Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recalling the Public Phone

Guest Post by Jayde Cahir

I have owned a mobile for 14 years. Even while backpacking overseas in the late 90s I carried one with me. But I’m not a mobile phone junkie constantly waiting for my next fix. My standard habit of leaving it at home or forgetting to re-charge the battery or buy credit means that I can’t be addicted to constant contact. I am the first to admit it is nice to have a mobile, just as it is sometimes nice to leave it behind and become un-contactable.

Recently, I was at my local Fish & Chip shop and wanted to phone home to see if anyone else wanted anything to eat but the battery on my mobile was flat. All was not lost—there was a public phone right outside the shop. I stepped into the booth, carefully avoiding the small clumps of dried chewing gum on the concrete floor. I then looked at the large metal contraption protruding from the right side of rippled metallic wall. The phone was surrounded by graffiti both scratched and spayed onto the wrinkled surface. On the shelf beside it were sprinkles of ash and a used match, all traces of previous occupants. I stepped closer and felt slightly claustrophobic. This feeling would have been exacerbated if it had been one of the old fashioned public phone booths, the ones with the door you had to lean on. When you stepped inside that door would spring back into place, completely enclosing you in a cocoon of privacy. I imagine that with people talking about their private lives on mobiles anywhere and everywhere Telstra thought they could cut down on costs and provide just three walls.

I picked up the receiver. It was bulky and rather heavy. The cord was twisted in such a way that when it unravelled the handset struck me in the face. Resting it between shoulder and cheek, I rubbed my nose while simultaneously trying to insert my coins. The phone would not accept them. I stood there thinking “I should know how to do this. It’s simple” but I did read the instructions just to make sure. They said: “Lift the receiver. Insert coins or card. Dial number.” I tried to insert my coins again but the mental shutter that usually closes with a ‘click’ after each coin is inserted was firmly locked in place. I hung up the receiver, cupped my hand over my stinging nose and just stood there staring at the phone… I was mesmerised by this contraption that was once so familiar but now seemed so alien. Stepping out of the booth, I looked down at my mobile phone in the palm of my hand and then gazed back at the public phone booth.

Standing in front of my local Fish & Chip shop, I could smell the fish and potatoes sizzling in their metal cages and felt a sense of irony. I empathised with the battered cod, as my nose still hurt from its unexpected encounter with the heavy plastic receiver. The stinging sensation was a reminder of how quickly communication technologies have changed. Over the past ten years convenient connection has transferred from public phones to small hand-held products. Access to “anytime, anywhere” connectivity is now a taken for granted service. But it was not that long ago when calls made while in transit relied almost entirely on public phones. A designated place to make phone calls, fixed and confined, now seems like an antiquated notion. After all, we are constantly surrounded by conversations like “Hello…Yeah…I’m on the bus”…“where are you?” or “Hi…I’m running late” … “Yeah, I’ll be there soon”. People’s everyday phone conversations often dominate shared social spaces, and, depending on the topic, can offer a sense of nostalgia for the old fashioned public phone booth. While mobile communication devices may have shrunk from walk-in cubicles to pocket-size devices, I’m grateful that commodities like fish & chips have remained the same.

Following my failed attempt to make contact I went ahead and bought extra fish & chips, which were well received when I returned home. The experience of using a public phone seemed so foreign and certainly emphasised the convenience of mobiles, but I realised something else. Mobiles limit the scope of the unexpected small things in life, like bringing home fish & chips, because easy access to everyone means that every little thing can be planned in advance. Reverting to using a public phone after 14 years of owning a mobile reminded me of a time when there was no need to announce everything! Read more

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bob Plasto: the truth is a form of mourning

On 22 December 2007 Bob Plasto was seen handing out one-hundred dollar notes outside a pub in Darwin. Plasto, an NT-based documentary film-maker and former ABC journalist in his late fifties, had a long history of bipolar depressive disease. He had travelled to Darwin to spend Christmas with family; his sister later commented that his illness was the worst she’d ever seen, and that he appeared to be off his medication.

Police were called to the scene mid-afternoon, where Plasto was now bear-hugging a tree. After some coaxing, he climbed inside the back of the paddywagon. The plan was to take him to Darwin hospital for a mental health assessment.

The police observed that Plasto was highly agitated, continually swapping seats in the caged vehicle. Nevertheless, they detoured back to the police station for a shift change. Plasto remained in the back of the van for sixteen minutes until the night staff took over. It was the middle of the Darwin summer, heavy with humidity, and Plasto was a big man, already sweating profusely before he was picked up.

When Plasto arrived at hospital, he was placed in the Oleander Room, the psychiatric section of the Emergency department, where he was assessed. Dr Cromarty found him ‘pleasant and cooperative’, but also ‘acutely psychotic’ and sectioned him under the Mental Health Act, unknown to the police, who thought he was still in their custody.

