Boorna Waanginy

Ah, Perth, how you confound all expectations and surprise us – not just one or two of us, but thousands of us, your citizens, your old and young, your new arrivals and your home grown.

Above your bright skyline where the neon of commerce and mining glow cruelly against the night sky, above where your humble ferries ply a bright-lit trade against river darkness, where your once-contested bridge sweeps arcs of headlights across the Swan, where your sea of suburban light reaches out to darkened hills – above it all as a yellow moon breaks free of clotted clouds, new light is created and thousands of us walk beneath its thrall in many footed darkness among strangers and among friends.

We were meant to pass through six seasons experiencing it from within, but instead hung back to watch it from afar – reptiles scamper up the foremost eucalypts; giant numbats meet and play against the trunks. The music changes, and fire comes, red and orange and crackling-quick. (It’s for this I stand among the trees later, trying to imagine the reality of these sounds outside the safety of art.)

I love the rain most, bright and loud and reminiscent of the sound of raindrops on hard baked ground; then cracking thunder and lightning illuminating the stately gums. Later, the black cockatoos wheel – this, too, is impressive not only from afar as on a stage, but from within: I look up and the dark shapes pass across the canopy above my head. Continue reading

Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

Fremantle photos

Today Kill Your Darlings published my piece ‘Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton’ on their blog. Writing about Western Australia prompted me to look back through the Flickr archives and hunt out a few of my favourite film photos from Fremantle, all taken a few years ago.


Fremantle harbour in a seabreeze, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400


South Fremantle bus stop, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400

Light on Leeuwin

Light on Leeuwin, 2009 – Minolta XG2, Fuji Superia 400

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.