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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Film, Theatre

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!

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Random

Van Diemen’s Land

7416_160956627370_715592370_3236517_5448290_n

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.

van-diemen-s-land-0

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Film, History

PKD Predicted…Well, Everything.

new_letters_walker-bladerunn

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Film

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Paul Krugman talks SF

hal1

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

The Hunt for Moby-Dick

41Dzd8IOV3L._SS500_

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History

Heath’s Anti-Whaling Video

Whales roaming the high seas, hunting humans.

Absolute genius.  And it was directed by our very own, the late Heath Ledger.

Apparently he was incredibly passionate about animal rights, and an advocate for Sea Shepherd, who have worked tirelessly to stop the Japanese whaling in Australia’s Antarctic waters.

All the video  needs now is for a giant white human (doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I know) to come and shear off the Captain’s leg (or flukes); for him to get a replacement peg-leg made out of human teeth; for them to spend the next few years chasing said white human around the globe; and for the whole cacophony to end in a vortex of swirling, frothy doom and a slowly wheeling albatross.

It could be called, Dick Moby, or, the Human.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Film, Politics, Random

Open_Sailing

I came across this today via Twitter (which goes to show that Twitter can be a force for good and not only in Iran).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This has to be, quite possibly, the coolest thing I have ever seen.

I want to join these people.  I want to live at sea as part of an organic, self-sufficient sea colony.

My only suggestion to improve it would be that they could tame whales and ride back and forward between the various sections of their oceanic organism, like Dune, but in the sea.  That might go against their sustainable, eco-friendly ethos, but I reckon it would be worth it.

Ahab would approve.

Check it out more fully @ Open_Sailing

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Politics, Random

Mieville in Melbourne

TheScar(1stEd)

I’m not as big on SF as I used to be.

I used to be, back when it was called science fiction, before the genre was rebranded speculative fiction.

Every now and then I like to pick up a novel and re-ignite those boyhood neural circuits that were first set on fire by Tolkien, Eddings, Feist, Brooks, then Asimov, Clarke, Gibson, Le Guin, and Dick.  The glory days pretty much ended with PKD (Phillip K Dick) because that’s when I got a bit older and turned my attentions elsewhere.

The last thing I read in SF that opened my eyes was Iain M. Banks and his sprawling space operas the best of which I thought was The Algebraist.

But there’s an even better writer I’ve recently discovered (I know, I know, I’m awfuly behind) and he happens to be making an appearance in Melbourne in the near future.

He is, of course, China Mieville, and he’s appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival to talk about his awesome, alternate realities as portrayed in The Scar and Perdido Street Station and most recently The City & the City.

Appart from being a SF novelist, China is also an out and out Marxist, having written Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. He also teaches at the London School of Economics (where he completed his Ph D) in international relations and Marxism.

If this combination of elements causes you extreme excitement (as it does for me) then check out his upcoming lecture:

5.30 Thursday 20th August @ Melbourne Uni Law School.  I’ll be there for sure.

Maybe when I get some time I’ll revisit my early SF writing too.

I once wrote a cyberpunk story about a gladiator owned by the Neo-Tokyo yakuza.  My crazy brain decided that the best twist would be if he had a bomb inside him (not one he knew about) so that the yakuza could use him as a betting pawn.

They blew him up in the middle of the biggest bout in history and made, quite literally, a killing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Writing

Other Conspiracies

20071130154150617

She might have found the Tristero anywhere…through any of a hundred lightly-concealed entranceways, a hundred alienations, if only she’d looked.

Just while I’m on this train of thought, here’s some other conspiracy theories:

  • that Alan Greenspan was planted in the Fed to destroy the world economy.
  • that 9/11 was a deliberate ploy by the Pentagon, whose rocket destroyed the Twin Towers.
  • that JFK was killed by _____ (insert your favourite dictator).
  • that the moon landing of 69 was filmed in a Hollywood studio and never happened.

The list could go forever.  Feel free to add your favourite crackpot theory.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Politics, Random

The Watchmen vs The Watchmen

Many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced youngster, I stumbled into the Rowden White @ Melb Uni and discovered a treasure chest beyond my wildest dreams.

They had a whole wall devoted to comics: all the Alan Moore’s, all the Frank Miller’s, all the Neil Gaiman’s, all the Cerebus stuff, every Neon Genesis spin-off imaginable.  For about six months I was like a kid in a candy store, gorging myself mindlessly on everything that fell to hand.

One of the best things I read during that period was The Watchmen.

It’s often said that pundits that it was the first graphic novel.  It shattered previous notions of what a comic could do and changed the way people perceived the medium.  Hence it’s position on Time magazine’s list of 100 best ‘novels’ of the 20th century in 2005.

Like a lot of people, I was keen to see what Hollywood would do with it. I secretly hoped The Watchmen film might do, for superhero films, what it had done for superhero comics.

