Understanding Vivian Maier
In a world obsessed with sharing images, what should we make of a street photographer who hoarded them?

Self-portrait, New York, 10 September 1955. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

The strange tale of Vivian Maier has been well rehearsed by now. It has been the subject of countless articles, innumerable gallery programs, two documentaries and at least one court case. For those who haven’t heard it before, it goes a little like this.

In 2007, John Maloof, a Chicago-based collector and real estate developer, purchased about 30,000 negatives at a fire sale, hoping he might be able to use some of the photographs in a book he was co-writing about the Chicago suburb of Portage Park. What he discovered instead was a heretofore unknown street photographer whose work he started uploading to the internet. The work in question quickly went viral.

When Maloof first googled the name he had found scribbled on scraps of paper among the negatives, the internet had drawn a curious blank. When he googled it again two years later, after the images had begun to make waves online, something finally popped up: an obituary. Maier died before learning of her new-found fame and by most accounts would have preferred it that way. This was not some overlooked artist whose ambition had faded into bitterness with the decades. This was a painfully private woman who worked as a nanny for 40 years and never showed her work to anyone.

Since then, Maier’s reputation has skyrocketed, with exhibitions taking place all over the world. It has done so in part because the work demands it, drawing comparisons with that of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and others. But there’s no getting around the fact that the story behind the work, with its air of mystery and its unanswered questions, has played as large a role in her posthumous success as the images themselves. How does someone produce such a monumental body of work – 15,000 negatives and change – and let it go unseen for the term of her natural life? Why didn’t she tell anyone what she was doing, or why? These questions represent a boon to publicists, curators and dealers, not to mention to Maloof himself, who put them at the heart of his Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier. But they also tend to get in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of the work.

The Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, Italy, is currently hosting an exhibition of that work, giving visitors an opportunity to examine and judge it on its own merits. It is solid, accomplished, occasionally arresting stuff, characterised by unbridled curiosity, visual wit, an eye for pattern and texture, and an air of democratic or social responsibility. Maier was arguably at her best as a portraitist (and self-portraitist), with the unobtrusive nature of her medium-format Rolleiflex camera, held at waist height, combining with what one assumes was an unobtrusive way of approaching strangers, resulting in unguarded images of mid-century humanity of the highest, most empathetic order.

At the same time, her work isn’t without its shortcomings. Maier’s instinct for composition was unreliable at best and many of her images could stand a little cropping. For every masterful portrait or street scene in the archive, there are several more on the level of mere snapshots that could and should have been left in the box. (I’m reminded of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Picasso: Love & War 1935–1945, its Winter Masterpieces blockbuster from about a decade ago, which mindlessly treated ephemera from Dora Maar’s archives, such as newspapers Picasso doodled on over breakfast, as though they were somehow on the level of Guernica.)

These shortcomings, though, speak less to Maier’s inability to recognise them than to Maloof’s unseemly rush to get everything she ever did onto a gallery wall. After all, with so much of her work undeveloped at the time of her death, unseen even by her, Maier never had the opportunity to pore over contact prints, make editorial decisions with a bright red pen and shape her artistic legacy. She might also have been less aware of her shortcomings than some other artists for precisely this reason and less able to address them moving forward. While this is a shame, and detracts from the quality of the whole, Maloof has at least left that whole as he found it. He hasn’t gone cropping what needs to be cropped in an attempt to become some kind of co-creator.

He has, however, benefited financially from merely playing art dealer. He maintains that his goal has never been to capitalise on Maier’s work, but simply to get it out into the world. If that means he needs to recoup the small fortune he’s spent scanning her huge back catalogue, well, who could blame him? To make sure he was legally entitled to do so, he tracked down a Frenchman he believed to be Maier’s last living relative and purchased the rights to the work for a cool $5000. Another last living relative was duly brought out of the woodwork by an overzealous copyright lawyer who thought it might be fun to throw a spanner in the works and the matter wound up in court. The details of the settlement haven’t been made public.

Readers will note that I have once again found myself tangled in the story of the work as opposed to the work itself. The fact of the matter is that it’s almost impossible not to become so: unless one has never heard of Maier—which at this point seems unlikely—the story cannot but intrude on one’s experience of her photographs. The most common way in which it does so is to induce a strange but palpable sense of confusion or anxiety in the viewer, a sense that it is impossible to square her output and its quality with her reluctance to share it. In Finding Vivian Maier, one of Maier’s acquaintances states that the photographer’s images were “her babies” and that “she wouldn’t have put her babies on display”. But another claims, with equal conviction, that “I don't think she took all those photographs for them to just dissolve into dust. I think she took those photographs to be seen.” The photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who died two years after the documentary was made, sums up the gaping chasm between these positions, and thus gives voice to the viewer’s unease, when she tells Maloof, “Something is wrong … there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.”

Is it any surprise we should feel this way? We live in a world awash in the work of amateur image-makers. Thanks to our phones, everyone is, or can be, a photographer, and thanks to social media, with its disturbingly fickle economy of likes, loves and shares, everyone is, or can become, famous for it. In 2016, almost 85 million videos and photographs were uploaded to Instagram every day. On Facebook, the number was closer to 350 million. The Vivian Maier story disturbs at least in part because it so thoroughly repudiates the image-making and -sharing practices that so many of us now take for granted.

That her work should recall the forms that the vast majority of social media images take only adds to this sense of unease: the square formats, the self-portraits, even, in a way, in the high-contrast black and white of her early work and the narcotic colour of her later years, like the filters we apply without a second thought with another mindless touch of the screen. Her images are somehow like ours and yet completely unlike them in their essential function: in part because they were never seen during her lifetime, they were not, and could not be, advertisements for the self. We may laugh at Kim Kardashian’s 2015 book of selfies, Selfish, roll our eyes when we learn that Audrey Tautou exhibited a series of self-portraits at a major photography festival. But at least we know what to make of such projects: they are simply extreme examples of our own. Maier’s work is the ultimate exception and seems somehow to chide us for not living up to its standard.

I used the word “amateur” above and in doing so did the word a disservice. For the vast majority of social media users are actually onanistic image-makers, not in love with photography, but with themselves. There is evidence to suggest that Maier wasn’t really in love with photography, either, and that she didn’t consider her project especially artistic in nature. Finding Vivian Maier attempts to argue that she did, but its argument is only halfway convincing. (What’s more, Maloof obviously has a dog in the fight.) Indeed, if the documentary suggests anything, despite itself or otherwise, it’s that she was simply an inveterate hoarder, collecting newspapers, political campaign pins and receipts at least as doggedly as she collected images of the world around her. (There’s a scene in which one of Maier’s former employers recalls entering the nanny’s bedroom and being confronted by stacks of newspapers through which one had to navigate a narrow path to the bed. It sounds like something out a horror movie.)

