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Pokies industry wins in Tasmania
Gaming is the next corporate interest to govern in the state

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So Tasmania has a new government.

Yes, I know the Libs are still in office at 1 Salamanca Place and Will Hodgman is still premier. But the real government, the one run by the pokies industry under the Federal Group and the Farrell family, has now been confirmed as the successor of the dynasty of rent-seekers who actually manage the Apple Isle.

It was ever thus. Partly because of the smallness of the place, and partly because of the ruthlessness of the rulers and the apathy of the voters, corporations have held the real power for more than 40 years, which is as long as I have taken an interest.

In former times it was the Hydro – the Hydro-Electric Commission – a state-owned enterprise whose manic determination to build dams transcended all else. There were protests and objections, notably with the flooding of Lake Pedder, but until the 1980s the Hydro reigned supreme, the politicians following slavishly in its wake.

When Bob Hawke’s government and the High Court effectively scuttled plans for the Franklin Dam, the Hydro’s massive influence ebbed away. But it was swiftly replaced by Gunns, the timber merchants dedicated to destroying old-growth forests and shipping them off as woodchips for Japan.

After a series of bad decisions and political scandals, Gunns hit the wall, and there was a pause in which the politicians drew breath. But the vacuum was filled when the longstanding bipartisan agreement to allow the Farrells monopoly rights over the state’s pokies broke down with a courageous pledge from Labor’s Rebecca White to remove pokies from pubs and clubs.

The Farrells and their allies were perfectly prepared to buy an election, if only to show who is really in charge. The campaign has been horrendous; I was in Hobart for a week of it and was bombarded by lies about how thousands of jobs were at stake, and the overwhelming benefits the cashed-up pubs and clubs brought to their communities.

And it is true that after the Farrells and the government have taken their motza, a portion of what is left by the publicans (usually employees of the Farrells, unsurprisingly) may see a few bucks trickle back to more or less worthy causes. But given that every cent that goes into the pokies comes out of the community, the return is derisory at best.

The stentorian demands to Love Your Local (meaning lose a lot of your money on the pokies to enrich their absentee owners) were both absurd and deceitful. And of course, Tasmania being Tasmania and having relatively weak political donation laws, we won’t know for a year and a half how much the rapacious moguls have spent to maintain their rule, by which time the great scam will be well entrenched.

The irony is that Hodgman would probably have won legitimately; the local economy is doing pretty well and there had been no disastrous, Turnbull-like gaffes to derail what has been a mercifully uneventful government. But the pokies onslaught has ensured that Hodgman will forever be a client of the anonymous, greedy parasites who trade on human misery and who have now assumed the real power in the land.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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Treasures buried at the Berlin International Film Festival
A lacklustre line-up concealed the beautiful and the beguiling

Sunday’s Illness

This year’s Berlin Film Festival began under something of a cloud. A few months earlier, a group of 79 prominent German filmmakers had co-signed an open letter demanding the removal of the festival’s long-time director, the “avuncular” Dieter Kosslick, and his replacement by someone with actual cinephile knowledge and taste. “The goal,” they wrote, “must be to find an outstanding curatorial personality who is passionate about cinema, well-connected internationally and capable of leading the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice. We want a transparent procedure and a new start.” Virtually every major German director put their name to it – including Christian Petzold, Volker Schlöndorff, Maren Ade, Dominik Graf and Fatih Akin – though Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer was conspicuous by his absence. Not at all coincidentally, he was also the president of this year’s jury. And Petzold, who had a new film in the festival’s Competition section, walked away mit nichts.

I’ve been somewhat hard on Kosslick myself over the years, but that’s only because he has no fucking idea how to program a festival. Like a blackjack player who can’t count cards, he’s displayed no ability whatsoever to make the most of the few assets he has. His legacy, it seems, will be to have introduced “Culinary Kino” – a sidebar dedicated to films about food, where each screening is followed by a meal prepared by a renowned chef, to which Berlin’s now-sizable bourgeoisie flock each night. Mostly, to quote Alan Bennett, to “hug themselves in self-congratulation at the perfection of their lives”.

In fact, there were some good films at this year’s Berlinale, though you had to work hard to find them. The Competition section, overstuffed and underpowered, was judged once again to be a disappointment: its failure remains the chief reason for Berlin’s perceived decline as a major international event. But in the sidebar sections, a number of treasures could be found.

I didn’t catch Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which opened the festival, or Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane; there’ll be time for those films when they’re released. Nor did I see the Golden Bear winner, Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not – partly because I’d been warned off it by friends who had (one, reviewing it for a trade magazine, privately described it to me as “abhorrent”), but also because it stars an actor I’d worked with in the past, who I didn’t especially like or want to watch again. By all accounts a forensic study of human sexuality, blurring the line between documentary and fiction, it seems destined for festival play, respectful notices, and not much else. Berlin has a particular knack for consecrating films that you struggle even to remember a few years later. (Have you ever heard of Grbavica? Or U-Carmen eKhayelitsha?) Touch Me Not, alternating full-frontal nudity with breaking-the-fourth-wall interview segments, will likely do nothing to counter that trend.

It’s also worth noting, in passing, that this year Berlin responded to the #MeToo movement by seeking “to provide all of our festival visitors (both audience and industry guests) who experience or witness discrimination, harassment or abuse with contact to counselling centres, anonymous and free of charge”. Yes, gosh darn it, this festival cares about sexual harassment and discrimination! It cares so deeply, in fact, that it never did a thing about it until now, when broader societal pressures obliged it – like a starlet struggling under the weight of some obese producer – to make the obvious and inevitable compromise. Yet this gesture, which already smacked of bandwagon-jumping and opportunism, was further tarnished by the invitation the festival extended to South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who currently stands accused of harassment and abuse of an actress in his homeland.

My favourite Competition entry – probably my favourite thing at the festival, in fact – was a German film called In the Aisles. Directed by Thomas Stuber, it’s set in a vast, Costco-like supermarket beside an autobahn in the former East, which is staffed by a crew of lonely misfits, with their private codes, rituals and idiosyncrasies; imagine Are You Being Served? as written by Robert Walser.

Our entry point into this world comes with the arrival of a new worker, much younger than the rest: former jailbird Christian, played by Germany’s hottest young actor of the moment, Franz Rogowski – a kind of Deutsche Joachim Phoenix, right down to the harelip. Assigned to Beverages, he’s taken under the wing of a kindly colleague, Bruno (Peter Kurth), who shows him the ropes. And almost at once, he falls deeply in love with Marion (Sandra Hüller from Toni Erdmann), a lovely, sad and mysterious woman who works, entirely appropriately, in Sweet Goods.

