Sorry about that, Buck


I read this morning of the death of Buck Henry. He was 89 and, to be honest, I had presumed he was long dead given such a long career.

As someone who watched a zillion episodes of Get Smart growing up, his name is very familiar from the credits. He and Mel Brooks were the creative force behind the show. I loved that Get Smart, and I’m still known to repeat lines from it occasionally (would you believe…?), not that anyone ever recognises the references anymore.

Buck Henry also wrote The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? which are both great movies, as well as Catch-22. I remember The Graduate as one of those movies that, when I was about the same age as Benjamin in the movie, was influential in how I looked at things. The scenario – hooking up with a sexy suburban mum – was of general interest, but counter-balancing that was a couple of scenes – one when Benjamin is in his new scuba gear at the bottom of the pool disconnected from the world, and the other the final scene in the back of the bus when it dawns on them what they’ve done – and what they’ve committed themselves to.

The Graduate is a classic, but it’s more than just a coming of age comedy. To be fair, the movie is very faithful to the book, including much of the dialogue.

What’s Up, Doc? is my very favourite comedy of all time, I reckon. I’ve watched it heaps of times and laughed like a loon every time. It’s just about the perfect screwball comedy.

He was also a good comic actor – a meek-looking, dweeby sort of character in glasses, put upon, sometimes bureaucratic, and occasionally rebelling against the stereotype.

He’s a part of my cultural development and so I remember him.

Movies & music


I watched The Joker last night. First up, very good movie. Secondly, Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the role to an unsettling degree. I can’t imagine a better – more committed – performance this year. Thirdly, brilliantly directed and made. It’s a very densely textured movie with great attention to detail. The colour palette is great. Fourthly, it may technically be another adaptation based on a comic book character, but this isn’t escapist nonsense. It’s full-on dark and twisted, which reflects contemporary issues regarding mental illness, alienation, and the fractures in society. Finally, I found this very disturbing (and tragic).

In conclusion, viewing this was an experience – but not one I want to repeat in a hurry.

Happier it is to report on the Harry Styles album, which is – and I never thought I’d say this – much better than I expected. To be fair, this is an excellent album on any measure, it’s just that never in my wildest dreams did I expect an album like this to come out of the One Direction dissolution. This is a really mature album with great licks throughout and attitude to boot. It has a retro feel to it, like music used to be, given a contemporary spin. I don’t know if there’s a dud track on it – I’ve been playing it on Spotify. The best of it is utterly infectious.

I tend to be scathing of modern music, much of which appears soulless to me. When I was growing up, a lot of us wanted to play in a rock band when we got older. The top 40 was the soundtrack of our lives, and we lived and breathed it. We’d sing it in the shower and talk about it at school and, when someone got a new LP we fancied, we’d get them to make a tape of it for us. The TV was full of music programs that would actually comment on the music of the day, rather than mindlessly playing videos of them one after another, as it is now. What I’m saying is that music was very grassroots and passionate – a lot of us were music geeks – and there were themes and issues often explored in the music of the day, unlike now.

On this occasion, I’m not complaining. I feel sorry for the kids today who don’t get to experience that sense of yearning devotion, and the journey that entails. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music because little of it has that passion that I can discern – the sense of a musical calling. A lot of the music appears written by formula, or else by a computer with the settings carefully calibrated to hit the spot.

There are exceptions. A lot of them are either old school bands who have been around forever or else have gestated in the old fashioned way – a bunch of schoolmates, or friends, passionate about music and writing it in their back rooms.

And then something like this Harry Styles album comes out and a lot of it is familiar in type, even if it has a modern veneer. There’s a vibrancy to the music lacking in most of the popular songs these days. There’s a creativity that comes from being deeply invested in the process. That takes the music in different directions sometimes and adds a depth to it. It feels human, and as if it’s been lived.

I like Harry Styles before this, if not musically. He’s got some major hype, but he seemed like a good kid, intelligent and balanced. Now I like his music too, and right now he’s the bee’s knees. Go, Harry!

Elusive magic


Reading reviews of Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, has been interesting. Many reviews have been rapturous, and others, pretty meh. I guess that’s a good summary of society today.

I watched it the other week. I enjoyed it well enough. He’s been doing it long enough that Scorsese couldn’t make a dud movie if he tried, and this was perfectly shot and crafted with the usual Scorsese efficiency. It was an easy and relatively interesting watch, but I also thought it was pretty forgettable.