Plasto stayed in the Oleander Room, waiting for further assessment by a psychiatric register. He talked constantly to himself, walked in and out of the room, repeatedly asking for a smoke. He then asked to go to the toilet but when he was taken there, he jacked up and refused to go in. Plasto brushed past his police escort, almost knocking him off his feet, and went down to the foyer of the ER, where Sergeant Fox ordered him back into the Oleander Room. Plasto raised his arms, ‘wheeling round like a windmill’, saying that he wanted to go outside for some fresh air and a smoke.

Fox tried to get between Plasto and the doors. With the aid of three other police officers and two security guards, he employed what is known as a ground stabilisation technique: Plasto’s arms were restrained and he was forced facedown onto the floor, then handcuffed. There was maybe a combined weight of 500 kg on top of him. Fox later said that ‘it was the possibly the most severe apprehension in that manner that he had undertaken.’ He rated the physical intensity of the struggle ‘ten out of ten.’ 

Plasto yelled out that he was having difficulty breathing and had chest pain. Medical staff ran into the foyer area, including Dr Cromarty, who asked if handcuffs were really necessary and for the police to ‘back off a bit’. The police replied that they were doing it for their own safety. Fox pushed down Plasto’s head with his knee: Cromarty heard it smack on the ground. Another doctor said Fox placed what appeared to be his whole weight on Plasto’s head so his face was completely crushed into the floor. Plasto began to struggle less, his face turning red and then blue.

The medical staff shouted at the police that Plasto was turning blue. When the police got off him, Plasto’s chest was no longer moving. A chain smoker with chronic obstructive airway disease, he had experienced respiratory failure. Plasto was taken to intensive care where he died a week later, never having regained consciousness.

Plasto lived in the Territory on-and-off since the age of seventeen, making Alice Springs his home in later years. He had produced a long catalogue of films, which had made broadcast: to all intents and purposes, he was a successful documentary film-maker. Plasto also had a reputation for risk-taking journalism and chasing controversy: he was the first independent film producer to enter post-war Iran, and his was the only documentary camera ever allowed inside Pine Gap. ‘He came across as a very loving, affectionate caring sort of man but he had the mettle to get in there and press people for responses,’ fellow NT documentary film-maker Dave Nixon observes.

In the early eighties Plasto made two documentaries, 
A shifting dreaming and My country, which traces black-white relations in the Northern Territory from the Coniston massacre through to the struggle for land rights. They now make somewhat idiosyncratic viewing, burdened at times by rambling interview sequences, quaint period dramatisations (featuring Ray Barrett, Max Gillies and Gerard Kennedy) and emotive narration. These films have also been criticised for being oversimplistic in their depictions Aboriginal people, and for failing to challenge aspects of white land ownership.

Nevertheless, there is an oddball, pioneering element about these projects that almost seems Territorian in itself, especially given the dearth of film-making about Aboriginal experience and history in the NT prior to the Bicentenary. Whereas the majority of Australian-made documentaries about the Territory have been for SBS or ABC release, a fraction of the nation’s consciousness, Plasto sought to reach the mainstream: in the early nineties, he made 
Alice Springs, my town, possibly the most expensive commercial documentary ever released on Australian television..

Most documentaries made about the Territory originate from outside sources. Territorian film-makers are often dependent on external funders, such as the Commonwealth: the Territorian government tends to favour the tourist dollar. Nixon comments: ‘There’s been almost no recognition from any of the Territory administrations that telling stories through film and television is of value.

‘I’ve often likened the film industry in the Northern Territory to being like a flock of sea gulls. You’ve got the Arts Minister occasionally throwing out a chip, and it’s the rowdiest, biggest, hungriest sea gull that gets the meal. It’s best not to rely on that stuff, and Bob was living proof of that.’

In his final years, Plasto was often seen wandering along Todd Mall, Alice Springs’ main café strip, in search of conversation.

‘He was like a trawler, he’d sort of police the bottom end of the Mall,’ Nixon says.‘I used to often see him wandering around the streets with a clipboard and a one-inch video cassette that he put a finished program in. He would walk around as if he was on the way to a broadcaster to deliver something. It really haunted me, that image of an old man without peers anywhere.

‘Here you have someone who was seemingly quite successful, shuffling the streets of Alice Springs, looking for someone to talk to, looking for some purpose. Completely and utterly mad. He was surrounded by 30,000 other people but he was completely isolated.’

Restaurateur Vin Lange remembers Plasto sipping coffee, writing poetry and jotting down ideas.

