Nothing if Not Self-Aware: Jonathan Dunk reviews ‘Chimerica’, a Play by Lucy Kirkwood

Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica. Photo © Brett Boardman

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica is an immense historical epic spanning, continents, decades, and genres. Its structural centre is the relationship between Joe, an American photographer, (Mark Leontard Winter) and Zhang Lin, a Chinese dissident (Jason Chong) who frustrates and abets the former’s fixation upon the ‘story’ behind the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photograph twenty years after Tiananmen. There’s a strange distance in this structure: the image acquires its iconic poignancy in the context of its history, in the force of the principles and ideas for which an unarmed student defies the mighty edifice of state power at all costs. Here, however, the subject is less the symbol itself than its translation-loss, as Joe pursues the ‘Tank Man’ through the back-channels of undocumented immigration it becomes clearer that his obsession articulates an unease with the moral limitations of his own privilege. Joe’s value-system, a capitalist individualism displayed through lavish ensemble scenes illustrating American political functions, cannot explain humble self-sacrifice. The virtue of Leonard Winter’s performance is how deeply unlikeable his conventionally ‘heroic’ photographer becomes.

In contrast to the extremely visual energy of the American scenes, much of the Chinese narrative occurs in dream and reverie as the audience moves through Zhang Lin’s memories. Given the importance of cultural difference and misunderstanding at key junctures in the plot, I expect this disjunction between an aggressively vivid, fast paced American reality, and ethereal visions of Chinese culture is quite deliberate. However, in tandem with other aspects of the production it creates an unsettling invocation of the old cliché of the inscrutable or exotic Asian. The direction’s filmic quality, moreover, has strong inclinations towards the literal, which prevent this uncanny quality from being interpretable as an admission of cultural limitation.

It’s often visually compelling, and doubtless the American/Chinese cultural axis is marked by significant culture clash, but I left the theatre uneasy. We’re no longer limited to a reductive or essentialist view of cultural difference. Even if we were, a play about Tiananmen emphasizing an American’s inability to understand it would still be an awkward approach. I think the production’s fascination with the Tank Man’s act of sacrifice stems from the particular conditions of its politics. Both the American and Chinese aspects of the narrative prominently feature debates over the conflict between principle and profit, and the ambivalence of this dialectic leaves one with the sense that this play’s intellectual structure doesn’t extend much beyond conventional middle class aspirations, or the American dream, if you like. This is interesting, and from what I could tell of the opening night’s audience, highly resonant. However, between the sub-plot involving the charismatic executive Tessa – played ably by Geraldine Hakewell – attempting to use iconic images of the Chinese poor to sell credit cards, and the mystery plot’s eventual dénouement – one can’t help feel that there’s something appropriative about this play. Zhang Lin’s narrative finally seems to argue that there are only personal motives, it translates the Tank Man’s extraordinary act of political, and principled sacrifice, into an advertisement for bourgeois values. As a statement about the slippage of global exchange, this is interesting, as a reflection of the Tiananmen atrocity, it seems to lack empathy.

Mark Leonard Winter and Jason Chong in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica.
Photo © Brett Boardman

Chimerica is nothing if not self-aware. Explaining his compulsion in a reflexive authorial monologue Joe explains that martyrs don’t cut it anymore – they’re passé, we need a positive story, a hero to teach us about atrocities elsewhere without making us too uncomfortable. Perhaps this says more about the modern theatre audience than it does about this particular play, but even through Leonard Winter’s self-aware performance this comes a little too close to indifference. The most overtly critical moment in the drama occurs when Tessa pitches a campaign, and – for reasons beyond dramaturgic sense – decides instead to criticize the entire endeavour. If this was a spark of political conscience however, it soon devolves into the platitudes that ‘we’re not defined by our work, and we should all just try to be nice’; as though such definition were not a luxury afforded to certain kinds of work in certain parts of the world.

We learn that her version of ‘being nice’ means moonlighting for a protest organisation while she hawks American Express nine-to-five. This is a minor detail; but it emphasizes the substance of this production’s politics: no activist group worth its salt would accept the labor of a corporate executive, and that’s not how people react to being pepper-sprayed.

The strangeness of this dynamic becomes more acute if we spatialize the curation of this performance: an audience in Sydney trying to approach Chinese culture and history through an English playwright’s idea of American politics. This uncomfortable dynamic is magnified by the play’s tenuous approach to questions of representation. Jason Chong performs his role with dignity and intelligence, but the play only seems interested in his character’s loss, rather than the ideas for which he fought. Add this to the relatively small number of Asian actors in this large cast, the occasionally orientalising twangs of The Sweats’ soundscape, and the uncomfortable proportion between Mandarin and broken English in the dialogue, and one can’t but feel this isn’t the way we should be representing cultural difference anymore.

There are approximately one million Chinese Australians, and plenty of them work in the arts, and if you want to encounter something more like the reality of Chinese experience I suggest you read the lively writing published by Peril or Mascara, or the poetry of Kim Cheng Boey, or the novels of Brian Castro. Looking farther afield, the superb protest poetry and criticism of Liu Xiabao – one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests who remains in incarceration today – memorialises the terror of Tiananmen without reducing it to a theatre of western anxieties.

 – Jonathan Dunk

_______________________________________________________________

Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

Tickets to Chimerica can be obtained at https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2017/chimerica

Teasing Threads – The Pleasure of Forgotten Movies: Richard Loncraine’s ‘The Haunting of Julia’

Chris Palazzolo wonders why The Haunting of Julia, directed by Richard Loncraine, 1978, is a forgotten movie.

