The tale of the times


Dark City is a movie by Alex Proyas made back in the late 1990’s. His movies since have been disappointing, but Dark City was creative and different. I watched it again on the weekend and it struck me that it has thematic similarities to a couple of other big movies made around that time – The Truman Show and The Matrix. It’s not uncommon that we get a spate of similar movies being made. Trends seem to sweep through Hollywood. This year it’s volcanoes, last year it was space travel, next year is earthquakes, and so on.

These movies are different in that the plots are dissimilar and the moods vary. What they have in common are themes of manipulation, surveillance, and questions of authentic life experience.

For those who don’t know [spoiler alert] Dark City is a noirish tale set in an eternally dark world that has an edge of the fantastic. Unbeknownst to them the citizens of this city are science experiments, surveilled and experimented upon by a strange society of beings searching for the unique elements that make up mankind. Each night the city is rearranged. Buildings pop up where the night before there was nothing; other buildings retract. The citizens themselves go to sleep through this when the strange men come out and rearrange their history and identity. The man who goes to sleep as Stan the baker wakes up as John the policeman, and as far as he’s concerned he’s always been John, and always a copper.

Naturally – for this is a movie – there’s a renegade character who wakes up to this (literally) – John Murdoch. He is mystified naturally, before investigating further and discovering the dark secret, before ultimately tearing the façade down and, in a manner of speaking, liberating the citizens to a more authentic and pleasurable existence. The sun rises, and the story ends.

Compare this to The Matrix. Neo is living his conventional life before by accident he discovers its secret and is jolted into another reality. Like John Murdoch he comes to battle the strange controlling faction who use humankind as a power source for their world. In reality each citizen exists within a pod, but to enable control they are fed a simulated reality. This becomes one of the key concepts of the franchise – the blue pill represents the dumb, but superficial contentedness of the dreamlife; but take the red pill and choose to live life authentically, warts and all. Set aside the sci-fi rendering and it’s a choice for all of us every day (and a theme of my own writing): live easy, or live true.

Then there’s The Truman Show. This is not as outlandish as others, nor does it have an overt sci fi setting. It hasn’t got a hard edge either – this is The Matrix made into It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a great film though, and has similar themes – Truman himself a kind of science experiment, and exploited and manipulated on this occasion for entertainment value. He is the unwitting object of the most popular show on TV, oblivious to how every day of his life is broadcast to millions. All the while he dreams of another life, of a woman he once had a fleeting encounter with, and of faraway Fiji, a place he yearns to visit but can never get to. Ultimately the truth dawns upon him to, and like the others he rebels against the life dictated to him.

What interests me is what the genesis for this small genre of movies might be? How is it that a clump of disparate, but similarly themed movies came to be made around the same time? What does it say about that time, or that generation? And why is it that as a theme it seems to have fallen out of favour – or has it?

These are the things that fascinate me. It’s one of the reason I love the popular arts, because they tell the tale of our times. They reflect back to us what we thought and what we are.

*Another excellent example is the clutch of conspiracy/paranoia movies that came out in the early seventies in the wake of Watergate (The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Domino Principle, Capricorn One, etc). Suddenly everything we believed was undermined and open to question. Nothing could be trusted, and movies told the tale.

Reality always wins


Okay, so I’m one episode away from finishing 13 Reasons Why. It’s been an interesting program for all the reasons I’ve said before, but I have to say these kids experienced an unusually melodramatic stage of life – a suicide, a traffic accident death, and 2 rapes, amid all the other bits and bobs is a tad over the top. And even accounting for teenage angst and confusion many of the pivotal decisions the show revolves around would be pretty unlikely in real life I reckon.

Still, it’s been pretty gripping, and you just want to get to the end to see how it unfolds. I have to say I find Clay pretty heroic. He really is a good kid, sensitive and gentle, but possessed of a fierce determination. There are times maybe he should have been more circumspect, or reflected more, or just been more patient, but what it boils down to is that he can’t let things go either.

