Monthly Archives: September 2015

Movie: “Girlhood”

This is a very different Paris than the one I dream of. Where is the Eiffel Tower? The Louvre?  The Arc de Triomphe?  Where is the elfin Amelie-type mademoiselle, with a pixie haircut and a dimple?  Not a sign of any of them. Instead we have the high-rise social housing in suburban Paris outside the central city, with windswept barren gardens, concrete and a large gang of African -French girls.

Marieme is sixteen years old, living with her violent, menacing older  brother and younger sisters in a single-parent family where the mother is often absent working in a hotel. She is doing poorly in school, but resists the idea of vocational education or working in the hotel alongside her mother.  There seems to be no structure to her life. If she’s at school at all, it’s marginal to the rest of her life, and her all-girl gang dabbles in shoplifting, drinking and fighting. Re-named ‘Vic’ (for Victory)  by her gang, she escapes her brother but becomes involved in drug-dealing. However, she retains some degree of agency and makes choices, although the ending is ambiguous.

As you can guess, this is a pretty grim film, showing a Paris that is barely recognizable to tourists, and focussing on a Parisian demographic that is rarely depicted in the media at all.

This is advertised as ‘Last Days’ at Cinema Nova, so I suspect that I’ve caught it just before it disappears.

‘The Mothers’ by Rod Jones

themothers

2015, 334 p

Spoilers ahead.

By rights, I should have loved this book.  It’s a family saga, focussed firmly on the female characters; it’s based largely in Melbourne; it covers 1917-1990 and is rich with social history. It is written in five parts, encompassing seven separate chapters.  Each of the chapters is named for its female protagonist, followed by location and year (e.g. Alma, Footscray 1917; Anna, Cockatoo 1990.) So it is a book firmly anchored in its characters who are embedded into a particular place and time- usually a structure and concept that I enjoy. However, in this case, I found myself dissatisfied.

There are four mothers in this novel.  The book opens with Alma, who has walked out on her adulterous husband with her two children in 1917, at a time long before Supporting Mothers’ benefits and in the midst of WWI.  Homeless and without support, she is taken in by Alfred Lovett and his mother. It is  when she falls pregnant to Alfred that the relationship sours, and under pressure from his mother, Alfred pays for Alma, her two children and her new daughter Molly to shift to Seddon.  When this arrangement falls through, Alma cannot afford to support her daughter and so young Molly is sent to the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton. Jones writes a nuanced account of Molly’s time at the orphanage: it is not a horror story of deprivation or cruelty, but a stripped down, anxious time. Molly does rejoin her family and marries, but does not fall pregnant.

The second mother is Anna, an unmarried, pregnant twenty-year old girl from Cockatoo who is brought to the Salvation Army ‘Haven‘ in Alfred Cres, near Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy in 1952.  But this institution was no haven: instead it was part of the twentieth-century adoption process-line so heartbreakingly detailed in the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption Practices of 2012.   I read this section with a sinking feeling of inevitability and found it the most compelling part of the book.   It comes as no surprise, really, that the adoptive mother- the third mother in the book- is Molly who, in many ways, projects the insecurities of her orphanage experience onto her adopted child, David.

The fourth mother of the book is Cathy, David’s girlfriend in 1975. Cathy, too, is pregnant but it’s a completely different scenario in Whitlam’s Australia than the one faced by David’s unknown biological grandmother Alma when she fell pregnant in post WWI Footscray.  David, the father of Cathy’s child, is prickly and restless, reluctant to engage with the bourgeois conceit of marriage.  He is aware that he had been adopted but unwilling at that stage to follow it up any further.  It is not until the 1990s, in the final chapter of the book, that there is a coming together – an awkward, tentative and inconclusive coming together- of his birth and adoptive mothers.

So, why didn’t I fall in love with this book?  Part of it, for me, was its rather self-conscious attempt to be historically grounded.  Much as I love Trove,( and I truly do), I wonder sometimes if it’s not strangling Australian historical fiction by enticing writers to indulge in a form of literary product placement.  There were too many details that Jones seemed unable to omit, and rather than adding authenticity, I felt as if I were being conducted around a movie set.