Image result for the haunting of julia images

I’m a lazy consumer of popular culture. It’s rare that I’ll read introductions to books or watch the special features of dvds. I like to take things straight off the shelves with the (probably self-serving) argument that if a book or a movie doesn’t contain everything it needs to be understood, but requires secondary sources to fill in gaps, then that’s a weakness in it. I am however ready to make inquiries into mysteriously neglected movies. I can’t think of anything more unloved than Richard Loncraine’s gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Julia (aka, Full Circle). By ‘inquiries’ what I mean is a cursory thumb flick through compilations of old reviews, or an idle google, and what I’ve found is that there’s very little written about this movie apart from a handful of dismissive reviews at the time of its release in 1978. I saw it originally on late night tv, under the title Full Circle, back in the 1980s. It’s only available on tv formatted vhs, and now an even more deteriorated looking upload on Youtube. It’s never been released on dvd so I’ve never seen this movie in its proper aspect ratio. I still associate it with enigmatic shots where sometimes only an actor’s hand can be seen while their disembodied voice comes from off-screen. The little I’ve gleaned from my ‘inquiries’ is that Loncraine became dangerously ill while making it (anorexia nervosa), and Mia Farrow, its star, hated working on it so much she completely disowned it. This film hasn’t just been forgotten, it’s been renounced.

For reasons that are partly superstitious I wouldn’t want to see this film in its ‘proper’ restored state. In fact I wonder if there ever was such a state. I think the vhs copy (the Youtube upload is just the vhs version, and it’s pretty dire) is its proper state. If the television formatting lopped off parts of shots then that was meant to happen. Its hideous beauty is in the butchery on its hide; as the evil in its imagery visits butchery upon a number of human hides, its own tormented condition is its punishment. I need to be careful when I think about this movie. My mind runs into its big molecular close-ups like water runs into blotting paper; the faces of Farrow, and Tom Conti and Kier Dullea; the ‘englishness’ of the faces of the supporting cast (repertory faces of middle class British television) loom in shots of gaseous volume. All of the spaces the human figures move through – rooms and stairways, streets and parks – are full of this gassy ambience. This makes the human figures, and their faces and their minds look like molecularising shadows, permanently on the point of dissolution; it spiritualises them. This sense is heightened by a soundtrack where almost all the incidental sounds are muted to the point of silence. The score is a sickly obsessive music-box theme which overlays everything with an air of unspeakable sorrow. All of these elements serve to electrify its horror set-pieces with supernatural malice.

The spirit world represented here is of the British spiritualist type. Like its dimensional sibling, British naturalism, it conceives of the spirit world as subject to ‘rational’ laws (which have nothing to do with Christian eschatology); laws of supernatural selection. The properly British posture towards these laws is contemplation and humble inquiry, but otherwise laissez-faire. The evil that resides in the house at the centre of the story serves the same function in the supernatural world as a funnel web serves in the natural – to snare prey. The old spiritualist warns Farrow to leave the house. But she doesn’t. There’s nothing more to be done for the poor girl; she’s too weakened by grief at the death of her daughter and the evil seeps into the open wound of her mourning like poison. The narrative’s sickly obsession on this poisoning however is Gothic, and the Gothic is Christian – a medieval Christianity of eternal damnation, of the sorrow of eternal damnation; a sorrow so abject it becomes Horror. But the Gothic (as a literary and artistic conceit) is also post-Christian. Its imagery of sickness, madness and death is of the aftermath of Christian belief. Eternal damnation still causes terror, but belief in the God that rationalises such punishment is no longer possible. It’s the supernatural world that dispenses punishments on the mortal, but in a morally arbitrary (natural selective) kind of way. These punishments are evil because they have no other purpose than the extermination of life. Evil is pure appetite and the meek is its no longer blessed prey.

 – Chris Palazzolo

 ———————————————————————————————————–

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Three Classical Westerns: 3. John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The third and final of Chris Palazzolo’s little series Three Classical Westerns is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, 1962

Image result for the man who shot liberty valance imagesJohn Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gets a regular outing on Gem, which is interesting in itself because I’m old enough to remember when Australia only had three tv channels, 2, 7 and 9, and while Westerns were often played as weekend matinees, I don’t ever recall this one getting a run. Someone programming for Gem must really like this movie because it seems to get played every six months or so.

The two things I noticed about this movie when I first saw it (only a couple of years ago) were the date of its release, 1962, and its stagey and unrealistic look. 1962 was a time when revisionist westerns began to appear. Movies such as Ford’s The Searchers (1959) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) made verisimilitude to the gritty realities of 19th century American frontier life, and the expressionistic portrayal of a western ‘psychology’ (racism and misogyny) the benchmarks of value for the genre. The studio bound sets and flat lighting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gives it the look of a throwback to an earlier stage of the genre; a time when studios would release a western a week. John Ford’s own career begun in that era, so he knew how to knock ‘em up and churn ‘em out. But this is a late John Ford, so the style is not accidental. Neither the authentic recreation of life conditions of the old west, nor the inner lives of its characters is the purpose of this movie. This is because it is a parable of the beginnings of American democracy in which each of the characters signifies a principle of that democracy.