You feel for him. If it was real you would know that this kid would be haunted his lifelong by what might have been. Revealed to him were the possibilities that he so yearned for while Hannah was yet alive, but too late now to make any difference now that she is not. Compounding that is the knowledge that things might so easily have been different, including if he had acted differently or made different choices. The consequences played out, and in hindsight it’s plain to see.

Knowing that his path towards redemption – and justice – is to do for Hannah in death what was denied to her in life. He is a kid with a mighty heart.

As I watch I find there are more and more things that part way from my experience of that age, but a lot of that is dramatic licence. My schooldays were never as dramatic as that, and certainly – to my knowledge – there were no conspiracies.

There are other moments that go straight to the heart of me though. Watching Clay connect with Hannah intimately for the first time recalled moments long buried in me. Not moments really, but a feeling. How fresh and wonderful it is to look across the room and meet the eyes of the woman you adore – and who you think may adore you also. There are entire worlds in that moment. Everything pauses. Before you myriad possible futures unfold, including the fantasy hope of living happily ever after with this woman. In that moment it is pure still, and still entirely possible. Nothing has been spoiled. It exists in and by itself. And it fills you entirely, like something wondrous that inflates in your chest. You linger knowing it, knowing the woman across the way is feeling the same. Then the world starts up again. You step forward. You take hold of destiny.

It’s not that I had forgotten that I had ever experienced such things, rather it had slipped between the cracks of my mind. I experienced it then, at school, when it is lent a naïve, innocent quality. Later I am not as innocent, but what I feel in its way remains just that. It’s natural. It springs from a part of you untainted by experience. It takes you by surprise and takes you away.

You live in a spell. Now I recall those occasions, not numerous, but occasional, when after that initial moment when I have spent hours with that person special in my heart. You gaze into their eyes. The words come easy, and with a smile. You feel so gentle, so rich with benevolence. You yearn in a way that makes you close your eyes and allow yourself to be carried away by it, as if by a dream. At the same time, you wonder at it. This is happening. I am here. She loves me. I love her. At some point, it must progress to another stage. You know that. Somewhere ahead of you is reality, a time you must part, a day that must come, a plane of existence that must be returned to. Not yet, you think, not yet, hoping all the time that you can return to this again.

That was always the problematic aspect for me. There were numerous times when that sense was recycled and reproduced for months. But other times when reality revealed the complexity of the situation I was in. More than my fair share I’ve become involved with complex women, or women in complex situations – by that, mostly, meaning with another man in the background. That’s the subject of a post I’ll probably never write. In the end, reality always wins.

For Clay, this fictional character, his reality once this show ends is to endure the knowledge of what might have been, and remembrance of those precious, innocent moments of intimacy now forever in the past – unless, of course, the writers choose a different destiny for him.

Reasons to watch this


A couple of nights back I started watching 13 Reasons Why, the TV show that everyone is talking about right now.

In brief it’s about a schoolgirl who commits suicide, but not before sending out a bunch of tapes to selected people stating the 13 reasons why she did it. What it boils down is the mistreatment and bullying of her by friends and class mates, each of whom receive a copy of the tapes for their troubles.

The narrative focuses on one boy who comes home from school to find a box waiting for him on his front door step. He’s an awkward, geeky kid, sensitive and decent, and passionate in his own small way. From the outside you’d call him a good kid – but he’s on the hitlist.

He listens to the tapes and follows the instructions left for him and becomes tormented by doubt and wonder and the harsh reality of what occurred to a girl he had a secret crush on. He rushes trying to find out more, tortured by the knowledge that somewhere on the tapes he features.

It’s well done and compelling and, as it goes on, not altogether comfortable viewing.

Watching you wonder how much is objective truth, how much is reliable – it’s all from the dead girl Hannah’s perspective, so distraught that she is about to end her life – yet there are others who claim it’s not the whole truth, or that it’s not true at all.

