What might have been lost

We stood under an overcast sky last night at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, clouds glowing orange with the lights from the city. As the twilight deepened, Bon Iver‘s support act, Sally Seltmann, began her set, and I felt that to be here, in this big and rushing city, was not so bad after all. In the midst of bustle and busyness, of traffic jams and too many shops, the place and the moment was an oasis to remind me of all that was good.

We bought tickets to Bon Iver late last year. At that point, a few very difficult months loomed ahead of us due to circumstances outside our control – a period of time that offered no surety as to how it would turn out in the end. The tickets were a promise for the future, an acknowledgement of hope.

So when the delicate but rousing first chords of “Perth” rang out to the audience of 12,000, I looked up to the orange sky, felt the music sweep into my body, and the sense of happiness was complete. To be there was magic; those first chords took it to a whole new level. A few drops of rain fell, a gentle reminder of the city in which we stood, and then the rain left us for the rest of the night: for the next two hours of incredible, inspiring music.

I fell for Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago while I was staying in a hostel on a Canadian ski mountain nearly three years ago. It fitted perfectly, and it never occurred to me that perhaps the environment was right: headman Justin Vernon wrote the album while holed up for the winter in a hut in the Wisconsin mountains, and he says he would have moved to Australia yesterday if he didn’t like the cold so much.

I have listened to the first album and, to a lesser extent, the self-titled second album, on and off ever since. Sometimes I listen with concentration, sometimes with abandon. Always it sweeps me away from the present – sometimes right away from the music, taking my thoughts elsewhere entirely, but more often the music is there beside me, sending me on a journey and coming along with me. These journeys are always into the imagination, and sometimes into the future.

To see the nine-piece band play and to hear Vernon hit the high notes in person was something else altogether. From “Perth” they slid smoothly into “Minnesota, WI” – just as these two tracks meld together on bon iver, bon iver. Vernon’s voice dropped for the second song, an indication of his vocal range that would emerge throughout the show.

The music veered from delicate melodies to thicker vocal sections. Lyrics that are barely understandable on CD suddenly became much more clear. The songs that I had heard over and over again took on new depth of sound and feeling out there under the vaulted ceiling of the clouded Melbourne sky.

It was not just the sound and atmosphere that was brilliant. The footage broadcast on two big screens either side of the stage for those of us on the lawn seating was well shot – close-ups of Vernon’s hands on guitar strings or keyboard, of the horn and saxophone and violin, of the drummer striking cymbals with wire brushes.

The backdrop to the stage hung like torn strips of bark in three V-shapes, leaving black spaces the shape of two mountains. Across this torn backdrop, images and lights played and changed: colours danced, or a blood-red river flowed against gravity; later surf rolled in. It was never distracting but it was always interesting, combining the elements that make a good music video with the live music experience.

It’s a while since I’ve been to a big concert, and there was a focus in the crowd that you don’t always get. You could sense the restless elements starting to fidget during some of the instrumental sections, particularly during the long saxophone solo at the end of “Holocene”.

Largely this was a crowd that was joyful to be there and keen to let the band know this between songs, but falling into silence during the quieter and more gentle songs. I think it’s a brave thing, to slow down and sing softly in front of a crowd that size, but Bon Iver handled it on a number of occasions before bringing back the strong beats and sending the crowd’s energy skywards again.

I’d forgotten the power of a good concert, and of hearing music that you love played live. It’s not just about the enjoyment of the moment; for me it’s also about where the music takes my imagination. It’s about the sense of calm, the cheerfulness, that you carry with you afterwards.

It’s about looking back, the next day or the next week or the next year, and remembering how it felt at the moment of the opening chords, or how it felt in the middle of the song that was the first of theirs you ever heard. There is something special, undefinable and ungraspable about just being there, with however many other people, at that moment in time when music makes the world seem bigger, fuller and happier.