Beautifully shot (mostly at night) by Peter Matjasko in a grainily underlit digital that casts whole areas of the frame into deep shadow, it’s also wryly funny – albeit in a specifically Middle-European manner, its laughter tinged with melancholy – and displays a tender and rueful affection for one’s co-workers, the near-strangers with whom we share such a large part of our lives. Christian’s scenes with Marion fairly hum, not with erotic energy – Rogowski is too recessive a presence for that – but with something else, deeper and perhaps more enduring: a shared sympathy, the mutual recognition and understanding of two lonely but hopeful souls. I wound up watching it twice, for the unalloyed pleasure of spending time with these people, in their solitary, singular world.

Stranger still was a drama from Poland, screening as part of the Forum: a semi-experimental strand known for testing the patience of all but the most tolerant (or pretentious) of viewers. Tower. A Bright Day. (yes, those are two full stops) is a domestic drama in the apocalyptic mode. It begins fairly inauspiciously – Kaja accompanies some friends to her sister Mula’s house in the country, having just been released from psychiatric care – but quickly adds layers of unease, ambiguity and dread. A local priest, delivering his sermon, suddenly forgets the name of Christ; TV news reports, barely overheard, hint at vast social cataclysms occurring in the outside world. Mula is understandably tense – it’s eight-year-old Nina’s first communion, and the child has no idea that Kaja, not Mula, is actually her mother – but these complicated family dynamics soon become the least of their problems.

Fuelled by Kacper Habisiak’s hair-raising sound design and Teoniki Rozynek’s droning, atonal score (indebted to the work of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson), the air of immanent menace mounts steadily – is Kaja, clearly a schizophrenic, capable of actual violence? – before climaxing in a sequence as unnerving and inexplicable as any I can remember. Forget Mother! – this film delivered 10 times the impact, playing, in the end, like a cross between Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent and Dawn of the Dead. Writer-director Jagoda Szelc is being tipped as a major new filmmaker in her homeland, and on the basis of this startling, technically immaculate debut, it’s not hard to see why.

Just as accomplished, and a good deal more saleable, was a drama from Spain in the festival’s Panorama section, the somewhat regrettably titled Sunday’s Illness. Written and directed by Ramón Salazar, it details the uneasy reconciliation of Anabel, a wealthy woman in her early sixties (Susi Sánchez), with Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), the daughter she abandoned three decades earlier. After a set-up of extraordinary elegance, set at a lavish banquet, the film becomes a two-hander: Chiara demands that her mother spend 10 days with her in the country on the French border, in the house in which she was born and where she continues to live; thereafter, she says, she will renounce all claims upon Anabel, financially and emotionally.

Their rapprochement is gradual and entirely convincing, culminating finally in a scene of stark, piercing sadness. Possessed of an unusually refined compositional sense, Salazar allows his story to unfold in a string of magnificent images: the Aquitaine countryside here feels somehow more northern, as darkly mysterious as a Caspar David Friedrich painting, or a Marcus Larson landscape. Meanwhile, the film’s stunning costumes remind you of just how much narrative shorthand a gifted designer can convey. (Full credit to the film’s costume designer, Clara Bilbao.)

But the real draw here is the psychic warfare between these two women – Chiara trying to penetrate her mother’s carefully cultivated hauteur, Anabel slowly, almost reluctantly thawing. It’s thorny, complex, never easy. One afternoon, at a village fair, Chiara seems for a moment to relax; she tells her mother she can ask her one question and she’ll answer it honestly. But the self-serving nature of Anabel’s query (“Does anyone else know?”) only causes the younger woman to retreat further. It’s one beautiful moment in a film replete with them; this is grown-up cinema, made for adults to ponder and savour. Why, then, was it not in Competition? Only Dieter can answer that. Thankfully, it will come to Netflix, who were listed as investors in its credits. You must see it.

From mainland China, meanwhile, came An Elephant Sitting Still, a nearly four-hour-long debut from writer-director Hu Bo, about the intersecting lives of a handful of lonely people in a third-tier northern city, all of whom (in the kind of coincidence beloved by first-time filmmakers) dream of escape to Manzhouli, a town in Inner Mongolia on the Russian border.

By no means perfect, prone to airy philosophising and occasional longueurs, it was nonetheless surprisingly gripping. The film plays out in a series of artfully constructed long takes, and the performance of its four principals is superb, their unforced naturalism rubbing up against the filmmaker’s extremely stylised mode of narration. (Hu deploys shallow focal length and tight framing to keep the focus firmly on his actors and to exclude their environment, while his director of photography, Fan Chao, contributes some of the most beguiling digital cinematography I’ve yet seen, I assume with an SLR camera: a subtly but distinctly un-filmlike aesthetic of desaturated colours, hard outlines and glassy textures.)

I’ve never bought into the critical delusion that excessive duration confers importance. (This year, noted Filipino bore Lav Diaz bought to Berlin an “a capella rock-opera”, Season of the Devil – short by his standards at 234 minutes – and managed to alienate even his usual cadre of obedient defenders.) But this one seemed to justify, not just occupy, its length, and displayed an uncanny feel for daily life in China, and the discontents of its striving, somewhat rudderless middle class. All in all, it looked to herald the arrival of a major new talent … or would have, had its maker not committed suicide in October last year, aged just 29. On the basis of this, his sole completed film, his death represents a considerable loss to international cinema.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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Editor’s Note March 2018

Looking at the news over the past fortnight (or year, or decade), you might reasonably wonder what on earth is the matter with Parliament House. What happens to people when they spend a lot of time there, and why? Luckily, we have a recent escapee – articulate, frank, unencumbered by political obligations – who is willing to explain how the system works. And how it doesn’t. And how to fix it.

Scott Ludlam, the charismatic former Greens senator, writes about his time in Canberra, and warns readers that “what I’m about to say may shock you”.

His first major essay about his time in politics contains unvarnished observations, nuanced arguments and some sharp words for those who deserve them. In other words, everything you’d expect from Scott Ludlam. It is a portrait of Australian politics that could only come from someone who spent more than a decade in its trenches, and is still searching for “creative ways to make trouble”.

As with Richard Cooke’s cover essay, a portrait of the always intriguing tennis player Nick Kyrgios, or Robert Manne’s reflections on life lived in the shadow of mortality, or Kate Holden’s stocktake of the #MeToo movement, it shows that in today’s febrile media environment, a little perspective goes a long way.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.

@nickfeik

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‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

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South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

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‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

Image of Hugh Grant in ‘Maurice’

Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more


Labor has the most to lose in the Batman by-election
Ged Kearney might be the right candidate in the wrong battle

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Holy by-election, Batman. This could be serious!

Well, that depends on where you sit. In the House of Representatives, it actually won’t make any difference whether Labor’s Ged Kearney or the Greens’ Alex Bhathal fills the vacancy – given the voting record of Greens incumbent Adam Bandt, Malcolm Turnbull has no hope of securing an extra crossbencher on anything that matters.

But if Bhathal gets over the line, it will be seen as a big victory for her party and a huge fillip to its chances in similarly vulnerable Labor-held marginals. And Labor and Bill Shorten, of course, have the most to lose: a once-safe Labor seat surrendered to the insurgent rival would not only be a dismal result in itself but would also have ominous portent for the next general election.

