The discomfort of men


It’s Sunday, and I’m feeling more lazy than usual. After I took Rigby for a walk mid-morning I came home and thought about the things I planned to do, but my heart wasn’t in it, and so I ended up on the couch watching a movie.

I watched Lantana, which is a classic Australian film of sorts made about twenty years ago. Memories muddle over time, but I remember being deeply affected by the movie when I first saw it. I think I saw it at the cinema in St Kilda with a woman a few years older than me. I can’t remember her name, but I remember how casually sophisticated she was – full of stories and good living. We’d go out for dinner and the movies and would catch up for the occasional drink. We liked many of the same things, though we never ended up in bed together – our relationship wasn’t like that.

There was a particular scene I remembered from the movie that resonated when I saw it first and which stayed with me in the years after. The main character, a detective, is out for a jog on a Sunday morning. He turns a corner and runs smack bang into a man coming the other way, their heads colliding. After the initial shock, the detective turns on the other man and starts abusing him for not looking where he’s going – though he’s at fault. The other man cowers, then stumbles away. The detective, perhaps regretting his behaviour, picks up the other man’s discarded shopping bag and takes it to him. The man turns, weeping, and I remember the shock I felt at seeing that, like an electric charge. The detective feels something the same I think, but then – their faces bloodied – the detective comforts the other man in his arms.

This is a sophisticated movie. The story is complex and deep, the performances across the board are fantastic. Most of the characters are damaged in some way and some more than others. It’s a story about relationships and the entanglements we find ourselves enmeshed in, seemingly powerless to do anything about them. For me, it’s also about masculinity and Australian masculinity in particular.

The detective is at the centre of the story, and for most of it, he’s teetering on the edge, barely in control. He’s deeply unhappy and lost, trapped inside himself, inside the maze of expectation and inability to be vulnerable. Like a lot of men, his vulnerability is expressed through violence.

There’s a scene where he’s telling an acquaintance the story of how he ran into the other man on the street. He’s almost disdainful when he describes the other man weeping, claiming that even as he’s comforting him, he’s thinking, what a weak prick. The acquaintance asks, don’t you ever feel like crying. Yeah, of course, is his general reaction, but you don’t, do you? And this the acquaintance understands, you’re right, as if it’s a rule of male conduct: you don’t show it. He nods his head in that casual way as if it doesn’t need to be said: fair call.

It’s a beautifully revealing scene set inside a men’s urinal. And you know, I reckon most men, Australian men, anyway, and men of my generation at least would recognise that. We’re brought up to be hard and tough. To keep going regardless and not show anything. I recognised it the first time and hit close to home because it was set in a milieu I understood, contemporary Australia

I lay on the couch with Rigby snuggled beside me and watched and felt myself affected in the same way I was the first time. It’s the sort of story I’d like to write, with the nuance and psychological depth that makes it both raw and authentic to lived experience. The book I’m writing now is not dissimilar – there’s a surface story that propels the action along, but all the real stuff is happening beneath the surface.

It’s nice to revisit a film you admired before and find it stacks up still. It’s not always the case. If you haven’t seen it then maybe you should check it out.

From history


After dinner last night I was in the mood for a long movie I could immerse myself in. I scrolled through the films on my hard-drive searching for one that would resonate with me at that moment. It’s a peculiar chemistry. Sometimes, obviously, you feel like one sort of movie over another, according to mood and biorhythms – say a comedy over something too serious. Sometimes the opposite. Even so, they’re broad categories, and it takes something more to decide you (though there have been times nothing has spoken to me). I go on gut-feel, instinctive reaction. It’s like looking into a woman’s eyes and sensing possibility there, or more – and nothing at all.

Last night’s winner was Lincoln, the Spielberg movie on the president. I’d watched it before and enjoyed it well enough without it leaving too deep an impression. That was not long after it came out, and maybe it felt time to review it again. It suited my mood in any case, and the need to engage with something that might stir the mind. I wasn’t looking for distraction, I wanted to think. It was only much later did I realise how apt a choice it was given the BLM rallies in recent times. If that had any influence on my decision, then it was purely unconscious.

I had only a dim recollection of the movie. though I knew the general thrust of it. Watching it this time, I was struck by a couple of things I don’t remember feeling the first time around.

