View From The Couch – 02/Sep/2014

The Rot Sets In

This really is a crappy government, and nothing can cover it up. Amazingly they don’t even try to cover it up, which is even more astounding – and by astounding I mean in the negative direction, like one might describe an abcessed tooth.  A better word might be excruciating, for that is the word Evelyn Waugh gave to Sebastian Flyte in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ to describe his toothache. We have a federal government that is a deep, throbbing, incapacitating pain that simply will not go away. In a sign that time really does fly, it is nearing one year since last year’s terrible Federal election that installed this government of entitled intellectual runts (and other things that rhyme with runts), and in that time they have managed to kick a good half-dozen own-goals.

The biggest of these own goals might be the budget, which was announced at the beginning of May as all budgets are, but has since failed to pass the senate. In the four months since the budget was unveiled, it has demolished the credbility of Joe Hockey as Treasurer as well as eaten into the meagre genuine support the Coalition had at the Federal election. The truth is nobody outside of the regular conservative set wanted an Abbot Government; they just wanted the naked-ego freakshow that was the Rudd/Gillard ALP Government to end. Not even the properly educated ranks of the conservatives liked Tony Abbott. Let us remind ourselves that Malcolm Fraser quit the Liberal Party because he just couldn’t take the Abbott leadership. Let’s be clear, it wasn’t that he couldn’t take it seriously, but that having been forced to take it seriously, he refused to comply and support it.

Not even his own side think Tony Abbott as Prime Minister is a serious proposition. And so we have conservative commentators in recent weeks pimping for the next leader. Peter Reith picked Julie Bishop. There is momentum building. Peter Hartcher wrote a favorable article praising her efforts in the Ukraine MH17 incident. You would think the very fact that the weather balloons are going up is a bad sign, but nobody is seriously making supporting noises for Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop is an interesting politician in that she served Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott as deputy leader of the Liberal Party, so presumably the party think very highly of her ability. It’s just that their stupid sexism has prevented them from installing her as the leader in the quick succession of changes. If the response to the weather balloon may well change things. I do wonder if this government could get better if it were run by Julie Bishop and not Tony Abbott. It’s all a bit of a quandary wondering who you would hate less as Prime Minister.

Still, there is a possibility Tony Abbott’s personal standing in the polls never rises above the levels plumbed by Julia Gillard before him, which would suggest the party room will get restless. It might not happen tomorrow or next month, but if Tony stays as bad for as long as Julia Gillard did, then it might be time for the Liberal Party faithful to do their own bait-and-switch months before the next election, and install Julie Bishop as Prime Minister. I’d imagine it’s on the cards given how much smoke there is coming out of the media. Let’s then say she gets installed and wins the next election. That would be roughly 4 prime ministers in 4 terms, 3 of whom did not finish their first full term. That’s 12years of Australian Federal politics being booted around by people who are essentially playing musical chairs. The lousy thing is that it would represent 12years wasted experimenting with ever more extreme policies to not much good effect.

While it hasn’t quite happened that way yet, all it would take might be a few more bad polls and the budget not getting through.

Climate Change Deniers In Power

It’s also a truly awful thing when a government ignores the overwhelming science and installs a climate change denier on to a panel to shepherd a statement that says we should do less for the environment. The Appointment to Dick Warburton to review climate change was a bit like putting a sociopath with no empathy to review child abuse cases in the Church. Then again, that’s exactly what the Catholic Church did by making Cardinal George Pell to that role, so maybe there’s a certain kind of thinking that the worst possible person would bring in the most politically expedient result. Warburton’s report says the government should just give up on saving the environment and instead just do as little as possible. That’s not proper policy – that’s just letting the vested interests have their way. It’s a travesty, really.

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Coming Out Of Hibernation

Salman Rushdie Speaks At Opera House

It’s not everyday you get to see and hear Salman Rushdie speak live, so I went along to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. I’m not so convinced these ideas at the festival are so dangerous – they seem more like ideas that would make great clickbait on Facebook, but I’m not really certain they’re so damn dangerous. Mr. Rushdie was speaking to the notion whether Television was the New Novel. He spoke at great length of his experience in development hell for 18months but said “No, it’s not.”

The conversation could have been more interesting but the panel seemed to favour talking about the process whereby television writers are commissioned to write scripts and whether novelists were good at adapting to that challenge or not. Mr. Rushdie indicated he was surprised to find he was more resistant to it than he initially thought. Hardly earth-shattering. I could’ve told him that at the front end before he went into development hell.

