Regularly added bite-sized reviews about Literature, Art, Music & Film.
Voltaire said the secret of being boring is to say everything.
We do not wish to say everything or see everything; life, though long is too short for that.
We hope you take these little syntheses in the spirit of shared enthusiasm.
(by Rex Warner) (1941)
Prima facie, this is a poor book: clunkily written, slurpily edited, wildly uneven, as devoid of depth in characters or the forces moving them as any book can be. And yet, it has something; it tackles the great theme of the 20th Century, and beyond – totalitarian cohesion and ‘cleanliness’ vs the chaos and mud of ‘normal’ humanity. And the dry, deadpan way in which high tragedy and low comedy are presented here seem in a screwy authentic way to mirror the keep-calm-and-carry-on fashion of the time in which it was written.
Roy (i.e. Rex) is an orphan brought up at the Rectory in the kind of rural village one finds in Boulting Bros. comedies, adjacent the sinister Aerodrome, which steadily acquires and reshapes its ground and mores. The Air Vice-Marshal is the implacable overlord – his crimes must continue so that the world may be clean. By ‘clean’, he means free of the detritus of the old way, such as family, home, love and marriage, deistic traditions, private property: all words without wings, not to be uttered or indulged by airmen.
Roy, close to a blank-slate, becomes a Speer to this Hitler-figure, who will ultimately be disappointed in him (as all fathers and sons eventually are in the other). It is not just Roy who has a patchy past – the village could have been named Peyton Place. And up at the Aerodrome, despite all the Gestapo-style gung-ho, there are secrets and lies too. The scofflaw Flight-Lieutenant, a cipher if there ever was, has his fingerprints everywhere, including on Roy’s fiancé. At one stage, he accidentally kills the Rector whilst demonstrating a machine gun at a village fair (naturally) and informs the victim’s putative son, Roy: “Of course, it was quite unintentional, but I can’t help feeling a bit cut up about it.”
The plot, loopy and jerry-built as it is (Nineteen Eighty Four it ain’t) has Roy lapsing in his fascistic fervour (which disappears as fast as it arose) and choosing the natural muddle of mankind, the old world, “clean…and most intricate, fiercer than tigers, wonderful and infinitely forgiving.” Warner was a Kafka groupie but unlike his idol, he is an optimist, and so the underdogs muddle through to triumph, though without honour, or much of it.Continue Reading →
Since Australia’s first Eurovision entry in 2015 Guy Sebastian’s “Tonight Again’, we have cheered Dami Im (second in 2016 (she was robbed)) and have cringed at Jessica Mauboy, notably referred to by ‘The Spectator’ magazine as a ‘vast caterwauling aboriginal‘.
Finally we antipodeans have had the opportunity to vote (as if it hasn’t all been decided beforehand) on our entrant. The final, from the appropriately kitsch Gold Coast, Queensland, was shown on SBS and hosted by a chipper Joel Creasy (“trilingual” in English, Millenial and Drag-Queen) and an uncomfortable Myf Warhurst in unflattering hot pink.
Each of the ten entrants was introduced with cheery footage of them at their usual daily activities aboard a rollercoaster, on a segue, in a harness, and so on.
We explain our Euro Points System here. But really it’s the vibe of the thing. This year we scored each act out of 5. We also awarded Song Points, that is to say, the higher the score, the more likely that we could bear to listen to this song in the real world, when not suffering ‘Eurovision Delusion Syndrome’. We also noted Euro quotes this year. These are the usual vapid and cliched statements made by the contestants. There is an exception. We were too gob-smacked by Ella Hooper’s camel toe to recall a word that she had said.
So here we are – The Official TVC Australian Eurovision Final votes for 2019 –
1 – Ella Hooper, (ex Killing Heidi) plump in a curious lace leotard-legging outfit with an unfortunate centre seam – Eurovision gold!! 1 Song Point for a forgettable number, Data Dust. 3 Euro Points for the outfit, the Ruby Wax look alike on guitar and a mosh pit dive.
2 – the duo Electric Fields with 2000 and Whatever. 3 points for a not too bad song, despite its being incomprehensible whether in English or indigenous language. A massive 4 Euro points for gender fluidity, a big hair reveal, bad dancing and lava lamp backdrop. Electric Field’s Euro quote – “Cos at the end of the day we are more similar than we are different”. (This sentiment must be uttered during every Eurovision telecast, at least once. Preferably in French).
