Peter Lawford – The Man Who Kept the Secrets

By James Spada (1991)

This is a dense, fact-packed, competently written but somewhat pedestrian account of a very strange, sad man.

Lawford (1923 – 1984) was an urbane English actor with more charm than talent, as can be seen from his mediocre filmography (reasonable performances in MGM confectionary like The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), quite moving as the doomed soldier; Good News (1947) with June Allyson (see below); Easter Parade (1948), and Royal Wedding (1951), and effective 2nd lead roles in It Should Happen to You (1954); Exodus (1960), a neat turn as a nasty, bigoted officer; The Longest Day (1962), suave as Lord Lovat; Dead Ringer (1964), and Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell (1968) – balanced against such deplorable fare as Kangaroo (1952), Ocean’s 11 (1960), The Oscar (1966), Skidoo (1969), and a slew of other films that should have gone straight to video, if that – one pathetic late appearance was the 1979 exploitation flick Angels Revenge, a pallid rip-off of you-know-what, with Lawford as a drug kingpin, a piece later parodied as an episode of the ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ series.)

Lawford’s life was far more fascinating than anything he ever did on film. Born out of wedlock to an aging war hero and a frigid, aloof, monstrous woman he described as “a dreadful snob,” his birth was both unwanted and difficult (to revive the newborn, the nurse splashed him with brandy – an early omen), and his nomadic upbringing was one of isolation and training in mores better fitted to early adulthood:

“…Peter refused to play with a little girl aboard ship because she was wearing denim slacks. “She’s an abomination unto the Lord!” he cried. “It says so plainly in the twenty-second chapter of Deuteronomy!”

“Êtes-vous aussi fade que vous le semblez?”

However, Lawford stowed his Biblical scruples early on. Sexually baptised by a German governess when he was ten, he grew into a right pervert, preferring his raft of wives, girlfriends (and perhaps, occasionally, boyfriends – his mother, May, tried to ‘out’ him to L.B. Mayer), and, of course, call girls by the score, to engage in kinky games of a wide variety. Keep that Cepacol handy! Booze and later on, drugs, accompanied his slow descent into dissolution. But what prompted that slide into depravity?

After a disastrous childhood, surely there was nothing more wholesome than growing up under the tender mercies of Louis B. Mayer, whose diet, according to Herman Mankiewicz, “was his fellow man.”  The MGM dream factory had a way of driving its stars around the bend, Lawford and Judy Garland, two seemingly nice people with massive inferiority complexes, being prime examples.

“Don’t sing anymore Frank. Tell the people about the good work the Mafia is doing.”

The 1950s were bleak for MGM, so Lawford, not the most versatile of stars, hit the bricks, eking out a living making bad television (and he turned-down the role of James Bond). But then he got hitched to Patricia Kennedy (daughter of Rose and Joseph, sister of Jack, Bobby, Ted et al – a newsreel screamed “Pat Kennedy Marries Actor”) and by virtue of his 1954 entry into that powerful clan, insinuated himself with the Rat Pack, where his thick charm and thin talent were right at home (a light voice that “occasionally fails to land squarely on a note”, modest soft shoe and dramatic ability posed no threat).

Lawford got on best with JFK (he marshalled the celebrity vote in the ’60 election, and gave him crucial tips about presentation during the key first TV debate) who even forgave him his separation and eventual divorce from Pat. After his death though, the family closed ranks and Lawford was excluded from the magic circle of Camelot, and thereafter, banished from Sinatra’s company as well (Frank never forgave Peter for having a fling with Ava). In fact, it seems as though Lawford became a whipping boy for a lot of things he had nothing to do with. As a result, he seemed to behave badly, as typecast. Dropped like a stone by Lana Turner, for example, he turned this shattering event into a practice of dropping partners in a similarly cruelly casual manner.

Yet there are plenty of people – and it seems the author has spoken to almost all of them – willing to state that Lawford was sweet, loving and honourable. Too many concrete examples are offered of this to wave them away. And he clearly was cursed with a filament-like sensitivity as well.

The most notorious example of this is the death of Marilyn Monroe. Peter knew her for years and introduced her to JFK, who eventually ‘handed her over’ to RFK. Lawford blamed himself for her deterioration after the Kennedys cut her loose, and always felt an absolute heel for not having done more for her. It is pretty clear that he was the last person Marilyn spoke to before her death, cold in her bed from barbiturates with the receiver still in her hand, and all through that long night he looms as a key figure – prevaricating about going round there, being talked out of it by his Manager, eventually getting an ‘order’ to go and ‘clean up’ before the police arrived. Monroe had a tell-all diary, mementoes of Jack and Bobby, and possibly left a note. Lawford ensured that the mise-en-scène stayed pristine. This and the links between the Kennedys and organised crime suggest that Lawford kept quite a lot of secrets, the kind of things that make Watergate look like a Christmas pageant.

Despite Frank Sinatra cutting Lawford off, when his son was kidnapped, it was Peter he called. Lawford interceded with Bobby who mobilised the FBI, and restored Frank’s son. Sinatra threw a party to thank everyone who had assisted, but Peter wasn’t invited.

“Mr. President, the late Marilyn Monroe!”

His failures, fears, poverty, ill-health, unhealthy lifestyle and loneliness left him sliding into an abyss:

His Manager saw him about 7 o’clock in the morning, getting ready for a day’s filming in New York, chugging Tanqueray: “It was like he was drinking soda-gulp, gulp, gulp.”

He kept asking me why his life was falling apart. First he lost his friendship with Sinatra, then Marilyn died, then Jack was murdered. And his marriage was over.’

When Pat left the matrimonial home in Santa Monica and moved to New York, she took with her far more than expected, even the wire hangers. “But Peter made sure he had the last word. A few days after Pat had settled into the Fifth Avenue apartment, she was notified of a delivery from California. Outside her building, three burly, sweating men worked to unload a truckload of five-gallon plastic containers of water- fifty in all. When Pat protested that she hadn’t ordered any water, one of the deliverymen handed her a note that had come with the shipment. It read: “Dear Pat: You forgot to drain the swimming pool.””

Diagnosed with cirrhosis, Peter asks liver specialist Dr Norcross: “Can I have a glass of wine with dinner?” “You can’t even have a piece of rum cake…if you continue drinking, you’ll die.” Stunned  by the severity of Norcross’s warning, Peter resolved then and there to stop drinking. A few days later, he and Ebbins [his Manager] left the clinic. The first thing Peter did on the way home was stop at a bar and have a martini.”

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In Times of Fading Light

June 3, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Directed by Matti Geschonneck (2017)

Ah, yes, the fall of the Soviet Union and its running dogs: one never regrets a chance to enjoy a reprise. In this elegiac, allegorical piece, hardline Stalinist Wilhelm Powileit (Bruno Ganz, in a terrific performance) is celebrating his 90th birthday at home with his loving family and respectful party apparatchiks. There’s a nice spread on the rickety old dining table (furniture that should have been assembled by grandson Sascha (Alexander Fehling) – he’s the only one with the know-how, but Sascha is not there, having apparently gone off his feed about his marriage, work, and life in general.)


Sascha’s lugubrious father Kurt (Sylvester Groth) thinks Sascha is mentally ill. Why else would a young man spurn the embrace of the intellectual and material paradise that is the German Democratic Republic? Because he understands that the East German Workers’ Paradise is a sun about to flame out, that’s why. It is 1989 and the Marxist edifice, built on misery and lies, is less than another birthday away from extinction.

Wilhelm is sliding into dementia yet senses the end of things, lapsing into generational recriminations, mild sexual harassment, nostalgia and the singing of old love songs favoured by Stalin. His wife, Charlotte (Hildegard Schmahl), takes the opportunity to wistfully imagine paths she might have taken, without her heroic husband whom she is trying to poison. And Kurt is like a deer in the headlights, torn between fears for his son, daughter in law and Russian lush of a wife, Irina (Evgenia Dodina, in a tour-de-force of alcoholic insouciance).