He did say a couple of interesting things. One of them was that the bigger a TV series gets, the less likely it would end on a satisfying note. All such series should be finished with a comma and not a full stop, was his observation. The other notable tidbit was that novel writing is entirely processed internally, but script writing for television drags that process out into the open so that it can be shared with other parties. That much is true.

He also told a joke featuring two goats.

Short Film Screening

I attended the screening of a short film up at the Chauvel tonight. My good friend Guillermo managed to finish the film we shot last year. All I did was sound record it, but it was kind of gratifying to see my name in the credits. I hadn’t seen that in a few years.

Anyway, the DOP and I got into a conversation with one of the producers about film funding in this country and I was surprised to find that there is a widespread belief that the funding system in this country is rigged so the same people keep getting grants, and that the better thing would be to stop the government doing direct funding and go back to a 10BA tax driven thing. Everybody’s thinking it. The system is rigged, and it’s part of the problem and not the solution. The belief is so widespread that nobody trusts the government to do the right thing. Now, this is just film making – not medical or legal policy. However, if the government was to screw up the medical and legal industries like they have screwed up the film industry, there would be picket lines and molotov cocktails on our streets. The fact that it doesn’t happen is merely a reflection of how dejected the film industry is about how the government keeps working to make the business smaller in this country – even if it is inadvertent – and how small the business has become.

I’m just reporting this here because others in the business would want to know. And yes, it is always a bitch-fest when filmies get together.

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Asahi Newspapers Reported Falsehoods

Some Would Call This Lying

In 1982, Asahi Newspapers published an article based on the ‘testimony’ of one Seiji Yoshida who claimed that Korean women were forcibly removed to be made into comfort women. Seiji Yoshida wrote a book that claimed to be a confession of these acts during World War II. Since then the notion of ‘Comfort Women’ and sex slavery has flowered and people have been demanding apologies from the government of Japan. Asahi Newspapers in the mean time have cited Yoshida’s testimony 16times to bolster the case that such forcible removals by the Japanese government and its agencies took place.

This naturally led to the South Korean government demanding more apologies and in the intervening years has contributed to a great deal of animosity between the two countries. As a result of this diplomatic fracas, the government of Japan ran an extensive investigation to find out just what happened. They interviewed a number of women who claimed to have been forcibly removed by Japanese military and police personnel – and so in the mid 1990s, Yohei Kohno issued a statement basically regretting these forcible removals. The “Kohno Statement” as it is known basically forms an acknowledgement that forcible removals took place, and expresses the usual ‘deep regret’.

Even to this day, the Anti-Japanese rhetoric coming out of Seoul is based on this material. The picture that is emerging this week in Japan is that all this talk about “Japan must have proper awareness of its own history”,  and “reparations must be made for Comfort Women” has been based on the Asahi Newspaper making these statements as incontrovertible fact. Never mind that nobody else has ever come forwards to admit they were part of such activities, or that there was ay documented evidence of such things taking place. The entire case for Seoul rests on the Asahi claims, which in turn rests on the ‘Yoshida ‘Testimony’. Any suggestions to reappraise the content and context of the “Kohno Statement” have been attacked as historic revisionism by the South Korean government and media.

The problem is, the Yoshida Testimony has been comprehensively debunked. Nobody can corroborate the Yoshida Testimony because it never took place. Investigations have been made into the women who fronted up for the interviews which formed the basis of the “Kohno Statement”, and it turns out their stories don’t line up with any of the movements of Japanese units and police during the times these things have been alleged to have taken place. None of it lines up. It was all a fabrication.

As  a result the Asahi Newspaper has issued an editorial retracting the publication of the article 32years ago. The editorial claims it was filled with factually incorrect material. An unkind person might call them lies. Asahi Newspaper has not apologised for sticking to their guns through the years, even when they probably realised some things were untenable in the ‘Yoshida Testimony’ wrong as far back as 1992.

They Sack You For Forging Evidence

In most countries there’s  heavy penalty for forging evidence. For instance in Australia, the faked email ended Malcolm Turnbull’s chances of ever becoming Prime Minister. It destroyed Godwin Grech’s career at treasury. A similar thing happened in Japan .In Japan, a forged email destroyed the career of Hisayasu Nagata who ran with exactly the same sort of fake email as evidence as the Utegate scandal, and it brought down the listed company Live Door. The point is, these kinds of forging evidence gets you smashed in public life. Right now, Asahi Newspaper has been found to have done exactly that – run on unverified forged evidence – for 32 years and has been found out and is trying to get out of it by simply ‘retracting’ the article of 32 years ago.

