peteg's blog

Bruce Pascoe: Dark Emu.

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Kindle. Many people recommended this to me. I was always diffident for reasons very well and fairly canvassed by Russell Marks about a year ago, which I'd summarise as too much culture war.

Having read it, I'd say the best parts are about (incontrovertible) Aboriginal ingenuity — the intriguing Brewarinna fish traps and those at Bermagui, the eel traps of western Victoria, the woomera, the transmission of knowledge — and that Pascoe looks like Sterling Heydon playing Papa Hemingway in The Long Goodbye. Along the way he observes that there is no pristine state to return Australia to; this environment has been engineered by humans longer than anywhere else. Therefore the best we can aim for is to adopt (OK, adapt) what used to work. To my mind everything in the book needed to speak to this. Also provided are some interesting factoids about grains, such as the natives being perennials rather than annuals, though I expect they are not nutritionally competitive with their modern engineered cousins.

The central flaw in the work is that if you're not prepared to read it charitably, to search for these good bits and indulge a bit of plausible what-ifery as the flights of fancy of a farmer on his tractor, doing science for the good of the nation and the planet, you'll get bogged down in apparent dodginess that invites quibbling or worse. I'm not going there, except to observe that much value survives even then. OK, just one: Pascoe seems to accept that sedentism signifies progress (I don't, and others don't either). I'd say we're now at just about peak sedentism, so where is the progress? This and other assertions merely distract in a why-go-there way.

Reviews are, of course, legion, and nasty stuff very easy to find.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

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Second time around with this Californian high school sorta-classic. Prompted by Dana Stevens writing the notes of the recent Criterion collection release.

Janet Maslin found it diffuse at the time. Roger Ebert was not a fan, and I concur with him that Jennifer Jason Leigh was the lead here (Sean Penn, not so much).

Hideous Kinky

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Again I have no idea why this was on the pile; it may be that I was on a Kate Winslet completest kick a few years back. Here she is as a transient mendicant, in the lee of Titanic, a young mother dragging her two young daughters around Morocco in search of "the truth" that perhaps the Sufis might know. She's a bundle of needs that are rarely met, and even more rarely interesting. It might've been a fun movie to make.

Roger Ebert was overly generous with three stars. Janet Maslin climbed on board.

The Piano

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Jane Campion's breakthrough feature. Far superior to the later Holy Smoke!. Briefly limp-as-always New Zealand settler Sam Neill mail orders bride Holly Hunter (excellent and Oscared) from the mother country, who arrives with her piano and daughter Anna Paquin (similarly) in startling style. She's inexplicably mute and finds deep pleasure in her playing. Soon enough rough but sensitive Harvey Keitel takes an interest and things go as they must. I was a bit mystified why Neill put up so much of a fight; no one was getting what they wanted up to the point where movie logic demanded things be taken to the limit, and it's pretty clear all the time that he just wants to get on with despoiling the countryside.

Campion herself got an Oscar for the screenplay. Vincent Canby sort-of reviewed it from Cannes 1993, as did Roger Ebert, where Campion was the first woman to win the Palme d'Or. Roger Ebert more formally. Caryn James situates the movie amongst other Australian gothics and observes Campion was inspired by Wuthering Heights.

Holy Smoke!

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I have no clue how this ended up on the queue. I don't recall having seen anything by Jame Campion before this, a misfiring comedy with a stellar cast. Post-Titanic Kate Winslet leads but her strayan is not strong, and all the nudity in the world can't make up for that. Couldn't they find an Australian actress to play this young lass with a susceptibility for older guru-men-children? Post-Pulp Fiction Harvey Keitel plays another Mr Fixit who is initially charged with replacing the Eastern with the Western and concludes faceplanted in the red dirt of Wee Waa wearing a dress and lipstick. Post-Jackie Brown Pam Grier steals every scene she's in, as does Austen Tayshus — always good to see them both. Sophie Lee is even more terrible than her character calls for. Many, many things do not fit together.

Everyone should've known better, especially me.

