Saturday, 29 December 2012

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

I watched the first episode of the television series 'When We Left Earth' recently, which deals with the early years of space exploration. The show features a lot of grainy super-8 footage of astronauts from the early 1960s. I had seen a lot of this footage before, but it struck me as odd watching it as an older person. The sixties now don't seem as long-ago as they did when I was a kid.

My first thought was that the film stock used at the time had aged in a way that looks identical to some sort of nostalgic filter you might find on a photo application such as Instagram. It also struck me as unfair that these sort of filters seem to imbibe every digital photo with the same weight of historical significance as this footage from the early years of space exploration. In my mind the footage from the sixties has earned its right to be washed-out, grainy and scratched, whereas modern photos taken on digital cameras automatically look cherished even when taken on a whim. Older analogue photos were lovingly stored, catalogued and passed-around during important family get-togethers. Only the important ones survived! I predict most photos these days will not last beyond a simple hard-drive crash, and most of them will not be missed anyway.

Even though the footage from 'When We Left Earth' has been ironically re-framed as appearing 'modern', there are, of course, cultural indicators that show this footage was from the 1960s and not the 21st century. The most obvious and striking indicators are the types of cars and fashion on display, but I found myself laughing out loud when the narrator announced the seven astronauts that were to be part of the Mercury missions were 'the finest physical specimens available.' A shot of the group of men showed what looked, by modern standards, to be a bunch of middle-aged men with pants just a little bit too high, receding hairlines and possibly a diet too high in red-meat, resulting in high blood pressure. To top it all off, a couple of them were smoking!

Of course these men were probably super-fit and the ideal candidates for the job - it's just they were old-school heroes where the definition of manhood was different and people were not as concerned with outward appearance as much as achieving results. It's a shame that people seem less concerned with results these days.

In light of the recent retirement of the Endeavour space shuttle and its installation as a tourist attraction in LA, it was saddening to watch the early footage of the Mercury missions where concerned Americans of all ages watched the giant rockets take off. People reacted like they were at a rock concert and you could visibly see the excitement on people's faces as the massive rockets lifted off into the atmosphere. It is a sobering contrast to hear reports of people crying as a dusty Endeavour space shuttle slowly wound its way through the streets of LA at five miles-per-hour towards its final resting place at The California Science Centre.

Of course, a lot of Americans would have seen the death of the space-shuttle program as an allegory for the state of modern America following a global financial crisis, a seemingly un-winnable war in Iraq and a more insular country than the one that looked forward to the future and had a thirst for discovery in the 1960s. NASA would probably disagree with this summation. They claim that the space shuttle program was retired so that they can focus their resources on Mars, but surely space exploration must not be the main priority of the American Government at the moment?

The key to getting more funding for NASA, I believe, involves engaging the public with the space program again. I love documentaries on space exploration, but modern CGI-enhanced depictions of missions to Mars don't inspire me in the same way as the gritty seat-of-your-pants images from the Apollo and Mercury missions. Also, as a child, there seemed to be something real and visceral about the images of Jupiter taken from Voyager, because you knew they were not computer-ehanced and involved the simplicity of light passing through a lens. Nowadays the public seem to be numbed to fantastical space imagery that could just as easily be rendered in a computer game or Hollywood blockbuster.

Maybe this is why images that are obviously not computer-enhanced and border on the mundane seem to resonate with me. My favourite shot from a space mission ever was taken in 1975 by the Russian spacecraft Venera 9 as it landed on the surface of Venus. It managed simply to get a picture of the ground it landed on before the camera was crushed by the weight of the atmosphere. It's a pretty boring shot, I suppose, but as long as you are aware it's taken on another planet, then the possibility of what lurks beyond the borders of the shot makes it quite magical in my opinion.

The story behind the photo also enhances its value. I admire the risk-taking and the man-power involved in this possibly futile mission all to get this one not particularly remarkable shot. To me this is what makes space exploration interesting, the high risk in overcoming almost impossible odds to achieve a simple goal. Watching some poindexter sweating over a slide rule in the late sixties calculating a descent velocity is far more engaging and indicative of the inherent risks of space travel than any CGI depiction of a martian landscape.