The obtuse style of the movie is like the smooth opaque surface of a nut. A nut is a protected seed. That seed is the pre-democratic society of a small Texan town which is both tyrannised and protected by the gun; the gun of the bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the gun of the farmer Tom Donavan (John Wayne). These two gunslingers are the shiny hard shell of the nut – shiny, because everyone can see where the power lies – hard, because there’s no arguing with it; might is right and that’s that. The demos of the town is in proto form, all crammed together unable to move and flourish. There’s a town Marshall, but he’s a coward who won’t dare take on Valance; there’s a drunken newspaper man who doesn’t dare write articles about Valance, and then there’s the townspeople whose only protection from Valance is Donavan. But Donavan will only take on Valance if his own interests are affected. If, as a farmer, his interests usually align with those of the town then that’s lucky for the town, otherwise he won’t stick his neck out for nobody. In other words the protection Donavan offers is as arbitrary as the beatings Valance dishes out. If the whole thing is closed into a nut of lethal might an external force with the hardness of a hammer is needed to split it open and allow the seed of American democracy to germinate.

This hammer, paradoxically, is the newly arrived pacifist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who refuses to be cowed by Valance’s gun or respect Donavan’s gun. Stoddard’s naked willpower is the hammer. His crazy brave principles which includes refusing to defend himself means certain death until Donavan takes a step outside of his self-interest, kills Valance and spirals off into ruinous obscurity. Once the shell is broken all the elements of the demos – the law, the press, the legislature (Stoddard becomes a senator for Texas) – separate and grow. They start to constellate and flower, stabilising in that dynamic relativity we now know as representative democracy. Some of the loveliest scenes in the movie are the town hall rallies as newly emboldened citizens deliver their rambling pitch for the vote amid raucous bunting and vaudeville. The violence that marked the origin of this democracy becomes legend, separated from fact (everyone believes Stoddard shot Valance), while the question as to why Donavan stuck his neck out on that occasion remains the deepest private mystery for Stoddard. Whatever Donavan’s motive was (and to me it is obvious: Stoddard was the bravest man he ever met, he couldn’t bear to see him shot down in cold blood) his action marked the original separation of powers – an armed yeoman ceding to the democrat his place in the sun in order to serve as executioner from the shadows.

    – Chris Palazzolo

 —————————————————————————————————–

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Chris Palazzolo is so charmed by Only Lovers Left Alive (directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013) he’s written a little blurb for it.

 In the second decade of the 21st century, what city would you choose to live in if you were a vampire? Jim Jarmusch has the answer in Only Lovers Left Alive. Tangier and Detroit. Husband and wife vampires, Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are at the stage of their marriage (1000 years, give or take a century or two) where they don’t need to be together all the time, but can go and pursue their own interests at opposite ends of the earth fully trusting each other’s love and loyalty. Each has their favourite city which they choose to live in. Eve lives in Tangier, city of refuge on the southern Mediterranean for 2500 years, and in modern times, port of call and meeting place for generations of European, Middle Eastern, and American artists, intellectuals, poets and spies. There she lives the  life of an aristocratic ex-pat, collecting curios and hanging out with other vampire ex-pats like Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe (reports of his murder in 1593 were greatly exaggerated). Adam lives in the post-industrial ghost city of Detroit, home of the US car industry and Motown records. There, in a Rockefeller era three story house in a neighbourhood of abandoned houses, he is left alone to compose grunge dirges for independent record labels. He is effortlessly the best of his peers in that scene, because, of course he has no peers; he’s been composing funeral music since the 16th century (he even collaborated with Schubert) and the fuzzy guitars and industrial percussion of grunge music just happens to be to his taste.

Life for these vampires is fun. They are old enough to have learnt how to do everything perfectly and to know exactly what they want to do. They are not troubled by the doubts that afflict the mortal. The only necessity in their lives is a regular supply of quality blood, which has to be sourced from medical outlets because, in the 21st century killing people is just too much trouble. Should that supply be interrupted though, well, what choice do they have? In the meantime life is forever leisure, doing what you want to do, staying up all night, and sleeping all day. Naturally they become the philosophers, leaders of taste for mortals (zombies as they call humans) sensitive and patient enough to listen because they never shout. Best of all they can live wherever they want to, wherever they think real beauty and style survives. And beauty and style must always have a bit of suffering and neglect in it.

Jim Jarmusch is the poet of the regional city. Throughout his career his cool/dorky characters have struck their hip postures in once legendary small American cities, increasingly overshadowed by the relentless New York focus of US popular culture; cities like Memphis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, St Louis and Detroit. His vampires are paragons of good taste. They would never be so vulgar as to settle in Los Angeles or New York, self-promoting, celebrity obsessed theme parks of mediated urbanity. Real beauty, real style, is quietly industrious; it doesn’t care whether you notice it or not, because it knows it’s the best and doesn’t have to loudly assert itself. This is the wisdom of the undead. They have long long pasts, but they are the future too.
.

   – Chris Palazzolo

 —————————————————————————————————–

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On going to see Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Allied’

Chris Palazzolo finally gets to go to the pictures!

It’s rare that I see movies at the cinema these days, which is odd because I live a twenty minute walk away from the Hoyts cinemas at the Carousel Shopping Centre. Never in my life have cinemas been so accessible to me. However a combination of curmugeonly middle age and the demands of young children means I just can’t be bothered making the time to see some portentious franchise that’s just going to bore me. If I’m going to go through the difficult logistical exercise of ensuring my house is orderly and kids are fed and ready for bed (thus taking the pressure off my wife who is a full-time accountant) so I can spare a couple of hours to myself, then the movie has to be worth it – it has to be grown-up, and it has to be original (the vagueness of these criteria should give the reader an indication of just how fussy I am).

