peteg's blog

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

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A trip down down the river prompted by Ebert's selection of greatest movies. From the title we're obviously going to end up with a Kurtz, and the early lush cinematography, rich conceit and huge cast winding down the Andes is very promising. Unfortunately (the horror) it is too cut up to be immersive; Kinski always seems to be mugging for the camera, and the the "oh woe I am pierced by this feeble arrow" dialogue does not help. I know it's a Werner Herzog "art" movie, but he seems to have lacked sufficient conviction to either completely dispense with a plot or develop it or the characters adequately.

Ebert in 1977 and in 1999.

Jill Ciment: The Body in Question.

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Kindle. Curtis Sittenfeld's review sold it to me, and I mostly got what I expected. The first part canvasses a range of issues, not the least being the sexuality of American females deep into middle age, related issues of childlessness, powerlessness, new forms of brutality, care for the young/damaged/aged, and smoking. The focus is a fling or love affair, depending on who's telling, with a sordid court case serving as a backdrop. Like an eternalised Dermansky, Ciment has the ladies taking the initiative since always; there's some fun in her no-means-yes plays. The second half tries to cash the conceits of the first half, and in failing to satisfy perhaps exposes their slightness.

David Halberstam: The Reckoning.

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The other respect in which America was ill prepared for the new world economy was in terms of expectations. No country, including America, was likely ever to be as rich as America had been from 1945 to 1975, and other nations were following the Japanese into middle-class existence, which meant that life for most Americans has bound to become leaner. But in the middle of 1986 there seemed little awareness of this, let alone concern about it. Few were discussing how best to adjust the nation to an age of somewhat diminished expectations, or how to marshal its abundant resources for survival in a harsh, unforgiving new world, or how to spread the inevitable sacrifices equitably.
— Halberstam's closing paragraph.

Kindle. Before longform journalism we got (flabby, repetitious, under-signposted, invaluable) doorstops from the likes of David Halberstam. This is the third of his history-like writeups I've read (after the classic The Best and the Brightest and the minor Ho). It maps out the rise of industrial Japan as a direct function of Japanese culture and post-World War II US intervention, resulting in some shaky years of decline for the US automotive sector (colloquially "Detroit") up to 1986. Apparently he wanted to sound a warning and thought this angle provided a telling vehicle. Of course Robert S. McNamara provides a bridge between fascinations old and new.

The book cleaves into tales of America and Japan. I found his choice to focus on Nissan a bit weird; his afterword justifies it by the parallel with Ford, being the #2 company. (He chose Ford as GM was always well insulated and Chrysler perennially cactus.) For mine Honda and Toyota are both more interesting: Honda for being an unusually innovative Japanese company, and Toyota for its famous Total Quality Management, quality being a big concern here. As you'd expect it's the personalities on the American side that come through most vividly: the recently-passed sales wizard Lee Iacocca and man of duty and large appetite Henry Ford II in particular. I liked his portrayal of founder Henry Ford's conception of work as enjoyable production and not parasitism, though of course that attitude can't last in the times of automation and plenty, or perhaps the capitalism in general that Ford himself did so much to promote. The boom and bust of the unions and their co-option in both the USA and Japan surprised me less than Halberstam wanted it to.

I came away wondering if Japan was ever receptive to anything except technical know-how; Halberstam suggests they were not particularly interested or open to democracy or substantive cultural or societal reform (cf his software/hardware comments). This made me think that Mitsubishi, a zaibatsu that zombie-shuffled through the war, would have made for a more interesting topic: the intransigence of the old ways in the face of proven gaijin superiority and occupation, with some motivation to make this situation transient. That the Bank of Japan owns so much stock in 2019 makes perfect sense in such a controlled economy and society.