Ultimately, I think to really sell the space program to the public again, NASA will have to raise the stakes and send a person to Mars. Maybe people are just sick of looking at pictures altogether. No image could possibly engage the public as much as having a person step onto the surface of Mars and being speechless.


Friday, 21 December 2012

The Christmas Tree

'Silent Night', Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'The Star Wars Christmas Special', 'Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence' and 'Gremlins' - All great works of Christmas entertainment that will surely live on throughout the ages. Many artists have dreamed of becoming part of this popular canon and joining the ranks of the immortals, but only the rarest of talents manages to produce a work on par with these greats. One author who dared and succeeded beyond anyone's imagination was an eight year-old boy genius named Trevor Ludlow.

Already an accomplished and published author in the fields of science fiction (The Beginning of Life on the Moon) and Travel Writing (The Tin City), Trevor turned his attention to the difficult task of creating an evocative and lyrical Christmas story that would have a traditional narrative, but still appeal to modern audiences. The result was the sublime and elegant 'The Christmas Tree'.

The recently-unearthed manuscript is available to you, dear reader, for the first time, so that you can see that Trevor's talent emerged fully-formed. His confidence in the material was so strong that he actually typed the one-and-only copy without even outlining his ideas before writing. It is worth noting too, that Trevor's typing skills, punctuation and grammar are all startlingly evolved and already at the stage that has served him so well in his later career endeavours.

Without wishing to over-simplify a story that I believe can be enjoyed on many levels, I think it's worth noting the absence of a Santa-Claus character in the story, but still a hint of the supernatural in the way the tree magically appears. This is a clever device on Trevor's part to be inclusive of other religions and not just Christians. It is a plea for tolerance and acceptance of differences. The tree appears through supernatural means, but who, or what made it appear?

I also think it's incredibly poignant that the hero of the piece, a mouse called 'Norman' is thrilled to receive a piece of cheese for Christmas. To me, it is much more touching for someone to be thrilled about receiving something that they need, rather than being disappointed in something they thought they wanted. 

Please consider what is important to you, dear reader, whilst enjoying this magical tale:

The Christmas Tree

Once upon a time there lived a tiny mouse called Norman.

He lived at the edge of the forest in a small house which he made with his own hands.

It was small but he liked it very much.

One day as he was enjoying his bacon and eggs, he heard a great thud and he nearly choked from the shock.

He even got a bigger shock when he saw a tiny Christmas tree on his door-step not even marked.

'That's odd,' he said to himself.

'I've heard of falling stars before, but I've never heard of falling Christmas Trees.'

'I wonder where it came from,' he muttered.

He went inside to finish his breakfast.

'I wonder what I'll do today,' he said 'I know, I'll go and scare the socks off the farmer's wife.'

He finished his breakfast and was off - except for one little thing - the Christmas tree, of course!

He would have to move it to some other suitable place.

It turned out to be harder than he expected, for no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't move it.

He tugged and pulled at it but it didn't move.

He waited for ten minutes and then tried again without success.

It was night when he finally gave up.

He went upstairs muttering.

He quickly went to bed hoping it wouldn't be there in the morning.

When morning came, the Christmas tree was inside and under it was a big block of cheese.

He was so happy he burst out in a funny little rhyme:

I've heard of raining cats and dogs
I've heard of people rolling logs
There's a thing called a falling star
But I've never heard of this bizarre
These words I say today
I mean it truly in every way
To all a Merry Christmas and to all a good night!

To all a Merry Christmas and to all a good night!

Love from

Trev's Treehouse

Friday, 14 December 2012

Hello You!

I'm returning to Queensland this weekend to spend time with family and friends over Christmas and New Year's. While it'll be great to catch up with people I haven't seen for ages, there is also a lingering feeling of trepidation. I'm worried about running into people in social situations that I haven't seen in years and trying to remember their names.

I know not remembering names is a common enough affliction for the socially awkward, but for me I think it goes further than just an inconvenience, because often I can't remember the names of people I've known all my life.

