With the Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie backing a major public investment in new coal-fired power this morning, and former and possibly future leader Barnaby Joyce seeking to revive the 1938 Bradfield scheme to send Queensland’s floodwaters south, the traditional party of the bush seems to have come unhinged, failing to understand why voters are

The hyperbole machine
Social media and streaming services are changing what and how we watch

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

If I never see the words “Sweet birthday baby!” again, at least on Twitter, it won’t be a moment too soon. Uttered at various times and in various ways by Maxine (Greta Lee, who nearly didn’t take the part because of the line) in the Netflix series Russian Doll, they have started to rub me the wrong way. When I see them, I find myself wanting to act like Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors (Bill Murray) when he hears Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) call out to him for the thousandth time. “Phil? Phil Connors?!” “Ned?!” Murray screams before punching Ned in the face.

I use this example deliberately. “Sweet birthday baby!” is Russian Doll’s “Phil Connors?!” in the same way that Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” is its “I Got You Babe”. These are very obvious hat-tips to Groundhog Day, which is Russian Doll’s most obvious precursor. The series tells the story of Nadia Volvokov (co-creator Natasha Lyonne), who keeps reliving the night of her 36th birthday, continually dying in her attempts to work out what’s happening to her.

Of course, Russian Doll doesn’t simply lift Groundhog Day’s metaphysical rules and apply them to a new narrative. It reworks them to its own purposes. Phil never makes it through the night and only occasionally – though, in one famously bleak sequence, repeatedly – dies. Nadia occasionally manages to see in the morning, but each time dies soon after. Russian Doll also has a decidedly different thematic focus, adding to the growing corpus of television comedies about addiction and trauma (Bojack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) where Groundhog Day, a product of simpler times, was merely about the need to become a better, more selfless person. It’s a very good show, one of the best Netflix has released in a long time, grounded by an outstanding performance by Lyonne and by writing that mostly masks its derivative nature and other shortcomings. But unlike Groundhog Day, it is not a masterpiece. “Sweet birthday baby!” isn’t destined to become an iconic line. It certainly seems unlikely that we’ll be discussing Russian Doll 26 years from now, in anniversary think pieces and philosophy dissertations.

For one thing, it would have been better as a movie. Almost half of the season is dedicated to a series of red herrings, including an entirely unnecessary, episode-long deep-dive into the source of the ketamine-laced cigarette Nadia smokes at her party. (She insists she’s never used ketamine before. This is summarily dealt with when Maxine tells her that she has.) For another, the flow of narrative information is handled with a certain arbitrary laxness, more concerned with dragging things out to fill eight episodes than it is with creating a real sense of dramatic tension. We are nearly two hours into the proceedings – the entire length of Groundhog Day and change – before we are introduced to the other character, Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is experiencing the same death-rinse-repeat loop. We are nearly at the end of the thing before we get flashbacks to Nadia’s childhood, which is what she’s going to have to deal with – the metaphor is almost too clear – in order to get on with her life. There’s a tonne of supernatural baggage, too: the fact that Nadia and Alan always die at the same moment, the disappearance of people and things on each successive loop, and the appearance of Nadia’s childhood self towards the end of the season (causing her to die of natural causes without the writers needing to devise new ways of killing her). These serve only to remind how perfect in its simplicity the Groundhog Day model really was.

But Twitter will tell you another story. Twitter will tell you that Russian Doll is a masterpiece. It will tell you – in the form of a hundred thousand retweeted memes – that “Sweet birthday baby!” is already iconic. It will tell you that it is that most precious of things: a must-watch.

How many must-watches are out there right now? How many of them do you know about because of social media? Every week now, or so it seems, Twitter explodes with praise for the culture’s latest and greatest home run. Perhaps not surprisingly, given how quickly it has become most people’s preferred method of watching anything, Netflix is usually the company that has hit it. Before Russian Doll it was Sex Education. Not long before that, it was Bird Box.

