September 1, 2013

MIFF 2013 (Or, holy fuck, how many movies did I just see?!?)

It's not exactly breaking news for me to admit that I love movies. I love watching them, I love talking about them ... hell, on the good days I even love making them. So, with that in mind, and remembering how exhausted and sick I get trying to fit the Melbourne International Film Festival around work, I took a few weeks off from the bookshop this year to do it right. And by 'do it right' I mean ...

During MIFF I saw sixty films in seventeen days.

It was awesome.
(Not pictured: John)

If you're an obsessive completist (like me), you'll be able to find my itty-bitty reviews of every single one of them in the archive right here.

Here's what I learned:
  • Either MIFF is the best festival in the world, or I'm starting to get seriously good at picking movies based on a three-sentence write-up in the guide. I saw a ton of great films, and even the stuff that didn't quite work was interesting. There were hardly any films I regretted seeing. At a Festival there will always be some duds, that's just the way of the world, but this year I kept those to an absolute minimum. Yay me!
  • Once you get into a groove, it really is possible to do nothing but watch movies. My schedule: Wake/shower/head into the city/watch movies/grab food when I could in between films, eating standing up/go home/sleep/repeat. I had one day in which I went from session to session from 11am until 1am in the morning. I did six movies that day ... and didn't even nap in any of them!
  • I might be the only person in Melbourne who finds both the ancient, falling apart seats at the Forum and the loud leather monstrosities at Greater Union to be much more comfortable than the modern, spacious, ergonomically designed seats at ACMI. I had a couple of really long films at ACMI, and those seats murdered my back ... but pulling three movies in a row at Greater Union was fine. My spine wants to be a rebel, an iconoclast, dangerous ... in truth it's probably just a hipster or something.
  • Coming of age stories are the flavour of the month in indie circles. Fully twenty-five of the films I saw had protagonists that were teenage or younger (and the standard of performance from the young actors I saw was remarkable pretty much across the board). Want to make a festival darling? Consider mining your teenage years for inspiration.
  • This might seem contradictory, but from a writing stand-point specificity equals universality. If you write a unique character, and have them inhabit a really specific milieu, your story will burrow deeper into your audience's brain than it would if you showed us a more 'normal' situation. Some of my favourite movies at the festival featured: a Belgian banjo player falling in love with a tattooist; a murder at a gay cruising ground in rural France; the most obstinate student at a Saudi Arabian girl's school; and a farm full of psychic pigs (yes, you read that right).
  • I grew up with a bit of country music (particularly in our van on long car-trips), and there's a definite love of the genre lying dormant deep in my genes. The amazing bluegrass that peppered The Broken Circle Breakdown's soundtrack lifted it from very very good to absolutely brilliant. Devoid of context you won't be able to see it, but this song absolutely destroyed me (it's the moment he reaches out for her hand and she doesn't take it ... just trust me, it's fucking heartbreaking):

  • The other film I saw that I thought was a masterpiece was Stranger by the Lake, and what really blew me away was the way it managed to be incredibly romantic and erotic, yet also edge-of-the-seat tense, all at the same time. After a murder takes place at a gay cruising ground, the anonymous trysts in the woods don't stop, but they take on a menacing, stomach-churning air: every time Franck, the lead, goes into the woods we are terrified it could be for the last time. As he falls head over heels for a new regular, the sexual tension and the 'is-he-about-get-stabbed-in-the-throat' tension are happening simultaneously. It makes for a really queasy, unsettling experience, and one I won't forget in a while.

As well as those two, there were a whole bunch of fantastic films, including WadjdaThe Selfish Giant, The Past, A Hijacking, Foxfire, Ginger and Rosa, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, the documentaries Blackfish, Stories We Tell, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and The Act of Killing, and the now-out-in-cinemas-go-see-them Stoker, Upstream Color and Frances Ha.