This was compounded by the very simple writing style that Jones uses.  I found myself craving something that was meatier- although not in an emotional sense because he did manage to get inside his characters’ consciousness, and equally well for both his male and female characters.  But this was achieved through a succession of many short sentences, and I felt as if I was being written-down-to. This is  a book about hard things, and I wanted the language to match it.

In an article written by Jane Sullivan about an interview with the author, we learn that Rod Jones was adopted and that this very much is his story.  Perhaps we need to read it as fictionalized memoir, and acknowledge the pain that seeps through it.  But it’s much more than the “penitential exercise, however worthy” that Peter Pierce denigated it as in his review in the Australian, and it has an emotional integrity that shines through.  I just felt that it was smothered by the period detail and short-changed by the writing.

Movie: Far from the Madding Crowd

I hadn’t seen the 1960s version of Far from the Madding Crowd, nor have I read the book.  I really had no idea what it was about, although I assumed (correctly as it turned out) that it would be yet another of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex tales. I’d enjoyed Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a first-year university student in the 1970s; came out thoroughly depressed from the movie Jude based on Jude the Obscure and I’ve never read The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Carey Mulligan is luminous, as she always is.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

‘The Girl with the Dogs’ by Anna Funder

girl_with_the_dogs

2014,  57 p.

This book is published as a Penguin Special, a series that is spruiked as

“concise, original and affordable… short enough to be read in a single setting- when you’re stuck on a train; in your lunch hour; between dinner and bedtime.”

Looking through the other titles in the series at the back of the book, they’ve engaged some good writers, mainly but not exclusively fiction.  I see that this novella was originally published as “Everything Precious” by Paspayley.  Paspayley? Publishers?  It’s only now, as I write this blog entry that I’ve remembered reading about this: Anna Funder (winner of the Miles Franklin back in 2012) was funded to write a short story aimed at a young female demographic by Paspayley Pearls.  The company had come in for some adverse publicity through a Four Corners episode in 2012 investigating the death of one of its pearl divers, and the company contracted Special Group advertising agency to produce a campaign aimed at a market that had not, until then, seen pearls as a fashion item.   A chapter of the book was released online each day, accompanied by a video clip featuring an actress wearing Paspayley pearls.  At the end of the week-long campaign, the whole book was available for download as a free e-book and in hard copy.  Of course, if I’d read the back cover, I would have known that it had been published online under a different title.

Learning all this changes the direction of my thinking about this book. I wonder how Penguin came to publish it, when it’s available online anyway? Is that why they changed the name?   I think I’d feel a little cross if I shelled out the $9.99 to buy it, only to find that I’d downloaded it for free six months earlier under another title.

In fact, I’d been thinking about the pricing of this book, even before I learned of its digital incarnation.  I read it in 45 minutes, and $9.99 seems rather expensive for less than an hour’s reading.  Then I remembered Weight Watchers (of all things). They consciously price their sessions to be the same price as a cinema ticket- enough to twinge, but a price comparable to a fairly common entertainment activity.  I suppose that movies go for about 100 minutes at $20.00 for a full-price ticket at Hoyts, so I guess that an hour’s reading (I’m a fairly fast reader) at $10.00 makes the book and a movie  somewhat comparable.  This all seems rather grubby and mercenary, but I must confess to feeling emboldened to pursue the idea now, knowing that the book was funded as a commercial venture in the first place.  Although all books are, I suppose: the difference lies in the fact that instead of a publisher funding it, a jeweller did.

As for the book itself: it is very much a modern story.  Tess is the mother of three children and the daughter of a widowed Judge now in an aged care facility; she has a career as a legal editor that takes her to international conferences; she has been married for seventeen years to Dan, an academic.  It’s a life of school-runs, mobile phones and i-pads. All this technology both suffocates and liberates, and it is through technology that she can find a man she knew and loved long ago.

Despite its modernity, the story is told in a detached, rather interior fashion, and to my shame, it was only when I read the Saturday Paper review of Funder’s book that I realized that it’s a Chekhovian voice that I’m hearing.  The story is a riff on Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog (available online here), and realizing this, I have even more respect for what Funder has done with it. I shouldn’t imagine, though, that there will be many readers who will make the connection with the Chekhov story- I certainly didn’t.

