Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Raging Laughter with Julia Morris

Julia Morris - Lift and Separate
Canberra Theatre Centre

Julia Morris is a woman of a certain age - those are her words; not mine. Apparently this calls for age-appropriate clothing, botox and homicidal hormonal rages. She plays to (and with) her audience, which is largely female, and shares knowing laughs with them on a range of tailored topics.

Beginning with an exhortation to the audience not to use their phones, she helpfully poses in a variety of attitudes which she says we may recognise throughout the show. These involve delightfully undignified positions which she allows the audience to capture with their mobile cameras before turning off the devices - this fun but no-nonsense approach sets the tone for the evening.

Hindered and abetted by a slide show, she highlights images of her daily tribulations in retail outlets as she tries on ridiculous clothing and claims to be haunted by inverse body dysmorphia - she always thinks she looks gorgeous. Because of her willingness to mock herself and her self-deprecating charm, she quickly wins over her audience and they soon join in the laughter and the wry smiles.

We all know what it's like when a minor incident irritates us beyond all proportion and we get angry at the tiniest misdemeanour. But we probably can't articulate this feeling as amusingly as she does. While we may wince for the hospitality staff who bear the brunt of her outbursts over the time one can serve eggs or the rationing of towels in a hotel, we are more entertained than empathetic.

Julia explains her heavy workload may have added to her inner ball of fury. As she worried that her market value would wane with her advancing years, she seized every opportunity to increase her profile. This leads to highly intimate anecdotes of her time in African jungles filming I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, but it also frames a very real issue.

Women everywhere struggle with the personality changes and hormone imbalances that accompany ageing and menopause. Many of them suffer in silence, but not Julia; Julia turns it into comedy material. This is brave and brilliant. I loved it.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Friday Five: Nouns that are not verbs

And the logical continuation of last week's post...

5 Nouns that are not verbs:
  1. Parent - a parent is a person. A parent (hopefully) loves, nurtures, raises, cares for, looks after, educates, protects, cherishes, tends, nurses, encourages, reprimands and inspires their child. Any one of those words provides meaning and clarification. Interestingly (well, I think so anyway) - 'mother' and 'father' can act as both nouns and verbs. The verb 'mother' apparently means to bring up a child with care and affection. It can also mean to look after someone kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so. The verb 'father' means to become the father of a child be making a woman pregnant. There seems to be an incompatibility between those words.
  2. Medal/ Podium - if someone trains or works hard and has talent and aptitude, he or she may compete in events and win/ obtain/ achieve/ secure a medal. The medal in question could be gold, silver or bronze, in which case the contestant may win/ obtain/ achieve/ secure a place on the podium in first, second or third place. The person does not 'medal' or 'podium', whatever the commentators and newsreaders may say.
  3. Top Score/ Red Card - another commentating misdemeanour found in many sports is the usage of 'top score' as a verb, when someone has actually scored the most points. This offence is usually committed in basketball, which is American, so what would you expect? It is worse when one hears it from cricket commentators who should know better. When a player is shown a red card in football, we used to hear that they had been sent off; nowadays they are more likely to be said to have been red carded, which used to be something that happened to wool. 
  4. Friend/ Unfriend - I admit this is an interesting one as it has come about as a reaction to a specific technological development. When one sends a friend request on Facebook and is accepted, one is said to have been friended. "I'll friend you on Facebook," say young people when they are seeking cyber social interaction. After a while someone makes a snap judgement which offends the sensibilities of someone else and rather than having a rational discussion which could possibly inform and educate both parties, one 'unfriends' the other by blocking their future banal posts. Friendship is no longer a relationship to be nurtured and grown through good times and bad; it has become something which happens at the touch of a button.
  5. Action - Employing the worst of business-speak, some people say they are going to 'action an item', when they mean they are going to do a thing. I presume this is because an agenda will have items that result in action points as people take on tasks. Once again, there are many words that could be used to inform others of the intention to execute/ carry out/ accomplish/ implement/ enact/ engineer/ administer/ put into practice/ perform or simply 'do'. It seems that business types don't like to use a simple word where a trendy or convoluted one will do. They think it makes them sound more important and intelligent. They should know that the exact opposite is true.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Frozen: Let It Go