There’s simply too much time and history that has come out of this fraud. The entire country of South Korea has been banging on about ‘Comfort Women’ fir 32 years based on the very same information, trusting in the institution of Asahi Newspaper. The Government of Japan admitted to guilt it need not have admitted to because it never happened, just to maintain friendly relations.  Asahi Newspaper’s ongoing insistence that the ‘Yoshida Testimony’ was factually correct has done untold damage to the reputation of Japan and all Japanese people around the world.

There are people running around accusing Japan of having systematically committed sexual slavery during World War II, and are alleging Japan is refusing to apologise for it. There are organisations in America building monuments to the kidnapped juvenile Korean girls pressed into prostitution that Seiji Yoshida imagined, claimed to have kidnapped, but never existed.  I can’t talk to a Korean without eventually getting into arguments about what is “a proper recognition of historic facts”. And let’s be honest, these are vile-beyond-the-vilest of accusations. You’d hope that there would be a shred of evidence – but there isn’t – and Asahi Newspapers has spent the last 32 years championing this load of bollocks as  God’s own truth. It’s one thing for South Koreans to want to believe this about Japan (it’s easy to imagine the worst of people if you don’t like them). What kind of outfit tries to pin this vile bullshit on their own people?

Just what kind of people work at Asahi Newspapers if they’re willing to propagate this stuff for 32years, retract it, then try to carry on like nothing’s happened?

In short, Asahi Newspapers can’t expect to get out of this with a slap on the wrist. They’re answerable for all of the misunderstanding between the governments in Tokyo and Seoul. The Diet should subpoena the editors and board members at Asahi, past and present to get an explanation. I hope they’re forced to close and they all lose their jobs. Really, I do. If it happens next week it won’t be soon enough.

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‘Mad Men’

The Nostalgia Machine

I’ve been away from writing about films for a number of weeks because I’ve been working my way through the 6 seasons of ‘Mad Men’. I had the DVDs piled up all year and sort of traipsed past it because there seems to be a deluge of good TV content that has to be surveyed and unlike movies, they all demand serious time commitments that come in tens of hours. Six seasons consisting of 78 episodes is a lot to digest. That’s in the ballpark of the original Star Trek episodes. Consequently it has taken me 6 weekends of binging through seasons to watch the whole damn thing, bringing me up to date.

The other reason I had avoided it is because the world of advertising, even set in the 1960s didn’t really seem like a novelty. Having worked for an advertising giant once-upon-a-long-time-ago, I’ve had my fair share of awful anecdotes that came from hanging with hard-drinking advertising execs. There are some truly awful things that you can witness when you get into the accounts servicing end of the business and layering it on with nostalgia in a bid to explore classic sexism racism and generally unpleasant sexual misconduct didn’t seem like a recipe for much fun.   So truth be told, I resisted it as long as I could until I found I had cleared the decks of all other viewing material. Maybe that it is what it takes to be receptive.

We all think we know what the show is about. What is surprising is what it actually is.

In an early season Don Draper is asked to brand the Kodak carousel projector and when he finally explains it, he hits upon the device being a time machine that takes people back through nostalgia for moments. What the show does is effectively service everybody’s nostalgia through these fabricated episodes of people that might have been there. The experience of Mad Men is to evoke an era with as much verisimilitude as possible while attempting to dissect the origins of our own mores. In one sense it’s a ‘Downton Abbey’ for 60s fetishists, but on another level, it is a show that boldly goes to a place that brought us our contemporary consumerist culture. It is a ‘Back to the Future’ trip back to the 1960s where we in the audience are Marty McFly.

What’s Good About It

Just about any part of the craft from cinematography and production design through to choice of music and sound mix are extraordinary in this show.

The casting is equally impressive. There are some great actors putting in some extraordinary performances.  The characters they inhabit are filled with unspoken angst and desperation. It is an amazing show that allows us to be Buddha-like, feeling a compassion for all these people for their weaknesses foibles, doubts and self-loathing.

The scripts are always surprising, witty, insightful and compelling. The sense of existential agony sits side by side with the banalities of consumerism, giving rise to a beautiful aesthetic irony.