The other night I went to see Robert Zemeckis’s WW2 melodrama Allied. I didn’t have high expectations of this movie, but then I knew very little about it because I generally don’t take much notice of reviews. Nonetheless as I walked to the shopping centre I felt those lovely belly flutters that I’ve always associated with going to see a movie. On entering the shopping centre at 9pm (session time 9.15) that excitement was compounded by an uncanny sense of anachronism, of being in a space so familiar to me (I’m at this shopping centre almost every day for groceries) but after most of it is closed. Only the concourse, and the cafes and restaurants in that concourse, that lead to the cinemas upstairs, is open. The dusk of all those closed shops presses on this fluorescent lit concourse as if the shopping centre is asleep and the twenty cinemas upstairs are its dreaming cortex.

I felt nervous as I bought my ticket. I can’t explain why, but to make the feeling more acute I bought a coffee. I waited outside the cinema while two bored young ushers swept the popcorn and coke cups from the seats and aisles. Only one other couple was waiting with me. Having worked in video shops for 15 years I can attest to the peculiar light the glamour of cinema sheds on the shabby commercial reality of its retail arms; it both heightens the shabbiness while at the same time thralling it with a charge of its glamour (more than a few times over those years I was stopped on the street by customers who recognised me without recognising me asking me if I was on television. ‘No, I’m the video shop guy,’ I’d inform them). I’m always conscious, particularly in these (now not so) new suburban cinema megaplexes of the creaking beams and boards under the worn red carpet of the entrance passage, the fading and grubby seats (which are still very comfy), and the stale smells of the day’s patrons. But I’m a still a sucker for that big screen. If the film is good I’ll think about nothing else for the next two hours.

Allied was great. Of course the historian in me picked out all sorts of errors – were the Germans area bombing British cities on the scale depicted in the movie at that stage of the war (1943)? I don’t think they were. Would Ultra (British Intelligence) have helped the French Resistance with a high profile assassination when they knew what German reprisals were like? I don’t think they would’ve. The cultural theorist in me wondered whether movies like this help us to remember the Second World War or contribute to its forgetting? Do they just hasten the process of turning Nazis into simulacra locked away permanently from our times by their loving recreation of Nazi iconography of the 1930s and 40s? And is it an ontological void that Baudrillard says opens up beneath the simulacra, because that which is simulated no longer exists, only its simulation exists? And that into this void steps some young Western intellectuals who now do Nazi salutes on the web as a kind of situationist political tool, because the reality of Nazism, the DNA of Nazism, slavery and extermination for all peoples who are not white Aryans, is itself just part of the simulation? I couldn’t answer these questions. I’m just a househusband who doesn’t know about any of these big things, except that I love a good weepie. I shed a tear at the end. Any film that can make me react like that is a great film.

 – Chris Palazzolo

 —————————————————————————————————–

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ruben Ostlund’s ‘Force Majeure’

Chris Palazzolo examines the genealogy of the cigarette in Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Ostlund, 2014

Image result for force majeure images The cigarette Johannes Bah Kuhnke smokes on the walk down the mountain road at the end of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure would have to be one of the most well-earned in the history of cinema. This may seem like an exaggeration, especially when one considers the long relationship the cinema has had with the cigarette. From Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame lighting each other’s cigarettes in In A Lonely Place, to the ANZACs in Gallipoli sharing a last fag before running into a hail of Turkish lead, or the gitane the teenage collaborator splutters on as he turns the Jewish boy over to the German soldiers in Au revoir, les enfants, to the thousand packets that Robert De Niro smokes in Casino, the cigarette would have to be one of cinema’s most complex and mysterious motifs, comparable, in the amount of meaning it generates, to that of the gun. Just from these four examples I’ve chosen one can see the range of attributes it signifies – sophistication, mortality, villainy, and will. To say that the one smoked in Force Majeure is the most well-earned is definitely a bold claim. I will hold to it though because it has against it something that none of those other examples had against them – the hostility of contemporary ‘healthy living’ discourses, and the progressive ‘bricking up’ by the modern state all legal avenues for its consumption.

Force Majeure is about faultlines; glacial faults which open up a faultline in an apparently stable marriage. When a Swedish family, holidaying in the French Alps, think an avalanche is about to hit them, the husband panics and runs, leaving his wife and kids behind. The shock of the near miss and the husband’s apparent cowardice, causes a crisis in the family; the wife wonders whether she loves her husband anymore; the husband suffers crushing shame and the horrible prospect of loneliness, the kids worry that their parents are going to divorce. The psychodrama is like a series of continuing aftershocks as the husband and wife flail about in increasingly irresponsible attempts to overcome the awful ambivalence that’s opened up between them like a crevasse. By the end of the holiday a sort of reconciliation has taken place between them (though not the adventure of being in the mountains), and when the tourists are forced to walk part way down the mountain, the husband lights up the cigarette in question, much to the surprise of his children.

