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.


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).