Sex Education is an enjoyable but derivative high school comedy made edgy and new by virtue of its frankness about teen sexuality. It’s also made weird, sometimes to the point of distraction, by the way it blends American and British high school realities in a way that, according to Gillian Anderson (who plays a supporting role), was intended to give it cross-cultural appeal. (That is telling in and of itself.) Bird Box is a somewhat less effective, mid-budget horror film given a patina of prestige by the presence of Hollywood stars like Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich, not to mention Australia’s own Jacki Weaver, who, like everyone apart from Bullock, is given approximately nothing to do.

It is difficult to imagine either Netflix “property” exploding – like “content”, “property” is an ugly word, but what are you going to do? – quite the way that they did without the willingness of Twitter critics to overstate their quality, in Sex Education’s case, or meme the shit out of them, in Bird Box’s.

You can probably think of countless other examples: shows you heard gushed about that, when you watched them, warranted something on the level of the shrug. This doesn’t mean you didn’t binge them anyway: Netflix, like any tech company whose model is predicated on addiction, knows how to make you do so. (As Myles McNutt wrote for the The A.V. Club last year, this is largely why the opening credit sequence is dying as an art form.) It goes without saying that Netflix isn’t concerned whether you like Russian Doll or Sex Education or Bird Box much at all.

It’s not only the stuff we’re praising, either. Even when we discuss more divisive Netflix fare, we are ultimately helping the company out. It didn’t matter to Netflix that no one – which is to say no one but me – much cared for the final season of House of Cards. All that mattered was that we were talking about it, writing our articles, sending eyes their way. To rework the old adage about publicity: even a bad tweet is a good tweet.

Let’s consider another example. For a mercifully brief moment a couple of months ago, the streaming service’s Fyre Festival documentary, Fyre, was all anyone seemed capable of talking about. The documentary was rushed out to compete with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud project and now seems likely to have been a reputation-laundering scheme on the part of Jerry Media – also known as FuckJerry – which is to say for the social media marketing agency partially responsible for the Fyre Festival debacle in the first place. Of course, the damage has already been done. Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers, or even the metrics by which it measures success, but it seems fair to assume that Fyre did exactly what it was supposed to do not only for FuckJerry but also for the streaming service itself. By tweeting up a storm, and talking about both documentaries endlessly, we gave the companies exactly what they wanted. The same methods that FuckJerry used to generate buzz about the festival were used again to generate buzz about the documentary. We took the bait and we turned the documentary into a bona fide cultural “moment”.

Rearguard actions are being fought against Netflix by players at the highest levels. But these battles are not always the right ones and are rarely being fought with what we might describe as good faith. Steven Spielberg made headlines late last month after it was announced that he plans to support new rules, to be discussed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governor’s meeting in April, that would restrict movies produced by streaming services from being eligible for the Oscars without having previously enjoyed more time in actual cinemas. As Australian playwright and screenwriter Keith Gow wrote eloquently – on Twitter, to give the platform its due – “Spielberg [is] supporting the status quo for the sake of it.”

“His position is effectively the worst kind of ‘merit’ argument,” Gow wrote in a short but impassioned series of tweets. “[I]f the film is good enough, of course studios will make it and give it a four-week release. [But] if the filmmakers can’t get their films made through traditional channels” – he had already pointed out that Netflix released more films directed by women and people of colour last year than Hollywood has, like, ever – “he’s happy for them to be ghettoised and branded ‘TV movies,’ which doesn’t penalise people like him.” (Gow also made the obvious point that Roma, the reason Spielberg and others are losing their shit, is hardly “just a TV movie”.) Both Gow and the great Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz observed that Netflix, not the age-old Hollywood studio system, has largely taken up the mantle of producing the kind of “mid-budget” dramas that Hollywood once excelled at but has today largely abandoned in favour of effects-driven franchise fare designed for teenage boys. Both observed, too, that Spielberg’s nostalgic connection to what the filmmaker called “the motion picture theatrical experience” (something to which Seitz and this humble critic remain emotionally wedded despite ourselves) is, these days, inherently classist. Have you been to the movies lately? Perhaps you can lend me a dime?

