Category Archives: Book and movies

Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

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You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

to-rome-with-love-12

Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

begning

Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” -

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.

What’s to really like about Irvine Welsh’s Filfth?

filfth“Failure is much more interesting to me than success,” said Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh in a recent talk I attended in Melbourne

“I write about people who are going through a bad time, when things are falling apart. I try to show these characters grasping for the light switch,” he said in an attempt to explain the grim reality of many of his characters.

In the case of Scottish Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, the light switch might as well have been in Hawaii, in an abandoned, graffiti stained warehouse where the power has long been turned off.

He is beyond hope of redemption, right from the very first pages:

After two fruitless strikes I feel a surge of euphoria on my third as his head bursts open. His blood fairly skootches out…

Robertson its an utterley despicable character. A murderer, a rapist, a racist, a misogynist, a betrayer of his friends and family, a drug fiend, an alcoholic, a rabid consumer of pies, chips and deep fried food; a man with eczema-encrusted genitals that rise at the slightest whiff of sexual conquest, who retreats to the bathroom to give his itchy anus “a good clawing”.  Into the mix, throw in a distinct lack of interest in personal hygiene, fetishes that include erotic asphyxiation (strangulation sex) and a side interest in bestiality, and you get a pretty good picture of DS Bruce Robertson.

And yet it’s an enjoyable book to read mainly because Robertson is an entertaining, wise-cracking first person narrator who speaks directly to his reader without any sense of remorse, who plots the downfall of his work colleagues, friends and adversaries with Machiavellian cunning. One enjoys his scheming and plotting in the same manner as one enjoy Blackadder and his many “cunning plans”.

At the heart of it all is a man who hates everything but his own shadow, driven by a burning rage that will not cool:

I hate them all, that section of the working class who won’t do as they are told: criminals, spastics, niggers, strikers, thugs, I don’t fucking well care, it all adds up to one thing: something to smash.

Robertson is a voyeuristic release for every bad thought a (male) reader has ever had (and yet there are also female fans of this book).

There’s a guilty pleasure in allowing Robertson to enter your head, knowing that you can close the book and return to the real world where hopefully some sense of morality and decency remains.

Perhaps this is partly why Welsh wrote it, to get all his inner demons on the page to expunge the Bruce Robertson buried in his pysche. Either that, or it’s an opportunity to write about a character who remarks during a bout of sex with an Amsterdam prostitute:

I’ve given the pole a good greasing but she’s pretty tight. Once I get in though, it starts to slide up. I can tell that she’s in a bit of distress cause she’s making hissing noises and her back muscles are tensing, but it’s probably  just cause the fucking hoor’s loving every minute of it.

These type of graphic descriptions dominate the book in between heavy bouts of drinking, drug taking and “hooring”.

The female degradations inflicted by Robertson reminded me of a question a woman asked at the same talk Welsh gave in Melbourne. She asked him about his depiction of woman characters and whether there was something misogynistic about it?

At the time I scoffed at the question, but having read Filth, I’ve reconsidered.

Women are the chief focus of Robertson’s humiliations. They are reduced to play things without feelings or emotions. They are objects for his pleasure and derision most horrifyingly illustrated in a scene I won’t even dare to quote where Robertson drives a prostitute to an isolated farm to have sex with a sheep dog.

It was this scene where – out of sheer revulsion – I considered putting the book down.

Trainspotting was Welsh’s first book and I wager – though I have only read it and now Filth – his finest by a country mile. Trainsportting was  a brilliant depiction of the post-Thatcher generation lost to drugs. A modern classic.

Filth is almost pure literary pornography with an enigmatic villain unlike any created in fiction who engages in every possible depravity. There’s whiffs of Trainspotting in Robertson’s occasional hilarious commentary on Scottish football, tabloid journalism (Robertson is a big reader of The Sun – for the football and the girls on page 3) restaurant food and local politics. But it has little gravitas and nothing meaningful to say about the society that created such a monster as Bruce Robertson.