A part of that is that it’s another gangster movie not unlike a half dozen movies much the same – and some of them by Scorsese. This is an old trope for him, his favourite genre at a guess, and he’s made some real crackers. In a way, this is a cracker too, but the edge is taken off that by familiarity.

One of the controversial aspects of the movie on release was the technology used to artificially make the characters younger for the early stages of the story. For example, instead of another actor standing in for the younger ‘Irishman’, it was Robert De Niro who played the character as usual, and then back in the editing suite, they took his performance and by voodoo or magic or whatever it is, made him younger – smoothed out his wrinkles maybe, darkened his hair, etc. I’m not sure it was altogether successful, though it’s a good gimmick.

I found myself being distracted by it for the first half of the movie. I wasn’t convinced the characters looked as young as they were said to be, but it was how they moved and held themselves that really sidetracked me. I’d never thought about it before, but watching the movie I realised that old people move differently to younger people. De Niro is a fair age now and no matter how good an actor he is that’s not something he could simulate.

It wasn’t just him, but as he was in just about every scene it most obvious in his performance. Older people settle into patterns of movement different from when they were young and spry. A bit more hunched maybe, more of a shuffle than a stride, even the way they hold their head. I guess that’s inevitable as aches and pains catch up with you, but it’s jarring to see it in characters supposedly much younger than that. And I guess there’s no magic for that.

Overall, a very competent movie. All of it is convincing, the actors are great, the set-pieces spot on, the mood just right. And it addresses the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, which is one of those urban mysteries. It’s just that we’ve seen these wise guys before and even if it isn’t cliché there’s little really to surprise. Entertaining, yes, memorable, not so sure.

While I’m here, I gotta say I agree 100% with Scorsese and his comments about the genre of movies epitomised by Marvel. I don’t mind them, but I don’t go out of my way to watch them. I find them a little dull and formulaic, but inoffensive. His comments, I thought were perceptive and unusually intelligent, and as I read them, I nodded my head to each point. Why he watched movies is the same reason I chose to, and his love for them comes from the same place as does for me. He’s an auteur, and his opinion shouldn’t be surprising – though, typically, they drew criticism. I’m not an auteur, but I come from that angle, which is why I write. The magic is in the journey.

The next Ned Kelly movie


Soon after it came out, I remember reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and being blown away by it. It was dark and mystical and had thematic overtones worthy of Shakespeare. It was lyrical too and gorgeous in parts when the language would gallop away in the eyes and words of one of the characters. As an Australian I was affected by this – it’s a very Australian story and, as Carey told it, something quintessential to the Australian experience way beyond the oft-told and fabled tale of a bushranger. There was something in this that was about us.

I remember getting into a discussion about the book, and the story of Ned Kelly, with some NYT readers in the book review comments. They were intrigued by the story and, carried away perhaps, I recall saying that as a settled nation, we had a short history, but this was like one of our sustaining myths. It’s a grand story too, the Jerilderie letter with its evocative language, and the boldness to seek insurrection by derailing a train and taking on the troopers. Then there’s his suit of armour, so iconic now that Nolan painted a whole series using it. Every Australian my age knows the story pretty much, but I wonder if it’s more vivid here in Victoria, where it all happened.

In the years since there’s been some revisionist accounting of what happened, pointing out that in fact, Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He was, but the story has though mythical elements that make it so much more than a simple crime story. And when Carey wrote his book, it was those elements he drew upon.

When I heard a while back that they were making a movie of the book, I was both excited and concerned. My concern was not so much that it wouldn’t live up to the book, but rather that it would be different from the book.

There was a Ned Kelly movie made earlier this century with Heath Ledger, based on the book by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine. That’s a fine book too, and it draws the story of the Kelly gang exuberantly as if they were boys to men, possessed of bountiful talent and high spirits. The language shone with life and buoyancy, and the title was well made. Yet in my memory, the movie is gloomy and dirty and muddy and filled with a sense of doom – as if the story was adopted, but none of the sense around it. I won’t watch it again.

This morning I read a preview of the new movie, and it sounds boldly made and cleverly put together, and by a director who seems to have understood the essence of the tale. I haven’t seen it, but I read that Peter Carey liked it and that’s a great vote of approval. I can’t wait to see it because I know it will make me think.

The end is nigh


I started watching Years and Years during the weekend and boy, did it strike a chord. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s an English program that looks at a family group based in Manchester. It starts off in present-day and then tracks the family for the next 15 years (our future) as the world and society deal with a series of challenges – political, economic and social.  It’s pretty full-on, but what surprised me most is how much it aligned with my vision of our dystopian future.