What’s Bad About It

In the earlier series you feel the budget doesn’t stretch far enough so you end up seeing a lot of interiors and hardly any exterior shots. It doesn’t get claustrophobic, but you get the feeling the limit of the show’s misc en scene, is just beyond the frame of the shots. At times this feels quite hokey but as the seasons progress you can see more money being thrown at it and it becomes less of a problem.

Considering all the naturalism in the acting and realism in the production design, you get the feeling that Don Draper’s sexual stamina is superhuman. Especially when you watch the episodes back-to-back. As the seasons progress, these sense of the exaggerated sexual stamina becomes utterly laughable that it begins to tear at the carefully crafted fabric of the show’s milieu.

Apart from that odd sort of unintended hilarity, the plot lines can meander into the kind of soapiness one associates with things like ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘Beverly Hills 90210’. Sometimes the performances are a little spotty and you notice it as the tenor of the performance jumps from one shot to the next. Maybe it’s bad editing, but it leaves you a little cold because it takes away from the otherwise perfect, seamless presentation.

What’s Interesting About It

Quite simply, ALL of it, actually.

1960s Through The Po-Mo Glass

The year 1960 where the series kicks off is quite a foreign place to us. We think we have a great grasp of what exactly happened in the 1960s thanks to the mass of media artefacts form the 1960s but Manhattan in the year 1960 is closer to Holden Caulfield’s hatred of phonies in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ than the Manhattan of Lou Reed and then Punk rock – That is all in the distant future and what we witness are the dying embers of the New York City in ‘The Age of Reason’. America is at its peak power, the pinnacle of its omnipotence and New York City is the crown jewel in this prosperity. The city then slowly goes into decay as certainty in social cohesion and cultural unity begins to break up.

The six seasons combined – as we still await the seventh to be fully concluded – traces the fall of Don Draper, white male top executive against the rise of Peggy Olsen, the proto-feminist creative executive into the top offices. And it is against this double dynamic we see all the other characters essentially flower into their full weirdness. Through this process we come to understand what the events we know in the 1960s, such as the Kennedy assassinations and the Luther King assassinations as well as the Vietnam War did to American society. America reached the top, and then quickly turned the corner into a decadent phase just as had the Roman Empire. In one sense, having reached the top America had nothing better to do but to fuck around, which is exactly what Don Draper does as he slowly loses touch with the America that allowed him to succeed. In its place emerges an  America with which he can only loosely relate.

It’s a curious thing, this change. Over the years white conservatives have unleashed the culture wars against the progressives as if they are the disenfranchised. This has manifested in accusations of ‘reverse racism’ or ‘moral decay’ but what the show presents to us is that economic growth happened in such a way to enfranchise the other more rapidly than it presented more growth to the established white demographic. It wasn’t the white establishment that got disenfranchised; it was that America grew so fast it enfranchised everybody beyond just the white establishment. When you consider ‘the other’ as a group, it includes women, immigrants, Blacks, Jews, Italians and eventually the gays. The show doesn’t show too many instance of affirmative action. It does however capture the bewildering change, season by season. At first it is like a whisper. By Season 6, the change is like a roar.

Beyond Memory, Beyond Broken Homes

American cinema is decidedly about the formation of families, just as American TV is about the maintenance of families. This is true of things as broad as ‘Bewitched’ and ‘Brady Bunch’ through to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Breaking’Bad’. The glaring exception to date was ‘Seinfeld’, which was revolutionary in the sense that no families were formed, and the central quartet were decidedly not a family but a coalition of disparate single entities. They were disparate single entities because they were in some ways all exiles from the ideological construct of family, trying to avert the mistakes of their parents. Thus, ‘Mad Men’ arrives as an explication of how American families fall apart.

The trope of ‘First Wives Club’ is that the husband cashes in his success by divorcing the first wife with whom he has a family, with a much younger wife with whom he just has fun. This is no ordinary trope, because there were many kids I knew through my childhood who were from these ‘broken homes’ where the “father ran off with the secretary” and other such narratives. It was a phenomenon that silently ate away at corners of our existence – how some of our friends had fathers who would never come home, and their homes would never be whole again. And all the while the engine of desire for being whole or for your friends’ families to be made whole is there. The yearning and the pain that gets repressed and folded into interactions is exquisitely rendered. The show goes through the various scenarios on which the classic nuclear family setup is torn asunder by the very consumerist society that purports to support them through wondrous products. It leaves one devastated exactly because failure is more common than success, and so many people fail so willfully in the show. Except you come to realise that this is also true in the people who populate our real lives.