This cigarette, lit on the mountainside, signifies the origins of the faultline in the couple’s marriage. It does this in the same way that Rosebud signified the lost childhood of Charles Kane in Citizen Kane; that is as a thing that was present when the faultline-causing event happened, and whose disappearance after that event is in some sense causal. Semiotics would call this kind of sign an Index. An index is a sign that signifies its object by direct connection to it. The American philosopher Charles Peirce used the example of a weather vane which signifies wind direction by being blown by the wind. In Force Majeure the faultline in the marriage is something that was lost signified by one of those lost things appearing again now that the fault has opened up. The avalanche is the catalyst for opening the fault but the faultline was already there, and I think the inference can be made that the husband gave up smoking when he got married. This ‘little sacrifice’ came to signify all the rough edges of bachelorhood that were planed off in order for him to become the smooth family man he appears to be at the start of the film. A lingering dissatisfaction that lay latent during his marriage led him to forget his family at that split second of crisis. After all the bickering of the following days, the anguish, the joyless skiing, the discussions on the hero complex, and then an amazing third act in which the mountain has one more surprise to humble the mortals, the husband lights up his first cigarette since his bucks’ night. By redistributing snow on the side of a mountain, force majeure has redistributed power in a marriage.

 – Chris Palazzolo

 ————————————————————————————————

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

The official trailer for Force Majeure

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Perry Lam reviews ‘Dr Strange’

Marvel’s dominance in the arena of blockbusters has allowed for the brand to introduce more obscure characters in their catalogue, characters that are otherwise ‘hard sells’ if introduced without the knowledge and universe building executed by the previous films. Without Iron Man, Dr Strange would have continued to languish in the brightly coloured pages of the comic books, suffering in his role of the ‘fan favourite’ character. Loved by the fans of the House of Marvel but ignored by everyone else.

Therefore, it is easy to see why Marvel has decided to go all out with Dr. Strange, with its attempts at high concept special effects, big name actors in an ensemble cast, Michael Giacchino on score, and a marketing budget the size of the GDP of small nation, this is the production ‘dream team’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One area Marvel is still unwilling to spend big on though, is the traditionally ‘important’ role of director. And it shows, for all the stops that Marvel has pulled to ensure Dr. Strange’s quality, without a director with a creative voice, this movie ends up being a dream team with no interesting direction.

After a horrific car accident robs Dr Stephen Strange of his physical abilities as a neurosurgeon, he travels to Tibet to seek out a cure. As he trains in the ways of the mystic arts, he comes to terms with his purpose in life, not just as a doctor but also as a person.

null

Everything about this film screams intense focus group meetings and obsessive market research, rather than a director’s artistic or creative choice. The Marvel Method works, the director is now a puppet, a messenger to dictate the whims of the executive board. Everything feels like a Marvel movie, from the opening pop track to ease the viewers into the character of Doctor Stephen Strange, to how the cinematography looks, and it does look like every other Marvel film out there (more on that later). Similar to other origin stories in the Marvel slate of films, this film has an extremely distinct pattern in its narrative. Hero is arrogant, hero loses everything, loses redeems himself and figures his role in a greater world. I could list several Marvel movies in this mold but to put it simply, and boldly, Marvel’s formula has not changed a day since Robert Downey Jr suited up in 2008’s Iron Man.

Nothing in the story particularly stand out, the characters do what they need to do to establish the story and nothing more. There is a pedestrian tone to the film, swap Dr Strange for Antman, or Iron Man and with a few minor, adjustments in terms of powers and villains, it is still the Same. Exact. Story. The hero’s journey is stretched to its maximum load bearing weight.

null

There isn’t no attempt at relating the character to the audience, there is no reflection over Stephen Strange’s arrogant behaviour, he just is until he no longer isn’t. When he is humbled, it is not because he has learnt his lesson or his place. It is neither, he just behaves because that is how the script needs him to behave. The audience becomes a bystander instead of an active participant in the movie going experience, just watching events go by, unable to relate to the cosmic battles that unfold before our eyes.

Likewise to the rest of the characters, Mordo’s disillusionment does have an arc but it appears only at moments of convenience rather in moments of genuine narrative interest. Even Strange’s cape gets the laziest introduction ever, it chooses him without Strange even having to earn its use, the entire film is filled to the brim with all too convenient moments like these in order to generate plot momentum. A sudden attack by Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius is used to move the narrative, there is little that is in Strange’s control and as a character, he is guided from one action set piece to another with no agency of his own.

Considering that the cast is made up of phenomenal talent, it is a tragedy to see them go to waste in generic and rigid roles. The formulaic script hampers the performances, actors are burdened by the script rather than empowered by it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is up to the task of Dr. Stephen Strange but that is not saying much, he does not have a lot to work with in the first place. While the character is established adequately, characterization remains a problem. Cumberbatch mopes around for much of the film, relying on his awkwardness to generate some physical comedy and his stoic arrogance to emote. Beyond that, there isn’t an ambitious streak in his performance, he still is the Cumberbatch that fans are familiar with but non fans would not care for.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast is also wanting, Rachel McAdams is forced into the role of the love interest, achieving nothing with her screen time other than serve as comic relief and to build up Strange as a character, their interactions are forced ‘ping pong’ dialogue that attempts to highlight the charm of both but it fails, only reveal how choreographed and unnatural their performances are.

ds2

Mordo fares better but not by much, he is a full on exposition machine, constantly informing the viewer about backstory, but Chiwetel Ejiofor infuses the character with a sense of world weariness and bitterness that allows the character to be the most memorable in the film, even if these moments are few and far between.

The Marvel Villain Syndrome strike again, as even the talented Mads Mikkelsen is unable to salvage a bland, badly written villain in Kaecilius. More caricature than character, Mikkelsen gives a stone faced performance with nothing to his backstory other than a few choice exposition by Mordo, the fatal flaw of too much telling and not much showing. Mikkelsen none the less tries his best to lift the material he is given but it is a case of too little too late.