From a thirty-year perspective Halberstam's analysis looks accurate, except by curious timing Japan fell away soon after this book was published, and now the USA is again the world's largest producer of oil. (Halberstam himself passed before things really came unstuck in 2008; also Japan's "lost decade" has become two or three, depending on who's counting.) More broadly I felt he could have expended more pages on other points: the financialisation of everything, the rise of the service economy (which in an aside he speculates may be parasitic on the realer forms of industry), the apparent failure of the Japanese computer industry outside gaming, the geopolitics of the oil and green revolutions, and an even broader sketch of the macro forces of the day.

As far as I understand it, nothing has changed for Detroit: Government protection is what kept them alive then, what's keeping them alive now, and we all know what happened during the GFC. More zombies than ever are shuffling across the US corporate landscape: as it goes in Japan, so will it be for the rest?

Reviews are legion. John Kenneth Galbraith. Goodreads. An interview of sorts at the time on C-SPAN.

Apocalypse Now (Final Cut)

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The Ritz, $10, 4pm, Cinema 1, five rows from the front downstairs (upstairs also in operation), 4K digital, maybe half full. Coffee at Shorty's before, lunch at Coogee before that in a strong onshore wind, a little cool. They were hammering the golden pop/rock classics of my youth before the shorts. Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood looks a bit more literally Tate-murdery than I'd hoped.

The intro had Coppola billing this as a sort of ultimate revision, something between the original theatrical cut and the redux of 2001: this amounted to keeping the French plantation, ditching the supply depot and expanding some interstitial scenes. Somehow it was less magical this time around, leaving me detached and trainspotting the continuity. It was followed by Coppola being interviewed by Steven Soderbergh at Tribeca earlier this year. They gestured to perhaps more interesting Coppola interviews: with Martin Sheen in 2010 and the press conference at Cannes 1979. And of course Hearts of Darkness. This meant I didn't get out until well after 8pm.

Ebert had at least three goes: at the time (an experience, not a philosophy), 1999, the redux of 2001. A. O. Scott on the redux. Still #50 in the IMDB top-250.

Apollo 11

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Dendy Newtown, 4:15pm (only session of the day), $1 birthday ticket, Cinema 6, front row modulo the wheelchair space bracketed by couches (unused), perhaps 10-15 people. Ate my lunch in dogshit park out back of the church, and had a coffee in the cafe next door beforehand. I got there in time for Springsteen's Hungry Heart. I don't think they played any shorts, just ads.

Glenn Kenny suggests this is an assembly of previously unscreened (on film anyway) footage of the moonshot. It is excellent. The composition, editing, pacing, etc. is also spot on. I was slightly annoyed by the soundtrack: the drama speaks for itself. I would also have liked to (always) know who was piloting. I wonder what happened to all that antiquated tech. I'll refrain from politicking.

James Gleick.

The Chaser

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A graphic Korean crime/police procedural directed by Na Hong-jin and not the eternal Australian undergrad-humorists. A serial-killer jag from Memories of Murder, which is in every way superior. The plot of this one doesn't make a ton of sense, and all the solid acting and decent cinematography didn't save it. Kim Yoon-suk (Yoon-Seok?) leads as a detective-turned pimp and spends an excess of time running the streets of Seoul. It's a bit Se7en mashed up with more pointless slasher/horror tropes.

Mike Hale at the New York Times.

Memories of Murder

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More IMDB top-250 completism (#190), and Bong Joon-ho too. This is a masterful mashup of genres that covers a sensitive period in South Korean history: it's 1986, democratic elections are on the way (replacing a police state), the country has its first serial killer and the local cops are way out of their depth. The cinematography is generally excellent and the odd shot is sublime, which is weird given the grim skies. Song Kang-ho leads, again.

Manohla Dargis. Made a huge splash at the time.

The Bandit

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IMDB top-250 completism (#208). Turkish. A mountain bandit gets released from gaol after 35 years and heads to the big smoke. Cliches ensue. Not very good. Presumably highly pumped by the partisans.

