Monday, September 25, 2006

Yay, Travel

I have been working this weekend, honest, but I have also had some fun working out my summer travel plans, something that has been made necessary by having more leave accrued than my employers like to see. People have been asking me what I will be doing over the summer and I have mumbled things like "house to repair" under "I'd love to go to Mexico" and "Well, I've been wanting to go to Vietnam for a long time".

Yesterday I got busy on some airline sites and have now booked flights, one way only at the moment, as my credit card was starting to protest. I am so glad that the new budget sort of airline now allows one way, sector by sector flying without penalising us with big fares. So, towards the end of November I make a short hop across the Tasman, and then bounce north to Darwin. I have never been there, have no idea when I'll get back there, so will be staying for a little while. Yes, the weather will be hot and humid, it might even rain, a lot, but I am assured there will be fantastic thunderstorms every afternoon. I have no doubt I'll be able to survive that for the three days I have to wait for my cheap flight to Singapore ($40!!!, although taxes bump it up somewhat).

Singapore is another place I've never been, and there are some really cheap deals on hotels, if you don't mind staying in some less posh areas, so again I'll stay for a few days. Then the real adventure starts: I fly to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand (the coup has not stopped tourism not closed borders, yet) so I can cross into northern Laos. Then I'll have about five weeks [FIVE WEEKS!] to sweep down through Laos and Cambodia into south Vietnam, and head north to fly home from Hanoi. Very cool. Of course, my trip might be like my one to India, where I got stuck in Nepal eating buffalo steaks and lemon meringue pie, so lazy we were having it delivered to the hostel from the reggae bar across the street. I can see myself getting stuck in Chiang Mai.

In preparation, I have decided I need some sort of portable writing device, and have learnt that you can get a wireless keyboard which will input data into a PDA - far more practical for travelling than a laptop. Once again, I will take a camera but, as with every previous trip will probably not take any photos or, those that I do take will linger undeveloped until the film explodes.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Reading Science CAN be fun

Over the past few weeks, my reading has taken me into some strange and unaccustomed places. When I was in Melbourne, I found myself in the Mathematics Library of the University of Melbourne, looking at Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics (or to be really uppity, Principia Mathematica) as well as other texts which from their very beginning were simply a sequence of unfamiliar symbols. I have also been looking at writing by and about Einstein, which has been more or less incomprehensible. None of these authors, however, offer the delights to be had from reading J W Dunne's An Experiment With Time (1929).

A lot of the early part of the book is taken up with anecdotal accounts of how he would have some very vivid dream or other, and then have an event in real life which corresponded so closely to what he had dreamt that it could not be dismissed as coincidence. We have all had dreams, or at least thoughts pop into our heads, of someone we have not seen for a long time, only to have that person show up just round the corner. For years, I have been using this to say that events create ripples, not memories, so that they can actually be "remembered" in advance.

Mr Dunne develops a rather large theory to explain all of this, but not before making the following rather charming confession:
No one, I imagine, can derive any considerable pleasure from the supposition that he is a freak; and, personally, I would almost sooner have discovered myself to be a 'medium'. There might have been a chance of company there. Unfortunately, it was abundantly clear that there was no 'mediumship' in this matter, no 'sensitiveness', no 'clairvoyance'. I was suffering, seemingly, from some extraordinary fault in my relation to reality, something so uniquely wrong that it compelled me to perceive, at rare intervals, large blocks of otherwise perfectly normal personal experience displaced from their proper position in Time.
After conducting several tests on his friends and relations and finding that he was not in fact alone, he then starts to generate his theory. I had to laugh: at one point, he tries his theories out on himself by taking a book, concentrating on it closely and in so doing trying to form mental images of its contents. He does very well on his first attenpt: it "was a gorgeous success - until I discovered I had read the book before".

In trying to talk of relativity of time, he quotes from a letter he has received ("From the windows of our railway carriage we see a cow glide past at fifty miles an hour, and remark that the creature is enjoying a rest") and says:
This is an illustration which pleases in more ways than one; and I regret to have to interrupt the reader's contemplation thereof in order to direct his attention to a paicture painted in less enticing colours. But we have to get on.
As do I.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn

Several years ago I studied literary theory, and was introduced to Louis Althusser and his concept of interpellation. Since he was a Marxist, his idea was, in essence, that we are all born into a linguistic structure (one which is determined by the political power structure) and by the process of interpellation one becomes a subject. It gets very political, but this basic idea of everyone being embedded in a language network seems to me to have been at work in this novel, along with other such theories. As a result, there is a lot going on this novel. It is sharply written, often very funny and on the whole I really liked it, am finding all sorts of things I'd like to quote as I look through it again but need to exercise some restraint. The particular conceit developed in the novel is that the two babies born during its time line (Robert (1995) and Thomas (2000)) are born with an immediate ability to comprehend their surroundings and to articulate as if they were adults.