The show sheds a light on why the institution of marriage in the American nuclear family of the 1960s failed so spectacularly, so often. Nothing so schizophrenic can survive without actuating the schism.

The Dream Of The World Of Our Parents

I only have a sense of the 1960s through old photographs. My memory of the 1960s is too far back to make any kind of sense. The Vietnam War was there by the time I had any inkling of the world. Demonstrations and marches were regular news items. The context for the sturm und drang has always sat behind records books and movies. Robin Williams joked that if you could remember the 1960s, you probably weren’t there. There’s a weird compelling quality to that joke because as a toddler at the time, I hardly remember it. The 1960s I know of lives in my head through the media construction but strangely there is nothing in it that offers a wider view of society. The fragments of first hand accounts that have actually come down to me through anecdotes remain blurry. The Cuban Missile Crisis, day President Kennedy was shot, Beatlemania, and the day Martin Luther King was shot – these events only form a kind of diorama in my head without the context of the world. Thus it is singularly enlightening to see these events at arms length, sitting in the lounge room with these characters.

The 1960s sits at the precipice of the moment when human history goes from having more people dead than alive, to having more people alive than there ever lived. The post modern explosion happens at 1970, necessarily as the ancien regime of hierarchies begin collapsing, disintegrating bit by bit. As such, the rigid certitude in things such as gender roles and social rank that characterises the earlier seasons seem distant and alien to us, but as the show moves through the decade, we sense the accelerating change barreling towards our contemporary awareness. If the world changed this quickly on our parents, then it sort of makes sense why our upbringing for Generation X was so fractured and cognitively dissonant. They must have thought they were raising us for a world that had the certitude of 1960 when in fact we were always going to grow into a world of ever increasing moral and ethical relativism.


The show that kept getting evoked by the earlier seasons was ‘Bewitched’ where Samantha was the perfect housewife and her husband Darrin was the advertising executive. It’s funny because Samantha was played by Elizabeth Montgomery so the name Betty goes to the wife; and Darren was played by Dick York and Dick Sergent, and so Don Draper’s secret identity is Dick Whitman. Don has a white-haired boss Roger Sterling, just as Darrin had Larry Tate. The rest of it is completely off the rails that flies in the face of the theme of maintaining a family. Instead of a happy housewife who uses magic to make things perfect, Betty is bored and un-empathic with her kids; instead of  being a bumbling doting husband, Don Draper is a philandering alpha male. ‘Mad Men’ posits an American household that disintegrates under the very desire stoked by advertising. The irony is that the central characters are deeply committed to the business of advertising and are fully aware that they are there to fan the unending fires of desire.

‘Mad Men’ effectively posits that the marriage of Samantha and Darrin from Bewitched is doomed to fail exactly because they are in a particular kind of nuclear family arrangement that maximises household consumption but dissatisfies more people than it helps. Darrin, if he were genuinely an ad exec of his times, would have had too may opportunities to philander. Samantha, without magic, would be too vulnerable to the pitfalls of being a suburban housewife, through isolation, boredom and depression. ‘Mad Men’ is partially a tart retort from the 21sst Century towards the cultural delusions of the 1960s. It is on the whole unsparing and unkind.

Don Draper’s Elegant Existential Angst

It’s interesting how the character Don Draper is laden with backstory. They place so many extreme situations in his background, he is practically the other even if he is white. On one level this makes sense because in order for a white male character to have insight into the other, they must be laden with elements in their life that would enable them to share empathy with the other. This gap in turn informs the degree of alienation the main character feels from the mainstream of society. As with the Great Gatsby, Don Draper has arrived at the Big Time in the Big Apple, but he has arrived as an imposter. His origins are worse than humble, his identity is fractured, and he is busy covering his tracks.

In order to portray the great sea tide of change in people’s attitudes through the 1960s, they had to devise a character who is at once very conservative on the surface but is deeply mutable and given to impulses and therefore endless infidelities. What is peculiar as a protagonist about Don Draper is how he is consumed by a silent self-loathing quite unlike any other character in America TV except maybe Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’. At this moment in history, the most interesting aspect of American masculinity on screen is not self-assuredness, but the depth of self-loathing combined with a troubled existential malaise and affliction.

