Saturday, 20 July 2013

Hanging Rock

I went on a little birthday trip to the country last weekend. My sister came down from Brisbane and I thought it would be nice for us to breathe the country air and enjoy the wide open spaces instead of listening to drunk people swearing on public transport.

My initial plan was to head to a town called Daylesford, which is about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Melbourne. I was secretly looking forward to lauding my inner-city superiority and refined sensibilities over the simple townsfolk, but I was disappointed to find a neat little village with a pleasant main street that looked like it was out of a storybook. I was also shocked to find it full of sophisticated, urbane townspeople and well-behaved children.

We had a great meal at 'The Daylesford Hotel' that was better than the average pub-fare and afterwards checked out the shops on the main street. A visit to the large antique store called 'Brick Lane' unfortunately triggered the until-now dormant 'consumerism' gene in my five year-old daughter Clementine and she became obsessed with the idea of visiting 'K-Mart' to buy some figurines. This was simply not going to happen due to the sheer impracticality of the suggestion. My wife and I decided the best idea was to get Clementine out of town as fast as possible and distract her with our other plan for the day - A visit to 'Hanging Rock'.

It was about a half-hour trip from Daylesford to Hanging Rock. I was looking forward to a coffee when I got there because I was sleepy after lunch and a nap on the freeway whilst driving seemed like a bad idea. Typically, I didn't know what to expect when we arrived at the rock, because I had done no research for the trip. When I travel I don't like to think about it - I just wanna go!

On the way to Hanging Rock I was starting to have doubts that it was the same famous landmark from the Australian movie 'Picnic at Hanging'. Surely there was more than one Hanging Rock in Australia?

As we approached, however, there was no doubt in my mind it was the right one. Hanging Rock appeared majestically on the horizon like a mini Uluru and was instantly as iconic as a still from the movie.

We had no idea how long it would take to climb. Our plan was to observe from the comfort of the cafe located at the base, but two reasons compelled us to attempt the summit, even though by this time it was getting late in the day. Firstly, you can't see much from the base unless you enjoy pondering trees. Secondly it costs $10 to even enter the park! The Ebeneezer Scrooge in me insisted that I get my money's worth.

A sign thankfully informed us that it would take a mere 50 minutes to reach the top and return. I found this surprising, as the movie suggested that I might get lost for days and return bloody and dishevelled, hallucinating and clinging desperately to life. The thought of this appealed to me, but I doubt the rest of my entourage felt the same.

The walking paths to the summit were incredibly well maintained and there was no hint of any discarded garbage that you would expect from a popular tourist attraction. It seemed like our $10 entry fee was being well invested, but I couldn't help wondering if the walking tracks, cafe, tourist centre and car park were around before the film 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' made the site famous. The novel is a work of fiction, but it's true that the rock has always been a popular spot for visitors. Something about the well-worn tracks and blue arrows pointing the direction seemed to take something away from the 'authenticity' of the experience. I would have preferred to be hacking my way through the bush with a machete, but I doubt the park rangers would have approved.

Every party that attempted the climb seemed to be aware of the movie. People were yelling 'Miranda!' at the top of their lungs - except for one boy at the summit who yelled 'I'm the king of the world'... Wrong movie, kid, but I can see where you're coming from.

I remembered from the visitor centre that Hanging Rock is quite a popular place for bands and events. There was a poster of 'Bruce Springsteen' who had played there a few months earlier. It occurred to me that Bruce seemed like a weird fit for the surroundings. Perhaps 'Miranda', the girl who tragically never returned from that fateful picnic would have found her way down the mountain if she had only followed the sound of 'Born in the USA' blasted out of a 50 thousand watt sound system?

I had considered going to see Leonard Cohen play at Hanging Rock and I think he would have been more appropriate. There is something mythical and spiritual about Leonard's music, which is the feeling that Hanging Rock can inspire if you are willing to look past the consumeristic aspects.