‘He always carried a dictionary and if I had a minute it was great to find out his “word of the day’’. Bob would relate this word to one of his many projects such as sailing around the world on a clipper with a camera and a storybook to issues around town, to politics, to his beloved Carlton or to the Australian Cricket team (Ricky Ponting's captaincy always came in for some heavy scrutiny in these discussions!).’

Tracey Spencer, then the minister at the Flynn Uniting Church in the Mall, also knew Plasto from local café life. Plasto took his ‘role as an elder statesman in the Territory very seriously,’ Spencer says. He developed a mentoring relationship with Spencer and others, giving her pronunciation lessons and even presenting her with a thesaurus on one occasion. She saw him as a visionary, aware of the big picture, always looking ahead: ‘He was very interested in the future of the Territorian film industry and even had plans to start up a film school in a café.’ 

Plasto was not always easy company: he often tried people’s patience, ringing the same contacts every week, sometimes every day. Negotiations to secure an in-perpetuity licence to show seven of Plasto’s films on StoryWall, an outdoor film screening project in Alice Springs, were strung out over many months and phone calls.

‘He was an inspiration,’ Nixon says, ‘but not in the way you might expect. He was an archetype of where you end up as a documentary film-maker…. the Jungian archetype of success and failure mixed into the one poor troubled soul.’

In his inquest findings Coroner Greg Cavanagh determined that Plasto’s death was caused by the combined effects of restraint asphyxia, obesity associated heart disease and chronic airways disease. 

There was no evidence that Plasto was a threat to himself or to others, or that he intended to flee the hospital. 

Guiding principles for NT police promote the avoidance of force where possible and minimum use of force where it is unavoidable. The police had other options apart from restraint such as blocking Plasto’s escape or removing him to the Oleander Room. Obesity is also a known risk factor in positional asphyxia, of which the police should have been made aware through training.

Plasto’s death was investigated in conjunction with that of David Gurrulpa, a thirty-nine-year-old Aboriginal man from Ramingining who was restrained by police to stop him attacking a woman holding a baby. Positional asphyxia was also an issue because Gurrulpa was a large man suffering from a heart condition. 

The Coroner found that injuries sustained as a result of police restraint contributed to both deaths.

The Coroner also commented on the unnecessary length of time Plasto spent in the back of the police vehicle, which no doubt contributed to his anxiety and physical distress. The police could have transported him to the hospital more promptly and appropriately, and Cavanagh made recommendations to that effect. 

This aspect of Plasto’s case resonates with even grimmer predicament of Mr Ward, the WA Aboriginal elder, who ‘cooked’ to death last January while being transported several hundred kilometres across the Goldfields in forty degree plus heat in a police van with faulty air conditioning. 

The disturbing question these recent inquiries provoke is: are there yet other adverse incidents involving the care and transportation of people in police custody that go undetected because they involve those more likely to slip under the radar, such as mentally unwell or Aboriginal clients?

It would seem fitting, given Plasto’s background in investigative documentary-making and his interest in disenfranchised minorities, if pressure is brought to bear on these issues as a result of his inquest. There is also some irony, which Plasto may well have appreciated, that he should ultimately become the subject of controversial investigation himself.

(This article originally appeared at Screen Hub. Do subscribe: it's a fabulous publication.)
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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Australian filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes

Congratulations are due to Warwick Thornton, whose first feature film Samson And Delilah has been awarded the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes. The award is for a first-film by a first-time film director.

El from elswhere has previously reviewed the film and its Extraordinary premiere in Alice Springs here at Sars Lite, and I highly recommend it to those who missed her post.

I am somewhat disgruntled, though, that the media keeps referring to Thornton as an Aboriginal filmmaker. I know, and respect the fact, that Warwick Thornton is a proud Aboriginal man, who is strongly connected to his family and community in Alice. But why aren't Australians, and our media, ready to simply celebrate our writers and filmmakers and artists and musicians (and their achievements) as art makers first and foremost, and then, yes, Australian, and, yes, certainly Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander if they are of that background?

Why are the media reports of his win constantly referring to 'Aboriginal filmmaker Warrick Thornton'? Why not 'Australian filmmaker'? Am I too sensitive in presuming an undercurrent of 'wow, he's managed to win it despite being Aboriginal'?

Is Thornton being Aboriginal the story, or is how good a film Samson and Delilah is the story?

Yet Samson and Delilah is constantly referred to as an 'Aboriginal film'. Surely it is that but more, and everything else besides? Thornton himself considers it a love story first and foremost (and at least The Age picks that up in the headline 'Australian love story wins Cannes prize'), and yes its actors, characters, setting and plot drivers are Aboriginal, but surely this is not a only, or purely, an Aboriginal film?

If anything, the jury at Cannes seems to get it, describing it "as the best love film they had seen for many years."