Yes, we learn something of Robertson’s motivations and inner psyche –  through a tapeworm in his bowels that speaks in Queen’s English. But in the end and upon reflection, I tend to agree with what The Observer book critic Alan Taylor wrote of the novel when he reviewed it in 1998:

“As an archetype, Robertson is over the top. Welsh slips so easily into degradation mode that pages slip by in wodges, a miasma of pornography that is mindnumbing…Welsh lets him sink so low he is not resuscitable. For such a man, the idea of redemption seems risible. His sin goes beyond breaking the law. Guilt, ultimately, is the least of his problems. He has committed the cardinal crime. He is a crushing bore.”

 

Downloading a movie is wrong, but is it the same as stealing a car?

Perhaps you remember this ad:

It was an anti-piracy commercial warning the DVD viewer that downloading pirated movies was the same as stealing a car, or a handbag or a television.

People who downloaded movies were very bad people, the ad insinuated, a message that was replicated around the world in similar campaigns like this:

illegal download campaigns2

M-Tv anti-piracy ad

I was reminded of this campaign strategy after reading that the Australian government under the direction of Attorney General George Brandis planned a fresh move to crack down on movie pirates. Mr Brandis said:

“The government will be considering possible mechanisms to provide a legal incentive for an internet service provider to co-operate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks.

“This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy.”

It’s unlikely this will succeed.

In 2012, an Australian High Court ruled that internet service provider iiNet (the second biggest ISP in Australia) was not responsible for the conduct of its subscribers and could not be ordered to terminate services of repeat copyright offenders.The five high court judges in the case ordered Warner Bros, Disney, Fox and Paramount Pictures and 29 other companies including Australian independent distributors and TV networks under the umbrella of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft to pay $9 million in court costs.

In addition, prosecutions of individuals who pirate material remain rare and are primarily restricted to those who make and sell pirated DVDs (the kind you can pick up overseas or in a dodgy market for a few bucks) and the websites that host them.

Campaigns like “You wouldn’t steal car…” and more recent ones by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation which appeal to the public’s guilty conscience have also failed.

Australians are downloading pirated movies and TV shows in record numbers, as seen in the recent download stats for hit HBO show Game of Thrones, where they accounted for the highest proportion (around 11 per cent) of the 7.5 million people worldwide who downloaded the finale of season four within days of it being shown on pay television, according to website Torrentfreak.com.

By comparison, about 500,000 people watched the episode legally on Foxtel when it premiered.

thrones-cast

“Australia, I am sorry to say, is the worst offender of any country in the world when it comes to piracy,” Senator Brandis told the Australian Senate.

But, contrary to what’s being said, people who download or stream movies illegally (between 25 per cent and 55 per cent of Australians depending on what survey you read) are not also stealing cars or handbags or televisions. They’re not trying to put someone out of work (about 6,000 jobs are lost each year as a result of piracy) or send a production company bankrupt.

Most go to work, pay their taxes, pay their mortgage, pay for their groceries at the checkout counter and pay for their petrol after filling their tank. They’re your friends, your work colleagues, your bank manager, the guy making your chai latte at your favourite cafe, your kid’s kindergarten teacher – everyone is doing it.

The main reason people download shows illegally are convenience, to save money and anger and frustration at the cost of paying for it legally.

The internet has made it incredibly easy and safe to download or stream favourite show just by clicking on a link.

Many people are rebelling against the high cost of movies (now above $20 for some time slots), and the inflexibility and arrogance of providers like Foxtel, which does not allow subscribers to pick and choose their movie channels they want (channels are bundled) and which has a virtual monopoly on pay television in Australia, (though this is being challenged by online competitors).

There’s also the anger at service providers like Apple iTunes, which charges Australian customers between 50 and 100 per cent more for movies and music than they do customers in the US (as highlighted in the ABC’s The Checkout) for the same products

The relative cost of buying the movie "Life of Pi" in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

The relative cost of buying the movie “Life of Pi” in Australia and the US (from The Checkout)

There’s nothing like the feeling that you are getting ripped off to encourage you to try and get something for free.

There’s also the harm factor. While some Australian companies may be impacted by lost revenue to piracy the public will also be aware that the really big entertainment companies are still doing rather well despite it.

Time-Warner reported revenues of US$7.5 billion for the first quarter of 2014 and earnings of $1.5 billion primarily from shows like Game of Thrones, True Detective and The Lego movie. Nobody at Time-Warner is crying poverty.

