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Holding the Man

holding the manTimothy Conigrave’s autobiographical story of his love for John Caleo has turned into one of the finest Australian films ever produced. In fact, I should strike the Australian from that sentence, as it’s really one of the finest films ever produced in the world, but having seen it, I’m rather more proud to be an Australian than I was yesterday, so it’s staying.

Adapted for the stage (and subsequently the screen) by Queanbeyan playwright Tommy Murphy, Holding the Man follows the story of Tim and John from when they meet in high school and Tim pursues John. The story follows their love through homophobia, infidelity (of sorts), moderate success and finally AIDS. The characters are portrayed skilfully by Ryan Corr as Tim, and Craig Stott as John. Despite a strange, forced accent from Corr (he insists on pronouncing every T as if he were dining with the queen and it annoyed me throughout), their performances are truly impeccable.

The film matters in a sociological sense because it is set against the backdrop of the changing Australia of the late seventies through early nineties, which was when the bulk of social attitudes about the rainbow community shifted. And yet, despite the significance of these political shifts, this story is firmly grounded in the experience of the two men at the heart of this tragedy. And therein lies its greatest strength.

If you really hate spoilers, you might want to stop reading now, but really, the ending is clear from the very opening moments of the film, anyway. It is rare, I think, that this tactic works, but this is certainly one of the circumstances in which it serves well for keeping the story on track and focused. One of the benefits of knowing that John dies is that as the film delves into some very dark places the audience doesn’t question whether he will pull through. And because we know he is going to die, we are able to concentrate on the way in which the characters deal with their circumstances. It really is very strategic storytelling, and shows a master of the art was at work.

Despite the darkness of this story, this film is, at its heart, a celebration of love. It truly demonstrates a spectacular skill on the part of Tommy Murphy, to delve into such dark plotlines with such pathos and not lose sight of the heart of the story, which was the love between the two protagonists. Few writers can manage this with such dexterity.

I simply cannot recommend this film highly enough. Get it. Watch it. Share it.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 in Australian Film, Film, Goalpost Pictures

 

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Short+Sweet Canberra 2015 Week 1

After missing a year, it has been a great feeling being involved in Short+Sweet again this year. The competition, as always, is eclectic.
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Photo 4-08-2015 4 15 53 pmI think one of the highlights this week has been The Adventures of Captain Midnight, in which Captain Midnight, a widower, describes his experience of moving to a retirement village and finding himself the centre of all the ladies’ attention. Don Smith as Captain Midnight strikes a very dignified presence with an air of David Attenborough examining the sex lives of the elderly.
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I’ve also been enjoying The Truth About Mum and Dad, yet another great piece by Greg Gould with some snappy one-liners and very relatable adult siblings who enjoy making a scene while learning that their parents may not be quite as prudish as they thought.
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Harriet Elvin’s Untitled was in good company with these offerings, too. What seems to be an art critic being harangued by a less appreciative gallery visitor turns out to be something far more amusing.
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I had the privilege of directing two very talented and committed performers in Robert Armstrong’s zippy little piece, The Interview from Hell. Alison Bigg and Oliver Durbidge took the production very seriously, and made the whole process very enjoyable. I also think the result was spectacular, but I’m biased!
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But the image that will stay with me after this year’s festival will certainly be that of Alison McGregor’s ‘Sparkles’, whose homage to love and chicken was simply gut-wrenching, especially the third time you see it! This one certainly deserved to take home People’s Choice!
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If this is the Top 20, there’s no way of predicting what will be in the Wildcards!
 

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About what Jetta jettisoned…

I’m not a big fan of sports. I did audient at a game once when I was young, but I found the plot far too predictable and the characters quite superficial. It has always seemed to me that if you’ve seen one game, you’ve seen them all. I am generally in the habit of going straight to the sports pages in a newspaper when I need to clean the windows or if I have to deal with a puppy’s nuggets of joy. Instead of sport, for most of my life I’ve turned my attention to production styles with more drama, intrigue and three dimensional characters, but just this week, I’ve found it very interesting to note the strange audience responses to a mime act by an Aboriginal footsport player, especially given the controversy sparked by his performance.

picture of Lewis Jetta miming the throwing of a spear

Lewis Jetta’s enthusiastic mime, a subtle inspiration for so much Bogan ire.

