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Culture

Human Rights Arts & Film Festival – Melbourne

HRAFF

Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege … Privilege does not have to be negative, but we have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it

bell hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism

I recently attend the excellent Australian Human Rights Arts & Film Festial (HRAFF) in Melbourne where a collection of short films were presented at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).  The HRAFF has been running for nine few years, and seeks to “hold a mirror to the uneasy truths of our times and reflect our stories” through creative means – and that it does.

acmiThe International Shorts screening that I attended comprised a collection of five award winning films from around the globe that presented a broad range of international and social issues in bold, despairing, humorous and challenging ways.  All of the five films (perhaps with exclusion of Ave Maria) where tied together by common themes of: power, privilege and capacity.

The film-suite seemed to emphasise how privileged we are in Australia, while also inspiring and subtly challenging the audience to consider how we can more fully use our vast capacity to facilitate change and empowerment of vulnerable people both locally and internationally.

 

I have briefly reviewed each of the respective short films:

Shipwreck (2014: Netherlands and Italy – 15min) shipwreck

Using clever camerawork to provide a feeling of disorientation as well as buoyancy at sea, this Shipwreck is light on dialogue and heavy on impact.  26 year old Morgan Knibbe‘s moving film is shot through the perspective of one of the 155 survivors of the well publicised ship-wreck that was carrying 500 Eritrean refugees that sank off the cost of the Italian island Lampedusa, 3 October 2013.  The viewer is presented a world of disperse, chaos and loss as the remaining survivors and the local police are forced to deal with the aftermath of the tragic voyage.

 

Listen (2014: Denmark, Finland and Colombia – 13min)

listenListen is a painfully realistic lesson in understanding the difficulties of migrants who cannot communicate in the primary language of their new resident nation.  Somewhat reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga‘s tragic film Bable, Listen tells the story of a Musilm woman seeking Police protection from her abusive husband against the wishes of her intentionally  misleading Muslim translator and her teenage son.  Change for this woman is shown as nearly impossible against such cultural inertia and language barriers.

 

A few seconds (2014: France – 16min)

A_Few_SecondsNora el Hourch‘s film tells the story of a small rough-edged band of young women in France that are coming of age amidst passively and actively abusive men.  With plenty of humour, and plenty of shock A few seconds shows the importance of community and friendship when coping with life away from the support of family.

 

Everything will be OK (2015: Germany and Austria – 30min)

everything will be okPatrick Vollrath’s ‘short’ film tells the story of a desperate father seeking to kidnap his child out of his loneliness, despair and anger at his current custody arrangement.  Tastefully shot, Everything will be OK, allows the audience to simultaneously sympathise with the father while understanding the suffering of a poor child caught in the middle of parents’ fighting and broken relationships.  In the final moving scenes the daughter seems to behave more like an adult than her Dad while literally being pried from his arms.

 

Ave Maria (2015: Palestine, France and Germany – 15min)ave maria

A start contrast to the other four shorts – it is clear that the program directors had learned from last year, the importance of allowing the audience to leave the cinema smiling as well as being shockingly moved.  Ave Maria is a quirky tale of a handful of Nuns and Jews that are forced to help each other in the West Bank under the most unlikely of circumstances.  Making light of some Jewish and Catholic cultural traditions and stereotypes, Ave Maria seems to ironically elucidate the similarities between different religious and cultural groups by forcing the audience to somewhat laugh at the small and large things that makes some communities appear different.

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Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman

Anomalisa - Running.jpg

This is not how I am;  I have become comfortably numb

Roger Waters, 1979

Charlie Kaufman‘s latest film, Anomalisa, is an understated piece from the award winning screen writer.  In his second role as director, Kaufman is joined by Duke Johnson to produce this heavy stop-motion feature based on a 2005 play of the same name.

The film is set almost entirely over the course of one evening spent in a hotel room Cincinnati hotel where the protagonist, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a famous self-help author seeks to find human connection in a world where everybody else looks the same.  This is until he meets a sweet and unconfident young woman, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who unlike all the other characters has a unique face, voice and a sky childish honesty.  Stone is immediately drawn to her as an escape from the familiarity of everyone that he meets that seems to be causing his feelings of isolation.  In Lisa, Stone sees an escape from his tired routine, and a reason for hope and joy.

Michael Stone: I think you’re extraordinary.
Lisa: Why?
Michael Stone: I don’t know yet, it’s just obvious to me that you are.

