17 April 2012

Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and planned to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.
Nina Katchadourian is an artistic opportunist, to be sure.

Armed with nothing other than a couple of scarves, a beret, the airline seat pillow, a few artfully arranged tissues, and a face that could rank alongside Maria Falconetti's in expressiveness, she reaches toward the sublime while balanced above the toilet bowl on a long-haul flight. I am awestruck with admiration.

5 December 2011

Why can't I be you?

Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.

— Maurice Sendak

I wonder whether young Jim was Catholic. It seems a peculiarly religious thing to do. I hope he was an older kid, performing the ritual deliberately, and not a toddler. Maurice doesn't say.

Reading this, I was reminded - in the undisciplined way such thoughts often are - of one of my favourite Cure songs: Why Can't I Be You?

Robert Smith can barely express what he feels for his beloved, a longing so intense that notions of possession or even just intimacy are exceeded until nothing short of complete identification - the total abrogation of physical and psychic barriers - will do.
You're so gorgeous, I'll do anything!
I'll kiss you from your feet to where your head begins
You're so perfect, You're so right as rain
You make me, make me, make me
Make me hungry again

Everything you do is irresistible
Everything you do is simply kissable
Why can't i be you?

3 November 2011

Ginny Grayson

It's so rare to come across a 'straight' drawing show these days that it provokes comment for that reason alone. So my attention was drawn immediately to the invitation to Ginny Grayson's show at Place Gallery in Richmond, which starts on 9 November.

It also helps that I am a sucker for drawing which is contingent and exploratory, an approach which is always associated in my mind with Alberto Giacometti.

Such a way of drawing, rather than making the statement "This is what I see", continually asks itself "Is this what I see?"

I see this approach ultimately as having serious philosophical implications, about the nature of sensation and perception, about the limits of our ability to perceive the world, and maybe the ultimate question "is there a world to perceive at all?"

Some of the observations of phenomenological philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty actually have a great deal to teach practicing artists, those who face the perceptual gulf between all that is you and all that is not-you every time they front up to the white page.

8 February 2011

Another great moment in graphic design

Spotted at this fast food outlet in Wheelers Hill: the rare and possibly endangered Chickenfish.

28 January 2011

Old Master Cheese

When asked what kind of cheese he would like, my son Sweeney (two years old) stipulates "Old cheese. Like a grown-up". This must be what he means: Old Master cheese.

19 January 2011

Manchurian Melodrama*

My daughter recently returned from a study trip to Shanghai. In honour of her return, we sat and ate Pocky and watched the Hong Kong wartime and martial arts drama 'Ip Man' (2008).

While the historical accuracy of the nationalistic narrative, set in Foshan under Japanese occupation, was obviously complete bollocks, the martial arts sequences and choreography were supurb and I enjoyed it all hugely.

At the same time, I'd been absorbed in 'What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting' by Marc Norman, and a comment he makes early in the book about the popularity of melodrama as a dramatic form in the 19th Century popped into my head. Here surely, I thought, is pure melodrama.

The dominant theatrical narrative form at midcentury - the one everyone enjoyed rather than admired - was melodrama. No longer the inner torments of giants from Shakespeare or Goethe, not even the brittle one-set comedies of Sheridan - the zeitgeist had taken a lurch and moved on. Melodrama, at its simplest, was high conflict resolved by fierce confrontation. ... It was fundamentally about justice. No longer the ambiguities of a Macbeth or a Faust; with melodrama, the dark angel on one shoulder and the white on the other of internal conflict were exteranlized into hero and villain, white hat and black. ... Melodrama, as it evolved on the English and American stage in the mid-1800s, was not about aspects of character or inventions of narrative - it was about action; action was its given, and from that action, the pleasure of tension.

These comments intrigue me, because I've been taxed by the vagueness of my understanding of this still-common term 'melodramatic'. Here is as good and clear a definition as I've ever read, "high conflict resolved by fierce confrontation" with dramatic tension founded in action rather than character.

By that definition, this movie was completely melodramatic - no shame in that of course, most action movies by that measure are utterly of a piece with 19th Century melodrama as Norman depicts it, even down to an emphasis on the mechanics of the spectacle (CGI, 3D, etc). Many a theatre company bankrupted itself trying to provide ever more astonishing spectacle and realistic action for the theatre-going public in the 1800s.