A more covert effort was made by Academy Awards voters, who last month preferred to shoot their credibility in the foot than give the Oscar for Best Picture to Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-produced Roma. They gave it to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book instead – number 80 on Vulture’s recently-revised list of all 91 Best Picture winners – resulting in immediate backlash and scorn. (Spike Lee, who won his first competitive Oscar for penning the screenplay to BlacKkKlansman, tried to walk out and was prevented from doing so. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Lee said later. He was referencing the fact that Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture the year that Do the Right Thing should have been nominated for Hollywood’s highest honour but wasn’t.) The problem here is pretty straightforward and obvious: Roma was clearly the better picture, as were any number of the other nominees. The Academy, which in recent years has done a good deal to rehabilitate its image as an inclusive, forward-looking institution, made itself look archaic all over again (despite making history by giving two technical awards to black women who had worked on Black Panther, and, of course, by finally recognising Lee). These people, including Spielberg, have chosen the wrong hill to die on.

It’s the wrong hill because the war’s already over. Hollywood’s march on Roma was for nought. Even if the rules do change, Netflix – which spent nearly four times Roma’s production budget on its Oscar campaign – will remain all too happy to put its best work in theatres a little longer to address the non-issue. We will have to wait and see whether Martin Scorsese can recapture his magic with this year’s The Irishman – which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci – but I’d be willing to put money on Netflix getting a Best Picture win sooner rather than later. (Even if the rules don’t change, The Irishman is likely to get a full theatrical release regardless of its streaming-service providence, not least because Scorsese, who is an even greater champion of the theatrical experience than Spielberg, has all but insisted upon it.)

But such rearguard actions aren’t exactly the point here. The choice between Hollywood and Netflix is a false one. We don’t often think about the role that we play, as social media users (let alone social media “influencers”), in the media strategies of companies like this. We should probably think about it more often. The role Twitter plays in turning middling-to-average fare into must-see television and cinema is not dissimilar to the role it plays in news reporting. In the same way that Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle more generally, encourages journalists to be “first” often at the expense of being correct, so too does it encourage critics to “discover” (and, by discovering, promote) the next big thing. That we do so at the expense of sound critical judgement is on us and we’re not doing ourselves any favours by allowing it to be the case. As David Sims observed in The Atlantic, back when Bird Box was on fire, the movie’s success is ultimately bad news for non-Marvel blockbuster entertainments: “The film is a competent, sometimes gripping survival thriller that skimps on plot specifics [and is] a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background,” Sims wrote. “That summary may sound uninspiring, but it could also be the blueprint for a new age of blockbusters.” Why would Netflix want to produce anything else?

Such concerns could be applied to almost every other genre in which Netflix tends to entangle itself: to ethically questionable documentary filmmaking, to derivative comedy–dramas, even to the mid-budget dramas for which Gow and Seitz gave the company most credit. Its determination to win an Oscar aside, “a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background” is the bar that Netflix has set for itself. Given its quantity-over-quality approach, this is hardly surprising. (Recent developments at HBO suggest that the war might already be over on this front, too. AT&T, which recently acquired the company, has little interest in maintaining HBO’s reputation as what The New York Times described as a “boutique operation” and hopes to make it something “bigger and broader” instead. With Amazon, Apple and Disney all in the game now, too, Netflix’s approach to scale is the only one that matters any more.) What is surprising is the way we keep losing our minds every time Netflix clears this low bar. What, I wonder, are we thinking?

In a recent piece for The New Republic, on the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos’ premiere, Josephine Livingstone argued that television ultimately learned the wrong lessons from the series that changed the medium forever. “[W]e’re in a weird new era in which everything on TV looks so good that you can’t tell whether it’s prestige or not,” Livingstone wrote. “Call it post-prestige television. By this I mean that every show is cut beautifully, every soundtrack is great, and – crucially – every main character is rounded out by psychological flaws that make them seem human.” (She goes onto argue that The Sopranos, by the standards of 2019, is “not an especially artfully produced show”.) “But is the writing [of ‘post-prestige’ television] as good? […] Despite the visual perfection of the shows being produced by Netflix and HBO today, the words have been lacking. […] Without the script, there’s no Sopranos; without great writing, there’s no ‘prestige’.”

