Sunday, June 26, 2011

Listen up, Mint:

Reading the morning paper and choking on my Danish is a frequent experience for me these days. There's just so much more bullshit going down than in previous decades!

This morning? Yes, it was the story about how the Australian Mint have suggested to the government that the 5 cent coin be abolished. It apparently costs more to make than its worth.

Two big things wrong here: 

1. Since when did every friggin coin in the history of the universe have to be its own profit centre?   

2. You want to save money Mint? ABOLISH THE ABSURD 50 CENT COIN!! Or at least downsize it.

Australian coins have to be the heaviest, most cumbersome bunch of pocket destroyers and purse fillers in the - once again - history of the universe! Especially our humongous 50 cent coin. Ugly, heavy and soooo huge. And it must, proportionately, be way more expensive to manufacture than the tiny and victimised 5 cent coin.

I remember way back when some long forgotten government minister introduced this monstrosity, no doubt on the advice of some dud Mint bureaucrat. The rationale for making it so huge, heavy and pointy (I know that's not the technical word) was that little old half blind pensioners would be more easily able to distinguish it from the other coins, especially the 20 cent one. 'Feel the edge, feel the edge - cool, eh'.

Christ! As if our seniors were such a dumb bunch that they'd prefer to be weighed down and rooted to the spot by this monstrous ballast rather than refining their squint when necessary.

And why, just as a matter of logic, is it BIGGER than the one and two dollar coins?

Listen up Mint: rationalise the whole lot of them. That would be a productive and cost efficient way to spend your time.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow

Rarely does a cover do absolute justice to the essence of a book. Whoever in Random House commissioned this photo deserves a medal! 

This new book from the (former) infant terrible of English literature, Martin Amis, is a stunning exploration of the sexual revolution and its aftermath, what it meant in the late sixties/early seventies, and what it seems to mean now. The 'pregnant widow' metaphor, first used by psychologist Alexander Herzen, refers to the rather long period between the death of one social order and the birth of the new - 'a long night of chaos and desolation'. 

This is a longish novel, at 465 pages, so requires a commitment of time, but it is absolutely worth it. Amis is such a stunning, gifted writer. His prose is magic. In virtually every paragraph a marvellous phrase, drenched in insight or sharp comedy, stands out and delights:

'And it came to Keith now - her essential peculiarity. She went at it, as if the sexual act, in all human history, had never even been suspected of leading to childbirth, as if everyone had immemorially known that it was by other means that you peopled the world. All the ancient colourations of significance and consequence had been bleached from it...' (p.380)

A group of young English friends in 1970 are spending the summer in a mansion in Italy. The setting is highly sensual and erotic, with much sexual activity going on, more off-stage than on. The principal antagonist, Keith, quite obviously in this semi-autobiographical novel the young Amis, is in a comfortable but unchallenging relationship with Lily, but he's sexually attracted to her friend the beautiful, mysterious (and romantically named) Scheherazade (the girl on the right on the cover - Lily is on the left). 

Keith is a student of English literature, just graduated, which allows Amis to contrast this modern setting with older social orders portrayed in classic English novels, particularly those of Jane Austen. Despite Keith's rather irreverent readings of Austen - 'one fuck per book' - Amis succeeds in making the point: the rich, layered social spheres, constraints and mannerisms of the old, against the seeming yet entrapping freedoms of the new.

The final part of the novel re-visits the friends decades later, in contemporary times. The logic of their complicated personal identities and relationships, barely visible then, has been played out, both predictably, surprisingly, and sometimes quite sadly.

I've read most of Amis' novels over the years, including his non-fiction, so I think I can say with confidence that The Pregnant Widow is his best. Amis' superb talents are fully evident, and his serious, critical preoccupations best displayed. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Banality of Evil

The new Australian movie Snowtown has received exceptionally good reviews since its release a few weeks ago, despite some decided ambivalence expressed the by film-literate audience in Cannes, half of whom walked out during its official showing.

My advice: if you're at all squeamish, don't see it, though most Australians, who know the context and back-story, will happily sit through it, and be utterly enthralled. This is a seriously good movie. It's the sort of movie, made by and starring novices, that absolutely runs rings around last year's Animal Kingdom, with its coterie of well-known stars, including the absurdly wrongly-cast Jackie Weaver (for the life of me I still can't comprehend how she got nominated for an Academy Award for that very ordinary performance).

Snowtown will become iconic, a classic, like Romper-Stomper and Taxi Driver. Evil on the prowl, in our suburban streets and ordinary towns, just under the surface, lurking under the guise of normality and banality.

Stanley Kubrick springs to mind. His obsession with darkness, disorder and chaos barely constrained by social norms, morality, propriety, discipline. Once unleashed it wreaks destruction. Every Kubrick movie is about this.

And so much of the Australian story, in our art and literature, reflects this primal fear. We flee to the coast, away from the savage, harsh interior of our land. We crave order, which is the principal reason we loathe boat people. They threaten our need for it, for the comfort of the predictable, respectful queue.

Snowtown is a superbly made, riveting, relentless exploration of the evil nesting in our communities, an evil that too frequently unleashes its savagery and horror. Scene after scene is rich with meaning and suggestiveness. The ordinary food; the ordinary television shows; the ordinary houses and backyards, the ordinary kids fooling around in the streets; the ordinary prejudices of seemingly ordinary people. 

The gathering menace, though, is palpable.

You must see this astonishing film.

(PS: David and Margaret gave Snowtown a fairly tepid review: here, getting it embarrassingly wrong, but Jim Schembri got it exactly right: here).

Read In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson, one of the best non-fiction books published over the past year. It's a thoroughly researched story of the experiences of the US ambassador to Germany, and his family, during Hitler's reign in the lead up to the second world war in the 1930's.

The ambassador, William Dodd, is a former academic, a lowly and politically inexperienced professor of American history, who reluctantly accepts his commission from his friend, the Democratic President Franklin D Roosevelt. Dodd doesn't do pomp and circumstance very well, the endless parties and hypocrisies of the diplomatic round. He just sees what is happening in Germany, with a surprising prophetic, clarity that escapes most other observers, both in Germany and in the West. And he attracts powerful enemies for doing so.

Do yourself a favor and read this seriously good book. You'll be utterly absorbed.

So here is the lesson for today: ordinary men can be savages, but they can also be heroes.