'Ip Man' is a melodrama in this 19th Century sense because the drama is founded in action, while ambiguity is avoided. Tension is created and released after a dramatic situation is created - Ip Man, a wealthy family man who has devoted his time and energy to perfecting his martial arts, is confronted with several choices after the Japanese invade and enslave his community. The tension is created over the question of action: what will he do? There is an 'arc', a transformation, but it is only subtley registered and not dwelt upon; what sort of choices will the hero take and therefore, what sort of a man will he become? It is melodramatic because there is never any question about the outcome; his action is inevitable because he has no real conflict, nothing to lose. We know what he will do as soon as the situation becomes clear.

Similarly, the Japanese characters - to the extend that you can call them 'characters' - are presented without ambiguity; there are simply shades of evil. One is simply a stupid sadist while the other is a less stupid sadist.

This prompted a question for further research. Every Chinese film I've ever seen - and I am a long way from an expert - has been a melodrama in this 19th Century sense to a greater or lesser degree. Does China have another dramatic tradition that I've missed?

An equivalent comparision that occurs me would be India, a similarly developing country with a huge film industry. But while Bollywood's products are certainly melodramas, there is always Satyajit Ray, so at least in India's case the answer is a firm no. What about China?

(* Yes I know... A bit geographically imprecise but you can't go past alliteration in a headline.)

20 December 2010

Just another taxi driver

Paul Schrader encapsulates everything a reader needs to know about his central character.

"TRAVIS BICKLE, age 26, lean, hard, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and lonliness [sic]. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.

Travis is now drifting in and out of the New York City night life, a dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed, no reason to be noticed, Travis is one with his surroundings. He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige Army jacket with a patch reading, 'King Kong Company, 1968-70.'

He has the smell of sex about him: sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the inevitable. The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence."

Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver, written in 1972, published by Faber and Faber, 1990, page 1.

Reading the script, it's striking how literary and ambitious it is. This shouldn't be surprising I suppose, since Schrader had been an incisive film critic steeped in the most serious European modernist and Japanese cinema for many years, and the survivor of a particularly muscular Christian upbringing. Surely, the anti-Tarantino.

It is also unconventional in format, lacking the usual scene and location cues and divided into titled chapters, which only increase the intensity of Travis' deterministic downward spiral. The sense of surprise comes from the disjunction between the pulpy subject matter and the tone of thematic seriousness; Travis as a 1970s Raskolnikov.

Reportedly, De Niro flew back to New York from Rome during breaks on 'Novecento' and drove a cab for several weeks in preparation.

17 November 2010

The Marshalite

Down at Bicentennial Park in Chelsea the other week, I came across this blast from my past: a mechanical traffic signal.

I was extremely taken with this sign when I was a child, whenever we drove through a particular Edithvale Road / Nepean Highway intersection beside the railway line. This would have been in the mid to late seventies. The sign was still functioning then, its jaunty white arrow eternally making its way round and round, no longer actually signalling traffic since that function had been taken over by traffic lights. It was like a heritage building that no one could bring themselves to tear down.

It has something over the current equivalent in that it clearly shows the driver exactly how long they have to wait. It puts me in mind of the failure of digital speedometers in cars. Drivers want a visual reference and the radial clock is infinitely better for the purpose than the digital display. Take that, technological determinism!

The Bat Computer tells me it was called the Marshalite, designed by Charles Marshall in 1936 and is an Australian original, utterly of its time. The last one running was on the Nepean Highway so no doubt the one I enjoyed as a kid was the last of its kind in the world.

Museum Victoria has a fully restored one on display.

5 November 2010

Jeeves & Wooster

Watching the TV series 'Jeeves & Wooster' which completely passed me by and I'm keen to fill in a cultural blank. I'm not sure it aired on Australian television at all and the first I heard about it was glimpsing a VHS copy at my local library.

I'm struck by a couple of things about Hugh Laurie's performance as the bright young thing Bertie Wooster. It's not the least surprising that he is a great and gifted comic actor. That was obvious since his turn as the idiot Prince Regent in the second series of Blackadder, but just how good he is is a constant revelation, particularly doing pure physical comedy. At these times, his resemblance to Stan Laurel is amazing, especially while doing a certain gormless, self-satisfied smirk.

I'm reminded of Stephen Fry's comment during his recent Sydney appearance that he was surprised, upon meeting young Hugh during their Footlights days, by his assured comedic chops. Laurie was a natural comedian who seemed to have been born with a full comic toolbox at his disposal.

The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'

Bertie attempting to describe a Member of Parliament upon making his acquaitance in Wodehouse's 'Jeeves and the Impending Doom'.

4 November 2010

The Weight

Cartoonist Alan Moir in the Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 25 October.

