedazzled earlier generations.  In order to impress these folk you have to cut away all the blubber and give them something raw. If you listen to Warwick Thornton talk about Samson & Delilah and you get a strong sense of this.  He describes the need to peel back the layers to get at something true, something that might speak in a way that a complex psycho-drama could not, something anybody and everybody can watch – in any language – and still be moved by.

Of course (and out come my biases) this sort of thing has always been the purview of theatre. Especially so since film rose to the top of the cultural heap. Theatre, once the home of grand spectacle, has had to adapt and (returning to its roots) become small, localized and authentic.  Given that our industry has been lean from the beginning this is something that Australian theatre-makers learnt early on.  The virtues of minimalism, the necessity of invention, these are qualities that Australian theatre has always had in abundance.

But what is causing the shift in film and fiction?

Those with a historicist bent would probably pin it on the global financial crisis or something similar.  But I don’t think it can be so easily explained. I think Thornton is probably closer to the truth when he says we are actually getting smarter as cultural consumers.  Why else is every person I know currently consuming The Wire at a rate that makes a crack-cocaine addict look mild?  Why is it that movies like Inception and The Dark Knight are raking in coin when in previous eras we might have been flocking to Rambo?  Why, for example, did Baz Lurman’s Australia fail so dismally?  Was it simply a poor script?  Or was it because it had lost touch with the times?  Sure, Crocodile Dundee is still a lot of fun, but only for nostalgia value.

Perhaps this is far too optimistic (and self-congratulatory) but I’m an optimist at heart.

Let the old mantra ring out people: less is more!

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REVENGE

This amazing Moby-Dick graphic was made by Mark Weaver for the Kitsune Noir Poster Club and is available as a print on their website, which also includes wicked posters of such classics as Slaughterhouse 5, Walden and The Road.

From Hell’s heart I salute thee!

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Van Diemen’s Land

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Almost a year ago now I was in Tassie canoeing up the Gordon River.

Anybody who has spent time in that remote south-western corner of the Island will know what an incredibly remote, frigid, and hostile landscape it is.  It rains, on average, three days from five, and even in the middle of summer temperatures can suddenly plummet as the Roaring Forties come crashing in after circumnavigating half the globe.

It’s rugged, incredibly so.  And the foremost impression that I took away with me, after our 10 days of slogging it through hail, rising tides and bitter Arctic winds, was that this was a place fundamentally alien to everything which we call human.  The ancient forest – the towering myrtle, Huon pine, and sassafras – is as moved by the fate of individuals beneath its leafy crown as one might imagine Zeus to be, sitting aloft Mount Olympus, gazing with the impartiality of eternity upon the capricious struggles of Achilles, Hector, Priam and all the rest.  As things come and go, live and die, the forest barely blinks an eyelid.

Which is why, having experienced Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon firsthand, I was so keen to see Van Diemen’s Land. And, I am happy to say, I was in no way disappointed.  This is a masterful movie, and deserves to be heralded as the most important event in Australian film since probably The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith or Mad Max.

There’s a lot to celebrate: the jaw-dropping cinematography, the incredible performances by half of Melbourne’s finest actors (Redding, Stone, Wright et al), the singular focus of the story with its tight-lens approach to character and dramatic writing, the psychological richness and depth of the characters and the landscape etc etc.  It’s also an very intriguing re-telling  of what has long been a stock-in-trade story to illustrate the horrors of the Australian colonial experience: a bunch of poor, down-on-their-luck convicts escape from Sarah Island – purportedly the worst prison in the world at that time, hence the fond moniker ‘Hell’s Gates’ – thinking they can trek overland to civilisation, and end up one by one cannibalising one another until, at the last, only one remains: Alexander Pearce.  His very name is synonymous with a certain Hobbesian brand of Australian colonialism which sees the convicts as men gone wild on a bitter shore, in other words, having reverted to a state of nature.  Marcus Clarke, of course, famously based his monstrous Gabbett on Pearce.  And a great many others have found literary mileage in his story.

If you were to think of Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and blend it with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line you might get an idea of how this film looks and where it draws its intellectual strength from.  It is, for me, without doubt the film of the year.

What a marvellous piece of hungry silence.

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PKD Predicted…Well, Everything.

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Five months before he died, Philip K. Dick (PKD to obsessive fans such as I) wrote this.

The movie Blade Runner which was adapted from his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has, as we know, become a classic of modern cinema.

But PKD died a month before the movie was released and never got to see it in full.  It’s important to remember that, apart from being one of the most influential movies of all time, Blade Runner was also a huge commercial flop.  It completely bombed out in the cinemas and it was only through the gradual accumulation of cult status that the movie was saved from the dustbin of history. Which makes PKD’s prediction all the more Nostradamus-like:

The impact of Blade Runner is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people – and I believe, on Science Fiction as a field.

I have for a long time been a compulsive viewer of this movie.

Some people turn to Lord of the Rings. Some to Star Wars. Some to Harry Potter. Some depraved individuals even turn to Willow.

But I have always been a Blade Runner man (and to an equal extent, Alien) and so it was of no small importance to me when I came across PKD’s letter of October 11 1981.

I have to admit, I have read pretty much everything that PKD wrote.  And I still enjoy re-reading his short stories and novels.  Given there is less time to read than there once was, I turn to his shorts more often; somehow in their brevity they seem to contain the zaniness of his philosophy more fully.

Anyhow, I won’t rant about the glory of PKD any longer.  This short clip of a Nexus-6 replicant can do the talking.

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Leviathan

Anything with the word Leviathan in it attracts my attention.

But this, more than perhaps another re-read of Hobbes, has whet my imagination.

Steampunk goes crazy WW1 style.  I don’t care if it’s branded YA: it looks awesome. Bring it on!

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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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