Monday, January 19, 2009

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino

Although it's being heralded as Eastwood's 'masterwork', Gran Torino is anything but in my humble opinion.

On the surface it's a reasonably well made piece, with a fine acting performance from Eastwood as a grumpy old man coming to terms with his new Chinese neighbours.

But on a deeper level it's a nasty piece of work. This grumpy old man turns out to be about as racist as any middle American white can get. We are asked, as the audience, to empathise with him, and there are heaps of funny lines about 'coons', 'chinks', 'slopes', etc that are meant to suck you in and side with the old man as he struggles to get his bearings in multicultural America.

And of course the guy is so into guns! Besides his vintage car, the Gran Torino - a Ford, by the way, not a 'fucking Asian truck' - guns are a central feature of this Korean war veteran's life. He carries them everywhere. The perfect American solution to every conceivable problem. Blow the thugs away, that'll solve it. He's the regular hero.

The growing relationship and affection between him and his neighbours is predictable fare in movies like this, as, after all, we old-style Americans with our hearts of gold will win them all over in the end.

Bush and Cheney would love this movie.

Gran Torino is pure American fantasy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ministers of Miscommunication

What is it about Australian Federal Ministers of Communication? Invariably, they're absolutely hopeless!

Let's look at what we've had to suffer over the last twenty or so years:

1. Two parallel fibre optic cables running down most streets in our metropolitan cities. The genius behind this utterly wasteful investment in duplicated capacity was perhaps one of the worst communication ministers this country has ever had: Labor's Michael Lee in the Keating government. He decided that, instead of mandating Telstra (government controlled at that time) to build the cable network, he'd structure a bottom up competitive environment and force Optus to build its own cable network if it wanted to be part of the telecommunications game. Ridiculous! Just as the whole copper wire network that our fixed line phones use is owned by Telstra, for legacy reasons, and they simply lease it out to their competitors, so the same rational thing should have been done for fibre optic cable.

Lee's biggest mistake however was probably his decision to begin the sell-off of the whole of Telstra without first splitting it into two distinct parts - the infrastructure development part, and the retail services part. The infrastructure responsibility - the pre-competitive part - should have been kept in government hands and only the customer facing stuff - mobile phone and broadband plans, installing business networks, etc - sold off. Had this been done we wouldn't have the disastrously inadequate broadband situation we enjoy (!) in this country at present.

2. The puerile beating-up on the ABC. Richard (dead eyes) Alston, minister in the Howard government, made belting the ABC an art form. None of it, however, was propelled by any level of intelligence, just a dumb neo-con prejudice against public broadcasting. Alston, whose sole political philosophy was to be 'anti-Labor' (yes, amazing I know, but Alston actually got off on it!) hated the 'left' that he thought ran the ABC, and constantly demanded time-wasting investigations by management into so-called left wing 'bias'. In reality Alston hated intelligent commentary and criticism. He simply couldn't cope with it. He did nothing remotely productive during his long, nine-year term. His successor, Helen Coonan, was hardly an improvement. She spent all her time shirtfronting Telstra, who had by this time become quite annoyed with government policy, as you would!

3. Conroy! Enough said! Current minister Steven Conroy has an amazing record of stuffing up big time in only twelve months in the job. That's sort of hard, but obviously not for this dope. Firstly he continued Coonan's unproductive disregard of Telstra's natural monopoly in infrastructure ownership and development in this country by staging a meaningless 'tender' for the construction of the national fibre-to-the-node broadband roll out, as if any other outfit than Telstra could profitably and efficiently build it. Before bidding Telstra wanted an assurance that it wouldn't eventually be broken up (a pre-Michael Lee option), but Conroy wouldn't give it, a nice piece of irony to be sure! So Telstra said stuff you and didn't play ball. It's sort of heroic for a minister to tell this huge, admittedly arrogant, corporation to play by the rules or go to hell, but that's sort of like telling Qantas, a private company like Telstra, that its domestic and international operations could be broken up in the future, but, by the way, please invest huge amounts of shareholders' money in buying new generation aircraft so Australians can enjoy world class travel. Despite the Rudd government's $4.7 billion broadband subsidy for the winning bidder, Telstra is the only operation with the technical knowhow, connectivity capability, reach into every home and financial heft to do the job before we all die.

Secondly, Conroy has continued the Howard government's pathetic plan to censor our Web access to 'protect our kids from porn'. Well, what can you say! All experts, repeat, ALL, say it can't be done without seriously slowing down our already snail-like access speed, and all, repeat ALL, say that any filter would act far too indiscriminately and block wholly legitimate sites.

Forget the kids for god's sake, you little man, you unappealing combination of the worst of left and right! Leave that to their parents. And if the poor little protected middle class buggers see some in-and-out occasionally, well so what! God, think of the kids in Gaza.