Despite the serious themes, the film is consistently funny, with plenty of dry-wit and dark humor.  It is through the tired eyes of the educated traveler that the all-so-familiar rituals of a bland work trip interstate are poked fun at through Stone’s frustration.  However, his desire to be left alone in peace and quiet from the hospitality staff is ironically contrasted with his need for simple human connection that he spends the whole evening and day-thereafter seeking.

Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman

In scale, Anomalisa is juxtaposed to Kaufman’s previous work – Synechdoche New York (2008) – which follows the drawn-out life and death of the protagonist: Caden Cotard.  Cotard’s desire for his life to be made significant through his work is echoed by his never ceasing attempts at grandeur and honesty in an all encompassing theater piece.  He is never content with the simple small human connections in and of themselves, instead, Cotard seeks something big and bold often at the expense of true human interaction with his family and closest friends. Anomalisa’s Michael Stone by contrast seems to have given up on the grand, and is desperate for connection, a hug – and some..

Anomalisa - Scene

That stop-motion sex scene

In a 2015 interview, Kaufman and Johnston explain how the most difficult part of the production was filming the sex scene that took over six-months.   The challenge was made even harder by trying to avoid connections to that oh-so famous Team America: World Police (2004) montage.  Too often intimate scenes in films are forced to be either funny or passionately erotic; however, here, a simple tone is carefully presented where a basic human connection is shown by balancing their genuine affection for each other with the sadness of the situation, including Stone’s adultery.  The use of stop-motion figurines paradoxically enables the directors to present somewhat ‘universal’ characters that the viewer is able to connect to without the distraction of a human actor.

The theme of not being able to being able to distinguish between faces is based on a real condition – Prosopagnosia – famously suffered from by portrait artist Chuck Close.  However, the viewer is asked to question whether in-fact everybody is actually the same, or whether Stone cannot determine the differences in their faces – perhaps due to his

Chuck Close

Chuck Close – Self portrait

disengagement from others’ lives.  Or perhaps even more so, that Stone is the only person in this fictional world that is truly alive in seeing that everyone else is the same.  Or finally, is it that Stone asks too much of the world and others?

The film ends with his wife reminding a disengaged Stone, “Don’t you realize we all love you“.  To which we are forced to question whether asking for something new, exciting and different is genuinely as important as simply loving others and being loved in return.

Perhaps the final irony of this film is that despite Stone seeing everybody as the same, this movie is distinctive in its quiet ability to capture both a person’s disconnection with the world and their desire for human’s connection.


 

Kaufman’s Filmography:

Being John MBeing John Malkovich (1999) – Disturbingly entertaining and more than entertainingly disturbing.

 

Human NatureHuman Nature (2001) – Far better than it looked; but unfortunately it watched no better than it looked.

 

 

NicCageAdaptationAdaptation (2002) – If you can tell me what it all means – you are a liar; if you can tell me you didn’t enjoy being taken on a trip down the garden path – you too are a liar.

 

CDMConfession of a Dangerous Mind (2002) – Such a perfectly unbelievable true-story, even with Clooney‘s directorial debut as a Coen brothers disciple he couldn’t do any true harm to Kaufman’s modified script.

 

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindEternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) – Not your average rom-com – as the greater the plot twists, the tighter the knots of love and loss.

 

synecdoche new yorkSynecdoche, New York (2008) – Directorial debut and epic navel-gazing true horror film about dying without living in the quest for greatness and meaning.

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Skateboarding Renaissance

Longboarding Picture

“Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people say “There’s something missing in my life”; none of these people have been skateboarders” – Lucas Klein

Colin neatly tucks his longboard under his arm before getting into the lift and heading up to his office job as a Quantity Surveyor in the city.  Everyday he rides four and a half kilometers on his homemade longboard to the train station, followed by a short skate from the station to his office door.

Building his first board four years ago, he has since designed a number of different custom decks.  Colin loves to take his three-year-old girl for a short ride, “Initially she was a bit afraid, but now she really loves it.  When she gets a bit older, I’ll probably make her a board of her own to start learning on while she’s young”.

1080 Snowboarding - Nintendo 64Like the many others that are now rolling the streets, Colin is a part of the growing community of 20 to 40-year-old males who are picking up skateboards, despite not skating in their youth because they didn’t fit into the skate scene.

Skateboards started appearing in California in the 1940s and 1950s, and were used by surfers wanting to practice when the swell wasn’t up.  Reaching its peak in popularity during the late 1990s, skateboarding was dominated by massive commercial brands such as Globe, Vans, and World Industries.  Competitive trick boarders like Tony Hawk became household names, and computer games such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater and 1080⁰ Snowboarding were a huge success.  On the back of this popularity a skate culture developed, where to be considered a skater meant wearing the popular skate gear and being able to perform tricks.

