THICK, otherworldly purple fog cascades from the lobby of Pilgrim Uniting Church on a typically bitter winter evening in Launceston. An usher - made up and clad in white - stands solemn, silent sentry at the main entrance, which is crimson lit.
The steeple’s cross is a vivid red beacon.
As you approach the entryway, vague figures move in silhouette, rendered apparitions by murky atmospherics. Stepping inside, bright floodlights briefly disorient as you notice the disquieting ambient throb and hum of disjointed soundscapes pulsing from the heart of the church. There’s a whiff of something earthy - not quite incense - infused with the mist.
Anticipation buzzes as the teeming crowd is received into the church auditorium, which is illuminated with fluorescent scarlet stalactites punctuated by frigid, strobing stalactites. Framed by a cross, a projection at the back loops a moody, black and white cloudscape. There is a stage set up here, but the audience are seated with their backs to it.
Pilgrim’s imposing Tasmanian blackwood pipe organ - erected in 1910 - towers over the capacity crowd. There’s a reverent hush as lights dim and - after a languid theatrical pause - two shadowy figures approach.
One, shorter, reminiscent of a Victorian era footman, takes up his place at the organ.
The other, tall and gaunt - evoking FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in the haze - approaches a strange, science-fiction contraption mounted on the altar.
Adopting a conjurer’s bearing, the robed, towering wraith coaxes an otherworldly squeal from his instrument.
The Crossing has begun.
“Oh, I don’t think it was everyone’s cup of tea!” laughs Hobart Scots-Memorial minister Rev Graham Sturdy.
It’s the day after the final performance of the Unconscious Collective curated Crossing project (a part of the 2017 Dark Mofo program) in Hobart, and Mr Sturdy is reflecting on the response to the previous evening’s show.
“We had some mixed reviews - but that’s art. It’s an artistic event, and that means your response is formed by your life experiences.
“We saw 400-500 people over the course of the night, with a full house of 250 for the performance itself,” Rev Sturdy said.
There was also a mixed response in Launceston.
“Quite a number of the congregation attended. I wouldn’t say everyone was necessarily thrilled with the idea - not from within the congregation - but some people who know congregation members were concerned that we were going into territory that we perhaps shouldn’t,” Pilgrim Uniting’s Rev Rod Peppiatt said.
Rev Dennis Cousens, whose ministry, as part of the Midlands Patrol, covers 18,000 square kilometres, including the Ross and Oatlands Uniting Churches, notes “interestingly, for (many) it has been an opportunity to enter a building of some historical significance, a space used as a place of worship, and which is now a place to remember with a feeling of welcome and inclusiveness.”
Sue Walker, from Launceston’s Synod office, was inspired by the Crossing experience.
“It was a different to anything I’d been to before, musically and presentation wise - the use of lights and the music connecting with them was amazing,” Ms Walker said.
”Certainly using a theremin and the electronic sound was different - it’s not really my taste in music, but I’m out to check anything new, and the performers were obviously very talented.
“It’s all about checking it out and seeing what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Based in Hobart, the Unconscious Collective is a loose affiliate of artistic collaborators established by David Patman and Michelle Boyde in 2014. For Crossing, Patman - an academic and engineer- and Boyde - an artist and curator - assembled a diverse array ofartists and musicians to undertake a six-day pilgrimage from Launceston to Hobart.
Traversing 200km of the Midland Highway, the project progressively illuminated six roadside churches, starting with Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston, taking in Ross and Oatlands Uniting Churches en route and climaxing with a standing room only performance at Scots-Memorial Uniting Church in Hobart. Other sites included the former Cleveland Union Chapel and St Mary’s Church of England in Kempton.
The Crossing project set out to investigate notions around pilgrimage and spiritual seeking.
“The project was inspired by car journeys in my childhood from Hobart to Launceston, along the old Midlands Highway through the various towns - Kempton, Oatlands, Ross,” says Mr Patman. “I wondered about the inhabitants and their lives, as we drove through, sometimes stopping for petrol or a snack. Something about the drive was very reflective, and it felt like a significant journey. As I got older the towns began to be bypassed by the new highway, and it seemed that maybe life was bypassing them too.
The churches mostly remained visible, because of their size, and more recently driving the highway, I wondered about their congregations and whether the churches were able to retain their place as centres for community and spirituality, and whether that too was being passed over. I also love the neo-gothic architecture which characterises many Tasmanian churches.
The original project title was Pastoral, referring to the role of churches as caring for the flock, but Crossing also seemed appropriate because of the journey aspect of the project - crossing between places, geographically, but also from secular to spiritual. In church architectureAnd of course the sign of the cross, both in its pagan form as representing a journey into the spirit world as well as its Christian symbolism.”
Amongst those participating were Melbourne-based musician Miles Brown, lighting artist Matthew Adey and a small army of hair, clothing and olfactory artists. The opening night event in Launceston culminated in a haunting, one-off musical performance from husband and wife duo Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke, whose renowned band Einstürzende Neubauten was also on the Dark Mofo bill.
Brown, a composer and curator whose hypnotic theremin playing was the linchpin of the six performances, teamed with organist JP Shilo, who “really made the big organ sing”, according to Mr Peppiatt.
Patman and Boyde admit that “Dark Mofo events are intentionally challenging and explore darker themes,” but point out that Unconscious Collective were very aware of the need to be “respectful to the Church and its values.”
“Miles' performance alludes more to ritual, due as much to how the theremin is played by waving the hands in the air, as does his costume. As I understand it, the architecture of churches of all kinds, or interior design if you like, is meant to encourage a feeling of contact with the divine. The soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, columns and so on create a feeling of solemnity and reverence, and we wanted to work with this - to point it out - through a more mysterious and, perhaps flamboyant, performance which was sympathetic and respectful to the space, but also a bit playful.”
“Our level of trust (with Unconscious Collective) was very high,” Mr Peppiatt said. “We’ve had a really good relationship. They spent a lot of time getting to know us, including spending time in worship. Our sense was that this was something that could be done with respect.”
This view is shared by the other Uniting Church ministers involved.
“There has always been a great respect for what the building is used for and for the openness of the Uniting Church. To me the Uniting Church and the Midlands Patrol in particular have been the winners,” Mr Cousens said.
“The folk here are really impressed with the team - really enjoyed working with them. We can’t understand why other churches would take offence to it!” s Mr Sturdy said.
“Unconscious Collective were originally talking about a lighting installation. As we met up and walked around the church, it grew a bit from there. We talked about it at church council and were aware this could be a good thing and that there was a level of excitement about it. It grew from something quite low key and understated to more of an event,” Mr Peppiatt said.
“I think it works well as a part of Dark Mofo - it has the bite for it.”
It is the afternoon after the opening Pilgrim performance, and Mr Peppiatt is contemplating the intersection between art and spirituality, as evoked by the previous evening’s event.
“Thinking back on the early years in the life of my church, in some ways I think there has been almost a restoration of what our tradition has lost in recent centuries, in engagement with art, with the spirituality of artistic expression,” he said. “I commented to Miles after the show last night that it would be very hard to see him perform and miss the fact that he was deeply engaged with and committed to music, and there’s a sense of devotion in that which is completely appropriate.