Ice by Louis Nowra

(Allen & Unwin) Pp. 322

In the 1880s British entrepreneurs Malcolm McEachern and Andrew McIlwraith tow an iceberg to Sydney and introduce locals to ice. It goes down a treat, but as the iceberg melts, the frozen body of a young sailor is found within it. Malcolm is lost in grief for the death of his wife, Ann, and he attempts to preserve her memory. A parallel story is narrated by a young man who takes over his partner’s research work (she was writing a biography of Malcolm McEachern) after she is frozen in a coma. Images and metaphors of arresting time resound throughout the novel.

Early Sydney comes alive through the impressions of the young men as they first arrive. It is a character in itself, defying description and confounding assumptions; full of possibilities as people flee the Old World and try to reinvent themselves in a land of opportunities. Malcolm is always chasing the latest business venture: he brings refrigerated meat from Australia to London, electricity to Melbourne and order to the Tokyo electric tram system. He is attracted to what he calls Australia’s “dirty prism of classless democratic optimism” which allowed him to succeed in business.

Malcolm is clearly a man’s man, dismissing women as inferior and the representation of women within the novel is astoundingly weak. Malcolm’s mother remarries and excludes him from her life, and his second wife, Mary, is unkindly portrayed as some sort of harpy, despite the fact that his treatment of her is appalling. He mourns his first wife, Ann, building her a mausoleum – a weird subterranean world of bottled embryos – and Mary disappears into the background to lead a separate life.

The telling of Malcolm’s story is full of things that biographers could not have known but must have imagined; as the tale proceeds the narrator becomes increasingly unreliable. Ann dies, which is convenient, because live women are so messy, and Malcolm is distraught, but is the narrator talking about himself or about Malcolm? “Until he’d married her he had been unloved and she had awoken love in him, as surely as if it were a delicious, sweet emerging from melting ice. She had given him a purpose, a sense that he was human and loving, but a callous God had snatched her away from him, scooped his insides out and rendered him hollow.”

The references to being frozen in form and time are both literal and metaphoric as the lines between subject and biographer blur. The frigid purity of ice is contrasted with the warm sensuality of the body. Malcolm makes a wax effigy of Ann and keeps it in his catacombs where he builds a room for her and visits her for necrophiliac purposes. “It was as if she was frozen, like the perfectly preserved American sailor excavated from the iceberg.” The similarities with the drug – “the drug that ruined your life and mine” – are not accidental.

Malcolm’s time is one of great change and discovery and he himself is a man of science and technology. The scientific developments of the age – X-rays; atoms; telephones; electricity – become confused with spiritualism and mesmerism because “The boundaries between the possible and impossible were quickly narrowing at an astonishing pace.” Mary believes that, “Scientists belong in the darkness of their laboratories, not in the bright light of society.” Darkness and secrecy, however, lead to obsession and madness, which will always be revealed when exposed to the light.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Friday Five: Verbs that are not nouns

You are invited
I know that language changes and develops and is not set in stone. I studied linguistics and etymology and I agree that language is a metaphorical rich tapestry. I love the smorgasbord of our polyglot vocabulary based on an olio of portmanteau words and phrases. I do, however, desperately dislike the way many otherwise intelligent people use words out of their correct context when there are plenty of available words they could use instead if they weren't so lazy or slavishly devoted to the current fashion of worshiping youthful inexperience and ignorance. 

I realise that as long as one can make sense of what is being said, then the aim of communication has been achieved, and that this is perfectly acceptable for someone who does not speak English as their primary language, or is a child. My point is simply: if you are fortunate enough to know how to speak properly, you should do it. Some basic abuses of the English language that will always make me judge the perpetrators are the attempt to use nouns as verbs (more of which later) and vice versa.