All the same it’s clear that some unpleasant things were done to her – she was stalked, one lowlife kid claimed falsely to have had sex to her, another – a gentler soul – upset by her lets people believe he did the same. She is accused of stealing boys away from their girls, or conspiring in something untoward. As she says the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in far off South Africa cause storms elsewhere. It’s these combination of these events that made her life unbearable.

Like most people I find stories of bullying pretty distressing. It offends some notion of justice and fair play in me, and each time I hear such a story I feel like wrapping the bullied person in my arms and telling them it’s okay, it’s not you, ignore them and you’ll grow up to be the wonderful person you’re meant to be. I feel so tender, and so helpless at the same time. More than most things some bullying is just diabolical. (Terrible for the children, but a terrible thing for the caring parent).

It’s not as simple as that though. Yes, there are clearcut cases of bullying which are deplorable. Some bullying is unwitting though I suspect, in much the same way that offense can be. I think that’s particularly true of children, capable of great cruelty, but also so caught up in their own lives and fluctuating feelings that they frequently become oblivious to the feelings of others. Adolescence, volatile hormones, doubt, wonder, mystery make for rich cocktail of feelings. From the outside what appears to be wrong is to the perpetrator simply an expression of their own complex feelings.

There are many who are bullies as children who will grow to be bullies as adults. Others, their social development not yet fully evolved, who will commit acts of bullying they’ll grow up to regret and redeem.

I’ll continue watching as I’m fascinated to learn more and understand – I fear though it’s moving into areas I’ll find very distressing. It’s a worthwhile watch though, particularly for parents. I was never bullied at school, but the opportunities for it then were much fewer than there are now. I think every parent should be aware of this and conscious of being alert for it – whether a parent of the bullied, or the bully.

Logan


I went and saw Logan last night. Much hype about the film, but it pretty well lived up to it.

I wouldn’t call this a typical marvel movie, in fact I can’t really think of it as a superhero film. What it is is a drama that happens to have mutants as its major characters. Their abilities play a large part in the story, and there is the usual lashings of violence throughout, but it serves the narrative rather than the other way around. What it is really is a road movie featuring a world weary Logan (Wolverine) who is slowly coming apart mentally as well as physically; and ailing Charles; and Laura, the runaway mutant at the centre of the story – and Logan’s daughter.

It has a depth very few movies of this type have. I’ve seen many people say this is the best superhero movie since Dark Knight, and I would agree. What they have in common is a darkness that gives them an authentic depth, with little of the showy and sensational SFX. There are fight scenes, and lots of them, but they’re brutal and real, rather than the choreographed spectacles we’re more accustomed to.

Hugh Jackman as an actor has often had that aura of near perfection. He’s a lovely bloke and looks good and everyone likes him and on screen he has some of that charisma whether playing straight roles or roles like Wolverine. Even as Wolverine he has been powerful and driven and something near invincible.

He has lost that veneer in this movie. I’ve never seen Hugh Jackman like this before, still physically impressive, but aging and vulnerable, constrained for much of the movie in a dark suit and heavily bearded, forcing himself to go on when he no longer really has the will to. He has come to the end of his tether, and if Laura had never turned up chances are he would have faded away. She does turn up though, and he is forced to action.

There’s a theme running through the movie of Shane, the great Alan Ladd movie, and the movie shadows it. Logan can’t escape his past, nor his fate. He is Wolverine, and he can’t run from it. And though he’d rather not he takes off across country, battering himself and others in the journey, dragging himself reluctantly from one confrontation to the next, and ultimately, like Shane does, he is compelled finally to do what he knows is right, to take things on one last time when it would have been easier to do nothing.

It’s a story of character and the roads we choose, willingly or not, and being true, ultimately, to the path we’ve chosen.

For me there’s no higher praise but to say it’s the sort of thing I’d have been glad to write.

Me and my producer


For about an hour on Saturday I spoke to ‘my’ producer in Europe. It was about 3.25am there and she had just come home from dinner with a bunch of French and American collaborators. She was very tired, but wanted to talk.