This is an alarming trend in Marvel films. After 8 years of constant, intensive worldbuilding, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to have an iconic, centerpiece villain that could hold a movie on his or her own. This lack of quality villains affects the quality of the overall film, as the hero literally has nothing to struggle against, Strange is fighting himself more than he is fighting Kaecilius. The navel-gazing protagonist approach clashes widely with the blockbuster narrative that Marvel is trying to sell with Dr. Strange and the end result is neither an intimate character piece nor an epic blockbuster. It just feels mechanical and generic.

null

Audiences should all now be familiar with the Marvel ‘look’. Similar to the Marvel Comics’ ‘house style’ which is enforced on its comic artists, the cinematography is similar in style and execution with the other Marvel films. I understand the need to have a consistent look across the entire Marvel universe but this enforcement of visual style is starting to adversely affect the end product. Generic framing and the abuse of the mid shots turns the cinematography into unspectacularly visual monotony. The visual splendour of the scenes in the multiverse  is contrasted with drab, parking lot aesthetic of the real world scenes. You got to wonder though, if all these movies look alike, with similar narratives and storylines, offering nothing visually interesting, then what exactly are we paying to see?

Maybe the visual effects, which are spectacular, especially with Strange’s journeys to the multiverse, ethereal vistas and space gates that owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showcases a brilliant, vibrant universe that could have been explored. But we spend too little time there, with a weak narrative that is focused on boring ol’earth and lack of visual ambition in its cinematography, the visual effects are reduced to a spastic lightshow. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Speaking of sound, Marvel somehow manages to squeeze out the most generic score out of Michael Giacchino, one of the greatest score composers working today. There is nothing of note in the aural Marvel universe and rather than choose to break new ground, Dr. Strange only reinforces the Marvel house style of generic action and emotional themes. You won’t hum any musical themes as you walk out the theatre, though you probably wonder what’s next for the sequel. Maybe in terms of movie marketing, Marvel did something right by leaving out an iconic soundtrack.

null

I do believe the lack of strong direction is responsible for the film’s weaknesses. Scott Derrickson is primarily known for low budget genre fare and he does not manage to get any of his stylistic signatures on this film at all. Derrickson’s direction comes across as mercenary-like, hired only to execution the board’s vision and that is all to it. There are no obvious artistic or creative considerations, no moments of strong cinematic interests. Once again, in the battle between Marvel Studios and ‘The Director’, Marvel gets their hands raised again, this is Marvel’s film more than it is Derrickson’s.

While the ensuing whitewashing controversy is overblown and is the least of the film’s problems, there is still much to be said about how the film ends up turning out. Tilda Swinton is a great actress and puts up a great portrayal of the Ancient One, that said, she offers nothing special to the role that any actor or actress of Asian descent could have similarly pulled off. Still, that would be stereotypical casting of the ‘Old Master’. This is a problematic character, as are the Dr. Strange mythos. Borne out of Orientalism and the west’s obsession with the ‘Far East’, Dr. Strange tries to be faithful to the comics while being as inoffensive as possible.

null

Asian actors only serve as window dressing, hovering around the actors of western descent, never truly penetrating the narrative, they are part of the background, props and production design. Even Wong only serves to provide comic relief, while it is an admirably attempt to break Wong out of his offensive manservant role that he occupies in the comics, it is still messy in its execution. Unlike the comic relief characters of previous Marvel films, from War Machine to Drax the Destroyer, Wong is written to be unthreatening to anyone, we do not see him kick ass, instead he gets schooled by Dr. Strange when the latter steals books from the library. Can you see the same thing happening if it was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo who was the librarian? No, there will be hell to pay if that happens and the outrage will be much bigger.

I do not believe that ‘social justice warriors’ are going to go after Marvel for this, but I do believe that Marvel missed the argument. Dr. Strange, with its hero’s journey and Far East window dressing, is reminiscent of every white saviour fantasy film that came before it, from Karate Kid to Last of the Mohicans to The Last Samurai.

null

There is a lot going against Dr. Strange, weak direction and cinematography, generic score, mundane performances. However there is an old sports adage that states that ‘Offense wins you games but Defense wins you championships’. In the film industry, there is no bigger championship than reigning supreme at the box office. Instead of a director led offense of artistic daring, Marvel has proven that it is the defensive mentality of formulaic filmmaking, great branding and ambitious marketing that leads you to the title. For better or for worse, Marvel movies are now in a league of their own, every new entry, no matter the quality, only serves to reinforce their dominance. There is no doubt Dr. Strange will rule at the box office but it will also change the way filmmaking will be perceived as an artform and the roles within film production.

** Out of 5

Great actors, great visual effects are let down by a bad script, lacklustre direction, generic cinematography and weak soundtrack. The Marvel brand has bailed out its product for a quite a while now, the big question is, how much longer can it do that?

After Dr. Strange, you should watch:

Iron Man- The bible of which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on, every film that came after is slavishly influenced by this one.

Karate Kid- Probably the definitive movie in the ‘white saviour’ subgenre. This is 80s kitsch at its finest.

Inception- Visual effects weaved into an intricate, compelling plot. This is how CGI is supposed to be used.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning- Scott Adkins, one of Kaecilius’ henchmen, is better known as an extremely talented direct-to-video action star. His greatest film and also one of the greatest direct to video films ever made, is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The only way to describe it would be a Jackie Chan film by way of David Lynch. It has to be seen to be believed.

