Friday, October 26, 2007

MIAF 2: AWOL and contrary

OOPS. The festival is almost over and I haven't covered much of it. I've seen a lot (A LOT) but I've also been moving house and have no internet access. I reconciled myself to this and was going to save myself for a festival wrap-up but a post over at Matt C's Esoteric Rabbit (hi Matt! I sat in front of you at Euro House last night!) crystallised how my responses to this year's festival have been pretty much the opposite to those of everybody else on the web.

Firstly, my highlights have been European House and Hunger, both of which were disappointments to some, along with Shaun Parker's This Show is About People, which was just outstanding. I was largely unmoved by Kitson and Wilson, and Laurie Anderson was ok, but nothing special. Again, I don't seem to be in the majority here.

But what's really had me scratching me noggin is exactly what Matt pinpoints in the post linked above: not the problem of noisy, disrespectful audiences, but of audiences who find that so irksome. In what world is a Merce Cunningham piece set to John Cage's music supposed to be enjoyed in silence? This is the dude for whom incidental audience noise could be a composition in itself.

I know it's my hobby horse, but it's one I've pursued for years. The behaviour of audiences is tied to the process of socialisation - a "disciplined" and silent viewer is a recent historical construction that serves very particular purposes mirroring the larger demands of Western liberal capitalist ideology. Compare the behaviour of audiences for traveling Russian cinemas,
or 19th century American Shakespearean performances, or Indonesian music theatre (which is what riled me so much about Wilson's show last year). "Encore" once meant something - say, getting Hamlet to do his last soliloquy again, it was that good.

Anyway, my point is that if I want to absorb some wonderful art on my own, without being reminded of the presence of others, I stay home and watch TV.

And I don't watch much TV.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MIAF 1: Does Wilson Matter?

And so it begins.


Opening night of MIAF 2008 had me hunkering down for Robert Wilson and Bernice Johnson Reagon's The Temptation of St Anthony, which impressed me every bit as much as Wilson's contribution to last year's festival, I La Galigo.

(ie... not very much).

It was a bit embarrassing to be sitting in the very lovely festival Artists Bar last night next to a large group of obviously theatre-literate and intelligent young folks laughing about the show with the sort of derision you normally hear in "my kid could paint that!" art appreciation. Normally I'd be thinking "well, maybe you just missed something in the piece" or simply "it just didn't speak to you" but I couldn't help but agree with these kids. Temptation felt like a puffed-up, fancily-panted bit of not-a-lot. The cheery complainants were quoting lines from the libretto with mirth - "does matter matter? What is the function of form?" And while these are good questions for any artist to put to their audience, it felt like a year 7 philosophy class in which a bored teacher named Bobby Wilson threw those questions to the audience then left the room for a smoke break with a "discuss!" flung over his shoulder. And, leaving, left his charges with no reason or manner in which to tackle that heavy stuff.

The biggest problem with Wilson's show is Wilson. In every other aspect, the show is great - a huge cast of African-American singers deliver great performances of some great music, but Wilson takes the dynamism and elasticity of these performances and shoehorns them into his typically pomo staging. I had the same feeling during last year's show - after years of pleading the defence to students, I'm finally beginning to understand Fredric Jameson's argument about the depthlessness of high postmodern art. Wilson's work is so carefully self-conscious that it strips away historicity, context and authenticity. Normally I'm all for that, but in the case of I La Galigo, where he adapted Indonesian music theatre styles to produce a three hour epic, it felt like he had plundered this incredibly rich source and turned it into an empty spectacle. It felt about as Indonesian as a Mc-Gado Gado Special at McDonalds.

Take the Slow Walk thing. I hate it when works like Temptation have performers moving to their next arbitrary spot on the stage with that damn measured, meditative, almost Butoh-like stepping style. I know it's probably meant to draw attention to the economy of gesture, or a Kleist-ian sense of the performer's physical gravity, or of the negative space of movement, but Robert, you were drawing attention to that stuff before I was born. I geddit.

Now, I'm not arguing against Wilson's wonderfully important contribution to the modern stage, especially through all this postmodern stuff - and lord knows I love me postmodern stuff. But why marry pomo minimalism to - and I quote from the program - "the history of African-American music and culture"? I didn't see a shred of history in the piece, and it seemed that any possible connection to that history was deliberately severed.

I'm being harder on the thing than it really warrants. But as another patron said at the opening night party, The Temptation of St Anthony would make a great concert.