This is a good interior tale of a people awakening from collective slumber, some grumpily, some still dazed from sleep. The production hammers home its theme much like Wilhelm crudely drives nails into the creaking dining table – the faded light, the dying foliage, the peeling paint and crumbling buildings, the birthday flowers waved away as vegetables for the cemetery, the collapsing table as a young lad (the future) reaches over to select something choice – it’s all there and yet the metaphors don’t get in the way too much, so good is the ensemble, so ruefully amusing the script, and so neatly filmed the scenes, stagey as they are. There is an eerie sense of sheep released from a pen, not having a clue what to do now. The party winding-down before Death pays a visit – the old grandma heading off into the street and vanishing – Irina drinking the house dry and then heading back to the old country one last time but unconscious – this is how Communism ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

I’ll shuffle right, you keep staring blindly left


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American Pharaoh

Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (by Adam Cohen & Elizabeth Taylor) (2000)

What other book to buy in the south side of Chicago? TVC was only a few blocks from Bridgeport, where Richard J Daley lived and died, with his wife of five or so decades and 7 children, bog Irish and loyal to their neighbourhood to an insane degree, so loyal that they looked down on Irish families that moved to the suburbs, the ones so pretentious that they “had fruit in the house when nobody was sick,”  Having selected this and one other book, TVC was ejected from the bookstore (a first) because the aged relic in charge had just heard her husband had had a fall. We duly left, but insisted on buying our two books – we’d walked several blocks!  (We hope that hubbie made it).

This long and fact-packed book covers the life of a political giant, and a paradox – “optimistic, determined, hardworking, God-fearing…backward-looking, power-hungry, and bigoted…”  We bear in mind that while Chicago is ‘our kind of town,’  it is to some a fierce place: see, for example, Hunter J. Thompson in Scanlan’s Monthly, 1/3/1970: “Chicago- this vicious, stinking zoo, this mean-grinning, Mace-smelling boneyard of a city, an elegant rockpile monument to everything cruel and stupid and corrupt in the human spirit.”

Daley…served as mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976…the most powerful local politician America has ever produced.”  He was singularly mundane and unimpressive as a person, yet his relentless drive and love for his city drove him to do big, sometimes great things, without being too particular about the means. From altar boy, member of the Hamburg Athletic Association, White Sox fan, stockyard slaughterman, growing up in the windy city’s squalor, described in books such as The Jungle and Walk on the Wild Side, Daley was consistently underestimated by foes and allies alike.  Till he became the Boss.

He became indispensable in the Democratic Party Machine modelled on Tammany Hall (which it outlived by almost a century), working and plotting as a ward captain on up, til death or corruption overtook his superiors and rivals. Daley was not an overly attractive proposition – short, stout, plain of speech, favouring roast beef and horrendous tunes by the Shannon Rovers – but he had a desire and instinct for power and was personally honest to a fault (though highly dishonest in feathering his political nest). He beat a much more eloquent opponent in 1955 and then won 5 more elections, creating countless patronage positions across the city and helping three Democratic Presidents (JFK, immediately below; LBJ, 2nd photo below and Carter, bottom of page) get elected along the way. In the notorious 1960 election where he threw the result for JFK, the lyrics of the popular song “Tea For Two” were changed to “Two for you, and three for me And here’s a few; they are all free And counting fast, I see they’re all cast for Jack…”

He was constantly building – freeways, convention halls, skyscrapers, and always cadging money, from the Federal Government and the long put-upon Illinois taxpayer (his property taxes were iniquitous) – and feather-bedding the public payroll with a literal army of rent-seekers, flunkies, goons and profiteers – henchmen who were largely left free to dip their bread in the public gravy as long as they got out the vote every couple of years. And a compliant metropolis lapped up Daley’s blarney for the better part of a quarter of a century.

He was the embodiment of Mr. Malaprop: “The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.” “Well…that question is highly problematically and loaded, as you know…” “…he referred to a bicycle-built-for-two as a “tantrum bike,” and expressed concern for the [bike] park’s “walking pedestrians.” The same year, at an atomic energy exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, he would declare it “amazing what they will be able to do once they get the atom harassed. He would declare to reporters, “I resent the insinuendos,” offer information “for the enlightenment and edification and hallucination of the alderman,” and implore his audience to “reach higher and higher platitudes.” And in a moment of despair toward the end of his career, he would exclaim, “They have vilified me, they have crucified me, yes, they have even criticized me.” 

Daly’s record was woeful on civil rights, public housing, school integration and slum clearance. He shrewdly avoided confrontation with the civil rights movement, feting, appeasing and lying to Martin Luther King and his cohort when they moved into town in the mid-sixties, all the while overseeing a remorseless strategy of segregation.  For example, the authors note that after Daley’s watch ended, as a result of his policies, the part of Chicago called North Lawndale “had just one supermarket and one bank for its 66,000 residents, but it had forty-eight lottery agents and ninety-nine liquor stores and bars.” [My kind of town – Ed.]

His machine (motto: “Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers“) was famously corrupt, rigging elections, stifling dissent, bribing voters, directing judges on contentious cases, arranging the dismissal of anyone who took on the machine, meddling with individual liberties, suppressing opposing views and demonising campaigners for reform.  He was not racist as such – rather, he wondered why the Negro didn’t seem to know his place, asking why they didn’t act “like the Jews, the Poles, the Irish and the Italians” (channeling Henry Higgins!) and his treatment of the civil rights movement was particularly disingenuous. King eventually realised that Alabama had been child’s play compared to Chicago, where Daley ruled the roost as a benevolent dictator.

Things started to fall apart for Daley in the shadow of the 1968 Presidential election. Chicago hosted the Democratic Convention, and Daley, who had helped and prospered under Kennedy and Johnson, found Humphrey pretty unimpressive. Worse, the mob had come to town, protesting the Vietnam War and pushing the race question a lot more aggressively than Dr King had done. King failed but his legacy was a new form of activism and dissent that Daley was unable to understand. So Daley’s police, a wicked, vicious, corrupt and cosseted gang of brigands, responded by going on a rampage, which, despite some provocation, was described by Senator Abe Ribicoff at the Convention as “Gestapo tactics” and determined by a later investigation to be “unrestrained and indiscriminate violence” virtually amounting to a “police riot.” It took a lot of paint off Daley, and while he later won re-election in 1971 and 1975, he never held the same amount of raw political leverage that he had before.

In an earlier work, the brilliant An American Melodrama, the authors have this to say about Daley: “In appearance, he resembles nothing so much as a gangland boss. He is short and thick-set, with drooping jowls and a brow that suggests a capacity for violent bad temper…He looks altogether like a man who would be dangerous to cross. And so he is.”  The joke was that the Mayor of Chicago was approachable, but only on tiptoe.

  American Pharaoh is an apt tribute to a ruthless empire builder.  We may not see his like again, thank goodness, but he was a prime example of the Big City Boss that got things done, by hook or by crook.  This detailed biography should be consulted by anyone who cares about Chicago, urban renewal, local government, and machine politics and patronage.

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Butterfly on a Pin by Alannah Hill

It is wrong to judge an autobiography on the character of its subject.  It’s apparent from Australian fashion designer Alannah Hill’s memoir, Butterfly on a Pin, that she is melodramatic, rude, narcissistic, deliberately ignorant and Difficult to Get On With.  Hill says that she was molested no fewer than 4 times her in her youth.  She does not mention eating anything other than junk food and lollies. In her younger days she lied, forged and stole (“the next day I shoplifted a hammer”). She is obsessed with her son* and her dead mother (whom she spends much of her book demeaning).  She had an undoubtedly rotten childhood, has pulled-herself-up by her pretty bootstraps and feels very, very sorry for herself. (When she calls herself “unjoined”, read “unhinged”).

So, not someone you would (as P says) “want to go on a houseboat holiday with”**, but you would want to read her book. You DO*** want to read this funny, zippy book, if you have ever worn one of the Alannah Hill girly garments with a silly name like “The I-Have-No-Interest-in-Telling-the-Truth,-the-Whole-Truth-and-Nothing-But-the-Truth Cardigan”.