A few simple plaques announced some landmarks on the ascent, including a memorial to a boy who presumably committed suicide. It struck me as an odd place to try to commit suicide, as there aren't any sheer drops. It seemed more likely to me that you could just injure yourself really badly. My sister, who is a nurse, pointed out that it's really easy to kill yourself just by falling down a few steps. This was reassuring as we ascended a rocky staircase below the hanging rock that the site is named after.

At the summit there was an engraving by T. Scott from 1866. I found this impressive and it helped me consider what the surrounding land must have looked like back then. T.Scott certainly would have reached the summit the hard way! If I squinted I could probably make out that the cleared farmland surrounding the rock was once again heavily-wooded forest. If I blocked my ears I could drown out the noise of the distant freeway and imagine a time before cars.

Still, by 1866, the Wurundjeri people, who are the traditional owners of the land, would have been long-since driven out by white settlers. It made me realise the importance the area has had for them for thousands of years. How did they feel about T.Scott desecrating their sacred initiation site? What do they think about the novel 'Picnic at Hanging Rock?'... Do they like Bruce Springsteen?

On the way down I considered the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock. Surely one of the main themes seemed to involve the contrast of the young, innocent, European schoolgirls with vast, unknowable and untameable force of nature? The girls were just a blip in history. The rock will be forever a mysterious sentinel and will still be around long after we're all gone. I felt kind of sad that we tried to tame it with a cafe and visitors centre, but then I realised that one day all those things will be gone as well - but the rock will still be there!

In all of my ponderings on the way to the summit and back, I realised by the time we hit the carpark that the person who had really had the most pure experience was Clementine. She had thoroughly enjoyed herself on a visceral level. She had no cultural, filmic, literary or historical precedents to judge her experience on and still had a wonderful time.

As I went to put Clementine in her car seat, the mystical energy of the rock seemed to dissipate and the modern world seemed to once again reclaim my daughter.

"Can we go to K-Mart now and buy some figurines?" she said.

I felt momentarily disappointed - Then it occurred to me... Maybe K-Mart has a copy of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' on Blu-Ray!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

David Sedaris: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

I've tried many artistic pursuits during my time on this planet - to varying degrees of success. I've tried to write songs, paint pictures - I even tried to direct short films. I think I learned the most about myself and the artistic process through trying to make short films.

It made me realise my strengths: I think I'm good at coming up with concepts and articulating them. It also made me realise my weaknesses: I'm not particularly good at executing these concepts and explaining to others what needs  to be done to help realise my vision.

This is not a good attribute for a director!

My final film project at university was quite a big undertaking. Unfortunately, I went into it trying to micro-manage every aspect of the production, instead of trusting others and explaining what needed to be done. I'm a bit like Kevin Rudd in this respect. Hopefully, now that Mr Rudd is Prime Minister again he's changed his ways - Unfortunately, I don't think I have.

When making a film, it's quite easy to expend a lot of effort on a good idea with the results still ending up lousy. I have experienced this first hand. It made me respect the work ethic and imagination required to make something truly 'good'. Now that I'm older, I think this experience also made me see art differently than most people my age. I should, by now, have hardened into a dismissive, crotchety old grouch - and god knows I can be at times - but I have also become more accepting and encouraging of most people that pursue an artistic path. Unlike the majority of internet trolls, I don't bother commenting on things that don't fall within my realm of interest. It's not for me to say whether 'One Direction' have any artistic merit, as I am not a ten year-old girl. I can accept this!

I've followed David Sedaris for a few years and have always found his work amusing, touching and accomplished. I'm envious of him to a certain degree. He's become part of the cultural zeitgeist through merely articulating his thoughts about his life and the world. After being unable to control a group of half-drunk university students to make a film, a solo artistic pursuit which still manages to resonate with people sounds greatly appealing to me.