That's more like it! Good on ya, Shaun Parker, about whom I know exactly nothing.

When I asked a colleague their thoughts after last night's showing, she thought for a moment and came back with: "It was very... busy."

Which is just how I like it. There's so much going on in this piece - visually, thematically, aurally - that you often miss things. It's hard to be bored. You're always working, but there's such a great sense of play that you don't feel you're being punished or anything.

It's set in a kitschy, ambiguously defined space that could be a bus-stop waiting room, a hospital foyer, an underground bunker or an antechamber to the afterlife. A very strange collection of people are sitting around - a Hawaiian-shirted lout with a boombox, a nervous-looking secretary sort, a bearded hippie type and a few others. Things start getting weird very quickly. Hippie type pulls partially naked people from a vending machine, a nerdy fellow begins singing in an early music kinda of soprano, people split into two, and of course, being ostensibly a dance piece, there's plenty of dancing. Most of it is informed by breakdance styles with plenty of flips, unsupported headstands and even some popping an' locking. The infrequent dialogue isn't the show's strongest point, but it does make clear that the show is about the ways people make sense of their world, through philosophy, religion, violence and so on. There's also a strong motif of control, people often manipulating each other in innovative ways.

It's a pretty short show, and it finishes tomorrow, so get on down and grab yourself a seat. Like Temptation, what you get from This Show will largely depend on you - it's just that Parker gives you so much more to work with.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Calm Before the MIAF Storm

I have seen a lot of movies lately so here are some reviews.


Stupid, forgettable and mostly irrelevant name aside, this little US feature is such a sweet treat it instantly found a way into my crabby heart. It reminded me of a sub-genre of film I'd all but forgotten about but once had had a special fondness for: the mid-90s New York indie dramedy. Not the self-consciously auteur-style American indie flicks of the early 90s by folks such as Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley and the like, but the ones by directors who you probably never heard about, and who made films that generally went straight to video here. They often featured actors like Parker Posey or Steve Buscemi.

Delirious does in fact feature Buscemi in one of the best roles of his career, as an angry papparazzi photographer who holds his celebrity targets in contempt while simultaneously wishing for their acceptance. It's a fantastic character, full of depth and fully realised. And it's directed by Tom DiCillo, who did archetypal 90s NY indie flicks such as Living in Oblivion.

The story follows a young, pretty homeless kid who makes his way into Buscemi's life as his wide-eyed assistant, and a hot pop songstress who gets between them. It's not really about fame, per se; it's more about the growing friendship between two down-and-outers with very different visions of humanity, and the trials that friendship has to face. It's wonderfully funny throughout, in a quiet way (though I laughed out loud a handful of times), but the undercurrent of bittersweet melancholy that runs thoughout the film will probably linger with me more than the comic stuff.

It's a very minor but very enjoyable film. Tell me what you think. Oh and Parker Posey doesn't appear, but the role she would have played is filled out by Gina Gershon, who has the credentials to make this a proper certified 90s New York Indie Flick herself. Just one that came a decade and a half late.


I like zombie movies. I liked the first Resident Evil (a bit). I didn't like it enough to see its sequel. But I had tickets to see the threequel, so see it I did.

The thing about zombie movies is that they're pretty hard to mess up. Dump a garbage can full of slops on a bunch of non-speaking extras, tell 'em to shamble about moaning, and have a group of interesting and ethnically various characters run around trying not to have a chunk bitten out of them - that's all you need for some good ol' fashioned fun, like mamma used to make.

And on top of that, zombies are the perfect symbol for the modern horror filmmaker with pretensions - you can use them to symbolise anything. The detrimental, deadening effects of consumer society (Day of the Dead), the essential brutality of mankind when freed from social strictures (28 Days Later), the post-capitalist return of a repressed underclass (Land of the Dead).

Or, in the case of Resident Evil: Extinction, you can use zombies to symbolise exactly nothing but an army's worth of fugly dudes with gloop for faces ready to get mashed up by Milla Jovovich. I know that sounds okay for a film's premise really, but I left the film with the expression you normally reserve for leaving an elevator after somebody has dropped their guts and hasn't owned up to it.

It's hard to really remember much of the film, it was so thin. The whole world is taken over by zombies, a motley gang of survivors drive through the wastelands trying to survive, and the audience is waiting for Tina Turner and some kind of Thunderdome to pop up.