For those living in the rest of the world, or for Australians who live in their own little bubble, what happened was essentially this: last Sunday, during a game of sportsball staged by Australia’s largest sportsball producer, the AFL, a group of Bogans in the auditorium were taunting one of the Aboriginal performers: Adam Goodes of the Adnyamathanha and Narungga peoples in South Australia. Following a plot crescendo during which one of the protagonists, an Aboriginal performer by the name of Lewis Jetta, had apparently sportsed very well, he stopped sportsing for an improvised aside in which he mimed the throwing of a spear. It was a gesture of excitement following a small victory that took its inspiration from the performer’s heritage. The mime, it seems, was very convincing: the Bogans in the auditorium were so terrified of the mimed spear that they booed ever louder, and they’ve been booing all week.

The performance, luckily, was recorded and plastered everywhere, so I have had the opportunity of viewing it on television and the interwebs approximately seven hundred and eighty four thousand, six hundred and fifty times. My considered opinion is that the mime, though solid, was not of Marcel Marceau’s calibre (though his blackface was certainly convincing). Don’t get me wrong: it was a fine mime, but so brief, and with so little development of plot or establishment of environment, that it really doesn’t appear sufficient to warrant such fear. I would have thought a prop spear may well have had such an effect, but the mime? I’m not so sure there was much to be afraid of. But the Bogans were very afraid, and the official spokesperson of Boganhood has been making it known just how frightened they were by it.

Ever since the event, the entire country has been discussing whether the mime was appropriate for this performance space. Apparently, sportsfoot games are usually a very vocal environment: performers and audiences are both encouraged to be very vocal about their feelings, so a mime is quite an unusual piece of performance art in this environment. I suspect a part of the Bogan response is the unfamiliarity of the audience with the subtlety of the protagonist’s choice of mime.

The conflict has been heated. Many Australians feel that miming an aggressive action such as throwing a spear is not appropriate, though apparently punching the air is acceptable, as is dressing in ancient Polynesian armory and screaming threatening words in a language even more frightening than German. Heck, even punching other people is apparently okay! But according to the Bogan Lord, miming the throwing of a spear is never acceptable. A good number of other middle aged white men of European heritage have also expressed their disappointment that an Aboriginal man would do Aboriginal things in Australia, and have railed at the suggestion that their response is racist. They’re even saying that pointing at racism and calling it racism is not in the spirit of the game. No wonder I don’t have an affinity with sport. According to these commentators, the Australian race who have suffered the greatest degree of racial vilification over the last 227½ years just aren’t qualified to identify racism when they see it.

Now, it is clear that Australians are more conservative about violence than most cultures, and we don’t get terribly emotional about sports. British fans of boring sports, for instance, have been known to go to more extreme lengths than Jetta, and rather than miming the throwing of a spear, the British Bogan is more inclined to kill children when he gets bored of watching a game. Brazilians also tend to throw actual things, rather than miming things to throw when they play sportsball. Thank goodness Australian players draw the line at gang rape and only mime violent acts.

As a very astute friend of mine remarked on the Book of Face, in most theatres, an audient behaving in a disruptive manner like the Bogans at Subiaco Oval would be asked to leave by one of the ushers to allow the rest of the audience to enjoy the performance. It seems to me that the failure of the venue to expel the disruptive audients is the most egregious error here. But perhaps Western Australian theatres are just more tolerant of poor behaviour in auditoria. I hear there were even people using a mobile phone during the performance! I certainly hope that custom doesn’t migrate to the eastern states; I can’t think of anything more disrespectful.