5 Verbs that are not nouns:
  1. Invite - One invites someone to attend an event; if one is lucky, one receives an invitation to attend. I really don't understand why this is difficult to comprehend.
  2. Intercept - Sporting commentators are not exactly esteemed as oracles of oratory, but they are generally responsible for this breach of grammar. When a player latches onto a pass meant for another player in football, rugby, hockey or netball, it is an interception, not 'an intercept'.
  3. Build/ Rebuild - I blame Reality TV for many things as it happens, but one is the proliferation of using words out of context because the perfectly adequate word that already exists is somehow simply not cool enough. For example, when renovating or reconstructing a house, presenters and 'contestants' often refer to 'the build' or 'the rebuild' as they pull down walls and rip up floorboards.
  4. Eat - I really hate this one. When people ask where they can go to get 'some eats', it takes a huge amount of restraint to refrain form telling them exactly where they can go with their 'fake language'. Do they mean meal? Do they mean food? It's almost as bad (but not quite) as adults referring to a delicious treat as 'tasty noms'. This puerile expression comes from Sesame Street's Cookie Monster. Yes, the character was cute and everything - when you were a child. Even on a programme which featured brightly coloured puppets trying to cope with the simple mechanics of life, he wasn't exactly the brightest crayon in the box. So why would any adult wish to imitate the sound he made when stuffing his face? It's not cute or endearing; it's pathetic and irritating. Stop it. 
  5. Disconnect - Whenever anyone says something along the lines of 'there is a disconnect between parties', I assume they went to business school but didn't manage to graduate, and I automatically discount their opinion. Yes, I know they may have something interesting and worthwhile to say, but as there is a disconnection/ discrepancy/ divergence/ division/ dichotomy/ detachment/ breach between their thoughts and their words, I can't be bothered to listen.
A furry blue muppet with the speech ability of a three year old.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

La La Land: a note to follow So-So Land

It starts with a traffic jam: suddenly someone gets out of their car and starts singing and everyone else joins in and dances through the stationary cars to music which is being played by the token illegal immigrants hidden in the back of a lorry. Then they all get back in their cars and the blockage mysteriously clears and they all drive off except ditzy Emma Stone who is looking at a map to tell her how the hell to get out of this mess before it's all too late. The bloke in the car behind her (Ryan Gosling) blares his horn and overtakes her in a disgruntled manner which is highly understandable being as he's had to sit through a West Coast version of Fame for the last ten minutes.

Emma Stone goes to a coffee shop in a film studio where she works, and stars swan in and out and people spill coffee on her. She goes to auditions where people are rude to her, and when she doesn't get the part it is the end of the world. She lives with three other models in primary-coloured dresses who go to parties, but she feels out of place there because it's oh-so-hard to be beautiful and misunderstood. They dance around like The Wiggles or The Spice Girls Minus One (Probably Mel C; the one with the talent) - 26 seems a bit old to still be going through this adolescent angst, but she does it with a very pretty pout.

The Bland Girls
After ten tedious minutes of her story, we return to the traffic jam (we really are getting nowhere fast) and take it up from the point of view of the hornblower (Ryan). He talks to his sister in a scene in his flat which is meant to indicate how poor he is because there is a stain on the wall and he's got no furniture. They swap lines like 'Unpaid bills are not romantic' and 'I want to be on the ropes. I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired and then I'm going to hit back', but don't worry about getting to know the sister because once she has set up the exposition, she disappears never to be seen again.

Ryan Gosling gets fired from his job as a pianist in a restaurant for blatantly disobeying his boss's directions to only play the set-list. He is so upset that he rudely barges past Emma Stone who was coming to tell him how much she had enjoyed his playing. Time passes (we know because the titles helpfully tell us that we have moved through the seasons) and Emma Stone indulges in more bad auditions and pool parties - poor love.

Play something we know!
She meets Ryan again at a party where he is playing keyboards in an 80's tribute band. To get her own back for his previous rudeness, she requests the band play 'I Ran', which he later tells her is an insult to a serious musician (36 is definitely too old to be having adolescent pretensions). He should be so lucky; it's the best piece of music in the whole film. As they walk back to their cars they have a 'moment', which provides the opportunity for the typical teen I-Hate-You-But-I-Love-You routine. Cue for a song about a Waste of a Lovely Night, which has some decent lyrics and choreography, like something out of a Doris Day film, but only if you couldn't care less about Doris, and she couldn't sing or dance.

