Category Archives: movies

Leave Matt Damon on Mars


A tiny lily from Peel, near Bathurst. Pic: Chris Marshall.

There’s an awful lot going on, and all of it’s good, all of it’s about participating in Life with a capital L.

A couple of hours ago I got a text message from a nurse at Prof Harnett’s clinic. The entire text message was just two digits: a one and a zero. Ten. Ten! Brilliant! My lucky number relates to my CA125 level, an indicator of possible ovarian cancer activity. High numbers bad, low numbers good. Ten is a lovely low number.
In the run-up to this blood test I kept myself pantingly busy working on the 200 Plants and Animals exhibition which opened last Friday night. We had about 50 people at the launch. The exhibition, whipped into aesthetic line by Cate McCarthy, looked fabulous at about 4pm on Friday evening. Two hours to spare! I even had time to go home and have a shower and put a skirt on.

The exhibition is all about paying attention to where we live. Which is in a planetary system that appears robust but is actually caving, crumbling, subsiding, declining, getting warmer, losing bits of itself. The exhibition (which continues until 5pm next Sunday) explores the bit of the system that we’re inhabiting right here, right now – focusing on non-human living things. A hundred local plants, a hundred local animals all feature in the exhibition. The largest thing is the skull of a horse; the smallest is a tiny, tiny dead beetle. It includes my own bit of amateur biologising: a pressed dandelion from the back yard, and crocheted human brains (humans are included but only as the “one hundreth animal”). There’s a spotted marsh frog painting by the Hazzards; Mum’s pobblebonk; my friend Kirsty Lewin’s black cockatoo mask; lots of photos by Tim Bergen; bright pastels by Johannes Bauer who is both ecologist and artist; Ray Mjadwesch’s specimens including the dried remains of a sugar glider that died after being snarled in barbed wire; our old dog Taro; a glass-art cat with a chain saw. Mostly native animals and plants, but a few introduced species that share this habitat.

Working on this exhibition with the BCCAN committee and others in the team, my sense of this planet as a teeming, rich-in-every-corner thing has grown. I got angry with an ad for Mortein on television the other night. It seemed incredible to me that wholesale scorched-earth policies in private homes are allowed, willy nilly, along with anti-bacterial hand washes. Good to have in hospitals, but the idea of daily life in disinfected spaces now seems a lesser life.
Which brings me to Matt Damon on Mars with his potato plants fertilised by human dung. There he is in a superhuman struggle against the basic facts of life: our bodies were created and are supported by our one and only planet, with its air and water and animals and plants and seasons and sea and earth. And he wins. He works out how to “science the shit out of” his dire situation. The movie brims with an eager love of science, of figuring things out, trying things out, failing and trying again. I enjoyed that. It was also a long paean to NASA. I’m as much a fan of NASA as the next person, or maybe even more, having grown up next to one of the tracking stations that tracked the Gemini and Apollo missions.

But in these days of climate change and environmental destruction, such enthusiasm over humanity’s ability to shuck off the demands of our slow-evolving nature just makes me a little sad for us and for the planet we’re buggering up in the process. There we are, soiling our own nest, just waiting to take flight, get off into outer space, colonise distant planets, all in close-fitting Star Trek suits.

On television a few days later, there was the lame Revenge of the Sith, in which the vibrant world of the original Star Wars movie was oddly reduced to a cross between daytime soap and a computer game for kids. It was all smooth surfaces and whizzing things. Where were these beings growing their food, disposing of their waste? Where was biology in all this? (Okay, just Googled it. Star Wars does have its own biological objects and rules, according to Wookieepedia.) When James Cameron’s Avatar came out, I thought it might have been the beginning of a different type of futurism, one that explored the idea of living sustainably within an ecosystem. But Avatar was a one-off. The future, as imagined by Hollywood, still has a Jetsons quality (it’s the future, and you never see the Earth’s surface, let alone a single tree).I love science as much as the next person, or even more, having so far been saved by modern medical knowledge. But the idea that we can “science the shit out of” our environmental problems, including climate change, will not work on its own. I think it needs to be united with a profound acceptance of – and interest in – the limitations and workings of our own bodies and our own planet.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier – but why?