Now, I’m no expert on performances in this kind of context: I don’t usually find the plot in footsport games interesting enough to warrant any analysis on my theatre blog. But with so many people speculating about whether booing an individual for expressing their excitement in a manner appropriate for their race is racist, and since quite a few of my friends who I didn’t think were racist have been saying racist or at best just plain ignorant things this week, I felt it might be useful to describe the controversy from a different perspective. And as a dramatist, I can confirm that this is certainly the most interesting thing to happen on a sportsing paddock since the fitba riots in Europe in the 1980s led to the development of crowd control as a field of academic inquiry.

Adam Goodes

Goodes summoning the sportsing gods, or maybe just walking along with an arm outstretched, I’m not sure.

A mime in a shouty context doesn’t necessarily play well, but neither does it warrant this kind of response. I think begrudging an Aboriginal man his Aboriginality and asking him to act like a Gubba instead is definitely more than just a little bit racist. Getting upset about the miming of a violent act in an environment characterised by actual violence is, I think, equally ridiculous.

If you read nothing else about this sorry affair, give Stan Grant’s remarkable piece a go.

And if you’re not a reader, Waleed Aly debunks the two most profound myths surrounding the ever-so-apty-named Mister Goodes in this video.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 1 August 2015 in Improvisation, Mime

 

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

complete worksThe expression on the faces of the three actors after their opening night performance said it all: they’d put their whole heart and soul into it!

And why wouldn’t they? The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), despite being abridged, is one of the most amusing responses to the Bard’s works ever penned. It has been entertaining both Shakespeare enthusiasts and the partners they drag along to the theatre for almost 30 years, and so far it has failed to age.

Covering all 37 of Shakespeare’s dramatic works in under two hours is no mean feat. Granted, they do cover 16 comedies all at once (because they’re all the same anyway), and they merely name a few rather than delving into them, but still, you can understand them experiencing some fatigue at the end of such a night. Truly, if any actor has earned the right to collapse at the end of a performance, it’s an actor in this hilarious show.

And this cast has certainly done it justice.

Ryan Pemberton introduces James Scott as the bumbling scholar, who in turn calls on Brendan Kelly, drawing him into the debacle. The pace begins rather more slowly than I think this piece calls for, but the three certainly picked it up. Perhaps not quite enough to hold the energy where it needs to be, but that will probably slot into place as the run continues and the cast get a better feel for audience reactions.

A great production that both needs and deserves a high quality audience!

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 22 July 2015 in Canberra Theatre, Honest Puck, Theatre

 

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Paper Towns

Paper TownsThis year, two films with names starting with the word paper have impressed me. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m not even sure what I should make of the fact that two films with names starting with the word paper have been released this year. Nonetheless, it seems to be a good formula, because both of them are bloody brilliant.

Paper Towns is an American Indie film, and if there’s any negative generalisation you can make about American films, American Indie films are the exception that proves the rule. American films sacrifice plot intrigue for dramatic licence. American Indie films don’t. American films have superficial characters that barely even remind you of humanity. American Indie films don’t. American films make a lot of money at the box office. American Indie films don’t. Okay, that last one wasn’t negative, but you get my drift. Want to understand the American psyche? Spend some time with their Indie offerings and you’ll encounter the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful soul of America.

Paper Towns delivers a deeply engaging plot centred on the protagonist’s crush on his neighbour, a girl who develops a habit of disappearing. It’s a kind of coming of age story, kind of a road movie, kind of romantic comedy, but, as with all good Indie films, it defies categorisation.  Its characters really get under your skin. They’re characters you can really care about, drawn with such a fine verisimilitude that you don’t even notice the archetypes being presented. Antagonists, too, are never left to wallow in the audience’s antipathy, but they come to life as fully developed characters worth as much respect as protagonists, if not as much love. Stories like this are rare.

