Absurd truths


Wednesday night TV is the most fun night of TV in my house. I start off with Micallef on the ABC at 8.30. I couldn’t miss this. Not only is it bloody funny, it’s right on the money more often than not.

I reckon Shaun Micallef is some kind of absurdist genius. He takes the events of the week, most of them political, and presents them satirically. There’s a lot of material these days, and much of it naturally absurd – which is the pity of the times we live in. Doesn’t matter how much they are mocked by clever comedians, our politicians blithely continue doing their dumb and evil things.

Despite that Micallef has a unique take on things that will often get me laughing out loud – a rare event, believe me – and sometimes wanting to cry at the cruel truth of it. If you haven’t caught it you should.

Right after that is Working Dog’s production of Utopia. This is probably the fourth season, but just as with Micallef there’s a never ending stream of material.

For those who haven’t seen it it’s another satire, this one set in a government organisation called the Nation Building Authority, or NBA. They are tasked with conceiving and executing huge nationwide infrastructure projects. It’s a sexy sort of organisation and naturally subject to the whims, fancies and political nonsense of the minister and the government of the day.

Tony is the much put upon head of the NBA. He’s a voice of sense and reason who each week is overwhelmed by the collective nonsense of marketing spin and political expedience. I watch it laughing, knowing that so much of it is real. It echoes the headlines, and sometimes anticipates them. It’s true all over.

It’s familiar in a more personal sense too. Often I’ll watch with a knowing eye having witnessed or been the victim of similar shenanigans within the office.

This weeks episode was a case in point. It focussed on a doomed government portal which had been much hyped, but proven to be a technical disaster through it’s many manifestations. The experts at the NBA, asked to assess it, advised it was too expensive to fix and it should be dumped. The minister seized upon the idea that it could be fixed, and with a political glee chose that option, waving off the cost.

Recently in my office there was a substantial and poorly managed project rolling out a new function to customers, which included as key requirement a website customers had to log into. I sat listening to all the stories of woe as the project rolled out, sometimes shaking my head, sometimes laughing at the absurd improbability, and sometimes at the blind incompetence.

The website broke several times. It was replaced with different versions. Each one failed. In the end they created a simple façade without the functionality they originally conceived, but at least it would crash. It meant a whole lot of extra work though.

Most of that could have been prevented had it been properly planned and tested. There should have been load testing and testers should have been asked to try and break it, and all the usual things, none of which happened. Typical of the planning was a date field that had no validation, and so when people entered a date in a format other than what was expected an error would occur. Elementary stuff really, but very real.

Last week I was involved in something which is a good example of how political and marketing imperatives overtake operational need.

One of the issues in ops here is that people don’t close jobs. They keep them open because they’re not sure, or because they over-service, or because they want to game the system. The result of that is open jobs clogging the system and poor productivity.

Now these people have been told repeatedly they should close these jobs and have been provided with data sheets telling them what to do. It still happens, and it frustrates management mightily.

One of the things I know about people is that everyone takes in information and direction differently. Some people are visual, others verbal. Some like detailed instructions, others just want the vibe. Some need to understand themselves before they take it on board, and others don’t need a reason.

In any case I created a pithy solution to make it simple, and complement the other advice that’s been provided.

I created a poster. It was simple, direct, but had a little humour. Have you…then close the job. Have you…then close the job. And so on. Do not pass go, close the job.

The kicker was at the end. It needs to resonate. Slogans are good. Catchcry’s. You want to get their imagination and have them engage with the concept.

The poster finished with: Pull the trigger! Close the job.

That lodges in their mind. Pull the trigger. They get reminded by their colleagues: have you pulled the trigger?

Naturally it got knocked back. Too politically incorrect. Too violent.

Good grief!

A winter’s heart


Sometimes when you sit down on a Sunday night you’re looking for a particular kind of diversion. For me, often, it’s pure entertainment. If I can watch a decent mystery, comedy, or action movie then I’m happy. Sometimes I need a laugh, sometimes a thrill, but it all amounts to the same thing. For those couple of hours I want to escape my world for the fantasy world on screen.

Other times – rarer for me – I’m looking for something more profound. I like to think, I like to be moved, but movies of that ilk are less common, and often on a Sunday night – the night before work – I don’t want to think too hard. Besides, I have books for that.

Last night was different. What it was I couldn’t say, but I felt the need for a deeper mode of entertainment. I wanted to be stretched, less so intellectually than emotionally. I wanted to feel, and in feeling to ponder the profound meaning of that feeling.

What I settled on was an old French movie, A Heart in Winter (Un Coeur en Hiver).