A Bhathal victory would have the Greens rejoicing, but Turnbull would find it hard to join the celebration over Shorten’s discomfiture – the PM could hardly gloat when his own mob did not even put up a candidate and in fact saw the constituency move even further to the left.

It is all very well to inveigh against Kearney, who is far more authentically and convincingly progressive than the multifaceted Shorten. However, the Liberal orthodoxy has always been that while Labor is to be fought and resisted, the Greens are the pits – dangerous extremists who should have no place in the parliament unless their votes can be suborned, in which case they could be regarded as what Lenin once called useful idiots.

It was for this reason that Liberal preferences saved Labor’s now resigned David Feeney in the 2016 election; he was behind Bhathal on first preferences, but won narrowly after the final distribution. However, Kearney will not have that lifeline: the Libs have said they are out of the ring to husband their resources, but it may also be a tactical move to embarrass and humiliate Shorten.

If that is the case, it must be said that Shorten has fallen straight into the snare. The ALP has presumably picked Kearney not just for her unquestioned talents and visibility but also to counter the Green onslaught from the left. As Turnbull keeps reminding us, many of her policies coincide with those of her chief rival.

This may persuade some of Bhathal’s followers to switch to a candidate with a major party, one that could actually secure government, but it begs the question: what happens to the 20 per cent who voted Liberal in 2016? Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives’ candidate Kevin Bailey will carry the flag for the right, but he is unlikely to get anywhere near 20 per cent.

While conservatives may have been prepared to preference Feeney – a stalwart of the Victorian Right – they would have trouble moving over to the more left-leaning Kearney. There are likely to be a lot of informal votes, and others may not bother to turn up at all. Given that Bhathal gained more than 36 per cent in first preferences in 2016, which represented a swing of 10 per cent towards her, momentum will be on her side.

Although Kearney has rightly been billed as an ALP star candidate, in this fight she may well be the wrong choice. And that misjudgement may be the game changer that stalls Shorten’s seemingly irresistible push, and gives Turnbull the relief he so desperately needs.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Read on

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Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

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South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

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‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

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Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more


The Story of Shit
A cultural, scientific and historical account of shit: a Midas Dekkers book extract

We owe our excrement more respect than we normally show. What we toss out is not worthless rubbish but a valuable product of intricate, highly synchronised processes. Not only is shit the keystone of the circle of life, but it’s also an object of lust, a means of creative expression, and a vehicle for communicating love between humans or between man and animal. Shit is the universal lubricant of the entire life mechanism; shit keeps the whole thing going. One of the first to recognise this was the philosopher Diogenes (c. 412–323 BCE). The list of things he had respect for was very short indeed. He regarded nice clothing, good manners and grand banquets as futile attempts to distinguish ourselves from the animals. Shit, on the other hand, was something he could pay deference to. To underscore this, he hiked up his robe in the middle of the marked square and defecated the natural way. Respectable people have never been able to understand this, any more than they understood Gustave Courbet, famous for his painting L’origine du monde with its glimpse inside a beautiful nude woman as seen from below. When asked what he thought of a neatly painted little landscape by François-Louis Français, Courbet expressed his disapproval with the words “There’s nowhere to shit in it!” Don’t go where you can’t shit. Heinrich Heine once told an anecdote about the same high regard for excrement. While waiting for an appointment with a member of the Rothschild family, he saw a servant walk past who was carrying an elaborately decorated silver chamber pot, obviously belonging to his master. A young man who happened to be waiting with Heine tipped his hat in respect. That young man will go far, Heine said to himself.

So it would seem fitting to welcome your own faeces into the world with a certain amount of ceremony. Fortunately nearly everyone has the requisite setting for the family loo: a porcelain baptismal font, gleaming white and ready for the new citizen of the world. It may even give rise to an aura of serenity, most successfully achieved by the classic Japanese toilet and lyrically described by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) in In Praise of Shadows as “a place of spiritual repose”. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.” But you don’t have to be a haiku poet to unwind on the loo, staring into the distance and plunging into your own fantasies or those in a book. A toilet is a reader’s throne. “I’ve done all my best reading on the toilet,” Henry Miller confessed. For Marcel Proust, the little room “intended for a more specific and vulgar use” was a place for “all my activities that demanded inviolable solitude: reading, daydreaming, weeping, and sensual pleasure”.

Whenever I went to the library as a boy to borrow new books, I would look into the reading room with astonishment. Why would you sit in a room with other people and read when you could do it at home alone in the loo? Didn’t these people have indoor plumbing? In a room like that your body has nothing to do; on a toilet your mind and body are concentrating together. It’s not for nothing that the faces of people who are pooing look so much like those of people who are thinking. Squeezing out a brilliant idea requires the same effort as squeezing out a hard turd; you see the veins in the forehead swelling in order to transport extra blood. Actually, the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker is no different from that of an equally concentrated Pooer.

Even a brief visit demands some decorum, all the more because there was so little time to get acquainted. Your faeces vanish from your life almost as soon as you give birth to them, on their way to an uncertain future. This can be a traumatic experience, especially for children. The six-year-old daughter of a Chicago psychiatrist became completely overwrought because each time a little piece of herself disappeared into the dark hole of the toilet. She could only be comforted by her father reassuring her that the little bit of human being went to be united with its ancestors in some cesspool paradise where everyone’s excrement would live happily ever after.

Nothing for it but to say goodbye, something even grown-ups aren’t very good at. When you’ve had a good visit with someone you look forward to leaving because you can always come back again, but the more unenjoyable the visit is the more difficult that becomes. Many couples stay together simply because neither one of them knows how to let go. The advantage of being a turd is that you barely have time to become attached before the moment of separation arrives. But when it does, we’re forced once again to face the unbearable fact of life’s brevity. Man is but a fart in the endlessness of eternity, but what a stinker he is! All that’s left of us after our departure is a puff of smoke – all the more reason to pause and give some thought to the passing of a creature even more perishable than ourselves: our very own turd child.

“See you later,” you murmur, but you don’t really mean it. “Take care now,” and you pull the chain.

This is an edited extract from The Story of Shit by Midas Dekkers (Text Publishing), available now.

Midas Dekkers

Midas Dekkers is a bestselling Dutch writer and biologist. His books include Physical ExerciseThe Way of All FleshDearest Pet and The Larva.

Read on

Image from ‘Atlanta’

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

Image of Peter Dutton

South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

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‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

Image of Hugh Grant in ‘Maurice’

Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more


A revealing portrait of Leonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson’s new biography is a study of crippling perfection and obsessive observation

The idea of living in interesting times said to be a Chinese curse; in Leonardo da Vinci’s case, it was nothing short of a blessing. This latest portrait of the master (Simon & Schuster US; $49.99) is by Walter Isaacson, who has also written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. It is a quartet not brought together by mere coincidence.

