peteg's blog

Belvoir Downstairs, 25A: They Divided The Sky.

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Booked in person at Belvoir to avoid their online surchage, 2018-06-17, $25. Closing night, perhaps 80% full and yet I still managed to pick perhaps the worst seat in the house: in the far right corner from the entryway, and I got to see the back of the performers quite often, despite their considerate almost-constant movement. It was video recorded (and fortunately not simulcast to us). Bliss is still playing upstairs to something of a crowd despite wide reports of it being a bust. I rode over and back in fine weather and light traffic.

Briefly: this piece is Daniel Schlusser's adaptation of the book by Christa Wolf. It's about a young East Germany couple who become entangled in the time-honoured way only to separate due to politics, history, career ambitions, and a decade gap in ages that eventually proves insurmountable. Nikki Shiels (Rita) and Stephen Phillips (Manfred) bring excellent chemistry to their roles. Rita's humour is verbal, true-believer-Marxist-materialist-realist: "what part of you makes you hard to love?" she asks, early on, a coquettish nineteen year old. Manfred's take on his own mother is brutal, and his preoccupation with Rita in the early stages of their romance, and always with his chemical engineering, is convincing and tragic. It reminded me a bit of The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez and Melissa's observation that the man looks at the world, and the woman looks at the man; perhaps so, until she ceases to.

The set consists of a bathtub, and indeed it does go off somewhere towards the end of the eighty-ish minutes. Amelia Lever-Davidson's lighting design was excellent. The production is tight, acting solid, and exhibits wistful nostalgia for Red Plenty, which I'm told is on the rise amongst millenials. The Sputnik moment is human: Rita celebrates Yuri Gagarin being the first man in outer space, and sticking it to the Americans.

An entirely Melbourne company, as I understand it. Jason Blake. Joyce Morgan. Cassie Tongue. Judith Greenaway.

David Runciman: How Democracy Ends.

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Kindle. I've enjoyed reading Runciman's essays at the London Review of Books, and figured this book-length expansion of his immediate reaction to Trump's election in December 2016 would be worth a read. Unfortunately it is mostly a rambling walk in need of a disciplined edit; a reflection of Trump's reign thus far perhaps.

This book is frustrating as it is very repetitious, but never gets properly grounded. I came away not really knowing what Runciman thinks democracy is: it's something more than voting; something that promotes individual dignity, but the mechanism by which it resolves conflict is not specified. Apparently others have observed that peace is correlated with greater inequality, and that democracy has generally solved the problem of violence between and within states (but how does that work?). Also it seems that democracy depends on growth. Asserting that democracies prevented nuclear war is unsupported, and one could say that it was a signal antinomy of the US system that allowed atomic weapons to be used twice (the pharaonic President operating in secret against the wishes of the people). I guess he didn't read Ellsberg last year, who points at plenty of evidence for the undemocratic Soviets exercising more restraint than the MAD United States.

Most confusing to me was Runciman's attempt to engage with the epistocrats, who think that better outcomes might be had by restricting the franchise to suitably-edified people. This directly contradicts the expansion of (political recognition of) personal dignity that anchors the enduring legitimacy of a democratic state, says Runciman. Further, capricious democracy is better than despotic epistocracy, as the demos is forever changing its mind; but as we see Krugman arguing in the context of trade wars, this defeats long-term planning. Where the wheels really fall off is that Runciman accepts a utilitarian morality without discussion: he supposes that there is a rational way for me to vote, and that just maybe Nigel by Kimera (now predictably having an ICO after pivoting towards becoming the new social network intermediators) can help me do so; in other words, our decisions are just risk/uncertainty assessments. But that is economics, not politics: democratic voting is about expressing preferences, and those need not be rational. As Runciman observes elsewhere, there are no right answers to political questions, just consequences. On this reading he isn't even talking about the same things as the epistocrats.

Also irritating is his poor framing of Nozick's conception of the ideal society (or utopia), as something like the intersection of all the societies that individuals might wish to join. Personally I'd prefer to have more undespoiled nature than less, which is a joint action problem that I doubt is solvable entirely within my "society". Similarly Runciman does not have a lot to say about the Singularists: come on man, why the demos should not expect to share in the future is right there in the name. However infinitely fascinating humans are supposed to be, technology is more and increasingly so to those with power. I didn't understand why the bureaucracy cannot already serve many of the functions the Runciman asks of the internet, big data, whatever, or flipping it around, why the latter would be immune to the pathologies of the former.

Reviews are legion.

New Theatre: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts.

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New Theatre, $20 on their cheap Thursday, booked 2018-06-15. Maybe half full. The rain had stopped by lunchtime and the clouds cleared, only to return a few hours later to smite the washing I'd hung out. I rode over to Newtown on wet roads, and home afterwards in some light fog.