20 October 2010

Ayn Rand's inner fruitbat

Marieke Hardy attempting to review Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged':

Rand is batshit crazy. By all accounts she used to swan about wearing a swooshy velvet cape adorned with silver dollar signs which may be considered a charming sartorial quirk on someone like Flavor Flav but is less appealing on a Benzedrine-addicted old fruitbat chewing her face off and squawking about objectivism. That she's still considered so 'influential' by a few raving lunatics who seem unable to fathom that Shrugged's gun-toting erection for deductive logic go hand-in-hand with its rather firm anti-Jesus beliefs says more about her followers than it does about the work itself.

Readers might also like to follow up with a viewing of 'The Fountainhead' (1949), which is surely one of the funniest serious movies ever made, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that Gary Cooper, playing Rand alter-ego Howard Roark, takes the whole thing utterly seriously.

Its striding, clench-jawed phallocentrism gives Freudians everywhere something to laugh at as Gary Cooper struggles vainly against the nonentities who surround him to achieve an erection (he is an architect) on his own terms.

So stand with clenched fists, feet apart, lift your chin, look to the horizon and repeat after me (keeping in mind that this is movie dialogue!):

Howard Roark: The creator stands on his own judgment. The parasite follows the opinions of others. The creator thinks, the parasite copies. The creator produces, the parasite loots. The creator's concern is the conquest of nature - the parasite's concern is the conquest of men. The creator requires independence, he neither serves nor rules. He deals with men by free exchange and voluntary choice. The parasite seeks power, he wants to bind all men together in common action and common slavery. He claims that man is only a tool for the use of others. That he must think as they think, act as they act, and live is selfless, joyless servitude to any need but his own. Look at history. Everything thing we have, every great achievement has come from the independent work of some independent mind. Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force men into a herd of brainless, soulless robots. Without personal rights, without personal ambition, without will, hope, or dignity. It is an ancient conflict. It has another name: the individual against the collective!

19 October 2010

Irma La Douce (1963)

Pottering in the Woodend Bookshop the other week, I found a copy of the 'Irma La Douce' screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, published in 1963.

It appears to be a cheap movie tie-in paperback, badly typeset, a Midwood-Tower Book, "First printing anywhere". Other books under that imprint appear to be almost exclusively 'naughty books' of the early sixties, the kind you still find in Opp shops, with titles like 'A World Without Men' in illustrated covers in garish colours. Which makes me think that perhaps the primary consideration for the publishers was the film's subject matter and the opportunity to put Shirley MacLaine in a transparent blouse on the cover.

Opening it at random, I came across this exchange. Irma the streetwalker is complaining to Moustache, the wordly barman, of her money troubles.

Irma: If only Monsieur Camembert were still around. You remember Monsieur Camembert, don't you?
Moustache: Do I? Big spender.
Nestor: Who's Monsieur Camembert?
Irma: That's what we called him - he was a cheese wholesaler at the market - used to see me twice a week - always gave me five hundred francs - so I didn't have to see anybody else. I had lots of time then - went to cooking school and I knitted sweaters and I played solitaire - he was such a nice man.
Nestor: What happened to him?
Irma: His wife died - so he stopped coming around.

That is why I love Billy Wilder scripts so much. Even with collaborators, that sweet but sour Viennese Jewish sensibility is always there.

It been years since I saw the film, but I remember it to be only a moderately good Wilder of that strange mid-sixties period, where the things he did so well before didn't seem to click anymore and good scripts were let down by poor casting and a general air of uncertainty. He wasn't alone in that, of course. Hitchcocks of the same period often have similar problems.

It is reported that Wilder originally wanted Marilyn Monroe, who he had worked with on 'Some Like It Hot', for the part of Irma. She died before the production began, as did Charles Laughton, who was first choice for Moustache.

There are, as always, some great jokes.

The pimps' union is called the "Mec's' (tough guy's) Paris Protective Association" (MPPA), which is also the acronym for Motion Picture Producers Association.

Irma: A painter once lived here. Poor guy, he was starving. Tried everything, even cut his ear off.
Nestor: Van Gogh?
Irma: No, I think his name was Schwartz.

Other Billy Wilder posts: The Front Page, Billy Wilder: A little bit less and Stalag 17.

30 August 2010

Tom Waits, an aesthetic credo

"What I do is kind of abstract. I break a lot of eggs. And I leave the shell in there. Texture is everything." Tom Waits

28 June 2010

Toy Story, with Buzz and Woody (Allen)

The model for this stuffed toy appears to be another person called Woody...

At the Reading Cinema in Sunbury, Victoria.