Ryan then pops to the coffee shop where Emma works (drawn, one supposes by her looks, because there is nothing attractive or even apparent about her personality) and she tells him how much she loves it there and dreams of being an actor. He reciprocates by explaining that he dreams of being a musician and having his own club. Things look up briefly when she says she doesn't like jazz, but plummet rapidly when he attempts to justify how great it is and we have to endure some random musical noise.

Although she wants to be an actor she has never seen Rebel Without a Cause, which shocking oversight can only be explained by her utter self-absorption. Ryan, who is slightly more aware that there may be other players in the entertainment field, says he'll take her to the pictures 'for research' and then walks along a pier into a beautiful sunset, singing a merry song and nicking an old bloke's hat.

Where did you get that hat?
Next day Emma gets a callback which is supposedly brutal (but actually realistic) and looks forward to going out with Ryan until her boyfriend turns up and takes her out to a meal about which she had forgotten - both the meal and the boyfriend it seems. You needn't get attached to him either because, after hearing some piano music that reminds her of Ryan, Emma ditches the dinner and the boyfriend, and runs to the cinema. She selfishly stands in front of the projected image at the front of the screen (thus blocking the view of all the other patrons - but since when did she care about anyone else?). Just as Emma and Ryan are about to snog in the cinema, the projector burns through the screen and she still never gets to see how to make a decent film.

Serious code violation
Instead, the couple continue their date at Griffith Observatory where the fight scene from Rebel Without a Cause was filmed (see how multi-layered this thing is?). Apparently it is a gravity-free zone and they are soon floating around among the stars like a cross between E.T. and Mary Poppins, and they finally get to kiss. This is clearly inspirational as Emma Stone then writes a play (as you do) and her model chums pop up for one more scene to be told that it is a one-woman play and they are soon to be left on the cutting-room floor.

ET meets Mary Poppins

More seasons pass (we are helpfully told by the addition of inter-titles, such as are used in silent films - if only...) and there is a montage of Emma and Ryan visiting things, going to parties, laughing youthfully, riding cable cars and walking had-in-hand. He plays pianos in bars while she dances unselfconsciously in the middle of the pub. They are in love. And, presumably, living together.

Look at me, everybody!
Some bloke in a tight yellow polo-neck offers Ryan a job but he says he'll Never Work With Him. In the next scene Ryan Works With Polo-Neck Bloke and takes the gig (partly because Emma has pointed out that he might actually earn some money). The band they play for lays dub and techno over trad jazz - which is apparently what the young people want, because no one is interested in old jazz anymore and all the innovators are dead. Emma goes to see the band, but they are popular, which disappoints her and she looks like someone has strangled a puppy because success is so vulgar. He goes on tour with this band and is highly successful and makes lots of money but is Away A Lot and doesn't call every day.

Meanwhile Emma quits her day job (despite all the obvious advice) at the cafe by symbolically handing in her apron, and she becomes a writer, by shaking hands with people and scattering pieces of paper all over the floor - it really is that easy it seems! Once more we move through the seasons until we hit Fall, which is a METAPHOR!

Ryan comes home for a surprise visit and cooks a giant chicken or a fatted calf or some enormous hunk o' meat. He tells her he is going to stay in the band for a few more years and keep touring and making money. They fight because this may be The Dream but it is not His Dream and he has sold his soul to the Electrical Keyboard Devil. Then Ryan sets the kitchen on fire and the smoke alarm takes over the high-pitched whining, and Emma runs away (her penchant for escaping mid-meal is clearly the latest in Hollywood dieting chic).

Emma books a theatre to perform her play, which only about half a dozen people attend, which isn't surprising as Ryan has told her to 'write something as interesting as you are.' The performance clashed with a photo shoot for his band so Ryan didn't make it, which is a deal breaker and she goes home to Middle of Nowhere Land to give up on her dreams. But, a casting director was at her play and really liked it and phones Ryan to ask Emma to audition for a thing in Paris. He goes to find her (by parking in suburban streets and blaring his horn) and passes on the message - she has a needy, whiny 'I'm not good enough' moment, but he is all supportive and they drive back to Hollywood to Make It Happen.