I don’t know why, but I imagined that I was a bit of a pessimistic outlier. I’ve never really been a pessimist, but the last few years have hit me hard. It’s only a couple of weeks ago I realised how alienated I had become from the world I live in. Most of what passes for discourse these days is superficial and antagonistic, and there’s fuck all intellectual enquiry. I have serious fears about our climate future, and in the back of my mind figure we’ve just about run our race. Politically we’re up shit creek, and that’s most of the world. Authentic leadership is a lost art, and in its stead, we have a variety of shonky and inept characters whose prime motivation is self-interest.

I used to think that would change, but I reckon the only thing now that’ll upset this wretched status quo is a catastrophe, and I’m not sure I want to wish for that. Politicians govern for the here and now. t’s all about political advantage and while there’ve always been shysters like that, there were fewer of them before and you could rely on them getting the arse at the ballot box. My idealistic soul held true to that right up to the federal election in May, then choked on the reality. The shysters were re-elected, and it killed a part of me. What chance do we have when we don’t boot out the charlatans when we have the chance? After that, we deserve what we get.

I still wonder how many are as bitter as me, but it was a surprise to find how many others are disillusioned and lost in these awful times. That’s the thing about being disaffected and alienated – you feel on your own and as if no-one else could feel what you do. It’s comforting that others might, but so depressing also.

I haven’t watched the full series yet, but what I’ve seen marries up very realistically to what I see of the world. The most out-there premise is a Trump re-election, but who’s going to bet against that after last time? It’s like a play where the characters take the stage and extend their performance from what we know to what becomes realistic conjecture. We know that Trump is a nutter and that Putin a machiavellian schemer – let them play out in the years ahead, what happens then? China is in there, and the contentious South Sea islands, as well as refugees and racism and labyrinthine social channels and fluid identity and language. And the continued rise of authoritarianism, let’s not forget that.

I was surprised that Brexit seemed played down – presumably, it happens, and I expect it will be worse for England than this portrays. The biggest surprise – in what I’ve seen so far – is that climate change is only a peripheral player. There’s reference to tsunamis being a modern invention, but beyond that, not a lot. Perhaps that’s in episodes to come. It’s all quite depressing.

I wonder if climate change was played down because this is an English program? If it was Australian then I ,think climate change would be front and centre, because as a nation it’ll likely hit us harder than most parts of the world.

There are few Australians walking down the street these days that don’t believe in the reality of climate change and global warming (those who don’t are at home with their heads in the sad, or in parliament). I’m always shocked when I come across a doubter. Forget the science, I’ve experienced the difference. Most of us have. It’s both warmer and more volatile these days, and the scale more tumultuous. Extreme weather events are no longer unprecedented.

It’s November and the, first bushfires started weeks ago, and more massive fires on Friday. The scale and ferocity of these are unlike we had before, and summer hasn’t even started yet. Prolonged droughts have contributed to this, and the damage compounded by governments who refuse to believe in climate change, and so don’t prepare for it (and defund those who might fight it).

Hundreds of homes have been lost, people have died. The images are apocalyptic. But this is the world now. Even if we do something now it’s not going to get better for years, and will get worse first. But then we’re not doing anything really and this is the best of it. I hate to say that’s my attitude, but it is. I’m like the people who wrote Years and Years. I’ve lost faith in our leaders and any real intent to make a difference. It would be nice to think this was a dystopian warning shot: watch out, this’ll happen unless you do something! Unfortunately, I’m now of the belief that when finally something might be done it’ll be too late to make a difference.

I believe I was born at a good time, and those after me less fortunate. I had the best of childhood, I think, and grew up to straddle generations. I had carefree years and was full of belief in myself and the world. I’ve lived to see the decline of all things that make for a healthy civilisation. I’ve lived a good life and there are years of good living ahead, but in the shadow of looming catastrophe – that’s not something I’ve ever felt till now. I will go and, unless there’s a miraculous intervention, it will get worse for those who stay. They’ll never know the life I had, or those before me. And then? Personally, I think there’ll be a breach. Something will break and much will be lost. What comes out of that is anyone’s guess.

Maybe, sooner than you think, I’ll be one of those characters waving a placard prclaiming the end is nigh. Maybe this time it’ll be real.