The novel starts with Robert's recollection of his birth, which we find out have been prompted by the birth of his brother:
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother's abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half dead. First the confinement to make him hungry for space, then pretending to kill him so that he would be grateful for the space when he got it, even this loud desert, with only the bandages of his mother's arms to wrap around him, never the whole thing again, the whole warm thing all around him, being everything...

Now that he realized there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.
I don't know if it is just me, but I find his reaction funny, in a subtle sort of way:
Still, he didn't want to exaggerate his decline. Things had been getting cramped in the old world. Towards the end he was desperate to get out, but he imagined had himself expanding back into the boundless ocean of his youth, not exiled in this harsh land...
These are the thoughts of a kid of maybe five minutes old or, as he concedes at the age of five (when he feels his infancy disintegrating, being obliterated by his childhood), maybe they were things said last month which had become his memories of his birth. This strikes the tone for his voice for the rest of the novel, a very adult way of perceiving and describing his world. He was my favourite character. His dad, was a bit hard to take. We can see a lot of what he is like in this exchange with the very useless babysitter they have employed:
[Margaret] "I couldn't find any of the cottage cheese . They didn't speak a word of English. 'Cottage cheese,' I said, pointing to the house on the other side of the street. 'Cottage, you know, as in house, only smaller,' but they still couldn't make head or tail of what I was saying."
"They sound incredibly stupid," said his father, "with so many helpful clues."...
[Margaret] "Give him plenty of water, dear. It's the only way to cool them down. They can't sweat at that age."
"Another amazing oversight," said his father. "Can't sweat, can't walk, can't talk, can't read, can't drive, can't sign a cheque. Foals are standing a few hours after they're born. If horses went in for banking, they'd have a credit line by the end of the week."
[Margaret] "Horses don't have any use for banking..."
Of course, she is very stupid, and I couldn't do anything but laugh at this, but this cutting tone of dad's persists, and gets out of hand towards the end of the novel when the family goes on holiday to America. It is a bad influence as by then, Robert has picked up dad's world view as well - something Patrick was aware would probably happen but was powerless to stop. Between the two of them, they generate a very poor impression of America, as if it is populated by softly obese people. Here is how Robert (now 7) describes his fellow passengers:
Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father's relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle. As she squeezed into her aisle seat, Mrs Airbag turned to the long queue of obstructed passengers...
On their account, America is populated by immensely silly people, shabby hotels and fast food which is poisonously bad for you. These accounts are brilliantly written, but they go too far insofar as they purport to be a summary of America.

Space is a major theme in this novel: in his mother's womb, Robert had been conscious of an absence of space. When we first encounter his father, Patrick, he is complaining about the depressing state of the property market. Insofar as the novel has a plot, it concerns Patrick's mother's house in France - somewhere they have taken to going to for a summer holiday. This, however, is under threat as Seamus Dourke, a self-proclaimed shaman is working on her to hand the house over to be used in his "Transpersonal Foundation", where adults find their inner child and engage in other such new agey larks (I thought we left them behind in the 1980's!). Patrick is convinced he is a charlatan and, as his mother fades away during the course of the novel to senility, does his best to talk her out of giving her house away. Patrick, of course, has his own interests at stake: he thinks he should inherit it. At the end, however, when his mum really needs his help, he does manage to come through for her.

Now that Thomas has been born, Robert and
Patrick are both worried that there won't be space for them in the family, because Mary is so pre-occupied with her duties as mother to Thomas. It is probably this which explains why Robert becomes the image of his father. Dad finds himself in a state of agitated despair, addicted to Tamazepan and alcohol, unable to read, unable to sleep, unable to perform sexually but at the same time feeling abandoned by Mary - she is something of a mother figure for him as well. On the other hand, her voice in this novel is somewhat muted: the point of view rotates from Robert to his parents, but there are fewer chapters given over to Mary than to the other two. Apart from her status as mother and wife, we get a look at her as daughter: her mother (oddly named Kettle) is clearly a terrible mother.

So, the novel ends up being rather ambivalent about motherhood. Kettle is incapable of that status, so there is always friction between her and Mary. Mary is determined not to repeat the mistakes of her own mother and so throws herself more fully into the role than is good for her, her husband and, possibly, her kids. Then there is poor old Eleanour, Patrick's mum. I'll finish with a quote about her, because she's really a decent old lady, just vulnerable:
Sixty years later, Eleanour still hadn't worked out a realistic way to act out her desire to be good. She still missed the feast without relieving the famine. When things went wrong, and they always did, the bas experiences were not allowed to inform the passionate teenager; they were exiled to the bad experience dump. A secret half of Eleanour became more bitter and suspicious, so that the visible half could remain credulous and eager... Illness was producing a terrifying confluence of the two selves, which Eleanour had gone to such trouble to keep apart.
The irony is that despite their differences in temperament and motivations, neither Kettle nor Eleanour end up with anything to leave their kids: there is no mother's milk.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rule of Four

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, particularly when the little blurb on the front cover (books I read tend not to have such blurbs at all) made a reference to the Da Vinci Code suggesting that this might be for those who love that article. I'm not being gratuitously snobbish about Da Vinci as I did try it (people were talking about it and a recent overseas expedition had revealed it to be the book most commonly carried by backpackers) but within three pages I could go no further. So, I wasn't really excited to be told who the Rule of Four was for, although there was another blurb (a whole lineup of them to be honest) inside the front cover suggesting that this was Da Vinci for the intelligent reader.