Even if we get some exceptional commercial releases in the back end of this year, my best-of list for 2013 will be filled with MIFF movies (and there were plenty more flicks that were very very good). It was seventeen days well spent, and taking the time off to 'do it right' could well become a new tradition of mine.

Cheers, JC.

How the Light Gets In (#70)

How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland

What I said then:

Debut from an interesting Aussie author about a girl on exchange in America.

What I say now:

Lou Connor, a stroppy teenager too smart for her bogan Sydney family, plots an escape from their stultifying home and heads to suburban Chicago on a student exchange. The Hardings, her host family---affluent, fashionable, pampered---try and make her feel welcome, but Lou's self-destructive habits continually drive a wedge between them. Soon her presence causes cracks to appear in the facade of the Hardings' laundry-commercial lives, and the differences in temperament prove insurmountable.

Lou is a fascinating character, and Hyland nails her tone of voice, giving us a complicated, flawed teenager. She's super smart in some ways but kind of clueless emotionally (the way all teenagers are), and she constantly thinks she can get away with more than she really can. She reads way above her level, but drinks way above her level too, using alcohol as a crutch any time things get tough. She looks down on her low-rent, unambitious family in Sydney, but seems to do everything she can to sabotage her chances of leaving them behind. It's a tour de force performance from Hyland.

The other thing that makes the novel memorable is its depiction of the Hardings and their milieu. It's a vision of a suburban Americana that is too perfect to actually exist, but nobody will admit that their lives aren't as picture perfect as they appear. It's like the whole family is trapped inside a staged photo portrait, their shiny white smiles fixed in place for all eternity. Lou's sulking, snarky presence invades the Harding home like a rank smell, and she wears them down until each member (except for the shopping-obsessed teen daughter) eventually admits to her their secret dissatisfactions.

Plot-wise, it meandered a little too much for my taste. When Lou's at the Hardings the book falls into a distinct pattern: she tries to fit in, the pressure to act a certain way gets to her, she acts out (boozing, smoking, falling for a ne'er-do-well who talks her into taking speed) then gets caught, and she vows to try harder to fit in. This pattern repeats a few times, and (as enjoyable as Lou's voice is), I thought it needed more variation. There's also a couple of late-book swerves (into a rooming house for failed exchange students, then into a placement with a secondary family) that were interesting, but didn't quite feel properly integrated into the whole narrative.

Those were pretty minor complaints, though, and How The Light Gets In is worth a read for Lou's brilliantly constructed voice: she's bitter, insouciant, troubled, intelligent, emotionally stunted ... and fascinating company.

Cheers, JC.

August 28, 2013

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (#71b)

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern

What I said when I got it:

I've been really interested by the concept of this one since it first arrived: basically, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia all knew each other, and at a certain point they all travelled together. This non-fiction book examines that moment in time and what it meant to each man's career. Now it's out in a paperback, there's really no excuse to put off having a look.

What I say now:

I was reading this at basically exactly the same time as the enclave in the Vatican was choosing the new pope (yes, that's how far behind I am with my book reviews), and the timing was perfect. Reading about how Cesare's power-hungry father Rodrigo shamelessly bought the papacy and used its power in a grab for real estate made the rituals and solemnity of the modern Vatican seem absolutely ridiculous. I can't imagine anybody learning about the sordid history of middle ages Catholicism and remaining devout (sorry, Dad).

That aside, this was a fascinating peek into an era of history which is hugely important (in so many ways, Renaissance Italy shaped the history and culture of Europe, and thus had effects still being felt today), yet about which I knew very little. The book rotates chapters, focusing in turn on da Vinci, the brilliant artist and engineer who designed increasingly elaborate instruments of war; and Machiavelli, the young diplomat who would become the most radical political thinker of his age; and Borgia, tyrant and murderer, rampaging through Italy trying to claim a Kingdom with the sword.

