Sunday, August 9, 2009

R.I.P. John Hughes

When a filmmaker like John Hughes dies, every middle-aged reporter uses it as an excuse to dredge up old adolescent memories. Nobody else had an impact on teenagers in the 1980s the way Hughes did, and the ageing Gen-Xers are now wiping away tears as they recall how Ducky from Pretty in Pink really spoke to them. Check out such “back in the 80s when I was cool” posts as Paul Katz’s at The Huffington Post. He was hip enough to have been at the Chicago premiere, and writes, “I was fifteen, a sophomore in high school, and attended with my friends Jenny and Tracy, two girls heavy into the punk scene”

To keep up liberal credibility, The Huffington Post also points out that Hughes’s movies were not exactly racially diverse – although they do add the qualifier “but that’s ok”: John Hughes Films Weren't Racially Diverse, but That's OK

For more mainstream media tributes, see the CBS morning show panel’s attempt to make sense of the significance of Hughes’s like and work. It’s half a laugh:

From a less sarcastic perspective, the outpouring of sentiment over Hughes’ death is different to what you usually get when a Hollywood director dies. If Scorsese pegged it tomorrow, there would no doubt be an avalanche of columns discussing what an influential and talented director he was, but there wouldn’t be the same degree of warmth involved. He never really got to the sentimental center of people the way Hughes did. The Breakfast Club and the rest of the Molly Ringwald trilogy, not to mention Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, captured the spirit of youth in a way that no other filmmaker has been able to before or since, and have become intertwined with teenage consciousness. These movies form a big part of the way we remember our younger years, and our memories from that period are the strongest of all. A.O Scott makes this point vividly for The New York Times, as does Peter Howell for who writes, “The many people mourning his [Hughes] passing this weekend are also mourning their own memories of better days.”

Hughes' death also shows the way bloggers affect the news cycle these days. Alison Byrne Fields of We’ll Know When We Get There revealed that the filmmaker was her pen pal in the 80s, which other blogs and news organizations picked up on, so much so that this little story has become part of the greater Internet memorial to him: Sincerely, John Hughes.

Perhaps the best eulogy comes from Ben Stein, the actor who uttered the immortal lines “Bueller….Bueller….Bueller”: he said, “I don’t think anyone has come close to him as being the poet of the youth of America in the postwar period. He was to them what Shakespeare was to the Elizabethan Age.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Paranoid Commuters

I had the most bizarre experience on the train thursday morning. Boarding the 9.01 express at Camberwell station I sat down opposite a middle aged man, suit-wearing and respectable looking, who was reading the morning’s paper. There was nothing particularly different about this scenario to any other train ride, except for the fact that I had been able to find a seat – a rare occurrence indeed. After a few minutes the man got up, apologizing as he bumped me on his way into the aisle, and sat down on the next row of seats over in front of a young Asian man with pond shaped metal framed glasses. He began talking to him, and I assumed they were friends. Retreating into my own world of headphone assisted music I thought nothing further of it until the song I was listening to ended. Suddenly I noticed a palpable sense of agitation and confusion amongst my fellow commuters. “You’re harassing me”, my former seat-mate stated to the young Asian man, in a remarkably measured tone.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life, sir,” the bespectacled one replied in a similarly even and nonplussed manner.
“Maybe you haven’t. But this is the same sort of treatment I’ve been subjected to for five years, maybe not from you, but from a wide network of people just like you”
The affable young man just smiled pleasantly.
“Sir, I don’t know what you are talking about, you are mistaken.”
“You’re stalking me,” the other continued, “This is harassment. I would like you to get off at Flinders St with me and talk to the police’
“I can’t right now, I have a meeting, but maybe later this afternoon.”
“Well, I can’t later this afternoon, I also have a meeting.”
The accused jotted down his mobile number of the man’s paper, promising he would be able to talk to the police later, and indeed, even seemed to relish the possibility. The train reached Parliament, where he got off, the suit man satisfied enough to allow him to leave, having drawn some sort of concession. It was a remarkably efficient negotiating process that belied the utter weirdness of the preceding conversation.