But to the extent that Maier collected these things with passion, she was in fact the very definition of an amateur: she was indeed one who loves. If we approach her life from this perspective, with her collection rather than the negatives that comprised it at its centre, the fact that she left so many rolls of film undeveloped and never approached galleries or dealers with her work, begins to make more sense. It was the collecting of the images, the taking of them, “the decisive moment”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson memorably put it, that Maier held most dear. Everything that followed the click of the shutter was ultimately beside the point. There’s something remarkably pure about that, even something strangely moral. That we find that purity inexplicable – that the strange tale of Vivian Maier continues to bewilder and unsettle – says more about us and our own compromised relationship with the image than it ever will about the photographer or hers.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

Psychological states in ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’
The dire title belies this game’s thoughtful exploration of mental illness

What does your inner voice sound like, the one that’s reading these words? Play with it. Give it a deep, guttural growl. A chirpy chipmunk trill. Lay on an accent for fun, a Scottish brogue or a Texan drawl. Who is this inner voice? Is it you?

Here are some more words to play with during this exercise: I once attempted to cycle the length of Denmark with neither the stamina nor the appropriate bike to do so. Midway through the ordeal I saw a demon figure as plain as day, a hundred metres down a hedge-lined country road. I slowed, checked twice, made sure it wasn’t a shadow or a heat-shimmer. I didn’t and don’t believe in demons. The line between the physical world and our inner landscape is porous, though, and sometimes things can seem to leak out.

More than once I’ve been woken by an audible voice only to find myself alone. Perhaps you’ve heard an infant crying in your empty house, or seen the face of a dead loved one in a passing train carriage. These experiences aren’t uncommon – up to 13% of adults will hear voices in their life – but if a projected reality reaches a certain level of extremity, we call it psychosis.

Psychosis is given rough treatment by popular culture. When it’s not being confused with psychopathy – an unrelated disorder associated with antisocial behaviour and a lack of empathy – it’s at best the domain of raving villains and violent maniacs. The past half-century has seen media portrayals of mental illness growing more nuanced, but the psychotic state is one that has barely been touched upon.

A new video game, of all things, doesn’t just dip its toes into these troubled waters. It takes a running jump from the 10-metre diving board. Rather than depicting a psychotic episode, as other media may, it attempts to place the viewer within a state of psychosis. It’s an unforgettable experience lasting about seven to eight hours, and one that I look forward to never enduring again.

The first hurdle is the title. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sounds more like some god-awful Game of Thrones fan fiction, and is dire enough that I won’t mention it again. Senua is a young Celt who journeys to the underworld to save the soul of her dead lover. So far so Orpheus. Her path is beset by obstacles: demonic Vikings, trickster demigods, the Queen of Hel herself. The reality of these phantoms is never assured, however, since Senua’s psychosis is forever re-threading her environment according to her psychological state.

Senua hears voices. From the opening moments of the game, a swirl of words halo her, and a 3D recording technique means that the player, too, will experience these voices flitting like butterflies between their ears. It’s immediately unsettling, although the voices are relatively kind murmurs at this point.

Once Senua begins to face her trials, however, the chorus grows less sympathetic. The overlapping whispers grow alarmed – “she’s scared, she can’t do this, get up! she’s weak” – and other more menacing voices enter the fray. A death-metal-style growl foreshadows the torments that await Senua, a banshee shriek warns of some horror behind her.

This isn’t a fun game, by the way.

How’s your inner voice going, while we’re here? Are you still in control of it, still playing around with accents and things? It’s hard when you’re reading, I know. The words aren’t yours. But the voice is yours, surely. It’s obviously not mine.

Back to Senua. Hearing voices isn’t the only symptom of psychosis that players will be subjected to on the way to Hel. A keen-tipped paranoia bristles early on as the voices speak of forces watching from the shadows. Senua sees faces in rock formations and waterfalls, and recurring patterns in the world take on ominous, elusive meanings.

Soon these relatively benign distortions of Senua’s environment give way to sequences that harrow the psyche. A frighteningly accurate re-creation of a panic attack arises when Senua’s blind flight from a pursuer occasions the disintegration of the game itself, the screeching soundtrack matched by subliminal overlays of visual terror. Elsewhere, the numbing crush of depression gives rise to an almost unbearable sequence set in near-total darkness, the squelching exhalations of invisible horrors closing in.

All of this blather about monsters and warriors doesn’t sound that far from Game of Thrones fan fiction, of course, and Senua’s suffering could be reduced to another manic pixie dream girl whose demons just make her seem damaged in a cute way.

I have a sense that this game began life as something closer to that, but a developer documentary that accompanies the game describes how its initial premise was complicated when its makers met with a neuroscientist specialising in psychotic disorders. Upon realising that their cool-arse idea for a fighting game hardly did justice to the reality of mental illness, credit goes to game company Ninja Theory for rising to the challenge. I don’t know if this is the first video game to open its credits with the name of its chief mental health adviser. I do know that it’s the first to have enlisted seven such mental health professionals, as well as a range of people with lived experience of psychosis, to help shape the work over several years.

Sometimes Senua screams with a rawness that I haven’t heard in other media. The set of her eyes is unnerving – too rarely blinking, the whites too visible. She scratches obsessively at her arm as if the darkness inside her body can be dug out.

Actorly nuance aside, the depth of research evident in the final product is where this work shines. Senua’s suffering is as much about the stigma that accompanies mental health – we learn of her abusive upbringing, the community that shunned her and the way she has internalised her own guilt and worthlessness. Senua’s hell is one built of the memories from which there’s no escape.

There are points at which the voices in her head address the player directly, and several moments when Senua breaks the fourth wall to stare directly at her viewer. I’m not the first critic to have felt at times as if I was playing as Senua’s psychosis, and that her real journey was one of trying to come to terms with me. This sounds like a fancy, since as the player I’m the one in control. But something uncanny occurs while accompanying Senua on her journey. At some point I began to hear my own inner voice echoed by the voices Senua hears in her head – they’d be urging her to get out of the way just as I was doing the same, or letting out a weary sigh after another moment of panic had passed.

And then the voices began to precede mine. As if the game knew my thoughts before I did. 

John Bailey

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based arts journalist.

Exhuming the Murphy allegations
Lionel Murphy was a singular personality – and it got him in trouble

Thirty-odd years after his death, the archivists have exhumed Lionel Murphy, the incomparable attorney-general from Gough Whitlam’s government.

Or, rather, they have not attempted to exhume the man, but only the raft of accusations that dogged him to his early grave.

Many of these were absurd, fanciful to the extent that even his toughest critics admit that they were obvious fabrications. But others have been given some credibility. This is unsurprising because Murphy was never the conventional figure his position, both as a cabinet minister and a High Court judge, supposedly demanded.

Murphy was a political giant, a man of voracious appetites on many levels. He craved power and achieved it, but along with his ambition he also loved food, wine and good company, especially that of attractive women. This infuriated many of his less successful colleagues, who could never understand what women saw in a man who was, let’s be frank, no oil painting; he was once slandered as a “puce-nosed jackal”.