Luckily for Strathern, Machiavelli kept meticulous journals, and his notebooks lay out exactly how the men met, and how they reacted to each other. Borgia loaned da Vinci from his Florentine masters to aid him militarily; Machiavelli was sent by the same men to divert Borgia's attentions away from defenceless Florence; the two Florentines (da Vinci nearing the end of his career, Machiavelli at the beginning of his) met in Borgia's train and struck up a brief friendship.

Strathern charts their time together during Borgia's campaign, and how their meeting affected each of their subsequent careers, in particular the effect that the charismatic (yet psychotic) Borgia had on the other two. Da Vinci, horrified by the realities of war, stopped designing weapons. Machiavelli, inspired by Borgia's ruthlessness, applied that ruthlessness to the world of politics, writing his famous tract The Prince using Borgia as an inspiration. Strathern's writing is clear and succinct, and doesn't have the grinding density of some non-fiction.

But despite Strathern's best efforts, it's da Vinci who makes problems for his book, remaining stubbornly a mystery: the man himself didn't keep any journals of his own, and the scraps of thought left in his notebooks are more likely to be shopping lists or reminders of chores than anything else. Whenever he and Machiavelli are apart, Strathern is left in the field of conjecture, prefacing a lot of his statements with phrases like 'da Vinci must have felt ...' or 'da Vinci surely saw ...' or 'da Vinci certainly would have been aware of ...' It lends those portions of the book an insubstantial air, which is unfortunate. That's a pretty small quibble, though, in a thoroughly researched and extremely readable history.

Cheers, JC.

August 27, 2013

'Emilia, Perhaps' --- short story

As promised, to serve as my penance for being the slackest blogger in the world, here's an old short story that I find really embarrassing. Back when I was in a writing group, one month our theme was given as 'Romance'. And this is what I came up with. I never posted it back then because it's (probably) the schmaltziest thing I've ever written---it's got an amnesia plotline for fuck's sake. What was I thinking?!? 

Emilia, Perhaps

He opened the door, allowing the corridor’s weak light to slice into the darkened room. The woman in the bed could not see it, but she lifted her head all the same.

‘Doctor Cuthbertson?’
How did you know it was me?’

‘You always hesitate rather charmingly on the threshold. The rest of them simply come barging in as they please.’ Julian, his hand still on the porcelain doorknob, swallowed nervously. After a moment’s wait, she beckoned him in. ‘You may enter, sir. You have my permission.’ He thought he could sense a smile in her voice. With her head completely swathed in bandages, he was having to rely on his ears to a greater degree than he was accustomed. But then, of course, so was she.

When the door closed behind him, the darkness of her room was absolute. He pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit a candle.

‘So it is night, then,’ she said. ‘I have trouble keeping track. Sometimes, when nobody comes in to check on me for a time, I can’t even tell if I have slept or not. Sleep and waking have more in common than they used to.’

‘I’m sure.’ He carried the candle across to the windows and made sure that the heavy black-out curtains were fastened securely.

‘One certainly couldn’t tell the time from the temperature. It is so stuffy in here!’

‘It gets more stuffy at night, because we have to keep the curtains closed.’ He took a deep breath, and asked the question that he dreaded so much: ‘Has any more of your memory returned?’

Every time he asked, the brief moment of silence before she began her reply stretched wide, transforming into an eternity of hope and regret, of love found and love lost.

‘Yes,’ she said, and his shoulders slumped. ‘I believe, as a girl, I used to ride. I had a white pony, a mare. I plaited her mane. Her name was … was … Sylvia, or Sybil … or Susannah.’ She threw up her hands. ‘The name won’t come. Yet. But I can see her. She was beautiful.’

‘Where do you see her? There may be elements in the background that will provide us with a clue to your origins.’ He did his best to regulate his voice, to give all his words a professional veneer, no matter how much his heart was breaking.

‘It is a country house, a very large one. There are servants. A humbly dressed man hands me the reins and touches his cap as he does so. It is all horribly opulent.’