Anyway, I was given this book to read by Siob and she's nice, so since I couldn't really say "not my thing" without hurting her feelings , at least trying to read it seemed to be the gentlemanly thing to do. And, well, I liked it. We had some recognisable characters, we had some back story, some relationship between them and a degree of character development. We even had a bit of narrative complexity, with some flashback to reveal how the characters were currently situated, and the prose is very knowing about other literature: it was totally in character for the very smart guys who were at the centre of this story.

Above all, we had a cracking good yarn about an ancient text, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,
which actually exists and about which there is a degree of academic controversy regarding the identity of its author. This controversy was rehearsed in the Rule of Four but a further claim was made about it: its author had contained a coded second story within the primary text, a story which after five hundred years had yet to be decoded. Academic careers had been made and unmade over this book. Finally, a couple of grad students at Princeton are breaking it, but there are those who want the credit for that and will stop at nothing to ensure they get it. Of course, the code is cracked and the good guys win, there is no surpise there.

One thing the novel does quite well is simply get inside of the mind of the student at the more geeky end of the scale, the sort of student who will skip meals and a social life in order to pursue the possibilities presented by their work - which here is given the same sort of seductive quality that the ring has in Lord of the Rings. For someone who has never had the opportunity to attend a school like Princeton, it also provided some sort of glimpse into life there.


Monday, September 18, 2006

The World of Henry Orient

I can't believe I had never heard of this film, as Ghost World borrows so heavily from it (and honours it by having Enid put a poster somewhat like this one on her bedroom wall) and it is a fantastic movie, so great that as soon as I had seen it, I bought the DVD. Thanks, Otago Film Society, for bringing it to my attention.

Of course, I went along simply because it was a Peter Sellers movie - there was some mention in the little blurb that he was some sort of pianist and had some kind of female problem with a woman. The reality is that he is a subsidiary character: the real stars are Val (Tippy Walker (who, apart from doing this movie at age 17 and then being in Peyton Place never really found a place in the movie business)) and Gil (Merrie Spaeth). They are two 14 year olds, who have just moved to New York. They bond over shared hatred of certain teachers and having teeth retainers.

So, the bulk of the movie is about their relationship: they spark off each other brilliantly, and arrive at great schemes, one of which involves Henry Orient. They first run into him as he pursues Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss): she is so worried about being found out that the only place they can get together is on a rock in Central Park. Unfortunately, it just happens to be the same rock Val and Gil are hiding behind in some game they're playing: they peer over the pair, popping their gum. Henry later describes this scene: "And then two small bladders came out of their mouths. And just when she was beginning to hum, too."

After that, quite inadvertantly, their paths cross. It is only when Gil and Val attend one of his performances (a very avant garde orchestral thing, where it probably would not have mattered that Henry had forgotten what key he was supposedly playing in) that Val decides she is in love with him. So their big scheme thereafter is to follow him: they enter a blood pact under which Gil is to do all she can to bring Val and Henry together. As guys go, Henry is of course complete crap but the movie never endangers the girls, rather has them engage in this harmless romantic pursuit. Along the way, Val and Gil continue to make up the most monstrous of stories: they really are a great pair of girls, and it is their joyous spirit which is what makes this movie. I've read accounts on IMDB of guys seeing this when it first came out and being completely smitten by Val in particular, and can fully see why. (In a very nice footnote to the movie, Tippy Walker herself has been contributing on the IMDB message board connected with it.)

But childhood and innocence unfortunately can't last forever, not even in the movies: reality in the form of parental control intervenes. Val's mum is a very stern Angela Lansbury (she reminded me quite a lot of Emily Gilmour, although I can't quite imagine Emily succumbing to the charms of someone like Henry Orient). Dad is Tom Bosley (of Happy Days fame): he has been your typical rich absentee dad, but really comes through at the end as someone rather cool.