But Murphy had charm, wit and a blazing intelligence: he considered himself Whitlam’s intellectual superior, partly on the grounds that while his leader had studied arts and law, Murphy had pursued the more arduous pairing of science and law. He was something of a polymath, a man of boundless curiosity and utterly fearless about where it might take him.

And this was the trouble. In his youth he had made some friendships that appeared harmless at the time but were regarded as dubious or worse when he achieved high office. But Murphy, being Murphy, refused to abandon them and at times, in open defiance of those who counselled discretion, even flaunted them.

There was, and is, no serious suggestion of corruption in the normal sense, but there was a feeling he had crossed the line where cronyism became at the very least inappropriate. And so his enemies pounced, and there were plenty of them.

Whitlam, who had always regarded him as an unwelcome rival, hoped he had disposed of him by agreeing to his appointment to the High Court, to the fury of its then chief justice, the previous Liberal attorney-general, Garfield Barwick. But when leaked illegal phone taps appeared in the Melbourne Age, one of which referred to Murphy talking about the overly colourful solicitor Morgan Ryan as “my little mate”, the shit hit the fan.

One trial convicted Murphy and an appeal cleared him, but then further stories emerged and a new inquiry was opened, only to close when it was revealed that Murphy had terminal cancer. And it was the subject of this second inquiry that had the voyeurs of the media salivating last week.

There were allegations but none of them were tested, let alone proved. But enough mud has stuck for some commentators to claim that Murphy would have been struck from the High Court for proven misbehaviour if the case had continued.

Personally, I doubt it: the Murphy I knew was certainly indiscreet, even outrageous, but he was above all a lawyer and a bloody good one. I do not believe that he would risk his career and reputation, which remains that of one of the great reformers of Australian politics.

Murphy may have been flawed, but he was a flawed colossus, a Labor hero. Whatever his peccadillos, history has already redeemed him.

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.

What can’t be said in ‘Conversations with Friends’
The protagonists of Sally Rooney’s debut novel privilege irony over emotion

Here are a few some nifty clues from the first page of Conversations With Friends (Faber; $27.99). Frances, the narrator who consoles herself when bad things happen by thinking how smart she is, drops this: “I was a big fan of seeing the insides of other people’s houses, especially people who were slightly famous like Melissa. Right away I decided to remember everything about her home, so I could describe it to our other friends later and Bobbi could agree.” Nice. Three of the four protagonists who make up this quartet devising themselves in Dublin are visible here. The fourth, Nick, appears a moment later. As to Dublin, it could just as easily be New York. Or Melbourne.

Bobbi and Frances have been friends since secondary school, a convent. They were lovers for a year and remain best friends, discussing and dissecting every detail of their lives. Endlessly but not without humour. Bobbi and Frances are a cooler, less knockabout version of Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana. They are still at university but they perform a spoken-word gig together in venues around Dublin. Frances, perhaps a poet, writes everything, but Bobbi is the superior performer, so onstage Frances takes her leads from her. Frances prefers being back-up to the radiant Bobbi. So she says. Melissa, a well-known journalist, comes to their gig to profile them and is so taken by their double act, both on and off the stage, that she invites them to her house – her enviable house for Frances – for a drink. And drink they do. At 3 am Bobbi and Frances end up in Melissa’s spare room. In the morning, Nick, Melissa’s actor husband who made a brief appearance in the kitchen the previous night, being sweet and kind to the dog Melissa is ignoring, has already gone, but the quartet is tuning up

Bobbi adores Melissa, who seems to reciprocate, and Frances, envious/miffed at the ease between the other two women, strikes an extreme pose of ironic detachment around them. And, for reasons she doesn’t explore, she searches for Nick-the-actor online, discovers he is quasi-famous as well as luminously handsome, and sends one of the links to Bobbi with the message “trophy husband. When “the girls”, a term they dislike although everyone calls them this, are invited to dinner at Melissa and Nick’s, Melissa starts taking intense photographs of Bobbi, and Nick and Frances start to talk. In fact, they start to fall in love.

The entire novel, 26-year-old Rooney’s first, is written in serrated, ironic conversations, either spoken or texts and instant messages prefaced by the speaker’s name. Everyday technological communication is seamlessly, brilliantly incorporated in this novel. It is important to keep in mind while reading that irony is the mechanism that delivers the speaker a clean detachment from emotion, so the truth of any feeling remains distant. In this quartet, although the yearning to lean in closer might be a truth, the four do their best to appear to lean as far away from one another as possible. Being cool is the only thing that has meaning in their smart and wordy lives. They live in language. But, strangely, they have little emotional intelligence. And being serious is unforgiveable.

The positions of Frances and Bobbi, at 21, are full of judgement and certainty. Nick and Melissa, ten years older, are more nuanced. Bobbi introduces Frances as a communist and herself as gay, Nick can’t help his good looks and his tender heart, and Melissa, who seems to have it all, remains opaque. How they all fit the scratchy pieces of personality together to make, for some time, their quartet, is the subject of this wintry tale. When Nick and Frances start their affair they betray everyone, including themselves. They both acknowledge that this can’t be “love” because Nick loves Melissa and Frances loves Bobbi. So what in another age would be understood as a truthful and profound attachment is unsayable.

Rooney’s writing suggests that she’s a fresh and original voice. But tread warily. Her generation is unmatched in narcissism. Frances’s voice, intelligent and exhilarating, is sullied by the limited emotional intelligence. She would like to become the self she theorises but who she might be is for the reader to decipher and decide.

The point of Broad City, apart from simple, silly diversion, is a comic exploration of narcissism in process. Because it is based as much in visual gags as verbal exchange it’s easily absorbed. But Rooney’s steely arsenal of smart-arsery could cause nerves to snap and fray if you are over 30. The book isn’t a sustained performance and is about a third too long. Inevitably Rooney has been compared with Salinger. Personally, and what are reviews if not personal, I could never abide him.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Moral Panic 101
Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal – a ‘Quarterly Essay’ extract

In February, the Australian’s editorial referred to it as the “so-called Safe Schools Coalition”; by March, it was the “not-so-safe schools program”; by May, the “gender fluidity Safe Schools program”; by the end of 2016, the “Marxist inspired Safe Schools.” In November, journalist Rebecca Urban valiantly continued pumping out stories on Safe Schools, no matter how minor the development. Her 14 November story was about how Australian universities taught gender studies, and how these subjects could be studied by early childhood, primary, and high-school education students. Never mind that gender studies has been taught in some form across dozens of major universities in Australia for nearly half a century; to Urban, it was a “revelation”. “The subjects are available to those studying early childhood education as well as primary and secondary teaching courses.” For Urban, the link was clear: postmodern concepts of gender and feminism could apparently pass – virus-like – from teachers to their future impressionable students.