Roger Ebert. Janet Maslin.

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines. (1987)

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Kindle. Wikipedia claims he hooked Robyn Davidson up with Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and wrote travel lit focusing on nomads. This book was pitched as the result of his time in Central Australia. It reads like non-fiction but Chatwin claims it is intended as fiction.

In any case it's thin gruel: apparently his travels through the Dead Heart and thereabouts yielded less than half a book, and robbed him of the will to process his notebooks of previous jaunts into reader-friendly coherence. Chatwin wears his erudition heavily; the language is often the opposite of George Orwell's unadorned English, and while he was at pains to exhibit his wide exposure to the Western canon, he paid little attention to Australian sources, preferring to recount personal history and self-aggrandising interviews/observations from his travels in Europe.

The central conceit is an attempt to universalise Aboriginal ontology, their connection to land, where (in his view) songs notionally act as some kind of map, to all of human development. We'd call that cultural appropriation now I guess. Another and more defensible theme is that we should walk everywhere, or at least more often.

Some clangers particularly stood out to me. He goes roo hunting with some locals, which quickly descends into the obscene ala Wake in Fright, or, you know, camel abuse. How could he be surprised? Are mulga trees actually "leafless in this season"? And it seemed implausible that "songline" fragments would be assigned before birth, given infant mortality, the possibility of failing initiation, and that the child's gender would be unknown at the time.

Some of it echoes Xavier Herbert, or perhaps the converse in the sense of being fictionalised didacticism rather than didactic fiction. For instance local man Flynn is some kind of genius, something like Prindy. But what is his dreaming? Similarly Ukrainian Arkady, who asserts that Australia would've been so much better off if it had been colonised by a people who weren't scared by expanses of land (i.e., not island people like the British) — leaving the place unexploited by Europeans is, however, not an option. John Hanlon here is Herbert's commie Pat Hannaford. But Chatwin shows no awareness of Herbert.

Reviews and commentary are legion. Goodreads. Many are also irritated by the commingling of fact and fiction. Walter Goodman and Andrew Harvey at the time. The latter speaks of how other Englanders were drawn to Chatwin, how rickety the whole show is, and pulls the choice quote that was stuffed into the mouth of Arkady: "The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future."

More recent retrospectives: Richard Cooke expands on everything, and observes that Chatwin quickly passed into history. He says Flynn was based on Pat Dodson. Paul Daley also in 2017. Philip Jones too. There are plenty more.

Jones refers to A.P. Elkin's attempt to capture Aboriginal "Dreaming" but neither Jones nor Chatwin make the obvious connection to Plato's cave. There are also echoes of an unchanging Creation, an essential stasis, that is now strongly held by some Christians. It bothers me that no source I've yet found explains why the "songline" knowledge is so sacred or dangerous to share with the uninitiated; as presented here and elsewhere it is survival stuff. Similarly Chatwin's claims that "songlines" are the personal property of individuals that cannot be transferred but can be lent out etc. strikes me as metaphorical at best. Yes, the "songline" concept has never been particularly truthy.

Riders of Justice

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Mads Mikkelsen completism. He does OK with the little he has to work with (cold military man with daughter and dead wife). The setup, the style of comedy and remainder of the cast left me cold; I mean, come on guys, who has actual, substantial, physical compute hardware in 2020, let alone relocates it? Another realistic detail was how epic shootouts in suburban Denmark generate no heat from the fuzz.

Beatrice Loayza indulged it far more than I could.

The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021)

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Maya Phillips gave it a glowing review and pointed to antecedents I, Robot and more obviously The Incredibles. I'd add Tron to that list, where the equivalent of a 1980s programmer is now a creative (meme/movie maker) who is charged with and capable of taking out the MCU/Zuckerberg's latest creation/acquisition. This is Sony animation taking it to Pixar/the Mouse via YouTube sensory overload and not technical supremacy; where the older scifis were often satisfied with immersing us in wonderful worlds, this precludes a deep focus on anything. Overall a tonne of fun, especially the dog.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks.