“His ability to combine art, science, technology, the humanities, and imagination remains an enduring recipe for creativity,” Isaacson writes. “So, too, was his ease at being a bit of a misfit: illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted and at times heretical.”

He was born in 1452 just outside of Florence, a city of artists and artisans that nurtured his obvious gifts. Bastards like Leonardo were frequently incorporated into official family life, and the young man grew up in a rare 40-year period of peace between the febrile Italian city-states. Leonardo was openly a Florenzer, as the German slang of day described homosexuals, but collision with the morality police had the good fortune of occurring with a Medici. He lived out his life with his younger companion known as Salai, “Little Devil”.

In Isaacson’s digestion of the artist’s 7200 pages of notebooks, “the greatest record of curiosity ever created”, Leonardo’s charm dances on the page with the thought of his conception. “If the intercourse is done with great love and desire on both sides,” he wrote, “the child will be of great intellect, witty, lively, and lovable.”

His notebooks appear to have recorded his every thought. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?” Leonardo mused among notes of personal anguish, mathematical blueprints, sketches and shopping lists. Also included: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath where you will see naked men.”

Isaacson’s portrait is at times overwrought, more TED Talk than Robert Caro, but he understands his job to illuminate a great man, not to attempt to outshine him. And Leonardo has a formidable track record in making others feel humble: his teacher Verrocchio is said to have “resolved never again to touch a brush” after seeing him begin to paint in earnest.

An obsessive observer of drapery from his youth, he became a pioneer of sfumato, instructing that one should “paint so that a smoky finish can be seen, rather than contours and profiles that are distinct and crude”, and chiaroscuro, contrasting light and shade through black pigment and conveying what Isaacson calls“the perfect glint of lustre”.

At 30, Leonardo moved to Milan and sent a letter to the city’s extravagant leader, Ludovico Sforza, in which he outlined 10 skills he could offer. These centred on machines of war, city design and architecture. As an afterthought, Leonardo wrote that “in painting, I can do everything possible, as well as any other man”.

This footnote of humility may have expressed his defining trait, a perfectionism that both contributed to his genius and hindered his output. A lifetime studying nature, anatomy and optics fed into Leonardo’s pantheistic relationship with the world, yet his paintings were firmly works of humanism. For all of the shadows that moved like smoke, the azure tints to flesh at dusk, Leonardo’s notes showed him to be a deep psychological thinker who cared about portraying the emotional state of his subjects. The origin is uncertain, but he may have coined the phrase that eyes are the window to the soul.

Whether or not it was our man, what do we see when we peer back into his? An inquiry so far removed from its subject stumbles somewhat to focus on his faults. Isaacson says he “was a genius undisciplined by diligence” and “more easily distracted by the future than he was focused on the present”. Leonardo has, at best, 15 completed pictures attributed to him. But to say he wasn’t conscientious is unfair: this incredible polymath was so diligent in everything he did that his quest for perfection could not be satiated.

It has been said that Leonardo was centuries ahead of his time, but in fact he was a man entirely of his own. Neither his father’s complicated contracts nor powerful patrons could compel him to finish many of his works. Modern technology has shown that he returned to some paintings decades later to improve on the anatomy that so intrigued him. One such favourite, the neck of a straining man, was a constant in his notebooks.

Isaacson builds this study of crippling perfection and emotional perception to its obvious crescendo. Leonardo doted on a portrait of a silk merchant’s young wife for 16 years, carrying her around Europe by mules until she eventually watched over him on his deathbed. Mona Lisa was his obsession. He turned down opportunities to paint wealthy and powerful, partially due to his friendship with the silk merchant, but largely, Isaacson believes, because the couple’s relative obscurity gave Leonardo licence to do as he pleased: the painting was always his.

She is a lifetime of observing the optics of light. She is the inquiring mind who pulled back the flesh of the lips of scores of cadavers to see how the muscles worked. She is the compassionate friend who hired troupes to entertain the subject to perfect that distinct leftward curl of the mouth into the most famous smile ever known.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com

@ellehardytweets

Read on

Image from ‘Atlanta’

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

Image of Peter Dutton

South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

Image from ‘The Americans’

‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

Image of Hugh Grant in ‘Maurice’

Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more


Peter Carey navigates Australia’s past
‘A Long Way from Home’ takes on new relevance following debate about Australia Day

Even in the scant months since Peter Carey’s latest novel, A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99), was published, reading it for the second time post-Australia Day 2018 – or Survival Day or Invasion Day – the novel has grown in relevance as the intensity of debate around January 26 markedly increased this year.

It is surprising to read one reviewer complaining that Carey has set his novel during the 1950s given that so many contemporary issues for Indigenous Australians are so urgent, as if by setting his novel in the 1950s Carey were somehow tackling purely historical issues. But Carey’s novel illuminates the effects of a policy – the Stolen Generations – which is both a violent continuation of past dispossession and an aspect of it that will haunt Indigenous families for years.

Willie Bachhuber, Carey’s pivotal character, is a schoolteacher and he knows a lot. He knows so much that he can win a radio quiz show week after week. But he doesn’t know the most basic things: who he is, where he comes from, who his family are.

Believing himself to be of German heritage, Willie yearns for a country far away, as do so many Australians and characters in Australian fiction (Henry Handel Richardson’s Richard Mahony comes to mind):

… of course I had my own ancient scars and fears, my deep sense of displacement, that I was not from here, that this was not my landscape, that I had been denied my natural land which had been accurately depicted by Caspar David Friedrich.

But Willie’s recurring dreams of feathered snakes and rivers, which leave him filled with light and happiness, as well as with a sense of disquiet, suggest that his unconscious knows better:

I felt the horror of my relentless dreams which were peopled not only by snakes but creatures like possums that would end up being born as children if I did not kill them. The rivers in my sleep were filled with fish which broke apart like wet cardboard.

It’s perfect, then, that Bachhuber becomes the navigator for Irene and Titch Bobs, his neighbours from Carey’s home town of Bacchus Marsh, in their quest to win the 1954 Redex Reliability Trial.

What a brilliant idea, to set a novel about discovering Australia and a self – and a self in relation to Australia – during the gruelling Redex trials, which can be read as an attempt, as Carey shows, to fabricate a kind of white dreaming track, both mythic and commercial, snaking around the country.

Carey is the writer to pull this off. He has always been fantastically fluent in writing about the world of cars and the many layers – personal, social, practical and metaphorical – that they embody as part of Australian life in the 20th century, from the fabulous transformation of man into tow truck of the story “Crabs” to the dysfunctional Catchprice Motors family in The Tax Inspector.

A major aspect of “Crabs” was the conflation of cars in mid-20th-century Australia with notions of (white) masculinity, freedom and even Australianness. “Crabs” conveyed a sense that the car both expressed and denied an essential (white) Australianness. Part of being a white Australian was in a sense to be nowhere, to operate in a liminal space, to be insulated inside the interior of the car. There was no reality to the country outside the boundaries of the car, which were the boundaries of the (male) body. Consistent with this theme, there is a nod to the drive-in in A Long Way from Home. The Darley tip, which seems to be another synecdoche for Australia, is described as “a great democratic institution”.