“If you take church practice as necessarily traditional Sunday morning worship, the links were probably less clear, but certainly the stuff around non-verbal culture and non-word-based based devotion hit us early in the piece. There was a recognition that a lot of this was around sound, and particularly light, which is something that Uniting Church tradition has come to late, I suppose.”
Mr Sturdy said the lighting highlighted aspects of the faith.
“There were floodlights illuminating the organ, and our only stained glass, depicting Moses and the burning bush, was lit up in Dark Mofo red,” Mr Sturdy said.
“What hit me was not necessarily the lighting - it was our Bibles, opened up at the Book of Job, lit up white in the gloom of the church.”
Frontier Services’ Rev Dennis Cousens is thrilled by the project’s execution.
“The church spaces were magnificent,” he said.
“Oatlands was themed around water. Veiled in blue lights and enhanced by a lake recessed inside the church, the soul-searching combination of theremin and organ music accompanied a young woman in white walking across the lake. As you entered the church, the entrance foyer greeted you with a communion cup, cross, bread and the Bible beautifully displayed and draped in a sprig of gum leaves and nuts.
“Ross Uniting was themed around fire. Situated on a prominent hill - seen from a main artery highway - it glowed like a beacon welcoming travellers.
“There is a an ornate wall print of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed at the pulpit of Ross Uniting. Miles was positioned between these prints, which were spotlit. I actually heard a person reading the Nicene Creed quietly to himself. It was a great outreach, even though those who attended may not have expected such.”
For Mr Sturdy, projects like Crossing are all about making connections within the community.
“That’s how people see it here - the main mission purpose is to engage with our community. Dark Mofo and cultural events are another part of the life of the church in the civic community, just like Carols By Candlelight, really,” he said.
Speaking via hands-free mobile phone, the rumble of his 4WD’s engine occasionally drowning him out, Mr Cousens is energised by the project’s reception.
“Crossing, embraced as it was by the church and attended by the general public and congregants - with full houses both nights - will leave a great impression on many people. The “thank you for allowing this to happen in these churches” received by wife Sally and I have been very humbling. This is the church being out there, meeting the people where they are expecting nothing in return. In God’s time much will come out of it I am sure.”
Back in Launceston, Mr Peppiatt recalls that he had two significant experiences on the day.
“One was that I led a worship service in a nursing home, a very traditional setting, down to the old version of the Lord’s Prayer, because for a whole lot of people, that’s where their stories and memories are. Then, to come straight from there to this (Crossing) was kind of a culture shock. But in each I saw profound things, of the church in community and in the life of the city.
“I’m really glad that we were willing to take a crack at it; opening the door to community, offering the church an opportunity for hospitality.”
We are standing in the middle of a dark field, illuminated by fire pits, in the tiny community of Cleveland (population 15), just outside Campbell Town on the Midland Highway.
The former Cleveland Union Hall is not a Uniting Church, but it is the smallest of the venues taking part in Crossing. Inside the hall, a woman dressed in white grinds a mortar and pestle while ambient music rumbles. An usher, clad in furs, offers egg-nog and soup to audience members.
Outside, a projection of the highway scrolls across the hall’s exterior as locals pick their way across the field, flashlights in hand. Grave markers are illuminated in the evening mist, and a pen full of sheep garners constant attention from the children in attendance. With Hermann Nitsch’s performance still on the horizon, we are relieved to be reassured that there are no nefarious plans afoot for our woolly friends.
There is a reverent, electric atmosphere in the church hall as the crowd slowly assembles. Conversations are punctuated by visible breath in the chill. Incredibly, many residents of Cleveland rarely see one another owing to the sparsely populated distances - this is an opportunity to catch up, share stories and see “something a bit different”.
“It’s putting us back on the map!” says Peter, a bearded retiree from Melbourne who’s renovated a nearby three-storey, 19th century property with his wife, Grace, over the last decade.
Peter has just finished telling me about his snake infestation issues - apparently the Tasmanian weather is no deterrent, though he’d assumed it would be “so cold they wouldn’t bother” down here.
More than anything, these smaller Crossing events seem to be an ideal locus for community, a place to convene and relate. One suspects this is an occasions which will fuel many years of local dialogue, discussion and reflection.
“It’s been 30 years since some of these people set foot in a church. Everyone’s got at least a tiny bit of spirituality - isn’t that what we’re after?”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE CROSSING PROJECT, VISIT THE WEBSITE.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
AS I prepare this review, the Coalition government’s same-sex marriage postal survey is entering its second week.
The Australian Christian Lobby, led by Lyle Shelton, is presently staging a ‘no’ campaign launch in Adelaide, the City of Churches.
A quick scan of my - or anyone else’s - social media feed is more than enough to confirm that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of a “respectful debate” on same sex marriage is naive whimsy, at very best.
We are just seven days into a two-month process, and it is sadly evident that a festering national wound has been opened. Hysterical misinformation and threats of violence permeate the print and online sphere - a relentless march of jaundiced think-pieces and partisan dog whistling.
It is hard to imagine journalist and author Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay #67, Moral Panic 101, arriving at a more socially and historically apt time.
Moral Panic 101 forensically deconstructs the unhinged response - dare I say it, the ‘Fake News’ - deployed by the Murdoch press and some right wing Christian groups in relation to the Safe Schools program.
Safe Schools - ironically an Abbott government initiative - was subject to a scare campaign which, it is now apparent, provided the broader, twisted blueprint for the present ideological trench warfare being conducted over same sex marriage.
Law, an LGBTIQ Asian-Australian, empathetically relates the deeply traumatic consequences of this negative, ugly campaigning on the school children impacted.
Safe Schools, a program intended to provide 21st century appropriate sex education to kids across the gender attraction and identification spectrum, was quickly hijacked by the petty, culture warrior agenda of Australia’s self-designated guardians of conservative morality.
Moral Panic 101 illustrates the heavy burden of this demagogic cane waving.
Law’s essay is a sad litany of traumatised queer kids’ lives ruined, and in some cases cut short, by bigotry, ignorance and political point scoring.
Of course, when such a low rhetorical bar is being set by politicians and figures in our news media, what hope does ‘respectful debate’ actually have?
Transposing the ugly battlelines drawn over the mental health of children, we are now confronted with the very real ramifications of the rhetorical escalation of conservative Australia over the right for same sex couples to marry with equal rights.
If the reaction of the Murdoch press is anything to go by, Moral Panic 101 has certainly poked a conservative nerve.
Sadly, Law’s essay - in daring to question the relevance and reach of the agenda-driven tabloid morals campaigners in Mr Murdoch’s employ - has triggered an aftershock of moral panic over Law’s social media usage among those unfamiliar with the ironic vernacular of the online sphere.
It is here that at the precipice that Law’s essay - a class in lucid, careful journalism - presently teeters.
If you’re yet to return your same-sex marriage survey, and are perhaps conflicted (they need to be in the mail by October 27) I urge you to search out Law’s timely and essential essay.
