True to the times

It’s 2019, winter here in Melbourne and there’s three of us setting out on Friday night to watch a movie set in LA in 1969.

In Melbourne we collect for a drink first at a Highett bar. It’s dark and cold and the road outside is wet with rain. The bar is filling. The bartender shrugs when asked if he expects a big night, the rain, he murmurs – and if not, the cold. It’s not yet 7pm yet though and the place is half full. At our table we consider getting a bar snack before figuring there’s not time for it. We scoff a pale ale each, then head off to the cinema.

At Southland we circle the car park, one level at a time, before finding a spot somewhere completely different. We’ve pre-booked the tickets and stroll right in. There’s a big crowd. There’s been a lot of hype about the movie – Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – and good reviews, and it’s just the second night of release. JV pfaffs around a few minutes trying to buy something out of the vending machine with his credit card, before we head into the movie. We’re sitting second row from the front.

The movie takes us to a very different world, vividly drawn. The colours pop, the sounds – old radio ads and TV programs – have a ring of surreal authenticity, and the landscapes, familiar from other programs, seem more real. They’re my initial impressions, and held throughout the movie. I’m drawn into this world, a sense of nostalgia even though I never experienced this – I know it however, because it is a variation of what I do know. The world I know now, the world I live in with my mates, has evolved from this, and the antecedents are familiar.

For me, especially, there is something joyful in this. I am curious by nature. Give me a time machine and I’d zip backwards and forwards in time, checking out great moments and events, but yes, sometimes just to walk the streets and live the life as it was then. And this world presented to me, so vivid I could feel it, captures that sense of time, and more particularly, a moment in time.

We come to these things generally with an intellectual overlay, aware that what we see is a representation, and that these times have passed. We know what comes after, all the years of moments since diminishing the weight of what we see. It turns out well, or badly, but ultimately what was so real then is forgotten in the years after, and then we walk out of the cinema. And because of all that it’s rare as we watch that we live in that moment being represented.

It’s a very Tarantino gift that suspends that sense of dispassionate distance. He takes you back, standing on a street corner watching it all unfold. It did me, at least. He’s such an aficionado of pop culture that making a movie fifty years after the event feels more real than a movie made at the time. And that’s because he has an eye for the things we take for granted at the time, but resonate in the years after. In a way it’s more true because what he captures is the essence that – too busy living – we fail to understand in real time.

So that’s the first thing I want to say about this movie, how real it felt. Then there’s the rest of it, the story, the characters, the narrative arc. Both my friends thought the movie too long. I didn’t. Cheeseboy thought the first half was too slow, that there was too much character development and scene setting. I understand that, but I enjoyed that generally, though there was always a sense of drawn out anticipation knowing what was to come.

I thought both de Caprio and Pitt were fantastic. They were great characters. I think Margot Robbie is a star too, and she was luminous on screen in the role of Sharon Tate. She really liked her. And there was a grit to the story that gave it a human scale. Then there’s the Manson family, and they’re creepy.

All of it culminates in the ending you think you know, but then it dawns on you what the title means. This is the Hollywood ending, and though it’s characteristically violent, it’s hilarious. All three of us, and much of the cinema, were hooting with laughter. It’s wonderfully over the top, very Tarantino again. He’s got genius in him.

And that was the film.

I look forward to watching it a second time. I think I really enjoyed it, and might even enjoy it more with the anticipation defused. I’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what it promises to be. And really, I’d have loved to have been there, to breathe in some of the air, and even some of the characters – especially Pitt’s stuntman, a very cool dude.

We walked out. Sun washed California became a Melbourne night, dark and cold. We were hungry, but the restaurants in the mall were closed. We drove a bit before finally stopping at a kebab van in Moorabbin where, after 11, we sat at a plastic outdoor table on a freezing night, a few drops of rain falling, and munched on our kebabs in relative silence. Cars topped and parked up on the pavement and people got out and at the window of the van ordered their midnight snack, while a tinny radio playing crap pop blasted out the soundtrack.

In a way this is a scene very true of our time, Melbourne in winter, late Friday after a night out.