I do feel a certain kinship with the crew behind the film, though. I spent most of the movie with no idea what was going to happen next, or how what just happened related to anything that happened before, and I think that's exactly how the people who made the film were feeling during filming. There's a devil-may-care attitude to narrative structure, dramatic pacing and simple logic that I can't help but tip my non-existent hat to.

A good example is the way this is one of those films where the heroine seem to acquire and lose super powers whenever randomly, so at one moment she's telekinetically wiping out hordes of monsters with flames controlled by her mind alone, and the next all of her friends are getting massacred while she is stuck high-kicking and machete-chopping an army of zombies. Huh? Use your brain, Milla!

And yet.



I caught a preview of this new Cronenberg number early in the week and spent much of it clutching my neck. Throat-cuttings, clearly, are very in-season.

Eastern Promises is the Godfather of Russian Mafia films, but with less epic familial saga-ness and more bad hairstyles on Viggo Mortensen. It does have my fave Aussie actress (tm) Naomi Watts though, who does a decent job here.

Naomi is a London nurse who delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian sex slave who dies in the maternity ward. Things go downhill from there.

Cronenberg seems to have pulled back from the amazing body-horror of his early career, which was even still evident in more recent films like eXistenZ (or whatever it was called) and that History of Violence thing. Here, there are a few remnants of existential ickiness rough-housed into a Robert Ludlum drama, but the performances, the cold precision of the cinematography and the harrowing interest elicited by the subject matter make this a film worthy of a look-see. Just make it a light lunch beforehand.

WAAAAAIT A MINUTE. This isn't a film blog! It's an arts blog! And the Melbourne International Arts Festival opened last night!

So let's get to it!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Oh! What a Musical Life.

Ok, I've been tagged by a Man About Town and I've also got a fistful of Fringe things I should review here. A little short of time, though, so here's a short community service announcement before we go to the break.

Today, making the most of my new lifestyle, I wandered down to the local cinema and saw the remake of Hairspray. I wasn't expecting much because the original film was so good that I couldn't see how or why someone would attempt to better it. I don't know that the new version is better, but it's ridiculously smile-making and one of the best musicals I can remember (for someone who doesn't, generally, get off on musicals, despite my great love of both music and dancing.)

Anyway, having John Waters do a cameo early on seemed like some kind of seal of approval (he directed the original) and some other nods to the first version (appearances by Ricki Lake, Jerry Stiller) won me over. Well, by the time those last two appeared, I was well won already. It's great that such a subversive film made it as a Broadway musical then was slipped past the sensibilities of middle America to package a progressive, historically-minded film that is really all about bigotry in the sleek outfit of a nostalgic teen high school musical.

My only annoyance is that the character of Penny Pingleton is completely cut back in the new version - in Waters' film she was unforgettably hysterical, in several senses of the word.

MY POINT BEING: You usually walk out of a dangerously catchy musical acutely aware that the world isn't like that. People don't sing and dance on a whim, life isn't as cute as you've just been led to believe, and it's rare to find yourself wondering at just how wonderful a life your life can be.

EXCEPT: Walking home after the film, listening to some fast 60s soul to keep the mood going, I found myself nearing my house while stuck behind a very slow walking dude. He was tall, had a hoody pulled over his head and seemed intent on going nowhere fast, or at least going somewhere really, really slowly. I didn't want to overtake but I was almost home so I just kept pace a few feet behind him, thinking about why he might be taking his time so severely.

THEN: Out of the blue, as an Otis Redding track hit the chorus, he unexpectedly started dancing in the street. Just a quick dance, about three shoulder shimmies and a few up and down bopping movements. Then he was off again. And I suddenly felt a bit closer to being in a musical, where normal people like this guy can do things like that. Thank you, tall dude in hoody, you made my day. I hope you keep getting funky to that inner tune as far as it takes you.

THEN: Catching a cab to see a show tonight, nervously strumming the seatbelt as I fretted about being late, I pulled up outside the North Melbourne Town Hall and gave the cab driver ten bucks. I was in a hurry. Keep the change. He looked shocked, and waved me back for a moment.

"Then you take candy!" he exclaimed, and opened the centre console of the cab to reveal a secret tupperware container full of Korean lollies.

Thank you secret-candy hoarding cab driver!