3 – Mark Vincent with This is Not the End. Mark has the speaking voice of Santo Cilauro and the singing voice of a psuedo opera singer. 3.5 for a pretty decent James Bondish song. 1 Euro point – for the Khamal-like effect. Euro quote – “Music for me is everything. It is my life”. This is also a compulsory Eurovision statement.
4 – Ayden. Ayden believes the urban myth that affecting a single name improves a mediocre act’s chances of winning Eurovision. It doesn’t . You see, ABBA were appealing and talented. Ayden is neither. Ayden worked his way through Dust, using every trick Ayden learned at Boy Band School, pointing at the camera and at random 12 year old girls in the crowd, and casting smouldering, self-loving looks. Nil points for the song. Nil Euro points. Ayden’s Euro quote – “I feel like I’m starting to discover my sound”.
5 – Courtney Act. We smiled at Courtney’s pre-song film when she wobbled across a rocky coastal outcrop wearing 4 inch stilettos, and that was the end of the amusement. Courtney cannot sing and her Fight for Love was blah. 0 for the song. A solid 4 Euro points for the creepy, crotch-skimming shiny red rubber outfit, the contortionists (!), more gender fluidity and releasing a red heart-shaped balloon. Courtney’s Euro quote was the weakest attempt of the night – “[I’m] fighting for refugee rights….it’s kind of a protest song”. Sigh.
(We pause here for Myf’s Euro quote : “There is such a diverse range of genres on stage tonight”, and Joel’s lovely reference to “fruity lexia and a cube of cheese” (Although in true Eurovision style this does not seem to be entirely original. We suspect Mr Creasy of owing something to Two and a Half Men’s “box of wine and can of aerosol cheese”).
6. Leea Nanos, a halfway decent turn. Leea, who is 16, as we were constantly reminded, had her hair done-up like Get Smart’s Barbara Feldon, put on Agent 99’s lace-up jumpsuit and warbled Set Me Free. A bit Italian Variety Style but worth 3.5 for the song. 3 Euro points for the huge backside, a lot of hopping up and down, odd gestures and laser effects. Because she is 16, Leea gets more than one Euro quote: “I can express myself through music the best…I’m not the best with words”, “[It’s about] my own experience with a guy I liked”, and “I may be 16 but I’m chasing my goals.” Bless.
7. Sheppard. A true (does that mean fake?) Eurovision contender here – one band member wore a crown and blue hair, another gamely donned a sequinned mini dress and strummed a guitar. On My Way gets an average 2.5 Song Points but the whole effort gets 4.5 Euros. Their Euro quote is suitably odd. “We’re actually siblings”. Hmm.
8. After banging on and on about his nonna, Alfi (on no! Ayden will be angry), an over-muscled narcissist, sang To Myself (no surprises there). Lyrics included the lines, “I can’t blame nobody else. Did I do this to myself? It was wrong”. We think he was referring to his astoundingly complex facial hair. Finishing with a seductive look to camera, Alfi gets 0 points and 0 points. Alfi’s quote is beautiful- “It goes down into the roots of my teenage years and struggling with my sexuality”.
9. Kate Miller-Heidke (see main image). Now, this is Eurovision. It is no spoiler to tell you that Ms Miller-Heidke won the Australian final and is odds-on to win the whole thing. Wearing a 12 foot high Statue of Liberty get-up and doing a fabulous squeaky impression of that other Kate – Bush – she fake-operetta’d her way through Zero Gravity, backed by a dark shadow witchy person on a bendy stilt. Again, there is nothing new in Eurovision and we were reminded of Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva in Lisbon in 2018. Kate is not the opera singer she thinks she is, but she IS Eurovision, also giving us the grown-up version of one of Leea Nanos’s Euro quotes (Leea is 16), “it uses the metaphor of a bad relationship”. But that’s not Kate’s Euro quote, her winner in that category is another Eurovision compulsory, “It’s a hard song to sing”. 5 for the song and 5 Euros.
10 – Tania Doro. Poor Tania. She had to go on after the dark shadow on the bendy pogo stick…also she is too old for Eurovision. (Leea Nanos is only 16.) Tania’s song, Piece of Me was ok, as was her voice. 2 points for that. 2 Euro points for the weird fat dancers and asymmetrical purple pant suit. Tania’s Euro quote though is a Eurovision rhinestone!! “We’ve had quite a bit of interest from it including JLo” and the ever-wonderful, boast “…as a working mum…”.