Valhalla Rising- Mads Mikkelsen plays a one eyed slave on a journey to Jerusalem. The term ‘cinematic experience’ has been bantered about too often but they are a fitting description to Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Valhalla Rising is a brutal, unforgiving fever dream.

——————————————————————————————————

Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and a film and commercials director. He directed the documentary short film BLACK RAT,  which has been screened at over 10 film festivals and showcases and won 3 awards, including Best Documentary at Phoenix Comicon 2016.  His latest short film Hard Vision, is currently on its festival run. You can follow him on Instagram at: perrylam29

 https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

Caught between Blue and Grey: Siobhan Hodge reviews ‘Grounded’, performed by Alison van Reeken

Grounded is playing at the Blue Room Theatre, Northbridge WA from 13 September to 1 October

grounded-no-plane-website-760x485Grounded tackles the grimly disconnected reality of drone warfare, pairing this with the increasingly isolated state of the speaker, a former fighter pilot who has been relegated to drone piloting after going on maternity leave. Performed by Alison van Reeken and directed by Emily McLean, the powerful performance interspersed with grey drone footage and silent on-screen explosions, contrasted sharply with blasts of AC/DC and Guns ‘n Roses when the main character is in her element, this is a performance of contrasts and sharp realisations.

When The Pilot, a female fighter pilot in the US air force, becomes pregnant and has to leave “the blue” of the sky – emblematic of her senses of freedom, identity, and solidarity – her problems only escalate. Returning to the force after three years of maternity leave, the speaker learns that she has now been relegated to “the chair-force”. Reluctantly, she accepts the role as a drone pilot, and slowly derails into a more and more paranoid state of being. Moving from an active war-zone to the 12-hour shifts before returning “home” to suburban Las Vegas, The Pilot is beset with bitterness and burgeoning paranoia. The character’s preferred AC/DC is overlapped with Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and her daughter’s beloved pony cartoon theme.

The Pilot is brusque, assertive and confident, but demonstrates clear signs of internalised misogyny. However, the main conflicts of this performance do not stem from a motherhood/self-hood divide. Motifs of surveillance and control, paired with the depersonalised nature of drone warfare in contrast to the active and absorbing reality of being a fighter pilot, drain the speaker down to a nervously reactive husk of herself. People become “guilty”, judged by the Gorgon’s Eye of the drone, and the increasingly disassociated Pilot herself.

Darkly humorous, sharp and starkly confronting, Grounded has real moments of poetic expression and delicacy. The speaker grimly compares herself to a vengeful god in the sky when she pilots the drones, but becomes terrified of her daughter being smote as one of the “guilty” by another surveying presence. Grounded is a call for immediacy and accountability, confronting the potential for horrors both internal and external in this new form of warfare, as well as painting a compelling portrait of the need for individuality.

 – Siobhan Hodge

Grounded is playing at the Blue Room Theatre, Northbridge WA from 13 September to 1 October, 7pm. AUSLAN is available on 20 September. Tickets are available here.


——————————————————————————————————-

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Westerly, Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

Save

Save

Save

Save

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Woody Allen’s ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

Chris Palazzolo loses his job and discovers SBS on Demand where he finds You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, directed by Woody Allen, 2010

With the closure of the last video store in the world, Network Video Roleystone, I find myself deprived of my regular supply of free dvds (I even got a bill from the debt collector, $44 in overdues – some thanks for 15 years working in video shops!) I’m now at the mercy of online streaming services such as YouTube and SBS On Demand. It is fun though looking up the SBS catalogue. In recent months I’ve caught up with the John Carpenter/Kurt Russel season, a beautifully cleaned up Scanners (I realise how dirty looking the dvd version was now), Cross of Iron, The Bicycle Thieves, even a Charlie Chaplin from 1921. The movie I’m going to comment on now is Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. I actually saw this movie originally on dvd, but I notice SBS screened it this week so that seems like a good enough reason to comment. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.

Naomi Watts is the dissatisfied wife of an obscure American writer (Josh Brolin). Her and Brolin live in a very nice part of London because they’re being bankrolled by Watts’ mother (Gemma Jones) who is herself having a nervous breakdown because her husband (Anthony Hopkins), in a mid-life panic, has dumped her and run off with a prostitute half his age. Watts keeps her mother functioning by hiring a fake clairvoyant to tell her mother things she wants to hear (hence the title of the film). In the meantime, as their own marriage crumbles, her and Brolin each make disastrous attempts at extra-marital affairs, while Brolin, desperate to regain the recognition (and advances) he got early in his career, pinches the work of another writer who he thinks has been killed in a car accident. Nothing goes to plan. Each character (with the exception of the completely delusional mother) have a uniquely tailored fate awaiting them. It’s like a stacked deck of cards which, in perfect closure, comes up four Jokers in the final hand.

The writing for this ensemble is extremely tight, in fact there is so little give in its symmetries that it almost resembles a theorem. It’s as if some evil scientist, using narrative film as his crucible, is testing out reactions to combinations of certain personality types to demonstrate results he always knew were going to occur. The types are Woody Allen favourites – attractive, well-educated middle class westerners, undone by their own mendacities and sense of entitlement. The reactions are quite a thing to behold. They shed an unpleasant light not just on the principles but on everyone and everything around them – Watts’ boss (Antonio Banderas) trawling his female employees for the cheapest mistress; Brolin’s lover (Freida Pinto) so dumb she dumps her very promising fiancé to run off the with the older American writer who is in fact a fraud; Hopkins’ young wife (Lucy Punch) playing up with the gym boys after Hopkins has bankrupted himself keeping her in furs; the venerable London publishing house rejecting Brolin’s own work (because it’s about ‘intellectuals’) and publishing instead some prurient crap about a paedophile because that’s what’s marketable to the debased tabloid tastes of the British reading public.

