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.


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 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 the 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, have 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 happens after, all the years of moments since diminishing the weight of what we see. It turns out well, or poorly, 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 truer 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 stopped 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.

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.

The music that makes you

For months, it seems, everyone has been raving about the Queen movie, Bohemian Rhapsody. On the weekend I finally got to watch it myself.

Queen is one of those bands I grew up with. I wasn’t an early fan, but within a few years I remember raving over A Night at the Opera, which is a great album. I recall vividly when Bohemian Rhapsody came out as a single, extravagant and way over the top, and especially the music video that accompanied it. Come the eighties I was a pretty solid fan who owned a couple of albums by them. And it was pretty hard to ignore Freddie Mercury who, as his name suggests, was mercurial and talented and deliciously camp. You had to love him.

That’s one of the things that comes out in the movie. At times he was a right proper arse, but overall he was a warm and endearing personality given to excess. That meant there were times he was frustrating and unreliable, but it also gave rise to his talent and made him the affectionate and loving personality that he was. It’s the thing that probably killed him too.

There were things in this movie I hadn’t been aware of before, and remain uncertain about, but basically it followed the arc of their career from fledgling days to the triumph at the Live Aid concert in 1985. For me, I was interested in the musical side. They had some great songs – my favourites being Love of My Life (beautiful and real), Somebody to Love (lush harmonies), and Under Pressure (w. David Bowie), but there were a dozen others nearly as good. They were a great band in an era when great bands were a thing, unlike now.

I reckon a lot of the positive vibes towards this film are thanks to musical memories and raw nostalgia. I get that. It was what got me. It was well made and acted though formulaic, a fond movie no matter that ultimately Freddie would die of AIDS off-screen. That’s what gave the movie its meaning though.

Before that, I watched a documentary about Sam Cooke. Now he was well before my time, and died when I was only a few months old, but there came a time in my life that he was heavy on my soundtrack. I didn’t grow up with him but he informed my life at a formative time, from about the mid-eighties I guess. I don’t know what started it, but I suspect it was his smooth and simple crooning that affected me at a time when I was discovering all my romantic possibilities.

That’s the simple beauty of much of his music, a velvety, heartfelt voice expressing sentiments that everyone could connect with. They were elemental truths housed somewhere in the warm part of our soul. There were times in that period when I was a dreamy romantic and he was a guiding light who summed up my hearts desires so well.

But then there was another side of Sam Cooke. This documentary showed that very well – the entrepreneur, the activist, the fiercely intelligent and independent man who had a vision of a better world. He was a fascinating individual and might have become a great man besides a great artist had he lived. He died controversially, his name sullied, and it has been shrouded in mystery and outrage ever since – and for good reason.

When I came to him it was his romantic tunes like You Send Me, Wonderful World and Cupid that drew me in, but as I delved more deeply into his career I discovered his more serious compositions, great musically but profound in their message of hope. A Change is Gonna to Come and Bring It On Home To Me are heart-rending classics.

It’s great music. I like Queen plenty, but if I were ever asked to choose then Sam Cooke would be one of those few dozen discs I would take with me to my desert island. (Marvin Gaye and Nick Drake would be a couple of others top of my head).

The myth of Bundy

I finished watching a short series on Ted Bundy on Netflix last night. He’s a fascinating figure in history, but I found my perspective to him shift as I watched.

Bundy is close to being the most famous of serial killers, and surely the most romanticised. His alleged good looks, charm and intelligence enough to elevate him beyond the common rank of psychopaths. I think much of the mystique comes from the fact that such a ruthless killer could also appear like ‘one of us’. I think he seduced and fooled many people like that, but the rest of his mystique comes down to his good looks.

That’s the background, and that was my general perception of him leading into this program. I can say after watching all four episodes that he was a supreme narcissist who thrived on attention and personal engagement. I thought his good looks overrated, and his ‘charm’ creepy and contrived. I’m viewing him in retrospect, aware of the full scale of his crimes, but I still don’t understand how so many so readily fell for him.

Watching him closely he seemed to me full of tics and twitches in the form of great smiles, greetings, and winks. He was someone who craved recognition and sought a response. Observing him it felt like a performance, though heartfelt, and by that I mean while it wasn’t authentically born the reaction he sought was vital to his sense of self and wellbeing. Deny him that reaction and I imagine he would appear the monster he was in actual fact. To me, an Australian, much of his behaviour came across as smarmy.