‘Ah! You are wealthy, then.’

‘My accent ought to have told you that long ago.’

He smiled. ‘You might have been an actress.’

‘What a scandalous suggestion! Can you really think so poorly of me as that?’

‘I have no frame of reference. I could think anything of you. That is the problem.’

She sighed in frustration. ‘Well … tell me what you do think.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I am sick of being nobody,’ she cried. ‘Tell me my story, even if it is a fiction. I am sick of being a blank canvas. Paint a picture with words and fill me in. Even a made-up life is better than no life at all. Please, doctor. I beg you.’

Julian was taken aback by her request. He poured himself a glass of water from the jug next to her bed to give himself time to think. For, of course, inventing this mystery woman’s past had occupied every moment of his waking hours since he had first heard her remarkable voice. He saw, now, that those imaginings had been the rehearsal for this shining moment.

Her hand lay upturned upon the coverlet, as though she was inviting him to take it in his own. He did not.

He thought of all the names he had imagined for her and tried to decide which would suit her best. ‘Your name,’ he began softly, ‘is Emilia.’ She gasped with joy and clapped her hands together.

‘Emilia,’ she repeated, and her voice was beaming. He smiled.

‘Everyone in your family calls you Ducky, however, because as a girl your greatest joy was to explore the ponds and streams and fountains on your father’s estate. You had a pet frog named Gerald, and your nanny despaired of keeping your skirts free of grass and mud for even a single hour. You must have had more baths than any other child in England.

‘Your father was a stern man with a red beard. In your earliest years you were fascinated by his watch and chain. He was loving but distant, trusting your nanny—and later, your governess—more than he trusted himself. He loved you very much but didn’t know how to show it.

‘You were an only child, and your mother died giving birth to you. There was a portrait of her on the mantle in the sitting room. You would sneak in sometimes and look at it for hours at a time, trying to puzzle out just which emotion was being conveyed by the flakes of blue paint that were her eyes.

‘You had a white pony, a mare, named Sylvia. You plaited her mane. When you grew too long in the leg for her, your father bought you a beautiful chestnut horse with snow-white legs. He liked to watch you ride, calling advice and encouragement from outside the yard. It was the thing that brought you closest.

‘You had no friends, but you weren’t lonely. You read voraciously, and imagined a thousand adventures more spectacular than those of Mr Carroll or Mr Barrie. You charged around the estate as you pleased.

‘As you entered your teenage years, you learned how to sit, and how to serve tea. You learned French and German, how to play the harp and sing, and how to paint. Though you submitted to your lessons, you realised in your heart of hearts that it was all quite ridiculous.

‘When you first began to get your womanly discharge, nobody had enlightened you to expect it. You were mortified. You tried to steal down to the laundry and wash your own sheets. It was the scullery maid, Rhona, with her red face and red hands, who found you out and kindly explained the facts of life to you. She became your greatest friend, until—

‘Your father had invested heavily in stocks, and the depression was not kind to him. Rhona was let go, along with all the rest of the servants. Your father was forced to sell off your horses, and let the great house. “I am so sorry, Ducky,” he said, and it was the only time you ever heard his voice catch.

‘His friends in government secured him a paid diplomatic post, as ambassador to Tanganyika. The two of you repaired to the consul house in Dar Es Salaam, and you spent the remainder of the time before the war in Africa.

‘The fauna of East Africa, the lions and zebras and hippopotami, made the change in circumstances delightful to you. Even the snakes were something to be exclaimed over, rather than feared. You once saw a giraffe giving birth, and you rank it as the most wondrous, beautiful thing you have ever seen.

‘You had a sharp wit, and a keen eye for the ridiculous. Your pith had never sat well with the stuffy ladies of English drawing rooms, but the wilder sort who forged a path at the very edges of the Empire were delighted by you. For the first time in your life, you tasted popularity, though your father made damn sure it didn’t go to your head.