SBS did a terrific job. Joel and Myf are likeable, although Myf was nervous. Julia Z and Sam P were missed. The show was snappy and awkward, glitsy and quick. In particular, the voting was mercifully fast, although we would have enjoyed some Face-time links, “Hello from Pymble and thank you SBS for a great show….” 4 Euro points.Continue Reading →
“Bohemian Rhapsody. The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury” (by Lesley-Anne Jones) (1997; recently re-issued)
This biography (not to be confused with the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody – click here for our review) is a sympathetic look at the life of the Queen front-man, from his lonely boyhood as Farrokh Bulsara, diligent Parsee schoolboy at an Indian boarding school, to his lonely death at age 46 as Freddie Mercury, adored British rock star. Some of those from his Zoroastrian background do not see this as an upward trajectory – his cousin Diana said, “He gave up his family name. He did not live like us. He was nothing at all to do with us. He never came back. He wasn’t proud of Zanzibar. He was a stranger. He was of another life.” Certainly, Freddie kept his sexuality and the more sordid aspects of his lifestyle from his conservative parents as well as he could, although it is hard to believe that they were as naive as he hoped. They could read the newspapers, after all.
It’s always a mistake to call a biography “definitive”. (See our review of Gold Dust Woman : The Biography of Stevie Nicks although Jones’ book is much better than Davis’s). Several earlier biographies are mentioned by Jones, “Mercury and Me” 1994, by Mercury’s partner Jim Hutton (and Tim Wapshott) apparently is an undignified tell-all about their sexual practices and Mercury’s final days. This one, although not “sanitised” sufficiently to horrify Sacha Baron Cohen (see review above), is light reading and not sensationalist. It is kind and generous to Freddie, who although kind, generous and polite himself, could be vicious and demanding – not surprising given that he was part of a multi-million dollar business which sent tens of tons of equipment by sea and air in advance of international dates.
The pivotal place of Mary Austin, an early friend and former lover, in Mercury’s life is well-documented. The image of Mercury in his long-haired, velvet-and-satin bohemian days lunching with Mary in the Rainbow Room is too much for this Biba aficionado. Mary was with Freddie until the end, finally as a sort-of paid friend and hard-edged keeper of the door. It is suggested that in part she used Mercury’s guilt about having not fulfilled his promise to marry her to retain her closeness. Mercury’s liaisons with Jim Hutton and countless nameless men are well known. Less well-known and surprising is his relationship (and yes, it was sexual) later in life with Barbara Valentin, a plump, middle-aged former actress whom he seemed really to have loved.
Jones’ book suffers from the fault of all biographies written by an “I was there journalist”, who really wasn’t there all that much. A breathless piece in the Introduction details the conversation Mercury had with Jones and other journalists who happened to be in the same pub (Mercury having apparently not yet “sussed” them). Jones – “We were keeping a lid on it. Trying to be cool. Willing the killer instinct to subside, the one that would have had us flying at the phone to call our news editors with the scoop of the year, that we had rock’s most sought-after showman cornered in a foreign boozer; we swallowed a couple more shots and waited. This was a priceless opportunity”. And the off the record – until now – scoop? Freddie ‘mused’, “I’ve created a monster. The monster is me. I can’t blame anyone else. It’s what I’ve worked for since I was a kid. I would have killed for this. Whatever happens to me is all my fault. It’s what I wanted. It’s what we all strive or. Success, fame, money, sex, drugs – whatever you want. I can have it. But now I’m beginning to see that as much as I created it, I want to escape from it, I’m starting to worry that I can’t control it, as much as it controls me.” Freddie, no more naive than his parents, could read the papers too.
As is usual in this sort of biography, there is a lot of regurgitating of things said by the subject’s fellow band members, family, assistants, managers, hangers on and other musicians – usually not to Jones herself. Oddly, photographs of Jones with these types of people (none with the subject of the book) are included in the photos. These, and other pictures should have been excised and the money saved spent on better quality paper.
Criticisms of the book have included the claim that it jumps around time-wise. That is so, but typical for this kind of soft biography. There are a helpful Chronology and Discography and an unhelpful Index at the back. A list of the major players would have helped, as the various sound engineers, managers, PR people, musicians and accompanists quoted are difficult to differentiate. Perhaps Jones should not have asserted that in the film to be made after publication of her book, “Freddie is played by Borat and Bruno star Sacha Baron Cohen…”
From this reviewer’s personal point of view, it is surprising that there is no mention of Queen being booed off the stage in Victoria, Australia in 1974 (“go back to Pommyland, ya pooftahs”). Nor is there mention of Queen’s tour of Australia in 1976, which the reviewer knows happened, because she saw them on stage in Adelaide on the 15th April that year.