This time I found myself admiring Daniel Day-Lewis’ seamless performance. It may as well have been the true Abe Lincoln on-screen because there was nothing visible of the actor. I imagine that takes a powerful gift of humility and dedication. You see actors who always ‘play themselves’, and to some degree, that is true of most. Most actors have their idiosyncratic ways – gestures, tics, habits. Most of them absorb it into the performance, but some never transcend themself. The great actors are different. They become the character they portray. To do so must take imagination and the rare ability to subjugate oneself to the art.

To admire the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis was, in a way, parallel with admiration of the man he portrayed. Now, I don’t know how true a rendering of Lincoln we see on-screen to how he was in life, but there’s plenty of history and commentary that give us a fair idea of who he was. We know he was a monumental figure in American life. We know what he looked like, and we gather his folksy, wise ways. We know he was a man of fortitude and persistence. And we know that his death was mourned by thousands of Americans, unlike any president until Kennedy. Even many of his opponents mourned him.

In this movie, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he is a man of great humanity. We know that to be true, I think, though it never stopped him from prosecuting the war against the south. What drove him to do that was his innate sense of justice. As cruel as the war was (and it was more terrible than most), it was necessary to bring justice to his country. We see that in the movie,He had a clear-sighted determination that most of his advisors and contemporaries lacked. He navigated his way through party politics and bigotry and ambition, knowing what must be.

Earlier I spoke of acting and how ego plays a part in it. I think Lincoln probably had a decent ego, but it was in balance within him. Most of the battles with ego occur inside us, striving to be ourselves or to prove it. Lincoln had no need to prove anything, and so his path is gentler, willing to be open and humble and ever-sensitive to others, but never veering from the course of action set himself. It feels as if he takes in people with his folksy manner and home-spun stories, but he is cleverer than any of them. Gradually they come to realise that. He was a great man and a wise leader, and you wonder what further difference he might have made had he survived the assassin’s bullet.

As always, when I see portrayals like this, I feel wistful. Oh, to have such leadership now. I can think of no-one in the world today, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, who approaches greatness in any regard. Many have gone the opposite extreme – more terrible than we deserve.

Remembering Lincoln now given the tumult of BLM is timely. It was an education to watch and listen last night with knowledge of how it is now, and what’s been happening. What would Abe do about it? He would act with generosity, grace and wisdom – i.e. the opposite of what we’re getting.

These are times we can take lessons from a couple of great American presidents.

I was reading about FDR during the week, and how he came to power with the depression in full swing. The election that year was him against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who had presided since before the depression started. Hoover was of the austerity school of economic theory. He believed that private industry would drag America out of the depression, and steadfastly refused hand-outs or economic stimulus. Come the election the American people had enough of that and booted him out in a big win to Roosevelt.

FDR set about doing just about the opposite of Hoover. He’s famous now for the New Deal, which dragged America – and possibly the world – out of the great depression. What dd he do? He spent money by the barrel-load. To the millions unemployed and living in poverty, he gave hope, as well as the means to survive. He ploughed millions of dollars into great stimulus activities, the most notable being the Hoover Dam. In effect, he gave the economy a financial transfusion that got it up from its deathbed.

What’s less well know is that a few years later he reckoned the economy was safe, and at the Treasury’s insistence it was time to balance the books, and spending was cut. What resulted was something that came to be called the Roosevelt Recession in 1937-38. The reduction in government spending and investment led to a sharp economic downturn. It was only when Roosevelt defied treasury and launched into a new spending program that the economy began to recover. Money creates activity which makes more money.

This should sound familiar to anyone following the economic discussions today in light of the pandemic, though it’s a conversation that has raged since the 1980s. This is what we face now.

In Australia, JobKeeper and other stimulus packages are like a mini-version of the New Deal, but already the government is threatening to turn it off. If history is any guide – and most economists – then we know what will happen if they do that. This is not something we can risk for ideological reasons, or because our leaders lose their nerve. Go hard and keep going until we’re through.

Heeding the call


For the first time in months, I went out for dinner last Saturday night, this time to the Cheeses. Notwithstanding it was months since we’d done this, it was pretty typical. We had dinner – home-made pizzas (their kitchen – house – is completing renovation), a beer, a bottle of wine, then another, some cheese and some chocolate. We talked and shared stories and laughed and finally sat down to watch a movie together.

The movie we settled on was the latest version of Call of the Wild, this one starring Harrison Ford, and a CGI Buck.