Moreover, as “Crabs” explored white Australian masculinity’s interdependence with the car, A Long Way from Home introduces nascent feminism, showing how Irene Bobs uses her driving ability to forge her identity and independence.

The metamorphic, and metaphoric, power of the car in Australia is as powerfully rendered in this novel as anywhere in Carey’s work:

Forever after the Peugeot would be fondly called the jeep. It was now stripped and burnished, with the brutal appearance of a rocket or a racing car or that great Australian machine gun, the Owen, with its grim metal magazine. I mean, the stock car had become a war machine.

Themes of homelessness and an uncertain relation to family surface repeatedly in Carey’s work. Often the stories or novels are set in uncanny, not-very-homely “homes”: the drive-in as concentration camp, the factory in “War Crimes”, the boarding house in “The Fat Man in History”, the garage in The Tax Inspector, the pet shop in Illywhacker, and the theatre in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. The families too are ambiguous: Tristan Smith has three fathers; in His Illegal Self, Che is transplanted to another family and continent by his former babysitter; Harry Joy in Bliss decides his family are impostors; Jack Maggs finally realises who his true children are. And so on.

The uncertainty extends to the physical body of the land itself. There’s a strong link between the disappearing land incompletely mapped by the Cartographers in Carey’s story “Do You Love Me?”, and the literally white-washed map of Australia disappearing beneath Indigenous knowledge in A Long Way from Home. Of course, Willie the lost navigator is fascinated by maps, describing:

… the unsettling emotions engendered in me by maps. This was grief he said. He offered Jung: I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors.

The way, perhaps, for a non-Indigenous writer to write about Indigenous themes could only be from a space created by lies and further dispossession, by the violence of not belonging and not knowing imposed by the Stolen Generations policies. In this way, Carey’s Indigenous character is made to experience the disorientation and homelessness that most of his white characters feel.

The suspicion arises that white authorities have been so keen on this further dispossession because the only way they see of claiming the country is for Aboriginal people to know it as little as they do. To take the country from Indigenous people is only the first half of the equation; people must then be taken from country to make dispossession complete.

There is deep irony in Willie Bachhuber only gradually being made to suspect his true origins through the hyper-suspicious appraisals of white Australians used to discriminating gradations of colour and feature. In short, it is the experienced racists who see Willie for what he is.

As Willie does not know his true father for most of the book, neither does he know his own son, and there’s a sleight-of-hand bit of plotting to achieve this, also turning on racial identity, which I felt was the book’s main weakness, its only overt bit of cleverness. It would have been worth sacrificing the symmetry and sentiment this neatness provided, though the point is taken that racialised discourse infects all who come into contact with it.

While we see the more virulent and obvious forms of racism in Willie’s encounters with rural Australians along the route of the Redex trials and later at the cattle station, Carey avoids the trap of portraying racism as a problem caused by some unpleasant individuals who should just be nicer and more enlightened.

The central character’s remarks in Jessica Anderson’s 1975 novel The Commandant, that “Being prodded by London, you know, where they say, in effect, that we must dispossess the natives with kindness,” articulate the central dilemma: there is no nice way to steal someone’s land.

Voice is of central importance to Carey’s fiction, and he’s done his homework for this novel; you can feel his delight in the power and vitality of Aboriginal English, particularly as it’s spoken in remote areas and on the vast cattle stations. It is both practical, with not a word wasted, and yet as suited to the storytelling and mythic register, with the ability to range across space and time and compress epic events and tragedies into legend, as any Homeric verse. Take, for instance, a child telling the story of how Captain Cook stole the country:

Captain Cook put the bullet in his magazine, start to shooting people, same like Sydney. ‘Really beautiful country,’ Captain Cook reckoned. ‘That’s why I’m cleaning up people, take it away.’

Captain Cook follow the sea right around. ‘I’d like to put my building there. I like to put my horses there.’ …

They been fight whitefellah. They been have a spear and whitefellah been have a rifle. If whitefellow been come up got no bit of a gun, couldn’t been roundem up, killing all the people. They never been give him fair go.

Captain Cook reckons, ‘This no more blackfellah country. Belong to me fellow,’ he said.

I can’t pronounce on whether non-Indigenous authors should tell aspects of Indigenous-themed stories, with Carey himself remarking on his deep ambivalence about writing A Long Way from Home: “I have to do this; I can’t be doing this.” I would suggest two things, though. The first is that Indigenous people are not responsible for the painful aspects of our shared history. Non-Indigenous writers and artists need to deal with this too, as Carey has, and not just leave it to Indigenous creators as if it were their burden alone. It’s often said that white people have the luxury of choosing not to deal with racism; perhaps Australian artists don’t or shouldn’t have that luxury.

The second is that it’s critical to engage with Indigenous creative work and amplify support for it, so that the voices of those for whom these stories are not homework but lived reality are the vital thread in the national conversation. In this context, by all means read A Long Way from Home, but also read, for example, the astonishing work of Indigenous writer Marie Munkara. Her novel, Every Secret Thing, is shocking and funny, expressing truths no non-Indigenous writer could touch.

As Munkara says, “the issues in the book, like the removal of children, or clergy molesting children in their care, are everyday things for me.” Her memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea, shows the realities that are fictionalised in A Long Way from Home, describing her experience of being stolen, abuse by her foster family and reconnection with her birth family with devastating and humorous truth-telling.

As artists mature they sometimes embrace a radical simplicity as they grow more assured. You can see this in the work of visual artists as well as writers. There’s no anxiety, no showing off of research or invention or style – what is the style of no style, you can almost hear some artists challenge.

A Long Way from Home echoes the simplicity of Carey’s early short stories, but it is, as his publisher accurately notes, a “late style” and no doubt hard-earned. The book is beautiful, layered and resonant, and hard to put down. For this reason, it repays more than one reading.

Willie is the navigator who doesn’t know who he is or where he’s really going, and will only understand his destination long after he arrives. At least Willie has the opportunity to understand his place in the world.

The stunning last sentence of Carey’s novel indicates that there’s a long way to go yet for non-Indigenous Australians in having any idea where we are, no matter what maps we try to make.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.

www.clairecorbett.com

 

@ccorbettauthor

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Oh the hypocrisy
Last week abounds in examples of double standards

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The latest incarnation of the identity politics so despised by the elites of the right (but vigorously embraced when it suits them) is the non sequitur that what people have done previously (even generations ago) can be used as an excuse for their current transgressions.

Last week’s most egregious example was Malcolm Turnbull’s unqualified defence of Jim Molan. Molan, the recently arrived Liberal senator, fell into the job when Fiona Nash was found to be in violation of section 44 of the Constitution, and then Holly Hughes, who was set to replace Nash, was deemed ineligible for having held a government job after the 2016 election.