Naturally, a book about Freddie Mercury will contain much about his sexuality and partiality for orgies. This is not a book for musicians, but perhaps a little more about the actual mechanics of Queen’s music and Mercury’s talent would have brought it up a stage.
This seems a lot of criticism for a three star book. Do not let these fore-warnings deter you if you are a Queen devotee or simply interested in the horrors of the rock world. It is an ordinary rock biography, just a cut above average, unlike its subject. On other hand, it is charming and fast-moving, like its subject.Continue Reading →
Whereas Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance is a profound and hilarious whole, Seiobo There Below is a profound and melancholic collection of vignettes. Each of the 17 short fiction pieces (numbered on the Contents page according to the Fibonacci sequence*) captures the inexpressible numinosity of artistic creation, the quality that lies just beyond our ken. Krasznahorkai contemplates the ineffable in a heron’s stillness, the impossibility of comprehending the Acropolis, the ritualistic carving of a theatre mask, the never-resting practise of Noh, the magnificence of the Venus de Milo. A man’s insanity becomes manifest upon a viewing of Rublev’s Troika (or is it a copy?):-
“…and he also saw how in the middle of the big painting, and to the right, the colours were somewhat faded; then there was the staircase again, but now it was winding downward, and the gold leaf on the pictures gleamed, but what disturbed him the very most was that in between all of these simultaneous pictures flashing again and again were the three angels, as they bent their heads to one side, or more precisely, as the middle one and the one on the right bent their heads toward the one on the left, who bowed his head toward them, then all three of the angels looked at him, but just for a second, because almost immediately they disappeared only the colors remained, the luminous blue and crimson of their cloaks – of course not just any old luminous blue or any old crimson, if these were even blues or crimsons at all, he wasn’t even sure of that, and not even sure that it was even colors that he had seen, he wasn’t certain of anything at all, because they just flared up and then flashed away, but in such a way that the other pictures were flaring up and flashing away at the same time, with such speed in his head…”
The expression of an ancient statue of the Buddha restored in the most minute details is more than the sum of its parts –
“…the only problem is that when Master Fujimori stands behind the back of the young restorer and leans forward above his shoulder to examine the head and the two eyes, the words choke in his throat; the eyes, that is, really are finished, there can be no doubt to an expert, as Fujimori is himself, that his subordinate spoke correctly, the restoration of the two eyes is complete; it is, however, difficult to say exactly how this can be known, yet in any event, it is sufficient merely to look at the head of the Buddha affixed to Koinomi’s worktable, the diadems are still not screwed back into place, as someone else at another table is stabilizing their surface; it is enough to cast one glance to know perfectly that Koinomi is speaking the truth – the gaze is exactly what it should be, as it might have been originally in that year, sometime around 1367, when an unknown artist sought out by the Zengen-ji or recommended to them carved it; someone standing near the back formulates this thought in a muted voice when, at Koinomi’s announcement, everyone gathers around Koinomi and the workshop director: the gaze has ‘returned’ and everyone is visibly in agreement; indeed, captivated, they stare at this gaze, this look that ascends from below the two half-closed eyes, the gaze of this looking…”
The best pieces are those concerning Japanese rituals. Krasznahorkai (being himself a master of meticulous detail) depicts the ponderous attention to minute details of half-understood traditions in looping, glittering streams of breathless prose. Krasznahorkai does not wear his learning lightly. The stories can be difficult to read, replete as they are with the knowledge of painting, sculpting, and theatre that the author must have researched to the quantum level.
Stellar.[We had to look up “Fibonacci sequence” – each number is the sum of the two preceding ones, starting from 0 and 1 – Ed.] Continue Reading →
Staged at Adelaide Festival Theatre, 4 January 2019 (Directed by Simon Phillips)
(1959 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Everybody knows the story: Manhattan Ad-man Roger O. Thornhill is mistaken for a (non-existent) government agent, kidnapped, framed and chased across the country by Cold War heavies. Hitchcock’s romantic thriller is a classic, featuring legendary scenes such as the interlude on the train to Chicago between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the attack on Thornhill by a crop-duster, and the chase over the Mount Rushmore monument. And besides Grant and Saint, there were James Mason as a suave villain, Martin Landau as his lethal secretary, Jessie Royce Landis as Roger’s doubting Mum, and Leo G. Carroll as the Intelligence Chief.