Through the eyes of others

So, I was pondering the sense of futility that seems everpresent these days. What is the value of what I do? What is the point of this existence? But then, on Thursday night, we had a work function after work when we went to the same bar I went to a few weeks ago with JV. Drinks were laid on, and tapas and the atmosphere was convivial. I had 3-4 drinks and spoke to different people, but more most of the evening was in conversation with my new manager.

I’ve mentioned before what a lovely bloke he is. He’s a cracker. He’s a couple of years short of 60, originally a Malaysian Chinese who’s been living here for about thirty years, and about a foot shorter than me. We’ve always got on quite well, but now our relationship has changed. I find him a straightforward and decent person to work with. Judging by our conversation on Thursday he’s quietly fascinated by me, and quite chuffed to have me on board.

When he interviewed me first, he hadn’t seen my CV, but obviously, he’s caught up with it since. He began to ask me about aspects of it, commenting on what interesting experience I’d had, and how strange it was that I had experienced both senior positions, and junior – I’d confessed to him how I’d started out there working on the phones.

It was not the time or place to give him the full story, so I skimmed over it, but it was enough to intrigue him more. As an individual, I’m very different from him. He’s always been the modest, hard-working family man, whereas he sees me as quite the adventurer – and approves of it. At the same time, he’s obviously excited to have me join the team. He realises that for the price of a middle-ranking role he’s got an experienced, and competent senior candidate. I’ve opened his eyes to possibilities, and suddenly he sees opportunities ahead.

It was almost endearing to see how enthusiastic he had become. He was like a kid believing in Santa Claus again. He’s encouraged me to do my thing from the word go, and the results are fascinating to him – almost as if he’s been made to think another way, and it’s revitalised him. To be blunt, I think he sees me as a bit of a meal ticket, though not nearly mercenary as that. He’s happy to ride in my wake and, as I’m always am when given my head, I’m happy to forge ahead. It so happens, as he is very conscious off, that with the senior Digital Manager leaving things are in flux, and the chance to stake out new territory is there.

I went home that night on the train reflecting on that. It was flattering to be seen in such a light. I knew I was capable of what he hoped from me, but it seemed particularly ironic considering what I had felt just the night before. I struggle to find meaning for myself, but here I am with my manager finding meaning in me.

Then yesterday. When I interviewed for the role I ultimately had to knock back, there was a woman involved. I hardly knew her then, but am now working close to her, though we work in different areas. She’s a lovely lady, kind, and obviously very smart, and takes every opportunity to be friendly to me. Yesterday we happened to be in the kitchen together at the same time. I don’t know how it started – perhaps she asked me how the job was going. Anyway, she said she thought it was a really good fit for me and that I’d be good at it – she’s like that. But then she said, “you’ve got a very interesting CV”. She said it positively. I was surprised and murmured something about having sought variety. “Variety is good,” she said.

So, in the space of 24 hours, I’ve had two different people basically validate my professional self, and express even how interesting that self is. It made me think about what I want. Did I want for me what my manager hopes what I can enable? The answer always is yes – I always want more, because more is interesting, and because it is better than less, and because what I never want is the dull, old status quo. But do I really want those roles? My ego does maybe, and probably my bank manager. I don’t need it, though.

What I want, I realised, is the room to be myself. I’ve been denied that, here, and in years leading up to this, but in the years before that was the source of satisfaction. I could feel myself, could be myself, without constraint, so much so that I took it for granted. My step-sister always said she’d never met anyone as comfortable in their skin as I was – but I felt that too, without knowing it.

My life was comfortable then. I’d achieved a level that made things simpler, but while there was comfort in that, the joy of it was not in the achievement, but in the freedom to achieve. I was given space, and I took it. Maybe the secret then is the doing, not the being. And maybe, judging by what others see in me, there’s another journey in me.

I was innocent once

Most nights these days seem full of dreams or chasing down odd memories half asleep, triggered by who knows what, but leading down some strange or long forgotten byways. The night before last, I found myself down one of those rabbit holes, recalling a particular time of my life – a briefish period when I resided in Sydney when I was about 19.