Self referential audition 'song' about how hard it is to be an actor
At the audition she is asked to tell a story and, displaying a gross ineptitude at following directions, she sings a song instead - perhaps the film has suddenly remembered it is meant to be a musical? Of course she gets the part because this is all unbelievable nonsense. Fast forward five years and she is a big star, married to Someone Else, and buying her coffee from the cafe where she used to work.

Emma and Someone Else go out to dinner and stumble into a basement bar which would you Adam and Eve it, of all the jazz joints, in all the towns, of all the world... Ryan is also living his dream and their eyes meet and there is a dance number montage of how life could have been if they had stayed together. If only the whole film had been like this without the tedious bits in the middle, it would have been quite good.  But it wasn't. And it isn't. The End.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Friday Five: Five (More) Theatre Outings

I have been on more theatrical excursions of late, so here is a brief summary of some of the shows I have seen:
Dracula by shake & stir theatre co
  1. Hamlet at The Phoenix - advertised as 'A staged reading of an edited Hamlet by William Shakespeare', this is Cameron Thomas and a group of his mates reading sections of an extremely abridged Hamlet in a pub. As one would expect, there are drinks between acts, which means things get a little loose towards the end, but as the audience do too and pretty much everyone dies anyway (you can't possibly call that a spoiler!), it seems to fit the theme. Some of the actors are much better than others (inasmuch as some of them can actually act), and some sound like they are reading it for the first time - which, they might well be, as rumour has it that someone pulled out on the day of the performance. Live music from Cameron Ewens on keyboard throughout keeps things moving along nicely, and the actors swap characters along with their hats, which provides some humorous moments. There isn't a lot of depth or complexity (Fortinbras and the notion of restoration of order to Denmark is entirely absent) but it is fun and fast and not at all furious.
  2. Dracula produced by shake & stir theatre co. at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre - Shake and Stir once again bring sumptuous production values to the stage. The design and technical elements are faultless with a multipurpose revolving set and truly atmospheric sound and lighting. The adaptation honours the original book, eschewing some of the more schlocky aspects of later incarnations. While the darkness is ever-present, however, the fear and tension is absent, which may be because Old Creepy Dracula (Nick Skubij) seemed to morph into The Terminator, and I kept expecting him to say, "I'll be back."
  3. The Iliad Out Loud & Abridged at The Street - Three people (William Zappa; Nick Byrne; Chrissie Shaw) read an adapted version (by William Zappa) of Homer's Iliad over the space of nine hours (that's three hours a night). They don't interact with each other or the audience, and harangue us with details of ships and battles, misogynistic Gods and rampant masculinity, while percussionist Gary France hits things in the background. They all have beautiful voices and bring out the poetry of the repetitious language, which was always meant to be spoken aloud rather than read in isolation. There is a strong appeal to school groups and university scholars, of which there are probably many in Canberra, who want to feel worthy. This is theatre for radio; best listened to while doing chores about the house.
  4. The Play That Goes Wrong produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions Pty Ltd at The Canberra Theatre Centre - The fast-paced, critically well-timed production provides a really enjoyable night out. There are laughs a-plenty in the first act, which feels like comedy; fewer in the second, which feels like farce. Strangely enough, I've never enjoyed watching women trying to upstage each other while fighting in their underwear (it's just not funny, although many men seem to think so), but the stage crew logistics were superb, and the risk-assessment necessary is mind-blowing. The acting is all highly-stylised and unsubtle (co-writer Henry Lewis credits The Art of Coarse Acting, Monty Python and Laurel and Hardy, so that's hardly a surprise) and the story (of who murdered whom and why) becomes increasingly irrelevant as theatre tropes come flying from all directions, along with the props and set itself. 
  5. A View from the Bridge produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Director Chris Baldock gives Arthur Miller's classic the 'bigger-than-Ben-Hur' treatment with a set that upstages itself, built from pallets and netting to represent the wharves where Eddie works. It is superbly lit and dominates the action (too much in places, where more intimacy would be welcome) but is awkward at times with actors struggling up and down gangplanks and crashing through flimsy wood in an alarming manner. The young leads are excellent and the relationships between the immigrant Italian bothers Rodolpho (Alexander Chubb) and Marco (Chris Zuber) are compelling and affecting. As Catherine, Karina Hudson is delightfully fresh and conflicted as she struggles to understand her uncle and aunt, and their attitudes to her burgeoning maturity. Less impressive is the central relationship between Eddie (Knox Peden) and Beatrice (Karen Vickery), which is too combative and lacks any hint of the warmth and affection Beatrice claims to miss. Nuances of text and movement are swamped by over-gesticulations, shouting and the chorus of (largely ineffective) actors who remain on stage throughout, patronising the audience's intelligence by miming the action. The production is bold, brave and bombastic, but bigger isn't always better. 
The Play That Goes Wrong by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