North by Northwest

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Alfred Hitcock's loveletter to mid-century America: trains, planes, automobiles, NYC, Chicago, Mount Rushmore, bottomless pockets stuffed with Madison Avenue greenbacks, a breezy, implausible and slight cold war plot. Cary Grant leads, James Mason follows and Eva Marie Saint tags along. Second time around. Fun. Still #78 in the IMDB top-250.

Sunset Boulevard

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In two sittings. Second time around. This is classical Hollywood: a strong (albeit self-regarding) story told with pitch-perfect acting in B&W in 1950. This was Billy Wilder's masterpiece. Gloria Swanson is so iconically arch. Still #57 on the IMDB top-250.

Roger Ebert.

Glengarry Glen Ross

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Second time around with this Mamet piece. I laughed throughout. The cadence strikes me as so very Raymond Carver now. This may be the only Jack Lemmon performance I genuinely enjoyed. Everyone dumps on Kevin Spacey.

Roger Ebert. Vincent Canby. Peter Travers.

Tim Winton: Dirt Music.

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Kindle. I read this a long time ago and remember the outlines of the story: wayward, wilful woman falls out of love/arrangement with an affluent fishing scion and falls in with a rough, soulful yet manly artist. Winton set himself a tough challenge in constructing not only the female lead but also female friendship. It's similar to Morton's recent memoir in its description of harsh landscapes, communities, men and dynasties. I felt it was masterfully constructed up to around halfway, up to when Winton needs to get the third leg of his love triangle north of Broome: Jim is too closed a book for us to understand why or how he might be redeemed by finding Fox. It's cinematic, won the Miles Franklin in 2002, and there's a movie in the works (but there pretty much always is).

Reviews are legion.

Rick Morton: One Hundred Years of Dirt.

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Kindle. Got the pointer from the Guardian staff book list for 2018. Briefly this is a memoir by a still-young bloke from far western Queensland who became a journo in the big smoke (in fact all of the east-coast big smokes). He gives some insight into why Queenslanders vote in what looks like beggar-thy-neighbour fashion, incidentally fueling the argument for epistocracy. (I'm not in favour of an epistocracy.) There is a lot of poverty (of means, experience, hope, goodwill and much else), addiction, domestic violence, feudal families, so forth. It reminded me strongly of Nicholas Cowdery's Getting Justice Wrong in saying many powerfully obvious things — often backed by recent, timely and relevant data and economic narratives — that will somehow go unheard by those with power.

Widely reviewed.

Scent of a Woman

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I might have seen this one before. A Pacino jag, and also James Rebhorn (as a milksop headmaster). Nothing more than Oscar bait for Pacino, who is better elsewhere. Chris O'Donnell is not great as his seeing-eye scholarship student. Tailor Anh Duong is striking in her almost non-speaking role. A very young Philip Seymour Hoffman. Overall it's mawkish American hokum. Loosely based on a book and something of a remake.

Janet Maslin. Roger Ebert.

Carlito's Way

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Second time around. De Palma and Pacino decided to make a Godfather Part III / Scarface / ... mashup in 1993. It's a world-weary gangsta sort of thing set in generic mid-1970s NYC. Sean Penn has his moments as a lawyer in Jewfro. Viggo Mortensen is a depleted good-time host. The plot unfolds entirely predictably. There's some fancy cinematograpy but everyone was better elsewhere. It's an exercise in style.

Roger Ebert at the time, and Janet Maslin.

Ned Beauman: Glow.

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Kindle. I couldn't make it past the first page of The Teleportation Incident, and this one is shorter.

The Beauman ingredients:

  • Some sort of McGuffin to hunt
  • At least one character with a kooky malady, probably genetic and hence essential
  • Corporate surveillance, marketing, public relations
  • Inventive, descriptive, evocative similes
  • A massive vocabulary with shallow insights, like a TED talk
  • Deus ex, as much as need be and keep going
  • An exotic location
  • A casual relationship with violence

— and yeah, it's getting a bit tedious by now.