The obvious conclusion is to be drawn from this encounter is that middle-aged suit man is affected with some sort of condition that induces intense and unjustified paranoia. But who knows? Maybe there really is a vast network of people out there, following his every move, scrutinizing his every activity. A shadowy government agency perhaps, or maybe he owes somebody important money. Farfetched, sure, but a couple of things bothered me. If pond-shaped glasses didn’t know this seemingly disturbed soul, then why did he not seem more flustered? He seemed merely bemused, as if it were all in a day’s work. If I was in his situation I would have been thoroughly disturbed.

Still, it is without doubt the most bizarre exchange I have witnessed on public transport, and I have both seen and been part of many. I’ve been offered unsolicited tips on how to get on food stamps, and when, where and why to take acid - considered casual conversation on the Portland bus I was on I’m sure. I’ve been shown bullet wounds from gangstas and servicemen alike, one caused by South Central LA, the other by Iraq combat ---- but this well and truly takes the cake. In Melbourne, it takes mental illness or drunkenness to initiate these left-field encounters. The only time its acceptable to start a conversation with a stranger sober is if you are going to ask the footy scores. Anyway, it’s the ‘wide network of people’ that does it for me. That guy’s been watching the X-Files.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez. Creates two beautiful albums of Dylan inspired Psych-folk in the early 70s. Nobody buys them, he disappears. Develops a following through word of mouth and bootleg tapes in the southern hemisphere, but doesn’t find out until his daughter reads about it on the internet in the late 90s.

It’s a tale that gives hope to all of us out there just waiting to be discovered: the self-satisfied, self-anointed creative elite - the scandalously ignored artistic geniuses among us. Of course you might need to be willing to wait 30 years, and may only develop a cult following in countries that don’t have markets big enough to financially reward you for your patience.

Sixto’s story shows the kind of luck involved in commercial success. Producing good music is not enough. You have to whore yourself out to promotion duties, which Rodriguez was unwilling to do, and catch the ear of the right radio DJ or A & R exec. Nothing is guaranteed, and talent often goes unnoticed. If manufactured pop stars are rewarded for their meager abilities in the millions, then it is only just that Sixto should be able to afford a nice beach house somewhere. But justice and the music business do not share strong ties. Bad taste conquers common decency, which turns out not to be as widespread as its name would suggest. Yet Sixto is still out there, pedaling his decades old tunes to those with the sense and goodwill to listen, playing the old dive bars he sung about, searching for the sugar man. Turns out you can’t keep a good dog down.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Drops of rain, bullets of truth.

I am sitting in my car as it pours with rain, I don’t dare brave the conditions outside. If I make a run for the ticket machine my laptop could get soaked. I haven’t bothered to get a protective jacket for it yet, so it just sort of floats around in my bag. It’s a set up that asks for trouble.

Also, if I just wait around in my car for another ten minutes I won’t have to pay for parking, thus rendering redundant the dash for the ticket machine, and minimizing the possibility of drowning my cherished macbook. Yes it’s another horrible, grey Melbourne winter’s day that threatens to destroy my goodwill, but all is not lost.

I am just finishing Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, a non-fiction novel that is constantly interesting and occasionally brilliant. I don’t hold Hunter in quite the same esteems as others, because I think he is a little inconsistent, but when he is at his most potent he is unrivalled in the field of creative journalism. His best passages make you wonder why he can’t write with such intensity the whole time. Take this stroke of genious:

“This is the generation that went to war for Mom, God, and Apple Butter, the American Way of Life. When they came back, they crowned Eisenhower and then retired to the giddy comfort of their TV parlours, to cultivate the subtleties of American history as seen by Hollywood” – p 270: Penguin Modern Classics Edition

It’s the sort of statement that few writers could make without sounding ridiculous. But Hunter writes so assuredly and with such conviction that his generalized analysis becomes truth. You can’t define an entire generation, but you can define the prevailing spirit of the times, and its overarching problems and characteristics, which is what Thompson does so vividly here.