Then, in the mid 2000s skateboarding dropped out of vogue; almost as a counter response to the hyper commercialisation, marketing, branding and the pressure for skaters to perform tricks on demand.  High social and financial entry barriers discouraged the non-committed from getting involved.  However, skateboarding is currently regaining popularity in a four-wheeled youthful renaissance.  Boarding is back, and everybody is doing it: from businessmen, to construction workers, to your average, and not so average, Joe. People have rediscovered the joy of just cruising around on four wheels.

In a response to the commercialisation of skating in the 1990s, people have begun to embrace the diverse family of skateboards, many of which are hand crafted, personalised, and unbranded.  There are a plethora of shapes, colours, lengths and widths available – all a far cry from the standard black trick-deck of the 1990s.  Although there are still branded boards such as the Penny Board or the RipStik, along with other popular skate clothing brands, many of the new skaters are learning the joy of riding around without any of these logos, slogans or dollar markups.

Don Bostick - Skating - 70sOne particular type of deck that is gaining popularity is the longboard.  As the larger cousin to the skateboard, longboards began to appear in the 1970s in Hawaii as a variant to the shorter boards.  Typically over 80cm long, the larger wheelbase decks are easier to learn on and faster to pick up.  Unlike the Tony Hawk skateboards of the late 1990s, where being able to ‘ollie’ and ‘grind’ were the minimum street cred’ requirement, longboarding is far more accessible which is contributing to its growing popularity.

Not only designed for travel, longboards can reach substantial speeds downhill, appealing to the thrill seeking, adrenalin junkies.  And it’s not just blokes who are having all the fun.  Women too are joining in on the craze, often using cruisers: a slightly shorter variant of the longboard.  Designed for quick and easy convenience rather than serious speed, cruisers are the adult equivalent to the bright coloured Penny Board.

Skateboarding - Close upChris, a 24-year-old community social worker involved with youth and the homeless, recently fractured his wrist longboarding.  However, he is still unwavered, “I’d always wanted to skate, but was never able to get into it during high-school”.  However, since two of his best friends have become hooked, Chris has got on the board and hasn’t looked back.  “I get so much joy from it – it is the only exercise I genuinely look forward to”.

This article has also been published in Edition 4 of The Unknown Magazine – Available on Joomag

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An American In Paris

Breakfast

Europe was created by history.  America was created by philosophy.

– Margaret Thatcher

I hate seeing Americans in Europe.  They are out of place.  They don’t belong there, and yet they keep on popping up.

But I’m not talking about actual American tourists / travellers.  As I personally found them to be great fun, and far less obnoxious as their arguably un-fair cartoon cut-out stereotype that so called real travellers like to talk about.

DSC01585I’m talking about American actors, musicians and style-icons being shamelessly prostituted as advertising on European souvenirs.  Appearing next to the Eiffel Tower; The Coliseum, even in the Gondola filled Venice.  Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn were the worst offenders, or offended – depending how you think about it.

Take for example, this kitsch Marilyn Monroe and Eifle Tower t-shirt.  Or an Audrey Hepburn souvenir that we saw in Paris shop window.  What is she doing there?!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an American produced film; set in New York, America; written by an American, Truman Capote, starring an American actress, Audrey Hepburn as a fictional American prostitute.  Now, I am willing to conceded that Audrey Hepburn did star in the B&W film Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck where classic scenes of the couple cruising around on a Vespa in front of the Coliseum and other Roman icons; or Paris when it sizzles (1964).  But that hardly means that she is suddenly Italian, or even French!

Mick Jagger - Ned KellyThe equivalent would be to have pictures of Mick Jagger – who starred in a 1970 film about Ned Kelly, the iconic and notorious Australian bushranger and out-law – and have him and his big lips printed all over T-shirts, calendars, and mug-holders alongside Uluru, Sydney Opera House, or posing with penguins from Phillip Island, Victoria.

When looking through the souvenir shops and flea markets while travelling in Granada, Spain, I came across this original Granada boomerang.  I didn’t know that the Australian First People had traveled all the way to Spain; or that they discovered how to use blue and green paints; or that the Spanish people had for some reason embraced traditional Australian Aboriginal tools and weapons.

In the 1996 music documentary Hype, director Doug Pray shows that during the early 90s, when the grunge movement was taking off in Seattle, many record labels elsewhere were trying to leverage off this success.  Albums, clothing, boots, instruments and amps were stamped with Seattle as a symbol of their street-cred – even if these items had little to nothing to do with this Washington city.