I don't doubt that Thornton being Aboriginal is important to his approach to and success in the film – possibly securing him access to country, actors, community support, and certainly the context for the story – and it is unlikely that non-Indigenous filmmakers would have had the opportunities and entrepoints to make this project a success (though that is debatable, looking at David Vadiveloo's success with the online film/multimedia production UsMob). I have no doubt that being Aboriginal is important to Thornton, and has informed and coloured his practice as a filmmaker.

But perhaps, first and foremost, Thornton is a very fine filmmaker. And he was won a major prize at Cannes.

You can hear Thornton speaking to the ABC's Lisa Millar (links to audio mp3) about his reaction to his film winning the Camera d'Or and, endearingly, how he's ready to come home from the red carpet glitz of Cannes to reality and sit on his veranda in Alice Springs .

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Friday, May 15, 2009

RIP Charles "Bud" Tingwell

As has been widely reported, Charles "Bud" Tingwell died overnight, aged 86. Upon hearing the news, my first thought was, "Oh no, not Gramps!" My second thought was to consider the possible inappropriateness of my first thought. Given Tingwell's long and varied career, was it somehow disrespectful that my immediate thoughts were of his relatively minor role in the much-loved D-Gen pisstaké "Charlie the Wonder Dog"?

Yet Tingwell's performance as Gramps exemplifies - for me at least, and I suspect for many others of my generation - Tingwell's talent and his spirit. Here was a guy whose career predated tv, who had appeared in everything from The Shiralee to Thunderbirds (yes, Thunderbirds!), not to mention over one hundred episodes of Homicide. Here was this legend of Australian film and tv, hamming it up on a late night comedy show, and he was utterly brilliant. Tingwell not only got the joke, he embraced it; his performance was pitch-perfect and still makes me laugh today. Ok, Gramps is far from being Tingwell's most significant role, but the fact that he took it on and made it work so well demonstrates his skill, professionalism and generosity.

Looking at Tingwell's IMDB profile brings home just how versatile an actor he was. Although perhaps best loved for avuncular characters such as QC Lawrence Hammill in The Castle, Tingwell largely managed to avoid being typecast - just last year he played Winston Churchill in ABC's Menzies and Churchill at War. On top of all this Tingwell was by all accounts a lovely bloke with a generous soul. Of course, the entertainment world always speaks highly of its recently deceased. I suspect in Tingwell's case the praise is more than justified.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

There beneath the brown suburban skies

Reporting the opening of the NGV’s John Brack retrospective, Channel Ten news declared that Brack “specialised in depicting the colours of Melbourne”, thus conveying the impression that Brack’s contribution to the visual arts was the equivalent of an Age liftout spruiking Melbourne’s “vibrant”, “cosmopolitan” culture and lifestyle. Of course, the opposite is true: many of Brack’s early Melbourne paintings - Collins St., 5 pm and The Bar, to offer two well-known examples - are satirical pokes at the drudgery and artificiality of urban and suburban life. As for “colours”, Brack favoured the dourer end of the palette; he was the go-to man for depicting mid-twentieth century life in all its umber, olive and piss-yellow glory.

Judging by the crowd that packed the front half of the exhibition on Sunday morning, Brack’s necrotic nudes, grimacing suburbanites and creepy shopfronts retain a good deal of popular appeal. This is explicable in a way – Brack’s early stuff is either iconic in itself, or it deals with iconic imagery – but it’s also slightly odd in that these paintings are consistently acidic and nasty. The paintings give off a strange aura: even the pinks and greens feel yellow and brown.

In a recent interview, Brack’s widow, Helen Maudsley, described Brack’s Melbourne paintings as little more than “sneering” jibes at “people who don’t know the right words”. There is some truth to this, but equally there is some truth to the paintings themselves. Sometimes a contemptuous sneer is called for, and paintings like Collins St., 5 pm take conformism and drudgery to task with an admirable all-consuming bitterness. Slagging off suburbanites is as old as the suburbs themselves, and often twice as dull, but paintings like The New House – in which a gaunt, grim-faced husband unlovingly clasps his aproned wife against a classic fifties kitchen backdrop – and The Girls at School – with its parade of tight-lipped Veruca Salts – have a double resonance. That is, the paintings are simultaneously cultural artefacts – satires and/or grotesques of the era in which they were produced – and also, for the contemporary viewer, satires of the revisionist Howardian (John, not Tim) view of the fifties as a kind of Golden Age. Elitist, maybe, but still fascinating art.