This is a Southern Gothic from 2007, which apparently premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre. It's a bit transgressive but not that transgressive, mostly around the topic of aging women: Letts holds forth on the younger competition, going out disgracefully, eating fear, disintegrating sisterhood, disintegrating family, strung out matriarchy, spinsterhood, and just how great was the Greatest Generation anyway? — and so forth, a serve for everyone. It's long and thematically rich, only dropping into cliché with a serial sexual predator who is a bit too cardboard, and the Native American help is handled in a completely auxiliary mode. The three (Chekhovian?) daughters of poet Beverly and groupie (?) Violet anchor the piece with devices going off like clockwork. The twists are not always plausible or necessary, but at least the misdirection is not so bad that I felt cheated. Apparently there's a movie too.

This production featured a simple, effective set and a large, great cast with mostly fantastic accent work. Things shifted from cutting backhanded black humour to emotionally-accurate dead seriousness in a beat. It's quite long at about three hours, and fun in a did-she-really-just-say-that sort of way. The best thing I've seen at New Theatre.

Suzy Goes See. Jason Blake. Judith Greenaway.

For a Few Dollars More

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Another Leone, sharing Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I struggled to understand Gian Maria Volontè at times, and probably missed some of the filigree. More transparently criminal.

A Fistful of Dynamite (or Duck You Sucker)

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Second time around, over two nights. A Rod Steiger jag from Doctor Zhivago, and Leone from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Quite fun for what it is: revolutionary exile from Ireland James Coburn gets held up by Steiger and family in revolutionary Mexico. The expected ensues, with some funny twists.

28 Days Later

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Drecky. Something of a jag from Ex Machina, but it seems scriptwriter Alex Garland has only one plot in him. Tiresomely predictable — what, we need a virus to unleash the rage? — and so much worse than you might expect from Danny Boyle, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson and so forth. Christopher Eccleston could have been awesome in his pseudo-Cyberman role, if only they'd let him. Cillian Murphy morphs from bike courier to Spiderman without the customary scientific accident. It's like Shaun of the Dead without the comedy. I'll be giving 28 Weeks Later a miss despite the cast.

NIDA: The Removalists by David Williamson.

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Booked 2018-05-16, $28.00, along with the other two NIDA student productions. I spent the afternoon in the UNSW Library, trying to hack. The Playhouse has quite full; I saw Colin Friels in Moving Parts there a while back. Apparently I saw this play at the Bondi Pavilion in 2013. I forgot about that.

This is an early piece by Williamson, dating from 1971. The themes are timely timely and have aged well, but Williamson's handling is often easy to dismiss by being too crass and stuck in some Australian dystopia long past, rather than the ever-present. The removalist himself (Nyx Calder, effective) would probably be a technologist now, spouting the ethical neutrality of whatever they've built, with similar eternal disengagement from the concerns of others. Does anyone go to the pub any more? Ned Napier has a career of cop shows ahead of him if he wants it, inhabiting the main character Simmonds perfectly. Mark Paguio struggled a bit with Ross, largely because I got the impression he is supposed to be a large bloke who can plausibly take it to Simmonds and Carter. Emma Kew is great as affluent dentist-wife Kate Mason, though constrained by the character's lack of humour. Nicholas Burton as Kenny Carter and Daya Czepanski as his wife Fiona are as solid as the script allows.

Afterwards I caught the farcical end of the Wallabies v Ireland match on web TV.

American History X

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Second time around, I think. The obvious (anachronistic) referent is This is England; but that focuses more on community and less on the individual, reflecting the Atlantic divide. I guess Romper Stomper demonstrated solipsistic solidarity across the Pacific. An Ed Furlong jag from Terminator 2, though he is far more deer-in-headlights passive here, effectively so. Ed Norton is brave, on his way to Fight Club and more ruefully 25th Hour. Both Guy Torry (did Lamont have so much and power and how?) and Stacy Keach own their scenes. It is so strange to see Elliott Gould play a buttoned-down school teacher. The cinematography is fantastic. I wonder what else director Tony Kaye has done; oh right, advertisements and music videos. The main weakness is the ending, which leaves too many threads unresolved.

This movie's time has come again, I guess. The white supremacist rhetoric is extreme, and quickly shifts from arguable to obscene. I didn't find the accompanying shifts in attitude plausible: people are not so infinitely malleable. The prescription for more self-esteem, self improvement, ideas whose time have gone, was soon enough mocked by Norton himself in Fight Club.

Janet Maslin, back in the day. Also David Edelstein.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

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More Arnie. I remain fascinated by just how perfectly constructed this movie is (for what it is): James Cameron somehow develops character, plot, and the rest simultaneously, while serving up spectacle. Still #42 in the IMDB top-250, and will be for a while yet.