AND FINALLY: Heading back home at the end of the night. Passing through the city. The carapace of vaguely defensive wariness descending, knowing that the city is a place for alertness, not wide-eyed wonder and the hope of gloriously fun things happening. Not a musical at all. Entrenched suspicions confirmed as a police Rapid Response vehicle suddenly arcs up and wheels around a corner, officers leaping out to halt some rough looking guys in their tracks, all barking commands to the defiance of the slowly spreading crew, an expanding sphere of uncertainty. One of those moments you tense up at.

Until a young girl with a nonchalant expression rides through the middle of the fracas on a unicycle without slowing, disappearing from the frame because hey, she was just a non-speaking extra brought in for colour.

All of this happened in about 10 hours, but it's late nowly. Good night.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Exit Stage Left

Public transport just can't be beat.

Speaking of, yesterday I saw the most exciting drama I’ve seen in a while. It was great, with lots of twists and reversals of fortune and a solid three act structure. I give it like eight thumbs up.

Absent-minded dad is standing on the 96 tram with cheeky tot on his shoulders. They’re waiting by the doors for the next stop, and he’s pushed the button to signal his intention to disembark. He’s holding a railing with one hand, the other wrapped around cheeky tot’s left ankle. This is important, as it sets up the initial tension of the scene. Cheeky tot’s own arms are waving around playing with the roof and other things, which means that the only means of support her precarious situation is afforded is absent-minded dad’s left hand.

I’m making some assumptions here – I mean that’s the only visible means of support. She might be supported by an Australia Council grant for street theatre or a genetic history of circus families, but for the purposes of this story its just pa’s meaty paw that’s preventing the possibility of a rapid descent.

That’s the opening act, and it establishes the scene pretty quickly. But then comes the complication. Cheeky tot is so named not merely because of the mischievous glint in her eye, but from her willingness to cause TROUBLE. Which is what she does: with one of her hands, she reaches out behind her and grabs one of the hanging straps ordinary, adult-sized commuters use to stabilise themselves while Melbourne’s tram drivers indulge their racing fantasies. Absent-minded dad is unaware that she’s latched onto the strap, and she keeps checking to make sure he hasn’t noticed. Boy, will he be in for a shock when he steps off the tram to find the apple of his eye still dangling amidst the bleary-eyed business crowd not used to such excitement.

Then again, we in the audience can see that absent-minded dad’s loose ankle grip will be enough to pull the kid at an angle not so conducive to laughter, and her own tiny hand doesn’t seem strong enough to maintain a hold of the strap for long.

The tram pulls up at the stop, and we’re only seconds away from disaster.

Then a new player enters the scene at this dramatic climax – a scraggly-haired, long-bearded dude who looks older than he probably is, has worked hard and played hard and lived to tell the tale, steps forward shakily from the audience to prevent the inevitable. As the tram doors open he crosses the few paces between his position and the kid’s and reaches up to catch her. Dad – still absent-minded – steps out the doors as cheeky tot, smiling all the while, lets the strap fall from her hand and is breezily carried by her father out towards whatever adventures await their night.

Scraggly-haired, long-bearded dude is left standing on the crowded tram, hands held out to save an absent child who never needed saving, observers like myself (if there were any others) wondering if we would have had the nerve to step onto the stage and risk what he did. Not the risk of becoming a part of the drama, but the risk of taking that chance and finding ourselves an unnecessary player, the chorus-member who forgot their cue to disappear into the wings.

All in all, a stand-up job from all concerned. Rich performances all round – cheeky tot is one to watch, and scraggly-haired, long-beared dude showed an unexpected commitment to the role – and the piece didn’t outstay its welcome.

I’ve seen some other great shows lately. I’ll try to post capsule reviews in the next few days, but things are pretty hectic around these parts lately.

In fact, I’m a little worried since I’m currently finishing up at my present job (sort of) and tomorrow I’ll be three days away from retirement, and anyone who has ever watched a thriller knows that when you’re three days away from retirement, you might as well be wearing a big fat t-shirt that screams “hey guys, I’m about to get my guts blown up!” I’m glad I don’t have a pregnant wife and/or kid about to graduate from military college, or I’d be a goner. Also, my angry loner lifestyle pretty much means that if the bad guy did decide to take me out tomorrow, there’d be nobody to avenge me, and what sort of dramatic scenario would that be? I’ve been smart that way, see.

But for now – look! It’s a macaque hugging a pigeon. Warning: only click the link if you are ready for extreme AWWWWW-someness.