Sunday, September 17, 2006


Would you watch a movie about a man who is some sort of a foreman in a gang which provides portable toilets at major public events? Not exactly the sort of film that jumps with appeal; some might be rather disdainful of it, given the topic. I rather suspect that is the point of this mockumentary about Kenny (Shane Jacobson), who works for a firm which obviously tries to deflect some of the snobbery by saying they deal in "corporate bathroom rentals". As Kenny himself puts it, I'd love to be able to say "I plumb toilets" and have someone say "Now that is something I've always wanted to do". But in his line of work, respect from the general public is quite lacking. So, respectable ladies think it is quite OK to give him a good telling off.

I know when the movie was starting and Kenny was starting to talk about w
hat his day would bring, I was wondering whether I should walk out. He's asking someone about the catering arrangements for their party, wondering if there will be any curries or other spicy foods. No? Well, no need for extra loos then. How on earth could they make anything interesting out of this? And yet, not only was it interesting, it was really funny, without (sorry) engaging in toilet humour. And, no, as far as I can recall, there are no shots of anything disgusting - we see a lot of portaloos, and we hear talk of the kind of work these guys might have to do to keep them functioning, but it isn't overloaded with such talk.

Instead, it is just a movie about this guy Kenny, who has quite a nice line in self-deprecating humour. His dad is really worried that he's not doing any better for himself, and he has the ex-wife from hell, but he's trying his hardest to keep his relationship going with his young son. And with his own father, despite him being one of the most ornery old codgers you could hope to meet, although I think we are supposed to extract the idea that behind all the criticism, he means well.
Then there is Kenny's brother, who is painted as a snob (but really, who would turn up to a posh restaurant as a guest in the uniform they wear when doing their corporate bathroom hire work?). All three of them end up on this excruciatingly cringe-worthy camping trip, meant somehow to show solidarity with dad. I did think it a little unfortunate that these two characters were drawn in such black and white terms

Kenny ultimately does good. He is sent to some huge bathroomware expo in Nashville, managing to make a friend with the Qantas hostess along the way. Once there, he is totally blown away by the technology on offer. I've read somewhere that he is a Crocvdile Dundee figure, but he reminded me more of the portrayal of Burt Munro in the World's Fastest Indian - ready to talk to anyone and innocent in the ways of the world. So, he gets talking to this delegation of Japanese businessmen, who are most impressed with his line of corporate
bathrooms. He's not there as a salesman, but that doesn't stop him.

One of the funniest things I have seen all year was in this movie. One of their jobs is the annual dragraces, where a group of locals routinely sets fire to the portaloos. Kenny is determined not to let it happen this year, and has a plan. Unofrtunately, it is not well executed, so we see him and his crew in their little truck still on the race track when the Monster Truck race starts.

So, despite the unlikely subject matter, this is a movie in which the central character grows on you, as a man with his own sort of dignity, to the point that you want things to work out for him and for people to stop being so horrible when they're really no better than he is. Admittedly, the movie does lay it on a bit thick in its closing scenes at the Melbourne Cup races, when some of the snobby people turn out to act more disgracefully than anything Kenny would do.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

I have only been to Bombay (or Mumbai, it depends who you talk to) for a couple of days but I think that no matter how long I might stay in this city, I would never get access to the kind of stories told in this book. Mind you, I'm not sure I'd want to, as he got himself into some rather dubious positions. His stated aim is to "follow eveything that made me curious as a child: cops, gangsters, painted women, movie stars, people who give up the world." He acheives this: the book breaks down into appropriate sections, except that such is the all-pervading influence of gangsters, there is an element of leakage between sections.

Mehta spent some of his childhood in Bombay, before leaving the country for 21 years in 1977. He has come back, partly so that his own children can gain an understanding of their roots but also because the place has always had a tight claim on his heart while away. So the book is not strictly travel writing: there are recollections of his childhood, stories of his attempts to settle in to what he dubs "the city of no" as he finds it very difficult to obtain the things he had learned to take for granted in New York - accomodation, electricity, telephone and so on. What there is not is any story about his family once they hit Bombay: he says that to protect them, he has to keep his distance from them, but there is a suspicion that he relishes the freedoms that their absence gives him.

Roughly half this six hundred page book is devoted to the power structure he encounters in Bombay. It soon becomes clear that it is not the police, the courts, the rule of law which has control here. Instead, it is the gangs - there are two main gangs split along religious lines, the Marathi
nationalist Shiv Sena ("Army of Shiva") run by Bal Thackery and the Muslim Dawood Ibrahim gang. The former is very much the stronger, and had initially run in parallel to the municipal government, providing social services to its constituency, but has now reached the point that it has political power at city, state and national levels. Their powerbase is in the Marathi "sons of the soil"; in addition to being opposed to the Muslims but to those who are better off than them who, in turn, are "aghast" that this "race of clerks" won't stay in its place.