I am by no means a Sedaris completist. I've read 'The Santaland Diaries', 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames', 'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk' and have an audio-book of 'Naked'. I've enjoyed all of these. I'd love to see Sedaris do a live reading one day, because I think the gleeful campness of his delivery in 'Naked' really puts my own internal monologue to shame when I'm reading his novels.  'Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk' is perhaps a silly diversion, but elements of it turn up in his new book 'Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls.' In 'Owls', Sedaris' usual self-reflective essays are interspersed with stories in which he adopts a character. Aside from these amusing diversion, though, the rest of the book is classic Sedaris.

The book get's a respectable four stars out of five on Amazon, but I found it interesting reading some of the comments - particularly the negative ones. It feels like a lot of readers aren't willing to accept that Sedaris as a writer can develop. Certainly, his earlier work created a lot of interest because of his unique world view as an obsessive-compulsive gay man with a wry sense of humour, addiction issues and a bizarre extended family. This, combined with a well-documented stint as a Christmas elf has provided Sedaris with a wealth of material to draw from for his books.

Some of the comments in Amazon have accused Sedaris of running out of ideas, but I think these people are simply unwilling to accept that Sedaris' world view might have changed now that he is a successful 'grown-up' in his 50s. For a start, he's now famous and has managed to kick his alcohol and drug addictions which have been well chronicled in 'When you are Engulfed in Flames'. I personally think it's hilarious that now he has defeated these particular demons, his obsessive-compulsiveness and self-destructive properties have been better utilised cleaning up garbage in Cornwall, which he documents in the story 'Rubbish'.

His attitude towards his family also has softened. Instead, he seems to have channeled that vitriol towards political and social targets. In 'Obama!!!!!', Sedaris discusses being an ex-pat American and how his then home of Normandy in France assumed this meant he was bigoted and racist. Elsewhere, he adopts the point of view of a gun-toting psychopathic redneck in 'I Break for Traditional Marriage' and the persona of a dim-witted plackard-wielding Tea Party member in 'Health-Care Freedoms and Why I Want My Country Back.'

The political jibes are funny, but I concede that it's dangerous territory for someone who is known for essays about his personal life. Also, I'm sure that anyone picking up a Sedaris' book would be sympathetic to his world-view already and it reads a bit like a case of preaching to the converted. As persuasive as he can be, I don't think Sedaris is going to reform any right-wing nut-jobs any time soon. They probably would've stopped reading way before they got to these stories anyway.

In my opinion, Sedaris' real strength is seamlessly tying together disparate themes. I especially enjoyed the story 'Laugh, Kookaburra', possibly because it involved a visit to Melbourne, the city where I live, but mostly because he contrasts the feeding of a Kookaburra with a childhood memory of singing with his sister that ends with a punishment from a wrathful father. A visit to the doctor to get a colonoscopy - surely a most gruesome premise for a story! - in 'The Happy Place' is handled delicately, when a suggestion by the anaesthesiologist to think of a 'happy place' delves into a reverie about what the happiest places in his life have been.

'Day In, Day Out' is a story about a friend's seven year-old son, who has taken to copying Sedaris' to such an extent that he even starts taking notes in the same manner. This leads Sedaris to reflect on the diaries he has been keeping over the past 35 years and how his writing has evolved. It's amusing that he recalls what drugs, people, and mental states have affected the tone of his writing, but more than anything, it makes me appreciate that he treats writing like a craft in a time when craftsmanship really is under-appreciated.

I don't think Sedaris is beyond criticism, but I think some of the online negative comments on Amazon miss the point. I like the journey more than the destination and I can't think of a time when I wouldn't be interested in what Sedaris has to say. Every book is like visiting a friend and sometimes friends say things that you don't necessarily want to hear - but it's always great to see them!

Of course, I understand the appeals of nostalgia and how certain art can remind you of a particular happy memory or time of your life and how you wish certain memories would just be frozen in time forever...

Heck, after writing this blog I'll probably put a vinyl record on from my collection that is simply duplicates of tapes I owned when I was 15...

Maybe I should just go out and buy a tape player?...

Do they still make wax-cylinder gramophones?