peteg's blog

Julian Barnes: Letters from London

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Aptly reviewed on Amazon as being "a bit like reading yesterday's newspaper", this book collects Julian Barnes's New Yorker essays from 1991 to 1994. His take on Thatcher's dying days, and the rise of Tony Blair (whose era coincidentally came to an end recently) entertained me, as did some of his coverage of the Chess World Championship match between Englishman Nigel Short and Gary Kasparov. Perhaps the most intriguing story is about Lloyd's, though it suffers from a lack of framing; the repetition could have been expunged in favour of a potted history, I feel.

East of Eden

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At Greater Union on George St, as part of the Sydney Film Festival. I came to this movie with an appreciation of Adrienne Shelly's acting for Hal Hartley, especially in Trust opposite Martin Donovan, and was wondering what she would make of the role of auteur.

This movie is a a bit trite, with a fairly stodgy plot somewhat saved by some decent acting and Hal Hartley-ish moments of direction and dialogue. The opening is quite fun though things go to pot as the serious issues supplant the comedic. The ending is quite sudden and brutal; it is not clear how anything really got resolved. Her male characters are flimsy and creepily unlikeable, though perhaps I missed the erotic subtext. A piece of mostly agreeable fluff.

Life is Sweet

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Another Mike Leigh film. Better than All or Nothing.

The Thaw at MGTVLE

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With mrak. A longer set this time, second on the bill after some fairly atrocious noise-metal.

All or Nothing

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Another Mike Leigh. This isn't as good as the earlier stuff.

All the President's Men

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The movie is fairly gripping, but, like the book except worse, it severely curtails the treatment of the interesting and consequential events between their dogged newspaper reportage and the Watergate tapes fiasco that ultimately forced Nixon's resignation.

TAP Gallery: Friday Night Drinks by Stephen Vagg.

/noise/theatre | Link

With Sarah, on their everyone-gets-in-for-fifteen-bucks night. As the blurb says, this is a set of "three one-act plays about Sydney on the best night of the week", focusing on "the quarter life crisis, beer and a lot of sexual tension..." Given that the protagonists are twenty-five year olds, it is not clear the writer has come to terms with his mortality as yet.

The production is almost setless, using just a few pub familiars — a barrel, a mirrorball, a fancier table — to evoke various drinking ambiences (the beer garden of an urban pub, a gay nightclub, an inner-city bar). Thus the play is largely carried by the actors, who do a solid job with some occasionally dodgy material. All the situations are somewhat stereotypical, which is hardly surprising given what people are looking for in an end-of-the-working-week boozing session, and the humour is a tad forced, more cringe-inducing than clever.

There's a review at Sydney Stage.

/noise/beach/2006-2007 | Link
Late morning snorkel with Rob. After the recent heavy storms the water was way too turbid to see anything, but my spring suit made it pleasant enough. Some fairly large waves.

Secrets & Lies

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Another Mike Leigh masterpiece. More measured than its truly excellent predecessor Naked, about the same pace as Vera Drake.

Has this man made a crap movie?

The Good German

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Quarterly Essay #26, David Marr: His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard

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To think of this unfocussed essay as essentially another, better written, chapter of Silencing Dissent would be both apt and to miss the point. As the pull quote on the website says:

More than any law, any failure of the Opposition or individual act of bastardry over the last decade, what's done most to gag democracy in this country is the sense that debating John Howard gets us nowhere.

The Smage review abbreviates the quote and swiftly rebuts it:

The frustration is palpable as David Marr writes, "What's done most to gag democracy in this country is a sense that debating John Howard is futile".

It's not, as the polls are showing on a weekly basis. But for much of the past decade this is how it has felt to those who do not share the Prime Minister's political and social agenda. Marr describes how the terms of engagement in public discussion have evolved — deteriorated — during the long years of the Howard Government.

I almost choked on my Weetbix; since when has an opinion poll been a debate? Perhaps, like electricity and frogs' legs, they indicate that some force is at work, but what? Let not informed debate inform that, lest the Government lose control of the agenda! Elsewhere, at The Australian, the faceless editorialist similarly opines:

This last thesis [that Australia is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state where dissidents are silenced], expounded at length in Silencing Dissent published earlier this year, would seem difficult to sustain at a time when the marketplace of ideas has never been so crowded. In newspaper opinion sections and magazines and on radio and televisions and increasingly online, Australians are engaged in intelligent conversation about the issues of the day great and small. Blogs and internet chat rooms have given everyone a seat at the debating table. Technology has lowered the barriers to publishing. A host of new periodicals online and in print including The Monthly, New Matilda and The Australian's own Australian Literary Review are providing new platforms for discussion while established journals such as Quadrant and the Griffith Review are reaching new readers and providing a home for new writers. The queues outside venues at this year's Sydney Writers Festival, record attendances at similar writers festivals around the country and new events such as next month's Adelaide Festival of Ideas are public expressions of a confident, mature democracy in which informed debate flourishes.