On inclusion and exclusion: Melbourne (2011)

I was a bit shy about reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne while on the tram – which is where I get most of my reading done – I was afraid that people might think I was a tourist. I mean, how often do you see a local getting around reading a book with their city’s name emblazoned on the cover?

But read it I did, nonetheless – in cafés, on the tram, while dawdling at the Parkville campus of Melbourne Uni or eating lunch at La Trobe. I was easily hooked, as it moved through a year in the life of the city, from the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 to the following summer’s hailstorm, telling stories of the drains under Hawthorn, the Westgate Bridge Collapse, and the changed meanderings of the Yarra.

It is a brave enterprise, this mission of a series of books about our capital cities (Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Sydney all have versions) – books that are neither history nor memoir; that are definitely non-fiction but which are difficult to categorise beyond this. Melbourne is closest to being a tribute: it is a story and a history in the service of one city, the author’s home city.

The book’s personal element is both its redeeming feature and its ultimate downfall. It is inevitable that a book like this will reflect the author’s own story and experience, and in this there is a beautiful honesty. A pure history of Melbourne would have its own biases; parts would have to be left out while others are told in more depth. Cunningham’s tribute to the city of her birth is, in its form, honestly and openly a biased and personal piece of work without being purely a personal story.

For me, the disappointment of Melbourne lies in that it is a story that made me feel excluded from the city. It is a very different city to that of The Slap, for example, in which the characters inhabit their own narrow version of the city yet the reader does not feel excluded. Perhaps the difference here lies in the novel’s ability to portray so many points of view; Melbourne, on the other hand, can portray only one.

I called myself a local in the first paragraph, but I’m not really – I have only been living here since 2009. In this time, and in all the years prior to that when I visited my grandmother, Melbourne is a city that has made me feel both included and excluded by turns. (I could generalise and, seeking a more poetic sentence, say, Melbourne is a city that makes you feel both included and excluded… but I do not wish to say ‘you’, here, for the experience is different for everyone.)

I began to feel included by this city when, after a short time of living here, I established a few regular haunts: sites of familiarity and comfort that allowed me to spring joyfully into the strange ‘rest’ of Melbourne, knowing that there were parts of town that would welcome me back, as though I belonged, with their familiar layout of streets and buildings, cafés and faces.

Yet she is a fickle lover, Melbourne, and when I did not give her – especially her inner-city heart – enough attention, she soon forgot me. So there are times when I swing the other way, to feeling that there is no place for me in this big and bustling city.

Perversely, Melbourne only increases this sense of dislocation. It reinforces elements of the city that one feels one should know or be a part of. But not everyone cycles down St Kilda Road; not everyone has Paul Kelly and Sian Prior in their circle of friends. Of course, Cunningham has been prominent in Melbourne’s literary scene for some time, so it is only natural that her friends would also be part of this scene. I cannot blame her for the choices she has made in writing this book, and there was much that I learnt and enjoyed in reading it. But nonetheless I can wish that between Cunningham’s story of a city in which I live, and my own experience and interpretation of it, there was something that brought me deeper instead of shutting me out.

Originally written 14 October 2011.

Theatre review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

It’s hard for me to imagine the change that Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll brought to theatre in Australia at its first season in 1955, but it’s not hard to see why it resonated, both here and overseas. I saw Neil Armfield’s production at the Playhouse last Thursday night, and felt that it is both a uniquely Australian experience and a story that touches a universal chord.

I studied this play in English Literature in my final years of high school; I may even have written about it for my Tertiary Entrance Exams, though I can’t be sure. Years later I remembered the kewpie dolls and sense of people at odds with each other, but little else, except that this play is important. I knew this even as a sixteen-year old, with no theatre experience, having only read the text on a page, and never having seen it performed.

Reviewers like to say that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is important / seminal / timeless / a turning point in Australian theatre… so I risk being repetitive with my comments above.  What I can say that is unique to me is the way that seeing this play performed made me feel.