The story of the naming of the pieces in the Alannah Hill range is wry and typical of the exchanges between Hill and her mother Aileen:

“The naming of a new collection went like this : ‘Mum! It’s me, Lan. What are you doing right at this very moment, Mum?’

‘Is that YOU, Lannaaah?  Are you calling me on that little silly phone you’ve got?  That’s not a phone, Lan, it’s a toy. I’m just sitting here, dear, I might get my hair set, but I’m still in my dressing gown, dear. Have you been sacked yet, dear? Did you ask what I’m eating, Lan? How do you know I’m eating? I’m just eating a little SAO BISCUIT!’

And that’s how it went, from Mum’s mouth, straight into my collections:

-I’m just having a little Sao frock

-You can’t sew, dear, frock

-He’s going to jail cardigan

-Love me in the cemetery frock

-She’s a little bitch coat

-Who the HELL do you think you are? frock

-Ask your father, dear, cardigan

-You’ll burn in hell, Alannah, camisole

-He doesn’t LOVE you, dear, skirt

-You’re a disgrace frock

-Where’s my pony skirt

-Read your Bible, Alannah, frock

-He’s NEVER going to marry you, Lannah, cardigan.'”

Hill’s parents were the stuff of cliché – a drunken, disappointed, lapsed-Catholic father and a miserable mother calling upon all the Catholic saints to witness her martyrdom. The family (5 children of course) move from a failing orchard to “the graceless hellhole, the hellhole of THE MILK BAR” in the perfectly named Tasmanian town of Penguin. [A town that sits on the edge of tempestuous Bass Strait, features a 10 foot high statue of a penguin and has a famous local football team called ‘Penguin’ – Ed.]

The Hill family was poor, isolated and insanely bleak. “There would be no unnecessary talking, no laughing, no family holidays, no counter lunches, no counter teas, no Sunday drives and no games. Of any sort. We had no pencils, no pens, no music, no radio, no books, no toys, no friends and no hobbies. In Geeveston, by 5.30 pm we were in our narrow beds, lined up against one wall in the small porch.” The child Alannah ran away to join the carnival, fought with her sister over a rag doll found in a puddle, was rejected by the Girl Guides, pushed her injured brother around in a pram, was thrown out of trade school and was “beside herself” when the neighbour’s mother was found unresponsive in the bath draped over a rusty mower.

Hill’s reconstructions of her mother’s lifelong, unsparingly negative and off-point diatribes are the funniest passages in the memoir, awful as they must have been and exaggerated as their rendition here may be.  When Hill suggests that she might move to Melbourne:-

“OH GO ON with you, Lannah!  Take your BED over there then!  Take your BED to Melbourne and lie in it on your OWN and see JUST how quickly you run back here to Ulverstone! Go ON! Nobody EVER rings for you.  Why’s THAT, Lan? Why doesn’t anyone ring for you? Maybe it’s your get-up and the way you STICKYBEAK into other people’s business. You’re such a stickybeak, Lan, and people DON’T LIKE a stickybeak.”

Hill is molested at 12 years of age and, she says,  “…from that day on I was a sitting duck…I didn’t know if it was night or day, morning or afternoon.'” That trauma (and subsequent incidents, some of which she suggests she unwontedly invited, one of which was a truly terrible crime) hit her hard. The book is mainly concerned with Hill’s view of herself as “smashed-up” by her childhood and abuse and its effects. However, it is not entirely clear how this brokenness manifests itself. Hill refers to her “free-floating anxiety”,  her “inner mongrel basdard” , to often feeling “imperfect and unreal” and “Buried-Alive Alannah”.  But we don’t really understand what this means to her in day-to-day terms. How is she different from the rest of us with ‘normal’ childhoods? Certainly she feels inadequate at times – but that is to be human. Her behaviour is no doubt eccentric and temperamental but again….

We see a driven, fabulously successful millionaire who has worked at what she loves. There is a conflict between her claims of being ‘unjoined’ and obviously strong sense of self and confidence.

Hill says that she told a potential lover:-

“‘Men see a vision, a creation of me that they’ve drawn inside their own mad, love-driven heads. You believe I’m a perfect vision of loveliness and glory, you’ll idolise me, adore me and then you’ll have to live with the crushing disappointment.  I’m a bathtub without a plug.  A broken window, a cracked skeleton. I fall from elegance with dull thuds onto floors. I can fly you to the moon and back in one day, and the very next I’ll fly you straight to hell, where you’ll stay until I feel loved again. I’m really a very plain, ordinary girl pretending to be a smashing girl…”

We just don’t know what that means other than “I am vain, imperfect, want to be loved and I act badly at times.”

The young Hill flees to Hobart, then Melbourne. Before she left home, Hill began to develop her trademark look –

“I announced to Mum that I’d now be wearing make-up for the rest of my life.  She told me I looked ridiculous and to take some ‘layers’ of her foundation off. I told her I’d be wearing more layers of eye shadow, more layers of lipstick, more layers of everything, and that nobody would ever see me without make-up, a costume or a hairdo ever again. Mum agreed that it was probably a good idea.”  “I felt like a different person. I was transformed. No longer an abused little mongrel bastard, I understood the power of make-up and clothing. I was becoming the girl I’d always imagined I could be…My reinvention became my weapon to deal with the world.” Hill takes this to such extremes that, decades later, when admitted to hospital for her son’s caesarean birth, she wears “what can only be described as a meringue-pink ball gown with kitten heels”.  She puts a DO NOT DISTURB sign, which she had “borrowed” from the Sydney Westin hotel, on her hospital door, totally stage-dresses the room, and wears complete makeup in the operating theatre.

In her early days Hill wandered about, trying to create a place for herself.  She pretended she was a librarian, got sacked from KFC, got sacked from a jewellery store and lived dangerously.  She knocked on the doors of mansions looking for a room to rent. She walked into exclusive shops, “leaving my name and a reference I’d written myself, stating ten skills I did not have, one of them being stenography”.

The laughs in the book are not all intentional – Like Joan Collins (!) Hill calls herself shy – “I was shy but I always had to appear larger than life; I knew I wouldn’t be seen if I didn’t make a scene…” – obviously thinking ‘shy’ is a synonym for screaming attention-seeking show pony.  The “naturally rather shy” Hill would flirt, she admits, with a lamp. This shy young woman hitchhikes alone to “uber-cool” New Wave Melbourne nightclubs dressed like a “kindergarten kabuki girl”. She fires personal questions at people with machine gun subtlety. When she meets David Heeney, future CEO of Factory X, she shouts over the music, ‘I have heard some preeeeetttteeeee wild tales about you, Cowboy Man.  Are you a hairdresser?  Do you own a cemetery?  Have you shrunk yourself in the wash?  You’re rather short, dear?  Do you own an op shop in Fitzroy Street?  Do you have a girlfriend?  Are you married?  Do you think you will ever have children?  What are you looking for in life?  Love, money or happiness?  Which one?’  And…spoken in a posh English accent: ‘And where did you schoooooooooooool?'”

When the shrinking violet  introduces herself to Robert Pearce, he tells her that he had seen her a year earlier, making a “‘tremendous public spectacle'” of herself, dancing and busking outside the Prahran Town Hall on Chapel Street, probably wearing a “pink plastic nineteen-sixties frock.”  She asked for details, because she wanted to know how to do it again.

When this wallflower wants to be in the film Dogs in Space, she dresses-up and, at the production offices, “showed myself off again and again”  to Richard Lowenstein and Michael Hutchence, and nabs a featured extra role.

This is not a “tell-all memoir”. There are gaps, hints and unanswered questions in Hill’s story. Her self-deprecation is carefully crafted to fit the fragile image, but the rock below and the ruthlessness are evident too.

But Hill is candid in her best chapter, “Coming Apart at the Seams”, dealing with the David Jones’ incident****.  The depiction of her dawning horror, her desperate attempts to minimise the damage in her own mind and her utter wretchedness when the inescapable reality hits is visceral. Refreshingly, she does not pretend any PC views, or fake outrage at her own insensitivity – it was, she says, a flippant remark, (although we rather suspect a rejection rankles here). Admirably too, she does not even mention the substantial amount which she subsequently helped raise for charity in atonement.