We stand at the precipice of an important, defining schism in the fabric of Australian society in the early 21st century.
As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pointed out in a tweet in early September, US television comedy The Golden Girls had the last word on marriage equality during the first Bush Presidency:
“Everyone wants someone to grow old with... and shouldn’t everyone have that chance?”
The original version of this piece was first published here.
RELIGIOUS satire has existed for millennia, pre-dating Christianity itself.
From the work of Greek playwright Aristophanes - circa 400BC - through to last year’s ribald Seth Rogen animated comedy Sausage Party, the tradition of art questioning belief is fundamental to humanity’s ongoing spiritual evolution.
In his 2003 book A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire, theologian Douglas Wilson reminds us that “satire is a kind of preaching… Satire treats the foibles of sinners with a less than perfect tenderness.”
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park notoriety, have ribbed religion since their early animated short, 1992’s ‘Jesus versus Frosty’. The duo could certainly be accused of “less than perfect tenderness” when it comes to their wide-ranging satirical targets. No cow is too sacred for these equal opportunity provocateurs - race, sexuality, popular culture and religion are all fair game, with everyone from bleeding hearts to conservative hard liners squarely in their sights.
The Book of Mormon - developed by Parker and Stone with Grammy-winning Avenue Q songwriter Robert Lopez - debuted on Broadway in 2011 to astonishing, ongoing success.
The story of two trainee Mormon missionaries - the ambitious, benignly ruthless Elder Price (Canadian Ryan Bondy channelling Trump offspring Eric) and the dorky, lonely Elder Cunningham (Broadway production transplant A.J. Holmes) - Book of Mormon continues the South Park creators’ career-long obsession with profane parody, the overblown tropes of musical theatre and ever-present scatological provocation.
The Book of Mormon follows Elders Price and Cunningham’s unexpected two year deployment to Uganda. Confronted with Third World realities - AIDS, ruthless warlords, female genital mutilation, extreme poverty - the duo of innocent Latter-Day Saints discover these issues are not easily resolved with homilies or rituals.
Drawing upon the extravagant staging, religious motifs and rock opera excesses of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (1968) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), The Book of Mormon also expands upon themes explored in Monty Python’s notoriously banned Life of Brian (1978).
Melbourne’s Princess Theatre plays host to the debut southern hemisphere staging of The Book of Mormon. Showcasing an ensemble equal parts local and international, those familiar with the Broadway Cast Recording will be pleased to hear that all of the show’s rousing anthems, pin-drop balladry, fist-pumping reprises and riff-driven rock tunes are presented in exuberantly rude health.
With emphasis on the rude.
Similarly, The Book of Mormon’s choreography, production and sound design are mesmerising, at once lampooning more straight-laced musical theatre fare and simultaneously exalting in its traditions.
Without ruining The Book of Mormon’s many narrative and musical surprises, rest assured you’ll bear witness to:
Take-away coffee cups engaged in Busby Berkeley style dance numbers amidst crimson hellscapes
Pastel, Norman Rockwell inspired reenactments of Latter Day saint founder Joseph Smith discovering the Golden Plates, the basis of Smith’s Book of Mormon, in New York (circa 1823)
A raunchy, Disney-inspired showstopper that will leave you gasping (with laughter or outrage)
Admittedly, that’s barely scratching the surface of Parker and Stone’s latest subversive paean to the musical theatre form, another gleeful example of these naughty little boys’ scorched earth, defiantly politically incorrect stage and screen output.
As Douglas Wilson reminds us, “satire pervades Scripture”. The Book of Mormon, with a wicked gleam in its eye, challenges us to open ourselves to Parker and Stone’s parodic fable and its confronting reflections on the role of mainstream religion in an increasingly troubled world.
THIS divisive new film from director Darren Aronofsky - who last graced our screens in 2014 with the reimagined biblical epic Noah - is a startling meditation on creation.
It is subjective as to whether Aronofsky intended the ‘c’ in ‘creation’ to be upper or lower case - the viewer will potentially make that decision during the long conversations which ensue in attempted reading of mother!
In a lowercase ‘c’ discussion of mother! writer/director Aronofsky’s narrative focuses on a detached, newlywed couple living in a remote farm house.
The wife, or Mother, played by Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) is considerably younger than her husband, the moody poet Him, played by Perdita Durango’s (AKA Dance With The Devil) Javier Bardem.
Mother spends her days renovating the monolithic house and, essentially, attending to Him’s nurture, mothering. Him, moody and terse, is experiencing writer’s block, sulkily locked in his study immersed in sullen funk. His behaviour is, at minimum, aloof to his younger spouse and - at worst - contemptuous and dismissive.
There is an air of banal dysfunction and unease permeating mother!’s setup, punctuated by flashes of surrealism and loaded iconography. Initially, Aronofsky’s film in many ways evokes the recent spate of home invasion horror films popular with B-movie fans.
Then, one evening, Man (Ed Harris) arrives.
At this point in mother!,it would be fair to say the viewer’s proverbial thematic resonance mileage may vary.
A reading of the film as an increasingly hysterical, anxiety-infused absurdist dysfunctional marriage farce -a la Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? - is feasible.
To those with a passing familiarity with the Old and New Testaments, however, Biblical allegory quickly intertwines with the film’s tense, off-kilter domestic scenes.
This is where the capital ‘C’ reading entrenches itself.
In quick succession, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, with their two violent sons hot on Man and Woman’s heels...
All the while, Aronofsky, an atheist director who often tackles spiritual concepts- see The Fountain for an even more cosmic take - leavens mother! with an air of inscrutability.
Are the events unfolding in the film’s reality actually of a relatively prosaic nature? Are we witnessing Him’s writer’s block break as he scripts a third person, misogynist, harrowing domestic horror fable? Or are the events we bear witness to an accelerated, blistering test of endurance charting Creation through the Garden of Eden and on through to the Apocalypse itself?
In any of the above readings, Aronofsky’s film lends itself to a scathing critique of the single minded - generally masculine - creative id.
Bardem’s Him, whether frustrated poet, emotionally detached husband or demented celebrity egomaniac (or all three) is contemptuous and unfeeling towards the increasingly traumatised Mother, in thrall to the power of his status as his creation - or Creation - unfolds.
Lawrence’s performance as Mother is a disruptive, counterintuitive feint for an actress whose career has been founded on playing women with complete agency. The film is shot entirely from her perspective, the camera studying the planes of Lawrence’s increasingly frantic, panicked Mother dispassionately.
In many ways, it is a (small ‘m’) miracle mother! was made.
Notwithstanding Lawrence’s critical and commercial heft, and Aronofsky’s auteur status, the film is the very definition of ‘unconventional Hollywood fare’ (as evidenced by its initial box office reception).
The marketing campaign for mother! features two portraits of its leads.
In one, a painting by artist James Jean, a winsome Mother - beatific, framed by lush vegetation - offers her bloody heart to the viewer.
In the other, Him - seated, sinister and engulfed in flame - toys with an oddly shaped, totemic crystal, seemingly humming with ethereal power.