Granada Boomerang

Genuine Granada boomerangs

And there are other countless examples of this sort of marketing.  Where something that is originally unique is used, shamelessly and out of context, to try to give something else some pizzazz.  And in doing so, dilutes the meaning of what was unique first item.

It is a sad thing that marketing tries to leach off word-association value from genuinely unique ideas or images, and pass them onto garden variety products.   I find it intensely frustrating how the word Jazz is slapped onto bars and restaurants to make it look cool – when in fact it has nothing to do with jazz at all.  Jazz is reduced from being an alternative and potentially raucous art-form, to tame background music at a cocktail bar.  It tries to borrow the edgy, mysterious, out-sider jazz ethic and pass that on; rather than generating some panache of its own.

Perhaps this sort of ‘word theft’ is partially what Bob Dylan was so angry about in his 1981 song, singing “You want to water-down love” – disappointed at seeing the radical term ‘love’ of his new Christian faith, being diminished and reduced by televangelists nationwide.

Paris Hilton in Paris, France

Or maybe we should be thankful that we have Audrey Hepburn next to the Eiffel Tower, and not had to endure Paris Hilton flaunting her name, and herself…

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February 22, 2014 · 5:24 PM

The Birth (and Death) of The Cool – Book Review

James Dean

I don’t mind not being cool – Chris Martin 

People in our society spend countless dollars on it; hours of our personal time thinking about it; sweat stressing about it and coffees discussing it – all with the desire to be cool.

But what is cool?  And what is ‘cool’?  These were just two of the questions that I had on my mind when I picked up Ted Gioia‘s book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, late last year.  Named after the seminal 1957 Miles Davis jazz album Birth of the Cool – this book aims to discuss the aesthetic of cool, tracking its recent history in pop-culture, and discuss its future.

the birth and the death of the cool - Book Cover

Gioia contends that ‘cool’, in a certain conception, had a beginning, and now it is starting to have an ending.  He defines the cool aesthetic as being including the following characteristics: restraint; mystery; brooding; self-confidence; and independence – all very ‘western’ ideals.  Defining this ‘cool’ aesthetic in a specific way, he argues that cool is personified by people like Miles Davis, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Neal Cassady / Jack Kerouac.

From his research, Gioia argues that the increase in the use of the word ‘cool’ grew rapidly from the 1930’s on – at the same time as the use of the word ‘lifestyle’ entered our vernacular.  Previously, people were limited in their ability to make personal decisions about their lifestyle.  People were limited to read only the books that were available to them, listen to their family’s music, buy goods only from local stores – much the same as their parents.  However, with increases in technology and financial independence, more and more youth had a disposable income so as to make decisions about what they would ‘consume’, as distinct from merely ‘absorbing’ the same media as their forefathers.  People could travel to absorb media, or conversely, companies would travel to share new products with new geographical markets.  In America, people could now choose the life and life style that they so desired – all with some help from the invisible hand of capitalism.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

Gioia referenced the seminal 1997 New Yorker article ‘The Coolhunt’.  In it, Malcolm Gladwell describes a trend during the 90’s where marketers and product designers would try to to find influential teens and youths from New York.  They would follow them around, and see what they were wearing, what clothes they were mixing together, and ask them about different product prototype brands that they have been working on.

“The key to coolhunting, then, is to look for cool people first and cool things later, and not the other way around.  Since cool things are always changing, you can’t look for them, because the very fact they are cool means you have no idea what to look for… Cool people, on the other hand, are a constant.”  Similar to Yves Saint Laurent’s Maxim – “Fashion comes and goes; but style is eternal”.

Gioia believes, that there has been a shift in our societies’ conception of cool – from a mysterious brooding Hollywood glamour,  to a more authentic and honest aesthetic.  He points to celebrities such as Lady Ga Ga – whose candied openness with the media has attracted huge audience of fans.  I do believe that people have become increasingly skeptical of slick over-managed media personalities such as Jessica Watson, Australian solo navigating sailor, whose every Twitter and blog post if meticulously filtered though her publicity manager before any content can go online.   However, Gioia’s examples seem oft to few, and his deduced strong conclusions somewhat tenuous or unfounded.   Nevertheless the book is quite unique in content, and reads exceptionally well.

Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia

Only after finishing the book did I look inside to discover that the author and expert on what is ‘Cool’, Ted Gioia, looked like this.  Hmmm… maybe the his look is just taking hipster irony to a whole new level.

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