Hill is also straight-up about having bought a house which she could not afford (with a mortgage of $23,000 a month). She does not pretend that she simply changed her mind, or wanted to move on. ” From the first day I stepped inside my blue-chip castle, I wasn’t just paying the colossal price of a south Yarra mortgage, I was also paying the price of a colossal illusion, an illusion that would dissolve into a future where, in less than three years, I’d be forced to sell my South Yarra mansion, the one I could never stop talking about.”  This honesty is all the more impressive in the face of her her spinning-eyed  acquisitiveness, her unappealing desire to trade up and up and up, real estate-wise.

It’s no surprise to the reader that Hill has had an unhappy series of relationships – at least two with men substantially younger than herself.  She is wary of intimacy, “because becoming dependent on a man meant diminishing myself.”  She told herself early on that she “couldn’t rely on anyone else“. At 39 Hill decides to have a baby with her partner Karl, despite his expressed lack of interest and the warning of her assistant Hanh,  “‘..He no good!  He no take care of you and the baby. He will leave you for sure. I feel sad for you, Lan, you spend years of your life giving him a good life and he treat you this way. It not fair, Lan, it not fair. What you going to do, you too old to have a baby with someone else. All your eggs dead anyway.'”  Although we have the benefit of Hill’s 20/20 hindsight, we are surprised that she is surprised with Karl leaves a week after the birth of their son.

At the time of writing Hill was in a relationship with Hugo Race (formerly of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, some of whom appear earlier, throwing beer-soaked toilet paper at Hill’s head ). Race “..had a reputation for being difficult, prickly, an Ernest-Hemingway-esque romantic, dramatic musician, often on tour in Europe. Could I have found myself anybody more perfect? Mercurial, aloof, distant, moody but intoxicatingly attractive to me.  Perfect!”

There is an odd incident concerning an early lover of nine years, “posh boy-person” Steven Jones Hyphenated Evans, who disappears absolutely at page 183 in about 1987, only to reappear at page 289 in about 2013,  when Hill tells us that he is “the man who had influenced almost every decision I had made for the last thirty-five years…”  Hill then seems to take credit for his remarkable recovery from apparently terminal bladder cancer – Her feat? She introduced him to an oncologist.

Hill’s uber-confidence and self-absorption are monumental. Again, we don’t have to like the subject of a memoir, and their lack of insight may be of interest, but it is not clear when Hill is boasting about her rebelliousness and when she is serving-herself-up for our dissection.

In India she contracts typhoid as a result of neglecting to have the recommended immunisations –  “I’d read the fine print but was sure it didn’t apply to me.”

Many years earlier, when attending a sophisticated and arty “dinner-party-as-an-idea”, Hill shuns the “inedible food” and brings her own picnic pack – red cordial, Smarties, salt-and-vinegar chips, Cheezels, hors d’oeuvres on Salada biscuits and chocolates. When it is the turn of Hill and her partner to host a dinner-party-as-an-idea, she breaks into the empty apartment next door and serves lemonade, jelly, confectionery, pizza subs, saveloys, fish fingers and cold party pies on the floor, lit by borrowed torches. Backed by ABBA.

Does Hill really live on children’s treats?  Was she truly diagnosed as suffering from diabetes, scurvy and malnutrition when pregnant?

Hill’s fashion career started when she was offered a job at hippie Chapel Street boutique “Indigo”; her idiosyncratic personal style having been recognised. Clearly a sensational saleswoman, Hill sold masses of clothes she loathed, and ultimately helped re-brand the outlet with a more modern look, launching her own label. True to fashion, when she is asked to leave, she is told, “‘If there’s ever any trouble, you’re in the middle of it….Lan, you’ve just got bigger dreams than the rest of us. You’ve become impossible.'”

After the appropriate period of spectacular mourning, Hill starts work at Dialogue, (main label Target). Here she worked incredibly hard, hands on, based in a room under the stairs, hidden from the financial controller.  Shortly after she sold a sizeable amount of her collection (including to David Jones), Dialogue went into administration. Hill then went to work at Factory X, ultimately opening the Alannah Hill bow teeks under their umbrella.

Unusually,  Hill’s parents agreed to attend the opening night of the first bow teek, in chic Chapel Street. “I don’t believe my parents had any idea what they were really attending. Something about having to travel all the way to Melbourne to attend some kind of an opening with my name on a window.”  Hill’s mother sat in the front window smoking, greeting guests, “‘Oh dear, Lan, who was HEEEE? What a crushing, drunken bore…You can’t sew a thing, dear, you can’t even darn a sock, Now you listen to me, Lan, you LISTEN to me. This does NOT feel RIGHT, I smell a rat and I just don’t like it!  Now tell me again, why IS your name on all of the clothing?  WHY?”’

Although she misses the main point, Aileen Hill does raise an important question. We never read about her daughter working on a sewing machine or picking up a sewing needle. When asked how she had built a successful fashion brand, having not done a design course, she answers, “I suspect the truth, dear reader, lies in my favourite line from that great Australian comedy The Castle. ‘It’s just the vibe of the thing, and….no, that’s it, it’s the vibe.””  Hill says that she worked up to a hundred hours a week, forgoing a social life; she had “instinct, determination and tenacity with a desire to never, ever, ever give up.” Her success was due to the fact that she was her ” own best advertisement”, living, breathing, dreaming it, without distraction, a real person behind the brand, in her fantasy world. 

Yes, but these are motherhood statements. We do not know if Hill can sew, if she holds pins in her mouth, how she learnt to design, or how she actually physically expressed that instinct, determination and tenacity (other than when she talks about meetings and publicity). We do not know how she spends a day in her studio. We really have no hint, in a practical sense, of how Hill made it from shop-girl at Indigo to a fleet of Alannah Hill bow teeks. It’s like the South Park Underpants Gnomes’ business plan – “Phase 1: Collect underpants, Phase 2: ?, Phase 3: Profit”. Therein lies the one real fault of this book. We are told very little indeed about Hill’s inspiration, her theories, her designing and nothing about how she collates a collection. Although this is a memoir about healing and dealing with trauma, Hill is famous for fashion. The typical reader of this book will want to know something about being a fashion designer and – also – would be fascinated to learn how Hill compiles her own, famous daily look.

The Alannah Hill brand was sold to stores in London, New York and Singapore. But that didn’t impress Aileen. When Hill phones her mother to tell her that she is standing on Fifth Avenue outside Henri Bendel’s which is featuring Alannah Hill designs in the front window, Aileen says “‘New YORK??? Oh, you are NOT, Lannaaaah! How can you be talking to me in Ulverstone on that tiny little beeping phone of yours? From New York? WHAT clothing, dear? WHAT window? FIFTH Avenue? Didn’t they want you on FIRST Avenue, Lan?  You only came fifth?”‘

Factory X begins to take decisions about the Alannah Hill brand without her knowledge. She makes a tactical error, and is pushed out. She says that she reinvents herself and launches the short-lived Louise Love brand, (but this brand looks the same as the ‘old’ Alannah Hill, and so does she.) She does, however, tell the story of her trauma and that may be cathartic both for herself and others.

When Aileen dies, Hill says, “Nothing can ever prepare you for the news of your mother’s death. It penetrates the heart with a burning arrow of sorrow and sometimes scorching regret. My world went black. I went black. It was the blackest day I’d lived.”  Hill falls into a seemingly bottomless slough of overblown grief, which is somewhat difficult to swallow, given the preceding chapters.

Even when her therapist has told Hill, “you have to stop living in your head with your mother – it’s time to let her voice go.”‘ and she says, “in my better moments on this earth, I understand that we are all responsible for our own lives”, Hill will not stop living in that shadow. Is it because this is the (invisible) disability which makes her special and absolves her from normal behaviour?