Regardless of your interpretive predispositions, this film’s myriad readings are tantalising, exciting reasons to embrace mother!.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
EIGHT rich, old, white dudes control more wealth than the poorest 50 per cent of people on planet Earth.
That’s a depressingly slight percentage of the vaunted 1 per cent which benefited from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and birthed the Occupy movement.
As global inequality has intensified in the decade since the GFC, the shock of the decline of capitalism has given rise to Trumpism, Brexit and the re-emergence of fascist politics.
Helen Razer’s Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young poses the question: surely a better, more equitable alternative exists?
Razer – a Gen X figurehead whose punk ethos defined Triple J radio for a generation of ’90s kids – is today an author, Crikey columnist and cranky public intellectual.
She’s also a proud, self-described Marxist.
Karl Marx, the revolutionary German political theorist and economist, was a 19th century critic of capitalism and the father of Communism.
Taking a cue from her millennial readers’ online intrigue, Razer has produced Total Propaganda, a handy primer on Karl Marx’ ideas intended to inspire activism in a new generation of workers.
With a professorial zeal for clear explanation of dense economic, philosophical and cultural concepts, Total Propaganda zips succinctly from industrial revolution to GFC and beyond.
Razer unpacks automation, neoliberalism, the offshoring of manufacturing and the exploitation of the global south using a curt turn of phrase and direct language. The author also nods to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – two woolly-headed old white dudes espousing Marxist ideas – with millennial voters.
Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young is a brisk, often hilarious and, most importantly, educational read for anyone intimidated by the language of class, political theory and economics.
Razer’s book is an excellent jumping off point for further reading in the field, and includes a comprehensive further reading section including links to all of Marx’ writings, which now live in the public domain and are available online.
AS recent Hollywood legend goes, Baby Driver director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) dreamt up his film’s high concept as a student in the mid ‘90s. Moved by the garage rock bombast of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s (JSBX) 1994 single ‘Bell Bottoms’, Wright envisioned a muscular, Bullitt-style car-chase scene set to the track’s primal thrust.
That high concept? Baby, a hyper-competent getaway driver - played by The Fault in Our Stars’ Ansel Elgort - spins a constant oldies-but-goodies soundtrack through ever-present headphones to drown out his tinnitus as he abets his criminal employers.
Fulfilling Wright’s university era prophecy, Baby Driver opens with crims Buddy (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), his girl Darling (Eiza González, Jem and the Holograms) and Griff (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) pulling off a bank robbery and subsequent escape soundtracked by JSBX’s ‘Bell Bottoms’.
Baby is a good kid in a bad situation. In debt to sinister mastermind Doc, portrayed with signature droll menace by Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), we meet the fresh-faced wheelman on the cusp of a heist that will square the ledger for good.
Nodding to the visceral, muscle-car fetishising cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Baby Driver eschews the weightless, plastic digital effects of modern vehicular mayhem tentpoles - Need for Speed, Transformers - in favour of rending metal, peeling rubber and cop-thwarting antics characteristic of directors Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (Heat) and John Landis (The Blues Brothers) in their prime.
Having quickly established the hardboiled criminal underworld of Atlanta, Wright subverts his audience’s expectations with a soul tune driven, nimbly choreographed dance sequence centring on Baby’s post-heist daily routine. This nostalgic nod to the Technicolor romantic comedies of the 1940s and ‘50s chafes against the gritty violence of the film’s central conceit, bringing to mind a benign spin on David Lynch’s lurid 1989 genre mashup Wild At Heart.
Further delving into the tropes of ‘50s teen cinema, Baby meets-cute with diner waitress Deborah (the main characters’ names are engineered for maximum soundtrack value, of course), played by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Lily James. In true fairytale style the pair are quickly head-over-heels and plotting to hit the road out of town permanently.
That’s when Baby is, inevitably, lured into one last job.
The car-chase-jukebox-musical is a lonely cinematic niche. Recent examples might generously include Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘80s synth-heavy neon-noir Drive (itself heavily influenced by the work of Michael Mann), and 1980s cult classic The Blues Brothers, perhaps the all-time cinematic standard for physics defying demolition derby-meets-musical hybrid.
Tonally, Baby Driver evokes Quentin Tarantino’s bipolar 2007 grindhouse experiment, Deathproof. Tarantino, like Wright, is a VHS and soundtrack obsessive, deftly marrying image, music and editing in propulsive, white-knuckle displays of energetic celluloid bravura. Deathproof hinges on Tarantino’s bowerbird-like trips across the AM-radio band, marrying ‘70s AOR to ‘80s punk to ‘90s hip hop while referencing the drive-in films and bottom shelf VHS excesses of the director’s youth. Baby Driver shares a wildly divergent tone in common with Deathproof, its sunny musical vistas upended by bone-crunching handbrake turns into abrupt, nasty violence.
The chief architect of said violence is introduced mid-film - in the form of Jamie Foxx’ aptly named Bats - an unhinged thug whose initial crew includes a doomed, Coen-esque criminal duo played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Lanny Joon (LOST).
With Baby’s fairytale ending jeopardised by Bats’ addition to Baby’s “one last job” crew, Wright’s film hits the skids, its uneasy collision of romance, sentimentality, heist flick and Fast and Furious torque erupting into a fangless, suspense-free riff on James Cameron’s Terminator films.
As a bubblegum crime film - genus: training wheels Tarantino, if you will, Baby Driver is a misfire. Granted, the film is a marvel of editing, choreography, stunt work and soundtrack curation; nonetheless Baby Driver groans under the weight of hyperbole, unrealistic expectations and a muddled tone.
Sadly, Wright’s love letter to a childhood filled with VHS and vinyl ultimately succumbs to a petrol tank full of sugar just as it should be attempting to put pedal to the metal.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
THE seven deadly sins, according to Wikipedia, originated with desert father Evagrius Ponticus.
Ponticus identified seven or eight evil thoughts or spirits humans strove to overcome. The concept was later transplanted to Europe by Ponticus’ student John Cassian, and became fundamental to the Catholic confessional.
Today, we commonly understand these ‘sins’ – pride, lust, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath –as embodiments of negative habits and addictions that have plagued humanity since its inception.
English comedian Russell Brand has publicly jousted with many demons since entering the public eye hosting the original UK version of Big Brother in the early 2000s.
Brand – whose CV also includes author, activist and actor – has variously battled addiction to drugs, sex and the narcissistic trappings of global stardom.
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions is Brand’s fourth book. The author’s first two efforts were autobiographies exploring his childhood and ascent to fame. Both were florid, charmingly written insights into the pathologies behind Brand’s self-destructive lusts. His third book, REVOLution, focused on political activism during the lead up to the UK’s 2015 General Election, and is further illustrative of the author’s self-admitted Messiah complex.
Brand’s latest work offers us a relatively secular 21st century framework – adapted from the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous – for navigating addictions and anxieties. These range from food, smoking, gambling, sex and internet addiction to alcoholism and hard drug abuse.
Writing in his familiar voice – a combination of cheeky Disney chimney sweep and latter day esoteric guru – Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, walks us through Brand’s humanist self-help process. Charming and conversational, this approach encompasses mindfulness, meditation and a program of rigorous self-reflection.