Jon Hamm is remarkable as Don Draper because he is able to milk the nuance of the character as well as deftly play apart the many, many fractured facets of this man. He seems to have so many different smiles, all of them memorable for suggesting different parts of his psyche. The leery lewd smile, the condescending patronising smile, the genuine seductive persuasive smile, the gimme-five smile; all of these smiles are played differently and with great control. The series is essentially an Odyssey through the 1960s with Don Draper who is a kind of Odysseus of advertising – except unlike the Odyssey, it is not certain just where home/Ithaca is for Don Draper. The vast number of episodes allow the story-tellers to really go into every episode of the man’s life, with the sort of detail that would have made James Joyce jealous, for Don Draper is the 21st Century rendition of Odysseus/Ulysses.

Betty Draper, The Emotionally Austere Mother

January Jones’ performance as Betty Draper is the other amazing performance in the earlier seasons. The character drops back significantly after the third season and she’s not that great in season 3 as she becomes this sort of bitchy harridan ex-wife. What’s extraordinary about Jones’ performance is how much she loads into a casual glance or a look away. She raises her eyebrows, or wrinkles her forehead to show displeasure, and generally works through a quick array of conflicting emotions. As a kind of latter day Grace Kelly, she gives off the impression of the perfectly manicured ice queen but there is so much ironic layering in what she does. I don’t think I’ll forget some of the subtle gestures or expressions of disapproval.

The evolution of Betty Draper gives us a sense of how American whiteness preserves itself as an identity. She’s a fantastic character in the fist two seasons. It’s sad that she gives away the stage to Don’s next wife as her 50s kind of beauty gives way to Megan’s swinging sixties vibe. It is as if she is forced to retreat off the stage exactly because what she represents belongs in the past that has died.

The show is in many ways quite an exercise in metonymy. Don Draper in our parlance might just be a sex addict, but because we are watching a time and space where such language does not exist we end up witnessing the drama. Similarly with Betty she might just be a classic ‘First Wife Club’ member, but because she is operating in a time and space without that concept we witness the drama of her emotional disintegration and reconstruction in a different way. Don and Betty as played by Jon Hamm and January Jones are so perfectly matched with their beauty in their scenes in the car as they drive, you almost wish like Goethe’s Faust that their time stands still. The grand tragedy of ‘Mad Men’ – as it is in real life – is that time simply cannot stop for anybody, and all we can have is memory and nostalgia.

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Robin Williams Is Dead, Alas

RIP Robin Williams 1951-2014

You don’t really expect the mighty to die by an illness anymore than you expect a comedian to die of depression. It’s a strange thing how we might picture how the end arrives for people; except with Robin Williams you always suspected the depth of despair at the heart of his being to be like a big dark hole to the centre of the world. The nervous energy and and the stream-of–alien consciousness comedy babble that issued forth was otherworldly to say the least. It is no surprise that his breakthrough role was as Mork, a space alien in  the sitcom ‘Mork and Mindy’.

For years he was with light comedies where he encapsulated the anxiety and trepidation of being a hapless human being. Whether they were inspiring teachers or lost boys grown old, parents by accident or parents with a willful bent, he played characters with the sort of commitment that almost made you wince with discomfort. We would ask ourselves, just how much pain was the comic facade hiding?

There were so many dimensions to Robin Williams as an actor it made you wonder how he kept all those aspects in check. Perhaps the sad demise tells us that he couldn’t. It is reported that he was teetotal for a long time until he found himself on set in Alaska. The movie they would be talking about would be ‘Insomnia’ where he starred opposite Al Pacino, playing a psychokiller. You could just see how he might have slipped back into the twilight of his alcoholism on set in a land where the sun doesn’t set, far away from home on his own, playing opposite the doyen of method acting, while trying to hone in on an evil character that works in isolation. The film was a rare odd note in his catalogue of films – rare because he played the bad guy but also he played a character that didn’t resonate with the natural Williams style, thus cutting himself off from his own strengths. It was intense but off-kilter in an uncomfortable way, as if he had lost direction and so decided to do something totally different and self-destructive in order to find something new.

As an actor he had phenomenal gusto and neurotic energy as well as a teary-eyed sentimentalist bludgeon that sat badly with some critics. His standup routines appearances were legendary, while he remained a difficult interviewee to watch. If you are a public person, then the oeuvre you leave behind is essentially the summation of your career; and in his case it was a magnificent career in movies. His work remain as a testament to the complexity of the man as well as the dexterity in his craft.