I think some of our willingness to gush – our determination, even our need to do so – stems primarily from this fact. It can be hard not to feel that the “Golden Age of TV” might have come to an end without our quite realising what was happening. When The Americans finished airing last year, countless reviews of its final season noted that it marked the end of something special. (Mind you, the same was true a few years ago, too, when Halt and Catch Fire came to an end.) I suspect we will see a similar tone in the pieces that this year mark the passing of a number of American comedies. My own such piece – about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, You’re the Worst, Broad City and Veep – is already on its way.

As Livingstone suggests, “prestige” has become a look, a style. It has almost become a genre of its own. At least when it was a value judgement it served some purpose in helping us to navigate the culture, whatever the biases and blind spots of that culture may be, including who was allowed to produce and critique it. There are more English-language scripted series on air or online than ever before – a whopping 495 in 2018, up from 182 in 2002 – and while it is true that there are still some great shows out there (Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Killing Eve), it’s also true that it can be all but impossible to find anything you actually care to watch. Forget the “Golden Age of TV”. We have well and truly entered the “Glut Age”. We need not praise the merely good – “Sweet birthday baby!” – to make up for that fact.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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The right reverts to form after Christchurch

Insisting that both sides are to blame does nothing to arrest far-right extremism

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest


There are some positive outcomes from the re-election of the Berejiklian government in New South Wales on Saturday: it will strengthen the arm of “moderates” inside the Liberal Party against the conservative culture warriors; the Nationals got a much-deserved drubbing from country voters, particularly in the western half of the state, over the mismanagement of the Murray–Darling Basin; and it is likely to result in more power and influence for the three low

The right reverts to form after Christchurch
Insisting that both sides are to blame does nothing to arrest far-right extremism

It didn’t take long for the cultural warriors of the right to revert to form.

Having caught their breath over the weekend, they were back to their dog-whistling best: of course the Christchurch tragedy was an unforgiveable atrocity, but … And then followed the usual lines about how Jihadists are the real terrorists, the extremes of the left are just as culpable as the extremes of the right, and the usual self-serving sophistry.

Let’s be clear about this: there is absolutely no moral equivalence between the Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi calling out the relentless dog-whistling of Peter Dutton and the independent senator Fraser Anning blaming the victims of a white supremacist mass murderer.

The killer was, as such killers almost always are, a creature of the right – every extremism-related killing in the US in 2018 had links to the far right. Indeed it is hard to remember a comparable recent example of left-wing terrorism in the West. Within Australia, the most violent actions from the left have involved street brawling between Anitfa activists and neo-Nazis, as well as the vandalism of statues of Captain Cook.

Tony Abbott said in 2017 that Islamophobia hasn’t killed anyone – well, those words were as wrong then as they are now. It is legitimate to deplore tribalism, as Scott Morrison has done – although he is yet to prove that he is ready to stop covertly encouraging it. But to insist that both sides are equally to blame for the problem is simply a lie.

Most absurd is the implicit attempt to conflate Jihadist terrorism with the left, as if Islamofascists are somehow in alliance with the Greens. Give us a break. But the muddle-headed wombats of the right will not let up, and they have been given a priceless gift in Fraser Anning.

By clambering all over each other to denounce him they are trying to virtue signal that they, of course, are not like that; they are in the mainstream, the sensible centre. Typical was Janet Albrechtsen, piously positioning herself as a member of the centre right. Planet Janet may not be as far out of the solar system as Anning, but she is a long way from the sun.

The centre right is the Liberal moderate group – including Julie Bishop, Julia Banks, Craig Laundy and Christopher Pyne – the very people Albrechtsen and her ilk hounded as deluded do-gooders and conspired to drive out parliament. Pretending that she is not of the hard-line right is both silly and mendacious. And it indicates that nothing will really change – Anning will be scapegoated, but for the Murdoch tribe it will be business as usual, and not only Muslims will suffer for it.