This is based on a classic story by Jack London, and one of my favourites (another of his stories, To Build A Fire, is one of the best stories ever). It’s set in Alaska during the gold rush in the 19th century and basically is about a dog that gets abducted from his safe suburban home and taken to the Klondike to become a sled dog. It’s all about his trials and tribulations, about the bond between man and dog, and ultimately about Buck giving in to the ‘call of the wild’. It’s a beautiful, occasionally harsh, tragic, but heartwarming tale that anyone who loves dogs must love.

I’ve watched several versions of the story made into movies, and the best are those who keep it simple and let it speak for itself. I’m a fan of Harrison Ford and, though he’s older than the original protagonist in the story, he’s the right type. I found it an entertaining hour or so, but much diluted from the essence of the story. (Let me warn of spoilers ahead).

This is a Disneyfied version of the story, right down to Buck not even being a real dog. He’s CGI, and pretty good, but obviously so all the same. It makes him a bit cartoonish and robs the character of the spontaneity a real dog would bring. It’s now a family movie, which means some of the harsher elements have been taken down a notch or two, and even a basic part of the story changed.

There’s a vindictive and quite foolish character who is integral to the resolution of the movie. He doesn’t exist in the story, and when the main human character – here played by Harrison Ford – dies, it’s quite different. In the story there’s a clean and simple brutality to it – he’s murdered by Indians and Buck, discovering the body, wreaks his vengeance. In the movie there are no Indians – perhaps they’re the politically incorrect option – and instead, the deranged character fatally wounds Ford. Buck arrives in time to kill the murderer (indirectly – no blood, no violence) and in time to comfort his friend and master before he dies. It may as well be in soft focus.

Buck then goes out into the wilderness to fulfil his destiny.

The movie is a long way from the direct and uncompromising language of the original story. I understand what they’ve done and why they’ve done it, but as a purist who loves the story, it seems pretty lame. It’s counter to the essence of the story also – that this is a harsh and deadly environment that only the tough can endure. Even for them, it can be brutal, but that’s the simple truth. In the end, it’s an environment in which Buck finds meaning because it awakens in him his primal self, and he ‘returns’ to the wild in which once he came from.

It’s a noble message and reading the story it’s uplifting. You’ve been devasted by the parting of man and master – they had a great bond – but the payoff is that Buck returns to nature, that great and wild thing we’ve civilised out of our life.

Walking home from the Cheeses afterwards it reminded me of a quote from Seneca:

Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible—no, entirely too common—for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.

Basically, it’s not how long you live, but how you live while you’ve got it. I guess we can all choose to live our life according to our desires, but for me, it’s always been a simple question. From very young, I was aware that just to be alive was a rare gift, and that one day it would end. The trick, as I figured it, was to live as well as possible in the time I had.

I was the adventurous type, and so for me that meant an enquiring life – travelling and reading and asking questions and trying things out and never backing off. From my current perspective, it feels that I’ve led an interesting life that at times has been challenging, and at times deeply rewarding. I don’t regret much, though I sometimes wonder how things might have been different. The life I have is a result of trying things, of plunging in and testing things out. It’s how I wanted to live and though there are notable gaps, I think I’ve lived a full life.

Most people are more cautious and conservative than me, and each to their own. I get impatient and restless. Others don’t. What seem to me lives that are happy but dull are perfectly adequate to the people who own them. Sometimes I find it hard to comprehend, but sometimes I’m envious too of such simplicity.

I wonder how much they have asked of themselves, or what their expectations of life were. Did they dream once, or never? Did they quest and give it up one day because it was too hard? Or not sensible? Or was it ever thus? We’re all different, but until we test ourselves, we don’t really know what’s inside us. So I reckon.

So it was with Buck. His life was set. He was happy and pampered. Then he was taken from comfort and thrust into the wilds of Alaska. There he found his strength and used it. There he found true companionship on the brutal edge of existence. And there he found the wild calling to that part of him deep inside and hidden from everyday view. In the end, he responded to the call to be himself truly, and to be amongst his type.

If that’s not a metaphor for human lif,e I don’t know what it is. For most of the time and for many of us, we’re happy and pampered and living in relative comfort, and that’s where it stops. Hopefully, the time comes when we hear that call, and respond to it. And maybe that explains something of what we’re seeing in the States at the moment. The moment has come to step out of the comfort zone and make a stand. It’s a worthy cause, and it’s good for our soul.