Conan the Barbarian

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First time around. What a strange movie. Arnie is so young here, and the swords and sorcery thing doesn't sit quite right with him; he's much more at home with modern (and postmodern) weaponry. I don't remember seeing James Earl Jones act before. The trivia at IMDB about the making of this movie is more interesting than the movie itself. Co-written by Oliver Stone.

NIDA: Ex Machina.

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Booked 2018-05-16, $28.00. The Space was packed. I was sucked in by the promise of puppetry, which did indeed make some moments. Less scintillating was the use of LED-edge-lit sliding screens to create spaces, cameras and strobes ala The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and an insufficient abstraction of the movie to this theatrical form. The dialogue was quite arch at times. All that gear must have cost a bit. I recognised a few of the actors from last year.

Ceridwen Dovey: Only the Animals.

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I found this via a pointer from a review of her most-recent novel in the aspirational Sydney Review of Books. Surprisingly Randwick City Library had it in electronic form, but I had to read it via Overdrive: mostly on the laptop, a couple of chapters on the iPhone. Dovey works at the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

This is a collection of shorts that pay homage to various authors, often adopting or referring to their stories, with a heavy feminist slant, in the animalian first person. Dovey starts out strong with a camel and Henry Lawson, a French cat in World War 1, and does not quite cross the taboo with a chimpanzee. And so forth. All have their moments, though they often depend on (a lack of) familiarity with other people's work. Fun on its own terms.

The Terminator

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Timeless, and still #228 in the IMDB top-250. I wonder where Arnie is at these days... apparently they're rebooting this franchise next year.

To Live and Die in L.A.

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A 1980s classic with some pretty dodgy editing. The always-reliable Willem Dafoe nails his role as a creepy failed-artist-turned-counterfeiter. William Petersen (the cop) has a face familiar from other movies the era, such as Manhunter. John Turturro plays it straight; maybe he saves his kookie for the Coen brothers. One lady is a compromised informant, the other the femme fatale. Things spiral out of control, predictably but entertainingly. Apparently second time around, but I don't remember a thing.

New HJC helmet from The Helmet Warehouse.

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It was perhaps time to get a new motorcycle helmet anyway, but due to some thoughtlessness it became imperative about two weeks ago; work and rain delayed the trip out to Yagoona until today. The lady in the shop did a fantastic job of pitching the options, and my only regret with the HJC IS-17 ($297.42) I bought is that it has a quick-release chin strap — which means I cannot easily use the existing helmet lock on the CB400, something I only realised later on. I also got some Dririder waterproof winter-ish gloves ($67.96).

NIDA: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

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Booked 2018-05-16, $28.00. The Parade Theatre wasn't that full. Having learnt from previous years I got a seat three rows from the front, dead centre.

I saw this play back in 2000, in a production featuring Bob Ellis at the Bondi Pavilion, and have vague memories of it being an irascible beast. Since then I've been to enough Beckett to sort-of put up with the bits I don't get; Happy Days by Theatre Y being a particular highlight. Andrew Fraser's performance of Lucky's thinking was electrifyingly first-rate; he was similarly excellent last year in The Country Wife. Jack Richardson as Estragon and Laurence Boxhall (Vladimir) burnt time as well as anyone can with rotten feet and a memory erased by nightly bashing-disturbed sleep. Joshua Crane is a natural for the demented landed gent Pozzo. The set was basic and effective: a tree, an elevated road, a stump.

I wonder if Beckett's estate insists on a traditional production; the Chicagoans had a lot of fun futzing with Pinter, and a similar approach to this work might lead to wonderful things: imagine a couple of blokes working the stop/go somewhere in an Australian city, a cockie and his chauffeur in a smashed-up Audi, all waiting for the light rail to be completed. Secular salvation: it almost writes itself.

Incredibles 2

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Opening night at The Ritz, 8:30pm, $10, cinema 4. Packed with people who were born around about the time the first one got released; the MLC "life unchanging" advertisement offered them nothing (yet) and they talked the whole time. I had a quick dinner at Tum's Thai beforehand after staying a bit too late at work.

Bao was the opening short. The crowd laughed all the way through, including at the parts that seem intended to be poignant. Oops. The feature continued the 1960s retro nostalgic aesthetic, when people were just plain awesome(ly good or evil) and America was incontestably great. This was helped along by generous thievery from Bond. I enjoyed it for what it is, which is something less than the first one. The best bits featured baby Jack-Jack and involved no speaking and little politics.

Manohla Dargis. Sam Adams. Anthony Lane.

The Hudsucker Proxy

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A sometimes-fun piece of Coen brothers fluff. Paul Newman in fine growling form; Jennifer Jason Leigh almost gets there with her His Girl Friday schtick, accent sometimes wobbling; and Tim Robbins has it the toughest as a bumpkin. Second time around.

Mystic River

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An Eastwood jag from Unforgiven. Second time around.