Despite Hill’s (self-confessed) poor education, naivete and apparent lack of intellectual curiosity, she has a sharp eye for the mysteries and ironies of existence. She writes very well indeed, and has an amusing, individualistic  turn of phrase:

“My shoes slipped off my feet in excitement”.

“A gang of Alannah Hill girls walking toward you could knock a Tim Tam biscuit right out of your hands.”

“A scared tip-rat, I cried at the drop of a scream.”

(When worrying that she is a bad mother), “”I catastrophised a little bit more about whether my delivering him a Scotch Finger biscuit with a Kit Kat on a side tray would come back to haunt me in E’s teen years.”

Hill is flashy, inconsistent and self-obsessed; essentially a loner, but that is how creative, eccentric butterflies should be.


[*We suspect that Hill’s son may be indulged, when Hill says, “I’ll show you how to become so exhausted from shrinking yourself to suit your child’s every whim, every demand.”  and “I didn’t feel I was giving E the best start in life, so I made up for it by giving him everything. Easy!”  Hill’s mother apparently said that E will either “end up in jail or become a famous actor.”] [** Although, for the record, let it be noted that we at TVC are unlikely to go on a houseboat holiday of any kind, on our own or with the dearest of friends.] [***Hill LIKES capitals and footnotes.] [**** In 2010 a woman accused the then-chief executive of David Jones of sexual harassment. When asked about the matter at a highly publicised David Jones fashion event, Hill said (inter alia) “‘I wish he’d touched me up.  I threw myself at him!  He told me he didn’t want to mix business with pleasure…’]

Henri Bendel, NYC

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Christopher Priest – “Indoctrinaire” and “Inverted World”


Many years ago I was given the Pan Science Fiction copy of Christopher Priest’s novel Indoctrinaire (1971).  The ghastly cover, hinting at lurid prose in aid of a ridiculously stupid plot ensured that I would not read the book, although it moved interstate and from house to house with me – for decades. Then recently I came across Andrew McKie’s revie in The Spectator of Priest’s 2016 novel, The Gradual (“a resounding success”). He says that Priest’s prose is “apparently prosaic – provided, that is, one means unshowy straightforward and devoid of ostentation. For the cumulative effect of his plain sentences, quotidian events and ordinary settings is decidedly, poetic, haunting and dreamy.”  So I opened my copy of Indoctrinaire and what should fall out but a forgotten copy of that same review?

In his amusing “author’s note” to the revised edition, Priest says he can no longer recall why he called the book Indoctrinaire and we can be fairly sure that he did not approve the cover of the Pan publication. (No eyeballs are pierced by syringes in the book.)

The story opens promisingly enough, on a freezing plateau blasted by ice-laden gales. “Six hundred feet below the surface, on the rocks of the plateau itself – rocks which had not felt the warm touch of the sun in millions of years, if ever at all – man had dared to build. Well lit, well ventilated and centrally heated, the Advanced Technique Concentration carried on its functions in perfect security and with absolute impregnability”.  Hundreds of (male) scientists work on their specialist subjects in the Concentration. “For the Concentration was no tiny station claiming a few square yards of Antarctic rock, but a complex system of research units linked by many tunnels through the ice. Its total area was thirty square miles, and it had been ten years in construction.”

Deep in one of the laboratories, British Dr Elias Wentik is working on – wait for it – mind-altering chemicals, tested on rats.  Despite this rather disappointing trope, the setting is interesting enough for us (and Dr Wentik) to be annoyed when his neo-Pavlovian experimentation is interrupted by mysterious American government agents, who show Wentik an interesting photograph and then whip him off to a surreal jail in the Planalto District in Brazil, an isolated area in the jungle subject to a temporal irregularity.  Wentik is held as a prisoner, subjected to interrogation and witness to strange and apparently irrational behaviours. Like K, he is accused of a crime he cannot identify.  Unlike K he is pointed-at by a hand growing from a table. “It was built with perfection, like a Greek carving in skin and flesh. It was the normal size of a man’s hand, pale in the sunlight, but not bloodless. Tiny blond hairs grew on its back, refracting the sunlight.  About three inches of wrist were visible before the arm disappeared into the tabletop fusing into the grainy, dark-stained wood.  Incredibly, the hand started to drum its fingers, like those of a man kept waiting for an appointment”.  [Vide Beast With Five Fingers, with Peter Lorre – ed.]

There is also a huge human ear growing from a wall, torture, incomprehensible machines, traps and tricks, and an insane military slant to the whole shebang. Wentik is drugged and taken from the compound to a hospital in Sao Paolo where he has sex with a nurse for no apparent reason other than to get some sex into the book.  Finally he learns about the future he has himself created. As the author says in his note, this is “a reasonably conventional conclusion” and will not surprise any reader of science fiction over the age of 15 years; the novel is dated and there is no logical explanation for Wentik’s treatment at the jail or for many of the weird phenomena he experiences. However, it is a book worthy of a patient reader, perhaps a younger, less worldly and impatient one.

Inverted World

Inspired by Andrew McKie to give Priest a second chance, I picked up a nyrb copy of Inverted World (1974) a few weeks ago (It has a much nicer cover), and a less attractive Titan Books copy of Priest’s Islanders. (The Gradual is set in the Dream Archipelago of The Islanders.)  Priest is harder to find in Australia than in the US, so I grabbed these; Inverted World at Bridge Street Books, Georgetown, Washington D.C. and Islanders at the famous Strand, New York

The premise of Inverted World is lovely. The city called Earth is hauled across the landscape on rails which are labouriously built in front of and pulled-up from behind it. Children grow up in the city’s crèche. Helward Mann (“six hundred and fifty miles old”) has chosen the guild of his father, the Future Surveyors (other guilds are Bridge-Builders, Tracksmen and Militia). After a period of training, Apprentice Mann will travel in front of the city, preparing topological maps for use in planning its path. Earth must keep moving, in search of the mysterious “optimum“, which Apprentice Mann strives to understand –

“‘And the optimum is always moving?’

‘No.  The optimum is stationary…but the ground moves away from it.’

‘Oh yes’.”

A marriage is arranged between Helward and a young woman he grew up with. Victoria will not be joining a guild. “She said that as a woman she was not automatically granted a responsible position, and only her engagement to me had made her present work possible. Had she become engaged to a non-guildsman, she would have been expected to produce children as often as possible, and spend her time on routine chores or whatever other manila tasks came along. Instead, she was now able to have some control over her future, and could probably rise to the position of a senior administrator.” 

Apprentice Mann leaves the city for the first time and experiences a sunrise. He is gradually introduced to the surprising outside world, the lore of the guildsmen and the “tooks”, impoverished natives of the areas through which Earth travels. Many more boys than girls are being born in the city and birth rates are down, so local women are “borrowed” from took settlements as breeding stock. It is Apprentice Mann’s job to escort some of these women back to their settlements, to the south of the city where he experiences weird distortions of time and space.

“The summit of the ridge had now distended and was beneath his body.  The southward pressure took him, and he was swept over the ridge.  The rope held and he was suspended horizontally.

What had been the mountain became a hard protuberance beneath his chest, his stomach lay in what had been the valley beyond, his feet scrambled for a hold against the diminishing ridge of what had once been another mountain.

He was flat along the surface of the world, a giant recumbent across an erstwhile mountain region.”

As experienced readers, we have guessed part of that which is hidden from Mann and eventually revealed in a rather haphazard manner. Frustratingly, important aspects of the story – the distortions in time and space which Mann undergoes as he travels south – cannot be accommodated by the explanation, which renders this interesting but flawed book much less potent than it might have been.