Later that month, Tyrone Unsworth killed himself. Aspley State High School, where Unsworth was enrolled, wasn’t a Safe Schools member. Across Australia, queers were fed up. An online petition for Aspley High to join Safe Schools garnered 25,000 signatures in two days. However, some Queensland principals have told me joining Safe Schools has been more difficult in that state given the blowback from parents and the homophobic abuse member schools have copped. It’s also worth noting that Aspley High has transgender students openly transitioning on campus, who are supported by staff. After Unsworth’s suicide made the front page of the Courier-Mail, the school was nevertheless deluged with abuse – this time from queer activists and the general public alike, who felt Unsworth’s death was the result of the school’s negligence. One IT person who helped Aspley High said he’d never seen anything like the volume of it. The abuse was savage enough that Education Queensland hired two security guards to patrol Aspley High for a week. For the next few months, students asked Aspley High staff – who had been directed by Education Queensland not to talk to the media – why they didn’t just tell journalists that the school didn’t hate gay people.

In December, less than a month after Tyrone Unsworth killed himself, the Australian ran a cartoon by Bill Leak in which a big-mouthed caricature of Bill Shorten explained why Labor was opposed to the plebiscite on same-sex marriage. “If one teenager commits suicide that is one too many,” Leak depicted Shorten screeching – parroting what Shorten had said, but implying it was grotesque hysteria. Given how raw Unsworth’s death was – it was still in the news – this was pretty off at best, breathtakingly cruel at worst. That same month, the Australian happily ran an op-ed about the origins of homosexuality by Rabbi Shimon Cowen, author of Homosexuality, Marriage and Society:

Homosexuality comes from diverse sources: bodily temperament and disposition, psychological trauma and from ideological cultures which advocate for it.

Perhaps the Australian was feeling generous given it was Christmas-time, as the paper even provided a URL so readers could purchase the rabbi’s book online. On the very last day of 2016, it still wasn’t over. Safe Schools got a mention in the Australian’s New Year’s Eve editorial to readers: “Let 2017 be the year when we see the last of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act,” they wrote, “and when the disastrous social engineering project of Safe Schools is shredded.”

How festive.

To read every article the Australian has published on Safe Schools is to induce nausea. This isn’t even a comment on the content, just the sheer volume. In the year following Natasha Bita’s first February cover story, the Australian feverishly published nearly 200 stories either about, or mentioning, Safe Schools, amounting to over 90,000 words – four times the length of this Quarterly Essay. That’s at least one story about or mentioning Safe Schools every two days. This is a conservative count too, excluding the newspaper’s Cut & Paste sections and Strewth columns, as well as myriad letters to the editor. When I collated every article the Australian had published over this period into a single PDF, the resulting file was so large that my laser printer couldn’t handle it and I had to get it professionally printed and bound. The volume that came back is roughly the size of a standard PhD thesis. No one can claim the Australian isn’t thorough.

And yet, across this entire period, the Australian – self-appointed guardian of the safety of children – spoke to not a single school-aged LGBTIQ youth. Not even one. Later, queer teenagers who followed the Safe Schools saga told me the dynamic felt familiar. At school, it’s known as bullying. In journalism, it’s called a beat-up.

Conservatives know the ship has sailed when it comes to lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Australia. At some point between 2005 and 2015, we became a nation that genuinely stopped giving a shit about who you loved or slept with. We have no problems with gays as long as they don’t shove it in our faces or, as immigration minister Peter Dutton once memorably put it, down our throats. We increasingly don’t care who you marry, either. Support for same-sex marriage only grows. In its July 2017 survey, Essential found 63% of Australians felt people of the same sex should be able to marry, a boost of 3% in one month alone. A month later, a University of Melbourne survey of 17,000 Australians found 67% of women and 59% of men support same-sex marriage, as well as equal parenting and employment rights. Just over half of all Coalition voters now feel the same way. One-quarter of Australians remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Surveys show they’re in gradual decline, partly because of changing attitudes, and partly because they’re leaving the planet. Most are aged sixty-five or over.

Author and social researcher for Essential Rebecca Huntley says the Christian right have known for a while that homophobia doesn’t fly with middle Australia. “The moment you’re related to, work with or went to uni with a couple of people who’ve come out, it suddenly becomes less terrifying.” All of Us co-author Christopher Bush agrees. “Their claims that ‘sexuality is a choice’ or you can ‘pray the gay away’ no longer stick.”

The Christian hard right has adjusted its approach accordingly. It’s rare for the ACL to make the kind of proclamations typical of former managing director Jim Wallace: that homosexuality reduced your life expectancy as much as smoking cigarettes; that Seven’s Sunrise’s support of same-sex marriage was like Nazi propaganda; and, in a tweet on Anzac Day, that servicemen and women didn’t fight for an Australia that was pro-gay marriage and Islamic. Wallace’s successor, Lyle Shelton, may be prone to shockers – blogging about Safe Schools in the same breath as the Holocaust; repeatedly comparing children of same-sex parents to the Stolen Generations – but is generally a smoother media operator, cordial, even charming, to queer journalists, and referring to “our gay friends” in op-eds.

Support for same-sex marriage isn’t a reliable metric of broader acceptance, though. We can only guess how many Australian same-sex marriage supporters feel comfortable with kids being taught by gay teachers, or how many are okay with having transgender kids. Reliable data on these issues doesn’t exist in Australia, but in the United States, where same-sex marriage is legal and consistently supported by the majority of Americans, the organisation GLAAD found 29% of Americans are still uncomfortable seeing a same-sex couple holding hands, and 28% would be uncomfortable if they learnt their doctor was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It might be stating the obvious, but same-sex marriage is far from the final frontier in the battle against homophobia.

What the debate over Safe Schools has shown is that although many Australians don’t have the stomach for overt homophobia anymore, artillery to fight queers is not lacking.


This is an edited extract of Benjamin Law’s Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal’​, out now.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is a freelance writer and a senior contributor to frankie magazine. He is the author of The Family Law and Gaysia.


Smiley’s return
‘A Legacy of Spies’ brings together two of John le Carré’s greatest characters – but why?

John le Carré is one of the more remarkable writers alive today, not least because he’s been in his time a supreme entertainer. And that is, by necessity, a point at which roads cross: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is about as good as a one-off spy story can be – witness Martin Ritt’s brooding and brilliant 1965 film with Richard Burton at his grandest, sodden and sullen as the alcohol-fuelled Leamas; Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and Smiley’s People between them form an extraordinary dark and complicated enchantment of a spy saga – think of the magnificent late ’70s / early ’80s brace of miniseries with Alec Guinness, no less, as Smiley leading a troupe of some of the greatest actors on earth (Ian Richardson, Beryl Reid, Curt Jürgens, Siân Phillips) in ten hours or so of ratiocination and skullduggery, of crossed alliances and pitiable betrayals and crookedness and wisdom that made the 2011 Gary Oldman remake of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy seem like the merest tinkling cymbal of a footnote.