Early Brack wasn’t all suburbanite bashing. Amongst the collection there are some cartoonish horse racing paintings, a self-portrait that is so cliché (looking into the mirror, shaving) that it verges on genius, and the famous series of ballroom dancing scenes, all pink taffeta and artificial gestures. (Plus the greatest male wedgie in the history of Western art. I forget which painting it’s in, but you can’t miss it.) More disturbing are Brack’s famously asensual nudes – inspired by the Holocaust, according to Maudsley – and his various still lifes of slicing machines, artificial legs, butcher’s shopfronts. These paintings are desolate and powerful, and show Brack attempting to shift away from local satire towards a generalised critique of modernity.

The second half of the exhibition covers Brack’s work from the 1970s onwards. There are more nudes – chubbier now, less grotesque, although still rather off-looking – but by this time Brack was moving into abstract symbolism. There was rather more elbow room in this part of the exhibition which to be honest was hardly surprising: going from the fairly straightforward representations of human beings to depictions of warring pencils and wooden hands holding up postcards of historical figures makes for an abrupt change of scenery. The postcard paintings seem slightly clumsy to me, a hodge-podge of elements with which Brack occasionally works wonders, eg. 1066, and especially The Hands and the Faces. The pencil paintings are much simpler conceptually, and pack a greater punch. The major work is The Battle in which the Battle of Waterloo is reimagined (with “historical accuracy”, the accompanying plaque assures us) as a fight between factions of pencils holding aloft playing cards.

I’ll spare you further sub-VCE art criticism: Robert Hughes I ain’t. Nevertheless, I highly recommend having a look at the Brack show if you're in town. It is on at The Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, until August 9.
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Saturday, May 2, 2009

'Samson and Delilah': Extraordinary premiere in Alice Springs

Friday evening at the Bush Telegraph station. A large screen is set up on the banks of the Todd for the Alice Springs premiere of local Aboriginal film-maker Warwick Thornton’s first feature, Samson and Delilah. Aboriginal bush bands play on a small stage beside the screen: the Desert Mulga Band, whose music supports the film, and another of Thornton’s favourites, the South East Metal Band from Santa Teresa. Kids dance in front of the stage: there’s a competition for give-away hoodies inscribed with Samson and Delilah graffiti. Behind the screen, an orange rockface glows in the dusk.

The sky is purple with clouds, ironically given the lack of rain in central Australia. But even an hour before the film’s start, the natural amphitheatre in front of the screen is filling fast. It’s a free event, including drinks and a sausage sizzle. People have been bussed in from outlying Aboriginal communities -- Papunya, Yuendumu, Hermannsburg, Santa Theresa. Afterwards, it’s estimated that over 1,500 attended: 400 cars were counted and there was a minor traffic jam on the way out.

I’ve lived in Alice Springs for over five years, and this is one of the largest mixed black and white attendances I’ve ever seen at a community event, with the exception of footy grand finals. It’s big for a film screening: community people will turn out if Aboriginal cast members, especially locals, are involved (Us Mob; even Australia), but it’s rare to see them at arthouse cinema offerings. Usually only a couple, if any, attend outdoor screenings of Flickerfest, often people who’ve crept in round the sides to watch.

Filmmaker Warwick Thornton stands off to one side, a stockman’s hat exchanged for his usual baseball cap, arms folded across his chest, talking to a few young Aboriginal men. His publicist tells me Thornton feels ‘half and half’ about the screening. He’s worried about how the town might respond to the film.

Once the bands leave the stage, the cast members are introduced amid cheers. Thornton takes the mike. He admits to the audience that the film’s premiere in Alice -- and the turnout -- is ‘pretty overwhelming for me’.

Samson and Delilah has already premiered as part of the film’s funding agreement at the Adelaide Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. The Alice Springs premiere is the first public screening; the next will be at the opening of Message Stick Film Festival on 5 May at the Sydney Opera House, just before its national cinema release on 7 May.

A pre-screening of the rough cut was held for members of the cast, crew and the Aboriginal communities involved. In an interview earlier that day, Thornton told me it was important to get the communities’ approval, for them to have a sense of ownership, before the film was released.

‘They absolutely loved it,’ he says. ‘Most people have said to us, “It’s a good film and an important film, and they want people to see it to understand that things are not right in communities".’

Thornton wanted Samson and Delilah to premiere in Alice before it received national exposure. The location of the screening is itself significant for a film about Aboriginal youth: the Bush Telegraph Station once housed members of the Stolen Generations.

What does Thornton think the town’s response to the film will be? Does he expect controversy, even outrage?

‘Bring it on, bring it on!’ he says. ‘I’m sick of it. I love this town; it’s my town.

‘But this is a hard town, a really hard town. We try and sweep stuff under carpets or behind rocks or we try and hide it.’