This story is strong enough to stand as a novella in its own right, and I think that it would be stifled by being in a collection of short stories.   Tess is a nuanced character and her lifestyle and thoughts completely plausible, even for someone a good fifteen years older than she.  In my 45 minutes of reading, I experienced a full range of emotions: fear for her, a gooey warmth at the romance of it, an ending that satisfied.  In all this, the book is thoroughly self-sufficient. Nonetheless,  I can still imagine that Paspayley would have been delighted that she’d encapsulated their target market (Western, educated, wealthy, approaching middle aged without admitting it, female) so well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Anchoress’ by Robyn Cadwallader

anchoress

2015, 320 p

If writing were diving, then this book would be a reverse 4.5 somersault tuck (degree of difficulty 4.5).  After all, the main character is a seventeen year old anchoress nun, walled up in a small cell beside a church in 1255 England.  Where on earth does a writer go with that?  And just to escalate the degree of difficulty to a reverse 4.5 somersault pike (degree of difficulty 4.8), the author of this book has a  PhD in medieval studies, focussing on St Margaret and attitudes towards women.  Where another author might be tempted to spice it up with an illicit affair and a daring escape, we would rightly expect that Robyn Cadwallader would be sensitive to the spirituality that would draw a young woman to such a drastic, and to us unfathomable, spiritual choice.

I first came across the concept of immurement in the book The Nun of Monza where ‘walling up’ was used as a form of punishment.  Sister Sarah’s election to become an anchoress is, however, an act of relative free choice.  Nor is she completely isolated.  As Mary Laven showed in her book The Virgins of Venice, set four centuries later, when women were financially supported by wealthy men to devote their lives to prayer for the souls of their sponsors, this transaction often ensured that bonds of obligation survived.  Sister Sarah’s cell was attached to the shaded side of the village church, nine paces by seven, within earshot of the life continuing outside, with curtained windows through which she could receive food, talk to her two servants and give counsel to women who came to her for spiritual encouragement.  She was visited regularly by Ranaulf, a young monk usually employed in the scriptorium of the local monastery, who reluctantly took the place of an older spiritual guide charged with the care of the anchoress women.

The story is told from alternating viewpoints: the first person voice of Sister Sarah interwoven with the third-person perspective of Ranaulf.

The real strength of this book takes place within the four walls of Sister Sarah’s cell.  The door is nailed shut; the bones of an earlier anchoress lie in the dirt at her feet.  In the flickering candlelight, she refuses food and in the lightheaded melting of reality, self-flagellation and erotic fantasies about the physicality of love for Christ unhinge her.  We learn of her grief for the death of her sister in childbirth, and gradually piece together her reasons for making the choice to become an anchoress.  Ironically, although seclusion was supposed to quash the senses, it instead heightened them.

I was less convinced by the outside world, though.  Sir Thomas, the landlord’s son, is a two-dimensional villain, and I found the conversation with Eleanor, a small child who attaches herself to any passerby for companionship, unconvincing.  Perhaps it was the abbreviation of the name (‘Ellie’), but the Eleanor character seemed far too much a twenty-first century invention.

Those qualms aside, Cadwallader remains faithful to the religious impulse that drove Sister Sarah to make the choice she did, and to the power and authority relationships that supported the whole conceit of an anchoress.  It is a strange book to us, because it is a strange situation, and Cadwallader’s quiet, dignified tone – in itself somewhat strange to us- carries it well.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Movie: Love and Mercy

At choir the other night, our choirmaster distributed ‘God Only Knows’, the Beach Boys song.  I’ve always loved this song and its complexity is writ large in the myriad guitar chord changes shown on the sheet music.  As often happens with songs we sing at choir, it’s been stuck in my head ever since, and was even more firmly cemented there after seeing the biopic of Brian Wilson in ‘Love and Mercy’. It’s still on at Cinema Nova (‘Last Days!) but probably won’t be for much longer.