It made me sad for Olive (Alison Whyte), first of all. Sad for all of us, me included, who want to break out of the roles that society has defined for us: this is, after all, what has held her in the relationship with Roo (Steve Le Marquand) for sixteen summers already. But in breaking out of one role, she has created another for herself, one which is equally defining. She, perhaps more than any of the characters, is the one who is unable to grow in this role.

And so she clings to the five months of the year that she, Roo, Barney (Travis McMahon) and Nancy have spent together for the last sixteen summers. She tries to repeat it for the seventeenth, but with Pearl (Helen Thomson) in Nancy’s place. Predictably, it doesn’t work – the audience can see this tension from the very first scene. Pearl is not Nancy, and in Nancy’s departure everything has changed.

It’s not just because she is gone and Barney is bereft, but because Nancy’s marriage and walking away from this life signals something else: the end of this life for the rest of them, too. It’s something that was always going to come, and Nancy saw it before any of them. Nancy’s absence is one of the loudest parts of this play. She is a central character and in her way she is a catalyst for what has changed, yet she never appears on stage.

There is a sense that the characters have been living on borrowed, or perhaps suspended, time. In sixteen years little has changed and so some of them have not grown as individuals in this time, either. Roo and Emma (Olive’s mother, played by Robyn Nevin) both refer to Olive as no more than a child – unchanged from the young woman who met Roo many years ago.

Roo, too, has been trapped in the qualities and experiences of his youth that he thought would last forever – being the best at what he did, with a body that wouldn’t give up on him. At least he is able to think about a new way of life; Olive cannot, and falls apart along with the collapse of the seventeenth summer.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is, of course, well written. The actors inhabit and embody their characters fully: Steve Le Marquand as Roo is a standout, moving from rage at Barney to gentle love for Olive, authentic at both extremes. In some ways I can’t say I enjoyed this play, because it left me with tears in my eyes and too many thoughts about regret and nostalgia. But I thoroughly appreciated the experience of watching such strong theatre; it is a reminder of what can be said and experienced through theatre that neither books nor movies can achieve.

Film review: Buck

The film Buck, winner of the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and now making its way to Australian cinemas, is the story of a real ‘horse whisperer’ – Buck Brannaman.

Brannaman was a key inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in Nicholas Evans’s 1995 novel, The Horse Whisperer. He is part of a lineage of natural horsemanship practitioners in the United States, including Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt.

But while the film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer might have brought the concept of natural horsemanship to a wide audience, the notion of a whisperer is not quite the right metaphor. Horsemanship, for the likes of Brannaman and other practitioners (such as Sascha and Sam Watson, who taught my horse and I in Western Australia, and figures such as Monty Roberts), is indeed about communicating softly with a horse. But it isn’t usually about verbal communication, and most importantly it requires careful groundwork on behalf of both rider and horse in order to open the channels of communication in the first place.

Buck follows Brannaman as he criss-crosses the United States, running four-day clinics and teaching riders and handlers how to establish communication with their horses. He is driven by his empathy with the animals he works with – and here the story comes back, as it so often does in this film, to the relationships between people.

Brannaman and his older brother grew up as a child trick-roping stars, on a ranch with a father who regularly drank and beat them. The figure of his father looms large over the film, for Brannaman says that his ability to empathise with frightened horses developed out of the abuse he suffered as a child – out of knowing what it’s like to fear for your life.

Brannaman has chosen a path very different to that of his father – a conscious decision that he talks about in the film. His path is one that eschews violence, force, negativity or even blame. He reminds his students regularly not to feel contempt or anger towards the horse, because the way the horse behaves is a reflection of its handler.

For a horse person, one of the most moving parts of the film is Brannaman’s insistence that your horse is a mirror to your soul. This is brought home most strongly by an intractable palomino that comes to one of Brannaman’s clinics towards the end of the film.