I don't think there's anything wrong with my memory and the information is stored correctly in my brain, it's just the retrieval can often be difficult when the wave of panic about the awkwardness of forgetting short-circuits my memory-banks, leaving the information unavailable when it's required. My fear of forgetting a name becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The way I usually get around this is to not use anyone's name when I speak to them and hope that I'm never in a position to have to introduce someone to a third party that might come along. People must often think I'm trying to be deliberately aloof, when really under the carefully controlled exterior I'm just a big goofy puppy dog that just wants to lick their faces. My fear of social embarrassment luckily  prevents me from acting on this impulse.

In almost every circumstance, panic can be over-ridden by someone confirming the name of the person I'm talking to. Once I'm reassured about the person's identity, I can feel free to use the name at my leisure. This method has even worked in situations where my sister has thankfully confirmed that the kindly woman I've been speaking to for half an hour is, in fact, 'Mum'.

I don't think I'm alone in forgetting someone's name straight after being introduced to them. In my case, this happens because my brain tends to leap ahead and try and find something witty to say to keep the conversation going after the introduction. This sometimes results in not hearing vital name-information when it's offered. As to why I continue to feel a social phobia concerning names years after this introduction phase, I can only trace it back to a social trauma I suffered once when I was a child.

* * * * *

When I was about eight years old, I went to hospital to have my tonsils out. I was only in for a couple of days, but before going to surgery I had to wear one of those green surgery gowns, where, if you aren't wearing anything underneath, leaves your bum exposed to the world. I wondered why it was necessary to wear one of these whilst undergoing throat surgery, but luckily I didn't ask too many questions in those days.

I was talking to one of the nurses about half an hour before the operation. She was being very sweet and trying to reassure me that nothing would go wrong. Half way through our conversation she referred to me in a manner which made it clear that she thought I was a girl. I was puzzled, but soon realised that these hospital gowns pretty-much made everyone gender-neutral.

I was horrified! I felt embarrassed for myself, but even more-so for her. I decided in that instant to not divulge the truth, for fear of the awkwardness that would then exist between us. After all, she was just trying to be nice! In hindsight, I count myself lucky that she wasn't a theatre nurse and I wasn't having genital surgery... That would be a shocking way to discover the truth about my gender!

You might think this is a long bow to draw when it comes to a social phobia still existing some thirty years later, but I disagree. What if it turned out that I lived next to that nurse and had to see her every day? My entrenched desire to not-offend would probably result in pretending I was female every time I saw her for the rest of my life.

I never want anyone else to have to be put in this position. I never want to get anyone's name wrong so that they have to pretend their name is 'Barry' every time they see me when their real name is actually 'Greg'.

This is why nobody, under any circumstances, should ever try and congratulate someone for being pregnant unless they are 100 per cent sure... even then, don't take the risk!

So if you see me walking the streets of Brisbane in the next couple of weeks, feel free to say hello. You may find it  hard to believe that the air of smugness and superiority is simply a veneer to protect an androgynous boy in a hospital gown, or a puppy-dog that wants to lick your face, but please be aware of one thing:

I'm definitely a boy dog! 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Spoiler Alert!

I don't get to claim intellectual superiority very often, but there's a movie out in cinemas at the moment for which I have read the book before seeing the movie. Unfortunately, after having read the book, I don't think I'll bother with the film, even though the trailer makes the film look breathtakingly beautiful.

The movie in question is 'Life of Pi'. It's directed by Academy Award winner Ang Lee. I consider myself a champion of his work - even his less popular films. I liked his version of 'The Hulk'. I found 'Life of Pi' to be a relatively good little adventure story, but the thing that ruined the book for me was the way it was framed. I won't give the ending away, but there is a cheap twist you would expect from M. Night Shyamalan (who I believe wanted to direct this film at some point), which is dressed up as some sort of deep spiritual revelation.

I think the ending would only be a revelation to people who think 'Noah's Ark' and a bunch of other bible stories actually happened. The rest of the audience will be going 'well, derrr!'

I'm interested to see if this will be the case, because this aspect of the plot is not alluded to in the film's trailers and for all accounts they'll probably think the movie is a high seas adventure about a boy and his tiger. I suppose, for the most part, that's what it is.