Of course, the fact that we think of the famous film or TV versions is relevant in itself. They are each – the Spy movie and the Smiley miniseries – superior to their literary originals even if part of that superiority is a product of their fidelity. And David Cornwell (the author’s real name) confessed as much when he said at the end of the treasurable DVD set that in the midst of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being filmed by the BBC he realised he was writing Smiley’s People for a character who had been enriched (subtilised, presumably, and deepened; naturalised anyway) by Sir Alec’s incomparable performance. All of which is pertinent to le Carré’s new book A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin; $32.99) because it brings together Leamas and Smiley and you have to wonder why.

It’s odd enough that John le Carré, who as a franchise seemed to be going great guns with the much-expanded TV version of The Night Manager with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie – also superior to its original – should have taken a leap back into the dark and backward abysm of time to embrace again the fog and wraith-like uncertainties of the Cold War to which he became a cloak and dagger stiff-upper-lip Homer. But what makes resistance doubly dour is that Leamas and Smiley belong to radically different visions of the Cold War.

If le Carré has a God-given book, it’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which made him famous and received its transfiguring film treatment that made him even more so. It helped that Burton had an empathy for the role of Leamas that was all but absolute, but he was assisted by some of the greater actors alive as well: Claire Bloom as the girl; the great Oskar Werner as Fiedler, the Jewish Stasi man. Burton’s Leamas was a kind of Jimmy Porter writ taciturn, meeting death like a martyr or reluctant tragic hero by the Berlin Wall. He was whatever was left of what was best in the West, confronting crucifixion by the Golgotha of a totalitarianism with which it had become complicit.

With Smiley it’s all a different caper. It doesn’t matter if he appears in the early books or if he makes an entrance in Spy because he reaches his apotheosis in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People as le Carré’s super sleuth and saint figure, a kind of Father Brown of glinting intelligence and irony and self-deprecation who is also a man of wisdom – willing to come last, the bloke in a bad suit who knows the music of how things are.

By the time le Carré has written the two great Smiley books – and seen them brought to fulfilment by a great actor – the Cold War has become the great game and we feel that active ambiguous thrill we get when the highest kind of entertainment flickers in and out of emotional reality measured by suspense.

So why on earth bring Leamas and Smiley together (or at any rate centrally contingent with each other) in this new book?

If The Spy Who Came In from the Cold comes as close to art as apparent trash-writing can, and the Smiley books make us think that le Carré is the equal of Wilkie Collins or Raymond Chandler, and Smiley is the saint who will restore grace to a dismayed world (Auden’s theory of the detective story), why muddy the waters by bringing them together?

A Legacy of Spies begins with details about the childhood of Peter Guillam in Brittany. Le Carré diehards will recall that Peter Guillam – played, in the Guinness TV version, by Michael Jayston, who does the audio book versions of le Carre’s novels replete with Guinness’ voice as Smiley – is the henchman of Smiley, the young man who runs around investigating and doing the beat. According to rough calculation, he would be at least 80 if he were alive now and, in fact – as A Legacy of Spies tends to indicate – probably closer to the age of le Carré, who was born in 1931.

All of which becomes pertinent because Guillam is summoned from his retirement in Brittany by two spooks who work for the organisation that has succeeded the Circus because accusations are being brought by a child of Leamas and, separately, by a child of Elizabeth Gold, the Claire Bloom figure, about their deaths, and the death of his one-time European mistress.

All of this is very odd because it takes such a nosedive back into the unwanted minutiae of the fictional past and it also does so with what looks like a degree of temporal confusion.

The spooks who interrogate Guillam – a fortyish public schoolboy and a “classless” woman, neither of them the recipient of any golden light of sympathy from the author – live in a world of smartphones and the arcana of the social media world and yet it’s difficult to see that Guillam could actually be an octogenarian given the way he acts here. And later in the piece there’s a face-to-face meeting with Smiley, who, if we attribute arbitrarily the birthdate of his most famous interpreter, would now be 103.

It’s also difficult to credit the idea that Guillam could have lost contact with Smiley and not know if he’s alive or dead. So we’re left with the odd and disconcerting response to the usually silky smooth le Carré – smooth, at least, in his narrative elements – that we’re witnessing an old man’s performance. A Legacy of Spies is set about 20 years ago, though that time frame has somehow been anachronised by various trappings from the present.

The difficulty comes partly from the fact that the Cold War was both a historically determined time and – not least in le Carré’s hands – a mythological era of trick mirrors and cross-purposes, a world of treacheries made tolerable by Smiley’s small still voice as well as the fact that Cold Wars are pretty cool compared with what they turn the heat down on.

It’s interesting, of course, that le Carré fled the Cold War when the Wall came down and this always came across as a kind of historical integrity, the thing that was implicit behind his inwardness with this secret world. It’s arguable, too, but has nothing much to do with A Legacy of Spies, that his most formidable piece of writing apart from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is A Perfect Spy, a kind of coded autobiography that presents the subject as a sympathetic traitor swamped by a son-of-a-bitch charmer of a father.

In practice, A Legacy of Spies is a strange attempt to warm old soups by blowing on them. There are accusations of complicity in brutal murder and an entrance from one of the most villanous figures from the early books. But a lot of the action in Legacy is conveyed through the lost files of the infamous case, the story of Leamas’ mistress brought to England and savagely slaughtered – as it is conveyed, Moonstone-like, through the officialese of a stack of Circus reports.

The narrative logic is one of exhumation and it tends to be a little self-defeating because the details about the new characters tend to be recessed: they are, almost definitionally, referred to rather than directly presented. When the book does lurch into a dramatic present tense – never mind the smartphones and the wavering time frame – it is in le Carré’s most harrumphing style.

He is a magician of action and a kind of serene scene-setting and chat that make action possible, but when his rhetoric gets self-conscious it’s inclined to be windy.

A Legacy of Spies is a weird combination of cold cases from a pitiless Cold War that never quite touches the heart and a sort of blustering unconsoled old buffer’s rant at a later time that is in no position to judge the difficult duplicities of a world that strove, at least the best of it did, to achieve a moral decency.

This book will fascinate every le Carré diehard. It seems, though, to lack the eerie ambivalent magnetism of the portrait Adam Sisman drew in his 2015 biography, and the extraordinary fragments le Carré himself collected in his memoir anthology The Pigeon Tunnel, published last year.

The idea of le Carré returning to the world of the Cold you try to come in from or the land of Smileys who move by night is a weird one: it’s a bit like Alice coming back to Wonderland as a middle-aged matron.

It seems in the end a category mistake: Leamas is a tragic antihero, Smiley is a saintly super sleuth, never mind the clay feet. Imagine if Hamlet somehow had to share dramatic space with that wise guy, the Duke in Measure for Measure, the chap who says, “Thou art not thyself; / For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust … Thou hast nor youth nor age, / But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep, / Dreaming on both.”

As it happens, both those Shakespeare figures occupy similar patches of local turf, yet one is brightly tragic, one is sagely comic.

No one in A Legacy of Spies is quite himself. Every le Carré fan will want to read it, but it is, alas, a kind of dotage we are presented with here.