Samson and Delilah tells the story of two teenagers in central Australia whose youthful infatuation takes a more serious turn when circumstances force them to leave their remote community. The pair run away to Alice Springs, where they experience a rapid and hellish descent into life as street kids -- shoplifting from Coles to feed themselves, sleeping under a bridge in the Todd River, hawking paintings to tourists, and so on.

The local townsfolk are portrayed as largely dispassionate, at best oblivious to the two teenagers’ situation. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is subject to some particularly hostile incidents, which are all the more galling because the man she loves is so consumed by petrol sniffing that he fails to notice she’s in danger. Previously a ‘good girl’, she eventually succumbs and joins Samson (Rowan McNamara) in his habit.

From this sequence of events develops a more necessary love borne of survival: what Samson and Delilah have is each other. Ultimately, the pair return to an outstation on their traditional lands outside the community. The film’s ending suggests that their bond can trump adversity, although what the future might hold for them seems far from certain. There’s a sense of Groundhog Day for Delilah: the film opens with her looking after her grandmother and closes with her caring for Samson in a wheelchair.

Samson and Delilah is fairly bleak until its resolution: at one point, I thought the only place it could go was death. The film’s most controversial aspects are its depiction of life in the community and in town for Aboriginal teenagers. Samson and Delilah is frank in portraying the boredom, the mindless violence, the lack of attention or protection that often exists for young people in community life. It’s a brave gesture for an Aboriginal film-maker to put this material up on the big screen, especially when so many nuances of community life might be lost or subject to misinterpretation by mainstream audiences.

Thornton was born and grew up in Alice Springs. He spent his teenage years ‘living on the streets, hanging around at two o’clock in the morning in the Mall.’ Samson and Delilah draws directly from his experience: ‘Everything that’s in the film I’ve witnessed personally, seen it happen.’

Much of the impetus for making the film grew out of his concern that Aboriginal youth were being treated like untouchables in Alice Springs:

‘Kids can’t even walk into shops in this town without being followed. People cross the street when Aboriginal kids are walking down that side of the road.’

He points to the lack of diversionary schemes and even a youth centre for young people in Alice Springs:

‘Why are all these kids on the street? Well no one created a hub for them, a place of safety we’re they can go when there’s trouble in the camps or people are drinking or that sort of stuff.

‘There’s nothing for them. This is really basic, one-on-one youth diversionary stuff this town doesn’t even think of. Tangentyere and places like that are doing amazing things, but they need back-up from everyone, they need back up from the Council, they need back up from the Territory and federal governments.’

The film is beautifully shot using a single Panavision 35 mm camera to give it a high quality look, while remaining appropriately spare. Producer Kath Shelper explained to me before the screening that they deliberately avoided the encumbrances of a big production: ‘We made it low budget to give ourselves creative freedom. We knew that we would get the best results if we had a small, intimate family team.’

One of Samson and Delilah’s most arresting features is the lack of dialogue: the two teenagers communicate mainly through non-verbal gestures, particularly during the early sequences in the community. The spell almost seems broken once more dialogue (and in English) is introduced later in the film.

The untrained Aboriginal actors are particularly captivating. Mitjili Gibson, the title lead in Nana, provides another standout performance, which seems all the more remarkable given that she’s a member of the Pintupi, one of the last mobs to have come out of the desert. Rowan McNamara, himself a resident of Hidden Valley town camp, is compelling in his portrayal of a sniffer’s deterioration.

Thornton says that rather than bringing in trained urban actors, he deliberately chose kids from communities because ‘they bring their experiences.’ Neither of the teenage leads were sniffers but ‘they’d seen that stuff in their communities, so they could relate to it, draw on it.’


There is universal applause after the film but the mood is thoughtful. People hoping to relax on a Friday night to a romance, perhaps to a low budget Aboriginal version of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, are likely to have been disappointed. The film has been confronting. Some query whether it should have been screened as family entertainment, given its hard-core life material.

A friend, a local health worker, comments to me, ‘It made this town out to be a hard, uncaring place. I don’t think that’s the whole truth. There are some people who do some pretty amazing work here.’

She’s unhappy about the film’s depiction of the apparent lack of outreach and access to services for Aboriginal youth in town. She refers to some scenes where the increasingly destitute Delilah is ignored by a parish priest and then by the patrons of Bar Doppio, Alice Springs’ local latte sippers, to whom she tries to sell art. It’s common to see hawkers, more usually middle-aged Aboriginal women, trying to sell dot paintings in the town’s cafes.

‘I don’t think that people would have let a fourteen year-old girl go like that,’ my friend observes. ‘Someone would have at least asked about her.’

Thornton admits to being a local latte sipper and finding himself filtering out the hawkers: ‘You don’t know the story behind that person trying to sell you a painting.’