This is one of my favourite movies. It’s intelligent, artistic, and heart rending. It’s sat there on my movie queue for about 2 years, and though I’ve paused often at it, until last night I hadn’t clicked on it. Last night was just right though.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it now. About 4 or 5 I reckon. It came out in 1992, which seems an eternity ago now, and whether I saw it then or later I can’t recall. In my mind I group it together with other French movies of similar type and from around the same time, particularly those of Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Three Colours: Red, Blue, and Double Life of Veronique are also all time favourites I wish I could share with others).

A Heart in Winter is, like those other films, profoundly human. It deals in the fears and frailties, the hopes and delusions of common man. That’s the appeal of films like this when done well. You can watch these movies and recognise so much. As always in the best art you come to a truth of something you know deep inside, but which previously has not been raised to a conscious level. We live and operate with these truths just beneath the surface of our skin. They influence our behaviour without our conscious awareness. We are those things, but it’s rare we acknowledge or understand that.

A Heart in Winter happens to be thematically inspired by one of my favourite books, by Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. It has an extra significance to me for that reason. I read that book at one sitting in the mid-nineties lying on a couch at my dad’s when he lived in Potts Point, having bought it at a local bookstore. I was drawn into the story and identified strongly with the main character, Pechorin. As in the movie, the book is intelligently done, and is the study of a flawed, but highly capable man.

The movie is heart-breaking, and the last forty minutes or so difficult viewing – but it goes beyond that. What could have been a mere drama of sorts goes further to become a tragedy of great human dimension. You recognise it though, or at least I do. You feel it inside you like an echo that doesn’t still until hours later. It makes you think, it makes you remember, and it makes you reflect on the more profound elements of being a human being.

That’s why I chose to watch it last night – I wanted to feel that again. You skate across the surface of things mostly. Life happens by rote and routine. The days and weeks gather up and pass by. Sometimes you remember there is more to existence than that. You recall that the most memorable moments of life are when you are forced to deeply feel something. You miss that. You wish for more of it, but don’t know how. But at least there is a movie there in your queue to experience it by proxy. It’s not enough, but it’ll do in a pinch.

One of the great things about this movie is the music in it. There are some great pieces, but none more so than Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. I listen to it and it’s as if I experience it from the inside out. It seems to mirror human emotion, give musical expression to human frailty and hope. I’d just about do anything to have written something as beautiful and true as that. I can’t write music, but it’s what I try to do in my writing – give allegorical voice to a truth we can all come to understand. If I could achieve that, just once, I’d die a happy man.

Broken covenant


I caught up with the most recent instalment in the Alien series on Saturday night: Alien Covenant. I figure how you respond to this movie depends on whether you’ve watched the other movies in the series, or not.

Assuming you come to this movie without pre-conceived notions and without the legacy of the previous films you would probably come away a happy viewer. It’s well made as most Ridley Scott movies are, and beautifully shot. It’s competent, interesting and entertaining. As a stand-alone sci-fi thriller it ticks most of the boxes. You’d watch it, enjoy it, and move on.

It’s different if, like me, you’ve watched every movie in the series leading up to it, and most of them multiple times. I’m not a fanboy, but Alien and Aliens are great movies, two of the best of their type ever made. Subsequent movies haven’t lived up to that standard, but it’s a tough standard. I still come to each instalment with anticipation verging on excitement.

On that basis Alien Covenant was disappointing, though certainly better than several of the earlier efforts.

On the plus side it returned to the basic and classic concept of the original movies. A group of humans essentially trapped or marooned with a marauding alien (or two). There’s no way out, no real way of defending yourself, and all of that is ratcheted up by the lurking menace somewhere in the dark. Having said that it’s nowhere near as scary as the first two movies.

I found it pretty predictable in the end. Half an hour out I pretty well knew how it would end, but was desperately hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t. That comes down to the screenplay, but also how it was done.

As someone who grew up watching these movies I felt as if there was a subtle betrayal in this instalment. It make entire sense to me, and even if you accepted the premise I felt it took it away from what these movies are about.

This is where the spoiler alert applies, so up to you if you want to read on.

As in most of the Alien movies an android plays a key role. In the most recent movie in the series (Prometheus) we saw the sole surviving scientist (Elizabeth Shaw) of that expedition fly off in an alien spaceship with David, the loyal android played by Michael Fassbender. David turns up again in this movie, but playing a different role.

There’s a bit of I, Robot in how this has been written. From the loyal and obedient android in Prometheus David becomes someone/something different in Covenant. Between movies, off screen as such, David’s ‘consciousness’ had warped. From the loyal servant of man in Covenant he is sinister and bitter, with violent designs upon mankind.

This did not ring true for me. I know it is a classic convention, but it seems contrived in this version. (I rued the lost opportunity of another movie where David and Elizabeth Shaw might encounter the mysterious giant race of Aliens – in this they have been previously destroyed).