This is genuine storytelling. I have seen a lot lately that doesn’t quite engage me as I wish it would, but this just held me enthralled from beginning to end.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 in American Film

 

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Paper Planes

Paper_PlanesI think I need to begin this post with a warning: I may gush a little. This is simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Maybe I say that a lot, but it doesn’t make me like it any less. There’s a great deal of skill involved in balancing plot with character development, balancing pathos with humour and balancing light with dark. The creators of this film have done all three brilliantly.

Paper Planes is focused on Dylan, a 12-year-old who lives with his grieving father on a dilapidated farm near the fictional town of Waleup in Western Australia. When a strapping, visionary student teacher introduces him to the world of competitive paper plane-making, he enters that world with enthusiasm and brings a balance of humility and determination with him, which helps to draw his father back to life.

Ed Oxenbould‘s portrayal of Dylan is the linchpin for this brilliant film, and his ability to balance energy and pathos is remarkable for a 13 year old actor. He is supported well by Sam Worthington, whose character is sullen throughout without being entirely flat, which is quite an achievement. And light relief is all in the hands of the brilliant Deborah Mailman, who adds just the right spice to the mix.

The plot is largely predictable, but doesn’t suffer for it. Even the best of the humour is available in the trailer, so if you don’t like character and aren’t interested in their journeys, then maybe you shouldn’t bother with this film (if that’s the case, why would you watch films at all anyway?). The fact is, this is a light-hearted story that really gets to the guts of what life is about.

And more importantly, perhaps, this film is a testament to growing maturity in Australian storytelling. While it is distinctly Australian in character, it refrains from either romanticising or demonising the bush, and there’s barely a skerrick of cheap and nasty ockerism. There’s a hint of romanticism about Sydney (something I’ll never understand, having been liberated from Sydney myself), but what it does best is pitch a national identity that is quietly confident, but nonetheless cautious. I don’t think we’ve done that very much before.

I’m even willing to forgive some very substantial continuity errors, the biggest of which I can’t mention as it would spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t miss this one. If you’re the teary type, take tissues. If you like a good laugh, don’t put the popcorn in your lap. But either way, see it.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 11 January 2015 in Arenamedia, Australian Film, Film

 

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Big Hero 6

big hero 6In the opening moments of this film, I loved its playfulness and cross-cultural references like the name of its location in San Fransokyo and the Asian touches on the Golden Gate Bridge. The animation grabbed me immediately, and it was easy to engage with the characters. Of course, you’d expect that from these guys. Disney are masters of the dramatic arts and know how to play them to commercial advantage, and they’ve built an empire on engaging audiences across ages and cultures.

The film concerns Hiro, a young robot enthusiast who develops a brilliant new concept for robotics in order to gain a scholarship for his brother’s university. He succeeds, but the death of his brother and the theft of his concept present a need to turn from Hiro to hero before he takes up his place in academia.

The cross-cultural elements are particularly interesting, and on the surface at least, reinforce the values of multiculturalism. But I just felt uneasy as I started to notice cultural stereotypes creeping in. Despite a broad brush being applied in the races of the animated characters, it can be observed with some objectivity that all the notable Asian characters were nerds, all the characters with political, financial or academic power were Anglo-Celtic, and the muscles belonged to the African American. Not racist by any means, and the way in which these characters contributed to the functioning of the symbolically-hybridised San Fransokyo is a respectable image, but really, Disney? Is it necessary to reinforce these stereotypes? Could you not just shake it up a little bit? For the kids? Maybe?

To their credit, there are some strong, understated female role models here. The gender balance is better than the race balance, and the catchphrase “woman up” is one I hope will resonate with my daughters. The film is also very strong in character development. Though one of the characters dies early in the film, his presence remains palpable throughout, thanks to the treatment of the central character, whose grief is brilliantly established and expressed.

This really is an excellent film. It has a unique and engaging story, well-developed characters and beautiful animation. But I just feel that little bit uncomfortable with the way it reinforces stereotypes, so I have some hesitation in praising it too highly.

 

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