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Kindle. You've watched the movie now read the book. Unsurprisingly the book is far better than the movie.

So much of it seems to be about her not knowing what she's doing, why she's doing it or what the consequences might be. For instance she is quick to tell us that the desert is vast and mostly unvariegated, which is to my mind why you don't go there! Or much beyond its frontiers. The (at times self-admittedly unhinged) animal abuse is hard to take, and oftentimes it seemed the camels had the right idea of just wanting to go home. Though she did grow along the way she never resolved her desire for both privacy and publicity, the latter of which she disavows too strenuously; why get on a plane to NYC a mere four days after completing the trek? That she is in these very remote places but often not particularly isolated struck a chord.

It is quintessentially Australian in being substantially ahistorical; there's not much backstory here (hers or the country's). For instance Xavier Herbert observed that "ranch" came into use in northern Australia due to the American influence during World War II; previously these were "stations", which a recent Conversation on the ABC claims came from the Army terminology for the bases they constructed as they moved through. It seems likely she hadn't read Herbert's work despite it being published to much fanfare around the time she conceived of her trip, and them both having strong ties to Queensland.

She experienced a neutered Aboriginal culture; for instance she decides not to cut up a kangaroo based on an elder's assertion that she should never do this, but has her doubts about whether this admonition was only for his land/country or for always, for all women or just for her. Did he assign her a totem, and if so how? This general inaccessibility of the underlying theory results in whitefellas being stuck with dogma, or indeed the pointier end of the law (such as the spearings at the tail end of Poor Fellow My Country), and goes unremarked by Davidson.

A diversity of opinions at Goodreads. Sophie Cunningham reviews Richard Cooke's book that tries to unpack Robyn Davidson as a writer.


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I spent the entirety wondering if Mia Wasikowska was ever going to put a hat on. (Spoiler: she never does, at least during the bits I was paying attention to.) Against the somewhat similar Rabbit Proof Fence, this a possibly good story both less juiced and less well told: wilful Robyn Davidson decides she's had enough of people and the only escape is a 2,700km trek from Alice Springs to the western coastline with camels. Her female dog is mostly enough company, though the movie makes it seem that she got both too much and not enough attention from other humans along the way. An especially gawky Adam Driver plays the romantic interest/photographer with the critical link to National Geographic. There's some great scenery and the odd amusing turn by various Aborigines, but beyond that it's a bust.

Manohla Dargis. Sandra Hall pointed out further flaws at the time. I too had trouble squaring director John Curran's efforts here with his far superior adaptation of Andrew McGahan's Praise.


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Viggo Mortensen did the lot: wrote, produced, directed and starred. Lance Henriksen (the android Bishop from Aliens etc.) plays his irascible father. There's little to redeem him or indeed the whole endeavour as many scenes play like a stage show; I expect it has been entirely eclipsed by the Oscared The Father. Laura Linney doesn't really nail Viggo's just-the-good-bits-thanks sister. The second flashback track has Hannah Gross as his luminescent-in-a-Cate-Blanchette-way mother married to Sverrir Gudnason, looking a bit like Casey Affleck. She was in Mindhunter. Terry Chen was somehow very familiar but I can't say why.

I picked it up on the strength of Viggo (he should've aimed for Captain Fantastic) by way of Jeannette Catsoulis's review.

Xavier Herbert: Poor Fellow My Country.

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Kindle. I bought this for 19.99 AUD from Amazon on February 9, 2016; it's taken me an age to brave this behemoth, a sequel of sorts to his Capricornia, or perhaps More Cultural Learnings of Murris (?) for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Australia.

First up: it's long, so long that it defies not just a useful summary and assessment but any engagement whatsoever with anyone born since 1980. That his shorter stuff is by reputation drecky may be the main reason his work has passed into history alongside David Ireland, both feted in their day, but it may also be that the times have changed so much.

More later, if I find the willpower.

Sean Monahan gave it a critical treatment in 2003. He asks us to excuse the work's failings as a novel by considering it a didactic project.