At first spoilt and then neglected by his owner, the horse is now aggressive and dangerous to all who come near him. I could not help but think of my own horse, remembering the graceful curve of his ears and the bob of his head from the hours and hours spent on his back, and wondering what his behaviour (hard to catch, sometimes naughty, usually full of beans) says about me.

There’s little doubt that this film will resonate with people who ride horses, and who understand what it feels like to achieve – or even to long for – synchronicity with your horse. At times like this, you need only to think and feel your intention, and the horse will pick it up instantly. As Brannaman reminds us in Buck, horses are sensitive enough to feel a mosquito on their rump in the middle of a windstorm, and so only the subtlest of signals are required from a rider once the channels of communication are open between horse and human.

Brannaman talks about how the horse’s body and the rider’s should be one – so that as a rider, the horse’s feet are your feet. This indeed is how he and his horses function together – there is no need for a visible sign from him for his horse to change direction or speed, or even to sidepass gracefully across a pasture: horse and rider seem to move and think as one body.

In spite of the specific subject of this film, it has much to appreciate even for those who aren’t ‘horsey’. Buck is beautifully shot, and Brannaman as a subject is both funny and humble. The lessons about respect and communication apply not only to horses, but to relationships between humans too.

Brannaman’s journey is pieced together in a manner that makes sense of the man and his motivations, brought together smoothly by director Cindy Meehl. It’s also a window into America that we rarely see – into a subculture held together by love for horses, and by a desire to build relationships between horses and humans that are based on respect, not fear.

An unfamiliar landscape – Skins (2002)

Skins, by Western Australian author Sarah Hay, was an unexpected find – I picked it up by chance from my local bookshop in December, and put it aside because I was afraid that it would be a confronting read; not something I was ready for at the time. But I began reading it a day or two ago and have just finished it; I was immediately hooked by the tension and suspense that pervades the novel from the very beginning.

Skins is primarily the story of Dorothea Newell, an English immigrant who, with her parents and six siblings, settled in the burgeoning town of Albany on King George Sound. In 1835, she leaves Albany and sails with her sister and her sister’s new husband for Tasmania, but they are wrecked a few hundred miles along the coast and end up instead on Middle Island, at a sealer’s camp. Middle Island is not far from the present town of Esperance, but at the time there was no settlement along the coast east of the Sound.

This is not a novel about shipwreck or survival off the land. Rather it is about the tense relationships between rough men and the few women, both Aboriginal and English, in their midst. There is very little happiness in the relationships on the island. Nobody really wants to be there, and the men are violent and possessive, fighting over women, money and loyalties. From the beginning I felt a sense of foreboding, as Dorothea and her sister navigate the treacherous tensions on the island.

I was surprised, though, with where the story led me: those characters whom I had expected to be honest and loyal turn out otherwise, while the sealer Black Jack Anderson, a figure of fear and violence, strikes up a relationship with Dorothea that is unexpectedly tender. The story is partly told by one of the sealers, young James Manning. I at first exepected him to be on Dorothea’s side by virtue of being given his point of view alongside hers. It does not turn out this way, however; he is distrustful of women and angry at his situation. He befriends Dorothea’s brother Jem, and this alliance is part of what eventually leaves Dorothea estranged from her siblings and relying instead on Anderson.

The novel is interspersed with Dorothea’s thoughts and memories as an old woman fifty years later. I found this plot device awkward and by the end of the book I was beginning to wonder what purpose it served. These sections seemed to add nothing to the key narrative of the novel, that of Dorothea’s experience on Middle Island and her longed-for return to King George Sound. But this is because I did not realise until I reached the end of the novel that Skins is based on historical records and that Dorothea was a real person. Thus the fragments from fifty years later are relevant in giving the reader some idea of what happened to Dorothea later in life, even though the narrative would have remained strong without them.