Mehta does not dwell on the ideological differences between the gangs: his focus is on their power and with the underworld in which they operate, acknowledging at one point his own growing fascination and exhileration with the dark and dangerous nature of this life. One of his early questions is "what does a man look like when he is on fire?" He spends a fair amount of time getting acquainted with the kind of people who know the answer to this question - hitmen from both of the gangs, a very highly placed policeman (who appears to be the one non-corruptible policeman in all of Bombay) and the leaders of both major gangs. He points the finger at Thackeray in particular, saying that he's a "man of monstrous ego", somewhere between Pat Buchanan and Saddam Hussein, someone (after talking to him for a while) of whom "I began to entertain the suspicion that he was not all there ... was a tired aging fascist". This was when he began to rave about the rat problem in Bombay and the need to ban Valentines Day, hardly the most major of that city's problems. He thinks small, which Mehta attributes to never having read a book in his life and his tastes for Bollywood movies and cartoons.

In particular, Thackeray is the man who has done more than anyone else to destroy Bombay. One way in which it has clearly broken down is the absence of any legal form of law and order: even the best of the police use the technique of an "encounter", in which thugs are simply eliminated. without any sort of due process. The courts are portrayed as completely unable to deal with the situation - not because of ineptitude, but because of intimidation and lack of resources. If you want "justice" in this city, you have it administered by the gangs. Even judges have been known to seek this assistance (or have it forced upon them). One odd consequence is that Bombay has become a comparatively safe city, with street crime quite rare; when the gangs can shake down a judge or a movie producer for a few lakh, I guess mugging becomes unnecessary.

The second half of the book takes up his interest in "painted women, film stars and people who give up the world". With the first of these, we are in the world of the "bar-line" girl, where there is a curious sort of innocence.
A bar-line dancer is the sort of girl the gangsters from his first section are likely to go for. They work in beer halls, dance halls: "fully clothed young girls dance on an extravagantly decorated stage to recorded Hindi film music, and men come to watch, shower money over their heads and fall in love". The whole idea is to make the client fall in love and to make him think she is in love.

This is far more the courtesan than the straight out prostitute; they are women upon whom men project all their desires and with whom men do indeed fall in love, undertaking a perverse sort of courtship ritual. The women involved have a tightrope to walk: those who are any good are unlikely to have just the one suitor, so they have to treat each of their men as "special", as dancing just for him. Fine if only one of their men is in of a night, but things get tricky when there are more than one - they get the same sort of jealousy any man might get at the thought of losing, and respond, either with more extravagant gifts and promises or more extravagant violence. For the girls, it is a matter of stringing each along, taking vast amounts of money in the process, until eventually they have to provide sex. This is deferred as long as possible, however: the girls recognise that that will normally be the end of things.

Mehta spends a lot of time with two of these girls, one he calls Monalisa and another, Honey, who is actually a guy who successfully passes as a woman, but who is terribly conflicted over which role is most important to him/her, as Honey is also married and desperate to have a child. He meets both through a particular club he calls Sapphire, a club which is at the top of the game:
Over time, I started liking Sapphire. I liked the happiness there. Here were people who came after a hard day in a brutal city, and there was music they liked, and booze, and lights, and pretty girls dancing. The girls were enjoying themselves too, making money, being fawned over... [Men], their commercial instincts deadened or diminished by happiness, threw on the girls the contents of their wallets which they worked so hard to accumulate. Look, this is how little they mean to me, these brightly coloured pieces of paper. Men came here to debase money.

This is a rather sanguine picture of these sorts of place: as Mehta himself knows, they guys are totally exploited and any joy the girls might get is both fleeting and always with the recognition that this is their one shot of avoiding a more desperate way of life. Neither of the dancers he spends a lot of time with is content with the life, both are near the end of their time in the sun. But these sections were really good, in the way that Mehta presents full histories (spending nearly 100 pages on them) of both these characters, and meets their friends, families, partners. Unlike a journalist or other sort of observer, Mehta becomes a full participant in their lives - you get the sense that both regard him as a friend, and he certainly seems to want and try to do a lot for them, to the point you begin to wonder what his own family would make of it all, think it is convenient for him that he has kept his familay away from this life.

I like what he calls movies - "distilleries of pleasure". Again, Mehta is fully engaged: he has gangland contacts with the movies - the two are inextricably mixed, as traditional lenders won't touch the speculative business of movie making, so it is gang money which lets them happen. In quite a nice turn of events, Mehta gets involved in a movie where his gangland contacts provide a degree of authenticity to the movie for which he is scriptwriter.