Much was made of his intelligence also but again, I thought him very cunning, but not nearly as smart as he thought he was – which was much of his downfall.

It was fascinating as so many of these stories are. We’re forever drawn to the lurid, and nothing is as lurid as a serial killer. It’s an interesting story to when you consider his repeated escapes from the law. At the end of it though I found that the aura he had was much diminished in my mind. He was murderer who just happened to have a face and manner that some people found attractive. It was a squalid tale of a squalid personality.

That’s my take, but clearly then – and it appears now – found something more in Bundy than that. Most of them appear to be women and I suspect a lot of it is sexual – here is the ‘acceptable’, even handsome face of murder. It’s dangerous and illicit and thrilling, evidenced by the breathless girls and women who attended his trials and sought to meet him. That too is a lurid fantasy, though it didn’t stop him from fathering a child by one such devotee.

Now there is a movie coming out starring Zac Efron. I guess there’s a story there, but I fear what Hollywood will do with it.

The movies that make you think

I said to someone recently that I’d prefer to discuss Bergman films than the footy scores. That’s a bit of an exaggeration – I live and die by the scores – but I’m done after about 20 minutes, which is when I like to engage in more meaningful conversation, such as Ingmar Bergman movies. This was always the case more or less, just that now I’ve got much less patience for the sort of superficial discussion that passes as conversation so often.

All that is by way of preamble to a discussion on some classic movies I’ve watched recently.

I watched Last Year at Marienbad last month and was intrigued, to say the least. There’s something hypnotic about the story, and how it’s told, but at the end of it I no more knew the truth of it than anyone else.

A couple of weeks ago I actually watched a Bergman movie, Winter Light. It’s a bleakish tale about a minister who has pretty well lost faith. There’s a troubled parishioner he utterly fails to help (and who consequently shoots himself), and a woman who loves him. It’s despairing in many ways, but fascinating, crisply made, beautifully acted, and with a thought provoking script. This is what I like about Bergman movies, and others like him, they get beneath the skin. There aren’t superficial effects here, rather he addresses human nature, human frailty, and first causes. He makes movies like I want to write books. There’s truth in his vision and authenticity you recognise.

In this case, it ends on a slight upswing as the minister, muddled and depressed, is given insight into true faith by a devout follower wanting to discuss something he had pondered.

In the coming weeks, I plan to watch a few more classic Bergman movies – The Seventh Seal, Persona, and – my favourite of his – Wild Strawberries.

Then last week I watched again a crackerjack American classic from the fifties, The Sweet Smell of Success.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favourite actors of the era. He had presence on screen, and was an intelligent, thoughtful man off it. In this, he’s typically great as the toxic J.J. Hunsacker. Tony Curtis is fantastic also as Sydney Falco. In a lot of ways, this is an utterly depressing movie that highlights much of the worst of human nature. It’s about cynical people who exploit and play upon human frailty from greed or ambition or misguided love. The action takes place over the course of a couple of nights in NYC and rushes along as the Falco character tries to do the dirty work for Hunsacker and get in his good graces. Lives are damaged, relationships destroyed, and at the end of it the tyrant Hunsacker is abandoned, and Falco is beaten up, all his contrivances come to naught.

One of the things that occurred to me watching is how contemporary it seemed. This is a movie that could be made today with very little change. It just goes to show too that while we think things are bad now, they’ve always been bad one way or another.

In Hunsacker we have a virtual populist fascist. Back then he was a gossip columnist – today he’s a politician. He thinks he does holy work, has zero self-awareness, he upholds the integrity of the American people, and is casually, brutally violent. There is no compassion in him, no compromise, no insight into other perspectives or any allowance for it. He sees himself as a noble crusader when in fact he epitomises a kind of tyranny.

Falco is the classic opportunist, willing to trade anything if it means he gets ahead. His conscience might squeak from time to time, but it’s easily bought off. There are no ideals, no integrity, no beliefs in a man such as that, he stands for nothing but himself.

It’s a great but merciless movie. If you want to see a similarly cynical movie from the same era check out Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole.

We live in bleak, cynical times, but hard to find two more cynical films than those two from the fifties. They’re great movies but they don’t make you feel any better about humankind.