I shall trust McKie and look out more recent works of this author, in that hope that his unique voice has matured.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

“In due course we came to the island of Aeaea, the home of the beautiful Circe, a formidable goddess, though her voice is like a woman’s. She is the sister of the wizard Aeetes, both being children of the Sun who lights the world by the same mother, Perse the daughter of Ocean”.*

So does Homer introduce us to the witch goddess Circe, who famously turned men to swine. After giving Odysseus’ men a potion, Homer’s Circe “struck them with her wand, drove them off, and penned them in the pigsties. For now to all appearance they were swine: they had pigs’ heads and bristles, and they grunted like pigs; but their minds were as human as they had been before the change.”*  The ‘why?’ does not matter to Homer’s Odysseus, and this act of porcine legerdemain has come to be identified with malicious misandry. Madeline Miller however, is clear. Her Circe turns men into pigs to protect herself. Circe is a lesser goddess exiled to an island, protected only by fallible spells, rather passive wolves and lions (who are not, in the novel, enchanted men). After being raped and faced with an eternity of abuse, Circe acts to protect herself; Miller obviously relishes fleshing-out Homer’s description of the transformation:-

“My eyes lifted to his rutted face. Those herbs had another use, and I knew what it was. I drew breath, and spoke my word.

His eyes were muddy and comprehending. ‘What -‘

He did not finish. His rib cage cracked and began to bulge. I heard the sound of flesh rupturing wetly, the pops of breaking bone. His nose ballooned from his face, and his legs shriveled like a fly sucked by a spider. He fell to all fours. He screamed, and his men screamed with him. It went on for a long time.

As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.”

Madeline Miller has sought to explain why and how the nymph Circe is exiled to Aiaia.  Circe is a dull jewel in the lapidary world of the Olympians. Immediately after her birth, Circe’s mother says to her father, “‘Come… Let us make a better one.'” Despised for her imperfect beauty, her mortal’s voice (‘screechy as an owl’) and her unfortunate ability to empathise, Circe lacks the ruthless dazzling abandon of the greater immortals. Desperate and clingy, she becomes a figure of derision and – as her unpopular skill in herbal witchcraft emerges and is used to terrifying effect – fear and revulsion. She practises and perfects that herbal art (pharmakeia). One day, as foretold, Odysseus sails to her door (the resourceful mortal’s appeal to goddesses is rather elusive but, presumably if one is exiled for eternity, even a short-legged, faithless smart-arse would be a diversion.)

Miller’s Circe has a life before Odysseus, and Miller also breathes life into the clay of the few vague myths we have about her life after Odysseus, in particular, concerning  thoughtful Telemachus.

Miller flashes them all before us. We thought we knew them – Daedalus, Medea, Hermes, Helios, Apollo, Penelope, Trygon, the Minotaur, et al. Miller makes them both glorious:-

“She struck the room…tall and straight and sudden-white, a talon of lightning in the midnight sky. Her horse-hair helmet brushed the ceiling. Her mirror armour threw off sparks. The spear in her hand was long and thin, its keen edge limned in firelight. She was burning certainty, and before her all the shuffling and stained dross of the world must shrink away. Zeus’ bright and favorite child, Athena.” 

and awful:-

“[Scylla’s] body sagged out of the mist. I had never seen it before, gelatinous and huge. As we watched, it scraped down the cliff side above us. Her heads squealed and bucked, as if trying to haul it back up again. But it only sank further, as inexorably as if it were weighted with stones. I could see now the beginnings of her legs, those twelve monstrous tentacles stretching away from her body into the mist. She kept them hidden always, Hermes had told me, coiled in the cave among the bones and bits of old flesh, gripping the cave’s stone so that the rest of her might dart down for her meals and return.”

Not a sentence, not a word goes astray. This is a rich, rough and golden book for those familiar with The Odyssey and those who are not yet. However, scholars of Ancient Greek will particularly note Miller’s scansion and structure which allow for no doubt about her expertise in that language.

[*”The Odyssey” by Homer.  Translation E. V. Rieu, The Penguin Classics.]

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Our Review: Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America

May 6, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | POLITICS, THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Adelaide University Theatre Guild, 5 May 2018 –

Memo to playwrights: Beware Godwin’s Law! Which is not a law as such, but an exercise in mimesis. The ‘Law’ has it that whoever invokes Hitler or the Nazis in an argument thereby terminates that process, usually in defeat.

In Australian playwight Stephen Sewell’s work (we’ll call it “Myth / Nazi” for short, à la Marat / Sade) an academic at New York University (oops, that is, a NYC Campus), Talbot Finch (Nick Fagan) writes a piece comparing post-911 America to Nazi Germany. Of course! (Snap fingers significantly). The myth of American righteousness knocks on the gate at Auschwitz!

And as would occur, were he living in ’30s Berlin and comparing post-1933 Germany to the USSR in, say, 1924, there is a rather brutal riposte from the shadows of the Deep State, here presented metaphorically as “The Man” (Steve Marvanek).  (So Finch the seer either wrote his expose for show or else he failed to see what was coming.) Either way, the premise lacks credibility, which is why we prefer to see “The Man” as simply a trope, reflecting the intellectual bankruptcy of Finch’s own self-hatred..

Assuming we are correct, this seems to us a masterstroke – the fact that The Man is never caught on CCTV, no-one else sees him, everyone doubts Talbot’s sanity and thinks his wounds are pitifully self-inflicted. Moreover, The Man eventually transmogrifies to a sinister priest (while the US flag, with its 51 stars, the supernumerary star doubtless representing the 51st State, Deep State, dissolves into the Eagle of the Third Reich). In other words, our hero is having a regression to his altar-boy, apple-pie, call-Dad ‘Sir’ pre-pubescent state of grace.

We liked these directorial flourishes because to us, Myth / Nazi is really a black comedy about how psychosis visits an onanistic, ignoble, lapsed-Catholic, soft-left liberal bourgeois, chardonnay-socialist from Sydney U, when he discovers that not only has the long march through the institutions amounted to nothing more from ‘boring from within’, not only does his wife Eve (Jessica Carroll) have greater success in the semi-real world, but also he is reduced to teaching gushing simp students of politics naught but dead languages…the dead languages of Marx, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, Gramsci, Chomsky and Jackie Collins. When Sewell says his play ‘wrote itself,’ he didn’t know that actual truth was infiltrating his entrenched brain.

Finch is condemned (our thesis – self-condemned) but he’ll be at large for a while, to complete the demonizing process and ready him for the final coup de grâce, like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon and Winston in 1984.

High and low comedy abounds. His academic pals and their faculty wives – Jack (Tim Edhouse) humorously nasty like a pallid Graham Crowden, Amy (a terrific Kyla Booth, straight from an Edward Albee psychodrama), Stan (Jarrod Chave) and Jill (Emma Kerr) come across as Lucy, Desi, Fred and Ethel (only on acid, with acid added, and they’re ‘swingers’ as well). Marguerite (budding actress Yasmin Martin), a student who actually thinks the phrase ‘social justice’ means something, bless her, is played well as an acolyte let-down by events.

Talbot’s lecturer mate from Australia, Max (James Black) is like Ed Norton to Talbot’s Ralph Kramden, with a touch of Sandy Freckle, and their exchanges, while not of the intellectual quality you’d expect from bog-standard chalkies, are exhilarating, especially when Max confirms to Talbot that he’s writing “something for the CV…sort of postmodern…you know, does the state exist?” and “Australia’s fucked.”  TVC laughed out loud when Talbot, in a paranoid fug, shrieked ‘they’re trying to get left-wingers out of the universities.”

We also chuckled (along with some lads we drank with at intermission) at the suggestion that Liberal-Arts Don, Talbot Finch, is not familiar with Kafka’s The Trial. Seriously?  We’d rusticate Talbot for this: he’s just too dumb to teach at a decent university, even a liberal-arts course.

The play is long, not overlong, but it could benefit from some surgery (we appreciate that this is easier said than done, or licensed), including a winnowing of the excessively declamatory style, redolent of Brecht or the worst of Chinese Communist Theatre, but it is well staged and lit. There is some repetition and superfluity: Eve’s cleansing moments of clarity, including sessions with her therapist (Esther Michelsen), could really be cut from a 150 minute show (no disrespect to Ms Michelsen), and some of the other fat could be flitched off. We don’t know if Eve’s death, akin to Michael Corleone’s first wife’s fate, entirely adds or convinces either.