Even with the magic of film, this big production created difficulties and blew-out the budget. Although the Director was one of the greatest handlers of film that ever lived, there were a number of hurdles and exigencies. For example, the authorities banned Hitchcock from filming any scenes on the monument, after some locals grumbled. But Hitch had MGM studios as a backdrop where he could fabricate outdoor locations, and he also had real New York and Chicago locations to boot. It made for a lush, grand, suspenseful adventure in the old style, reminiscent of The Master’s films The Thirty-Nine Steps, Notorious and To Catch a Thief, and it was one of his biggest successes.
Cue the Kay + McLean Production of North by Northwest on stage at Adelaide, a play of the film (reversing the norm) adapted by Carolyn Burns, directed by Simon Phillips. If one is familiar with the film, and we are confident most of the large audience last night were, the challenges of a stage version seem daunting, not only due to the large number of scenes, the dizzying pace, and technical problems with sets, but also the memory of the film’s lead’s charismatic quality. TVC is relieved and pleased to say that these challenges were well-met indeed. From the homage to Saul Bass’s titles, presented in semaphore by the entire cast at the start, to the cliffhanging finale, it was clear that the players were going to have fun with it, and eventually they carried-along even the staunchest of curmudgeons in the crowd.
Of the cast, we have to shout a well-done for the sheer energy, poise and technical skill displayed. Apart from Matt Day as Thornhill and Amber McMahon as Eve, and the key villain Philip Vandaam (Jonny Pasvolsky), in the main the others had to take on a staggering raft of walk-ons and offs, bearing with them the infrastructure for the frequent scene changes. We can’t recall such frenzied stage kinetics since The Last Confession, and this was even faster. The roles were all done well – we had concerns with Day in the first half, who seemed tentative and ill-at-ease, but this may well have been deliberate playing, an everyman out of his depth – he was more assured and satisfying after interval. McMahon and Pasvolsky were splendid as were Tom Davey (the oily Leonard), and Nicholas Bell, playing almost everyone else. But, really, the whole cast was terrific.
Ernest Lehman’s original script is hardly changed – some extraneous touches here, some superfluous exposition here, but the additions didn’t detract and the subtractions didn’t matter. Bernard Herrmann’s glorious score is retained, and some scenes from the film serve as useful prop devices. There is no way you can render the story realistically on stage, so the producers made a virtue of necessity and revealed the normally hidden machinery. And what ingenious and amusing machinery it was, often simple, sometimes breathtaking, a featured player in itself! The scenes involving planes, trains and automobiles were inspired, along with the various dramatic spaces, exits and entrances. The famous crop-dusting episode, with its conflagration, was both hilarious and sensational. But whoever dreamed-up the theatrical solution to the various problems in staging the Mount Rushmore scenes deserves a Tony, an Olivier and a Helpmann Award for that alone.
All in all, this was great fun, a worthy proof of live theatre, and made a most entertaining evening. Mr. Hitchcock would have been impressed.Continue Reading →
Lanthimos’s Anne (Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 8 March 1702 to 1 May 1707, and thereafter of Great Britain and Ireland to 1714) is bloated, dull and not fit for purpose. Just like his film about two women’s rivalry for her favour.
We decided to give The Favourite 2 stars, calculated as follows:
+1 star for effort;
+1 star for most of the performances (in particular, Olivia Colman as Queen Anne);
+1/2 star for the black, white and grey costumes;
-1/2 star for allowing Mark Gattis to pretend again that he can cope with serious roles (sensational though he is in the black comedy League of Gentlemen);
-1/2 star for the ravingly silly ending; and
-1/2 star for the plinky plinkety-plink-plink music.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Adam McKay) (2018)
Take a piece of South Park, stir in a humdrum Michael Moore mockumentary and add a dash of Saturday Night Live, and Voilá! You have Vice, not the worst film of the year, but certainly the stupidest and most tendentious. Director Adam McKay, a graduate of Great Valley High School, Pennsylvania, and a university drop-out, once made a genuinely funny film – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), but he is out of his depth here, directing his own script, designed as a comedic character assassination on a popular hate-figure, Richard Cheney, Vice President of the United States under George W. Bush. ‘Vice’ is used in the sense of an “immoral or evil habit or practice.” McKay previously wrote (with Will Ferrell, who co-produces here) a similar polemic, on Dubya, called You’re Welcome America. Now he has skimmed a couple of books by progressive journalists and thinks himself ready to encapsulate Cheney, a complex, contentious and rather elusive figure.
