Editor’s Note December 2017 – January 2018

Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership has moved from merely ineffectual to disastrous, and he appears incapable of righting the ship. (This would require, at the very least, an acknowledgement of error – a developmental step beyond the prime minister to this point.) No one needs a recap of the overlapping failures; suffice to say, good government now seems beyond the Coalition.

Something else has become evident in recent months: Australia is better than its government. 

If the same-sex marriage survey proved anything, it is that social change doesn’t rely upon a supportive government. The public gave up waiting and forced progress upon a recalcitrant joint party room. The momentum has been unstoppable.

Parliament will eventually legislate for marriage equality, but the public should be under no illusions as to how it came about, or why. Or who deserves credit for it.

The Coalition’s modus operandi of delay, avoid, downgrade or shut down – whether it be on the NBN or on climate change, towards asylum seekers or the LGBTI community, or on Indigenous recognition or the republican movement – will most likely leave Turnbull consigned, if we could borrow Noel Pearson’s phrase, “to a footnote in Australian prime ministerial history”. Right beside Tony Abbott.

In his essay for the Monthly’s summer issue, on the Coalition’s betrayal of the Indigenous recognition cause, Pearson pegs Turnbull for his mendacity and unprincipled opportunism. Pearson has discovered, from bitter experience, that Turnbull is “trapped by his political situation: devoid of capital, hostage to the conservatives whose leader he had stabbed in order to gain the prime ministership, and without the gumption to break his captivity”.

Pearson is also right about this: “This [Uluru statement] agenda will not die. It is the agenda for the future. This setback … is not our destiny.”

Turnbull gave up his chance to help shape this destiny. Australia will leave him and his party behind.

On a somewhat sunnier note: Thank you, readers, for your support of the Monthly in 2017. Your summer issue awaits, and it’s a ripper.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of the Monthly.


Curing Affluenza
Sensible economics made simple – a Richard Denniss book extract

My father remembers folding up the brown-paper bag that had contained his school lunch. There was no reason he couldn’t use it again the next day. So he did. To this day my parents’ kitchen drawer contains a ball of rubber bands that found their way into the house, often wrapped around junk mail. “Why would you throw perfectly good rubber bands away?” ask my parents.

I throw perfectly good rubber bands away. I resent the people who ignore my requests for no junk mail to be left at my house, but I don’t stockpile the rubber bands they give me. I grew up in a house where we were never short of rubber bands. My parents didn’t. Culture shapes behaviour.

Just as a fish can’t taste the water it swims in, it is hard for citizens in affluent societies to notice just how weird their culture has become. Culture tells us when it is time to swap the clothes we have for some new ones, to swap our car for a new one, and even when to rip out a perfectly functional kitchen and replace it with a “modern” one. It is cultural preference, rather than the price of seed, that has made lawn the largest irrigated crop in the United States, and it is culture that tells us it’s more convenient to drive to the shops to buy vegetables than to plant them in the land taken up by our lawns.

Our culture also encourages us to throw away perfectly useful things, made of scarce natural resources, to send the signal that we aren’t stingy, mean or, worst of all, poor. Each year the citizens of rich countries throw away mountains of perfectly edible food, perfectly wearable clothes and fitness equipment that has never been used. Yet many of those doing the wasting feel poor, and many believe that if they throw the things they buy in the recycling bin, or leave them with a charity, their waste is actually a form of generosity.

We have built a culture where buying things is increasingly unrelated to using things. And we have built a culture where things are thrown away not because they are broken, but because they send the wrong signal about who we are. We use material things for primarily symbolic reasons, which means we throw them out not when they are broken, but when we need to send a new signal. In turn we have built the most materially wealthy communities the world has ever known, but despite this abundance of stuff, our culture makes people feel that they never have enough, or the right, stuff.

Our culture is suffering from a bad case of affluenza. Despite the incredible increase in material production and consumption over the past century, many of the richest people in the richest countries feel poor. But it needn’t be this way. This culture that impoverishes us is a new one. It wasn’t the norm when my dad was at school. By the time I was at school, things were changing, and I think they have accelerated rapidly in recent years.

So if affluenza hasn’t always been with us, and isn’t uniformly spread across all countries, then obviously we can reduce or even eradicate it if we want to. And that is, of course, the big question: Do we want to?

All rich cultures must grapple with what to do with their affluence. Egyptians once built great pyramids, Chinese once built a Great Wall, and in the 1960s and 1970s Americans built a vast nuclear weapons capacity. If we stopped dedicating so much time and so many natural resources to building mountains of wasted stuff, we could do anything we wanted. Of course we couldn’t do everything we wanted – we would have to make choices. But instead of being encouraged to question our national goals and make those choices, we are told that the market holds all the answers.

Markets can no more tell us where to head than a compass can tell a sailor where to sail. Markets are a means towards some ends, but they are silent about the ends that a democratic society should pursue.

Far from encouraging efficiency, markets have become the major driver of waste and inefficiency in developed countries. If we do away with the need to produce mountains of wasted resources, it will be simple to change our society in ways that will reduce the harm we do to the natural environment, improve our quality of life, create more jobs with more meaning and, most of all, give us more time to spend with the people, and on the things, we love the most.

Put simply, curing affluenza means that we will waste far less time and far fewer resources, and in turn make far more of the things we really want more of.

How, then, do we cure affluenza? I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know what the world will look like in ten years’ time, or a hundred. But I do know what I want to see more of and what I want to see less of.

We don’t just need to “reframe the debate” or “reform” our policies. We need to fundamentally reshape the economy. History says it’s been done before, and voters around the world clearly believe that it is time we did it again.