The fnal section, as if in the search for some form of vicarious repentance for all the other things he gets up to in the book, looks at a sadhu: one who is "taking diksha", giving up all earthly pursuits ("no violence, no untruth, no stealing, no sex, no attachments (to property or people)") in favour of a godly life. Mehta starts this section:
I am sick of meeting murderers. For some years now, I have been actively seeking them out ... to ask them this one question: "What does it fell like to take a human life?" This unbroken catalogue of murder is beginning to wear on me
So he goes to meet a Jain family: because the father is taking diksha, apparently the whole family has to, but they cannot acknowledge each other as family members any longer. The Jains are at the extreme end of ascetism: they cannot take life, to the point they have to stay inside during the rainy season to avoid standing on some sort of bug in a puddle or killing the unity of the water. As sadhu, they're entirely at the mercy of the community for food and shelter - something lacking in a city like Bombay, so they'll need to take to the road.. It is a strange sort of thing to do: while it is definitely a much harder thing than I could ever contemplate, it is an oddly selfish thing, as it is not about helping anyone else, just the one taking diksha. Of course, since they have to give up all attachments, they can't own anything, so there are plenty who benefit from that.

When we were talking about this book at my book club, one of the major points we talked about was the different expectations as to privacy. Mehta says that when the middle class look for accomodation, they must have enough privacy to be able to change their clothes without drawing the curtains. On the other hand, in the slums, there was simply no concept of privacy at all: indeed, Mehta met families who insisted on staying in the slums even when they could afford not to because living in their own house, no matter how modest, would make for a very lonely life.

If this book has defects, they are minor. I suspect that Mehta's fascination with the underworld made this part of the book grow to 300 pages. I think the one thing that annoyed me a little was that every so often, there would be continuity problems - not so much characters coming in without introduction as characters we know quite well being introduced all over again. Apparently, some of the book has its genesis in pieces written for magazines and the like, which probably explains these few clumsy joins in the narrative.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Book of Revelations

Going in to the Nova to buy my ticket for this movie (it was a special preview with a Q & A session, so I thought I should buy in advance) I was told that Tom Long, the star, was actually watching a movie at the time, so there was a chance for a bit of celebrity spotting. I looked, but the only person I recognised was the old bearded guy who relentlessly asked me for money any time I went past. As it turned out, I wouldn't have recognised Tom Long anyway: my memory of the sweet Angus of Seachange would have been no help at all. Tom Long now has quite a magnificent beard of his own, and his eyes are those of someone quite driven.

The story of the movie is quite simple. Daniel is a dancer, one with a splendid body, full of odd sinews and curves. Being a dancer, it is frequently on display. Three women decide to abduct him, simply because he is beautiful, and to act out their fantasies - mostly sexual, but one's instincts are much more of a mothering nature. Some of these scenes are quite explicit: Daniel spends his times chained down, available to the women to do what they will with him. One thing they do want is to see him dance, just for them: he manages a completely dispirited performance, one that was called the "broken dance" in the Q & A. They keep him for 12 days, and then throw him back. An interesting feature of the Q & A session afterwards was the way in which some in the audience wanted to make it about the women in it. Director Anna Kokkinos was very clear that she was interested in the role reversal, in making a male the helpless one, the one on whom women project their fantasies, although she does concede that men might learn something of women's learned helplessness from this movie.

There is also some commentary on the commonly held view that men always want sex, so it is impossible to rape them: this is most clearly brought out when Daniel tries to report the crime of being abducted by 3 women. The two policemen evidently think that this would be their idea of paradise and fail to take him seriously. We see enough of Daniel to know that there is no way he enjoys any aspect of his incarceration, even if his body does respond to some of the ministrations of the women.

But a far greater part of the movie was about inability to communicate, and the gradual gaining of the ability to be revelatory (hence the title) with the rather obvious point being made that it is through communication, we reveal our humanity. I was initially a bit pissed off, as I thought that while the movie was breaking interesting ground, it was nonetheless buying into a familiar stereotype by having Daniel totally unable to say anything about his experiences. But it was pointed out in the Q & A that his two closest companions are two very uncommunicative women: we never get much of a sense of who Bridget, his girlfriend is, save that she's too lazy to get her own cigarettes - it is her request that Daniel get some for her that puts him out on the street to be abducted. (This leads to a suggestion that she is complicit in his abduction as, in an economy of casting, the same actress plays Bridget and one of the masked women who kidnaps him. There is, however, no connection between the two characters.) We can tell both from their apartment and the way they dance together that there is not much to their relationship: the apartment looks like a picture in a home furnishing catalogue and the dance is purely erotic. The other woman, Isabel (Greta Schacchi), is the director of the dance he is performing and remains focussed on the production.

When he is released, he can't say anything to either of what has happened, can't dance, can't be with any part of his past life. He tries to pretend nothing happens, but then he has encounters with women which become increasingly violent, as he acts out his anger at what happened.

It is only when he's randomly asked one day on a train if he is alright, that this process slows down. Since all he knows about the three women who abducted him was that they were white, he could know immediately that Julie (Deborah Mailman) was not involved - which enables a gradual rebuilding of trust. He still can't talk, but he can finally renew his connections with Isobel and, eventually, express himself through dancing.