It is so tremendously sad to find that he was indeed a clown that lived in the shadow of depression that led to his demise. He will be missed greatly by so many of us who were entertained by him.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 11/Aug/2014

Gotta Admit I Was Wrong

Australia’s contingent to the Ukraine went and returned in the last week and a bit. I know I sounded alarms about sending troops but sanity prevailed and nobody got shot at by east Ukrainian Separatists. This is a  good thing. The best thing about it was how Russia was blocked from turning the tragedy into a kind of political football to slam the government in Kiev. Sometimes your side shoots down a third party plane, it’s not the other side’s provocation.

Now that the Australian contingent is on its way home, Julie Bishop is saying all items are on  the table for applying sanctions to Russia. Of course,it’s easy for Australia to play hard rhetoric because we don’t really rely on oil and gas from Russia, unlike the NATO nations.  Germany in particular has been expertly perched on the fence playing both sides, mainly because the German industrial might is entirely dependent on the flow of energy from Russia. I guess it’s a bit like Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ where the catchcry is “the Spice Must Flow”; the oil and gas must flow for Germany to be Germany and in turn for Europe to be Europe.

All the same the smoke has barely cleared from the MH17 crash and there’s a stench in the air where war is being talked about as a possibility. Maybe we’re colouring ourselves into a picture where we might be more open to re-examining the history of the Twentieth Century and deciding that maybe we want to attempt to re-draw the maps. This month being the Centenary of the start of World War I doesn’t seem to have really formed a precautionary consensus about the west avoiding wars, except in Germany.

Irony is running in all directions out of Ukraine. Place names like Crimea and Sevastopol are echoes of Imperial Wars of the Nineteenth Century. Here we are in the 21st Century and we find ourselves challenged by events there. Ukraine was the victim of intense Soviet era collectivisation and purges. So we find an ex-KGB officer ruling Russia wants to re-claim whole tracts of Ukraine as regaining the whole-ness of Russia. Germany was the catalyst for not one but two world wars – something for which it remains the butt of jokes today – and yet is trying its damned best not to start a third one. Vladimir Putin on the other hand is pushing as hard as Hitler once did, and we’re appeasing him. It really is ugly.

Ebola On The Loose

Speaking of ugliness, there’ the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Ebola is a viral disease and there’s no vaccine or cure. So the medical teams working out there are essentially trying to keep patients alive by hydrating them through the illness, administering antibiotics to fend of secondary infections, and that that’s about the sum total of what they’ve got as a way to combat the disease. The good news is that it’s not as contagious as influenza which is a blessing. All the same, the disease is spreading rapidly in Africa and some people returning from Africa have reported in sick with signs of the disease.

Going into this last weekend, the WHO has declared the current Ebola outbreak an international health emergency. It’s hard to get a picture of how this is going to be brought under control.

Back To Bombing Iraq

With ISIS running rampant in northern Iraq, President Obama has approved air strikes against ISIS. It’s hard to say if this is going to benefit greatly, but it’s one of those things the US tries when it can’t solve things diplomatically. The rather unfortunate karmic twist being that it is back to Iraq for America’s military. Having lived through a decade and a half of the mis-declared war on terror which led to the war in Iraq, it seems business is far from finished in the lands formerly known as the cradle of civilisation.  It’s all a multi-layered failure of policy with repercussions that have demanded even worse choices.

Should America gone into Iraq in the way it did? – In hindsight, no.

Did America conduct a good campaign in Iraq? – no.

Should America have pulled out in the way it did?- Probably not.

And so here we are, doing airstrikes in Iraq again – all the bad decisions may have brought the rule of Saddam Hussein to an end, but it has given rise to the current situation which can be described as much worse than the terrifying tyranny of the Hussein family. Steeped in a kind of medieval bloodlust and Sadism, ISIS is busy projecting images of itself as people who do summary executions of prisoners and decapitations to demonstrate how fierce they are. ISIS is hell bent on dragging the world back to a kind of medieval sectarian nightmare. Our resistance to this notion is merely to do airstrikes and no commit troops on the ground. Whatever could possibly go wrong, one wonders.

Just as with Ukraine, the distant source of all this can be traced back to World War I, and how the world was carved up on the map, subsequent to that war. Upon the Centenary of the beginning of World War I, it seems much more vexing  than merely symbolic. That is to say, nothing ever changes, they only ever get worse.

