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.

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