It's a delicate balance in a trailer between getting the audience's interest and giving away too much. Personally, I try and find out as much as I can about a film I'm interested in before seeing it and will go so far as to even read the script if it's leaked online. I don't think a movie can be ruined by giving away a single plot point, and if it can, then it's probably not the sort of film I'd like to see.

Admittedly, it's a good feeling to discover a secret along with an audience, but this rarely happens in the internet age. I remember being genuinely surprised in cinemas during the film 'From Dusk 'til Dawn', which I saw because it was produced by Quentin Tarantino. I thought it would be a good little gangster flick - which it was - but when Selma Hayek turned into a vampire half way through the film (switching the film's genre in a split second), the collective laugh and groan from the audience was worth the ticket price alone.

This is a good surprise rather than a bad surprise. When I think back to all the movie trailers I've seen over the years, it occurs to me that warning signs can often be found in trailers indicating that the film won't be that good.

The most obvious example I can think of is the Robin Williams film 'Toys'. The trailer features Williams in a field ad-libbing about the film without ever saying what it's about, or showing any footage from the film. His biggest selling point is that 'it's by the guy who made Rain Man'. If you've ever seen the movie, you'll know that it's a pretty joyless film that bizarrely seems to deal with the consequences of excessive military build up and completely ignores the joy and whimsy of childhood. Under no circumstances should you mistake this film for Toy Story!

The trailer for the movie version of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' has one really odd shot that I'm almost certain was not in the film. Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) explains to Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) that he and Ford Prefect share two of the same mothers. At this point Freeman breaks the fourth wall and stares directly at the audience as if to say 'can you believe these guys?' It's ramming home the punchline of a not particularly funny joke. The real appeal of the jokes in the Hitchhiker's books was the language and riffing on the absurdity of the universe through some high concept jokes. This trailer made it look like the jokes had been dumbed down for a mass audience. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the case.

The problem with making movies at the moment is it's really hard to make money when people don't go to cinemas and everybody is pirating movies. This means films have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, which means that almost nobody is truly satisfied with the end results. I'm sure there would be a better quality of films out there if audiences simply came to the same revelation that I did a while ago and realised that you don't have to 'get' everything. I have almost no idea what most of my favourite films are about. There are obviously some points that I can grasp, but I prefer a puzzle I can ponder, rather than be handed everything in a self-congratulatory manner. Also, it's comforting to know that there are people out there who are smarter than me - or at the very least craftier.

Last year Terrence Malick released the film 'Tree of Life' starring Brad Pitt. I believe the trailer was fairly accurate in depicting the tone of the film, but that didn't stop audiences in the US complaining that they didn't understand the film and wanted their money back. This lead many cinemas to advertise that the film had a 'non-linear narrative'. I would argue that audiences dumb enough to go see a Terrence Malick film expecting to see Pitt's rock-hard abs and gunplay instead of whispered internal monologues and sweeping vistas of nature, probably wouldn't know what a 'non-linear narrative' is.

It is comforting to know that some films can be rather high concept and still satisfy audiences. Even though it's not a perfect film, I really thought 'Inception' did the rarest of things by combining action with an intelligent story and excellent practical special effects. The best part about it, though, was it was a story that could not be spoiled by any foreknowledge of the film at all. Even if you knew everything about the film going into it, you'd still be in the same boat as everyone else at the end when the whole plot is distilled down to a single spinning top which would indicate if the movie was a dream or reality by its actions. When I saw the film at the cinema I felt the same way as I did at the 'From Dusk 'til Dawn' screening all those years ago. The audience emitted a collective groan when the film cut to black leaving the question forever unanswered.

It's great to know that other people feel the same way as me:

'I Love a Mystery!'


Monday, 3 December 2012

Jeffrey Smart

I'm not the type of person that normally watches a show like 'Artscape', but last week I noticed they had a profile of one of my favourite artists - Jeffrey Smart. The documentary was aptly titled 'Master of Stillness'. It occurred to me that Smart is the rarest of beasts - an almost universally-appreciated artist who is actually great.

I was perhaps dismissive of the documentary initially, as it seemed to be aimed at the layman and only a promotion for Smart's new exhibition at Adelaide's Samstag Museum. After they announced Jeffrey Smart had retired, I got down off my high-horse. I was not aware of this fact.