Brand weaves empathetic vignettes on his own ongoing path to recovery throughout the program, including reflections on his path from junkie to first-time fatherhood.
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions is an approachable, useful guide for readers looking for a an alternative toolkit to help them negotiate the traps and pitfalls of modern life.
THOR: RAGNAROK – the seventeenth film in the Marvel cinematic universe – beats with the amiably daggy heart of Kiwi director Taika Waititi.
Waititi’s previous films Boy, Eagle vs Shark, What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople are all exercises in the director’s offbeat, low key charm.
Having previously leant on politically dodgy Buffy creator Joss Whedon (The Avengers franchise) and Troma Studios oddball James Gunn (the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) for nerd cachet, Marvel Studios now turns to Waititi to stamp his credentials on the rudderless Thor (non) trilogy.
Waititi – at forty two somewhat of a man child savant – also comes preloaded with the pop cultural preoccupations of the Gen X crowd from whom Marvel Studios most craves filthy box office lucre.
Thor: Ragnarok’s trailers have been stacked with the dorky, John Carpenter (They Live) inspired synthwave of Magic Sword’s ‘In The Face of Evil’, healthy doses of Flash Gordon (1980) via Jack Kirby inspired production design, and affable Waititi quirk by way of WD Richter’s 1984 oddity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
The Marvel Studios production machine is programmed to sand off the unique edges of its directorial talent, but Waititi fares pretty well.
The director’s natural knack for timing and pace – developed during a career that includes stints with Flight of the Conchords – mean the gags breathe and benefit from Waititi’s goofy geniality.
Actual sweaty geniality personified, Chris Hemsworth's (last year’s Ghostbusters reboot) gamely switches his Thor performance from the po-faced fish out of water drang of previous entries, capitalising on the actor’s inherent comic chops. Tom Hiddleston’s (High Rise) Loki returns, snake oil personified, and Idris Elba’s (Beasts of No Name) finally gotten a slightly less thankless gig as a freedom fighting Heimdall.
Anthony Hopkins (Red Dragon) shows up but is this year’s second-best Odin, I’m afraid.
Thor: Ragnarok’s debuting cast include Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and his alter ego Bruce Banner, on loan from The Avengers; Jeff Goldblum (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) playing a variation on himself as cosmic gladiator magnate The Grandmaster; Creed’s Tessa Thompson as a mysterious, permanently sozzled rogue - shades of Han Solo - with solid skills in a fight; and Waititi, with full Kiwi accent in tow as Korg, one of the Grandmaster’s gladiators.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Rachel House also delivers a wondrously deadpan turn as Topaz, The Grandmaster’s bodyguard.
The less said about poor old Karl (Dredd) Urban the better.
Elsewhere, Waititi’s evident taste for the aesthetic trappings of ‘80s fantasy art – characterised as ‘Panel Van Chic’ in some sets – give rise to majestic tableaus reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, Chris Foss and renowned Thor artist Walt Simonson.
On the flip side of Waititi’s tasteful retro-futurism, admirably inclusive casting credo and lovingly etched, good natured homage to swashbuckling space opera are the inevitable concessions the Marvel Studios badge infers.
At its direst, Thor: Ragnarok ticks off the laundry list of Marvel Studios’ increasingly threadbare narrative formula.
Superfluous, nonsensical battles with teeming hordes of CG stunt doubles overwhelm, hijacking any of the flick’s occasional, incremental momentum. Cate Blanchett's villain, Hela: Goddess of Death is a disconnected and arbitrary end of level boss.
On that front, the more egregious of Thor: Ragnarok’s sins include a heavy reliance on hollow video game aesthetics. There are sequences which evoke pre-visualisation for a new Diablo game, while a side scrolling, visually nonsensical Mortal Kombat – replete with finishing moves – format is deployed for a couple of the more climatic mass fracas.
Primary of all complaints, however, is that this latest entry is – barring the odd half hearted end of series ‘gotcha’ moment – a final bout of geeky table setting before next year’s all-consuming Marvel franchise money shot, the Avengers: Infinity War duology.
The original version, raunchier of this piece was first published here.
AFTER two film series - totalling five films in fifteen years - and a celebrated Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) reintroduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man Homecoming is aptly named.
Directed with ‘80s teen movie vigour by indie filmmaker Jon Watt (Cop Car), this Spider-reboot follows Tom Holland’s fifteen-year-old polymath and web-slinging neighbourhood hero Peter Parker as he negotiates the pitfalls of juggling superheroism and American high school (albeit suspiciously bereft of metal detectors) life in the 21st century.
At a heroic loose end after the rush of teaming up with The Avengers, Peter has been frustratingly sidelined by mentor and erstwhile father figure Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man, played by Marvel universe linchpin Robert Downey Jr).
As a bashful “loser” during school hours, Peter has a crush on classmate Liz (Laura Harrier) and - along with bestie Ned (Jacob Batolon) - is bullied by nemesis Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori).
After hours, Parker takes to the rooftops of his native Brooklyn as Spider-Man, foiling petty crime, giving directions to seniors, dodging his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and desperately longing to be called back into the fray as an Avenger.
Unexpectedly, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes - AKA The Vulture - swoops into Peter’s relatively hazard-free superhero-ing existence.
Toomes, boss of a New York salvage crew, has had his business (cleaning up after superheroic battles) destroyed by a government intervention, in the form of the Tony Stark endorsed Department of Damage Control.
Toomes and his crew have gone rogue and developed a black market arms business based on the alien technology scavenged from The Avengers’ first New York battle (2012’s Joss Whedon directed The Avengers).
Operating beneath the god-like radar of Stark’s team, Toomes has also constructed a nifty, lethal flight suit, modelled after - you guessed it - a vulture.
It’s not long before Spider-Man is being sorely tested by Toomes and his alien-weapon toting thugs, an escalation that highlights Tony Stark’s assertion that the teen hero is woefully inexperienced in the high stakes world of global superheroism.
Spider-Man: Homecoming ditches the dour, operatic flourishes of the preceding film series, instead embracing its hero as a dorky, exuberant kid who’s eager to do the right thing.
Director Watts’ film has no time for final act damsels in distress (a trope heavily favoured by previous entries), and injects moments of wry, surprisingly subversive political satire into the narrative.
Vulture/ Toomes’ villainous plot, for example, is ostensibly to stick it to the one percent, here embodied by Tony Stark. Played with malevolent charm by former Bat and Bird-man Keaton, The Vulture would almost be a sympathetic antihero were it not for his homicidal desire to protect his criminal enterprise no matter the cost.
Elsewhere, Peter’s friends and classmates are a refreshingly diverse ensemble, Aunt May hardly bats an eyelid at a semi-clad Peter alone in his room with Ned, and there’s a particularly pointed behind-the-play reference to the construction of the Washington Monument that made this reviewer marvel at the film’s audacity.
Happily, the familiar tropes of Spider-Man’s origins are only fleetingly alluded to, and there are cheerful nods to generations of Spider-fans - keep an ear out for a certain cartoon theme from the 1960s, for starters.