Blair McFarland of Youth Link Up Services, who has worked with petrol sniffers in central Australia for over twenty years, says that the film depicts is more indicative of the situation almost decade ago. With recent legislation and more local agencies targeting sniffers, it’s more likely that teenagers such as Samson and Delilah would be picked up when they come to town: ‘We would have been on the job like a shot.’

He endorses the film strongly, saying it’s ‘the most realistic thing I’ve ever seen’, except that ‘rather than one or two sniffers gathering under the bridge, two would have quickly become four, which would soon have become twelve.’

Local Aboriginal people refer to sniffers as ‘dingos, because they hang around the camp looking hungry.’ Teenagers such as Samson and Delilah, who don’t have the support of extended family members, have to fend for themselves.

McFarland hopes that Samson and Delilah will raise Australians’ awareness of the problems here, the need to work with Aboriginal youth, rather than focusing more energy on overseas aid projects.

Producer Kath Shelper says that in making the film, they wanted ‘to bring some understanding of these kids’ to the broader Australian community. She’s adamant, however, that Samson and Delilah is not as ‘issues’ film: she hopes the audience won’t be made up ‘of only people who are interested in Aboriginal issues.’

‘Warwick always says, “There aren’t issues for those kids in the film; that’s their life.”

‘It’s a film that’s designed to take you on a journey and to make you feel something and to be engaged. To think about yourself, more than to think about “Aboriginal issues”, in inverted commas.’

Love is Samson and Delilah’s through-line: ‘These kids are…trying to work all that out,’ Thornton says. ‘Anybody can relate to that, whether it’s a community they’ve never seen, witnessed or even thought about.’

Shelpa elaborates on why love became so central to the film: ‘It was really a conscious decision of Warwick to make it a love story for Australia more than anywhere else. To make you want to care about these kids, and want to watch them and care for them, and want to know their story.

'For Warwick and I, the most important thing was that Australia sees the film and embraces the film.’


After the screening, audience members pack away the remains of their picnics, roll up their swags and fold their deck chairs. Things are perhaps a little quiet for such a large gathering. People around me offer cautious, considered opinions: overall they think the film’s quality is high, even unexpectedly so, but they’re still weighing up its portrayal of the town’s issues.

It’s hard to generalise about what such a diverse audience might have felt: even during the film, there was laughter from community people in what were to me unexpected places. Tjilpi Buckley, a friend who attended with some local mob, tells me they were largely silent, reflective at the film’s close, although Aboriginal people tend not to volunteer opinions in a hurry.

It seems that whether or not they liked the end-result, Samson & Delilah touched the thoughts and hearts of the people whom Warwick Thornton has known all his life, and whose story he set out to tell.

Samson and Delilah premiered in Alice Springs on Friday, 17 April 2009.
This feature was written for Screen Hub, where it was published
on 20 April.
Photo credit: Facebook Samson & Delilah's Photos - Alice Spring Premiere

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Parallel importation: a disaster for Australian writers

Update: The Australian Publishers Association, the Printing Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Literary Agents’ Association and the Australian Society of Authors have banded together to form Australians for Australian Books. Those concerned at the proposed changes can sign their petition online, which is a counter to Dymock's aggressive campaign that misleadingly claims to be about cheaper books for consumers. I urge everyone interested in Australian literature to do so urgently, before this Friday, the deadline for responses to the Draft Proposal.

Below is a slightly extended version of my submission to the Productivity Commission, which is presently conducting a study on the copyright restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Parallel importation is the practice of importing overseas editions of books which are already available here through Australian publishers. The recommendation in the present draft report is that copyright restrictions are dropped after 12 months. The commission claims, on its own admission on slender or non-existent evidence, that this will make books cheaper for consumers.

By effectively removing ownership of the copyright of a book in an Australian writer's home country, this would have a devastating effect on Australian publishers. And also on Australian writers. Publishers, agents, authors, unions, many readers and most booksellers are overwhelmingly against changing the present situation (their submissions can be read online here and here).

I would like to register my opposition to the proposal to lift restrictions on the parallel importation of books. Such a move would have a significant impact on my ability to earn an income as a writer.

I make my living from the sales of my popular fantasy books, and am now - for the first time in two decades of writing - earning an independent income. This means I no longer apply for grants from the Australia Council to support the production of my poetry and prose. The income from my fantasy books subsidises my poetry (I am a prize-winning and internationally published poet) and the theatre criticism I write on my blog Theatre Notes, both time-consuming activities I pursue for reasons other than financial reward.

My fantasy books are published first in Australia, by Penguin Books Australia, and overseas publication follows in the UK, the US and Europe. This means that there are at least two English language editions of my books sold overseas, as well as the Penguin editions.