Ah yes, if people are talking, they must be debating! How could they not be contributing to Australia's democratic future if they are sitting around in cafés, lecture halls, cubicle farms talking about John Howard? Clearly there is discourse in the public sphere, and these polemics are not complaining so much about the amount of it, but how it is informed and almost entirely summarily ignored along petty partisan lines. For the Government to be blown around by the winds of focus groups and opinion polls, as apparently advocated by the Smage, is to reveal how small an agenda it has now that most of its narrow ideological goals are in train.

It is the restriction of the foundational acquisition and dissemination of hard information that is troubling; this is an expensive business (look at how much your average university professor is paid and how much knowledge they produce) that the media is loathe to do a decent job of in these times of economic rationalism. If whisteblowers are persecuted, public servants valued only in their capacity as executors of Government policy, Freedom of Information requests evaded, and so forth, are we not well on the way to thinking of citizens purely as voters, entities of limited memory and interest whose coarsely aggregated opinions only matter once every three years or so?

It makes more sense to consider Marr's piece a response to Judith Brett's Quarterly Essay 19: Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party's Australia, where the intelligentsia is entreated not to abandon the field to Howard, but to join him out in the middle, the mainstream, arguing for the future of this country. Marr finds this futile, as the pull quote makes abundantly clear. The above-quoted editorial from The Australian goes on to insist that the "left" is completely dysfunctional and has dealt itself out of the debate, though the "argument" left me cold; take, for example:

Closely related to their hatred of the US is their contempt for capitalism. The impact of the modern share-owning democracy has yet to dawn on them. Corporations no longer answer to the bourgeoisie, they answer to shareholders -- ordinary people who are now stakeholders, either directly or through the $1 trillion in superannuation. Karl Marx's dream has been fulfilled now that the workers truly do control the means of production.

Any given worker may now own 0.000001% of some very large means of production, but even that much control is diluted by the fund managers and the machinations of the big boys. One only has to look at Rupert Murdoch's poison pill to see what kind of stakeholding The Australian has in mind; "privatise the profits, socialise the losses" springs to mind, albeit from the broader perspective of influence rather than just money.

Andrew Norton's review (and the ensuing commentary) is much more thoughtful than those of the mainstream press, though I mildly disagree with his closing (unargued for) claim that "Public debate [...] is not under any threat". Andrew Bartlett's comment there almost makes me mourn the passing of the Australian Democrats. Also Andrew Elder treads similar (good) ground.

New Theatre: Oh What a Lovely War, Mate!

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Like clockwork, a first Sunday of the month and another production from New Theatre. This is song-and-dance, and as it was billed as such I got pretty much what I expected, viz something not to my taste. The cast put in a solid effort and the political message — the horrors of war, the perfidious propaganda that sells it — comes across loud and clear.

Garden State

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The Manchurian Candidate

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The original one, with Frank Sinatra in it.

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End

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I did not understand this movie.

The Good Shepherd

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Accessing the Mac OS X paste buffer from the command line.

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If you have ever wanted to ship data to or from your X11 environment, check out pbcopy and pbpaste. Now, if only X had a sane cut-and-paste model, we'd be home...

Woodward and Bernstein: The Final Days

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A sort-of-sequel to All the President's Men, recounting the events up to Nixon's resignation. As before, it ends rather abruptly and one has to scour Wikipedia for a few hours to figure out what the longer-term implications of Watergate were. In short, those with fingers in the operational pies seem to have been fed to the tigers, and the political and Cabinet associates (such as Kissinger, Haig and Cheney) either continued or were resuscitated in later Republican administrations.

These are a great pair of books, though you'll need (to acquire) a working knowledge of (some) U.S. constitutional law if you want to follow the legal narrative, which is what it's mostly about, of course. I'm not aware of similar books about the Dismissal; I've read Gough Whitlam's The Truth of the Matter, but that's it.

/noise/beach/2006-2007 | Link
Snorkeling with Rob at Little Bay, the old Prince Henry Hospital site now being turned into apartments. (We'd been to "Little Bay" before, but that was in fact Long Bay.) Very clear, not too cold (in a springsuit), some fish to see and loads of interesting rock formations. Lunch at Paris Seafood at La Parouse in what turned out to be a pleasant autumn afternoon.


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With Rob at The Ritz.

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Midday snorkelling attempt at Gordons Bay. A bit too rough and turbid to make out much, though the water was pleasant enough once in (at least in a spring suit).

Road to Perdition

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NUTS: Chamber Music

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Couldn't pass up on the last NUTS gig of the session, however much the pitch lacked specifity. This is an absurdist play set in an asylum, and while the production was great I didn't get much of a handle on it.