And finally, a word of caution for the magnificent Jacinda Ardern: trying to expunge the name of the killer is unlikely to work. I have told this story before, but it is more relevant than ever. Some 2000 years ago an arsonist burnt down the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one the seven wonders of the ancient world, in a quest to make his name remembered for ever. The authorities of the time decreed that it should never be mentioned, but Herostratos has never been forgotten.

Mungo MacCallum

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

Read on

The hyperbole machine

Social media and streaming services are changing what and how we watch

Image of ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow

This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest


Surprise, surprise, the major newspapers have this morning endorsed the Coalition government in New South Wales. The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph all backed the re-election of Premier Gladys Berejiklian in editorials this morning, which The Guardian’s media editor Amanda Meade described as “a stark reminder of the lack of political diversity in Australian media”.

Making the private public: ‘The Seventies’ by Michelle Arrow
This new history traces how the decade’s redefined politics shaped modern Australia

In the 1972 federal election David Widdup, member of gay and lesbian group CAMP Inc, ran against the then prime minister, William McMahon, in the NSW seat of Lowe. Historian Michelle Arrow writes in her latest book that Widdup ran on a platform of decriminalising homosexuality and abortion, challenging McMahon’s position that he didn’t believe in a “political approach” to abortion. As I read this account in 2019, the Labor Party was promising to tie hospital funding to abortion services. Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded that he was “disappointed” about the politicisation of abortion on “the eve of an election”. It was almost as if Morrison, a four-year-old in 1972, had inhaled McMahon’s spirit along with his first packet of Wizz Fizz.

The Seventies (NewSouth; $34.99), Arrow’s book about the decade when the women’s, gay and lesbian movements demanded that abortion, sexuality, childcare and domestic violence be considered political issues – and when the opposing forces argued for the primacy of the heterosexual nuclear family, and that the personal was something separate from politics – could hardly be more germane. As the title suggests, the 1970s shaped modern Australia by shifting our ideas about what politics was. At its heart is a trove of documents, including heartbreaking letters, that Arrow uncovered in the National Archives from a 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Initially imagined as a forum to consider abortion, it was tasked “with examining the ‘family, social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships’”, she writes. Around the country thousands of Australians testified to the commission in homes, shopping centres and public hearings.

Intimate stories were told, from transvestites wanting their identities recognised to isolated mothers fearing they would bash their children, and women speaking about brutal domestic violence. Dennis Altman successfully argued that the commission’s scope should include testimonies about homosexual relationships. In many ways it was a #MeToo moment for 1970s Australians, only with a much larger remit. Activists nicknamed it the “Fucking Commission”: along with stories of rape, sexual abuse and terrible sex, the three commissioners also considered how people’s lives could be improved through better sex, and better sex education. As Arrow writes, that this event has “been almost entirely forgotten is extraordinary”.

As the 1970s began, homosexuality was illegal, and women couldn’t drink in many public bars, secure home loans or easily divorce. There were no refuges. Arrow makes the powerful argument that it was only when ordinary, private voices were heard publicly that the social ground shifted. Often with staggering speed: in 1967 just 22 per cent of Australians favoured decriminalising homosexuality; by 1974 the figure was 54 per cent. Arrow says she wanted to tell the story of this transformation as an alternative to existing 1970s histories that focus on the decade’s political and economic upheaval and chaos: “stagflation, oil shocks, constitutional crisis and Dismissal”. But this undersells what she achieves, which is to show how the political and the economic were intertwined with social change.

Arrow’s definition of the 1970s is expansive: she locates the decade’s beginning in the post-war prosperity and growth of higher education of the 1960s that created a large educated middle class. The gay and lesbian rights movement, and particularly the women’s movement, emerged from within, and alongside, the political ferment that many in this group aligned themselves with: the 1965 Freedom Rides, the 1967 referendum, the Aboriginal Embassy, a rejection of White Australia and the moratorium movement. Arrow rightly traces how the women’s liberation movement would soon go on to focus on the lives of white middle-class women (contraception and abortion campaigns were anathema for many Indigenous women faced with forced sterilisation and stolen children) but she also shows that it wasn’t always thus. One of Arrow’s many striking stories features Pat Eatock, an Aboriginal woman and a mother of five who, after being denied an abortion, became an activist in the land rights and women’s movements and a Black Liberation Front candidate in the 1972 election. Her campaign manager was Canberra Women’s Liberation member Elizabeth Reid.