Rudd would do us all a favor if he ended Conroy and installed a minister who could CUT THROUGH all the inherited bullshit and get on with the task of bringing Australia into the 21st century.

Don't hold your breath!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doubt, the movie.

The Pulitzer prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, has been brought to the screen and is definitely worth seeing. It stars Meryl Streep and the golden-voiced Philip Seymour Hoffman (who can do no wrong!).

Meryl Streep is the head nun and Principal of the local Catholic school. Basically she's a dragon looking for something to incinerate. Unfortunately Streep's her usual, distracting, self in the role. She seems to bring echoes of every character she's ever played to all her current roles. Her facial ticks, the oblique way she looks at other characters, her familiar head movements (as the great New York Times critic Pauline Kael once wrote 'she only acts with her head'), these all get in the way.

Hoffman's priest is perfect though. With his warmth, largeness and obvious humanity, you just know he doesn't belong and won't last in this cloistered, straightened, pre-conciliar time (1964). But you also know, because you just know, that sexually there is a problem.

The nun accuses the priest of interfering with an altar boy.

From the start and all the way through the undolding drama, though there's no evidence whatsoever, the audience is on Streep's side. We know now a lot more than we did forty years ago. We know about priests and pedophilia and the scandals of the last decade and the way bishops avoided responsibility and simply moved the accused around different parishes rather than confronting the problem. Admirably the nun confronts it, and of course the predictable happens.

My guess is that the play would have had more confronting scenes and richer, challenging dialogue. In this film version you get the sense things have been watered down a bit.

Take the ending: why do Americans love feeble, tick-a-box, emotional closures? The final scene is thoroughly unnecessary and simply not credible. It reduces the drama rather than heightens it.

Nevertheless see this movie. You don't have to have had a Catholic upbringing to enjoy it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Woody Allen and his magnificent oeuvre

I think I must be, quietly, one of the most dedicated and loyal Woody fans in the universe! Not that I participate in all that traditional fan activity stuff, but that I've seen all his movies and love them all. Literally! Even Stardust Memories which came out in 1980 and was fairly universally panned, only because everybody who saw it, except me, misunderstood it! (See note 1 below).

What I like about Woody is his vision. It's utterly consistent, has been fleshed out in every conceivable dimension throughout his long career, and neatly underpins his humour, his exaggerated Jewishness, his acting and directorial style, his choice of actors, his choice of wives and girlfriends, his musical passions, his obsession with New York, his European longings, etc.

What is his vision? Two films, in my view, exquisitely express it: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and his latest Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Woody's always grappling with the tension between the thrill of a transitory romantic attraction and the faithfulness required of a deeper, long term, usually marital commitment.

While he loves beautiful, passionate, preferably young women and continually explores and enjoys the emotional vicissitudes associated with male involvement with them, he always undercuts with a clear, almost moral, preference for marriage. He never lets the romance triumph over the familial and social obligations of the deeper, personal, institutional relationship.

It's surprising how many critics and reviewers miss this essential point. For example Margaret Pomeranz confesses she can't handle Woody's attitude to women anymore: he pits youthful beauty against the harridan, echoing his personal life. Wrong Margaret. Something a lot deeper is happening here and you're not noticing it.

Paul Byrnes, writing in the Herald, has Woody exalting romantic Barcelona-type relationships against boorish American bourgeois banality. Wrong Paul. Precisely the opposite is happening.

Woody doesn't exalt marriage, but nor does he simply tolerate it. He recognises the necessity of it and celebrates the heroism of it. And he conveys exquisitely the mundane, tough reality of it.

I also think he's honest about it, as he knows not all of us are up to it.

It's a wonderful, life affirming vision, told obliquely, skillfully and artfully.

See Vicky Cristina Barcelona and hire out Hannah and Her Sisters and tell me I'm wrong.

(Note 1: In the opening scene of Stardust Memories Woody departs the train station in a carriage, but his gaze is fixed on the people in the adjacent carriage departing in the opposite direction. They are all uniformly beautiful. After making Annie Hall, Interiors and Manhattan, Woody is telling us that he is now taking a ride with the uglies! The camera pans his fellow travellers, those in his carriage, and we get the point...! Woody has a few basics to get across and have his audience emotionally confront).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stuff not connected with books or publishing

This is my second blog, where I'll post all sorts of reflections, movie and restaurant reviews, rants about politics and society, critiques of how people walk, etc.

I want to keep it separate from the book blog Pub Date Critical, which is more serious and professional, relating as it does to my former career. However I'll put most of the book reviews on both blogs, as they'll be relevant to both audiences.

Hope you find it interesting and fun..and occasionally provocative. If it's ever boring, however, please let me know.