I find Mailer and Fitzgerald to be the same way. They lull you into a state of casual interest, and then stun you with moments of zeitgeist defining analysis and wordplay. Bullets of truth penetrate from an invisible literary magnum you were not even aware they possessed. I think that is what separates literature from entertainment. If you stick with it, you will be struck with answers to the questions that cripple your sub-consciousness, even if they never make their way to your present mind. To be honest, there were about five pages in Gatsby that were memorable to me, but they made such an impression as to dwarf some of the far more entertaining fiction I have read. I still think that the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series has one of the most engrossing plots going around, and I don’t care how that sounds, but its prose style and existential depth holds no match for Fitzgerald. If you can combine both of these elements you are really on to something.

The rain has stopped, but I’m inside now so I don’t really care. That’s always the way though isn’t it?


There was an article in The Age today about elites in Toorak buying up the properties surrounding their homes. Apparently they didn’t want to have to put up with the hassle of having neighbours. What the hell is wrong with these people? Their plots of land are so big they would need binoculars to even get a glimpse of anyone at an adjacent property. Allegedly, this is a long-seated tradition of our beloved Bailleus. It’s nice to know that the man who wants to be Premier of our state is part of a family that loves Victoria so much, they wouldn’t want any of its inhabitants moving in next to them.

Unfortunately this is not an impersonality that affects only our bluebloods; it’s also a defining aspect of semi-affluent inner suburbia. Yesterday a friend of mine told me that there was a complaint against someone I work with for being “overly friendly”. This city is full of cold barstards, I swear. We’re only happy when we’re being ignored. Warmth fills us with distrust. The only time it’s acceptable to talk to strangers is when you are intoxicated. Where is the sense of being in this thing together. Perhaps it goes back to our convict roots; maybe we’re still all scared of having the larrikin from the neighbouring hovel on Little Bourke St steal a loaf of bread when we aren’t looking. In any case Melbourne, have a little heart.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Anonymity and Hot Chocolate

I have gone to the same Starbucks a couple of times every week for years, and yet they still ask for my name whenever I show up as if they had never seen me before. The impersonality of the place is awesome, and one of its greatest attractions. I can place myself down on a generic padded chair and be ignored for hours on end. No, ‘Would you like another coffee?’, and definitely no subtle hints to fuck off. Friends are still dismayed by my utter lack of hipness in cafĂ© choice, but I don’t need a double shot of pretension in my drink. What I need is to be left alone and treated as another piece of furniture, which is exactly the service my ambivalent neighbourhood baristas dutifully provide for me when I present myself for an hour of reading at 5:30 on a Monday afternoon.

The pressure of jobs in marketing or public relations fade into oblivion as customers are soothed by the semi-alternative music aired over Starbucks radio; the sounds of Bob Dylan, or The Cult, or even Sixto Rodriguez. I might retreat to my headphones for a dose of Dinosaur Jr., and enjoy the irony of listening to slacker rock in a multinational coffee house chain. Most others appear happy to let the Starbucks music stand educate them.

In my travels, Starbucks provides a reassuring familiarity in places where I don’t know a soul, recognize a single street corner or possess knowledge of public landmarks of any kind. It is a beacon of comfort in a sea of cold faces for whom I hold no interest. Does that not have some value? For every time I am willing to step out into the unknown world and take a chance, there is another that I simply want to retreat to something I know.

I am sure many Melburnians will scoff over their Chai Lattes as they read this, no doubt listening to the new Dirty Projectors album and looking out onto a Fitzroy street front of skinny jeans and angular fringes, but hopefully they will not choke mid-sip as their throats swell with smugness.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Christchurch, where are your daughters?

9/10/08 - The Thomas Hotel, Christchurch

I cannot express how much I miss America right now. The contrast between the States and New Zealand is simply too great - it is much too quiet and isolated here. When I was caught up in the maelstrom and vibrancy of American life, I didn't quite realize how hard it would be to resurface from it. I am finding it extremely difficult. In fact, I would describe the feeling as homesickness. America was where I lived for 3 months, a period of time which seemed epic in scope. I felt like I was ready to leave, but obviously I was kidding myself.