It is a bit odd that the book comes with an encomium from Ian McEwan saying that le Carré is “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain”. Significant how? Significant in the way that John Updike said the creation of a figure like Superman could transcend anything a literary novelist could invent? Is he more significant than the Evelyn Waugh of Brideshead or Sword of Honour, than mature Graham Greene, or Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, than Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: let’s not get our pleasures and our values as confounded as all that.

A Legacy of Spies is far and away the most minor thing le Carré has written with a Cold War setting. It is a reminder though – a wrong-footed reminder – that The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a work of extraordinary drama and poignancy, an unforgettable portrait of what was most terrible about its times. And that the two great Smiley books make enchantment from the escapades of dark deeds.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

The honesty and complexity of ‘Beyond Veiled Clichés’
Amal Awad’s book presents Arab women in their own words and in their own right

A well-known phenomenon in Arab music and traditional dance is tarab. One of those near-untranslatable words, it refers to a state of ecstasy and emotional transformation brought on by music that overtakes the audience, dancers and musicians – the latter’s process called saltanah by ethnomusicologist Ali Jihad Racy.

This profound, multifarious connection is often invoked to refer to greats of Arab music such as Um Kulthum or the dancer Tahia Carioca, both of whom were profiled and eulogised by Edward Said.

Art that inspires tarab also often presents a nostalgic link to home – to classical Arab culture, to Arabness co-existing with and in spite of modesty, closed doors and the concept of ’ayb (shame).

Reading Amal Awad’s excellent Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women (Vintage Australia; $32.99), even with a critical eye, brought home the concept of tarab.

Unusual for a book released by an Australian publishing house, it offers glimpses and moments of a similar transcendence. Here is a book that is not, for once, written as a primer for a white readership, to demystify Arabs.

While accessible and sure to become a staple of university courses and white feminist book clubs, Beyond Veiled Clichés is written by an Arab woman, for Arab women.

Driven by Awad’s knowing and wry voice, Beyond Veiled Clichés takes the author through Sydney and into the Middle East. She meets young Arab women along the way. They are activists, therapists, lawyers, journalists and, in the case of the remarkable Sabine, a professional clown with a travelling show who fearlessly stares down sexists. Some are married, some have divorced, others keep their relationships away from prying familial eyes. Some are Muslim, some are Christian, others have abandoned faith, or see themselves more as spiritual.

There are proud feminists, and others who feel uncomfortable adopting the label, knowing how mainstream white feminism does not represent them. It is the work of such women as profiled in this book that led Jordan to recently repeal its law allowing rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victims.

What is also striking is how each interviewee, regardless of her personal life or circumstances, knows herself and her connection to Arabness.

None of the women Awad spoke to (as with the author herself) resemble how Arab women are so often presented – either as a timid, unsure wife, covered head to toe and not allowed to drive, or a viper-tongued, strident Hajja, the mother-in-law caricature from hell.

I’ve always thought that Arab women appear, to the outside world, to grow up mired in backwardness and restrictions, too busy taking care of siblings and on warak enab–rolling duty to go out and play or party. And while there is undoubted psychic damage done by double standards and the need for permission and approval to live, sometimes, in the words of interviewee Jamila, a childhood could just be “really fucking boring”.

There is much to love about an upbringing heavy on community, good food and cultural traditions and, for those raised with religion, the comfort and peace that comes with that too, but the flip side – where fear and rigidity rule – can be hard to shake off in adult life: “It was only recently, while idly listening to a segment on ABC about obsessive compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts that I realised how religion, being fear-based, can raise your sensitivities to wrongdoing and fertilise obsessive thinking,” Awad writes. “I carried a huge amount of fear about jinxing.”

A sentence like this, to anyone growing up in a conservative, old-world-styled home, is an affirmation as much as it is a punch in the gut. It is also meaningless to anyone who wasn’t brought up with a khamsa in the house – or, in my case, regularly prayed over to banish evil.

It sounds funny and quaint, paranoid even, to anyone not raised to automatically say “mashallah” in response to a compliment. But it is just one of many moments in Beyond Veiled Clichés that are relatable, like a secret handshake or shared, hidden language.

Truly refreshing is the exclusion of men as interviewees. It redresses the balance somewhat to see men relegated to the background, as shadowy figures and the patriarchy’s representatives, echoed in quotes but not given the star billing to which Arab society has accustomed them.

Sometimes they are ridiculed, such as the man rebuffed by Awad who proceeded to lecture her about the concepts of makruh (disapproved) and haram (forbidden) like a Sunday school teacher. Or the teacher who raised the ire of Jennine by claiming he would keep his eyes lowered to avoid the temptation of women he encounters while shopping.

“Just chill out,” she thinks. “You’re just walking through a shop.”

Many reviewers will probably call Beyond Veiled Clichés a “brave” book, stamping it with the same pitying approval as misery memoirs, but the word that best applies to what Awad has created is honest.

And honest not merely in how she presents her interviewees, but in its missteps, too.

Awad writes on identity politics: “I no longer see it as helpful or useful to be too firmly entrenched in identity politics, which can make you sound as racist as the people who are trying to oppress you … For every proud Australian-born ‘person of colour’, there is a racist Australian ‘reclaimer’ who doesn’t think you belong in the sun-drenched land of Oz.”

While I sympathise with a wariness of identity politics, Awad’s position falls just short of believing in reverse racism, which is by definition a fundamental misunderstanding of how structural power operates.

We need to interrogate this. Awad otherwise writes perceptively about how Arab cultures abroad have made some social progress while diasporic communities remain wedded to the versions of biladi (my country) and Islam they brought over. But it is not the targets of Islamophobia, seeking comfort in their traditions and culture, who should bear the brunt of criticism for this kind of racism.

While Awad largely invokes Islamophobic racism, she misses a chance to address the virulent, unchecked anti-blackness in Arab communities. Arabs are notorious for not only their early slave trade but also for the ingrained racism persisting today. The fact that Arabs continue to use the n-word with a hard ‘r' goes almost unnoticed by Awad.

It is exciting to read frankly written chapters about the hijab and queerness, but disappointing that on the topic of racism Beyond Veiled Clichés falls short. Even with these shortcomings, however, it is a book that transcends and has its moments of tarab.

“I can see now how I made my world unnecessarily smaller when I put the headscarf on the second time around,” Awad writes, a scythe cutting through parental disappointment, community expectations and personal guilt.

“I had found my tribe, and wanted every part of that belonging,” she continues.

Beyond Veiled Clichés is a book about my tribe, and every Arab woman will see herself within it.

Aicha Marhfour

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance writer in Melbourne.


An ugly same-sex marriage debate is just beginning
Malcolm Turnbull got his postal survey win in the High Court but still stands to lose


It was not the end; it was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, finally, the end of the beginning.

The High Court has at last fanned the long-smouldering same-sex marriage debate into flame, and now it has become a question of not if but how the inferno will play out and how many victims it will consume.

