In the textual equivalent of a late-night junk food binge, after baby Thomas woke me when I’d just got to sleep at 10pm, I bought Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin: how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government on my Kindle. (I’d resisting doing so for a couple of weeks – I have much more important things to read, like Suzanne Falkiner’s 900 page Stow biography!) I have been ashamedly engrossed in reading about just how dysfunctional the Abbott government was, and Savva’s source-gathering is impressive, but it’s a badly written book. David Marr drew me into polit-lit, and I stupidly assumed that it would tend to be written as well as he writes. Instead, I suspect he’s the high watermark and most of the genre has little literary merit. In this case, the narrative is shambolic, jumping all over the place without the sense of quiet control and ordering the best non-fiction writers show. It’s also repetitive and veers between a journalistic style and chatty, cringing prose. But I grant it had to be written in a hurry and it’s horribly fascinating.
In the midst of the many disturbing social, environmental and economic policies of the incumbent federal coalition government, its treatment of writers has not been prominent in the national consciousness. But Mr Brandis, the arts minister, has taken away millions from the Australia Council for the Arts to administer himself. This includes all the funding for writers, and writers of Australia have now been living in uncertainty for a considerable time while the new arrangement has not been announced. Kate Forsyth has written a “A small and very polite rant about the importance of writers to the world” directed at Mr Brandis. It concludes with some innovative additional ways forward for funding writers better, including letting writers write on the dole, and exempting writing income from tax. Two ideas well-worth considering.
I have reached the end of series 1 of House of Cards. For the uninitiated, it’s a thirteen episode story of the rise and revenge of a ruthlessly ambitious politician, Frank Underwood, set in present-day Washington, but based on a British novel and TV series.
Engrossed, I still ask myself what it means. (And what it means that I like it so much.) In the same way I ask myself why I care so much about the machinations of federal politics in Australia. I can excuse my interest in ideology, and policy, but why do I care so much about the personalities, and the ‘politics’ in the derogatory sense of the word? Oh, no doubt it’s the Machiavelli in me.
My aside to the audience, Frank style: There used to be no Frank in me at all; I determinedly lived as the lamb to the slaughter, playing life with an open hand for all to see. One can only do that for so long, for so many times. But most would-be-Franks are not as subtle as they think. Nor can they see as far ahead as him.
Why did Joel Schumacher come along and wreck two episodes in the middle? He is the worst director in Hollywood. Reference: Batman and Robin, the movie which spoiled my adolescence. He squandered most of what was good about the show in his two outings. He made them feel like episodes of West Wing on a bad day, the episodes of Frank vs. the education union, fizzing out in that predictable American subplot of the hero finding an innovation to solve the day (‘let’s stage the gala party outside’; ‘let’s offer food to the protestors’). House of Cards is not about cute punchlines. Go away, Joel Schumacher, and do not come again.
David Fincher, on the other hand, you are welcome any time.
Did you know Robin Wright, so tall and skinny and middle-aged in this, was Buttercup in The Princess Bride? I certainly didn’t, till IMDB told me. That’s messed up; I didn’t know so many years had gone by. Don’t get me wrong: she is beautiful still. But somewhere, surely, Buttercup’s still young.
Back to meaning. What it ‘means’. Back to drama. Is there more to it than carthasis? Is it mere diversion? Of course it is. It’s about how we live and why we live. House of Cards is a masterpiece of the screen because in it we have all of life. We live out our own dilemmas writ large, and our own anxieties, and our cultural identity. Perhaps it is vicarious living, but in a way which makes us think more deeply about our own life, or should. It is all the spheres of life – marriage, politics, the office, recreation. It hints at things we don’t know in ourselves and in each other. It has enough depth to justify those eleven hours of my life.
On Saturday, I finished DeLillo’s Libra and the Kennedy assassination was going through my mind so much, I was desperate to finally watch JFK. But Nicole had already seen it, so I also got out Death of a President as well, a mock documentary made in 2006 about the assassination of George W. Bush. Death of a President was so weak, Nicole went to bed after half an hour and I turned it off to start watching JFK. I stayed up late, but still only got halfway through. I woke up early and put it on at 7am to watch the second half, the earliest I’ve ever seen a film. I think I was dreaming about it all.
Libra and JFK make for interesting comparison. DeLillo uses the contradictions and paradoxes of the assassination and of what we know of Lee Oswald to create a complex situation and a paradoxical character, represented by the scales of Libra – a man weighing contradictory things at the same time, ready to tip one way or the other. The paradoxes make for a postmodern novel, a postmodern character, a postmodern world like DeLillo always evokes.
In JFK, Stone takes the same contradictions and paradoxes and irons them out with a much more elaborate conspiracy theory. A surface reading makes it much more convincing than DeLillo’s vision, but that is exactly because it is so neat, so unwilling to accept that the truth of JFK’s assassination might be impossible to get to.
So, for example, what are we to make of Oswald setting up a pro-Castro organisation in the same building as Guy Bannister, a far-right private detective working against Castro? For DeLillo, it is about Oswald’s own contradictions, wanting attention and taking it wherever he can get it, giving some information to FBI agents, applying for work with a man like Guy Bannister – anything to get noticed. For DeLillo, pro- and anti- Castro forces in this context are not opposing forces, but two sides of the scales, the same type of men, disenchanted, extreme men. In Libra, Oswald doesn’t know what he actually wants, beyond being listened to, glory, vindication of his genius, of his confused view of the world. And this, in its own way, is utterly convincing.
Stone’s interpretation of the same event? Jim Garrison, the DA heading the New Orleans investigation, sees it as clear proof that Oswald is not a communist at all, but an undercover agent for a nefarious coalition of the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, all three with offices within a block of the building. Which, in the context of a conspiracy thriller is, in its own way, utterly convincing.
While Libra is a brilliant novel and JFK is an excellent film, Death of a President is a competent waste of time. It has the exact feel of what a decent, uninspired documentary might be like if George W. Bush had been assassinated in 2007. As I watched, I imagined how fooled a class of sixteen year olds would be in a few years if I was an English teacher showing it to them. It has all the tedious overnarration and overexplanation of certain documentaries, intercutting each action scene with interviews with key players. Utterly convincing; but because we know none of it happened, rather boring.
It needed an edge to it. Think Woody Allen’s Zelig, the fake documentary of a man with chameleon abilities who manages to make it into every significant event of the early twentieth century. It was worthwhile because it was funny, the fake documentary had a purpose.
But they didn’t have to make this one funny. They could have made it hallucinatory and surreal, using the plausibility of the documentary style to lead the viewer not just over a tedious fake assassination but one with outrageous elements. Or it could have been political, with some interesting point about either Bush or the anti-Bush protestors, about what it meant for a country to live under his rule for eight years. But it studiously avoided doing this. It did exactly what it was trying to do and gets marks for that, but what it was trying to do was so unremarkable.
I hate the way they’ve locked the whole of Sydney down. The establishment is throwing everything it can against the protestors. It has all the power and all the money, and it would dearly love there to be no voice of dissent. No-one to say to Bush and Howard: you have done evil!