I was struck throughout Skins by the evocation of a landscape that is not wholly unfamiliar to me, but yet which takes on entirely new meanings when seen through very different eyes. These days, traversed by bitumen roads, interspersed by farming communities and criss-crossed by hiking tracks, the land around Albany and Esperance is beautiful; it is not a landscape that frightens me. For the early settlers in Skins, the land is something else entirely: the bush is dense, with the few settlements along the coast reachable only by sea. The bush is by turns bleak and endless, or intensely brilliant in the southern light. It is nothing like the land that Dorothea’s family knew in England, and nothing like what they expected to find in Australia.

I found myself rushing through this novel in my eagerness to know what would happen, and the awkwardness of shifts in time in the narrative – from the 1830s to the 1880s – seemed to be a hindrance as I read. But Skins tells a powerful story and does not hold back in imagining the brutality that women, men and animals were subjected to in the lawless, isolated environment of Western Australia’s southern coast.

Film review: Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen has long been known for his love of New York, and for films such as Manhattan that pay homage to the famous American city. Recently his attention seems to have shifted to Europe, through writing and directing Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and now Midnight in Paris. Both these films are expressions of love – albeit romanticised – towards the respective cities of their titles.

Midnight in Paris is not as strong as Vicky Christina Barcelona, but it is equally fun and delves into a similar theme: the enchantment of Europe for some Americans – in particular, the dreamy, wannabe-Bohemian, with aspirations towards artistic endeavour.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the dreamer was Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson), whose artistic endeavour was photography and who revelled in the sexual freedom that she found in Barcelona. In Midnight in Paris, the dreamer is Gil (Owen Wilson), a scriptwriter who has hit the big time with formulaic Hollywood movies but who longs to be a novelist.

Gil is on holiday in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The parents are boring and conservative, and Inez, although beautiful and eager to enjoy herself, looks set to follow in their materialistic footsteps.

Inez likes the idea of Gil’s dreaminess, but in Paris the bohemian streak soon becomes too much for her. She begins to prefer the company of some friends she bumps into while in Paris: Carol (Nina Arianda) and Carol’s pedantic, arrogant partner, Paul (Michael Sheen).

The movie begins with a series of scenes of Paris, setting up Gil’s seduction by the fantasy of the city. He and Inez do the touristy thing, visiting museums and gardens. Carla Bruni appears as a museum guide, arguing with Paul over Rodin’s mistresses and later translating some French for Gil; there is a certain irony in the first lady of France showing tourists around a garden.

Gil’s love for Paris is tainted, however, with nostalgia. Paris as it is cannot quite satisfy him, and he longs instead for Paris of the 1920s. Inez thinks he’s barmy, and while she is out dancing with Paul, Gil walks the streets at night. His fantasy becomes a reality when he is in the right place at the right time, and accidentally hitches a lift into the 1920s.

There, Gil meets the famous writers and artists who lived in Paris at the time: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and others. At this stage I was happy to be lulled into Gil’s fantasy: what a dream, to meet Hemingway and Stein! One almost wants it to be true.

Wilson has the perfect face for this role: his wide-eyed stare as he starts to realise where he is after meeting the Fitzgeralds might seem forced on any other actor, but he pulls it off by looking like a good-natured, surprised puppy who is rather desperate for attention.

The movie also stars the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard as Picasso’s short-term girlfriend Adriana. Gil falls for her, seduced as much by her embodiment of the era as by her as a person. She, however, thinks the ’20s are quite boring, and longs to live during the Belle Époque. She unintentionally makes Gil realise that he is not alone in his nostalgia: at each stage in history there will be those who look back longingly at what came before, and who are too distracted to appreciate the beauty of the age in which they live.

Gil’s nostalgia struck a chord for me, as I have always dreamed of a world before cars and diesel power, when sailing ships ruled the seas and people rode about on horseback. Allen seems to suffer from nostalgia too, telling New York in 1998 that he regretted being too young to have experienced New York during the ’20s and ’30s.