Romance and tragedy


When I was a kid, one of my favourite movies was Dr Zhivago. In retrospect, it seems a strange choice for a kid when more often boys that age go for action movies. It’s a sweeping, historical romance, gorgeous to look at and lusciously framed. It also deals with an epoch-making era – the Russian revolution – that is confronting and brutal.

It appealed to me for different reasons, I think. The leading characters, and the actors playing them, were very alluring. Both Zhivago and Lara are great characters, but the actors playing them, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, had their own charisma. Sharif was on a golden run. Before this he had appeared in another David Lean classic, Lawrence of Arabia. He had a beautiful, sensitive face, with the deep brown and expressive eyes of a devoted pet. And around this time I was in love with Julie Christie. I can’t hear the phrase ‘cornflower blue’ without thinking of her eyes.

It’s hard to get into a movie if you don’t get the characters, and that’s particularly true when you’re an impressionable kid. You want to like and identify with the protagonists, even if only at an aspirational level. Lara was someone I could love, and Zhivago was a man worthy of her.

I studied the Russian Revolution at school in year 11. Mr Wolfers was my teacher. I don’t know if I’d watched the movie by the time I went to history class, but I remember being fascinated by the story of the Russian revolution. It was a tale full of drama and vivid characters, it had intrigue worthy of a spy movie and brutality enough to impress a kid learning about the world. It was a tragedy in many ways, combined with realpolitik, and against a backdrop of the First World War.

I was a smart kid, though it didn’t always show. I wouldn’t only accept what I was being told. I’d think about it and wonder – I had a colourful imagination as well as a sensitive nature. One day I had to write an essay about the causes of the Russian Revolution. There were many, and it’s a story rich in incident and drama, but I sheeted home the blame to the Tsar. It’s hard to dispute, but it wasn’t the simplistic answer my teacher was looking for. Without the missteps and misjudgements and general stupidity of the Tsar, the monarchy would have survived a while longer, if not forever. But then without the war, he would have survived too, even with scandals such as Rasputin. But not forever I think, for the times were changing and the seeds of discord had been sown and nurtured by an oblivious regime. Even so, had the Kerensky government been better founded it might never have turned out as it did, and the world today a far different place…

It’s a fascinating era of conjecture and what-ifs without clear precedence. My answer, in the end, said much about me – I disapproved of the Tsar, not just because of his ineptitude and ignorance (he wasn’t an evil person, just very stupid), but because of the system. I doubt I would ever have been a Bolshevik, but having studied the period, I couldn’t abide by a society so lacking fundamental democracy.

The Tsar was near to God, but at the other extreme were the serfs, ‘souls’ effectively owned in a patriarchal society that even when benevolent was fundamentally wrong. Ultimately the lives of the ordinary people were disposable and irrelevant and had been for generations.  Needless and foolish massacres had fomented resentment for decades, and the waste of life in the war against Germany was the culmination of bitter experience. I was 16 when I wrote that essay, and a good part of my outlook was forming.

Dr Zhivago was a thrilling explication of those times. You could watch it as an adventure. As a kid that was probably the temptation, but I saw more than that. It was a terrible adventure. Human life became cheap, and the structures that held society together were destroyed. It was a nihilistic, anarchic period of history in which human individuality was subsumed in the gears of history. This I learnt watching this: that individuality was a precious thing. This is a romantic movie in many ways, but it’s also the tale of human tragedy.

I watched the movie again on the weekend. It’d probably been twenty years since I watched it last. I was curious to see if I would respond in the same way. So often, these days, I find myself disappointed in revisiting old books or movies and discovering that whatever had made them special to me once was no longer special. The difference is me. I’ve moved on. Whether that’s for the better or not, I don’t know, but I feel the loss. Thankfully I found Dr Zhivago just as enjoyable as ever.

What I remembered watching this was what a great film-maker David Lean was. It’s so clean to look at that you could imagine it happening just like that. The vividness of his storytelling reminds you that’s more than just entertainment – this is how things were. If these characters are fictional, then it’s also true that the events depicted were true to type, and characters like these lived and died and were swept under the wheels of time. As an adult, certainly, it hits you. It draws you in, and you find yourself thankful that you didn’t have to live through such a time.

I remember in my early twenties I read the book by Boris Pasternak. It’s an excellent book. I would read the book and relate it back to the movie, which was quite faithful to it. In particular, the young man I was, I was drawn to the relative tranquillity of Yuryatin, where for a while Zhivago the poet lived in a kind of idyll separate from the conflict consuming Russia. It’s beautiful writing. As a young man, maybe half a dozen years after leaving Mr Wolfers class, and full of hope and ideas I was drawn to the poetry of it myself. Amid despair here was the sensitive life lived with hope. Simple, good things, and hope. That’s all you needed in a pristine world. You could believe in that as a romantic, as someone bent on pure ideals. It was but an interlude, though, and the brute world has the last say. There is no pristine world.