Cowra, 70years On

Somewhere in the last week, Cowra had the 70th anniversary of the breakout. As with the observation above how nothing ever changes, I cannot but help but think about the detention camp they had in World War II being a cultural archetype in Australia, and that is why we detain asylum seekers in the manner that we do. When in a ‘crisis’ (loosely defined), what Australia does is put up a camp in the middle of nowhere with a barbed wire fence around it with security guards. When the RSL types intone lest we forget, one cannot help but think forgetting isn’t a problem for Australia.

Cowra and its story was part of my life for a good decade as I researched the story but I will never forget the one night working with Brian A Williams and Geoff Murphy when Geoff pointed to a figure of those who died at Cowra, but not in the breakout. It turned out that there were on average 2 summary executions per week at Cowra. Japanese POWs were being shot – for whatever reasons – at the pace of roughly two a week. Given that communications were rudimentary I imagine the Japanese POW population had no understanding of why so many people were being executed. It might have even looked like a weekly lottery of death to those who did not understand English – and there were many of those.

This would explain the desperation felt by the POWs. If they were going to die, picked off one by one in summary executions, then it would be better to go out in one big blaze. Until that moment the motive for the breakout eluded me. I didn’t understand the testimony by the surviving POWs that they felt like cornered rats. It rang hollow and untrue. Overwhelmed by the feeling of hopelessness, they said they decided to commit to an action that was by design and definition, futile.  Some climbed over the fence, and once outside, committed harakiri. Explaining that took some doing, except it’s very easy. It was an act of defiance – that if one had to die, then at least one could control the means of that death by oneself. What would drive all that? Loyalty to the Emperor has been the explanation in official accounts, but I’ve never really been able to digest it as a fitting explanation.

Consequently, the understanding of the meaning of the Cowra breakout in Australian popular culture is grossly lacking. What remains of the Kennedy Miller rendition is filled with cultural stereotyping cliches, as well as an absence of logic to why the breakout took place or what it meant. It really is a terrible bit of film making and it’s a shame nothing else got made. Other narratives over the years have skipped the brutal management of the camp. One imagines that if one poked too deeply into the nitty gritty of how Cowra camp was really run, one may find cause to think gross violations of some military codes – or even war crimes – were a regular thing and this in turn would be waking up terrible ghosts. In other words, nobody wants an honest discussion about what happened and why. The whole thing can’t be consigned to historical obscurity and myth soon enough.

Today there is the garden. Reconciliation has taken place; yet mutual understanding probably remains a long way off.

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Vested Interests In Negative Gearing

Why Negative Gearing Won’t Get Repealed

Something that is not exactly on people’s minds is just what kind of assets our politicians own, and how that might influence how they vote. Turns out only 13 of the 226 MPs in the Federal parliament do not own properties. Of those who do own property, many of them own multiple properties and the best way to describe it is that it is their favorite investment vehicle. This would likely be because of negative gearing, which is a wonderful thing if you have investment properties but is one of those policies which is contributing to the property bubble in Australia – yes, the one everybody has a vested interest in denying and of course we’re starting to see why.

The article goes on to tell you how deeply invested our federal MPs are in the property market and so draws the conclusion that they are such beneficiaries of negative gearing that they are highly unlikely to vote for an end to negative gearing. one would imagine that there would be a corresponding number of people invested in property working for the Treasury and the Reserve Bank. Add in the banking bosses who are also likely to be in the same boat and you have  picture of people who like having high prices and would like to keep the prices high and not have to cash it in.

It’s funny because in the American ‘House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood tells us that a man who chooses money over power is a man who chooses a flimsy MacMansion over a solid house built of stone and made to last. It appears that in Australia the sole purpose of power is to gain more wealth. It’s hardly exciting that real life pollies in Australia think with about as much imagination as your local slum lord, but evidently that is what we have got going. Our politicians favour real estate as an investment vehicle over equities or bonds, venture capital projects or for that matter manufacturing and services. If you combine it with the fact that figures such as Clive Palmer are heavily invested in mining, there is a prosaic materialist tenor to all of this that bodes ill for culture and the arts as well as science and technology.

It’s pretty hopeless. Especially when you consider that the point of capitalism is to bring capital to bear to produce things. Producing houses is one thing, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re literally rent-seeking on their investment properties while minimising their tax obligations. Does that sound like the sort of group of people who might have a view to the future industries of this country?


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