Australia’s biggest entertainment group, Seven West Media (owners of Channel 7) reported a 4 per cent rise in television revenue to $683 million for the six months to December 2013 and profits of $190 million.

Foxtel – half-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – has 2.5 million subscribers (not far off one in two Australian households) and last year had revenues of $3.1 billion and earnings of almost $1 billion.

Add the $20 – $30 million plus some Hollywood stars get paid to appear in a single movie  and you can understand why some people’s attitudes to movie piracy is this:

illegal download campaign - parody

Or this:

illegal download campaign - parody2

Intriguingly, while pay television companies, cable networks and cinema owners shake their fists at the public for being pirates and Australian attorney general George Brandis threatens tough new measures, others are taking a far more realistic view.

Jeff Bewkes, CEO of entertainment giant Time-Warner, owner of network HBO, which produces Game of Thrones, said during an earnings call last year that having the most pirated show of the year was “a tremendous word-of-mouth thing” and “better than [winning] an Emmy.”

He wasn’t alone. Game of Thrones director David Petrarca said piracy contributed to the show’s “cultural buzz”, while author of the novels, George R.R. Martin also called it a “compliment,” (though one he would rather not receive).

Mr Bewkes compared piracy to “cable-splitting” (illegally sharing a cable subscription) and said it had in fact contributed to HBO subscriptions and greater penetration of the HBO brand.

Also interesting to note is that US movie streaming service Netflix uses piracy data to decide which shows to buy, a back-handed compliment to the tastes of online pirates.

And perhaps also a concession that piracy is part of the entertainment industry like popcorn and paparazzi – and something that they will have to learn to live with even as the authorities threaten a clampdown.

Five Woody Allen movies infinitely better than Blue Jasmine

woody_allen__1218229285_1191I’ll be honest. I was a little bit disappointed with Blue Jasmine.

It certainly wasn’t a Woody Allen clunker like Celebrity or Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks, but it wasn’t up their with his best work. It was better than his middle-of-the-road stuff, and neatly reflected in the IMDB  score of 7.4 out 10.

Blue JasmineThe acting was excellent, particularly Cate Blanchette as Jasmine – the neurotic, snobby and materialistic New York socialite brought down to earth by the scandal of her New York husband’s Hal’s  (Alec Baldwin) Bernie Madoff-like fraud, who flees to San Francisco to start her life over. There are also excellent performances by Sally Hawkins (who plays her sister Ginger) Andrew Dice Clay (Ginger’s ex-husband) and Bobby Cannavale (Ginger’s cocky love-struck boyfriend).

For me, the film started incredibly strongly and then just lost momentum two-thirds of the way through with an obscure, annoying ending (I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen it). It felt like Woody Allen wrote the film mainly to win an Oscar for Cate Blanchette – roles involving dysfunctional, intense female characters having a history of Oscar success, consider: Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Natalie Portman in Black Swan to name just three (all far better films than Blue Jasmine).

Blue Jasmine is worth watching for the acting and some excellent scenes, but if you want to watch classic Woody Allen at his best, there are more than a dozen films that are better from his vast oeuvre going back five decades.

For Woody Allen novices, these are five of my favourites, all absolute classics:

Crimes and Misdemeanours (1980)

Woody Allen’s greatest cinematic achievement. Interweaves multiple plotlines in a film about the nature of comedy, guilt, forgiveness, betrayal and love. Incredible performances from Martin Landau, Angelica Huston, Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow and Jerry Orbach. Some of his funniest jokes, some of his most poignant moments in film. IMDB rating 8.0

Judah Rosenthal: I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Annie Hall (1977)

A romantic comedy about Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a neurotic, over-sexed comedian who falls for the utterly charming but ditzy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) filled with Jewish New York humour, witty observations about sex, love, family and relationships. IMDB rating – 8.2

Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.
Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ‘em everything.

Manhattan (1979)

Shot beautifully in black and white to the music of George Gershwin, this is Woody Allen’s homage to his favourite city, New York. It stars Allen as Isaac Davis, a divorced writer of TV shows caught in a dubious love affair with teenage Tracy, (a very young Mariel Hemingway), but who falls in love with his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton). IMDB rating 8.0

Isaac Davis: My analyst warned me, but you were so beautiful I got another analyst.