But for the moment, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s only emotion was one of joy and relief – had the High Court found the other way it would have precipitated yet another crisis for his government, yet another shit fight in the party room.

The fact that the shit fight will now engulf the entire nation is a relatively minor problem. But it is one that will have to be faced, both in the confrontation, which will now ramp up in earnest, and then in the outcome when, as was always inevitable, the decision must be made in parliament.

Turnbull insists that the debate will be respectful anyway. But just in case, he is talking – in the manner of a man proclaiming that nuclear warfare can really be contained under Queensberry rules – of legislating some kind of framework to restrain any excesses.

At the time of writing there are no details beyond the suggestion that advertisements on both sides would need some kind of authorisation. And if he attempts to go beyond that – as Labor, the Greens and even some of his own followers say he should – there would undoubtedly be screams about restrictions of freedom of religion and speech by the zealots of the religious right.

But more importantly, any such measures would be ineffective – the offensive material would have already been promulgated before it could be challenged. So close your eyes, hold your nose and prepare to dive into the cesspool.

Turnbull has made it clear that he is backing the Yes case. He has been warned, however, that he may have to be a touch more vigorous, if only in order to deny Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (who is rather more enthusiastic about the cause) the claim of ownership if the campaign succeeds. In any event he will still have to face the count when the numbers come up in November.

If they say no, we are back to square one; the issue will not go away and the divisions, both inside and outside the party room, will continue. But if, as he says he hopes and expects, they say yes, it will be Turnbull’s task to guide the implementation of same-sex marriage through parliament.

He may try to throw a hospital pass to a backbencher to propose it, but the nitty-gritty about the extent of exemptions – devices to allow those demanding their religious privileges to maintain and extend them – will eventually land on his own prime ministerial desk.

And this is when it may become the beginning of the end. Our leader will hope that this judgement will apply only to the tortuous argument, and not to his timorous and dysfunctional regime.

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.

Last man standing
‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ is one of the most popular shooter games – and one of the most unusual

I’m writing this while crouched in some bushes in the middle of a field of gently swaying wheat. My gaze is fixed on a bucolic farmhouse at the bottom of a sharp ridge. I’ve just seen someone carrying a rifle disappear inside. I’m carrying a frying pan. The distant crackle of gunfire is a reminder that most people in this pastoral scene are the shoot-first type, and that farmhouse was until recently my only hope of refuge.

I’m playing a shooting game. Let’s pull this tooth quickly: these games are the reason the popular imagination equates game-players with drool-flecked teenage boys yelling obscenities at their TVs. The phallic fantasies suggested by virtual guns spurting endless death give the gamer the cultural aroma of someone squatting in the bushes and masturbating. The prevalence of shooters – they’re the most commercial game genre and comprise about a quarter of the entire industry – suggests that this is what gamers are: a stateless nation of squatting masturbators.

Currently, I’m the one squatting in the bushes, but when this game began I was waiting in a plane with 99 other players from around the world. Before we skydived out towards those idyllic fields, this airborne lobby was the aural equivalent of a Bruegel hellscape, a cacophony of adolescent male voices screaming racist memes, homophobic vitriol and primal ululations (the single exception being a polite young man delivering a perfect rendition of a captain’s welcome aboard Jetstar flight JQ225). It was immediately obvious why every write-up of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds includes a warning to turn off the in-game voice chat system.

Battlegrounds is the latest tearaway hit in the shooter genre, having sold 10 million copies in the six months since its early access release. During busy periods it averages about 500,000 players at once. The premise is simple: 100 of us parachute onto this eerily vacant island and only one will survive. Today, most players scattered to the winds in all directions, hoping to land somewhere far from the others, but by the time my heels hit dirt one fifth of our number had already been murdered. The shooting started early.

It might be the success story of 2017, but the fact that I’m writing this review while playing Battlegrounds hints at how it differs from most shooting games. It is both summation and refutation of one of the most popular and problematic game genres. Where most shooters are geared towards aggression, blood lust and a knowledge of firearm models, Battlegrounds rewards cowardice, avoidance, immobility and blind panic. This is a game in which not playing is the safest choice.

I initially aimed my fall towards an apartment block in a flooded quarter of the island, figuring the knee-high water would deter pursuit, but upon landing I turned to find a man touching down just a few metres away. I hightailed it around a corner and didn’t stop sprinting until a forest and several hectares separated us. I found refuge in a derelict church with a good view of the surrounding terrain, and climbed to the rooftop, where I could lie prone and hard to spot. I found my frypan on the way up the staircase.

By the time I secured my hiding spot, a counter in the corner of my screen indicated that 40 fellow players were already dead. There are people who play shooting games with obsessive zeal. They excel at them, can even compete professionally for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they’re here today for whatever satisfaction they earn from headshots and virtual victory. For them, Battlegrounds is a chance to star in an action movie. For everyone else, it’s a white-knuckle thriller. For anyone but the pros, the goal is not to win but to forestall the inevitability of death.

Armed with nothing but a frying pan and my two feet, I watched the counter tick past 50. I’d done better than most players simply by hiding. From my aerial vantage above the church I could hear far-off reports of handguns and rifles scavenged from across the map. There’s also the shrinking ring of lethal blue electricity that slowly closes in on the island, reducing the playing space and ensuring that no one can camp out indefinitely.

I hear the car before I see it. A beach buggy racing up the lane that leads to the church. It disappears from view but the engine cuts out somewhere close and I hear footsteps circling the building. I chance a peek and spot the buggy almost directly below me. The footsteps are further off now, inside the church, near the staircase that brought me here. I’m rubbish at shooting. I’m not hopped up on energy drinks and teenage hormones. But cowardice, avoidance and the like– these I can master.

I drop from the roof and two seconds later am gunning the buggy towards the horizon. I’m zigzagging left and right with the expectation – duly met – that a hail of gunfire will follow me for stealing’s someone’s ride. I’m a moving target, though, and I’m two towns over by the time the buggy flips and I’m thrown all battered and bloody into the wheat field. I hobble towards the nearest farmhouse before catching sight of the distant woman disappearing inside. I duck behind the bushes.

There’s no going back the way I came, but the road ahead now looks just as dangerous. Good time to stay put. Good time to start writing.

In the video-game universe, the shooting came early. You can draw a direct line from the 3D virtual verisimilitude of Battlegrounds back to games such as Space Invaders: here is a problem and you can make it go away by shooting it. Make all the problems go away and you win. From early shooters such as Doom, Quake and Castle Wolfenstein to today’s billion-dollar franchises such as Call of Duty, the logic has been maintained. Here is a gun, and here is a problem. Solve it.

But add in other players and something else emerges. Other people become the problem. The solution is just as simple, of course. Use whatever arms are at hand to make them go away. It’s not hard to see this economy extending to, say, social media. The plane-bound obscenity that precedes a round of this game is players using the only weapon they have available at that point: their voice. Battlegrounds is a 3D comment section.