Part of what I wrote at Oakland Airport remains true - I do have ambitions that I want to work towards, and I will. If I am going to be at home, then I am going to work hard at them or else there is no point in me being there. Quite simply, I have to go traveling again, hostel style - at the beginning of my journey I though that I might be done with it. I now know that to be far from the truth. Cam is in New York and I am so unbelievably jealous - thats where I want to be right now, not in NZ, Brisbane, or Australia, period. I will be back there in the next 3 years. 27/28 is still easily young enough to do the backpacker circuit. Hopefully I will get there in the next two years though.

I'm off to Dunedin this afternoon, but I am really only mildly interested. I realize that what fascinates me now is energy and scope. NZ, while horrendously scenic, does not have the vibrancy that comes from having 300 million people. Wellington is a great city, but I need to have a metropolis at my fingertips. I really should have done NZ first, which is what I realized when I flew into Auckland in June - I wasn't prepared for America yet, having been so stressed out before I left. NZ would have provided a great opportunity to gradually easy my way into the traveling mode.

When I get back to Oz, I really need to be proactive, its the only way I could stand to stay there. My friends and family are great, and I missed them a lot when I was in the States, but now that I am so close to home I don't feel that same desire to get back to Melbourne; I just want to be on a plane back to NYC. If I am not getting somewhere professionally in the next couple of years, I am out of here.


20/9/08 - Oakland International Airport

As I am preparing to depart the mainland, I can't help but feel regret. After 3 months, I've gotten used to being here, accustomed to the vastness and the vibrancy of the place. Having spent much of the time in a state of unease, why is it that I now feel most at home here, almost like an honorary American. What is that most detestable part of the human mind, that doesn't allow us to truly appreciate something until it is almost over?

This has not been like the last time; I have not been captivated by a permanent sense of wonder, although I have definitely experienced awe on a number of occasions. The transcendence I felt when I was here 3 years ago has not been as potent this time around. There are a few ideas I have come up with for why this is the case. Firstly, 2005 was my first time on an extended journey away from home. I was 21 years old, the perfect age to experience this magical land that I had so long dreamed about. By the age of 21, I think the character of most people has more or less fully crystallized. You are at your most alive - impressionable like a sponge, but with a personality strong enough to retain the core of what makes you who you are. It was a transforming, life-defining journey for me, and I spent the next 3 years trying to recapture the vividness of experience that I felt in that brief, transient period. This current journey was the culmination of all my efforts, but it has not provided the illumination I had hoped for.

The challenges that have formed over the past few years cannot be overcome simply by travelling. I know I won't be happy until I feel like I am accomplishing the task that I am designed for, whatever that may be. I don't know why I feel less alive and invigorated than I did 3 years ago. It could be growing older, but I don't think so. I think it has more to do with the degree to which you are contented with and excited by your life. I don't think I will be able to achieve that purity of visceral epiphany that I once experienced until I can honestly say that my life is going the way I want it to. Adult life creeps up on you, and existential crises are not easily solved. I have come to the conclusion that the way forward lies at home and not abroad, at least at this stage in any case. Ultimately though, I know another extended jaunt overseas, and in America, lies in my destiny.

This journey, while different from the last, has still been an amazing experience. I don't think I will be able to process everything I have learnt and felt until some time from now. The number of people I have been able to get to know has been astounding, and even better than I had hoped for. That probably more than anything else is what I will cherish most from this journey, and enjoy for the rest of my life. I feel that I have really gotten to know this country well, having spent almost 5 months in North America all up. It does seem like I have been here for a long time now, when I think back to Blacksburg and New York, and it is hard to believe that I am actually leaving. For the longest time, it seemed like there were so many days left ahead of me. It will be interesting to see how I readjust to the routine of Melbourne life - I still have a few weeks of NZ and a bit of time in Queensland before I will find that out, though.

Leaving the US mainland is the endpoint of my American odyssey, the primary purpose of this journey - it has certainly been a trip. So long, farewell America... it's been great. From Chick-Fill-A in the south to Coors Flagons with Cam in San Francisco at the Green Tortoise. From Camel Lights with Evan in Victoria to American Spirits with Will in Northern Virginia. From Moped burns in Blacksburg to hookah in Fayetteville. From reconnecting with old friends to making new ones - I bid all of you a fond farewell.