Molan is a warrior of the far right – one of the architects of immigration strategies that led to Peter Dutton being made the grand panjandrum of sovereign borders. He is also a zealous supporter of Tony Abbott’s push to disempower moderates in New South Wales (or to enhance democracy in the party, as Abbott and Molan call it – well they would, wouldn’t they).

Molan is not exactly a mainstream Liberal, but is a Liberal nonetheless. So when he was found to have shared, without bothering to check either its source or its veracity, a racist and bigoted video from a white supremacist mob called Britain First, Turnbull did not hesitate to say that was fine because Molan was a dinkum Aussie digger – a decorated general, no less.

He could therefore not possibly be racist, because he had fought alongside Muslims in Iraq. And indeed he had; he was involved in decisions that led to the deaths of Muslims in the process. This is what generals do, and it says absolutely nothing about racism one way or the other.

But the video Molan posted did, and it was so appalling that even Donald Trump apologised for sharing it. Molan didn’t; he insisted that the post was aimed at showing the effects of social disruption.

It got messy when the Greens went over the top, as they often do, but by then Turnbull had already spoken: Molan was a great Australian, and that was the end of it. He was, is, and always will be above criticism.

A less dramatic but still disturbing example of this new incarnation of identity politics was the current iteration of the dual-citizenship saga, of which, ironically, Molan was the beneficiary. There have been legitimate and unanswered questions about a number of members on both sides, but two are considered untouchable: Josh Frydenberg and Jason Falinski, because their families were Holocaust victims. And of course this deserves sympathy, but it has nothing to do with the black letter law of section 44.

Labor MP Susan Lamb, who last week tearfully explained the circumstances in which she has been caught up in same morass, was told by a series of Coalition ministers that while her story warranted sympathy, the law was the law. Lamb should not be excused because of her past. Fair enough, but it would be nice if the warriors of the right applied the same standards to their own troops.

Which brings us to the fertile field of New England and the father of the year, Barnaby Joyce. Last week’s so-called scoop by The Daily Telegraph was in fact very old news: Joyce’s new partner and her pregnancy had been around on the internet for months, and had been the subject of discussion even in the distant coffee shops of Mullumbimby.

Just about everyone in both the federal parliament and Joyce’s own electorate knew about it, and presumably didn’t regard it as important. There are arguments both ways, but on the whole I would have left the issue alone, and in fact did.

It is true that Joyce, with his constant rabbiting on about family values, could be accused of hypocrisy and the point is a valid one. But he appears to have adhered strictly to at least one aspect of the teachings of his Catholic church: that it is wrong to use contraception.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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Why, or why not, music?
From Julian Barnes to Hannah Kent, authors on the role music plays in their writing

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There’s music playing each morning while Irish author Niall Williams writes in his County Clare cottage. It might be Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Cello Suites, Van Morrison or The Gloaming. “Music”, he tells me, “sounds out the real world; [it] screens it off and creates a musicscape in which to work.” This aural landscape helps Williams find what he calls “the place of composition”, the place where he edges out the “constant doubt that anything I write is any good”.

He’s not sure how it happens, but it works: Williams is writing his tenth novel, has written plays and screenplays, and co-written four books with his wife, Christine Breen. His first novel, the poetic and lyrical Four Letters of Love, was an international bestseller, and his ninth, History of the Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

In contrast, Julian Barnes, award-winning novelist, translator and author of many short stories and essays, “never, ever” has music playing while he’s writing. “Prose,” he says, “has its own music, rhythm, pulse, and ‘real’ music cuts across it disastrously”. Barnes briefly tried listening to a Shostakovich Prelude or Fugue each day before working on his novel about the composer’s life and music, The Noise of Time. He thought it might set him up for writing about Shostakovich. But that didn’t work: “It gave me no help with the writing and I abandoned the experiment after three sessions,” he says.

I wrote to Niall Williams and Julian Barnes – along with other fiction and nonfiction writers including Hannah Kent and Robert Dessaix – because I was curious about whether they have music playing when they’re writing. I am inclined to have minimalist, ambient music on in the background while I write. Something by Bing & Ruth, Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson plays so softly that I don’t so much listen to it, as let the gentle waves seep into my mind. It shuts out the outside world and leads me inward, allows me to focus on what I’m writing.

How does this work? Is a subtle music infusion a pathway to a writer’s imagination or inspiration? If so, what types of music lend themselves to this? Why does listening to music suit some writers and not others?

What the authors who replied told me reflected Oliver Sacks’ view in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that we all have “our own, distinctive mental worlds, our own inner journeyings and landscapes”.


When Hannah Kent wanted to inhabit the bleak fate of Icelander Agnes Magnusdottir in her first novel, Burial Rites, Laura Marling’s music helped take her there: “Certain songs gave me the emotional cues I needed to very quickly access the world and narratives of my characters, and forget myself and my modern world. It expedited that process of engagement … kept me steering in the right direction.”

Kent identifies “a sensibility, an emotional atmosphere” in Marling’s work that took her “straight into the mind of Agnes Magnusdottir”.

This passage into a character’s interior with the help of music is a mysterious process. The music Kent hears creates a different world in her mind; she is able to go deeper than imagining Agnes’s looks or gestures, and is transported into her emotional core. Kent sees Agnes, hears her, is her.

Burial Rites and The Good People both had their own playlist, Kent tells me. Icelandic choral work or tracks by Sigur Rós, Lykke Li or Marling played on repeat for Burial Rites. Music by Agnes Obel, The Chieftains, the Moulettes or Rioghnach Connolly accompanied The Good People. “Repetition was necessary,” she says, “because lyrics can be distracting if the song is new”.

Niall Williams echoes this: “The CD will often play on repeat, and I never listen to anything new while writing. Familiarity is important.”

Kent’s and Williams’ comments made me wonder if music functions for them as some kind of moderating persuader that frees the mind to wander unhindered into creative territory. If through some form of neural collaboration, familiar, iterative sound sequences encourage, even stimulate, the music of language.

In This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin describes what happens when we hear music as an “exquisite orchestration of brain regions”. He explains how the oldest and the newest parts of the brain connect through a precisely choreographed “neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems”.

British science writer Philip Ball describes this process as a conversation between the brain’s hemispheres: “No other stimulus”, he writes in The Music Instinct, “comparably engages all aspects of our mental apparatus, and compels them to speak with one another: left to right hemisphere, logic to emotion.”

Music is a “gymnasium for the mind” he says, a whole-brain phenomenon where intellect and feeling coalesce, fuelled by music as “food of the mind as well as of the heart”.

But does this mean that writing to background music modifies how a writer attends to either the music or the writing? According to Levitin, music and language share some common neural resources, but “have independent pathways as well”. And Ball says our brains have “accepted the need for unprecedented collaboration between departments” when responding to music. Perhaps this means that those who do write to music experience a particular kind of neural concurrence that allows simultaneous processing of music and language? A confluence that allows music and writing pathways to merge more frequently, more easily?