Abandoning angst for joy, this Spider-Man is - finally - a kid-friendly role model, a superhero learning the ropes and imparting a few values on persistence, patience, friendship and community in the process.
Spider-Man: Homecoming offers viewers a truly ‘amazing’ Spider-Man, living up to the character’s earliest four colour appearances whilst also evolving into an authentically 21st century superhero.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
IN his seventh Quarterly Essay, The White Queen - One Nation and the Politics of Race, journalist David Marr examines Pauline Hanson and One Nation’s re-emergence in our current global political context.
Collaborating with a team of statisticians, Marr analyses the resurgence of Hanson through the lens of Australian voters’ demographic makeup.
One Nation’s rise itself is investigated through an exploration of PM John Howard’s mid-late 1990s political opportunism, providing an illuminating timeline of Hanson’s hot button topics. Muslims, for one, have obviously replaced Asians as our nation’s greatest existential threat.
Marr discussed The White Queen at Carlton’s Church of All Nations in late March, noting that his work can be robbed of topicality by the rapid pace of modern political theatre. In June 2010, soon to be ex-Prime Minister was in his sights. ‘Political Animal’, Marr’s piece on then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, arrived in late 2012, just months before the ouster of Julia Gillard and the doomed return of Rudd.
Released on 27 March, The White Queen was published in the wake of the Western Australian state election. Then Liberal Premier Colin Barnett had engineered preference deals with One Nation, which backfired spectacularly and led to – for the Liberal Party – an ominous electoral wipeout.
In the current edition of The Monthly, journalists George Megalogenis and Richard Cooke also reflect on One Nation’s constituents steadily eroding the Liberal Party’s traditional voter base.
This explains the Turnbull Liberal Government’s further push to the populist right. The recent abolition of certain 457 Visas subtly dog-whistle to Hanson’s base and are met with approval from Hanson herself. Bill Shorten’s Labor Opposition – hardly immune to criticism – has also embraced Trumpian ‘nation first’ rhetoric in an effort to woo disaffected middle Australian voters.
As noted, the frenzied pace of modern political discourse renders any printed work fleetingly contemporaneous. Regardless, Marr’s newest Quarterly Essay provides us with a useful snapshot of the present condition of mainstream Australia, and is recommended for those critical insights alone.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
CINEMATIC history is rife, perhaps even founded on, explorations of white male solipsism.
From Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood, from Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy to Requiem For A Dream and beyond, our movie screens have been littered with selfish bastards ruining their lives and others’ for well over a century.
The leads in Trainspotting 2 (T2) - director Danny Boyle’s belated sequel to his iconic 1996 adaptation of Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s cult heroin novel - are more Withnail & I than Charles Foster Kane, though, frankly.
T2 takes place twenty years after the original. The original gang returns - both in front of and behind the camera - with our now forty-something protagonists, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carylye) all wrestling with their middle-aged demons.
As T2 begins, Renton - who made off with £16,000 in stolen drug money at the end of the first film - seems at least outwardly well-adjusted. Sick Boy, the Connery worshiping rake, has succumbed to perpetual adolescence, living with his twenty-something Eastern European girlfriend, playing video games and living off the proceeds of blackmail scams. Spud, the hyper eccentric, is still hooked on smack two decades later, his estranged partner and child also melancholy victims of his addiction. Begbie, the pub psycho, is - unsurprisingly - doing extended time for an undisclosed violent crime.
Renton appears to have chosen the life at which he sardonically sneered at the outset of the original:
“Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f__king big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers...”
Of course, this is 2017, and Renton’s elegy for modern life has received a post-everything twenty first century overhaul, dripping with world weary midlife cynicism:
“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself...”
The punchline to Renton’s original devil-may-care reverie was, of course, was that “choosing life” was definitely optional. Renton and his friends had “chosen” an alternative - the narcotic oblivion of heroin - rendering “real” life concerns moot.
Returning to perpetually overcast Edinburgh after his mother’s death, adult Renton has no such luxury, and is quickly drawn back into the lives, scams and foibles of the friends he betrayed a generation ago. Confronted with echoes of his irresponsible - seemingly bulletproof - youth at every turn, the former wild-eyed bounder is beset by the consequences of past choices and misdeeds.
Original Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge - here weaving an original story with elements of Welsh’s Trainspotting follow up novel Porno - has concocted an awkward mirror of the original with this sequel. T2 reflects on ageing and mortality, the bittersweet regrets of past lives not explored, whilst also leaning on an exhausting parade of clanging meta references to the 1996 classic. Seemingly ticking from a list, the viewer can expect a victory lap of heinous club toilets, wild foot chases, lurid altered states and occasional jarring ultra-violence.
Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trance), a master of opioid cinema, plays with space and time, real and surreal, euphoria and horror via his inexhaustible tool kit of wild cinematic artifice. Boyle is also adept at depicting the brutalist council flat grind of these characters’ lives. We’re never completely certain if T2 is set in pre or post Brexit Scotland, though the quiet kitchen sink desperation seems to be a throughline of existence no matter the era.
Viewed from a western Sydney university residence in 1997 - on VHS tape, no less - Trainspotting was a raw Gen X talisman, the distillation of Cool Britannia and all that the mid-nineties zeitgeist entailed. It introduced alien concepts like house music, party drugs and the heroin-chic anti-glamour of The Face magazine to this recently transplanted kid from the bush.
In that regard, Trainspotting 2 is a dizzying blast of nostalgic feedback, imparting a vicarious, shared sense of the characters’ voracious desperation to cling onto the familiar patterns of the past, good or ill.
Like attending a significant school reunion - once the ravages of time and odes to status and material success are disregarded - you’re left wondering: does anyone ever, truly, profoundly grow up? T2, at its core, celebrates the familiar rituals of mateship and brotherhood, the narcissistic comforts of old acquaintances, spaces and routines in the face of loneliness and uncertain futures.
At one point early in the film, Renton wonders if the belonging and community of religion would help fill the existential gap he once plugged with skag. A comic run-in with sectarian unionists quickly deflates these musings - these blokes, well into their forties, are the very definition of arrested development, naughty boys acquiescing to their lesser angels.
In the end, Trainspotting 2 nihilistically suggests that “choice” does not override our true natures. One wonders where a hypothetical T3 would find these men in another twenty years.
The original version of this piece was first published here.
IN 1982, director Ridley Scott made Blade Runner, a vexing work of noirish science fiction adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel by author Philip K Dick.
Thirty five years after Blade Runner – Scott’s original, critically tepid meditation on identity and humanity – comes this belated sequel.
Blade Runner 2049 was not directed by Scott.
Scott, instead, opted to film a sequel to Prometheus, the fifth film in the Alien franchise. That sequel, this year’s Alien: Covenant, could fairly be dismissed as an unfortunate cover version of the original Alien film.
In the annals of adult science fiction cinema – meaning we’re not counting The Empire Strikes Back – there are generally two classic sequels considered beyond reproach.