I suppose this shouldn't be surprising as the guy is 81, but there must be some painter equivalent of 'dying on stage', like some spotlight-starved popular entertainer. I suppose fine-artists know when their physical abilities might be waning. His paintings to me seem like something that have-always and will-always exist.

I suppose I first became aware of Jeffrey Smart when I was a kid, through a painting that was on the cover of a collection of short stories by Peter Carey that my dad bought called 'The Fat Man in History'.

The actual painting used was called 'Cahill Expressway'. I don't think I ever read the book, but the cover photo always impressed me. It's an earlier work by Smart from a period when he lived in Sydney. Whilst it features an almost geometric arrangement of objects and a sense of space which he has become synonymous with, the colours seem a little more muted in a Post World War II style, as opposed to the vibrantly colourful work he would become known for later when he moved to Tuscany.

If there is any link between different types of art that I like, it's usually simplicity, playfulness and a sense of humour. The inclusion of an 'Alfred Hitchcock' character in 'Cahill Expressway' is something that drew me to the work initially, even though figures are usually dwarfed by the landscape in most Jeffrey Smart paintings.

Probably one of Smart's funniest paintings (and therefore one of my favourites) is 'A Portrait of Clive James' which takes this idea of a figure being dwarfed by the landscape to the extreme.

In 'Master of Stillness' Clive James says he is featured almost imperceptibly in the background because Smart found him 'too ugly' and his features 'too uneven' for him to be good subject matter. Smart (perhaps tactfully) denies this. To be fair, people are almost never the primary focus of Smart's work.

It is interesting that Smart is considered one of the foremost Australian artists, when he has lived in Italy since the early 1960s. Looking at a lot of his work, it never occurs to me that they are of Italian landscapes, because a lot of the iconography is universal. This is because Smart's landscapes avoid the cliches of the countryside and instead focus on modern architecture, which could be from any major city in the world in the late 20th century. I think if there is anything specifically Australian about his work in Italy, it is probably the sense of space.

What Smart seemed to appreciate was that there could be beauty in anything and any image that moves your soul can be broken down into a series of shapes. David Byrne pointed out in the film 'True Stories' that 'highways are the cathedrals of our time'. I agree with this sentiment! Maybe it's because I live in an urban environment, but buildings speak to me more than trees. I have no real reference point for appreciating a forest, so to me it makes sense to find beauty in your surroundings. I am constantly amazed when people ring up radio stations and complain about wind farms. I think they're quite beautiful and give an interesting contrast to the natural environment. They are undeniably more breathtaking than a coal-fire power station, but, to me, even toxic smoke billowing into the atmosphere can have its own sad beauty.

One of Smart's final official works was called 'Labyrinth'. When I first saw it, I have to admit to not being particularly impressed. To me, the image almost seemed to verge on cliche. After careful consideration, though, I realised that it isn't easy to sum up a career in one painting and this one is probably as good as any. The sole figure (presumably supposed to represent Smart) is trapped in quiet contemplation amid his own trademark 'stillness', forever trying to solve the maze. The 'Master of Stillness' documentary suggests that it references Smart's own childhood in Adelaide, where he first encountered the urban environment in the backstreets and alleyways of the suburb in which he lived. When I consider this, it evokes an image from my own childhood.

I remember playing in the backyard by myself when I was about  six or seven years old, jumping off the steps to see how high I could go without physically hurting myself. It occurred to me whilst doing this that I, solely, was in charge of my actions. It seemed like an amazing revelation at the time, that, in this moment, I could decide to to follow an almost infinite number of possibilities. I could keep jumping off the steps until I broke my leg, pull faces at the neighbour's dog, yell at the top of my lungs, or even go and help my mother make dinner (this never happened). I suppose I had become aware of 'the present'.

This odd sense of wonder about the silliness and scariness of being in control of your own destiny certainly has waned throughout the years and it has become harder to find the time for quiet contemplation and stillness.

In this respect, I have to be thankful for Jeffrey Smart and his paintings, because they remind me that this place still exists.