Affluenza is that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.

Affluenza has not only transformed the size of our shopping malls and the contents of our garbage dumps, it has also transformed our culture, environment and economy. And despite the large wealth gap between developed and developing countries, this disease of affluence is ”trickling down” to less well-off countries far more rapidly than the affluence itself. And nothing keeps people poorer than a bad case of affluenza.

Can affluenza be stopped? Like all pandemics, it is easily spread and mutates frequently, so it will be hard to cure. But hard doesn’t mean impossible. Surely curing affluenza can’t be as hard as wiping out polio with worldwide vaccination, or landing a man on the moon in a rocket that took a decade to build?

But just say we did abandon the idea that wasting resources is good for the economy. Wouldn’t the global economic system grind to a halt? Put another way, isn’t speeding up the rate at which middle-class people throw away perfectly functional furniture and appliances a good way to create jobs and reduce world poverty?

Affluenza is economically inefficient, it is the root cause of environmental destruction and it worsens global inequality. If – and this is a big if – we are interested in avoiding climate change, distributing resources more equally and improving the wellbeing of billions of people (rich and poor), then it is essential to wipe out the plague of affluenza.

Many of the world’s biggest problems are symptoms of this plague. Rather than treat the symptoms, it is time we tackled the underlying disease.

This is an edited extract of Richard Denniss’ Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World, published by Black Inc.

Richard Denniss
Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the Australia Institute.

Reflection on a reflection in Jenny Watson’s ‘The Fabric of Fantasy’
This retrospective raises questions about how consciousness affects memory and experience

Jenny Watson, Self Portrait as a Narcotic (1989)

Jenny Watson’s retrospective The Fabric of Fantasy – which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and is now showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, in Bulleen, Victoria, until 4 March – displays a preoccupation with suburban girlhood. Flecked throughout her works are madeleine-like motifs of bottled messages, miniaturised suburban homes, and blacked-out faces redacted through memory loss. These motifs create an atmosphere of being trapped within a displaced future–past. Here is Watson reminiscing about her suburban childhood, her 1970s involvement in the Melbourne punk and feminist scenes, her beloved pet horses and international travels from a vantage of reminiscing about her almost half-century long career. Like Watson gazing at her Reflection in a Muddy Puddle (2013), The Fabric of Fantasy is not so much a retrospective as it is a reflection on a reflection. Along with Watson’s practice of accompanying her image paintings with paintings of expository text, this long, refracted contemplation raises questions about how consciousness affects memory and experience.

In a room labelled “Alice and Friends”, girls and young women with strawberry-blonde hair find themselves buffeted by unseen winds, propelled through vortexes to places unknown. They grow and shrink, being-girl and becoming-woman. These Alicious girl–women – portraits of the artist as an alter ego – recall not just Wonderland, but also Hamlet’s ill-fated Ophelia, archetypal fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty or Little Red Riding Hood, and the ever-ambiguous Lolita:

I think as a woman you draw on your background as a girl growing up, as well as these sort of fairytale-type characters, or characters in stories and in fiction that affect you, they’re part of your psyche.

These archetypal girls – or girlish archetypes – have long been features of Watson’s work. For Watson, Alice especially has long held a fascination as a figure who mirrors the “topsy-turvy” of the woman artist. In Watson’s own words, “As in the Alice story, things get curiouser and curiouser.” Watson’s work attempts to “filter the life of a suburban girl through a conceptual lens”. Using Alice’s travails in an uncanny yet familiar world whose rules and allusions she is not yet sure of is perhaps an instinctively familiar metaphor for the process of being-girl and becoming-woman: “[D]espite all her mind-bending transformations, [Alice] remains the same passive participant.” Like the suburban girl, like the woman artist, Alice’s externally provoked physical alterations belie a world in which the protagonist is absolutely not the director. And while Ophelia, Sleeping Beauty et al are confined to the “Alice and Friends” room, Alice ranges much further over the collection. We sense her influence in the five-part 1988 series The Bottled Memories, in the dream talismans that Watson pulls from “The Jewel Box” room, and in random images spattered throughout the exhibition – such as 1991's Sleeping in New York – which portray the artist at her most wistful. Like the “Drink Me” and “Eat Me” morsels that Alice finds along her way, Watson’s metaphoric madeleines explode upon consumption, tasting of bittersweet nostalgia.

Until fairly recently, nostalgia was considered a disease. It was associated with soldiers and understood as a manic melancholia directed towards a specific object. Until the 19th century, nostalgia was unequivocally understood as a negative. More recently, however, psychologists have suggested that nostalgia can have positive impacts on individuals and societies. It encourages empathy and kindness in children, can help trauma victims reorient themselves towards positive memories, and can instil within an individual a profound, if fleeting, feeling of joy. At the same time, nostalgia on a larger scale is prone to tribalism and is often the driving force of nationalist narratives. A volatile element, nostalgia must be properly bottled, served and consumed: too much of it can lead one awry. In The Fabric of Fantasy, it is not easy to identify nostalgia as a positive or negative force.