I don’t know where the memories came from, or why they came at all, but there they were, fresh to me, as if I could close my eyes and see, could feel the sun on my skin – for most of these memories seem to come from under bright sunshine.

Which was the first memory? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the utterly random recollection of a friend of my uncles, Noel Gulliver his name was. In my mind, he seems a prototypical Australian, though not of the ocker variety. He was open and friendly, easy with everything he did, confident in himself. He was the type that people instinctively trust, the sort of man other men want to become mates with, and women are drawn to. He was a smart guy, had lived and worked in London (I think) at some stage, and had acquired a lovely English wife, Jane. She almost epitomised the English rose type, blonde and fair skinned and a delightful person. They had returned to Sydney to live – he was from Melbourne originally – with handsome twin boys (Tom and ?), with snowy blonde hair. It’s funny the things you remember – I’m pretty sure he worked with Schenker.

He was my uncle’s childhood friend, but after settling back in Sydney had become more friendly with my aunt (with whom I was staying). He also knew and respected my dad – my father was the type you would respect for his intelligence and more general gravitas. In fact, my father became a topic of conversation in those days, through me. I don’t recall it, but I probably still had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about him back then, and clearly, it was visible. There were barbecues and drinks and social interactions, and they were light-hearted and fun, but I can recall at least once Noel taking me aside to talk to me about my dad. I can’t remember what was said, but the gist was to let it go. He was a good man, and they were good people.

I remember other parties and the like, trailing in on the wake of my aunt, who was a social creature well-liked by many. There was one party I remember at a house in Balmain on a brilliant, blue-skied day. We’d got there on the ferry, and I remember among the exotic offerings was Chinese hundred-year-old eggs – I was at a naïve age when I thought at first that the strange-looking eggs were actually a hundred years old. There are moments of that party that are vivid to me, though they probably only amount to half a minute, when I think we were near to the last to leave, 5-6 hours later. I do recall a very slinky, sexy woman a few years older than me I had the hots for.

I remembered a night at a restaurant in Paddington, or perhaps Darlinghurst, and though I don’t recall spending new years in Sydney, think it was new year’s eve and a set menu. There was another of my aunt’s friends, Young Jack, as he was called, who I’d first met years before and become enamoured by. He was a smallish man, highly educated and very smart, but with a wicked, irreverent sense of humour – a bit bolshie. He lived in a Paddington terrace house with his wife, Doris, but spent much of his time at the local pub, The Grand National. That’s where I’d first met him back in the seventies, WSC on the TV in the corner. We became quite close until an imagined slight divided us.

There were others, of course, names and places, moments in the sun, stimulating conversations and laughter and a cosmopolitan world that was exhilarating to the curious young man I was.

I lay in bed. I tried to picture myself as I was then, tall and loose-limbed, innocent but keen. At that age, you look out upon the world and have a robust sense of self – all the things you’ll do, the adventures you’ll experience, even the women you’ll fuck – but generally, you’re incapable of seeing yourself as others do. I think now my inexperience may have been seen fondly, and if sometimes I overreached myself, it was tolerated. I don’t know if I was particularly confident – I think I wasn’t – but I was striving and curious. I had a good heart, and for all my innocence, was smart. I think I was probably viewed as a kid with promise.

Now, all these years later, and those memories and that experience compacted by many more years of experience and adventure and it’s a rich tale, but all of it contributed to a sense of loss – for these nocturnal reveries are not pleasant reflections. They go to highlight the pointlessness of much I feel now. That’s my challenge. I used to read all the existential authors, not long after the time I wrote of above. I absorbed Sartre and Camus and compared myself to the Steppenwolf, but I’ve never suffered the sense of existential futility as I do now. I struggle to understand the point of what I strive for if it is only to survive on a physical plane. I need something in myself, and my memories remind me that once I had a vivid life, and for many years, and for much of it I felt as if it was leading somewhere. But now I have arrived and found nothing, not even the old reliable sense of vivid experience.

I know this sounds bleak, but I record it because it needs to be recorded. This is the truth, now. But right at this moment, all I feel is ambivalence. I know it’s not fatal because, despite my grim words, I have hope it can change. I know, mathematically, that’s true. The question is not so much how it can change, but to what? What now will fill me, as I was filled before?