Terminator 2, written and directed by series mastermind James Cameron, raised the bar in terms of scale, special effects and blockbuster emotional stakes.
Aliens, which was also directed by Cameron, adapted his military fetish while tweaking the nascent cinematic feminism of director Scott’s sophisticated horror aesthetic from the original Alien.
One wonders what would have resulted if the English director, like Cameron, had returned to film the sequel to Blade Runner.
Instead, feted French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who engineered last year’s timely, contemplative alien visitation film Arrival, is at the helm.
Frustratingly, the notion of simulacrum – the disappointing reproduction of an original – lurks at the heart of 2049, much as it does Scott’s Covenant.
Villeneuve’s film, like Scott’s recent, ill-considered remix, obsesses on creation myths, from the Bible to Shelley’s Frankenstein and onwards, prodding at the fringes of profundity whilst wallowing in sophomoric ennui.
Blade Runner 2049, unfortunately, evokes thematic and aesthetic comparisons to this year’s heavily derided Ghost In The Shell – ironic considering the latter’s heavy debt to the former’s cinematic language.
Ryan Gosling plays the lead role of Officer K, a blade runner whose job it is to find and kill ‘replicants’ – artificial humans – while Harrison Ford returns as the original film’s contentious protagonist, former blade runner Rick Deckard.
Villeneuve’s film, whilst visually arresting, is akin to swimming through slowly setting cinematic concrete.
Typical of 2017 filmmaking, Blade Runner 2049 must conform to certain tropes – whilst also aspiring to the lofty bar set by the original. These tropes include the erasure of women, predictable fisticuffs and the confirmation of protagonists as somehow ‘chosen’.
Blade Runner 2049 is a Greatest Hits album with a couple of extra lacklustre tracks, begging the question: was it really necessary?
The original version of this piece was first published here.
CAST your mind back to 2006.
The Australian twenty four hour news cycle was in its infancy - scuttlebutt, innuendo, hearsay, grossly ill-informed speculation and flat out bullshit travelled at much slower speeds.
It was a gentler, simpler time of Blackberrys, Sky News and anti-terror fridge magnets.
Terrestrial television, talkback radio and tabloid newspapers were still the preferred delivery methods for half baked dog whistling and racist paranoia - Twitter and Facebook were years from hitting their straps in any meaningfully awful, democracy endangering way.
Fake News – AKA spurious bunkum– was what you heard over the back fence from your gossipy neighbour, or over a few pints from the dotty old racist down the local.
Viewed in the rear-view mirror from here in bad old dystopian 2017, 2006 has almost acquired a warm, nostalgic glow. Even the Howard Government looks vaguely – vaguely – palatable from this historical angle.
Believe it or not, that was all a mere decade ago.
Tony Martin’s career has thus far spanned four decades.
From his early days with The D-Generation and The Late Show, through film (Bad Eggs), popular commercial radio stints (Triple M’s Martin/ Molloy, Get This) and a return to the ABC (Upper Middle Bogan), Martin’s comedy has long been attuned to the art of gently pulling the piss out of day to day Aussie mundanity.
Deadly Kerfuffle, Martin’s debut novel, leans heavily on the Kiwi author’s keenly observed insights into the sinister flip side of our daggy national character.
Lifting directly from the cover blurb:
“It’s 2006, and terror scaremongering in the media has rattled the residents of sleepy, suburban Dunlop Crescent. When a Maori family moves into number 14, the local cranks assume they are Middle Eastern terrorists hell-bent on destroying the Australian way of life. Rumour has it that they plan to turn their house to face Mecca...”
Events spin madly out of control – as they’re wont to do – when pompous radio shock jocks, fedora sporting conspiracy theorists, cable news muckrakers, hysterical tabloid newspaper coverage and bumbling national security apparatchiks quickly turn a bit of benign cul-de-sac pensioner bigotry into a potential terrorist event.
Sounding all-too eerily plausible?
With an insider’s ear for the local media industry, Deadly Kerfuffle wrenches back the curtains on the sordid inanity of Melbourne’s rampant pundit class, throwing particularly dense shade at certain overly familiar personalities from the right wing nut job commentariat.
Deadly Kerfuffle’s plot – driven by mistaken identities and escalating farce – nods to Martin’s cinephilia. There’s a healthy dash of film noir via Coen Brothers quirk inherent in the book’s intertwining, pulp novel narrative beats, and the seedy cast of oddballs is fleshed out with bumbling twits, scheming egomaniacs with half-arsed schemes and some all-too believable Nazi thugs.
Martin’s keen eye (and ear) for trenchant detail – note the author’s obvious affection for the quaint anachronisms of mainstream Aussie culture – permeate Deadly Kerfuffle. Melburnians in particular will revel in Martin’s sense of place – dramatic hostage scenes play out in the absurdly appointed confines of an extinct theatre restaurant, and elsewhere some of St Kilda Road’s more naff “iconic” architecture is treated with the contempt it invites.
Deadly Kerfuffle is, to engage dual critical clichés, a laugh-out-loud funny page-turner. Martin’s affable literary voice makes this a jovial holiday read, while darker truths bubble at the fringes of this amiable tale of radicalised OAPs and outsized egos.
Having shrewdly set his first novel in our recent past, one wonders what accelerated horrors would beset Martin’s protagonists were it to have been set in the present day?
TO paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian, MONA Museum figurehead David Walsh is not the art world’s Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.
The quirky Tasmanian gambler, art collector and businessman – obsessed with sex, death and viscera – challenged four scientist colleagues to curate exhibitions showcasing their theories On The Origin Of Art.
In an effort, perhaps, to foment a little more outrage, Walsh – a noted contrarian – has chosen ‘experts’ who are all distinctly male, white and middle-aged.
The exhibition is arranged as a series of four portals, each leading to an individual curator’s vision of creative genesis, marked with an arcane glyph drawn from the exhibition’s catalogue for added portent.
Steven Pinker, a North American psychology professor and experimental psychologist, asserts that ‘We Make Art Because We Can’. Pinker asserts that art evolves in step with our innate desire to identify as part of a ‘fashionable elite’ – his portion of the show revels in elaborate wallpapers, ornate jewellery and new media installations.
Evolutionary neurobiologist and cognitive scientist Mark Changizi wonders ‘Does Civilisation Mimic Biology?’. Changizi’s thesis is that culture instinctually harnesses nature – through design, music and language – to allow us to evolve and engage with others. Showcasing many tactile, sculptural disciplines, Pinker’s collection is rooted in the fleshy, biological imagery of laboratory slides and abattoirs, paying particular attention to Australian artist Patricia Piccinini.
English Professor Brian Boyd explores the ideas behind ‘Art Is Cognitive Play With Pattern’. Boyd suggests that art evolved through humanity’s need to communicate complex concepts through pattern in an effort to better understand the world around it. Boyd explores these notions through patterns in nature and forms of religious worship. He also pays special attention to sequential art and the chilling allegorical depictions of Nazi Germany starkly rendered by Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.