Brian Wilson’s story is told in two intercut storylines, one from 1966 during the taping of Pet Sounds, and the other from the 1980s when Wilson is a heavily medicated shell of a man.  The 1960s thread is shot in Super 16 film and has that saccharine look of American beach movies, while the 1980s vision is sharper and cleaner.  Two different actors play Brian Wilson.  Paul Dano, who plays the young Brian looks quite similar to the real man, but John Cusack playing 1980s Brian looks nothing like him. I must confess that I found it hard to suspend my awareness of the pasty, empty Brian Wilson that we see today when faced with an actor who looked almost Dustin Hoffman-esque.  An excellent story  though, that has you despising the bad buys (and realizing the dangers of power of legal and medical attorney) and cheering for the good guys who in this case are good women.

And just to keep ‘God Only Knows’ in YOUR head too, here’s the film clip.  Having seen the movie, I’m more aware of the studio-engineered complexity of the orchestration which references the contribution of the backing session players, themselves featuring in the coming documentary The Wrecking Crew. I’m also more alert to the redundancy of the other Beach Boys in this film clip and particularly the resentful irrelevance of Mike Love in the right hand corner.

ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition Forum 3: from ANZAC to Vietnam

peacecoalitionaugust

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I would be attending the third forum presented by the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition.  This series of fora has been running throughout 2015 at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, following a chronological trajectory of the history of the peace movement from the early 20th century through to today.

This third session, hosted by the Victorian Council of Churches, dealt with the period immediately following World War Two through to Vietnam.  Of course, by this stage we’re venturing into living memory.  Many of the audience were themselves participants in these events as part of their life-long commitment to peace activism.

Andrew Hewett commenced with the post-war period.  During the 1950s and early 1960s the peace movement was largely caught up in the politics of the Cold War.  Conscription was introduced for the Korean War, but not for overseas deployment.  It was not a time of militant activity or demonstrations and the Peace Council was strongly identified with Soviet  ideology. The Melbourne Peace Congress was held in 1959 with over 1000 delegates and led to the formation of the Council for International Co-operation and Disarmament.   The Communist Party of Australia and the trade unions provided original grunt and international links.  They were joined by the Peace Parsons, the Unitarian Rev Victor James, the Presbyterian Rev. A. M Dickie and Rev. F. J. Hartley from the Methodist Church.   In 1960 the first CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) group was founded in Melbourne and the Victorian Peace Council was disbanded.  The CND, part of an international movement, increasingly turned its focus to Vietnam.  (See e-Melbourne for a good entry on this).

Michael Hamel-Green, who gained much prominence as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War took up the story for the 1960s and 1970s.  The CND focused on the Pacific, where nuclear tests were taking place. Some ALP politicians took up the cause (Calwell, Cairns and Uren) and a nuclear-free Pacific became ALP policy.  The introduction of conscription for Vietnam and the extension of conscription for overseas service came as a surprise to many.  In the two years after its introduction (1964-1966) there was initial dissent, particularly amongst teachers, and between 1967-9 there was a shift to non-violent civil disobedience.  The government was reluctant to jail large numbers of objectors.  Between 1970-2 there was mass mobilization, culminating in the May 1970 Moratorium march (interesting video here- look at it!), which 1 in 30 Melburnians attended, blocking the city from William Street to Parliament House.  The Liberal/Country Party coalition government withdrew all combat troops in 1971. (See a 1970 article written by Michael Hamel-Green in all his youthful passion here)

Finally Rev Dr. Sandy Yule spoke about the relationship between Christian Churches and the anti-Vietnam protests.  He was a member of the Student Christian Movement at time, and the Church had had a long-standing presence in the peace movement of the late 1950s and 60s through the Peace Parsons (Revs James, Dickey and Hartley) and through the World Council of Churches’ opposition to the apartheid regime.  The 1948 Christmas Bowl Appeal marked the shift of the churches towards development as a vehicle for peace, as did the Action for World Development inter-denominational initiative. He noted that the churches have a role as a source of peace-making, especially through models of consensus decision making.

The evening finished with questions from the audience.  The masculine dominance amongst the speakers (and the audience-questioners too) was properly noted by an audience member.  The next and final forum, ‘From Military Security to Human Security’ to be held on 26th October, will provide some balance here, with three female presenters (Professor Jacqui True from Monash University; Prof Robyn Eckersley from University of Melbourne and Ass.Prof. Marianne Hanson from UQ).