I need a hero

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman is an important feminist icon, and this book explores her creation by William Moulton Marston and her subsequent effect on modern culture. Marston used scraps of his own experiences to shape the character he wrote about in comics. While at Harvard he experimented with machines that might tell truth from lies, conducting experiments wherein he hooked people up to a machine which tested their blood pressure while answering questions. In this respect he invented the lie detector, which has a remarkable resemblance to Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.

His personal life was also to colour his invention of the Wonder Woman character. He married Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, a strong feminist, and they had two children together. Meanwhile, Marston also conducted a relationship with Olive Byrne, who lived with Marston and Holloway in a ménage a trois and bore him two children. Their living arrangements were unconventional, but they seemed to work for them all.

Marston believed in the power of love, and he was desperate for a platform from which to spread his views. “Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, that man has. And as they develop as much ability for worldly success as they have already the ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the Nation and the world.”

Marston claimed that his basic idea was for women to be “fighting male dominance, cruelty, savagery and war-making with love control backed by force.” This dominance was represented by chains, which proved one of Marston’s major hurdles, as there were complaints that the excessive bondage in Wonder Woman led to inappropriate behaviour and attracted the ‘wrong sort of audience’.

The comics were most definitely aimed at children. “By 1939, almost every kid in the United States was reading comic books. A form of writing that hadn’t existed just a few years earlier seemed to have taken over the country.” If there is one thing lacking in this book it is the author’s inability to explain the phenomenon whereby comics began to appeal to adults. Marston himself wanted them to be taken seriously by more than just children, and he desperately wanted academic acclaim.

Wonder Woman was also accused of racism, with the villains being German, Japanese or Mexican, speaking in dialect and with hook-noses. But what all villains in Wonder Woman share is their opposition to woman’s equality. Wonder Woman fights Nazis and boys bullying girls at school; she makes sure that milk is safe to drink for American children; she battles the unscrupulous textile industry to install equal and fair wages for women workers; she tackles jealous and controlling husbands who chain their wives to the sink and will not let them go to work or even leave the house. Gloria Steinem reflects, “Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the 40s, I am amazed by the strength of the feminist message.”

The first issue of Wonder Woman contained a four-page centrefold feature called ‘Wonder Women of History’ to “celebrate the lives of heroic women and explain the importance of women’s history”. The scripts featured “scientists, writers, politicians, social workers, doctors, nurses, athletes and adventurers”. Sadly, attitudes which were progressive in the 1920 became quite reactionary in the 1950s. The Wonder Woman of History pull-out was replaced with a series about weddings called ‘Marriage a la Mode’.

Like everything else, Wonder Woman changed in the 1950s to reflect the prevalent attitudes. Although Wonder Woman was created by Marston, drawn by Harry G Peter, edited by Sheldon Mayer, and published by Charlie Gaines, she was owned by Sensation and latterly DC Comics. Gardner Fox also wrote Wonder Woman stories, and he had a very different perspective on a Woman’s Place. Thus, while in 1942 Wonder Woman joined ‘The Justice Society of America’ (by popular vote from readers of Sensation Comics) and was the only female in the society, she was relegated to making tea and taking minutes under Fox.

Wonder Woman’s character was revised in the American TV show of the 1970s, but she had lost much of her socio-political heft.  As the women’s movement floundered in the late 1970s and 1980s, and splintered into factions from which it still suffers, Wonder Woman suffered right along with it. She was a woman of her time, and maybe the time is right for a revival.