The cast are all solid and even though the playing tended to be overheated, the play itself is so overheated (and overwritten) that it is in danger of melting. We particularly liked Fagan as Talbot, Carroll as Eve (but not her wardrobe, all lurid culottes and blousy top), and Booth as Amy.

The scene changes are pretty snappy and the sets appropriately stark – perhaps some tightening all round can be considered – but overall, we were highly satisfied with the production. The Little Theatre is particularly suited to intimate staging (with multiple platforms, including the use of the arena – we were moved by Eve roaming the audience, showing the photo of her missing man).

The second act is galvanising, especially the effective and harrowing torture scenes. The juxtaposition of these scenes with the leisured and treasured snorting champagne and viewing the art at the Guggenheim was not overdone, and arguably could have been emphasised (although note: there is no decent art at the Guggenheim – set these scenes at the Met, the Whitney or the Frick).

Myth / Nazi is a time capsule. Written as an anti-George W. Bush diatribe, it doesn’t pack the same wallop in 2018 because of the abundant contemporary evidence that you can compare Mr Trump to Himmler all you like without rendition. If you start casting around for better sources of libertarian angst (such as Bashar al-Assad, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, the King of Thailand or Aung San Suu Kyi), it hits you, dogmatically-speaking, like a wet lettuce. But Myth / Nazi is still a time capsule worth swallowing, because whether one views it as a chilling example of the abuse of power and overreach of the State in a state of fear, or as the hilarious unravelling of a lumpen leftie, this play is a fun, in-your-face way to start a conversation at a late supper afterwards – although the conversation may end-up posing as a fight.

[Afterword: Police Chief of NYC: “We’ll never forget 911.”  Hope so – it’s your emergency phone number!] Continue Reading →

Ready Player One (dir. Steven Spielberg)

May 3, 2018 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

For our review of Ernest Cline’s book (and an outline of the story), and our comments on Steven Spielberg’s infantalising influence, please click here.

Spielberg started this movie, then left it while he popped out to make Transformers: The Last Knight, The Post and possibly a few others. And it shows. Spielberg’s story-telling is almost always childish, repetitive, and thin*.  It’s even poorer than usual here, as is the over-used, tediously monumental CGI (perhaps Ready Player One is meant to be seen on a 3D or iMax screen?  It looked wobbly round the edges and blurry at our viewing).

The film (co-scripted by Ernest Cline, disappointingly) departs from the book to its detriment. Do see our review for more detail of the plot of the book but, in brief, in a dystopian future, many millions (Americans only in the film) escape the poverty of their lives by engaging in the OASIS, a suit-yourself, virtual reality universe developed by James Halligan (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).  Morrow retires from the project and when Halliday dies, he ‘bequeaths’ the whole shebang to the first ‘grunter’ (egghunter) to find a cyber Easter egg which is hidden somewhere within the vast OASIS. Grunters immerse themselves in scouring the pop culture of Hallligan’s favourite era – the1980’s – for clues.  A grunter, Wade Watt (whose OASIS avatar is known as Parzifal) finds the first of three keys.  Then the evil mega-corporation IOI is out to get him, in order to enable it to take over the OASIS.

The 1980’s literary and more obscure cultural references of the book are dumbed-down in the film to giant T-Rexes, Transformers (natch) and a reset of The Shining. Technically impressive – but why? The first 1980’s video-game challenge becomes a 2010’s car and motorbike race (just so that we can see a giant King Kong from above and below -again, who cares?).

In the novel Wade Watts/Parzifal (Tye Sheridan) fights it out in the cyberworld of OASIS with his avatar cohort, whom he does not meet in the real world until late in the story.  However in the film, Wade meets the people behind the avatars in a suitably cheery real-life scene early in the movie which, from that point, deteriorates into a mixed-race-gender buddy-fight movie.

The visit to Halligan’s childhood home is stripped of purpose and instead provides a vehicle for poor Mark Rylance to play out the film’s most sugary moments – no, wait, the most diabetes-inducing ones are preserved for Simon Pegg  right at the end.

The clues are solved by Parzifal and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) in ridiculous finger-snapping moments of revelation, with the assistance of a virtual reality museum of moments in Halligan’s life – (which replaces The Anorak Almanac of the book) – an unwieldy idea which is not handled well.

Careless simplification of the plot leave viewers who have not read the book wondering why Wade sleeps on a washing machine and where he gets his money from.

The supposed ‘un-attractiveness’ of the female characters is ridiculous – in reality a young man could look at these girls without wincing if they would just have a bit of self-respect and put on some makeup and a nice dress. Ironic, really, given that Tye Sheridan plays Wade as a  really unprepossessing, pudgy-faced, open-mouthed dolt. The unfortunately Disney-like, huge-eyed sprites and Bluto meanies of the avatars seem to belong in a different movie.

Ready Player One was partly made in Australia and that shows too. Wade Watt’s avatar Neo, sorry, Parzifal, takes the pill, puts on the VR goggles and has to defeat the evil Mr Anderson Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his corporation.  It all ends in a mega, over-the-top, battle for Mordor the fortress.  A round object is dropped into, and consumed by flames, whereupon everything blows up.  Game over.

[*We will except Duel and Schindler’s List (as Director) and The Money Pit, True Grit, and The Lovely Bones (as producer).] Continue Reading →

In Search of Wagner

(By Theodor Adorno) (written 1937-38) (Rodney Livingstone translation) (2005)

Whilst Adorno (1903 – 1969) was a thinker of wide learning and deep perception, here he is defeated by Wagner, as well as by his own Frankfurter-Marxist dogma and drab obsession with the dialectical. He’d love to dismiss RW as repulsive, dangerous, tin-eared, a Jew-baiter and Jew-hater, formless and, worst of all, bourgeois; yet a kind of intellectual honesty keeps creeping-back in to Adorno’s highly profound skull that undermines all of his grumbling. Wagner is not only sui generis; he is unimpeachable; Adorno’s brilliant attacks, often highly personal, fail utterly, proving our point beautifully. (Wagner would have laughed till he wet his silk underpants).

This book is ponderous, over-freighted with theory, and whilst short, is written in a dense fashion that often collapses under the weight of too many concepts advanced at one and the same time, and bent-out-of-shape by Adorno’s desire to crush the Maestro. Yet all he does is demonstrate how, beneath the barnacles of his apparent musical formlessness, artistic revanchism, anti-semitism and other personal odious qualities, Wagner remains one of the four greatest musical geniuses of history*. Michael Tanner in Wagner rightly says: “Theodor Adorno’s In Search of Wagner is important because of its author, showing how a thinker of genius can be led by reacting to Wagner’s art into wild postures of rejection, and sneaking admiration.” (p.225)

My German is far too weak to read Adorno in the original and comment on the translation by Rodney Livingstone (‘das ist schade’) but I suspect that Adorno is the one to blame for swampy paragraphs such as this:

The melodic endings within the unending melody are all too apparent. They are only just negotiated by stereotyped interrupted cadences, such as the ‘resolution’ of the dominant seventh onto the second inversion of the dominant seventh of the dominant.” (Forget the technical nature of the opinion, just consider the horrendous syntax, so horrendous as to be truly German.)

However, Adorno has a hell of a lot of fascinating things to say, and whilst he largely stirs a storm in a Nymphenburg tea-cup, he identifies several things about Wagner that, in the final analysis, don’t matter, but cannot be ignored:

Item One: His persona

He is accused (and surely, rightly convicted) of sentimentality, particularly in the cadging for sympathy. Yet off-putting and, indeed, sinister as that quality is, you excuse it in Wagner, who set himself one of the greatest tasks in the history of Art, a re-making of old forms anew. For that, he gets a special pass in TVC’s opinion. Be that as it may, Adorno does pin the butterfly adroitly, especially in his account of Wagner’s perverse sense of humour that appalled his friends, Liszt and Nietzsche among them.  Adorno properly cites the weird, cruel and stupid cat-and-mouse game with Hermann Levi, when “every soothing word is accompanied by a new sting…[showing a] sadistic desire to humiliate, sentimental conciliatoriness and above all the wish to bind the maltreated Levi to him emotionally…”

The anti-semitic and rascist streak will always loom large in Wagner, of course. It’s the worst thing about him. Adorno finds his proofs of an all-encompassing pathology in the form of Alberich and Mime from The Ring, and Beckmesser from Meistersinger.  (In addition to the fruitful harvest from his many tasteless essays.) To us, Wagner’s prejudice smacks of theory rather than practical malignity, akin to the chap who says “All lawyers are lying, robbing swine; My lawyer, however, is terrific.” In other words, we find his Jew-hate detestable but not subversive of his works, and in practical terms, not necessarily evil or universal. (Adorno might like to read some of his pal, Karl Marx, for perspective on this.)