Match point (2005)

Set in London high society, a tennis professional (Jonathan Rhys Myers) engages in a steamy affair with visiting American Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) while engaged to Chloe (Emily Mortimor) the innocent daughter of a wealthy family. A film that examines the nature of good and evil, temptation and fidelity and injustice. IMDB rating 7.7

Christopher “Chris” Wilton: It would be fitting if I were apprehended… and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice – some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.

Play it Again Sam (1972)

A screwball, slapstick comedy set in San Francisco about Allan (Woody Allen) a neurotic film critic who takes dating advice from his alter ego (Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca) and best friend Dick. Predictably he falls in love with Dick’s wife (Diane Keaton).

Allan: If that plane leaves the ground, and you’re not on it with him, you’ll regret it – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Linda: That’s beautiful!
Allan: It’s from Casablanca; I waited my whole life to say it.

And here’s a whole bunch more to add to your “Must watch” list:

Love and Death (1975)
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1987)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Husbands and Wives (1992)
Might Aphrodite (1995)
Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
Interiors (1978)
Midnight in Paris (2011)

A very Scottish evening with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh

irvine welsh2I went to hear legendary Scottish author Irvine Welsh speak last week.

My friend Jonny, who has read all his books, invited me along to a talk hosted by the Wheeler Centre.

I have read just one of Welsh’s books, “Trainspotting”, but it was enough for me to say “yes” immediately.

Trainspotting – a brilliant, excruciating, haunting and often hilarious story about a group of doomed Scottish junkies set in the impoverished council estates of Edinburgh in the late 1980s/early 1990s – was published in 1993 and has sold more than 1 million copies in the UK alone.

It’s listed in my literary reference bible: “1001 Books You Should Read before Die” alongside contemporary literary masterpieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt and J.M. Coetzee.

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Irvine Welsh with a fan in Melbourne

Welsh, a bald, tallish man sat down on stage  at the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street dressed casually in a black t-shirt, jeans and leather jacket looking like the kind of guy you’d strike up a conversation with about football at the pub. The only sign of possible eccentricity: bright red socks.

He was there ostensibly to promote his latest book which has the intriguing title of ‘The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’. It’s his first novel set entirely in the US – Welsh lives in Chicago and wrote and set the novel amongst Miami’s gym, fitness and dieting culture.

(“If people want to lose weight, they should just eat less. Instead, in America, they consume diets.” he says.)

It’s his first novel without a Scottish character with only the vaguest references to Scotland.

Putting on a bad American accent, Welsh recalled a line in the book spoken by one of the aggressive female characters to Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams:

“I don’t wanna go to a fillum set in Scotland or Bosnia speaking a language no one can understand.”

Williams reminded Welsh that he is had pronounced “film” in the Scottish dialect of “fillum”.

Welsh throws back his head and roars with laughter.

Miami agree with Welsh. He goes to gym, eats well, walks around in shorts and t-shirts taking in the good weather.

But his heart – thankfully – remains firmly rooted in Scotland, where he created his most iconic characters – Renton, Begbie, Sickboy and Spud.

It’s not just his heavy Scottish brogue that makes it hard to imagine he’s become an American in any way, he still clearly loves his homeland, telling the audience that he has enjoyed “discovering Scotland from the US”.

Moving to somewhere “exotic” like Miami, he says, made him realise that Scotland is “one of the f-cking weirdest places I have ever been to in my life.”

And he’s also kept up with local politics, noting that the country is “re-inventing itself from the inside out” and that it is an “exciting time” with the Scottish independence referendum vote on September 18 – a remark which draws a large cheer from fellow countrymen in the packed audience of devoted fans.

Welsh has also maintained that famous, sardonic, playful Scottish sense of humour, that made Trainspotting such a huge success.

He quips: “Scottish people are always wonderful to outsiders – they like people coming to visit, but they f-cking hate each other.”

He then jokes that the last time he visited Edinburgh everyone was so nice to each other, which meant he had nothing to write about.

This is thankfully an exaggeration with Welsh telling the audience that his next book – coming out next year – will be about a taxi driver in Edinburgh.