Just got back from seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy at the Metro Cinema, Bathurst. For me this was a visual and aural feast. That beautiful, liquid music. That mid-century aesthetic. The stirring burst of the Soviet anthem. The art department’s amazing attention to detail. The scuffedness of things. The wallpaper, the corridors, the types of shoes and socks.  I had a pure nostalgia hit just looking at the swirl of colour on the balloons at the spies’ Christmas party. There’s a photo of me as a tiny child holding a balloon just like that. Do they still make them?

It was nice to be back in the Cold War again – so much more attractive and comprehensible than whatever we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. And nobody ever did a particular type of mid-century aesthetic better than the Soviet sphere of influence.

I loved the slowness. I lapped it up. Nothing like a bit of slowness as an antidote to Hollywood’s blaring cues and cuts. The actors were so instantly inside their characters – all intriguing, deftly differentiated characters – that you forgot all about the acting and went back to enjoying the experience. I loved the frankness about people being old or ugly – Smiley getting his eyes tested, an older woman spy making zero attempt at attractiveness – without making more of it than necessary.

This is a gorgeous, stylish, film and I never stopped enjoying it – in fact I’d happily see it again, listen to that soundtrack again. But there is a problem with it, which is that below its flawless skin, is there actually a beating heart? It feels like there’s a beating heart, but that’s not the same. I watched, knowing that at some point we’d find out which one of these interesting, haunted Englishmen was working for the Other Side. The problem was – it was hard to care or even wonder too much about which one. Maybe that’s the difference between making the film back in the 1970s, when it still all meant something, and doing it now, when it’s about a good wallow in the beauty of another time – because another time always becomes beautiful; nostalgia works like that; the hipster aesthetic works like that. (And I’m as sucked in as the next person.) Or maybe it’s because the art department was ultimately allowed to trump storytelling.

One of the characters actually says this, more or less. Explaining why he became a traitor to his country, he said it was an aesthetic choice, as much as anything. Really? Is an aesthetic sensibility really enough to live or die for? Maybe it is, but if it is, maybe we could have heard more about it.

Speaking of one of the characters speaking – another thing that bothered me was that nobody had a decent conversation in the whole film. What we’d get is a beautiful location, a beautiful set of stairs to go up, a perfect bit of spy-going-upstairs music, the arrival, two words exchanged and then on to the next scene and repeat. There were some exceptions to this rule but I found myself longing for a bit more time at the destination. Arrgh. Why don’t you let people speak once they’ve gone to all that trouble to get up the stairs? And if you’ve gone to so much trouble to evoke a past time, right down to the smoke-fug in every room, why not evoke a little of the conversation of that past time?

I came of age in the last years of the Cold War, when it seemed to stretch back forever and forwards forever. It was a time when you’d arrive on campus straight after high school and be surrounded by people who wanted to talk until three in the morning about socialism, capitalism, feminism, sexuality, utopianism, whether Judaism was a race or a religion, and you read the books and had the discussions and then tried to go out and live according to whatever bracing principles you’d just adopted, because it actually felt like it mattered. And people are still doing similar things today – note the Occupy movement, raving on to each other all night, in tents. Some are even hipsters.

But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is too stylish to get bogged down in ideas, and too stylish to do more than lightly suggest a story of betrayal and terrifying choice.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful film, worth seeing and hearing – but don’t get fooled into believing it’s more than it actually is.

Why Up In The Air is crap

I would happily enjoy watching George Clooney do just about anything, so I won’t say I didn’t enjoy this film. I loved its early style and clipping pace, the montages of airport life, the two characters having lively conversations about hire cars and air miles. And the corporate scenes were good. Then it just slides away into Hollywood blancmange.

  • Treats us like idiots. For example, the older sister says “this is your one chance to make it up to her” (the younger sister). Yes! We see that! It’s bleeding obvious. You don’t have to spell it out.
  • Horrible conservative message drummed home ie happily married family life as pretty close to the meaning and goal of life. The Clooney character makes the point, early on, that not everyone wants to do the marriage thing. There are different paths in life. He says everyone dies alone, so don’t be with someone just because you don’t want to die alone. But the film offers Stalinism: marriage good, unmarried ba-a-ad. And then piles it on thick at the end with a voice-over actually telling us the moral of the story.

Thank God for the antidote, the Coen Brothers and Tim Burton.