At times, Watson’s nostalgic treats have a bite to them. The Pretty Face of Domesticity (2014) shows a red-haired woman in a yellow sundress on all fours, gazing at the viewer from a cage-like ruddy veil of vertical burgundy stripes. Reminiscent of the eerie prisoner of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the piece contrasts its nostalgic recall title with a visual recoil at the sight of a seemingly terrified woman bound by an externally imposed situation. Yet other images are effervescent bubbles of girlhood, tasting of nothing but sickly sweet plain white sugar. Girls adorned with horsehair ponytails, girls in pink pinafores and white bobby socks, girls lounging in bedrooms amid the envoys of popular culture, sequined bedclothes, and record players. And while the domestic scene and internal life of women artists has long served as inspiration for emotionally powerful and subversively feminist art, framed by Watson’s understanding of feminism as standing “toe to toe with any man as long as I can wear my fishnet stockings”, these images fall silent. They remain ambiguous as to whether they are commentary on or support for the experience of girlhood as remembered by the artist. If feminism’s only offering to girlhood, as the assumed precursor to womanhood, is that women can do anything they want without sacrificing their femininity, then culturally conditioned femininity becomes the uncritiqued constant, and the notion that one should internalise and perform it, implicitly condoned. Alice is still passive subject borne by others’ winds and paths, she just gets a few more speaking lines.

In a 2016 conversation at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre titled Hey Girl, writers and feminists Jennifer Down, Marlee Jane Ward, Abigail Ulman and Jax Jacki Brown suggested that one experiences girlhood only on reflection. That, at the time, one experiences childhood. Girlhood, then, is always an already nostalgic position: a state that is only understood or experienced after the fact, only ever seen through the obscured mirror of hindsight. In looking back over the course of her impressive career, this is possibly what Watson and curator Anna Davis wanted to explore. But these images – from all stages of Watson’s career – weren’t, necessarily, themselves reflexive of such issues at the time they were made. Some are certainly critical, some are deliberately fun and frivolous, some are diaristic. And it is in this contrast – this reflection of one individual’s experience of both suburban girlhood and urban young womanhood – that these images find their strength. But, framed as subversive from the vantage of a decades-long retrospective, they lose their ability to be critical. And they lose whatever it was that made them meaningful for the artist and audience at the time of their creation. They become themselves manically melancholic objects directed towards a memory of what the artist meant at the time they were made.

Watson’s “post-conceptual” art, sitting at the intersection and interplay of language and text, is a delight to view, and a source of contemplation for anyone interested in how experiences become meanings become words become images. Walking through the seven or so rooms that make up the retrospective is similarly a magnificent experience indebted to the atmosphere Watson’s work has the power to create. A display of more than 100 works from an internationally exhibited artist, an artist who represented Australia at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, who has built a half-century career without ever, as most Australian artists feel they must do, relocating overseas, The Fabric of Fantasy is both fascinating and impressive on a number of levels. But, as an exhibition framed around the themes of suburban girlhood and feminism, The Fabric of Fantasy shows that personal reflections and explorations of girlhood caught up within their present cannot be easily redirected towards contemporary meanings or uses. You can’t bottle a memory like girlhood – it overspills and colours everything.

Kali Myers

Kali Myers is a Melbourne-based writer and researcher.


The Bishop? In the cabinet room?
Staunching a leak will do little to allay the federal government’s troubles

Julie Bishop on the ABC’s 7.30

The government of Malcolm Turnbull has now transcended mere dysfunction – it has lapsed into anarchy, total chaos.

It was incredible enough that a very senior member of cabinet – one who has acted as prime minister, no less – would feel the need to tell her colleagues that she was not a leaker, and to have demanded an investigation to determine who was.

But it was beyond belief that she would have repeated her outrage on national television. This is surely the point of no return for the Liberal Party’s deputy-for-life, Julie Bishop.

Certainly, she has been provoked: for years there has been suspicion and innuendo that she had been feeding titbits to compliant media sources, either to enhance her own position or to damage rivals. The right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt, a close ally of Tony Abbott, once openly accused her of having “resumed her leaking ways”.

But by going public with her exasperation, she has thrown a bomb into the innermost places of government, which cannot now be defused. There is a rat in the ranks – at least one rat.

From now on, both the ministers and the media will spend much of their working hours on speculation and accusation. Trust, never exactly a priority in Turnbull’s team, is now irrevocably shattered.

Obviously Turnbull is not about to launch an investigation into the epidemic of leaking that has threatened to engulf the processes of his administration. What if it produced a culprit? The results would certainly be schismatic and probably terminal. Far better to keep quiet and attempt to move on.

But now the accusation has gone public, and from one of Turnbull’s closest allies, the posture of blissful ignorance can no longer be contained. And already the Sherlocks are on the case. Peter Dutton, with his Queensland copper’s instinct, thinks he may have the answer; perhaps he might take the suspect into a locked room with a bright light and persuade him or her to assist with inquiries, with the traditional aid of a length of rubber hose if necessary.

Bishop’s judgement has long been questioned, as has her loyalty; her seamless transition between her various leaders to retain her position as number two suggests political pragmatism that has more than once spilled into opportunism.

But perhaps history is on her side, for others – undoubtable underminers and opportunists – have risen further. Many years ago there was a very senior Liberal, reviled and derided by his fellow ministers for his reputation as an unashamed leaker, who ran regular dispatches from the cabinet room to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. One fellow minister, the revered Paul Hasluck, called him a “treacherous fellow” and “a dirty little bastard”. His partyroom colleagues, and indeed the wider public, referred to him simply as “Billy Liar”.

William McMahon was a despised figure, a national joke; but in the end the Liberals became so desperate that they made him (briefly) prime minister. So perhaps there’s hope for Julie Bishop – even if she is unmasked as the phantom cabinet leaker. Oh the times, oh the Liberals.

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.

Strength in numbers at Neon Parc
‘Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman’ illustrates the possibilities for curated shows in commercial galleries

Installation view of Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman at Neon Parc. Photograph by Christo Crocker

The curated exhibition is often seen as the domain of the non-commercial gallery or large-scale arts institution. Commercial galleries – those, that is, that operate as commercial agents between artists and art collectors – generally do something else. Many will often stage exhibitions that feature more than one artist, but the logic behind such enterprises rarely extends beyond showcasing what wares lie in the stockroom.