McKay calls himself a “democratic socialist” (a Trotskyite, in other words) who supports Bernie Sanders, which is why Hilary Clinton gets a dig in the movie, along with the evil Republicans. It’s their time, what with the current round of political fraying in America and resultant hopeless division, so we guess that this ridiculous, facile, bigoted, devious, dreary, arrogant (and, unfortunately, unfunny) production will be a big hit. In particular, we predict that:
Of the performances, the less said the better. But we must mention Sam Rockwell, who plays a guileless Bush as he might in a South Park cartoon, obviously by design, and Steve Carell (as Donald Rumsfeld) who gives us mimicry rather than a portrayal. And, for a film posing as an edgy political comedy, it sure does drag. How many times must we see Cheney’s heart on the slab? Or Condi Rice, frowning and flummoxed? How often must Everyman Kurt (Jesse Plemons) bob-up to remind us of Dick’s perfidy? If you’re going to do a hatchet-job for laughs, why not go further? If we’d been in charge, we’d have lightened things-up-a-bit: when Nixon and Kissinger are in a closet dreaming-up the bombing of Cambodia, we would have had them spit-roasting an Asian war-child. We’d have had a young Cheney raping librarians at Yale with Brett Kavanaugh. Cheney would give his gay daughter electric-shock therapy. Napalm deer. Pour oil into Yosemite, to drive the price up. Teach golden retrievers to attack African-Americans. Send Mexicans to gas chambers while trying to scientifically establish that Saudis are Honourary Ayrans.
The invasion of Iraq was an awful, shameful, strategic blunder, hazarding and dissipating much blood and treasure, and it deserves to be treated rationally, not as a glib and callous simpleton would. This film is therefore not simply an expensive piece of dreck, but a travesty of history, in which we are expected to believe that a Vice President would subvert the Constitution and sanction War Crimes in order to please his wife and advance his business interests, and that he would puppeteer his Commander-in-Chief to direct an invasion of a sovereign nation because the cloak of an actual country to demonise was required. Perhaps the film-makers truly believe this. But they show no evidence, nor sign of crediting any genuine motive on the part of their targets. In their righteous minds, people such as Cheney and Rumsfeld are not only stupid, but evil. And that’s what takes this film out of the realm of art, despite the high production values, and drops it in the zone of doctrine. True believers will love it.Continue Reading →
(Or “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion“) (written by Jonathon Haidt) (2012)
Yes, TVC knows that our reviews are not up-to-date: this book was published in 2012 and it is now several years hence. Note that we reviewed Indoctrinaire (1971) this year, as well as A Farewell to Arms (1929), and Those Barren Leaves (1925) for example. Why, we only got around to reviewing The Brothers Karamazov (1880) last year. So give us a break – especially since recent events across the world (particularly Tr(i)umphalism, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Brexit, the crisis in Syria, and the Yellow-Jacket revolt in France) have made this book more timely than before.
Warning to skeptics: the author is a “social psychologist,” which to many mixes a word freighted in fraud with an arts degree. However, whatever one might say about the qualifications, or the value of the various psychological ‘experiments’ designed to gauge the moral sense of the human animal recounted here, the book seems to be full of good sense, sound evidence and analysis, genuine revelation, a key-to-all-mythologies and a cri de coeur, summed up in its opening quote of Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”
Perhaps the only flaw in the work is that Haidt thinks we can. No we can’t – of course we can’t. Spend half an hour on any popular social media platform, with any decent history book, or watching, say, Glenelg v Port Adelaide or West Ham v Tottenham Hotspur, and you will be forced to the same conclusion. We can learn from each other: we can respect and admire each other: we can even engage in civil argument, but we cannot all get along and never shall. But it is helpful to have a sound operating theory why, and this book provides it in friendly, learned, accessible terms.
Haidt posits three basic principles: (1) Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second. Many times each day, we tend to conclude something is right or wrong in an instant, act accordingly (whether we overcome our borgeois scruples is another matter) and rationalise or justify our actions later. Lawyers will tell you the majority of their clients seek their opinion on a contract after they’ve signed it. David Hume (1711-1776) concluded that “belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.” Haidt concurs and offers an apt metaphor – the Rider and the Elephant, whereby reason tries to steer, or at least influence, the passions, with variable success. His instances (whether from anthropology, experimental psychology, Darwin or life experience) are nearly always apt. For example, as to the inner ‘lawyer,’ or ‘press-secretary’ of the passions, he observes “On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I was a chronic liar” and proceeds to explain how and why in brilliant and subtle terms. In essence, we tend to ‘automatic self-righteousness’ rather than listen to our inner Jiminy Cricket). And, after Glaucon (perception, i.e. reputation, beats reality), Haidt shows that we operate in a moral space not so much on rational or altruistic grounds, but “much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” Hence ‘confirmation bias’ and the warm inner glow of group-think.