As in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the main characters of Midnight in Paris are upper-middle class Americans in a European city. On the one hand, Allen critiques these characters, particularly Inez and her family who see Europe as a holiday destination through the lens of their own superiority complex. On the other hand the film only confirms this attitude by not probing beyond the surface layer of the city. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, the cities are seen as they would be by tourists: enchanting, full of sexy people of the opposite gender, and a long way from the constraints of the US. Midnight in Paris represents the view of an outsider who approaches with a preconceived notion of Paris; a notion that experience does not seem to alter.

Midnight in Paris is light and fluffy, and while Gil’s relationship with Inez is quite implausible, it is easy to be swept up in his fantasy of Paris. It is a city that has long seduced artists through promises of freedom and inspiration, and Allen’s latest film does nothing to detract from this ideal.

Film review: Red Dog

 A more succinct version of this review originally appeared on upstart, and is available here.

Much is made of whether or not Australian films say something about the national ethos. Red Dog does, even if it is mainly about the resilient strength and community appeal of a good dog, while making no claims to being a ‘big’ story. This is no sweeping epic like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a movie that turned the landscape into a stage for larger-than-life characters. The characters of Red Dog know this isn’t a story about them: it’s about the dog. It’s a love affair between two wanderers, and the story of the one who’s left behind.

Red Dog (played by Koko) is a wanderer of the Pilbara who shows up unexpectedly in the mining town of Dampier in the early 1970s. Through the combination of independence and friendliness that defines Red, he becomes the best friend and confidant of half the town – mainly men, working in physical jobs, without women or affection in their lives.

Red has no master, until John (Josh Lucas) rides into town on his motorbike. One of the best early scenes is on the highway out of Dampier, as John, on his way into town, passes Red trotting along the road in the other direction on a mission of his own. A look is exchanged between them, and the scene perfectly captures the meeting of two wanderers and the recognition of something of themselves in each other. John resists the pull of friendship with the dog for a while, but eventually he gives in, and thus these two travellers become inseparable best mates and finally have a reason to stay put.

The film, based on a true story, is told through the memories of those who knew both Red Dog and John, precipitated by the arrival in Dampier of a stranger (Luke Ford). It’s 1979 and Red, now greying around the muzzle, lies ill in a back room of the Mermaid Hotel. As the news spreads that the beloved Red Dog is sick, the pub fills and it becomes an impromptu wake as people take it in turns to tell the newcomer about what the dog means to them.

The first half of the movie, as Red Dog’s arrival in town is established and his friendship with John grows, seems to flash by. There’s no need for clunky voice-over narration; the narrators are instead the publican (Noah Taylor) and others in the pub. Their words set the scene to explain what’s going on early in the movie as Red hops in and out of trucks and cars across the Pilbara, hitchhiking. This part of the film is really funny, too – from the obsession of Vanno (Arthur Angel) with his hometown in Italy to the dog’s killer flatulence, points of humour are established early and they carry on throughout the movie.

The retrospective mode of narration leaves little time to do more than scratch the surface of the characters, but before long this ceases to matter. At the heart of the film is Red Dog, and not only does his character develop in depth but he also becomes the vehicle by which the other characters are revealed. The cast is superb, with a great selection of well-known Aussie actors including a brief cameo from the late Bill Hunter.

Red Dog is in part a story of the romance between John and Nancy (Rachael Taylor), but it’s the love story between Red and John that really tugs at the heartstrings. Red is at the centre of the community and everyone loves him, but he has his softer side and no-one except John really understands him. With John’s departure from the film, leading to Red Dog’s fame as he searched the Pilbara and beyond for his master, there are no easy answers. Red does not conveniently become Nancy’s dog (as much as I wanted him to); he is, once again, the community’s – and yet nobody’s, too.

At the very end, in a scene harking back to a similar one early in the movie, the community is brought together by Red – talking about him, sharing stories about his life. Yet he walks away from them, unnoticed, in search of something else. He is the community’s glue but he is also his own dog, and no-one else ever really understands him.