Back to the bushes. There are 33 of us left alive out here. Someone just died from falling. 32. 31. With time to appreciate it, this scenery really is quite beautiful. There’s no sound but the breeze. I am going to die. There is no chance of grace or salvation. This is the point of Battlegrounds, for me at least.

When you die in Battlegrounds, you’re kicked from the match. You don’t get to see what happens next. You don’t know who bested you. You definitely don’t know who wins the game.

Whether by accident or design, Battlegrounds subverts the very notion of “winning”. The only reward that awaits the last player standing are the words “WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER” that appear on their screen. If this sounds like a flaccid trophy for surviving such a difficult ordeal, consider also that in reaching this point, you’ve ensured that every other player has left the game. If there is some pleasure in the victory itself, the fact that this pleasure can only be enjoyed solo is what lends Battlegrounds its critical edge. The gift it gives to the player who has spent the most time playing these games is like a mirror placed in front of the squatting masturbator.

The blue ring tops the ridge and advances towards the farmhouse. The front door opens and the woman nursing the rifle hurtles out into the field, running right at my hiding spot. I lower myself to my stomach. This review may end mid-sentence.

She runs past me, no more than a few metres away. Oblivious. Stalks of wheat ripple in her wake. There are 21 of us left.

It’s a minute later and the blue ring is crossing the field. I’m going to have to run, now, too. If I find another safe place, I’ll keep writing this. If not, I hope it finds you well.

John Bailey

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based arts journalist.

The pet politics in ‘Rat Film’ and ‘The Challenge’
From rats in Baltimore to competitive falconry in Qatar, two documentaries at the Melbourne International Film Festival explored the idea of animal as status symbol

Rat Film kicks off with lo-fi documentary footage of the incident that served as filmmaker Theo Anthony’s inspiration: a handheld camera noses around a dark alley lined with garbage cans, searching out the source of a muffled, intermittent thudding noise. The camera approaches one can with the lid not quite on, peering into its murky depths. Inside, a rat with pink points of light for eyes repeatedly scrabbles up and slides down the wall of the can, coming straight at the camera lens, freedom just out of reach. “The adult Norway rat can jump 32 inches high,” advises a smooth, Siri-esque voice-over. “Baltimore City trash cans are 34 inches high.” The sequence takes on an unexpected poignancy as the Sisyphean nature of the rat’s struggle becomes apparent.

The lowly rat is an unlikely artistic muse, but Anthony perceived metaphorical significance in the mini-drama he discovered playing out in his garbage can; a parable about the systemic barriers that keep people – those in the lower classes – from escaping the social stratum they find themselves born into. Anthony’s ambitious essay film explores the relationship between the rodent and human populations of his native Baltimore, revealing the parallels between the plight of the titular creatures and that of the disenfranchised individuals who live in the neighbourhoods the rats infest. Zigzagging between historical, scientific and philosophical modes, between archival materials, clunky computer-game imagery and interviews with locals, Rat Film shows Baltimore to be a city divided along racial and economic lines: lines that have remained remarkably consistent over the course of the past century – and not by chance.

As noted by the affable but savvy exterminator Harold Edmond, one of the film’s central figures, rats proliferate “in the places where the most uneducated people are, the ones who have the least … the people who have no dreams, no aspirations – just survival”. Whether regarded as pests or pets, a relationship with rodents is the inheritance of the poor. Anthony documents these relationships in a number of set pieces spotlighting individuals and their unique rat-centric rituals. In one, a bald middle-aged man sits on a lumpy couch, three domestic rats huddled on his shoulders. Staring into the camera, he solemnly picks up a wooden flute and plays a few bars of melancholy melody. In another, two friends demonstrate an elaborate rat-baiting scheme involving peanut butter, turkey, a fishing rod, a baseball bat and a fair amount of waiting around. For the fringe dwellers of Baltimore, rats can be entertained, or they can be entertainment.

Although set in Qatar, thousands of kilometres from Baltimore – geographically, culturally – Yuri Ancarani’s The Challenge is also concerned with a highly codified inter-species relationship, and one that is demonstrative of class: the documentary / art film takes as its subject a falconry competition, showcasing the world of decadence that revolves around the prized birds. Although generally considered to be an anachronistic pursuit in the West – enjoyed only by long-dead mediaeval nobles and fictional eccentrics such as Richie Tenenbaum – the ancient art lives on in the Middle East as an extreme luxury sport. Whereas in Rat Film Anthony deploys the rat as an avatar of poverty, the falcon in The Challenge embodies the excesses of wealth – each creature becoming a symbol of status in its own right.

Ancarani charts the journey of a handful of participants – human and avian – on their cross-country pilgrimage to the site of the competition. And boy, do they travel in style. One man leads a posse through the desert astride a golden motorbike. Another cruises in his slick black Lamborghini, a cheetah lounging in the passenger seat as casually as would your family dog. As for the birds themselves, they are transported via private jet. There is something wonderfully redundant about the idea of birds travelling by plane: flying first class rather than simply flying. In a particularly arresting sequence, a sheikh watches over a handful of hooded falcons aboard a small customised aircraft, rows of astroturfed perches replacing the customary seats. The sheikh appears less as their proprietor and more as an attendant as he takes one of his charges onto his gloved hand, tenderly removes its hood, strokes its feathers, feeds it.

The Challenge unfolds as a series of these surreal tableaux: with no narrator to provide interpretation or explanation, the imagery remains steadfastly alien – the paucity of dialogue and score also contributing to the eerie ambience. The film is meditative rather than informative; unlike Rat Film, it is an aesthetic rather than explicitly critical exercise. Ancarani favours lengthy fixed shots and bold compositions, capturing the expanse and radiance of the Qatari desert. Anthony’s Baltimore, by contrast, is all cluttered interiors and dingy interstitial spaces: the formal spareness of The Challenge counters Rat Film’s maximalist collage. However, despite their differences, a sense of ceremony prevails in both films. The subjects in each sequence perform for – if not to – the camera, enacting a kind of pet politics.

The Challenge ends with the competition under way, a falcon in hot pursuit of a pigeon. But the falcon remains out of frame: the camera is attached to the bird as it soars through the sky, providing a literal bird’s-eye view of the hunt. The shot jerks and skitters across the landscape below, making it difficult to tell whether the falcon is closing in on its prey – only occasionally does the pigeon lurch into view. At last, the falcon latches on to it and swoops towards the ground, the camera swerving crazily – the viewer is afforded only blurred glimpses of feathers and blood as confirmation of the pigeon’s fate.

Rat Film’s final scene is similarly macabre: in a glass tank, a baby rat – naked, pink, blind – wriggles weakly in the jaws of a snake. The outcome is inevitable but the predator is slow, methodical: over the course of one and a half painful minutes, the rat disappears into the snake’s expanding maw. Where the falcon is affirmed as victor, the rat is presented as victim. The acts of “conspicuous consumption” with which both films close place their animal subjects and their human ones on a food chain.

Keva York

Keva York is a writer and film critic. She has contributed to 4:3 and Senses of Cinema.