This is comedy in the haute mode. It observes with aristocratic strictness all the rules of classical composition; cuts never occur unless they have to, camera movements and close-ups are rare, long takes and medium shots rule, and actors are expected to work (no hiding fluffed lines with flashy jump cuts and vulgar camera movements); serenity, good manners, and architectural balance all turned to a lofty and malicious wit. There is no wastage, no untied threads; every element of the composition comes together in the end with a completely satisfying (that is to say, completely cringeworthy) clap.

Schadenfreund is the schtick. The guilty pleasure we get watching people who resemble us doing stupid things and suffering spectacular humiliations that leave not a shred of dignity intact. The characters are not in any way profound; they are figments of our own social terrors. The pleasure is like that of a pagan ceremony; we watch the characters constructed like effigies out of ricks, we watch the match lit underneath them and each become a bush of flame.

– Chris Palazzolo

———————————————————————————————————–

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

A Lucid Illustration of Erratic, Wayward Human Substance: Jonathan Dunk Reviews SUDS’ production of ‘Black Hands / Dead Section’

Black Hands / Dead Section directed by Zach Beavon-Collin. Sydney University Dramatic Society until 13th August at the PACT Theatre, 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville.

Photo by Clare Hawley.

Photo by Clare Hawley.

At its best student theatre is an unruly, brawling, defiance of the conventions and strictures of cultural economy, at its worst, a sycophantic imitation of them. Sydney University Dramatic Society’s production of Van Badham’s stark Brechtian epic Black Hands / Dead Section, directed by Zach Beavon-Collin and produced by Victor Kalka, lands squarely in the former category.

Badham’s script traces the formation, activities, and demise of the Rote Armee Fraktion, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, throughout the 70’s in West Germany. The narrative of idealistic youth impelled to armed resistance by corruption and collusion is a sobering one, and the text’s portrayal of violence is passionately ambivalent. On the one hand the young revolutionaries’ almost erotic embrace of violence – an ecstatic rejection of the bourgeois ethic of compromise – is critically illustrated, replete with casual cruelty and disastrous ineptitude. On the other, the crushing, monolithic power of the state edifice is fathomed with Orwellian horror. The way Badham, and Beavon-Collin, resist drawing a reductive and sentimental allegory between evils is a salient ideological merit.

Naturally, it’s imperfect. The cast of twenty-nine is untrained and unpaid, and Badham’s three-hour script spans a chaotic decade of argument and event. At times it’s messy, awkward, and abrupt. Actors proclaim themselves too loudly, grasping at shreds of character and context. The erotics of utopian studenthood are somewhat overdone. A smug turtleneck misquotes Bakhtin to the knowing titter of bellbottoms and pencil-skirts through a miasma of honeyrose, because, you know, people in The Past smoked. A great victory comrades, someone cries, let’s go skinny-dipping!

This approach raised my hackles in the first act, mainly because it so easily becomes a prelude to platitudinous dénouements purporting to show the collision of youthful naïveté with the ‘real’ world of getting and spending. That would have been disastrous here, because of course, Marxism’s truest context and subject is the future. Brecht’s magnificent talismanic poem An die Nachgeborenen encapsulates this poignantly.

Blessedly, my suspicions proved inaccurate. The play moves firmly towards its meaning, excavating a tragic structure from the bloody detritus of history. What might, in less intelligent hands, have evolved into sententious Hobbesian bullshit became a compellingly lucid illustration of erratic, wayward human substance subjected to the pitiless mechanism of the state.

Because, writing as an educator, and remembering my introductory dichotomy, students are inept, wooden, passionate, awkward, over-eager, tentatively performative, and ideologically inconsistent at the best of times. It follows that a student revolution should be rough-hewn, should blunder and repeat and revise, wake up to itself seminude on an unfamiliar carpet halfway through the second act smelling of vomit and average whiskey.

Yes, it’s easy to patronize student, student theatre and student politics. This production takes this cultural bias and incorporates it into its mimetic function. In the play’s third act the frenetic excess of youth collides with the brutal stasis of hegemony. Without giving too much away, this section, by far the play’s strongest, powerfully illustrates depredations of state power in a manner damningly relevant to the condition of Australian politics.

This, I think, was the play’s most resonant paradox. While the excesses of violent resistance are easily condemned, when the veneer of capitalist hegemony so comfortably engenders atrocities, and the recalcitrant structures of democracy prove incapable of redress, what ethical recourse remains?

The fixity of this moral imperative lives in the custody of youth, in art and politics, who inherit futurity, and are not bonded in compromise to the torpidly unimaginative status quo. This spirit was fiercely eloquent in this production. The play’s many structural difficulties were handled adroitly by Beavon-Collin, and the stark atmosphere of the period skilfully elucidated by Kalka. Of the cast the most memorable performances were Alice Birbara’s fierce rendering of Gudrun Ensslin, and Helena Parker’s exquisitely nuanced Ulrike Meinhof. A special mention goes to Ryan Devlin’s highly effective sound design.

 – Jonathan Dunk

_______________________________________________________________

Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

Bookings for Black Hands / Dead Section are available online at https://www.trybooking.com/Booking/BookingEventSummary.aspx?eid=212586

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2