The movie gives a few indications early on that it might be a bit corny, but director Kriv Stenders successfully avoids over-sentimentality. The Pilbara red dust doesn’t turn the characters into caricatures, and the story, even the pathos, fits beautifully into the landscape. The soundtrack is brilliant – Eagle Rock and Way Out West overlay the red dirt, ’70s vehicles, ore trains and towering piles of salt, and it works. It’s uplifting, the sense of men seeking freedom from their pasts, of the girl from Perth seeking adventure in the north, of the dog making his home in this isolated mining community. Certainly the Pilbara is idealised, but it’s forgivable because Red Dog’s story is told by a group of people in a bar who love him, and who are nostalgic about his younger days.

The fact that the landscape is not overdone is a key part of the film’s success. Cinematographer Geoffrey Hall makes brilliant use of the unique Western Australian light – the shadows, the intensity of the sun, and the influence of the ocean on the tone of the evening light. But he does not dramatise the land: it is big and beautiful, especially on a cinema screen, but it is not presented as a stage.

The landscape that becomes important in Red Dog is not a majestic scene of sweeping roads or coastlines or red desert, but rather it’s a rocky dirt track cresting the small hill by John’s place: a spot that becomes the emotional location of the film as Red Dog watches the track, waiting stoically for his master to come home. Just as in reality the places that come to mean something to us are rarely majestic or even beautiful, so too in the film the important place is one that is simple, familiar and symbolic.

Red Dog is a strong, powerful story with a bunch of great characters. I’ve heard it described as a feel-good film, but it’s better than that. It made me laugh and cry, and made me want to go back to the Pilbara, even though it has changed so much. I hope to see the movie again before it leaves the big screen.

A few days after I saw Red Dog, I can’t get it out of my head.

Review of Rising Water on Crikey

Yesterday my review of Tim Winton’s play, Rising Water, went up on Crikey’s theatre blog, Curtain Call. It’s the first review that I’ve pitched anywhere apart from upstart and I have lots of respect for Crikey, so I was delighted!

The review is here if you’d like to read it.

The play received a bit of flak in a review in The Age last week; in contrast, the review on PerthNow of the WA showing was largely positive. One of my friends suggested that, as a Western Australian myself, it was compulsory that I like Winton’s writing (and the play is very Winton)… I reckon I could mount an essay-length argument against that statement, but perhaps my sandgroper upbringing gives me an emotional attachment to Winton’s WA-located writing. Certainly Dirt Music, Breath and the Lockie Leonard series struck me for their powerful evocation of place.

As a writer, I am drawn to place; so perhaps it is to be expected that as a reader, I am drawn to writing which captures place as powerfully as Winton always does. Of course, the other element present in so much of Winton’s writing is an attachment to the ocean, and this invariably draws me in.

Rising Water is showing at the Playhouse, Melbourne, until September 10. Tickets available here… and yes, I would whole-heartedly recommend it.

Book review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

The latest novel by journalist and author Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (2011), is aptly named, for it is full of crossings: the crossing between life and death, between island and mainland, between faiths, between one life and another. Yet these crossings are by no means restricted to the character of Caleb.

Caleb’s Crossing is based on the few facts known about the first Native American student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, to graduate from Harvard College in the 1600s. On this scant historical record, Brooks has built a novel that revolves not around this young man, but around the fictional character of Bethia Mayfield, the novel’s narrator.

Growing up in the Puritan settlement of Great Harbour on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, Bethia is the daughter of a missionary minister. She is steeped in an environment of conflicting cultures, for she is at the coalface of one culture’s encroachment onto the physical and spiritual territory of another.

As a girl, Bethia is not allowed to take part in the lessons that her father gives to her older brother, even though she is brighter and more interested in ‘scholarly matters’ than he is. This discrimination rankles, but her rebelliousness is tempered by its conflict with the teachings of her religion. She learns in spite of her exclusion from formal education and, listening in on her father’s attempts to learn the local language of the Wampanoag people, she becomes fluent in Wampanaontoaonk.