The better commercial spaces have long operated a little differently. Their bread and butter still lies in presenting new work by individual artists, but a number have made it their business to sketch a mid-ground between commercial representation and more curatorially driven activity. One, Neon Parc, which operates a small gallery in Melbourne’s CBD and a large Instagram-ready factory conversion on Tinning Street, Brunswick, often stages inventively energetic exhibitions that push against the conventional commercial model. Devoid of the ties that bind institutions (to boards of directors, government funding bodies and audiences), the gallery operates with an undeniable freedom, and while much of its programming is markedly insular, there are bright moments that deserve broader attention. Last year, for example, while both the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Victoria were staging surveys of recent painting – each of which in different ways sought to provide a definitive overview – Neon Parc’s director, Geoff Newton, put forward the excellent Bilder Bilder in his Brunswick space, an exhibition that arguably achieved as much as its institutional counterparts with far less. Bilder Bilder brought early-career painters such as Lucina Lane together with established names such as Dale Frank and Janet Burchill, but it reached further than a simple intergenerational survey of Australian art. Displaying a well-honed talent for securing minor works by major international names, Newton included as an unexpected counterpoint pieces by two 20th-century European greats, Lucio Fontana and Imi Knoebel.

The gallery’s current exhibition Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman, until 16 December, is another standout. Both artists are relatively well known and have exhibited widely in recent decades, but have never before been grouped together in a dedicated exhibition. Newman’s career dates back to the 1980s, when she achieved early acclaim for the kind of austere conceptually driven painting that had then recently begun to challenge the neo-expressionist work that dominated much of that decade. Yet as her career took off she bowed out of the art scene entirely. When she finally returned in the early 2000s she found a receptive audience among younger artists. The reason for this is perhaps clear: a characteristic Newman work can seem at a casual glance to replay the grunge-like simplicity of much current art, but it usually carries a confidence and restraint that sets it apart. Her new paintings at Neon Parc each consist of softly scribbled patches of oil colour on thinly painted backgrounds. At one level they seem minor, even self-consciously tasteful, but they are emboldened by the kind of carefully deployed sentiment that often carries through Newman’s work. One painting is titled The First Wound, another What Makes This Poem Beautiful? An untitled black banner that hangs over the top of a temporary dividing wall adds to the vein of melancholy: it features text that reads “So many lights and so much darkness.”

Newman’s work at Neon Parc provides a gentle counterpoint to Gojak’s two large suspended sculptures. They are left to colonise the gallery for themselves, which is exactly what they need. Although immediately reminiscent of the elegant mid-century mobiles of American sculptor Alexander Calder, Gojak’s works forgo Calder’s modernist simplicity in favour of complex networks of scrambled wires and bent metal cable. They dump their insides into space as if they were universes caught in the act of becoming. Transfer Station 2, from 2011, is framed by thick-gauge steel painted blue, black and yellow and bent into circular organic forms that slump from the ceiling and wind their way across the concrete floor. The work’s centre cradles dense masses of copper wire sprayed with colours that create soft points amid the chaos. Transfer Station, also from 2011, is more poised: its rust brown and red lines are shot through with highlights of white and gracefully ascending rows of red wax nodules.

The connections between the two artists are left unspoken. If Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman were an institutional exhibition, there would be an explanatory wall text and an accompanying essay. We might learn that Gojak studied science before art and be encouraged to think about the interdisciplinary underpinnings that may or may not be evident in her work. Neon Parc’s approach is far more casual: you either get it or you don’t. Chances are if you found the gallery in the first place (it’s tucked away in an industrial cul de sac) you’re an existing convert to the kind of calculated-seeming aloofness that characterises much high-end contemporary practice. But one can also be less cynical: sometimes the most valuable resonances in an exhibition are those that are left unexplained, or, to put it another way, the kind that are perhaps explained only by looking. This is an approach more aligned with what artists themselves are often engaged with: the making of visual objects that direct our thoughts and feelings in a certain way.

In this sense, exhibitions can also be understood as “visual objects”. If they are to work, they, too, must be carefully crafted, each of their elements placed with cumulative effect in mind. Not all exhibitions achieve this, of course, especially those that focus on contemporary practice. No matter how well presented, they too often risk preaching to the choir: they traffic in shared signs and secret handshakes, running the noise of contemporary production through a well-oiled art-world mechanism that does little to winnow the mass from which it draws. Others, such as Mira Gojak / Elizabeth Newman, have something else at heart: a true curiosity about what it is that artists do, and what such activity might tell us when freed from language’s interpretive scaffold. In a field crowded by exhibitions that hinge upon pre-emptive explanation – where we are told what artworks are “about” before we truly look – it’s a refreshingly open approach.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a writer and curator based in Geelong.

Innocence and experience in ‘Stranger Things 2’
Can Netflix’s breakout supernatural hit transcend its nostalgia-fuelled premise?

The cliché says you can’t go home again. But going home again is the whole point of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the first season of which mined the pop culture of the ’80s to deliver a delicious nostalgia hit. Its real achievement, of course, was to sell the idea of an ’80s childhood (as depicted by that decade’s music and film) to an audience far too young to have actually experienced one.

To those of us who did live through the ’80s, it’s odd that a decade overshadowed by impending nuclear annihilation and social unrest is now celebrated as a time of innocence. But innocence – lost, found and regained – is at the heart of season two of Stranger Things. Having undergone serious and supernatural trauma, our gang of young heroes attempt to return to a normal, if misfitted, childhood. They go trick or treating, they play video games at the local arcade, they fawn over the new girl at school and basically do all the things kids used to do in American films.