When Whitlam came to victory by including migrants, women and Indigenous Australians in his Men and Women of Australia, he appointed Reid as his adviser for women issues. Like the royal commission hearings, Reid’s conversations with women around the country helped her advocate from within the centre of government for state funding of services such as childcare, women’s refuges and health services. To simplify Arrow’s much more fulsome story, while the change was far-reaching, the economic and political crises of the Whitlam era ended not just his government but the social reforms it had set in train.

Malcolm Fraser’s incoming government cut the royal commission’s three-year schedule to one. The commission’s final report made 511 recommendations, including reform to laws governing abortion and sexual assault, as well those banning as homosexuality, but “it sat in boxes in government bookshops across the country”, Arrow writes. Ten days before the 1977 election campaign, some of the report’s more incendiary recommendations, including the decriminalisation of prostitution and adult incest, as well as making abortions available to girls over 14, were leaked to The Bulletin. Discredited from the beginning, it was shunted to a succession of ministers and eventually forgotten. Conservative organisations were emboldened under Fraser (though they were never the mass movements that the gay and lesbian and women’s liberation movements were), and one of the great things Arrow’s book does is show the parallel emergence of these oppositional voices. In the 1970s the Festival of Light protested the royal commission’s recommendations for better sex education. Try googling the Festival of Light today and you’ll discover it is now FamilyVoice Australia, a remorseless campaigner against Safe Schools.

Two episodes of slut-shaming, seventies style, were also the work of conservatives. Opponents tried to discredit both Reid and Penny Ryan, a women’s adviser to the Victorian government, for having written articles about masturbation while they were students (writing articles about masturbation for student papers was such a common rite of passage in the 1970s for a certain kind of political student, you wonder if a search for it on a CV was the first priority for opponents of each new appointment). Arrow also recounts a little-known tale of how the personal could have been momentously political: thanks to the widowed governor-general Sir John Kerr’s romantic obsession with her, Reid had inside knowledge of Kerr’s hostility to Whitlam’s government, but her warnings went unheeded.  

Quoting academic Victoria Hesford, Arrow writes that to be interested in the 1970s “is to be interested in the alternatives offered to what has become our neoliberal present.” The Seventies reminds us of how remarkably revolutionary the decade could be. Some of the more radical platforms of 1970s activists – a polymorphously perverse sexuality as the norm, 24-hour childcare (one imagines the former would have depended on achieving the latter) and collective forms of living – might seem hopelessly utopian now. But revisiting them reminds us just how attenuated social-movement politics can be now: Woolworths-sponsored Mardi Gras floats, campaigns for more women on boards, and same-sex marriage represent a politics of inclusion and liberal tolerance in place of a more total liberation and revolution. Meanwhile, abortion and childcare have been turned over to private providers, available to those with financial means. Refuges in states such as New South Wales are outsourced to religious organisations.

Reading Arrow’s book, it struck me that all the current leaders of Australian governments (and many Opposition leaders, including 1967 baby Bill Shorten) were born between 1967–1976, almost exactly correlating with this period of great social transformation that Arrow traces. It would take a team of political psychologists to parse the meaning of this concurrence, but it’s interesting to speculate why these leaders now (with the sometime exception of modest social reformer Daniel Andrews) are mostly change-averse. But as the neoliberal market increasingly reveals its flaws, our faith in it is gradually coming apart. Our fear of being left out might yet be trumped by an even greater fear of the mess the market has led us into. Signs are already emerging of a desire to return to the collective movements again and define “the political” anew yet again. For the next generation looking to the 1970s as inspiration, this book will help them see the era for what was achieved and what went wrong. And, perhaps, it will help them figure out what needs to be done next.