None better


The final two episodes of The Last Dance played yesterday, culminating in the 1998 NBA championship win by the Bulls over the Jazz, and the end of an era. I hate to join the chorus, but I have to agree that this is one of the best things I’ve seen. I’ll go further than that. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to re-live so many great moments. It’s almost heartwarming to go back and recall such a vivid era. And I’m grateful that this is on the record now. It’s not lost, here it is again.

Watching the program, there were many things recalled to me that had passed from front of mind, further questions posed and, of course, so many insights and secrets exposed.

I found myself watching fascinated by the suits the NBA stars wore, and no less MJ. Almost without exception they were awful – oversized, boxy three-button suits, often in garish colours. I love, you man, but really…

Remembering MJ over the years, I recognised him for his playing prowess, and why wouldn’t you? There’s never been a better player. He was a competitive beast, and probably close to the best clutch player of any sport at any time. I was also fascinated by the petty rivalries he conjured up to motivate himself, and how successful that was. It was a great insight into the man.

What I had forgotten was what an immense personality he was. It’s not uncommon for the best of the sporting stars to have personalities to match. That greatness gives them permission to be whoever they want to be, say whatever they want to say. He was a dominant personality, in the media, in the locker room, on the court. He was a man of supreme confidence and seemingly disdainful of what anyone thought about him. That he was quick-witted and smart, as well as being super-cool, which helped a shitload.

It was great seeing some of the other players of the era in action, too. Reggie Miller was one of my favourite players of the time, and I had a soft spot for the Pacers, largely on the back of his heroics. Then, watching John Stockton again, who was almost the antithesis of what an NBA player was – the weedy, white guy who had game smarts and skills as good as anyone who’s played the game – generally underrated. And I had forgotten what a great player Karl Malone was.

Watching Steve Kerr throughout the series, and particularly last night, it was clear to see why he’s become such a great coach. Intelligent and humble, with great EQ, he’s the rare character who can put his ego aside and seem almost self-effacing – while forging a great career. He’s a lesson many could heed – but that’s a rare kind of intelligence that few possess.

This was an epic series charting a turbulent, eventful, and often, spectacular era. That it centred on Jordan is obvious – he was the man who made the era and made the Bulls to a large extent. They were a good team without him, but he made them great. I loved seeing him again, hearing his voice, listening to his take on the events of those years.

It’s still utterly bewildering that the team was broken up after 1998. Who in his right mind would do that? This was a team for the ages who probably had at least another championship in them. But then, blame the egos for that. Sad, it deprived us of MJ at the top of his game.

Last dance


Like much of the sports starved public yesterday, I tuned in to watch The Last Dance. In case you’re living under a rock, that’s the long-delayed and much-hyped documentary about the champion Chicago Bulls team of the nineties, Michael Jordan, and particularly their final championship year in 1998.

I was hooked from the get-go. I love docos like this – quality, in-depth, and candid. And as subject matter, doesn’t get much better than this.

I got into the NBA earlier than most people in Oz. I remember happening across it one night at my grandparent’s home in Strathmore. They were in bed, and it was some time after 10pm, and here on TV was some basketball match from far away between Philly and the Knicks – this was when Doctor J was still going around, and every player was in tight shorts. It was exotic and novel for a kid brought up on cricket and footy, and the Olympics every four years. It had a noise about it that kept me watching.

I reckon that was on the ABC, and after that, I made an effort each week to watch it. It was a great time to get into it because it coincided with the rise of the Celtics and the Lakers and the great rivalry they’d be enmeshed in throughout the decade. I got caught up in it big time, and after my early preference for the Sixers, found myself a dedicated Celtics fan, mainly because of Larry Bird. And because I guess, I had an instinctive and Australian aversion for what I perceived as the show ponies in LA. That was unfair, of course, but I was just a kid. Later I became a fan of Magic Johnson too, but I barracked against him.

I was watching still when the unfashionable Pistons rose to eminence. I had a soft spot for them too because they were hard at it and played it tough, which were qualities an Aussie growing up on footy could appreciate. They didn’t always win because they were the better team, they won because they went at it harder. I thought Isaiah Thomas personified leadership, as well as being a cracking player. He was silk, and backing him up was a talented team long on grit.