More than likely it will be about one of those failed characters, who he writes so well about – whether its Renton, Spud or Begbie in Trainspotting or the vicious Detective Seargeant Bruce Robertson in the recently filmed “Filfth” (a novel I’ve already picked up from the library).

Failure, is something which inspires Welsh and the characters he creates on the page: Trainspotting is not just about failed characters whose lives have been blown off course by heroin addiction but is set within a landscape of failure  created by Margaret Thatcher and her Tory cronies, and one experienced by Welsh himself.

“Failure is much more interesting to me than success,” he says. “I write about people who are going through a bad time, when things are falling apart.

“I try to show these characters grasping for the light switch,” a beautiful phrase, which encapsulates the sadness behind doomed characters like Tommy Laurence, a football-mad childhood friend of Renton in Trainspotting who turns to heroin after his girlfriend dumps him and ends up contracting AIDS.

“These are people who were not always like what they are now,” Welsh says.

Welsh himself knows a lot about failure. He couldn’t play football or cut it as a musician (his two other passions) – but he was good at storytelling.

“Most writers are serial failures,” he says.

Speaking about his own success – he notes humbly that many celebrated Scottish writers blazed a path for him but did not achieve the international recognition he did.

He says he is inspired by bad fiction, rather than by what other great authors have written (one of his favourite books is Ulysses by Irishman James Joyce):

“When I read a shite book, I tell myself, I am going to take that c-nt down.”

Renton, couldn’t have said it better.

 

 

Drugs, sex and boredom: A review of “Scar Tissue” by Anthony Keidis

ScartissuebookAbout the most interesting revelation in the 460 odd pages of “Scar Tissue”, the autobiography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis,  occurs about 330 pages into this tedious, self-centered tale.

It’s when Keidis talks about the Chilli Peppers playing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones in the late 1990s.

He writes that opening for the Rolling Stones is a “shite job” despite the opportunity to play with the second greatest band after The Beatles:

“I can’t recommend it to anybody…the fact is the Rolling Stones audience today is lawyers and doctors and CPAs and contractors and real estate development people. This is a conservative wealthy group. No one is rocking out.”

He goes on to describe it as “like going to the Rolling Stones mall”, a “horrible” experience where you play as “85,000 wealthy, bored-out-of-their-minds fans are slowly finding their seats”.

Keidis talks in the same candid, straight-forward style to describe his journey from reckless teenager to petty thief, confirmed junkie and lead singer of one of the biggest rock-funk bands in the world.

It’s an honest, seemingly truthful recollection (as truthful as possible given the amount of drugs consumed along the way) but the problem is its repetitious nature, built on a cycle of drug binges, failed attempts to get clean, and more drug-taking, interspersed with accounts of chaotic relationships, typical rock ‘n roll sexual encounters and tour bus stories.

It’s the complete cliché: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Sadly, there is very little revealed of the creative process – this mainly involves Keidis disappearing into a room by himself to write songs about his drug-fuelled personal experiences.

As a book about drug use and addiction it offers very little in the way of insight into the problem – apart from the obvious of it being very hard to give up. Many of the observations glamorize drug use, while others sound like the speech bubbles of a true stoner-idiot:

After fifty days of being sober, I thought, ‘That’s a nice number. I think I should honor that number’. I decided it was a good time to do drugs.

On a visit to New Zealand, he bemoans the fact that the country is too small to satifsy his drug requirements. Countless times he smuggles drugs onto planes undetected.

The only things to truly marvel is that Keidis somehow emerges out of his heroin/cocaine/crack/speed addiction and reckless to the point of almost suicidal lifestyle, not only alive, but rich and famous too (and still with that famous six-pack stomach).

Keidis, it seems, is the classic narcissistic celebrity who believes that if you throw in anecdotes about meeting the Dalai Lama, some syrupy thoughts about spirituality and the occasional bouts of healthy living and yoga exercise that you’re actually a decent guy.

Instead, he appears to lack basic humility even after surviving countless week-long drug binges in seedy motels, crossing paths with drug lords and avoiding arrest by police officers.

It got so bad that half-way through the book, I had to stop reading and put on a couple of Red Hot Chilli Peppers CDs to remind myself that they really are – as musicians – an incredibly original blend of funk, rap, rock and have produced countless great songs over the past  almost 30 years.