Both Levitin and Ball write about music stimulating the brain in ways that can assist with other cognitive tasks. Philip Ball’s own practice demonstrates it: while he generally doesn’t have background music playing while he’s writing, there are times when it’s useful: “When doing routine tasks, like preparing an index or checking proofs, I’ll sometimes use music.” Then, Bach Fugues, string quartets by Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, or Ravel’s chamber music “gently massag[e] my mind to keep it alert”, Ball says. Music, therefore, functions as an ultralight metronome rather than lullaby.

To eliminate background noise and “create a focused internal environment”, he’ll also listen to that same music through headphones when reading or doing research at The British Library.

Art historian, fiction writer and author of Nest: The Art of Birds, Janine Burke lets the tempo of her work determine whether she listens to music while writing: “I might be writing very fast and intensively and I’ll put on some music to relax my mind a little, to take the edge off the intensity.”

Burke pairs that fast-paced writing with African music in a way that suggests the pace of the music encourages her writing to flow in a similar rhythm. Burke prefers polyrhythmic beats from Mali, because that music “really speaks to the soul and the senses”. As long as the lyrics are not in English – “otherwise the words get entangled in what I’m writing” – the music provides Burke with “joyous company, inspirational support and deep pleasure” while she is writing.

At other times, though – when she’s editing her work – Burke doesn’t want the intrusion of music, of “any other rhythm”, and she writes in silence.


Although Australian writer and social researcher Hugh Mackay plays the piano and sings in a choir, he never has music playing while he writes: “I find music as background to writing is simply a distraction. I need to be totally engrossed in the work.” For Mackay, music is helpful when working on a new writing project – to take a break from the writing, but perhaps also to distil ideas – and he’ll play the piano or listen to music.

For Australian author Robert Dessaix, music is never the background to anything. He writes in silence too. “I only listen to music in order to listen to music. Music should be listened to for its own sake.” Sometimes, though, ideas he can use creatively come to him while listening to music at a concert, or just before lights out – “but mostly as colours or shapes”, he says.

And award-winning Australian writer Alex Miller also never listens to music while writing: “For me they are two very different things, listening and writing. Each requires a very different quality of attention … writing takes all my attention.” But music is an essential part of Miller’s day and his sense of wellbeing, and there are times when he’s listening to music and thinks of something to do with his writing. Then, he finds “a connection that I’ve overlooked … the thought brought forward in reverie”.

Is it going too far to think that the conversation going on in his brain continues while he’s not paying attention, and makes a connection for him? That the left and right hemisphere bring the music and his writing together in their own exquisite orchestration?

Melbourne writer and musician Sian Prior has experienced something like this. While Prior prefers not to listen to music while she writes, writing and music have converged unexpectedly. Prior wrote a chapter of her first book, Shy: A Memoir, in a notebook while listening to a clarinet recital. She’d played the music herself – a Brahms sonata – as a young musician. “I wrote about the memories and emotions that music and composer inspired in me and the words flowed out with unusual clarity,” she says.

Then, what may be the first chapter of her next book formed during a baroque mandolin concert: “The music allowed some kind of space and clarity for thinking about the stories I want to tell in the second book.”

Edward Said has an elegant interpretation of how music can function like this in his essay, “Melody, Solitude, and Affirmation”. “One lives with music both practically and knowledgeably over time. One hears a composer’s work in more ways than those provided within the individual work’s discrete boundaries … Into this ‘hearing’ of a composer, there enter many components … internalised by the musician … or the listeners.”

Until recently, Zoë Morrison, author of Music and Freedom, never had music playing while she wrote. As a musician, Morrison can’t experience music as background; she tunes in to it, analyses it. However, that perspective changed after learning that Canadian writer Madeleine Thien listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on repeat to block out the noise of the cafe where she wrote Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Morrison was subsequently listening to music by Vaughan Williams, when an idea about a character in her next novel formed: “I put the same music on through headphones and wrote about that character. I felt the music helped me move beyond the doubting mind and more easily into an intuitive state.” It helped, she says, that it was classical music, and familiar. Like Hannah Kent and Niall Williams, she played the music on repeat to keep the thread of the idea while she wrote.

While Morrison was writing Music and Freedom, engaging with music encouraged her in creating her work: “Even playing certain pieces on the piano helped me shape the story and convey different points,” Morrison says. Like Alice Murray, the woman at the heart of Music and Freedom, for Zoë Morrison, “music … makes you feel.”

Edward Said’s description of how music can anchor “the convergences of memory and intellectual history” helps explain what Prior and Morrison have experienced. Said registers “how a set of disparate things coming together consolidate and support each other” as he listens to a performance of Variations in D Minor by Brahms. He remembers things he’d not consciously retained and associations coalesce in his mind because of the music: an earlier recording of the music, a film score. Later, when he plays the music himself, a past teacher’s voice and gestures come back to him.

Philip Ball provides an explanation of the neural relay occurring here: the brain hears music as a “signal” and starts to pay attention, the cerebellum’s movement coordinator identifies the pulse and rhythm, and our grey matter communicates with the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – to produce a response. Then, “we call on the hippocampus to supply memories, both of the immediate past course of the music and the more distant associations and similarities it evokes.”


When I began exploring whether music supports writing, it was a casual enquiry, motivated by a simple curiosity about other writers’ practice. At first it was what Robert Dessaix describes in an interview with Creative Nonfiction magazine as a “nonchalant saunter around a target”. But it took me much further into writers’ lives and music than I anticipated.

Writers’ experiences of music as a source of consonance or dissonance while they write, as a conductor of literary current or circuit breaker, took me back to their books, to the music they hear and, in a limited way, to cognitive neuroscience – a new field for me.

I re-read their books and paid more attention to the tempo, the rhythm, the cadence, the mood and tone in their writing. I looked again at the harmony, the grace and the emotional shading in their work to see if I could discern whether, for those who have music playing while they write, their writing had taken on some of the music, just as an apple nudging a branch takes some of the branch onto its skin.

Whether or not they do have music playing while they write, I couldn’t see any differences. Their work, in all its diversity, has its own music, and this probably explains why they all feature on my bookshelves. A biased sample, the scientists would say.

What’s clear, though, is that where music is an accompaniment to writing, it can block out the external world. It can create a state conducive to imaginative thought, and more, to imagined worlds.

Haruki Murakami writes in Absolutely on Music, his illuminating conversations with conductor Seiji Ozawa, that to create “something where there was nothing requires deep individual concentration”. Music, for some writers, can be the arterial link to this concentration – whether it’s creating a work of fiction, or nonfiction.

More than sonic wallpaper, for some writers music can be a companion, a muse, an assurer deflecting doubt. It can be an agent of meaning, a conveyor of shape and colour, a cue for memories, reflection and insight.

Philip Ball told me it would take brain imaging while writing and hearing music to find out just how this happens. I’m happy to leave this as a mystery, and to remember to give way to the conversations going on in my head and encourage them to make the connections my conscious mind sometimes finds elusive.