(2) There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. We are multifarious (and contradictory), with varied degrees of empathy and ‘systemizing’. Of the latter tendency, Jemmy Bentham (clinical ‘diagnosis’: Asperger’s) and Immanuel Kant are cited (of Kant’s admonition to act so that every action can become a universal law, we recall Charles Strickland’s response in The Moon and Sixpence; “rotten nonsense.”) Haidt identifies moral foundations that are ‘innate,’ an evolutionary response to adaptive challenges, which resolve into Care and Fairness (the ‘liberal’ pillars) and the other, more conservative bases: Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. He likens these to receptors on the tongue, themselves adaptive to the palette of tastes in the natural world arising from the evolutionary need to distinguish twixt fair and foul. Controversially, but correctly, Haidt criticizes the Left in its limited moral receptors, confined to Care (when at its sometimes misguided best) and Fairness (often disproportionately, and about which you can debate ’til the sun blows up), whilst showing indifference or even hostility to the other moral foundations (particularly the sacred vs the profane). This broader spectrum of moral foundations is what Haidt, a lifelong progressive, identifies as the ‘Conservative Advantage.’ Until liberals (American Democrats in particular) stop treating conservatives as brain-damaged or evil (or both)* and start broadening their campaigns along the moral spectrum (i.e. recognise and respond to issues of individual freedom (but with boundaries), personal loyalty, respect for flag and institutions, and respect or at least tolerance for the spiritual or transcendent), they’ll be in opposition more than in power. (This applies to the Labor Party in Australia as well: they continually gain our empathy with Care and Fairness, which dissipates when they attack the other foundations. Which is probably why, in the 73 years since WWII, they’ve been in opposition two times more than in power.)
(3) Morality Binds and Blinds. We like to ‘team up.’ Whether in the deity you worship, the sporting team you follow or the party you vote for, group adaptation, a kind of multi-level selection made up of complex natural and nurturing causalities, informed by reason and a hankering for the sacred, makes us choose sides. (It is part of why homo sapiens saw-off neanderthals.) We’re 90% monkey but 10% bee. Haidt cites Darwin: “Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment – originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Haidt hoes into the ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, who, unlike Darwin, lazily demolish the metaphysical element of belief and reject idealism while ignoring its social and evolutionary utility. Haidt asserts that teaming-up spiritually, as group adaptation, was a major transition up the evolutionary ladder, a once in half-billion year event that resonates today. The binding inculcates trust, and “trust makes people less selfish…similarly, patriotism and parochialism are good things because they lead people to exert themselves to improve the things they can improve.”
The author calls progressive and conservative thought the Yin and Yang of contemporary politics. For example, freedom does need fences (conservatives might say) and the liberal preference for regulation provides a legitimate fence in certain circumstances (such as anti-trust laws). But legislators should ‘first do no harm’ – when rules go viral and enmesh all, you get the type of governance described by Ronald Reagan: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. When it stops moving, subsidize it.” A good example is offered in the book of the application of a universal healthcare model to groceries – resulting in limited choice, food shortages and skyrocketing costs. Markets only work when they are open and free. Governments traditionally hijack, blunder into, or relentlessly tinker with, free markets.
Haidt has very little to say generally about a person’s own developmental worldview (e.g., Churchill’s aphorism that a man who is not a socialist at twenty has no soul; a man who is a socialist at forty has no brain) but he certainly records something along these lines in a personal sense. He’s a lifelong bleeding heart, but read this comment: “Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race, and more recently on sexual orientation. But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often lead them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. For example, the urge to help the inner-city poor led to welfare programs in the 1960s that reduced the value of marriage, increased out-of-wedlock births, and weakened African American families. The urge to empower students by giving them the right to sue their teachers and schools in the 1970s has eroded authority and moral capital in schools, creating disorderly environments that harm the poor above all. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity. Emphasizing differences makes many people more racist, not less. On issue after issue, it’s as though liberals are trying to help a subset of bees (which really does need help) even if doing so damages the hive. Such “reforms” may lower the overall welfare of a society, and sometimes they even hurt the very victims liberals were trying to help.”