‘And that wasn’t all: by now you were beautiful. Your negro maid Hebe marvelled at your hair every morning as she brushed it. Your attendance at a soiree given amongst the colonials would swell the attendance as young men drove in from all across the territory for a glimpse of you. You remained happily modest and unassuming, but also had the strength of mind to resist the overtures of countless men. You were determined to fall in love, but—a romantic at heart—you did not believe in picking the best of a bad bunch. The right man must be out there, you reasoned, and you would find him eventually.

‘Even as far from Europe as that, the coming war began to loom over all. At the outbreak, your father sent you back to England on the steamer, to live with your Aunt Dulcie. Changing boats at Suez, you made it as far as Alexandria. Your boat’s arrival coincided with a German air-raid. A bomb hit the boat.

‘You thought you must be dead. The noise was immense, the pain unbearable. You were flung, burning, into the water. But still you lived.

‘Only one person escaped from that wreckage, only one person made it to the Alexandria Hospital still breathing. You.

‘When you finally woke, after three weeks in a coma, you had no recollection of who you were. Exploring with your hands you discovered that both your legs were broken and your entire head was wrapped in bandages. When the nurses discovered you moving, they ran for a doctor.

‘And here, in the most unfelicitous of circumstances, you found the man you had waited so long for. At first the callow young doctor was nervous, reticent and shy. You spoke warmly and put him at ease. His voice grew stronger, more confident, and kept you company in your cage of darkness.

‘You fell in love with him.

‘But at the back of your mind was a lingering doubt. You might love him, but how could he love you in return? Your famous beauty was surely no more, and what could you offer instead? A life of pushing a wheelchair, of changing bandages? Whenever he left your bedside, you imagined it was for the last time, and cried.

‘What you couldn’t know was the effect that your voice had on him. He had always been frightened in society, terrified of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. So for most of his life, he had stayed silent. When he did speak, it was with a stutter. It was only with you that he could be the man he always knew he was inside. You brought him out of his shell.

‘Every moment he was apart from you was spent in thinking of you. Nothing else occupied his mind. He spent hours at night, lying awake and imagining your past, piecing together in his fevered brain just who it was that he was falling head over heels in love with.

‘At last, the moment came. He arrived in your room in dead of night. You recognised him before he opened his mouth, because of the charming way he hesitated on the threshold. Sick of being nobody, you implored him to fill you up with a story, with your story. As he did so, you began to weep with joy.’

She was weeping, though she had done her best to hide it. Wet patches had appeared on her bandage, right above her eyes.

Julian continued: ‘He took your hand …’ Her fingers had lain on the sheet through his recitation, inviting him to grasp them, but until this moment he had held back. When they touched, he felt delirious with pleasure. It was some moments before he could continue. ‘And … and he lowered his lips to kiss it.’ He did so. ‘And he told you that he loved you, and would love you always.’

‘Julian,’ she whispered. ‘You have seen me without these bandages, haven’t you?’


‘And was I horrible to look at?’

Internally, he debated the merits of a lie, but he could not do it.

Under her dressings, she smiled sadly. ‘Do not fret: your silence is all the answer I need. And yet … somehow ... you love me regardless?’

‘Yes. Good God, yes. Of course.’

It was the most perfect moment in either of their lives.


Behind the Alexandria Hospital is a small cemetery reserved for Englishmen and women, and other Christians. When she was buried there two weeks later, having died of an infection, he insisted that her tombstone read Emilia Cuthbertson.

He never married, and never forgot her.