Item Two: Formlessness

[In Wagner] all true polyphony is frustrated…Wagner’s melody is in fact unable to make good its promise of infinity since, instead of unfolding in a genuinely free and unconstrained manner, it has recourse to small-scale models and by stringing those together provides a substitute for true development.”  (Arguably correct, yet polyphony in many operas is just showing-off, and Wagner had a higher purpose.)

Item Three: Lack of harmony

“…there is an absence of tension in Wagner’s harmony as it descends from the leading note and sinks from the dominant into the tonic. It is the fawning stance of the mother’s boy who talks himself and others into believing that his kind parents can deny him nothing, for the very purpose of making sure they don’t.”

Well, for one I’d suggest that Ted has another listen to the Liebestod, the Siegfried Idyll, Act II of Götterdämmerung, the Fire Music, Trauermarsch, the overtures to Tannhaüser, Lohengrin and Meistersinger, the Good Friday music, even the Ride of the Valkyries, and then shut the heck up!

Item Four: The Dilettante

This is a serious charge, also made by Thomas Mann, who had a bit of time for Wagner (but also for Adorno). We find ourselves voting ‘not guilty,’ purely on the basis that perhaps only Leonardo could reach across such divides as Wagner did in his effort to attain gesamtkunstwerk. The old crack that Wagner was ‘impressionistic’, writing for the ‘unmusical,’ to be heard from a great distance rather than the Viennese chamber, fails to persuade, even though we concede that with Wagner, one often does not surf the wave but watches it from the shore. So what?  As for Adorno’s charge that “garrulousness and complacency…mar Wagner’s work at every point,” we say, with the very profoundest respect: “Get your hand off it.”

Item Five: Theatricality

Adorno believes this “repellent aspect of his grounded in this regression...a museum of long-forgotten gestures…”  We would dare to suggest that more theatricality (which in our book means a better sense of a complete presentation of emotion-evoking technique) would have enhanced the operatic work of one whose music attained similar heights…say, Mozart?  Wagner’s music-dramas, with influence from Beethoven, Weber and Jew-Boy Mendelssohn, made cinema intellectually (perhaps even to an extent technically) possible, so consider this statement by an early master of that genre, as to theatricality: “I have this terrible sense that a film is dead – that it’s a piece of film in a machine that will be run off and shown to people.  That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are.  There’s an awful lot of Bergman and Antonioni that I’d rather be dead than sit through. For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive.  I know that directors find serious and sensitive audiences for films where people sit around peeling potatoes in the peasant houses – but I can’t read that kind of novel either.  Somebody had to be knocking at the door – I figure that is the way Shakespeare thought…”** We venture that Ted’s “embarrassing feeling that someone is constantly tugging at his sleeve” when listening to Wagner, merely reflects his own aridity of feeling.

Item Six: The Enemy of History

Adorno and his ilk are the o-so-clever suppressors of the human spirit; naturally Wagner is accused as “not only the willing prophet and diligent lackey of imperialism and late-bourgeois terrorism…[but he] also possesses the neurotic’s ability to contemplate his own decadence and to transcend it in an image that can withstand that all-consuming gaze.”  His music, Adorno bleats, is the ‘commodity’ and exchange mentality of ‘high capitalism.’ Oh dear. Perhaps Adorno would rather sit with Brecht, Grass, and the East German artistic cabal that used to lick Erich Honecker’s boots (figuratively speaking), and watch a Maoist staging of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, rather than, for example, attend a good production of The Valkyries, Parsifal, or Tristan und Isolde. It is true that Wagner tended towards a nihilistic weltanschauung; to deride him as a Hobbesian ‘apostate rebel’ is a tad rich.

But Adorno comes around, and verifies or identifies the following:

[Wagner remarked] that, when listening to Mozart, he sometimes imagined he could hear the clatter of dishes accompanying the music. Contemporary attitudes towards the musical inheritance suffer from the fact that no one has the confidence to be so disrespectful.

“…the characteristic chord with the allegorical rubric ‘Spring’s command, sweet necessity’ in The Mastersingers, which represents the whole element of erotic passion and hence summarizes the whole action…is indeed the epitome of the musical modernity of the nineteenth century, [which] did not exist before Wagner…few aspects of Wagner’s music have been as seductive as the enjoyment of pain.”

The art of orchestration in the precise sense, as the productive share of colour in the musical process ‘in such a way that colour itself becomes action’ is something that did not exist before Wagner.”

And, writing in exile before Hitler’s final conflagration, there is at last, this insight:

Anyone able to snatch such gold from the deafening surge of the Wagnerian orchestra, would be rewarded by its altered sound, for it would grant him that solace which, for all its rapture and phantasmagoria, it consistently refuses. By voicing the fears of helpless people, it could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear.”

(We add that the Verso edition of this book has an excellent forward by Slavoj Žižek, who is inclined to be less dogmatic than Adorno.) All in all, an interesting and provocative read, but ultimately wrong, invariably Dead Wrong!

Ted by Leandro Gonzalez de Leon

[* Need you ask? Wagner, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart (with Schubert, Mendelssohn, Handel, Haydn, Chopin, Rossini, Grieg, Puccini/Verdi and Tchaikovsky in close pursuit…)] [**Orson Welles.] Continue Reading →

The Party

April 23, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Sally Potter) (2017)

Contrivance is self-evident in this short, slight, by-the-numbers retro film, a kind of cross between Albee, O’Neil and The Strange Death of Liberal England, looking almost as if staged during the Thatcher years.

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is Labor’s new Shadow Minister for Health, and pads about her inner London kitchen, preparing party snacks and smugly taking celebratory calls. Why this poisoned chalice without power is a cause for celebration is not clear. Certainly Janet’s cynical pal, April (Patricia Clarkson) doesn’t get it, but she keeps busy spraying about witless witticisms that prompt the odd nasty snicker but rarely a genuine laugh. (Everyone acts as though they’re drunk before the party started, yet all are too old to be pre-loading Jäger-Bombers). April hates, yet seems to stick with, silly New-Ageist Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who grins idiotically whilst deprecating western medicine and being generally as ineffectual as mystic Marion from Kath and Kim.

Meanwhile, Janet’s husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), supposedly a brilliant professor of dialectics, sits and stares, catatonic and withdrawn. And then we have lesbian mothers-to-be Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) who are having a crisis of confidence. Finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy), the token Tory amongst this den of Doris Lessing types, looms, sweaty, coked-to-the-gills and clearly having a crisis of his own, considering the gun that he keeps either fiddling with or tossing in Bill and Janet’s recycling bin. Tom’s gun, and Tom’s absent wife, serve here as the MacGuffin.

A lot of the hour was like this, unfortunately..

In the course of 70 minutes or so, the whole melange dissolves with a tedious predictability. Psychologically, the scenario collapses completely. These are motifs, not men; gestures, without ideas. The serious actors, we assume, are not at fault – we suspect the director instructed them to mug as if on a sitcom. Even so, Scott Thomas and Ganz actually manage to rise above the material, which telegraphs its denouement (via SMS) well before the hour strikes. The actors get to do the stuff they love – snarl, snort, spit, drink, cry, vomit, slap, emote. We don’t suggest that The Party is not to be preferred over the depressing trawlers of car chases and comic-book films, but we don’t know why those get made either.

We’d rather be at this party


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