Two of their number, Will and Eleven, aren’t quite ready to rejoin the party. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the psychokinetically talented stray, is holed up in the woods, where she’s being cared for by ex-drunken cop Hopper (David Harbour). This is unfortunate, for her as much as the audience, as it breaks the appealing dynamic of the original run, which saw the nerdy boys forced to adjust to a girl in their ranks. Writer–director–producer team the Duffer brothers attempt to mitigate this through the introduction of new girl Max (Sadie Sink), but there’s a sense of trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Max is fine, if a little textbook teen, but can she kill people with her mind?

It’s understandable that the Duffers should hold Eleven back. Confining her to the subplot ensures the boys are again vulnerable to the danger posed by the Upside Down – the poisonous parallel world pressing up against our own. And we’re sure there’s a kick-arse re-entry for Eleven just around the corner, or maybe the next corner, or the one after that.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the first few episodes are stalling. Success might not have brought complacency, but it does seem to have stripped away any real sense of urgency. The Duffers seem to be trusting that, in the age of the binge, they can take their time getting to the point.

That said, it’s perhaps to the series’ credit that it doesn’t catapult straight into the next adventure, but rather addresses the post-traumatic stress disorder affecting Will (Noah Schnapp), the sweetest member of the gang, who spent most of the previous season stranded in the Upside Down. Of course, his troubling visions aren’t purely the result of trauma. A sinister connection remains between him and that other place. But this plays out as a metaphor for psychological harm, with Will having to quite horrifically confront his demons before he’s able to return to the childhood world.

Eleven follows a similar arc. Last year, innocence was her defining characteristic. Raised in the sheltered, if abusive, environment of the town’s top secret research centre, she was a stranger to our world – a charming fusion of Carrie and ET. In these nine episodes, she learns how to be a real girl. Understandably, it’s a painful transition involving ugly truths and, as with many teens, she goes too far when trying to prove her independence from parent-figure Hopper.

But innocence is never lost forever in the world of Stranger Things. There’s something undeniably appealing in the idea that we can always walk back trauma or bad decisions to return to the best version of ourselves. Here, childhood isn’t so much an ideal as a postcode.

Of course, there’s not a whole lot of childhood left for these characters. If the previous series borrowed from Stephen King’s Stand By Me, this one owes a bigger debt to his It – a comparison confused by the fact that actor Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike (this is a series where the actors have less convincing names than their characters), appeared in this year’s big-screen adaptation of that novel.

A clumsy three-way romance plays out between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Max and perma-doofus Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who isn’t as ready for adolescence as he thinks he is. Episode six takes a leap into serious John Hughes rom-com territory, with redeemed villain-come-babysitter Steve (Joe Keery) offering some questionable dating and hair advice to lovesick Dustin.

While the main cast is as strong as ever, Steve is the surprise star of this season, and not just because his bouffant ‘do pretty much blots out everything else onscreen. Although it certainly does help that Keery has the kind of insouciant handsomeness that brings to mind a strange gestalt of the entire ’80s Brat Pack. Steve is the soon to be ex-boyfriend of Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), who disgraced himself last time around by slut-shaming her. Even then, there were hints of redemption, as he woke up to exactly how vile his comrades were. Now, he’s emasculated twice: romantically (we all knew Nancy was really supposed to be with Will’s angsty brother Jonathan, played by Charlie Heaton) and socially, as Max’s thuggish stepbrother Billy (Australian actor Dacre Montgomery) claims alpha male status on the basketball court. It’s the best thing that could have happened to Steve. Drawn into the supernatural goings-on, he finds a more fulfilling role as caretaker for the younger kids, smashing a few gender norms along the way. (His key line: “I may be a pretty shitty boyfriend, but turns out I’m actually a pretty damn good babysitter.”)

Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about the men of Stranger Things. There is no end of distracted, useless or violent fathers. The boys have grown up seeing girls as another species, to be approached with almost scientific interest. Violent, racist Billy embodies everything that was (and is) wrong about toxic masculinity.

But there are notable exceptions. Hopper is remembering how to be a parent, his smothering protectiveness a side effect of having already lost a child. And new character Bob (a totally loveable Sean Astin) provides an appealing model of atypical masculinity, a grown-up version of our geeky heroes who can work in Radio Shack and still date Winona Ryder.

And yet, without spoiling the details, you can assume it’s the women — mums, sisters and Eleven – who do the serious work of saving the day.

As with season one, this is the ’80s as we need to remember them, with social mores scrubbed up to gleam in the 21st century. Once again, it’s only the villains who truly subscribe to the attitudes of the day.

That said, the nostalgia does feel dialled down. While there are some obvious reference points (the Ghostbusters costumes, for one), it feels less like a Best of the ’80s clip show. The pop culture flourishes are set dressing, rather than the main event. Indeed, having chewed through so much in the first season, perhaps there isn’t much of the decade left to plunder.

As an encore, Stranger Things 2 feels like a gift to the faithful, expanding on the successes of the first without breaking the format. There’s an undeniable sense of attempting to hit the same notes from a different angle (the only girl in the gang, the death of an underdog), but that sort of rear-view mirror revisionism is written into the show’s DNA. If there’s to be a third act (there will be), things will need to change. Stranger Things will face the difficult balancing act of embracing the future without spoiling the past. Or, to put it another way, of growing up without ever having to leave home.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The AgeOverland, The New DailyThe Big Issue and The Weekly Review. His children’s novel, Fire in the Sea, won the 2011 Text Prize.