Nevertheless, Manichaeism abounds, which goes some way to explaining the Middle East. But the types of issues mentioned above, at least, can surely be debated civilly, with evidence and reason. Can’t they? The author thinks so, and he has been so fair and persuasive to this point that we fervently hope he is right when he concludes “we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of the whole.”
We conclude with two other cris de coeur. One is from The Affair by C. P. Snow (1960) which concerns a trial of a don for scientific fraud at a College. Lewis Eliot, defending, comments on some of the prejudicial evidence about the accused’s political leanings, and says in his closing: “Could the Court really give the faintest encouragement to the view that character and opinion went hand in hand? Wasn’t this nonsense, and dangerous nonsense?…Wasn’t it the chronic danger of our time, not only practical but intellectual, to let the world get divided into two halves? Hadn’t this fog of prejudice – so thick that people on the two sides were ceasing to think of each other as belonging to the same species – obscured this case from the beginning?”
The other is from George Santayana, in his essay Intuitive Morality (1905): “Viewed from within, each religious or national fanaticism stands for a good; but in its outward operation it produces and becomes an evil. It is possible, no doubt, that its agents are really so far apart in nature and ideals that, like men and mosquitoes, they can stand in physical relations only, and if they meet can meet only to poison or to crush one another. More probably, however, humanity in them is no merely nominal essence; it is definable ideally by a partially identical function and intent. In that case, by studying their own nature, they could rise above their mutual opposition, and feel that in their fanaticism they were taking too contracted a view for their own souls and were hardly doing justice to themselves when they did such great injustice to others.”
(Directed by Paul Feig) (2018)
Anna Kendrick’s blinding teeth are not the star of this movie. Nor is Henry Ewan Golding (Sean) who has nothing to do but look frustrated and be sure never to smile. Nor is the fabulous Blake Lively (Emily) the star. The star is the wardrobe of Emily’s dandy suits. She does have a nice black dress too, which miraculously fits and flatters everyone, like those magic jeans in that other film.
It’s no wonder that Stephanie (Kendrick) is immediately smitten by Emily in her three piece suit and fedora. She declares that they are BFFs after just a few weeks. Unlikely as it is that Emily would buddy-up with a homey vlogger, their friendship is amusing and believable. Stephanie, of course, is not as tight-laced as she looks; there’s only one thing she likes more than a stiff drink.
Although its silly plot twists existed before the Big Bang, and Kendrick overdoes the nervous twittering as usual, A Simple Favor is a gem, marvellously sparkly and smile-inducing. In particular, Blake Lively is perfect as the glamorous, cutting, nonchalant mystery woman. Her taunts based on something nasty in Emily’s past are worth the price of admission alone.Continue Reading →
(Directed by Boots Riley) (2018)
“Sorry to Bother You.” The lying phrase for the Age, expressed in a myriad settings, via a hundred platforms. Here it is the foot-in-the-door tool for telemarketer Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield, last seen by TVC as the weirdly gentrified young buck in Get Out), a down-and-out (he can only buy 40 cents’ worth of petrol for his heap of a car) who acquires a selling role and a honky patois to match, refined under the guidance of avuncular co-worker (Danny Glover) who teaches him to tele-market in a “white voice.” Soon that (nasally, slightly peevish) voice has Cash on the fast track to success. But of course, that comes at a price – Cash has to leave behind his striking co-workers and fall-in with a modern-day version of Dr Moreau.
We were hoping, from the hype, to see a good American film about class (there haven’t been many since Five Easy Pieces). Alas, this is nowhere near that, but has some good things in it: we liked the surreal touches, such as Cash physically dropping-in on his telephone victims at inconvenient moments. We liked the overblown contrasts between the ethnic ‘Povos’ and the W.A.S.P. high-flyers. The morally dubious journey from work cubicle to top floor is nicely done (shades of The Apartment) and Armie Hammer is amusing as evil overlord ‘Steve Lift’, head of “WorryFree” corporation, which runs a sort of company store, with a horrific twist.
The problem here is not that the story is overtly political. And some of the performances are good – we particularly liked Stanfield, a sort of yankee Richard Ayoade from “The IT Crowd.” The problem is that the back-half of the movie drags, and is not assisted by a ludicrous conclusion that fails to work (unlike Get Out, where it did). Ideas abound, but many of them are neither fresh nor fully developed. Too much is thrown into the sink, muddying the water.Continue Reading →