What this contrivance means for the story is critical, and in large part foreshadows the predictable ending. It runs counter to the meaning of the series too, in my view at least. It’s like an element has been introduced to artificially direct an outcome, when the beauty of the early movies was that they had their own spontaneous logic.

As an Alien aficionado I’m disappointed – it’s just another movie, and I fear for the next instalment. As a movie fan it is just another movie, albeit entertaining – but no more than that.

Not fade away


I’ve got a heavy cold right now that makes me feel as if my head might pop at any moment. My nose is blocked, and I can feel the pressure behind my eyes and in my ears. I took the day off yesterday because I was sneezing all over the place, and because I had a new oven being installed. I spent the day quietly on the couch or in bed and in between working at the novel. Being crook is a nuisance, but I’m back at work today.

At the end of the night yesterday I was lying on the couch contemplating bed when instead I clicked on a movie to watch I’d recorded last week. Travelling North seems to me one of those forgotten movies. A zillion movies get made every year across the world and some will be remembered for decades to come, for the right reasons, or wrong, and most will fade into the past. A few, for reasons I can’t understand, get lost in the past. Travelling North is a worthy movie, but one of those lost movies. Who here has ever heard of it, let alone seen it?

It’s an Australian movie starring Leo McKern and Julia Blake and based on a David Williamson play. It has a solid cast and is well made and is clever. It’s not a movie that should be forgotten, which is one reason I recorded it. It came at me as a novelty. Oh yes, I thought, I remember that movie. I wonder how it plays now.

I probably wouldn’t have cared, except that I saw this movie at the cinema when it came out. I remember it very well. I went with a mate to see it at the Roseville Cinema in Sydney. For dinner before we went to a Black Stump restaurant. In retrospect it seems an unusual movie for us to have elected to watch, but we both enjoyed its modest pleasures. That was a while ago, I knew, but when I saw it was from 1987 I felt a mild flutter of wonder. I knew it was from about then, but I realised that was 30 fucking years ago. 30 years! How does that happen?

Back then when I saw it first the actual storyline would have had no direct relevance for me. It’s the story of a couple of retirement age driving up from Melbourne to a new home in the north of Queensland. They go from the hustle and bustle of the city to a laid-back lifestyle in a tropical setting. It’s a well-worn trail, with thousands of retirees making the trek from the southern states to the tropical climes to warm their bones with their working life done. I was not much more than a kid then and all of that was many years distant, if at all – and I doubt it ever crossed my mind.

That time is 30 years closer now. I’m still a way off and very much doubt that I would go north – it might be pretty, but I’d miss the conversation and the culture. Regardless, there will come a time in the next 20 years when I will need to consider what I’ll do. If not travelling north, then what?

Who can say? A lot can happen in 20 years, and I hope it does. I’ve changed in the 30 years since I saw the film. Back then everything was ahead of me. Right now a lot of it is behind me. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve lived an interesting life, and occasionally a big life. My desire is for that to continue, though it’s harder now. I still want to feel that vibrant urgency, still want to be relevant – I don’t think I can live without that.

That’s my problem with retirement. I accept that I’ve a harsh perspective on it, but that’s because I’ve observed it so much. I’ve watched retired husbands – long careers behind them, but past – trail after their wives in the supermarket. Just recently there’s been a bunch of press on retirement and aged care homes, and none of it good. But I’ve also listened in as retired couples have lauded the facilities and activities of their retirement villages. They make it sound like landlocked cruise ships with lawn bowls and cards and group activities, and so on. Perhaps that’s as it should be – but it’s not for me, and I can’t imagine a time when it will be.

If you ask me I’ll tell you I want to stay independent to the end. I want my own home and space, want to make my own decisions and live life as I choose too. The Leo McKern character in the movie is a retired civil engineer and ex-communist. He’s done things and has become a curmudgeonly old man. Well, excuse me, I think that’s exactly as it should be. Live on your terms, and fuck convention.

There will be plenty who object to my suppositions and to each his own. What it feels like to me is that to settle into a retirement home of any sort is to accept the fact of eventual death and to wait for it in comfort. I don’t accept it, and I won’t wait for it.

For me, right now, it’s simple. I’m happy to live simply. Have my home, a vegie garden, a dog, and hopefully a partner to share it with. That’s to start with. But you need more than that if you are not to become one of those lost husbands dogging their spouses heels in the supermarket because they have nothing better to do. You need something for yourself.