Backlash in Bennelong
A Liberal-led smear campaign will only make Kristina Keneally a bigger threat to the government


Let’s cut to the chase: whatever the optimists in the ALP may imagine, there is almost no chance of Kristina Keneally beating John Alexander in the Bennelong byelection.

Keneally is a well-known, serious, sensible, convincing and personable politician and under normal circumstances would be an ideal candidate for a marginal seat in a normal byelection – the kind of byelection in which the incumbent declares that he has to desert his constituents because he needs to spend more time with his family, whether he has one or not.

But these are not normal circumstances – the long-running debacle over dual citizenship has left the voters confused and resentful. However, they are not likely to take their anger out on Alexander, nor for that matter on Barnaby Joyce, whom they regard as dinkum Aussies, whatever the bloody High Court might think. True, Alexander’s very belated admission of his ignorance over his ancestry was more than somewhat negligent, but what the hell – the man played tennis for Australia, so most, if not all, can be forgiven.

There will certainly be a swing against him, but it should be less than the almost 10% buffer he had at the last election. The swing will be the fault of the very unpopular government he represents, and as long as it is not about him, there should be very little to worry about.

Very little, but enough to spook a prime minister and his troops into precisely the wrong strategy – a ferocious smear against Keneally’s past, rather than an endorsement of Alexander’s future.

As New South Wales premier, Keneally was given a hospital pass by a demoralised party long past its political use-by date and she was supported by some very unsavoury characters in the process. But the worst that can be thrown against her is naivety; indeed, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which was eviscerating Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Ian Macdonald, actually sent her a herogram.

For Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and the rest of the gang (who, let’s face it, have some pretty unloveable characters among their own troops) to leap into the cesspool looks more desperate than statesmanlike. In the present febrile atmosphere it risks a backlash that just might push Keneally over the line.

Highly unlikely, as I have said, but at the very least her candidature will be yet another distraction for a prime minister who has had quite enough of them in a year he would like to forget as soon as possible. On that level alone it has to be called a win for Bill Shorten and Labor.

The history of attempts, by all parties, to install star candidates is a mixed one; there have been some successes, albeit often short lived, but there have been some spectacular crashes and burns. But then there is one moment that Labor will never forget: the glorious victory in Bennelong itself in 2007, when Maxine McKew prevailed over the incumbent prime minister John Howard, and her supporters flashed the message through to party HQ: “Fully flushed!”

Shorten would love to have a reprise of that result. He probably won’t get it. But he and Keneally have already given Turnbull an awful fright, so the idea was worthwhile anyway.

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.

Uneasy appeasement in Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’
The director of ‘The Lobster’ can’t quite pull off this high-concept dance between the grandiose and the grotesque

The Greeks sure understand the wrath of whimsical gods. According to ancient myth, the goddess Artemis was so affronted by King Agamemnon accidentally bumping off one of her pet deer that she ordered the latter to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, by way of appeasement (which might seem excessive, until you realise he was messing with the Mistress of Animals). Depending on which version of the story you encounter, the King either goes through with the grim deed or Artemis saves the princess by switching her for an animal at the last moment. In others, such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ reworking (now showing nationally), Iphigenia is heard to incant Ellie Goulding’s ‘Burn’ – the pop hit’s joyous chorus whispered in defiant mockery of Daddy’s indifference to her fate.

This much isn’t a spoiler; it’s right there in the title, at least for students of folklore and mythology or Google. The so-called Greek Weird Wave director has fashioned a career from such high-concept yuks, from his twisted family cult breakout Dogtooth (2009) to the sci-fi dating satire The Lobster (2015), and his latest film expressly riffs on the tragedy of Iphigenia – though in what form, it’s up to the audience to guess. It’s the kind of ambitious conceit that requires highwire execution, and Lanthimos has created a trance he can’t quite sustain; torn between the grandiose and the grotesque, the film dazzles and then sputters, calcified in its commitment to its peculiar formalism.

Lanthimos has always contorted obvious metaphor and droll absurdism, to varying degrees of success. After a turgid overture involving comically swollen opera and grisly surgery – behold, mankind prised open – The Killing of a Sacred Deer settles into a glib prowl across the existence of the dead-eyed bourgeoisie. Lobster alumnus Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a leading surgeon at a Cincinnati hospital, a man in such calm control of his life-and-death power that his major concern seems to be the water resistance of his wristwatch. Nicole Kidman is his ophthalmologist Stepford wife, mechanically splaying herself on the marital bed in a position her husband likes to call “general anaesthetic”. Their kids, teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and pre-teen Bob (Sunny Suljic), behave like simulacra placed by an AI adoption agency. Icy suburbia, sterile workplaces, a marriage frozen in amber. The material almost feels too easy for a filmmaker once as adventurous, as unpredictable, as Lanthimos.

The one spark of disorder in this ritual is the relationship between Steven and 16-year-old Martin, disconcertingly played by Barry Keoghan as a larval interloper whose unformed physicality belies a precocious – and possibly sinister – mind. Steven and Martin engage in secret rendezvous, and the audience is invited to decode the unusual nature of their friendship. Is it paternal, avuncular or something unsavoury? It’s just the beginning of Lanthimos’ cruel design.

For an exhilarating 45 minutes or so, the film suspends expectations in a delicious spell of deadpan menace. Lanthimos’ bone-dry humour mixes with his giddy, wandering Steadicam – you’d think he’d just discovered the device, or seen The Shining once too often – to distort a familiar world of hospital wards, living spaces and city streets, where the family’s upper-middle-class mansion is surveyed through wide-angle lenses that render the rooms palatial tombs. The performances, too, thrive under this pointed formalism. Farrell projects a self-satisfied reality of science and reason by dialling his brogue down into a wonderfully hypnotic purr; his beard, a thick and impenetrable forest, becomes a muzzle. It’s impossible to watch Kidman, meanwhile, without recalling her remote spouse of Eyes Wide Shut – unsurprising, given the extent to which Kubrick figures in Lanthimos’ aesthetic playbook here, acute bursts of György Ligeti’s discordant music and all.