I should have known better.

It’s not that The Watchmen is a bad a movie…compared with some of the dross that emerges from Hollywood’s gaping maw, it’s actually quite good.  But compared with the original work, it’s dismal.

The brilliant thing about The Watchmen comic was that it took the medium to its highest expression.  As with other great works in other mediums (Ulysses in novels, Waiting for Godot in theatre, Apocalypse Now in film) that meant discovering something unique and inimitable – and not just in terms of content but form.

The Watchmen
The Watchmen

I was quite bemused when I found out, not long before The Watchmen movie came out, that Alan Moore (the writer) had requested his name be removed from all associated material. Not only that, he refused to have any involvement with the movie whatsoever.

I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying.  It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination.

There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films. It may be true that the only reason the comic book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise.

When I read this I thought, “Oh what an old crank.”  But now, having seen the movie, and re-read the comic, I can see what he means.

One of many advanced techniques used in The Watchmen was contrapuntal frame-by-frame storytelling.  Moore cross-blends multiple voices and stories and gradually allows them to bleed into each other.  It’s not the sort of thing you could do in a movie unless you broke the screen into multiple sections (and even then it wouldn’t work very well).

But in The Watchmen film this William Burroughs cut-up narrative effect is entirely absent.  And there is none of the richness of symbolism that Moore drew from William Blake.

In theory, comic and film are closer than other mediums.  Both combine of text and image in order to tell a (usually) linear narrative.  Comics should therefore translate better into film than novels (too interior) or plays (too verbal).  Which is, in most cases, true.  But not for The Watchmen.

The lesson to be learnt is that narrative is not free-floating.  It exists suspended within form, or medium.  And each artistic medium does different things well.  Which is why our desire to constantly translate books and comics for film is misguided.

We should be sifting through piles of screenplays for the next true original.  And leaving masterpieces like The Watchmen and The Road to do their own thing.

The only good thing to come out of the whole escapade is the animated Tales of the Black Freighter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Film

The Road (Not) Taken

It wasn’t that long ago that I blew open the literary vault of my brain with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Not for years had I picked up a book which from the outset (“See the child.”) had me holding on to the arms of my chair for fear that my head would explode with the sheer power of the language.  It stopped me in my tracks and forced me to rethink everything I knew about ‘the novel’.  It was like a nightmare weighing on my brain, after which my mind was left spent and parched, pulverised by McCarthy’s relentless historical phantasmagoria.

I didn’t think I’d pick up another one of his books for quite some time.  I thought I’d thumbed enough violence and horror.  I thought I had him all figured out.

But recently I found myself in a bookshop holding a copy The Road and I flipped it open and started to read:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.  His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.  He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.

I devoured the next 307 pages in a sustained frenzy.  A total of three sittings.

I don’t think it is hard to see that The Road is one of the most significant novels to emerge since the turn of the millennium.  It poses some incredibly important questions, not the least of which is, what does it mean to be human in a world devoid of humanity.

I would highly recommend it to anyone concerned about the state of our world.  It gives fresh hope that there is meaning in words, power in language, and purpose in art.

4 Comments

Filed under Books

The Last Gasp?

The criminal mastermind behind A Confrontation with Falling has been busy posting on the Readings St Kilda Blog.

He’s come up with a pearler of an idea: a book of last lines.  And he’s put together some last-gasps from the best of the best, the heavyweight titans of world literature.

Definitely Ayn Rand’s closing dross is the worst I’ve ever read in all of human creation.

Atlas Shrugged: He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.

Cover Artwork to Atlas Shrugged

Cover Artwork to Atlas Shrugged

Now compare that absolute rubbish with something as profoundly Zeno-parodoxical as this mind-boggler by Dr. Seuss.

Green Eggs & Ham:I would not like them here or there./ I would not like them anywhere./ I do not like green eggs and ham./ I do not like them Sam I Am.

But where, Mr Miles, is the FINAL line?  The last word in all of literature?  The granddaddy of all last lines?  From where can we source it.

Well, you can probably all guess where my vote goes.

Moby-Dick: Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Original Cover of The Whale

Original Cover of The Whale

Here’s my throwaway idea: how abouta book that sequences the first line, middle line, and last line of all the great works of literature.

That way all those people who publish ridiculous titles like How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read could catch up.  A whole book reduced to Twitter-size!  That’s the way of the future – which reminds me, this fellow, was posting the whole of Moby-Dick, blow by blow, on Twitter.  Ah, but he stopped, what a crying shame.

11 Comments

Filed under Books

Captain Ahab Decides to Move On

An amazing about turn by Captain Ahab –

He has, according to world media sources, decided to give up the White Whale and forgive the shearing-off of his leg.

Listen to his change of heart here.

Ahab showing prominently his whalebone pegleg.

Ahab showing prominently his whalebone pegleg.

2 Comments

Filed under Books