Kath Kenny

Kath Kenny is a Sydney-based writer and reviewer currently researching a doctorate on early women’s liberation film and theatre. She is an associate member of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.

Read on

The hyperbole machine

Social media and streaming services are changing what and how we watch

The right reverts to form after Christchurch

Insisting that both sides are to blame does nothing to arrest far-right extremism

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest


The Christchurch massacre, as one local journalist wrote [$] yesterday, may be “the biggest story in the world” right now, and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, just stepped onto the world stage and gave a lesson in leadership to the sorry pretenders plaguing Western politics from Donald Trump to Theresa May, Justin Trudeau to Scott Morrison.

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’
Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Destroyer

Sitting face-to-face in a Los Angeles diner, Detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) offers her teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), some insight into what makes her tick. “I know what it’s like to grow up mad,” she reveals. “I’m still mad. It’s burnt a circuit in my brain.” Living with all-consuming rage binds these estranged women. Like her mum, the 16-year-old is mad with the world and on track to make mistakes she might never recover from. But Erin wants something better for Shelby – a life unlike hers, a decent one. “You can be better than me.”

By the time we arrive at this late scene in Karyn Kusama’s bruising and transfixing new film, Destroyer, we have a good idea what this blistering corrosion looks like and the damage it has done to Erin. We see it in the film’s first shot – an unforgettable extreme close-up of Kidman’s face as Erin wakes up in her car. She’s parked beneath an underpass and the morning light bleaches her parched, sallow skin and sunken eyes. We see it in the feral register of Kidman’s performance as Erin stumbles stiff-legged from that car onto the nearby scene of a murder where she announces to the attending officers that she knows who did it. It is in the way she moves like a wounded animal, as one of the cops observes, like she “drags an anchor”. Later, Erin’s “madness” explodes in the violence she forcefully and relentlessly visits on others.

Erin does know something about the crime scene revealed in Destroyer’s opening scenes. She recognises the distinct tattoo on the back of the victim’s neck – a reminder of an undercover assignment 17 years earlier, in the Palm Springs desert where she was embedded with a gang with a taste for armed robbery. Destroyer tracks her revenge mission, with her sights set firmly on the gang’s sleazy, sinister leader, Silas (Toby Kebell). Kusama employs tightly integrated flashbacks, guided by Theodore Shapiro’s scratchy, jagged score, to put the mystery of the past together, including Erin’s relationship with Chris (Sebastian Stan), the more seasoned FBI agent she’s paired with. Their simulation of romance leaks into real life. Poor decisions are made; morality is compromised.

How Erin feels about her past is visible for the entire world to see on the contours of her haggard face. It is eating her alive. Much has been written about Kidman’s appearance in Destroyer. She has been described as completely unrecognisable, which is not entirely true. Relying mostly on make-up, not prosthetics, Kidman first appears in that close-up as a version of herself, her porcelain skin stained with sunspots, bruises and grime. Her eyes seem incapable of opening; her hair is a limp, near-colourless mop. “You look terrible,” her old FBI boss later remarks when she pays him a visit. And it is true. But more than terrible, Erin looks exhausted and defeated by life.

There is more going on in Destroyer than the “de-glamming” of a usually glamorous actress. Along with these surface amendments, which create a mask of sorts for Erin to hide behind, Kidman digs deep, using her whole body to disclose Erin’s brutality and vulnerability. She speaks in a low register, often slurring her words and not rising above a whisper. Her walk, with its scurrying, slightly bow-legged drive, suggests she is broken. Yet she is also ferocious – her body charging into the frame and commanding the action, as we see when her mission takes her to corrupt lawyer DiFranco’s (Bradley Whitford) trashy mansion. Everything about Kidman’s performance seems heightened to discomfit and confront. That Kidman is also playing the Erin of 17 years earlier only magnifies her decline.