Perhaps most provocative is American psychology professor Geoffrey Miller, whose ‘Artists Are Sexy AF’ guides the viewer through a rollercoaster of visual stimuli, from the classical to the tawdry to the pornographic. Miller submits that art is another form of metaphorical plumage designed to secure a mate through a display of desirable technical aesthetic virtuosity. Illustrating his point, Miller includes lurid work by pop artist Jeff Koons alongside reflections on insect mating rituals and 19th century romantic portraiture.
You may agree or disagree with some, or all, of the notions put forth by Walsh’s coterie of agitators – On The Origin of Art is a stirring exhibition in terms of variety, philosophy and sheer volume of work on display. Walsh’s newest offering asks us to investigate ideas of the very origins of our humanity, be they creative, spiritual, biological or other.
Opening last year on 5 November to bustling crowds, On The Origin Of Art is an ambitious achievement of art curation, collection and exhibition.
A thought-provoking journey guaranteed to generate passionate debate, this experience can’t come more highly recommended.
THE President of the United States of America is caught, on-mic, salaciously remarking on the French First Lady’s physical fitness.
Jodie Whittaker, the first actress to take on the role of Doctor Who, is slut-shamed by Rupert Murdoch’s red tops. Her crime? Appearing naked in previous performances.
A Saudi woman is arrested for wearing climate-appropriate clothing in Riyadh.
Hawa Akther, a Bangladeshi student, has her writing hand mutilated by her husband in a barbaric effort to prevent her from studying.
In Melbourne, a young woman is found dead in a shower the morning after a buck’s party. The police declare there are no suspicious circumstances. Released without charge, an unnamed partygoer, utterly devoid of compassion, casually admits he was worried his group had been “stitched up”.
These incidents took place in the space of one short week in July.
They are a minute sampling of the stories involving the abuse of women in the perpetual churn of the news cycle.
Millions more incidents, many undoubtedly perceived as prosaic by their perpetrators, some bearing all the trappings of extremism and misogyny, are being committed all around us, every second of every day.
Graffiti in Bourke St Mall - “AUSTRALIA 2016: 71 WOMEN KILLED BY VIOLENT MEN. 0 DEATHS BY TERRORISM. #EndMaleTerrorism”
Marketing material for SBS On Demand’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a young, disfigured woman sheathed in a demure scarlet cloak, her bonnet evoking 17th century Puritanism.
Paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 7:4, the poster starkly declares ‘your body is no longer your own’.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a near-future dystopia, which we eventually surmise is the United States of America subsumed by a theocratic, patriarchal police state.
‘Gilead’ - a name drawn from the Old Testament - is connected to the story of Jacob and his infertile wife Rachel in Genesis 30: 1-3. The founding dogmatic precept of the Republic - a totalitarian regime forged in the midst of a global fertility crisis - is rooted in the following biblical verse:
“Jacob's anger burned against Rachel, and he said, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" She said, "Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children. So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her.”
The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on handmaid Offred, played with cool resolve by Top of the Lake’s Elisabeth Moss.
Assigned to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski, Dexter), Offred (‘of Fred’) - her identity erased by her status as the Waterfords’ slave - is a fertile woman tasked with bearing the barren couple’s first child.
This process, as suggested by Jacob and Rachel, is undertaken in a monthly ritual benignly known as ‘The Ceremony’. In truth, The Ceremony is a rape, committed in the presence of the Commander’s wife and household staff.
Founded by the Sons of Jacob - a cabal of wealthy white men for whom Catholicism is too wishy-washy (as evidenced by the demolition of a cathedral in an early episode) - Gilead and, more broadly, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is shrouded in a harrowing, forever-grey pall of repression and misogynistic abuse.
Embracing the extremes of Old Testament morality, the Sons of Jacob (masterminded by Waterford) have imposed a regime in which women are tagged and prodded like cattle, eye for an eye punishments are meted out and “gender traitors” - homosexuals - are either genitally mutilated (fertile women) or executed (men).
Using omnipresent surveillance, paranoia, fear and violent intimidation to keep the populace supine, the Sons’ fundamentalist doctrine invites parallels with authoritarian governments in the East and West. Even the spectre of ‘fake news’ is conjured by the Sons’ deployment of propaganda and misinformation during the initial assassination of the U.S. President and the overthrow of the government.
Contrasting Offred’s dire predicament with flashbacks to her thoroughly modern pre-Gilead life, The Handmaid’s Tale offers us an insight into the inexorable creep of oppression under a tyrannical administration.
As the Sons of Jacob draw down the veil of subjugation, we watch with heart quickening dread as the female population’s independence is first denied, and then their personhood is erased and redefined by her reproductive, domestic or bureaucratic obeisance to the patriarchy.
Chiding Offred’s rebellion, a genuinely bewildered Waterford admonishes her, as if a child: “(but) we’ve freed you to fulfill your biological destiny”.
The Sons of Jacob believe that, by enacting their medieval societal reforms, their tainted Republic will be saved from the infertility crisis and inevitable doom.
Written in the mid-’80s, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale exists in the vanguard of cautionary science fiction. In the tradition of Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and George Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s novel also imagines a dystopia in which society has surrendered to authoritarian rule.
This adaptation, which aired on US television in May, is a gruellingly effective episodic horror story. Paralleling contemporary socio-political concerns, this first series is a gripping revelation, a timely warning on the dangers of fundamentalism in all its forms.
At times unbearable to watch - its plot machinations traumatic and fraught with tension - The Handmaid’s Tale is, nonetheless, essential viewing. With that in mind, the more delicate viewer should rest assured that, despite the unsettling verisimilitude of Atwood’s story, there do exist moments of catharsis and empowerment, hinting that, while hope may be a cruel indulgence under the reign of the Sons of Jacob, resistance may not be entirely futile.
In documentarian Cassie Jay’s recent film The Red Pill, Men’s Rights Activists bemoan a culture they perceive to be unfairly weighted in favour of womens’ redress. They purport to feel victimised by society’s agonising grind towards a semblance of equality. They rail against their own perceived demotion down the gender and class pecking order. They post online screeds about feminism ‘destroying’ their ur-masculine pop cultural birthright, be it Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road or, indeed, a woman playing Doctor Who for the first time in the program’s fifty year history.
Frighteningly, the truth still remains: to be male, white and comparatively well off in 2017 is to exist in a rarefied bubble of privilege and entitlement, ignorant or - perhaps worse - dismissive of those who are oppressed based on gender, sexuality, physical ability or race.
We live in a world of Healthcare legislation committed to the denial of female stewardship of one’s own body - the right to choose and exercise self-determination. Women are still terrified to walk home alone at night. Domestic abusers are characterised as dedicated family men who just had a bad day at the office.
Our politicians scapegoat, humiliate and objectify. Sexual and emotional abuse is laughed off as locker room talk, ‘boys being boys’. Slippery language continues to vilify and victimise, and the question stubbornly remains “was she asking for it?”.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a prescient reminder to us - humanity - to remain ever vigilant. To value and fight for every hard won freedom, to be defiant in the face of creeping authoritarianism.
To paraphrase Edmund Burke: “all that is required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing”.
Or, as the series’ advertising campaign entreats:
‘This is not normal’.