(For worthwhile, insightful accounts of heroin addiction read: Junkie by William S. Burroughs, Monkey Wrench by Helen Garner, In My Skin by Kate Holden or Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – you can find reviews of all of these books here.)

 

 

 

Re-reading classic plays: ‘Look Back in Anger’ vs ‘Death of a Salesman’

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Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson in “Look Back in Anger” directed by Judi Dench

I recently re-read two celebrated plays of American and British theatre, respectively – Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’.

I enjoy reading plays – though some people find it curious. You can pick them up for a few bucks in book shops, they come in thin, handy-sized paper-backs perfect for reading on the train and you can finish them in a day or two.

The directness of the dialogue – spoken by interesting, intense, quirky characters – can, I find, be very pleasing to the intellect, and an escape from the drab, bored faces of fellow commuters with their fingers stabbing at smartphones.

The last time I read these ground-breaking plays was at university 20 years ago, where I was profoundly affected by both of them.

So I was curious to see what effect they might have on me two decades later.

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956)

The Faber and Faber edition I read featured a red tie draped over an ironing board on the cover symbolising the play’s domestic setting (it was one of the first plays to be  coined a “kitchen sink drama”)  and its exploration of the lives of the working classes after the Second World War.

The action takes place in a flat in the English Midlands in the 1950s. The chief protagonist is Jimmy Porter – the quintessential “angry young man” who feels he has no place in English society. Without a war or a cause to fight for, he takes his existential frustrations out on his sweet-natured flat mate Cliff and timid, anxious girlfriend Alison. His principal aim is to spark some kind of fight or reaction from Cliff or Alison and later Helena – a posh actor friend of Alison – who comes to visit (and replaces Alison as Jimmy’s girlfriend in a weird love triangle).

JIMMY (on a rant): Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! (He beats his breast theatrically) Hallelujah! I am alive. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a game? Let’s pretend we’re actually alive….look back in anger

And so he goes on – ranting and rallying against the boring weekend papers full of the same vacuous people and meaningless stories; trying to stir some kind of emotional response from his wife ironing away like some kind of Lady Macbeth trying to remove every bit of dirt or discomfort from her life. Alison at first won’t respond to Jimmy’s taunts about her stuck-up brother Nigel or her parents that hated him or how he is sick of being cooped up in a flat on another dreary Sunday. Only through accidental violence (play fighting with Cliff), can he draw a howl of pain and a reaction from her.

There are plot twists – a pregnancy, the death of a friend, family revelations – but it all feels quite artificial and staged. Jimmy is just an angry man crying out for attention or looking for a fight, using what ever horrible means to spark a reaction:

JIMMY (to Alison): If you could have a child, and watch it die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass from indiarubber and wrinkles. Please – if only I could watch you face that.

In the end, I just wanted Jimmy to shut-up – even when he was played by the fantastic Kenneth Branaugh alongside Emma Thomson as Alison in a TV adaptation directed by Judi Dench (You can watch the whole play in full on YouTube).

It just didn’t ring true. It felt like a silly, dated soap opera – though with the occasional memorable bits of dialogue thrown in the mix.

Verdict: 3 out 5

(At university, we watched a version of this play with the great Welsh actor Richard Burton in the lead role – so perhaps I should track it down and give it another chance.)

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman"

Kate Reid and Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman”

The story of 60-year old Brooklyn travelling salesman Willy Loman who can no longer sell and who cannot face the reality of his own past mistakes and self-deception. It’s also a play about what it means to become worthless in society and how the great American Dream (your own home, family, prosperity) can turn to dust.

WILLY: The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighbourhood. The grass don’t grow any more, you can’t raise a carrot in the backyard. They should have a law against apartment houses.

Willy Loman carries some of the anger of John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter – but whereas Jimmy is young and can change, Willy Loman is a broken man, a classic study of failure and of redundancy, with little hope of redemption.

While set in a different era, Death of a Salesman is a timeless classic and has lost none of its power.

David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross – about real estate salesman fighting for their jobs (made into a superb movie with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin) owes its central theme – meaning through work – to Arthur Miller’s ground-breaking play.