And so behind the composed facade brews chaos, as surely as the goddess plots the unravelling of the patriarch. Lanthimos and his regular co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have crafted a universe in which women are routinely marginalised – lying prostrate for man’s pleasure or using sexual favours to bargain for information – which makes it fascinating to watch as Kim, the teenage sort-of Iphigenia, colludes in a secret pact with Martin. As the archetypical teens and the American nuclear family’s agents of havoc, Kim and Martin’s relationship feels like a revolution – not for nothing does she perform ‘Burn’ for him as a kind of call to arms. As if to reinforce this, there’s a metatextual cameo from a patron saint of teen movies, Alicia Silverstone, playing Martin’s manipulative mother. “I won’t let you leave until you try my tart,” the once-and-forever Cher Horowitz taunts Farrell, an invitation to anarchy curling up at the corner of that famously crooked grin. Artemis would be proud.

It’s a heady cocktail, and yet the film arrives at an impasse. Lanthimos has increasingly painted himself into high-concept corners in his recent work, and once The Killing of a Sacred Deer reveals its big hand, the film grinds gears in an effort to deliver on its outrageous premise. Where the garish formalism works a discomfiting treat across the first half, Lanthimos’ tricks feel rote once things hit their final groove, and the film’s tonal register becomes suffocating rather than mysterious. The methodical unravelling of Farrell’s surgeon plays as a scenario custom-built for ill-conceived hot takes: it’s about science, the patriarchy, the age of [insert current bad dude of the week]. “You’re not a god,” Steven is mocked by Andie MacDowell’s Rita on TV in Groundhog Day, one of the visual punchlines giggling from the mise en scène.

It’s tempting to wonder whether Lanthimos hasn’t traded some of his funky, cheerful misanthropy for a drearier arthouse miserablism, and indeed some pundits have likened this film to the work of Michael Haneke. But Lanthimos remains too funny. It’s in the way his camera relishes Steven treating his son as a marionette, or watches bemused as the kids drag themselves around the house like seals, or savours a remarkably disgusting close-up of Martin shovelling spaghetti into his mouth with the exact same poignancy as the surgery – all of them entrails for the devouring in Lanthimos’ view.

I’d even suggest that Killing of a Sacred Deer is an uplifting film, with an underhanded kiss-off that suggests a skewed coming-of-age tale – a bizarro rite of passage devoted to a belief in myth and magic and an outmoded order being taken down a notch or two. It’s odd then that even as the film reaches its inevitable point of chaos – where it’s theoretically bleak and indifferent and amusing in all the ways it should be – it somehow feels dramatically undernourished. Lanthimos seems to have lost a little of his old playfulness along the way. “Do you understand? It’s a metaphor,” Martin tells Steven at one point, as though Artemis has decided to manifest as some pimply Bond villain. “It’s symbolic.”

Thanks for the reminder. You had us at ‘Burn’.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is an award-winning film critic and editor whose work has appeared in ABC’s Final Cut, 4:3 Film and SBS Movies.


The unexpected depths of Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’
An animated satire about an anthropomorphic former sitcom star gets surprisingly real

In the latest season of BoJack Horseman, the Netflix animated streaming series about a plateaued Los Angeles celebrity’s grudging but ultimately moving self-awareness, the titular former sitcom star has to explain to his recently revealed daughter, who’s searching for the birth mother who put her up for adoption, how he came to sleep with the president of the BoJack Horseman fan club two decades prior.

“It’s actually a cute story,” he begins, with unexpectedly winsome emphasis from the expressive voice of Will Arnett, and as with so many Hollywood satires, the anecdote plainly isn’t. But just when you think that BoJack’s narcissism is comically terminal, he adds that he genuinely couldn’t think of a better person to have slept with. No one, BoJack reasons, loved him more or genuinely cared for his needs than his biggest fan. She actually made him feel safe with his fame.

Of course, your own appeasement is no excuse for such a cruel (and now timely) transgression, but that’s the masterful twist in this show: the ludicrous and the sublime intermingle so thoroughly that they begin to communicate, changing how you perceive their roles. The ludicrous can be batted back and forth, with deadpan exchanges, until it finds a pin-drop moment instead of a punchline, while the sublime can rear up with a laugh-out-loud release. Few series are as attuned to the strange shroud that is sadness.

It helps that the pastel-toned environment is conceptually pliable. Now four seasons deep, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation is set in an alternative universe where human beings and anthropomorphic animals coexist. As his name suggests, BoJack is a horse, albeit one who walks upright and has several distinct human addictions, including alcohol, sex and the celebration of his flickering success.

There’s no social distinction between his feline manager, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and his female ghostwriter turned best friend, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), although background sight gags, which blow by with a flash of surrealist wit, and puns abound; “This cow likes to be tipped,” declares a bovine waitress. The concept’s real purpose is a metaphor for how different we appear, but how fundamentally similar our underlying needs are.

The program didn’t get to such a finely balanced point easily. BoJack Horseman belongs, alongside the recently concluded tech-industry period drama Halt and Catch Fire, to that subgroup of series where it’s better to skip the lesser first season than to risk giving up before the second season blossoms. Initially, the blithe Hollywood satire complete with celebrity cameos was the underpinning, as BoJack floated through this loopy La La Land with entitled detachment.