It is because of her language skills that she strikes up a secret friendship with Caleb, the son of one of the island’s chieftains, and thus their two cultures meet and each begins to influence the other.

Later in the book Bethia asks herself if it would have been better for Caleb had she never met him, if she had never taught him English or shown him a Bible, so that he might have lived as his ancestors had before him. She makes much of the fact that she has changed his life, but he also changes hers, challenging her faith and further making her question the path that her father and brother have laid out ahead of her.

The story is powerfully told, achieving what could be seen as a key aim of the historical novel – evoking a sense of a world that is long past and that is utterly foreign to the reader. It does this not only through creating a unique voice for a fictional young woman who is constrained by her gender, her religion and her times, but also by not neglecting the reality of day-to-day existence.

Life in the 17th century is hard work, and Brooks does not neglect this in her storytelling – there is the endless drudgery of domestic work for the women, the challenges faced by settlers in a new colony, and the consistent influence of religion on every part of their lives. There is also the continued presence of death in the Mayfield family – at first, I wondered if this element was overdone, but its purpose in the shaping of Bethia’s story becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.

While Bethia pushes boundaries and in doing so is a character who readers of the twentieth century can easily identify with, she ultimately remains within the confines of her own world view, and does not stray too far from the path that her culture has shaped for her. She is unable to attend college with the men in spite of her intelligence, and she remains, throughout her life, a product of Puritanism. Nonetheless she manages to live in a way that does not leave her downtrodden under the boots of men. Her story seems, because of this, both realistic and uplifting.

Alongside Bethia’s struggle against the confines of her role as a female is the clash of cultures that is going on all around her. In Caleb’s Crossing, the Native American culture on the island is irrevocably changed in less than two generations. The Wampanoag’s spirituality has been replaced with Christianity. It is frightful to be confronted with the complete alteration of a culture in such a short space of time, and the novel allows no easy exit from the imagining of this reality.

Bethia aids and abets in this change through her friendship with Caleb, and so the novel offers no easy moral answers. This unusual young woman may be intelligent, kind and fair, seeing the Wampanoag people as equals and battling to be sure of her own faith, but in the end she does not become part of their culture – they become part of hers.

This review originally appeared on upstart.

A delayed reflection on Biutiful

I saw the movie Biutiful several weeks ago, and before seeing it I had intended to write a review of it. But the movie was too heavy for me to engage with it immediately afterwards. It left me shaking, an indication of it’s power. One expects grittiness and confronting images from the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but this was too much for me. Afterwards I spent days trying to shake some of the more disturbing images from my mind. At night when my thoughts relaxed, the images crept back in and kept me awake.

I went to Barcelona in 2008, to Barra Gotica, the Gothic Quarter. This is the tourist area of Barcelona, and while young men may try to sell you beer or something stronger in back alleyways, there is little obvious sadness or suffering or pain in this bouyant, active area of the city.

The Barcelona of Biutiful is another city altogether, a city where illegal sellers of imitation goods on the street live in tiny cramped apartments. It is a city of poverty, vicious cycles and exploitation. Only in long shots where the Temple de la Sagrada Família can be seen rising above the suburbs, or in the images of the beach, can the Barcelona that I experienced be glimpsed at all.

Javier Bardem plays the main character in Biutiful, Uxbal, and brings his usual gruff charisma to the screen. But here his character is also pained, dying, angry, afraid. When he loves, it is bittersweet.

The most disturbing scene involves the Chinese workers who are paid a pittance to produce those imitation goods that Uxbal’s African workers then sell on the streets. The movie is powerful and well made in a gritty, awful sense – there is nothing soft about the way the cinematography portrays the city and the lives of people in it.

I can’t say much more, because I don’t wish to re-engage more closely with my memories of the film. I acknowledge this movie’s strength and Iñárritu’s ability to capture humanity so confrontingly, but for me, it was too much.