Story notes:
  • There is NO FRIGGIN' WAY that a giraffe giving birth would be pleasant to look at.
  • Looking back, the gender politics of this weirds me out: the man is literally proscribing the woman's life (and, even more troublingly, her personality) to her. 'Emilia' has no agency whatsoever, and isn't even allowed to discover her own past. I know she asks Julian to tell the story, but still. Given it's set in WWII, surely the more obvious thing would be to have a wounded soldier in a hospital, being tended by a nurse. The fact that didn't occur to me until two years later is a bit strange.
  • As dorky as it is, I quite like the structure of it, where Julian's story catches up to the beginning of my story, re-casting the earlier events in the light of his undying love.
  • Easter Eggs: 'Cuthbertson' is the name of a now-retired footballer who played for my favourite team; the negro maid Hebe is lifted straight from the Hornblower books; the business about a girl not being told about her period and not understanding when it happens for the first time is borrowed wholesale from Michel Faber's brilliant 'The Crimson Petal and the White'; Tanganyika as a setting is a deliberate homage to Roald Dahl's 'Going Solo'.
  • When we did the group reading, everyone in the room gasped in shock when I killed 'Emilia'. It was a brilliant moment: the looks on their faces were priceless. Even in a romance, happy endings are for suckers.

Cheers, JC.

May 15, 2013

Dracula (#71a)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

What I said then:

The original, but is it the best?

What I say now:

Dracula, I'm sorry to report, is most definitely not the best. In fact, it's not even very good.

Jonathan Harker, a young real estate agent, travels from London to Romania to help settle the purchases of some land in England for a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Once there, it slowly (too slowly) dawns on Harker that Dracula is creepy as fuck, that weird happenings are afoot, and that he, Harker, is now a prisoner in Dracula's ancient, crumbling castle. Once Dracula sets off for England, Harker's wife Mina and occult expert Abraham Van Helsing gather together a small group of monster hunters to counter his plans to take over the world, one innocent English neck at a time.

The book's got a heap of problems, but the main one is the simplest: there's not enough Dracula in it. The Count's eminent position in pop culture makes obvious that he's by far Stoker's most interesting/original/captivating creation. The novel's first section, involving Harker trapped in the Count's castle and slowly realising the horrifying truth about his host, is actually pretty good. Unfortunately, once the action moves to England, Dracula basically exits the book, never to return. From that point on we hear about his actions, but never really see them; we see how much other characters fear him, but never see anything that makes us fear him ourselves. It's a genuinely strange choice on Stoker's part.

In some respects he's hamstrung by his choice to make the novel epistolary(ish) --- that is, it's constructed entirely of letters, diaries and journal entries. Dracula isn't one of our correspondents, and as he spends most of the novel hiding from the characters whose point of view we're getting, we just don't see him. Still, there had to be a way to give us more blood-sucking action.

The other big issue Stoker has with his letters/diaries style is that almost every single character speaks in exactly the same tone of voice. Even Van Helsing, who has a few 'foreign' mannerisms to his speech, still speaks in basically the same manner, and with the same vocabulary, as everybody else. The other members of the anti-Drac league might as well be the same person, for all the personality that comes through their voices.

The other major issue I had with the book was the nature of the action: Stoker seems to have no idea how to structure his story to make the most of its inherent drama. The vast majority of the book is spent having theoretical discussions. When the anti-Drac league does take action, it's most often through waiting in doorways, or writing letters to shipping agents, or looking up train timetables. Even in the final denouement, which should be super-duper satisfying after we've waited so long for it, they kill Dracula without actually having to confront him! I mean, surely that's a no-brainer, right? I couldn't believe it.

Obviously the book is super famous and continues to be read widely, and it's not for no reason. And in some ways I can understand the appeal: not only would the text itself have been pretty daring for its time, but the subtext is absolutely, positively drenched in sex (or, more specifically, the fear of sex). I have no idea what Stoker had going on in his personal life, but I suspect he was pretty hung-up about a lot of things, because a hell of a lot of psychological weirdness seeps through the edges of the novel. Unfortunately, in my opinion he wasn't in control enough of that psychological stuff to make it focussed and thematically coherent, and he certainly wasn't able to marry it to a well structured story. This ended up a pretty major disappointment for me.

Cheers, JC.