We talked quite a lot about the book, but also about other things. She continues to believe I’m some sort of prodigy, once more being laudatory of my mind, which she thinks is special, and adding to it now my writing ability. Though it was fulsome it felt less hyperbolic than before. She came across as a force of nature, intelligent and fierce and full of energy and ambition. She is one of these people who can’t sit still doing nothing when there is so much to be done – the perfect temperament for a movie producer I would think. Though at times it felt a tad over the top I have no doubt that she was genuine in all she said.

She told me stories in passing of some of the projects she’s working on and the famous screenwriters she has doing work for her. She told of her dealings with Hollywood and trying to get through the studio system to speak to the key people. Money talks, it seems. It was fascinating to listen to.

Of my book she said exactly the right things. It was reassuring because she said the things I wanted to hear, and because in saying them it validated her opinion in my eyes. She commented on how dark and ‘noirish’ the book is, which is just the mood I was looking to evoke. She said it was so vivid that she felt as she was reading as if she was walking the streets of Melbourne. That too I hoped to achieve – much of the mood comes from the spirit of the place, and Melbourne in winter is both stylish and atmospheric.

It’s clear she has a fascination for me also – this virtual stranger on the other side of the world who (according to her) possesses a rare insight. I’m less comfortable with this. She wants to know everything about me as if there’s a secret that explains my supposedly unique take on the world. I don’t mind people being fascinated with me, but as a general rule I like to be in control of the situation. And I prefer the fascination to be mutual. In this case it’s something I have to bear. It’s not so hard, and the pay-off potentially could be very positive – though I still can’t believe it.

In the meantime I got off the phone on Saturday feeling validated and motivated. I believed it’s a goer, one way or another, and that I have the goods – whatever they are. I went away and into my head was a screenplay idea from about 7-8 years which suddenly I wanted to work on as my next project.

How this all turns out no-one knows, but it’s a fascinating ride.

 

Unmarried at every sight


I actually had a date on Valentine’s day, though it was only a lunch date so it’s not quite the same. We caught up for coffee and a chat and it was fine though it’s not going to go anywhere. Pity really. She’s a project manager and I could certainly use some of that in my life, but I’m happy to be friends. On the way back to work I bought myself a gaytime donut from a pop-up bakery and munched on that at my desk. That was the extent of my Valentine’s day – a casual date and a gaytime.

Quite predictably I got a call that night from Donna. She gets a tad misty come Feb 14 when she has nothing romantic on – which is practically every year. On top of that we have found a mutual and unexpected fascination with this season’s Married At First Sight.

I generally deplore reality TV. That’s my official position, but it also happens to align with my interest level. I might watch for 5 minutes and then get bored watching a bunch of mediocre nonentities (and I include the alleged ‘celebrities’ in that category) wringing their hands about some fabricated trial or issue or another. Good grief – get me out of here.

There are minor exceptions to that. I’ll watch the occasional Masterchef. I’ll be curious for about 5 minutes about some of the interesting design concepts on The Block – I like architecture. That’s just about it.

But then there’s Married At First Sight. I haven’t watched any of the previous seasons, but can recall the outcry when it started. Many protested that it was cynical. Well yes, of course it is – it’s reality TV. The whole thing is cynical and voyeuristic. It seemed hardly a valid argument to me. If people wanted to put their hand up to get married sight unseen that’s their lookout. I’m not about the nanny them out of it – but nor did I expect to watch it.

Something changed this year. I think maybe I saw one of the clever ads marketing it and became intrigued. I’m not a religious watcher of it. I’ve missed episodes and I’ll switch between channels often depending on who’s on screen and how cringe worthy it is, but I keep going back to it.

In my defence what I find most interesting is the commentary from the team of psychologists analysing what’s happening on screen and giving insight into the key challenges ahead. They’re like a learned Greek chorus looking down from on high and pontificating on the drama as it unfolds. As a serial relationship duffer it’s fascinating, and Donna feels the same.