The second season made a crucial breakthrough: BoJack, bottoming out in the mansion paid for by his cheesy 1990s sitcom Horsin’ Around, wasn’t a dick, he was actually depressed. The self-loathing didn’t just result in disdainful humour, it opened up BoJack to a consideration of his flaws, and the question of whether he had the means, let alone the will, to do something about them.

The subsequent seasons have slowly but steadily excavated those concerns, even as silly plot points and sublime non sequiturs jostled for attention. Arnett plays a character, also a denizen of Los Angeles, with similar failings in the live action Netflix series Flaked, and it’s fascinating how much better the animated variant is at teasing out the painful personality strands.

Arnett, who does his best Batman rasp in the Lego animated movies, is a good actor, but a brilliant voice actor. He has a deep timbre with upper notes of self-disgust and desperate avoidance, instead of the sturdy or heroic. Arnett can make you believe that BoJack isn’t merely on a journey of redemption. It could as easily be the case that the more he learns about himself, the less likely he is to embrace the difficulty of change.

That’s where the storytelling’s multiple plots come in. They overlap with BoJack’s quest, while opening up the supporting cast. Diane, for example, is married to Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F Tompkins), a genial Labrador and actor who once starred in a Horsin’ Around knock-off. Their marriage is a small, almost casual, thing of wonder, full of caring give and take even as Mr Peanutbutter pursues the governorship of California through the recall process and then a winner-takes-all ski race against incumbent technocrat Woodchuck Coodchuck Berkowitz (Andre Braugher).

On one level, this lowest common denominator politics is an easy dig at the Trump age, but Bob-Waksberg is more interested in Californian mores. The idea that the state is somehow a redoubt against Trump amuses him, because he sees fickle flaws most everywhere he looks. Occasionally, as with BoJack’s indolent houseguest, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), it makes for surprising breakthroughs, but mostly it’s a struggle for people not to be dragged down by their own nature.

It’s notable that the new season begins with BoJack hiding out in Michigan, where he shacks up in his family’s former summer home. His presence summons memories of his mother (Wendie Malick), who was unforgiving in her prime and now, in her dotage, doesn’t even deign to recognise her son. Naturally he returns to California, because it’s a place where people remake themselves, and that’s a promise that sustains BoJack.

The more BoJack delves into family, whether with his mother or level-headed new daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), the more he has to consider that he’s bound by the past and his personality to be who he is. After a long bender during a wild episode where Diane and Mr Peanutbutter’s house literally sinks into the ground during a campaign fundraiser, BoJack admits as much to Diane.

 “Even if I did get better, the best I could ever be is still just some other version of me,” he concedes, and that’s the kind of poignant admission – earned, not simply inserted – that allows BoJack Horseman to transcend whatever limitations it initially suggests.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.


Business as usual on same-sex marriage
There will be no resolution until Turnbull deals with his conservatives

ABC News

Simon Birmingham and other exasperated colleagues are quite right: it is bizarre and dishonest in the extreme for those who have spent the past months – years even – implacably opposing same-sex marriage to now demand the right to determine how it is to be implemented, assuming the interminable postal survey gets a majority this week.

But then, the whole No campaign was bizarre and dishonest, so really we should not be surprised.

The idea that the movement for gender equality that began at least 50 years ago and has moved forward, at times slowly and sporadically but always with a remorseless inevitability about it, could suddenly be cut short was never realistic, and to be fair most of the nay-sayers understood that. With few exceptions (invariably religious) most of them were concerned not to consign it to oblivion – they never had the numbers to succeed in that – but to delay it indefinitely, to keep putting conditions and obstacles in the way at every step in the process.

Thus we had the invention of the original plebiscite, which morphed into the bastard voluntary version we have now been forced to endure, in the promise that this would end the issue forever. But of course it won’t; as soon it became clear that they were likely to lose the vote, the warriors of the reactionary religious right swiftly moved the goalposts.

The verdict of the people did not matter – they now wanted what Eric Abetz described as a conversation (by which he meant an ultimatum and a procrastination) about what he described as religious freedom (by which he meant religious privilege). Abetz and his vigilantes want legislation to wind back existing anti-discrimination law to empower anyone who feels like it to refuse goods and services of any kind to those they suspect of intending to embark on same-sex marriage.

This is intolerable, obviously, but it could take an awfully long time to sort it out, so the holy wars can continue. But at least Malcolm Turnbull should understand the tactic and be ready for it.

Back in the days of the republican convention, the first important issue was the decision to pursue a model; those hardline monarchists, who wanted the idea killed off at birth, were soundly beaten. But some wanted to fight on, so they hatched a plot to embrace a model that would be clearly unacceptable to voters: what was called the McGarvie model, which would entail a head of state appointed by a council of retired High Court judges, who, by definition, would be septuagenarians or older.

Obviously republicans were outraged: the monarchists would oppose any and every version of republicanism and should therefore butt out – they had had their chance. And to their credit, most of the monarchists accepted the logic: most of them abstained from further voting.

But it is clear that many in the Coalition party room do not share such ethics, and why should they? Not only are they having lots of fun bashing up the LGBTQI community, they have the bonus that their recalcitrance will infuriate Turnbull and, with any luck, further undermine and destabilise his leadership.

Turnbull could, if he were willing, cut short their shenanigans by simply calling on a vote on Dean Smith’s longstanding motion, which would be supported by an overwhelming majority of the Labor Party and enough Liberals, crossbenchers and even the odd National to finally end the unedifying saga. But this would take courage, moxie, ticker, plain old-fashioned guts.

So it probably won’t happen. As our leader says, business as usual.

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.