Lucy Callaghan

Lucy Callaghan is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor.

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‘I, Tonya’: shaped by two Australians’ divergent sensibilities
Margot Robbie brings the nuance, while director Craig Gillespie plays it for laughs

A litany of hardship defined US ice skater Tonya Harding’s life in Portland, Oregon, leading up to the scandal that derailed her in 1994. At age four she was a tiny, talented skater. In the years that followed, she was abused by her mother, sexually assaulted by her half-brother and brutalised by her husband. By her late teens, she was practising six hours a day for the US championships, while working in a hardware store and driving a forklift. She was also the only American woman to have landed a much-revered move called the triple axel. Every time she touched down from her three-and-a-half revolutions, she felt the vindication of mass adoration and conquered hardship. And by 23, her Olympic dream was over. After obstructing the investigation into an assailant’s attack on her opponent, nice-girl Nancy Kerrigan, she was banned from skating for life. Her abusive husband was behind the conspiracy, of which Tonya knew nothing. Perhaps.

These are the contours of the events of I, Tonya. A classic American tale of wrecked champions, failed criminal mischief, misogynist numbskulls, and, in Tonya’s own words, “poor rednecks”, the film is shaped by the input of two Australians in Hollywood: director Craig Gillespie (perhaps best known for the indie comedy Lars and the Real Girl) and Margot Robbie, who has ascended from Neighbours graduate to Scorsese collaborator and glowing A-lister. Robbie is a producer on this film, which sympathetically presents Tonya as an early casualty of the dawning 24-hour news cycle, and the centre of a grand American myth as unreal as that of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder. Life for women and girls in the media spotlight is rarely easy. Here, Tonya’s betrayal unfolds in a 1990s storm of morning news vultures, crunchy hairspray and cheap lycra. “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was just a punchline,” says Robbie as Tonya, glaring with bitter resignation at the camera at age 44.

I, Tonya is replete with such confessional antics. It is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”, the latter being Harding’s husband and ruination. Characters break the fourth wall to say, “This is not what happened.” Fake home videos of Tonya’s childhood unspool in a square analogue format, and the actors also play their characters in the present day, addressing the camera directly to frame the events unfolding in flashback.

If Tonya is the anti-heroine with dappled self-awareness, her chain-smoking mother LaVona is the straight-up antagonist, and Allison Janney has earned an Oscar nomination for the role. With a dire bowl cut, a parrot on her shoulder and oxygen pipes in her nostrils, LaVona is a classic Janney creation. As wry as ever, the character actress drains all warmth from her face as she calls her daughter a “graceless bulldyke” on the ice, pays a spectator to heckle Tonya to give her the edge of rage on the rink, or throws a crappy steak knife across the dining room table and lands it in Tonya’s arm.

Robbie’s performance, which spans Tonya’s teens to her mid-forties, has the same cut-throat precision as Harding’s skating. At first she’s all vulnerability in blue eyeliner, but through the years a hardness sets in across her eyes and smile. Robbie’s Tonya is neither victim nor innocent, with a ruthlessness as both an athlete and as a person, inherited from her mother: “Nancy gets hit one time,” she says to the camera, “and the whole world shits itself. For me, it’s a daily occurrence.” Tonya is a woman who has been chronically hard done by, and Robbie gives the slippery suggestion that, although Harding may not have ordered the strike on Nancy Kerrigan, she had the capacity in her heart to do so.

Nowhere is Robbie’s performance more alive than in the close-shot skating sequences. Over the credits, grainy video of real Tonya plays in wide shot, and it’s only then that you realise the extent to which Robbie has really aced it. Tonya was aping pretty girliness, and as you witness Robbie’s emphatic movements and unabashed, almost maniacally gleeful pride in landing each triple axel, you sense that the judges punished her bombast, her refusal to squeeze her muscles into the mould of the soft ice skater princess.

When Tonya is unjustly denied a top award after landing a triple axel, she lashes across the ice and demands a rationale. “Some of these girls have paid their dues,” says one sleepy-eyed judge. The Oscars operate on much the same logic of career recognition and personality impressions over film quality. The role of Tonya Harding is indeed Oscar bait – a real historical figure demanding real physical transformation, and much more than an impersonation – and after a series of supporting and blockbuster roles, it’s proof that Robbie can anchor a film and pull off a serious role. But the actress is neither the fresh ingenue (Timothée Chalamet in the best actor category) nor the beloved industry stalwart (Frances McDormand, unawarded by the Academy since 1996’s Fargo, nominated alongside Robbie in the best actress category) that the Oscars tend to reward.

Beyond that, Tonya Harding is the right role in the wrong film for Robbie. I, Tonya is momentarily enjoyable, even entertaining. But you don’t feel the full hurt of Tonya’s downfall. Neither Gillespie nor writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom, Kate & Leopold) has the sensibility to lucidly, subtly navigate the black comedic tone for which they reach. Their irreverence manifests in broad sketches of the film’s places and people, and, before long, the meta-gimmicks of fourth-wall addresses and quirky camera whip-arounds reach a cartoony limit. (“Well, my storyline is disappearing right now,” says Janney’s wicked mother to us directly at one point. “What. The. Fuck.”) The music cues hold much the same buoyant and insistent obviousness, opening with Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”.

Gillespie is so intent on the breakneck rhythm of a dark indie comedy that he won’t let up for a few extra storytelling beats to dwell on how truly bleak Tonya’s situation is at what passes for home. Those pauses and plateaux of melancholy are what would be required to raise the dramatic stakes. It’s all played for laughs at the expense of the white trash. Robbie’s performance – the way she holds her cereal spoon and chews with grim intensity – and a few heartbreaking art direction details – the dishes piled up behind Tonya in her middle-aged talking-head moments – are instead loaded with the task of providing the nuance.

The genre Gillespie establishes can’t hold up once things get real – once what the characters all refer to as “the incident” occurs. A lingering but thematically unclear shot of a Ronald Reagan election poster in Tonya’s broken marital home is emblematic of the confusion overtaking the storytelling decisions. I, Tonya is really about the difficulty inherent in rendering unbelievable but true events on screen, of coming to terms with the perversity of actual people. It takes filmmakers with the storytelling intelligence of Richard Linklater (as in his true crime comedy Bernie) or Steven Soderbergh to navigate the tragicomic shifts of these deep American delusions.

Life hasn’t delivered Tonya the classic redemption arc that so much cinema, even of the low-budget independent variety, craves. It’s Robbie’s performance itself that is the troubling tonic for Tonya’s legacy, even though the film tries to have it both ways by conceding the unreliability of Tonya as a narrator of her own marred trajectory. Hers is an underdog narrative, a bad mother narrative, a betrayal narrative too true and too troubling for the filmmakers to which it has been entrusted. Robbie’s performance, on the other hand, is another story.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a Sydney-based writer and artist and author of Not at a Cinema Near You.

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