The final scenes are a further step to rehabilitation: one of his violent outbursts gets him arrested, but by now he can finally call on someone to help him in his troubles. You can probabkly guess it is Julie, but it is not her who comes to his aid; instead, it is the one person we meet in the movie who has the kind of professional expertise and male mana to be able to take our Dan in his arms and say "Now, start at the beginning."

Yes, there are complaints about the somewhat wooden acting of Anna Torv (Bridget) and indeed of Tom Long, but these complaints seem to miss the point that they were deliberately wooden, that for Daniel at least, this was to be a revelatory experience. I think that once we see him in his cell and then afterwards, no-one could describe his performance as wooden. The fact that he creates this character so far removed from young Angus, who lived for surfing, is testament to the fine job of acting he does.

I don't remember any laughs in the movie, but there was certainly one after. Tom Long walked out beside me: as we approached the exit, two old dears, who obviously have known him a fair old while, had a certain amount of difficulty dealing with him, after spending the last couple of hours watching him in this movie.

Friday, September 08, 2006

2:37, a film by Murali K Thalluri

Maybe if I had seen Gus van Sant's Elephant I would be moaning about this movie being derivative to the point of being a straight copy of it. I didn't, so am not in a position to make any comment. I am glad, however, that I did see 2:37. It was a pretty gruelling watch in a couple of places, where the director was pretty confrontational in the way he handled the scenes but, after having them circle around in my head for a couple of days, I think they were important to be shown the way they were. I'll say more about these later, but can say more general things to defer the spoilers. 2:37 is the time at which the movie starts - it doesn't take a genius to add together a locked school bathroom door, the sound of someone falling to the floor and blood seeping out under the door to arrive at the conclusion that the movie starts with a suicide. The movie ends with us actually seeing the suicide happen - not a pretty sight: there has been a long, slow take as the person in question walks to the bathroom, locks the door, and then draws blood. Apparently, this piece takes over five minutes.

The particular time has been chosen because it is the time at which a friend of the film maker took her own life (well, maybe: apparently there has been a big bunfight across the pond about the accuracy of this claim), an event which initially prompted him to try the same. Luckily, it didn't work, and he decided to make what he claims is a life affirming work. I'd say that he'd been reading too much Beckett, but I doubt that he's heard of him: the interview I read revealed a startling lack of cultural knowledge. At best, I'd say that it might discourage some from suicide. It might make others think there is no other way out, which is why it has an R18 rating in Australia.

So, the movie starts with all the signs of a suicide, and an anxious Melody trying to get in to the bathroom. It is clear she thinks she knows who it is, the teacher she calls to help also thinks he knows who it is: as the film unravels, it becomes clear that they both have a different person in mind and are both wrong. The idea is that we play along and try to work out who it might be. The form of the film is to go back to the beginning of the day and cycle round through half a dozen school kids, showing a piece of their day: each links to the next. So, we might have an episode in which we see Melody, for example, talking to someone. We'll then see the next person hearing that conversation as they move into their own episode. One critic sees the technique as creating some sort of prison, but I'd say that it is more important to see it in terms of a closed loop.

For each, there is a kind of segment of an interview, shot in black and white to create an atmosphere of cinema verité. As we go round, another layer is revealed: so Melody first time round loves animals and kids, wants perhaps to be a primary school teacher. By about the third go round, she has no idea.

I'm picking on Melody because, insofar as this film has a central character, she's it. She was also my favourite character. On the first go round, my pick was that it was her brother, Marcus, who had committed suicide: he seemed highly strung and "artistic". Sean was the gay guy, but he was out about it, although a bit pissed that it got him into trouble. Uneven Steven was the fellow who had one leg shorter than the other and one urethra more than normal, with no control over the second one - with results which are embarrassing enough at the best of times, and a high school certainly ain’t that. Then there was the guy I hoped first time round would be the victim, Luke, because he was such a tosser (literally, as it happens) and finally, Sarah, the nice girl who just wanted to settle down and get married (to Luke, whose only conversational ability with her seemed to be "hey, babe") and dares anyone to have a problem with that.

By the time we'd finished our circuits of these characters, my attitude had changed completely: I hoped it would be Marcus who was in the bathroom. Logically, I knew it couldn't be Melody, as we were outside with her, looking at the blood, but she seemed to have most reason to be the one inside the bathroom. Of course, we have to make allowances for the way that problems appear so magnified when you're young and in a place where there's always going to be someone to make things worse for you. So, maybe if I'd wet my pants twice in one day, been chucked out of class by the teacher, been laughed at and then punched in the head by the tosser, that would send me over the edge too.

So, I found this quite a challenging movie to watch, for a couple of reasons: I want to talk about those reasons, but in doing so, I'll be giving spoilers, so look away now.