The third of Kusama’s films to be scripted by Phil Hay (her husband) and Matt Manfredi, Destroyer reads and plays, for the most part, like a neo-noir crime thriller. Kidman’s Erin is that rare thing – a female antihero. She’s chaotic and compromised. The world she moves through – shot beautifully with granular light and shadow by cinematographer Julie Kirkwood – is weak on law enforcement and short on justice. She wants someone to be “accountable” but she is also part of the mess. Erin, as a character describes her, is not averse to “colouring outside the lines a little” if she needs to, in the tradition of male antiheroes like Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry, 1971) and Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (The French Connection, 1971) who populated American crime cinema in the 1970s.

But within these recognisable genre conventions, Destroyer’s dominant driving force isn’t the investigation of a crime, but of rage, specifically women’s rage – what it looks like, where it comes from, what it is capable of unleashing. It is a subject common to all of Kusama’s work, especially her magnificent debut Girlfight (2000), a boxing film with a teenage Latina punching at its centre, and also the misunderstood Jennifer’s Body (2009), which has now achieved something akin to cult status. In both films, women’s anger is directed towards systems that oppress them. In Girlfight, Diana (Michelle Rodriguez, in her first role) channels the fury she feels after her mother’s death into the boxing ring; in Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer (Megan Fox) is a flesh-eating zombie who makes a meal of the many men who have wronged her. Women are rarely allowed to be angry in American cinema, but Kusama’s women regularly let their fury explode. If there’s a Hollywood rulebook for how women’s bodies should look and behave on-screen, Kusama hasn’t read it.

Erin carries her rage around like a cancer, punishing herself with guilt, taking the beatings that come her way almost willingly. “I’m not good,” she says, and the film complicates this statement. If Erin is “unlikeable” she is not impossible to relate to. Like many women on screen who suffocate their rage, Erin turns hers inwards – she drinks until she blacks out, takes little care of herself, and sabotages relationships. “I don’t care what happens to me,” Erin says, and we believe her. But Erin’s rage also manifests outwards, into acts of startling violence on both male and female bodies. She behaves like we have grown accustomed to seeing men behave within this particular narrative space. Kusama is a rule-breaker, and Destroyer is not a simple case of flipping the gender script. That Erin is a woman and a mother is vital to understanding what fuels her fury.

Erin’s rage precedes the events in the desert, and is as much about class as it is about gender. During a key flashback, she admits that it’s been boiling in her for a lifetime. “I’ve spent my whole life scrapping, jealous, hungry, scared.” Hers is a particular kind of deprivation, born from poverty, neglect and abuse. She’s a marginalised figure – whatever social power she has she’s had to claim with her badge and gun. Like Jennifer and Diana in Kusama’s earlier films, Erin’s anger is not presented merely as a response to one event: it is the fury of a woman who has struggled to escape the narrow world offered to her by circumstances beyond her control.

In this way, women’s fury is often linked to survival. It’s this instinct that connects Erin and Petra (Tatiana Maslany), a woman used and abused by Silas. Petra is a rich girl who chose a life of crime over one of easy comforts. But similar to Erin’s, Petra’s life hasn’t turned out quite as she had hoped. Disappointment and indignation keep them both moving forward, searching for more. It makes Erin sharp and focused, as much as it leaves her wounds wide open and weeping. Shelby’s older boyfriend, Jay (Beau Knapp), calls Erin “a rage junkie”, and it is clear that she needs it, even while it hurts her. It propels her forward, towards possible redemption, if not for herself, at least for her daughter. Erin stays mad so that Shelby doesn’t have to.

Destroyer isn’t interested in providing comfortable solutions to spiny problems. Kusama and Kidman lock us into Erin’s physical and emotional torment until the end. Erin is at war with the world, but mostly with herself. Each of Kusama’s films imagines anger as a liberating force for character and audience alike. When Erin enters a crime scene, cocks her head and shoots her gun, we feel this release. But Kusama also acknowledges its destructive potential. It is a long-held platitude that a woman’s weapon of choice is poison. There’s truth to this cliché here. Erin’s rage is a toxic substance, and she saves the largest dose for herself.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

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