Unforgiven

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Second time around. Vincent Canby reminded me that Eastwood has made a truckload of movies that I've never seen.

Richard Flanagan: First Person.

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Waiting for the painter to complete his work on Tuesday, I happened upon a dead tree volume of this in the Randwick City Library. An alternative would have been Flanagan's much-feted The Long Road to the Deep North, which Dave made some equivocal noises about last year.

This is the story of a Tasmanian writer charged with ghosting a memoir of a generic 1980s sort-of-Australian shyster. Those were legion at the time and still are, having learnt to live large so privately that even the current Royal Commission won't damage their sleep. As such it is in an entirely recognizable Australian genre (see, for instance, several of Patrick White's novels — Flanagan sometimes echoes Voss — or perhaps Wake in Fright). There's a lot of hand wringing about the state of things, whinging about the soullessness of Port Melbourne in the early 1990s and sundry else; mostly it amounts to little more than a Chewbacca defence of a hack writer. Annoyingly Flanagan keeps saying that words cannot capture Heidl's venality, which strikes me as the thoroughgoing failure of this book: we never get a clear sense of how Heidl has possessed the writer, beyond a dog-returns-to-vomit reflex and a crippled morality. Domesticity mostly comes in broad brushstrokes: Suzy is little more than a clumsy, heavily gravid object, Bo has a favourite bedtime story and no more. Jez Dempster is how Flanagan views his competitors: writers who can self-Heidl.

Flanagan often writes extremely well in the small, particularly when riffing on cliches and quotations, and describing the overly familiar. One vivid chapter gives us a strong sense of being bored, fearless and male in 1970s/1980s Hobart, another the birth of his twins: both are anomalous in never being retrod, and I found the iterative-deepening structure to be even more annoying than the current fad for the multi-track. The story was exhausted not just at the two-thirds mark, when the Chekhovian gun necessarily went off, but every twenty to thirty pages along the way. A decent edit could have reduced the book by at least a third and yielded a better product, and maybe something artful.

The courage with which David Ireland set about showing us how ugly things have gotten (note also Ireland's previous efforts that recorded how ugly things were at the time of their writing) seems lacking here. The recent revival of the recent bullshit jobs meme, and the dystopias of Kafka et al ask more of a new novel than we get. I'm still curious about Flanagan's Booker winner — having been dubious that it will measure up to David Malouf's The Great World — but will, for now, try to find something else.

Olen Steinhauer and all other reviewers observe that this is Flanagan fictionalizing his own story (see, e.g., Wikipedia on John Friedrich). Andrew Motion. Peter Kenneally reminds me that society has substantially given up on identifying cons of the Heidl kind: Theranos embodied the "fake it 'til you make it" startup culture, and he's dead right also that Flanagan demonstrates little interest in the truth or how we might apprehend it; the abyss may have stopped staring back for all we know. Geordie Williamson riffs on the artless co-option of bullshit jobs as a corollary of neoliberalism. Roslyn Jolly argues that we've seen it all before, more or less, in Heart of Darkness and thereabouts. Eoin McNamee. And so on.

25th Hour

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A Spike Lee classic, rated lower than I would have expected on IMDB. Third or fourth time around. A Brian Cox, Anna Paquin jag from X-Men.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Same as always. Last seen quite a while back.

X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: The Last Stand

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Last seen an age ago, but I mostly remembered how they went. It's been a while since they've progressed the semi-rebooted "first class" storyline.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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Last seen an age ago; something of a jag from Deadpool 2. It's entirely vacuous and somewhat fun, and still makes so little sense.

Pajtim Statovci: My Cat Yugoslavia.

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Kindle. A young migrant Finnish author's tale of migration and not fitting in. He canvasses Albanian/Islamic marriage customs in a way that somewhat echoes Salman Rushdie (blood on the sheets and so forth). I didn't really get into it, beyond appreciating his portrait of Emine; I probably missed the allusions he was reaching for with the snakes and the cats. It is mercifully short.

Téa Obreht. Sukhdev Sandhu.

Rachel Kushner: Telex from Cuba.

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Kindle. The first of Kushner's novels, and the last for me to read. Consists of stories around the end of days in Cuba for the Americans of the United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita, I learnt here): Prio exits, Batista has his moment, then the Castros do their thing. In between we get too many characters, much like Tim Winton's Cloud Street; she even has a Fish-like character in the form of morally-unformed Duffy, and all are similarly somewhat caricatured, some being miniature grotesques. The whole thing smells the same as what played out in Saigon (16 years apart) or Once Upon a Time in America, and almost always goes as you expect. Women are empowered by saying no to men; many observations are similarly trite, particularly early on. I wasn't particularly gripped. Perhaps the best parts ended up in the novella The Strange Case of Rachel K.

Susann Cokal seems surprised that the natives are as racist as the American neo-colonialists.