In this instance we have a very willing Burmese girl and a similarly willing London boy enjoying the vestiges of the druggy dance scene that produced drug memoirs that Beauman himself observes he is palely imitating. The plot is incomprehensible and not worth recounting; the author concurs by babbling at every fracture. Glow is the drug equivalent of civet coffee, and I'm so sorry to spoil the whole book for you. Japanese girls are apparently magnificent objects; it's the casual racism of low expectations easily met, like an ABC show. Information comes from anywhere and everywhere. It's a string of scenes. There's some naff commentary on commentary (at Lotophage, the amateur neuroexperientialist's forum) — of course people don't talk about enjoying activity x as typically the pleasures of x speak for themselves. Analysis is a means of reliving it, or bragging, or some other thing. Come on editors, run a ruler over this stuff.

Edward Docx at the time.

After Hours

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Second time around for this mid-1980s Scorsese time capsule. I bracket it with Bonfire of the Vanities but somehow IMDB doesn't; someone there suggests Desperately Seeking Susan. Once again NYC consists of about five people and a pitchfork-bearing posse. "Word processsor" must have been the first autocausality of the IT revolution. Meh.

Vincent Canby felt a bit ripped off back in the day. Roger Ebert at the time, and in 2009, for a total of eight stars.

Ned Beauman: Boxer, Beetle.

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Kindle. I figured I'd see if Beauman's earliest work (from 2010) was an improvement on his most recent. It is mercifully short. Once again we're on a McGuffin hunt, skulking in an England of Nazi sympathisers and memorabilia hunters and unsympathetic Jews. Poland serves as a place of ethnic hatred and entomological discovery: after exposure to the right kind of thinking, a slightless species with swastikas on their extended wings morph into hardy flesh eaters, or a crass metaphor for those who took eugenics seriously. Much of the (British) Fascist exposition is bald unchallenged assertion (sounding a lot like what was trotted out for BREXIT), presumably because Beauman cannot empathise with, imagine or even look into the faces of these people. Conversely he seems at ease with American quantities of violence. There's little insight here, and the cut-up narrative suggests the author thought the story too weak to chug along by itself. Once again I felt he doesn't deliver on the promises made early in the book, or live up to his gift.

Scarlett Thomas seems to have forgotten about the people at the Fascist conference dinnertable. Goodreads suggests his next two are superior.

Short Cuts

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Third time around with this Altman early-1990s time capsule. Some of it is still fun. Other bits have gone rancid.

Roger Ebert. Vincent Canby.

Marcy Dermansky: Very Nice.

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Kindle. I enjoyed the previous two things I read from Dermansky — The Red Car and Bad Marie — but with this the well has run dry. I think she's trying to capture a moment in time (the northern summer of about 8 months after the pivotal 2016 US election IIRC) by portraying a rich, disintegrating Jewish family with a fabulous house in Connecticut, a pair of fabulously gorgeous passably-white-but-actually-black twin sisters, a fabulously irresistible but negligible Pakistani author and perhaps most sympathetically his fabulous apricot-coloured standard poodle. (Hang on, I thought Muslims weren't big on dogs...) We're sometimes taken to Brooklyn but mostly remain in the house, unless we're visiting the crazy Republican family across the way.

The focus is on contemporary sexual politics. Ladies, young or old but all willful and desirous, need to make the first move these days. Blokes are passive, excessively risk-averse unless they're holdover alpha males of the Gordon Gecko variety. Lesbianism is apparently the safer bet on the NYC dating scene, especially if you want to make it big in featureless finance. A Chekhovian device is introduced very late and used to unsatisfactorily terminate a very slight plot.

We're told all this in rotating first-person. Are the voices distinct? Sometimes! Khloe (the not-Kardashian) provides no deep ruminations on finance and what that really means; she's just in it for the money and not the bros. Her twin sister Kristi is a similarly underdrawn literatti. The 54 yo mother deals with bereavement by poaching the dog. The father is Wall St. Daughter Rachel, the fulcrum, is a confused 19 yo who has far more than most. Everyone is an abyss of want. A repetitive, iteratively-deepened narrative? Mostly! — maybe this is how Philip Roth rolled.