There’s a second part to this, but you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.

The tide over my head

I’ve booked myself a session on Saturday with a therapist specialising in an Asian healing method called Jung Shim. Among other things, they promise to re-energise you. That’s exactly what I need. Almost.

What I really need is a decent holiday that is restful for both body and mind. I was actually discussing it with a mate last week. I was saying I had to get away and mend myself. He recommended to me a health farm in Goa. I’m at the stage when I’m just getting by and can’t expect much more than that without making a change. Something has to happen.

Ringing the therapist was an act of near desperation. I woke up yesterday feeling pretty ordinary but went to work. I soldiered on till about 1pm, by which time I was running a fever and feeling very uncomfortable. This has become common to me. I don’t think I have a bug or anything. All the tests I’ve had recently came up negative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me except that I’m dreadfully run down. I’m full of toxins.

I reckon for the last 3-4 months I’ve averaged around 70% of my usual health. Sometimes it peaks a bit higher than that, but often it drops well below, and I’m really struggling to manage. Compounding the issue is that I’m sleeping terribly. I had a patch recently when I was sleeping very well, then suddenly it dropped away drastically. My sleep tracker tells me I was averaging in the high nineties, but the last couple of weeks that’s dropped away to as low as forty-odd, and averaging about 60. Most nights I’ll fall into a deep sleep very quickly, but after forty-odd minutes I’ll begin to rouse, and for the rest of the night I’ll sleep lightly, beset with dreams, and frequently waking.

When I got home yesterday, I went to bed to rest. Last night I turned the light off an hour earlier, and though I slept poorly again, at least I had an extra hour of it. Today I am better than yesterday.

Whether a symptom of, or cause – or both – my mental health battles contribute to the general problem. I manage, and in a work environment am still highly functional, but it’s not a lot of fun at the moment body or mind. It seems to me there are two basic states of mind I exist in, but with different aspects. I’m either in a neutral state of mind, as I am now, neither happy or unhappy, but focussed on moving ahead. Or I’m suffering from a form of sadness, which presents in two forms. Often, particularly at work, I feel as if I’m skating on thin ice and may fall through at any moment. It’s a very precarious, uncertain feeling. The other type feels much like a tide rising in me, the sadness slowly encroaching. I can feel it filling me, but I can do nothing about it and feel a sort of resigned sorrow. Soon it will fill me, and there’s nothing I want to do, or can do, really.

All of this goes together, I’m sure. I need a break, both mental and physical, but that’s not possible. Maybe November I could, but no sooner. I have to survive until then. And so as a last resort, I seek out alternative medicines hoping they can do for me what conventional medicine hasn’t.

The first time is generally the best

I had a friend over last night, and we watched the footy before switching to the rugby, had a couple of bottles of red after splitting a six-pack of porter, and ordered in a couple of pizzas. It was a very blokey night.

After he left, I wasn’t ready for bed yet so made myself comfortable on the couch and watched a movie I hadn’t seen for twenty years or so – Under Suspicion, with Liam Neeson.

I remember when I first saw the movie when it came out in the early nineties. I have an idea I saw it at the cinema but can’t remember with who, or why we chose to see this, or if we made a night of it or anything like that. The movie stuck with me, though.

It’s an atmospheric thriller set in a rainy Brighton, in England, in 1959/60. Neeson is an ex-cop with a past who now plies his trade on the shady edges as a private detective. It’s an unsavoury life, and though he’s an affable character, he’s pretty disreputable. In the course of one of his ‘matrimonial’ cases, his wife and a client – an artist – are found brutally murdered in a hotel room. From there, it’s a mystery unravelling who did what – the artist’s ex-wife, his mistress, or Aaron himself (Neeson). In the end, it’s a race against time movie.

I won’t spoil it for you, but at the time I thought it was pretty ingenious. I enjoyed it, and it stuck in my mind.