As journalist working in an industry with an uncertain, constantly-evolving future – the fear expressed by Willy Loman of “still feeling – kind of temporary about myself” rings true.

Indeed for many working people, the fear of becoming redundant because of technology or of being replaced by cheaper labour in far-off countries is very real as is the sense for older people of waking up 30 years after a career and wondering where all the years went and why you’re still struggling to make ends meet.

death of a salesmanThis fear is brutally expressed in one of the great and awful moments in modern theatre when Willy finds himself begging his boss, Howard –  the son of the man who first hired him – for his job:

WILLY: You mustn’t tell me you’ve got people to see – I put 34 years into this firm, Howard,  and now I can’t pay my insurance. You can’t eat the orange and throw  the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.

Earlier in this scene, as Willy arrives at Howard’s office determined to get a desk job in the city, he finds his boss demonstrating a primitive dictaphone that records his son’s voice.

Replace this device with a smartphone or an iPad and you have a modern day fable.

Verdict: Five out five

(Make sure you watchthe 1985 TV adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman and John Malkovich as his son Biff.

Cinema ticket prices: the profits in the popcorn

Ticket2This month, for the first time, some cinemas in Australia started charging $20 for movie tickets.

Explaining the need to push up prices, one cinema owner, Benjamin Zeccola of Palace Cinemas – the independent upmarket/arthouse chain – defended this by saying it was primarily because of the rise in the illegal downloading of movies, (plus high wages).

According to research by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation (an organisation representing film and television companies campaigning against online content theft), more than a quarter of young Australians illegally download movies or TV shows, among the highest rate in the world.

There is little doubt that illegal downloads are having a massive impact on cinema house revenues. At the same time, the cost of having a night out at the cinema has skyrocketed in recent years (as a kid in South Africa in the 1980s I paid 1 Rand for movies as part of the Ster Kinekor club – about 50 Australian cents), which partly explains why illegal downloads are so high.

The other factor behind the rampant illegal downloading of movies is that the notion that you are “stealing” has never really sunk into the collective consciousness of downloaders, and may never do so. You can say it’s the same thing as riding off on someone elses bike or filling up your car with petrol and driving off without paying for it, but people that download movies illegally, probably don’t visualise it in that way because its free, easy to do and the chances of getting caught are virtually zero.

A $20 movie ticket seems high (and it is), but it’s somewhere in the mid-range of what other comparable countries are charging:

  • In Manhattan, an adult ticket at the AMC Empire cinema is US$13 (A$14) – 35 per cent cheaper than the $20 Australians are now expected to fork out.
  • But in London, a movie at the Odeon on Leceister Square in the heart of the West End, will set you back £15.50 – a whopping $28 in Australian dollars, or 40 per cent more expensive.

But the ticket is only part of the cost. When you factor in the popcorn, drinks and snacks, you’re unlikely to see much change from a $50 note, and nothing from a $100 note if you take a family of four to the movies.

Running a cinema though is an expensive business.

Most cinemas are in shopping centres, which charge among the highest rents in the country. Then there’s the cost of renting the film from the distributors, staff wages, maintenance costs, utility bills and equipment and goods to pay for.

According to a 2013 article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cover price of a cinema ticket is consumed by film rights (40-60%), staff salaries (20%), rent (15%), utilities (5%) and other costs (10%). Add that all up and there’s no margin to speak of.

Which is why you pay ludicrous prices for popcorn, drinks and snacks.

According to the same article, “in order to remain competitive, a multiplex’s main source of profit actually comes from the concessions stand, rather than the box office”.

Or to quote from Arrested Development – “the money is in the banana stand”.

Just consider that you can buy a 375 packet of unpopped popcorn kernels – enough to make three or four jumbo sized popcorn boxes – for $1.34 at Coles, but the cheapest box of a popcorn at the cinema will set you back at least $5. Add the choc-top ice-cream and drink to your purchase and even if you use a “combo” offer you’re likely to fork out $10 to $15 more on top of the $20 movie ticket.

No wonder then, that so many people are buying enormous televisions – which get cheaper and cheaper, bumping up their broadband download allowances and illegally downloading movies for the cost of a monthly internet connection.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

gerald durrell older man

Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.