You have to remember that basketball in general, and the NBA, was a marginal sport here back then. What changed all that was Michael Jordan. The sport exploded here, and almost everywhere, on the back of his incredible athleticism and scoring ability. After a long period of mediocrity, the Bulls became a legendary team, largely on the back of Jordan, but there was a fair roster behind him. Suddenly the NBA was on TV every Saturday morning in Oz and highlights were in the news. Jordan was lauded as a supernaturally gifted player capable of doing just about anything. In short time he became the most popular sportsman in the world, and the media tie-ins and partnership with Nike made him just about the most recognisable too (even an appearance in Space Jam!). Looking back, it seemed an incredible vibe.

It didn’t last. The NBA has a fair profile here now, but not as it was then. Now it’s the aficionados of the game – and there are lots, but back then it felt as if everyone had an opinion on the game, and the Bulls, and Jordan. It was that spurt of interest that got Australian basketball going, and though it’s had its ups and downs we’ve got one of the best teams in the world and a swathe of quality players playing in the NBA. It’s going forwards, not backwards.

But back to Jordan. There was a lot of talk ahead of the doco about how he’ll be perceived throughout it – hard-nosed, arrogant, demanding, even cruel. I don’t know if that was a huge surprise to me. It was always clear that he had a competitive streak that matched his athletic gifts. It was what made him great – he was a great scorer, but he was also a great defensive player. He only ever wanted to win, and expected it, of himself, and others.

It was easy for him. He was the best player in the world and its pretty easy to be self-assured when you know that. It’s harder for others in the shadow of that. It comes as no surprise that Jordan was demanding of others. Last night we even saw him being cruel on occasion, to those he had no respect for. Not surprisingly, he had a significant aura about him. I figure even his teammates were in awe of him.

I always liked Jordan. For me he’s clearly the GOAT, the only question is who comes second? As much as I loved the way he played I always found him fascinating as a man. There’s plenty of champions who are uninteresting people. Jordan had a swagger to him, an attitude that made him interesting. He was more than just a supreme athlete, he was smart and driven and determined. You can say he was a great player, but he made himself that. That’s what he set himself to be, and he did the work to become that. He is a product of his will, and that makes him exceptional and fascinating.

I may end up revising my opinion by the end of this program, but for now I’m settling in to enjoy it.

Watching 1917


No pub these days, no restaurants, I can’t even sit in a cafe and, of course, it’s impossible to go to the movies. So, you make your own entertainment.

In that regard at least I’m pretty well set up. I was busy Saturday and got a lot of things done, and the reward at the end of it was a couple of hours lounging on the couch watching a top-notch film.

Like a lot of people, I’m particular when it comes to watching serious entertainment. All the lights are off, and the TV’s hooked up to my Sonos set-up, making the dialogue crisp and clear, and the audio highlights mighty. On top of that, the picture on my German TV is as good as you’ll get.

This time I watched 1917, the big British war movie that came out late last year. I’ve been saving it for the metaphorical rainy day, or pandemic, whatever came first. As it happens they aligned nicely on Saturday.

Gee, I enjoyed this. It’s vivid and stirring, and it races along. It’s a compelling storyline, much more of a quest movie than the conventional war movie is. It had plenty of scenes of battle and ruin and death, and they were particularly well done – much more brutally realistic than you’re used to seeing. It’s raw and real – but there is a mission to complete that impels the story line forward. The clock is ticking, and 1600 lives depend on it, but to be successful, the heroes must overcome adversity and confusion and temptation, not to mention exhaustion ad thousands of German soldiers.

I’m probably imagining this, but it echoed for me The Odyssey, by Homer, with similar episodic asides, even including the sirens – in this case a single French girl with a baby beseeching the protagonist not to leave. And the protagonists suffers many adventures and encounters strange and unexpected scenes. In parts it’s otherworldly.

It’s beautiful to look at. Some of the scenes portrayed are almost artistic, particularly the French town at night, half of it ablaze and flares popping off overhead. It adds to the surreal motif.

I was rapt in this. I wondered what was coming next and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It had that strange quality to it, but it also felt utterly real – as if war itself is a strange and terrible beast, and this is how it is.

 

Sorry about that, Buck


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies & music


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elusive magic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next Ned Kelly movie


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

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

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

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

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

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