The thing is, this is one of those movies that once you know the secret of it – the big reveal – you can’t forget it. It’s all new and mysterious watching it the first time around, but once the trap has been sprung, you can’t help but watch it in a different way. You watch it a second time, and it’s curious because you’re putting the pieces together with your perspective shifted. Ah, you think, that makes sense. But after that…

So I watched it in my warm lounge room while it rained outside and it was cosy, and the movie was diverting, but all the surprise was gone from it, and so was much of the wonder. It was a fine enough way to spend ninety minutes, and the perfect movie to watch late – not too taxing – but, like so many things, very different from the first time.

Remembering Catch 22

I reckon my dad must have acquired a copy of Catch 22 back in the 1970s. I don’t know if he ever read it all, but by the time I got my hands on it the first hundred pages or so were well-thumbed. That’s as far as I got that first time around. I would have been fifteen maybe, and I remember the paperback – a red cover with gold lettering. I found it very funny, but also very dense reading, more than I could manage at that stage of my life (I read it all in later years).

I don’t know when I first saw the movie of the book, but I found it entertaining and vivid. Picturing now it’s blue skies and sea, hilarious scenes and moments, and terrific actors playing iconic roles – the ever frantic Alan Arkin as Yossarian, the underrated Bob Newhart as Major Major, John Voight as the fantastic Milo Minderbender, and so on. In memory, it’s an episodic film that had me laughing at loud at points of it. Maybe it was the age I was, but in memory, it’s an absurd comedy, and nothing more.

Absurdity is at the heart of the book. The very concept of catch 22 is an absurdity which encapsulates the absurd nature of military life and bureaucracy, if not war itself. Joseph Heller was one of those people whose perspective is both scathing and very conscious of the ludicrous. That’s his shtick, and he does it well. Though they’re different books, I associate Catch 22 a little with Slaughterhouse 5, and another author who took a unique and preposterous take on the war.

Recently Catch 22 was made into a mini-series by George Clooney, written and produced by Australians. I was slow in the uptake of it, but by the time I finished watching it last night I was quite affected.

The miniseries is a much better format for a story crammed with incident and episodic in nature. The absurdity remains, but the comedic aspect of it (in my more mature viewing, at least) toned down from the movie. The heart of the story is absurdity, but the story is really a tragedy that ends in pathos. This the miniseries effectively portrayed – the utter waste and futility, the inhumanity, and ultimate absurdity of performing ritual actions to no real effect.

The moment that Yossarian broke was the moment I felt it too. The poignancy of comforting the new recruit, his guts spilling from him, on his first, doomed mission brought home the reality that so many young, promising lives were cut short, and for what? In their wake are left devastated families, left bereft by a misfiring system. That Yossarian shed his blood-soaked clothes and wandered the camp naked thereafter seemed a perfectly natural response.

For me, this series had a cumulative effect. My response changed to it as it went on. I remembered it as an absurd comedy; by the end, I saw it as a farcical tragedy.

One nil

Like a lot of the country, I stayed up late last night to watch Australia win the first Ashes test against England. In the end, it was pretty easy.

You couldn’t have predicted this on the first day. Not long after lunch, Australia had fallen to 8-122. In the end, we made 284, thanks to the tail wagging mightily and an out of the box innings by Steve Smith. It was a handy effort considering, but come the turn of the innings we were 90 runs in deficit and lost the openers in quick time. From there on in it was all Australia.

The batters played committed aggressive cricket. Smith played another great innings for his second century of the match, Wade made another hundred, Head a fifty, and the tail went the tonk big time. Coming into the last day England needed not much under 400 to win, and a whole day to bat if they wanted to survive. In the event, they didn’t make it to tea.

It was another committed effort, this time by the Australian bowlers. Lyon got six wickets, Cummins four, but all were good. England was bereft and demoralised, all out for 143.

This was a great win, and particularly satisfying. In his first test match after the ban, Smith reminded everybody why he’s the best batsman in the world and probably one of the best ever. And in the face of a feral and hostile crowd, the Australian team became a tight and determined unit. By the end of the match, I’d suggest all the carry-on and abuse affected the English team more, while it served to steel the purpose of the Australians.

It’s particularly nice to win in these circumstances. Off to Lords now, where Australia has an excellent record, and where Starc will likely be unleashed. This is a good team.