So what happens through the show is that Donna will text me when something significant happens and I’ll respond and from there the thread spins out of control. Much of it is outspoken, outraged or aghast. I’m more moderate than Donna, but she goes for the jugular.

As soon as the show finishes my phone will ring and it will be Donna and we’ll re-cap the events of the show, digressing often to relate tales from our own colourful dating files as a point of comparison or contrast. On Valentine’s day we spoke for nearly 2 hours.

It was not all about the TV show. We had the usual range of slightly off-colour discussion topics we worked through with an amused aplomb. It covered threesomes, what would it take for you to have a same sex encounter, our favourite type of porn and where it sits in the spectrum, as well notions of equality and acceptance. As two practiced singles I find that we often have a different perspective on a range of subjects than those safely tucked up in a cosy relationship. It’s a broader, more open perspective, and a lot edgier – and probably more tolerant too.

It may explain why we’re single, though it’s hard to know what came first: are we single because of this, or are we like this because we’re single.

Perhaps they’ll deal with that question in this week’s episodes of MAFS.

Saving best till last


By conventional standards new years eve was a bit of a fizzer for me. I was invited to 2 parties. One was in the ‘burbs and with no money and a car that isn’t going that wasn’t a realistic option. The other was to a party in the city, which I had resigned myself to attending without too much excitement. Then yesterday afternoon that party was mysteriously cancelled, leaving me at a loose end. I could have tagged along to another party, except I don’t tag along too well, so in the end I fired up the barbie, cooked up a hearty feast, and settled in for the night.

I can’t say I was too disappointed. I love an excuse for a good party, and enjoy socialising, it’s just that I’ve got to the stage of my life where much of NYE festivities seemed forced and formulaic. I’m happy to attend a novel or interesting event, otherwise it’s just a bit ho-hum.

I had a great night home anyway, and Rigby was glad of it.

I watched a bit of the BBL which was predictably spectacular. It’s a great product fantastically well done, even if much of it is forgettable. We saw a great test match conclusion the other day (yes, against the odds, Oz won), and in terms of substance a good test match is a full 3 course meal complete with wine. You get up from the table very well sated. Twenty20 cricket is the 2am kebab on the way home from a big night out. I love a good kebab though.

After that I settled down to watch I’d been looking forward to. Funny, I left it to the last night of 2016 to see the best movie I watched all year.

Nocturnal Animals is very intelligent and sophisticated thriller. I watched it thrilled by every aspect, and thinking this is a story I could have written. I don’t think that often, and I’m probably incapable of it anyway, but it’s the sort of story that appeals to the writer in me – it’s the sort of thing I would like to write.

So the writing is brilliant, acting great, direction just spot on, and even the music was just perfect. Tom Ford directed this. His previous movie was A Single Man, another fantastic film (and probably my favourite from that year). He has a distinct style if these movies are any guide. There’s an elegiac quality to his film-making. Different stories, but with a similar timeless feel to them.

Initially as I watched last night I was reminded of the noir-ish films from back in the fifties, but with a high gloss. As the story unfolded I thought it’s the sort of film Hitchcock might have delighted in – a sort of Vertigo-ish intrigue and layer of uncertainty. What’s really happening here? More than you figure.

Music plays a part in that. Often I find music intrusive to the action. It should supplement, not lead; it should evoke a mood, not explain it. Getting music right is a tough gig – there’s a lot of older movies these days that jar because the music has dated. What fit then doesn’t now. It should be timeless.

In both movies A Single Man, and Nocturnal Animals, the music has been notable, often lush, like in some of the great movies of the forties and fifties by composers like Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrman. Ford seems to see music as an important aspect of building mood and tension really effectively.

Most of all I can’t get over how smart a movie it is. It may not appeal to everyone because it has subtleties you have to be awake to to appreciate. It has a psychological complexity and a deep insight into human nature that draws you towards understanding. You begin to see where the dominos lead, and why, and the long-term but substantial consequences of our actions. It’s one of those movies I could write a thesis on.