Romance and tragedy in a nutshell. That’s this story.

Recency


I was over the Cheeses for dinner last night. Afterwards, we had a bottle of wine and settled down to watch a movie. The movie happened to be the recently released film about Laurel and Hardy (Stan and Oliver), plucked from a selection of movies to watch.

It was a pretty good movie, and affecting in ways, but the fascinating thing was that Cheeseboy, around my age but who grew up on the other side of the world from me, had basically the same memory of Laurel and Hardy as I did.

When I was a kid there’d often be old movies played in school holidays featuring comic performers of yesteryear. That’s how I discovered the Marx Brothers. I remember watching at least one W.C. Fields movie, there were Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges (I loved them), and Laurel and Hardy.

In the years since I don’t think I’ve seen anything of them except the odd Marx Brothers movie. They were of a time for me and when I was a kid, of a recency – say between 25-50 years prior – that they still had a general connection to the era I was growing up in, though times were very different.

Cheeseboy had a similar experience in Holland, it seems, though he never encountered the Three Stooges. Laurel and Hardy were his favourites back then, big in the Netherlands, it seems. He explained one of their famous scenes to us, the scene where they haul a piano up a long stairway before letting it slip and crash down at the foot of the stairs. I remember those sort of scenes myself. It was all slapstick and visual gags, facial expressions and body acting.

It seems to me that sort of humour has gone out of fashion. You don’t see much slapstick anymore. For us, watching as adults, there was a sense of childish glee and nostalgia as we watched. It’s innocent humour, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen so much now, because fewer people grow into the world innocent these days (though there’s no exemption for stupidity). As adults, it was refreshing.

Watching with us was Cheeseboy Jr. He hadn’t heard of Laurel and Hardy, and I wonder what he made of it, though he watched to the end. He probably we was a bit silly as we hooted occasionally, and told our stories. Unfortunately, this generation doesn’t have that experience, though maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a Laurel and Hardy of the Z generation I don’t know about.

I sometimes wonder about the historical perspective the generations grow up with. I don’t mean the big stuff like the wars and shit like that, I mean the cultural stuff. I’m willing to accept that when I grew up, I may have been more alert and conscious of things that came before. I was curious and asked questions and read books. I’m Gen X, but I reckon my close cultural knowledge extended back probably to around the depression era – roughly speaking, to the beginnings of the talkies and the jazz age.

I knew a lot – still do – remember watching movies with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, the early Carey Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire (there were a lot of his movies being played back then), even Errol Flynn. I knew a lot of the music because mum was a music lover and a singer as well, and would go about the house singing old standards. My grandparents had grown up in that era, and though I don’t remember ever discussing it with them, I’m sure I must have absorbed some by osmosis.

By contrast, I recall a conversation I had about ten years ago with a very cool hipsterish dude at a party. He was about twenty years younger than me and was big into music. He raved about it as if it was his sole purpose. We talked a while about recent bands when for some reason, probably connected to what we were talking about, I made a reference to the Spencer Davis Group. They weren’t a huge band, but they were notable in the sixties scene, particularly in Britain, and spawned some significant careers out of it. They had some great tunes, a strong, funky groove and I think that’s probably what I was alluding to, comparing a band of the day back in time to the SDG.

The guy gaped at me. He’d never heard of the Spencer Davis Group. I was amazed. How could you be a serious music lover if you didn’t know the roots of it? Upon discussion, I found he had only a sketchy knowledge of the Beatles. Once more, I was astounded. I looked at him as if he was from outer space. He was an affable character smiling at me with curiosity, and so I showed him a clip on my phone of the Spencer Davis Group, Gimme Some Lovin’, or I’m a Man most likely, though maybe Keep on Running – great songs. He was blown away. “How’d I not know this stuff?” he exclaimed. I wondered the same.

I like to think in the years since he’s filled those gaps in his musical education, but the point is, recency means that our sphere of knowledge only goes so far back, and seems to be shrinking. What’s a reasonable period of time to have knowledge of before your birthdate? It was about 35 years for me (and, even so, decently sketchy understanding going back even further). Is it less now? It feels sometimes as if we are becoming goldfish in a fishbowl.