As I said, Melody had most reason to want to die: she finds out today that she's pregnant, and word is out all round the school. At the moment, Luke is getting the credit for being the father, but its only a matter of time before the truth is known: that she was raped. Not only was she raped, but she was raped in her own bed, by her own brother. Now here's the controversy: the director had us watch pretty much the whole thing - I won't go into details, but the camera is there as its happening, and it took quite some time. For many, as soon as they started to see this, they'd see how revolting it is. The thing is, that we see so much violence these days, that for some it takes longer - I know that when I was watching, it took a while, basically the whole scene, for the full horror of what was happening to hit me.

The one reservation I continue to have is that the camera at one point seemed to basically cop a peek, not for the first time in the movie; there was an earlier discomforting shot where we watch Melody get dressed. Maybe he was trying to make a comment on voyeurism, make us somehow complicit in what was happening, I just don't know.

The other spoiler, about who was in the bathroom, is where my comment about the filming technique creating a closed loop comes in. We're all so concerned about the dramas of the characters, and seeing their reasons for not wanting to go on living, that it doesn't necessarily occur to us that it might not be any of them. Certainly, there were at least two of the characters to whom this nice girl had been kind but who had been so self involved that they'd not given her the time of day. There may have been more: when it became obvious who was about to kill herself, I was struggling to work out her place within the movie. But I really can't see the movie, as has been claimed by some, as providing the simplistic moral that we should be nicer to each other, because we have Melody taking the last word, saying of the suicide, "she's the lucky one".

Monday, September 04, 2006


When travelling away for a holiday, I seem to face two conflicting impulses. The first is that, because it is a holiday, I need to relax, take it easy, recover from the rigours of servitude. The second is that because I only have a short period and there is lots going on around me, then I need to throw myself into all that is on offer, stay up all night checking out the nightlife, pursue anything that sounds interesting. The problem is that that is as tiring as not being on holiday. So it was that I was very conscious of missing out on a lot of things during the ten days I was in Melbourne: I didn't get to a play, I didn't go to Footscray and check out the Ethiopian cuisine (which sounds just a little strange, given that Ethiopia has some of the most desperate food shortages in the world), I only went to one gig (a local singer-songwriter, Jess McAvoy, all very pleasant, she has a nice line in banter, but her music was a bit poppy for my tastes), I didn't even get to go to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Oh, and of course, my reason for going to Melbourne in the first place was the Melbourne Writers' Festival. I failed to attend so much as one event. The closest I got was to see the film of a book by someone at the Festival (Rupert Thompson's The Book of Revelations) following which there was a Q&A by the director of the film (Anna Kokkinos) and its star (Tom Long), and then to buy a copy of the book. Only then did I learn that the author was in Melbourne: it would have been interesting to have him come and comment on the movie. But I'm afraid that my expectations of the Festival were not in any sense met: I thought there'd be some of the big names of contemporary literature there, those who have not long published their latest work. David Mitchell, for example. After all, Melbourne says it is the cultural capital of Australia, and you'd think they'd have the biggest names. Instead, when I got the programme, it was a complete dud: sure, I might have gone to some random events and had some pleasant surprises, but they wanted too much money for a pig in the poke. The Brisbane one (in two weeks) looks much better: Sebastian Barry, Lionel Shriver, Roger McDonald (2006 winner of the Miles Franklin), Jasper Fforde are at least names of authors of works I am interested in. Or there is Adelaide: they had Vikram Seth. Vikram Seth! Plus, they had Sarah Waters, Suketu Mehta, Michael Cunningham, MJ Hyland (and she's from Melbourne). Ah well, maybe next year.

Instead, my days fell into a very pleasant pattern. In the ten days I was there, I managed to become a regular at three cafes - the very pleasant Journal is in the Melbourne Public Library building, which was almost directly opposite where I was staying. So, I'd start my day there, wander around the downtown area a bit before having another coffee and lunch at a different cafe before sitting down to do some actual work, mostly in the Uni library. There also seemed to be quite a lot of purely random tram catching: I was most impressed to find several things I'd had it mind to track down simply by being on the right random tram. Or, in one case, missing the last tram home, meaning I had to walk (I'm funny about catching taxis) and so walked past the source of the best burgers in all of Victoria - Danny's. This was according to a reader survey in the Age: I'd actually say the place the readers said was second was better, but disadvantaged by its position. This is Kermonds, way out in Warrnambool, which I lucked into last time I was in Australia: a very old fashioned place, the way I imagine McDonalds was before it went for world domination, it had a line up of four men in chef's kit, all furiously making burgers, which were very very good.

So, I explored bits of Melbourne that were new to me, became re-acquainted with bits that were familiar, found some fine bookshops, managed to dine on Malaysian food four times, in four different places, and see four very different movies, three of which were Australian. I think I love Melbourne: in all my travels, it is only the third place that has really appealed as a place to live, and the other two (Esperance in Western Australia, and Darjeeling) simply can't happen. They need to fix their book festival, but.