I felt that to get even this much out of this book required more of me than it had to offer.

New Theatre: Collaborators by John Hodge.

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$20 on their cheap Thursday, two rows from the front. It was perhaps half to two-thirds full. I had a mediocre dinner at a bright vats-out-the-front Indian nearby on King St. after a pleasant but unsensational coffee at Ferah's Turkish. Gould's has reopened down that way, and it is so strange to be browsing books on shelves; the wall of obsolete Australian political books is heartbreaking. All this after an afternoon at Sydney Uni where all (OK, most of) the libraries are now "learning labs".

I went along despite Jason Blake's review, and as I suspected, he got it about right. The actor playing Stalin took his cues from Christoph Waltz's effort in Inglourious Basterds. It's an attempt to draw humour from the USSR stone, cf The Death of Stalin; there's no message in the script, and a willing cast is not going to make up for that. Dave Kirkham as landed gentry reminded me of A Gentleman in Moscow. I got a bit bored, which is surprising — John Hodge was the scriptwriter for Trainspotting.

Ned Beauman: Madness is Better than Defeat.

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Kindle. Entirely too much is trying to go on here. It's impossible to summarise and also probably impossible to successfully execute. A classic McGuffin hunt by Americans in the Central American jungle running from the 1930s to the late 1950s through NYC, Hollywood and some Mayan ruins. The title comes from an unmade Orson Welles film (Hearts in Darkness) which doubles as the movie in this book. It is a sprawling mess. There are endless segues. It is difficult to follow. Most annoying is the periodic retconning, or maybe it's the actively misleading assertions ("met the gods"), or perhaps the iteratively-deepened narrative. There's some Hunter S. Thompson, some Will Self quantity theory, some magic realism, and many voices that sound about the same. Beauman wears his learning heavily.

Is this a story of when America was great? The greatest generation tropes made me wonder if Beauman was playing a commercial angle. Our principle narrator morphs from a journalist into an OSS/CIA Quiet American without even a montage, and as we all know, even Rocky had a montage. Beauman wants to be taken as seriously as Ken Kesey with his account of a brutal, lobotomising Texan mental health clinic and slight readings of Leibniz's patently inadequate monadology. There are shades of the old Australian utopias (hint: don't try this in Australia) but none are as utopian. There's a nod to Lenin's sealed train. I heard the faintest of echoes of a far more impressively erudite effort from a long time ago.

I wondered if Beauman was commenting on surveillance capitalism by proposing a drug that opens the doors to the panopticon; the concept is used too erratically to be sure. Sometimes it put me in mind of a quote from Becker's The Denial of Death, that we've been suffering from the overproduction of truth for quite a while now, and at others that this must be the essence of Atlassian's appeal to the command-and-control classes. Similarly the imperial ambitions of the camp's company scrip made me think of Facebook's recent corporatist movies with their borderless Libra currency. How long until they try to make their staff subsist entirely on bits made out of people?

Widely reviewed. Helene Stapinski sold it to me. Cal Revely-Calder. Something of a self-review by Beauman. Joe Blessing asks why.

Mother

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Bong Joon-ho completism. This one is from 2009 or so. Over several sittings as it didn't really grip me. Something of of Twin Peaks small-town epic: a popular (?) girl gets murdered, a mentally-deficient bloke gets hooked for it and his everloving mother does the necessary to get things sorted out. I wasn't engaged enough to figure out how his playmate rolls: is he a cop? a stringer? the murderer? Everything always ends up in the bottom of the rice barrel. Set (? - at least shot) in Busan, in the deep south of Korea. Lush cinematography, sometimes bit dark. The lead actress (Kim Hye-ja) is magnetic.

Roger Ebert uses it as a vehicle to rail against the mouse. Manohla Dargis. Dana Stevens.