I know this because I have always needed that. I’ve been strident because I wanted to feel life and engage with it. It has become my nature and it won’t change just because I might retire one day. You need to do, or at least attempt to do. All your life you have contributed to society, if only modestly – why should that change now? So okay you tell me, because you’ve retired, because those days are gone, because now it’s time to rest and enjoy. Enjoy what though? The ethereal pleasures of playing bridge and going to the theatre?

I believe that you must put in as much – if not more – than what you take out. A life living as a valued member of the community builds that balance up, from which you withdraw as necessary. At retirement the deposits cease unless you make an effort otherwise. You begin to draw from that account and what fun it is to start with – but then it pales, doesn’t it? For the active mind I’m sure, it would. To take without putting back becomes a superficial existence. What meaning acquired over lifetime of rich experience evaporates in the artificial sunshine of retirement.

I want to keep putting in until the day I die. For me it means in that little house with the vegie garden I must do something more. For me that will be writing, but probably something else to. And if I could I would live like that starting tomorrow.

I can’t disengage. I can’t put things at arm’s length. This is what you have to remember. When you die you don’t come back. This is it. Why waste it? Why become irrelevant? Live all the way through I reckon.

Being homeless


Last night I caught up with a fascinating program screening on the SBS. Filthy Rich and Homeless took five well to do and wealthy Sydney-siders and deposited on the streets of Melbourne to live in the middle of winter. They slept rough initially, dossing out on the streets in nooks and crannies and begging for loose change. They moved from there to halfway houses and boarding houses, and in one instance, a squat, each of them expected to live on the same income of someone typically in that situation. They had 10 days of this, and their perspective radically changed had changed by the end of it.

I found it quite emotional viewing. It’s an awful way of life, but for the most part we look past it. Taking people out of their environment and shoving them into something as foreign as this is a shocking and effective way of highlighting the gulf, which is as much psychological and philosophical as it is purely circumstantial.

In a small way I admired the guys who volunteered to do this. It was only 10 days, at the end of it they could go away and sleep in their warm bed again. While there though they became our proxies, exposing themselves not just to the harsh life of the streets, but to our scrutiny also.

There were a couple going into the experiment who had very common, but uneducated views on the homeless. It was a life choice they thought. We made it too easy for them. Why don’t they get a job? It was a superficial take on something which had always had an unpleasant taint to it, and so something they never dwelt upon – and therefore, had developed their views.

Now they were on the streets themselves they realised how wrong they were. It was not as simple as they believed. There were reasons people ended up in such a place. It was not as easy as just getting a job. They began to appreciate not only the practical difficulty of getting by, but also the awful emotional and psychological cost of it. In those few days they felt the insecurity of not having a fixed abode, the difficulty of getting by on the scant dollars they’re entitled to, and the harsh sense of isolation. They were changed people, and it was great to see – if only more could be so changed.

There’s no doubt that homelessness is a blight on our society. We discussed it at work this morning and we decried the lunacy of spending tax dollars on spurious, but glamorous initiatives when more and more there are families who can’t get by, and individuals left by the wayside. Unfortunately, it’s become political, with the less advantaged so often being called bludgers, or ‘leaners’, with benefits cut or frozen. There’s no humanity in our policies, and precious little compassion in our politics.

Of course watching the program reminded me of when I was homeless. I was lucky. Though it was 15 months I found a bed or a couch for every night of it bar a few. I had a good support network and, mostly, maintained a positive frame of mind. Still, it feels a dark period and not something I like to dwell upon.

I considered that. My general belief is that I’ve got a lot of unprocessed grief – about the death of my mother, and later on, the tribulations of being unemployed, broke and homeless. As is my way I powered through, but that doesn’t allow for the proper acceptance of circumstance. I was too busy surviving, too busy defying it, that when I got through it I never went back to it.

I think now that I have to own what happened to me. Naturally I’m circumspect, and much embarrassed, about what happened to me. I know in my heart I shouldn’t be embarrassed, and in fact there is much to be proud of, and yet… I remember what it felt like, like I was a non-person, as if I was separate to the world, as if I had become irrelevant. I don’t feel still yet that I have returned to a normal life, but I am much closer now than for years. I understand the isolation the homeless feel, but I wanted to put it behind me. I can’t though, because it’s still inside me, because I’ve tried to ignore it.

I don’t think I can ignore it anymore. These things happened. I have to accept and acknowledge and even open up about it. I need to lance that boil. I went to bed thinking I can’t ignore it any longer. I’m not about to celebrate what happened, but I won’t hide it any longer. This morning talking to the show with a colleague he mentioned how easy it these days to become homeless. I took a deep breath and admitted to him that I too, had been homeless. Really? He said. He was predictably surprised. I’m not going to broadcast every detail, but I explained to him a little more.

I’m not sure how I feel about it, but think I must open myself to this.

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.