There is a small but significant fact that is being glossed by booksellers’ blithe claims that authors “still earn their royalties”. I earn a significantly higher percentage of royalties from books sold in Australia than from those sold overseas. Books that are published and sold here earn me the full 10 per cent royalty of the cover price. Books that are sold in overseas markets often have a smaller royalty – ranging from 6 to 8 per cent – and after that, under the agreements from my original publisher, I lose from 25 to 50 per cent of the gross royalty to the original publisher. This is a standard agreement which publishers all over the world use to ensure that their initial investment in an author is financially recognised.

This means that for every book sold in Australia that is NOT published by Penguin, I could lose up to half – or more – of the income I would earn if it were published by the local publisher. Worse, if a foreign publisher decided to dump remaindered copies on the Australian market, I would earn precisely nothing.

The Australian market is a significant proportion of the income that I generate as an author. And this is why territorial copyright is important to my financial independence.

Territorial copyright is a right for all authors in the United Kingdom and America. Neither of those countries, for good reason, is considering abolishing this protection for their own authors. Under the Productivity Commission’s suggested changes to the copyright law, Australian writers will no longer be able to compete on the same terms with writers in these countries.

My books are selling much more strongly now, seven years after they were first released, than when they were first published. The 12 month rule would only punish their further success, and would provide no protection for years of hard labour to writers like myself, who depend on a book’s steady longevity rather than a burst of sales.

The argument as presented by those who seek to lift restrictions is that it would make books cheaper for the consumer, and that those who oppose it are greedy corporate publishers. This is a populist argument with little regard for facts: the relative expensiveness of Australian books is far from proven, and it is less than certain that removing restrictions of parallel importation would make books any cheaper. And it certainly ignores the potential impact on authors.

The best way to make books cheaper for consumers would be to make them exempt from the GST. It was always a scandal that books were included in the first place.

This proposal would have a devastating impact on the local publishing industry – it certainly had negative effects when it was introduced in New Zealand, where the publishing industry now struggles to survive – which, on top of cutting my income, would have indirect effects as well on my ability to continue to write and publish in this country.

The only benefits that seem likely are increased profits for some retailers, from being able to import cheap or remaindered copies of books. This limited benefit would come at a heavy price to our presently healthy and competitive publishing culture, and would significantly affect the diversity of the books available to consumers.

My situation is far from singular. Artists are routinely urged to become self-sufficient, but parallel importation would make this goal even more difficult than it already is. If the Rudd Government claims to be backing a Creative Australia, why is it entertaining a proposal which would make it much harder for authors to earn a living, in a profession in which earning a decent living is already a rarity?

April 9, 2009

Alison Croggon is a poet, novelist and theatre critic based in Melbourne. As a poet, she won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes, and has been shortlisted for several Premier’s Poetry Awards. Her critically acclaimed fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor is a popular success in Europe, England and the US and was shortlisted in three categories in the Aurealis Awards, as well as being a Children’s Book Council recommended book. She is Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian newspaper and runs the theatre blog, Theatre Notes.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Remasculating" Reading

A recent survey of 2,000 adults in the United Kingdom found that 48% of women were "Page Turners", or regular readers, compared with 26% of men. Conversely, 32% of men were "Slow Worms", reading only one or two books a year, compared with 18% of women. Sounds like a literary brouhaha in the making! And the Guardian's bookblog is never shy about weighing into a literary brouhaha. Jean Hannah Edelstein's column reckons that "publishers need to 're-masculate' books if they want to get more men reading."

The battle of the sexes is always good for a laugh, and Edelstein's piece is tongue-in-cheek - she suggests re-packaging chick lit with blokey covers and creating a TV show with a foul-mouthed librarian. But jokes are rarely just jokes, and usually tap into some social anxiety. Edelstein's article is not a million miles away from more familiar arguments about the crisis of boys not reading. Which in turn are not a million miles away from the moral panic that attended the birth of the novel in the late eighteenth century, when a striking majority of readers were female. It's such a problem when women outperform men - even at something as facilely described as "page turning".

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beatles 1, Stones 0

Overheard while passing the second-year Printmaking student spaces today:

[young male 1, speaking as if orating] "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door"

[young male 2] "What was that, dude?"

[young male 1, slower] "Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door"

[young male 2] "Woah, cool."

Being a Beatles kinda chick, I did an mental thumbs-up and kept walking. Read more

News/non-native: Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist announced

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given to the best sci-fi novel published in the U.K. in a calendar year. The 2008 winner will be announced on April 29. Here's the shortlist:

Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (PS Publishing)

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic)

The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper (Gollancz)

Martin Martin’s on the Other Side
by Mark Wernham (Jonathan Cape)

More information here.
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Google vs Death, Round 2

Google Street View has finally launched in the UK and is already out of date. This is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. I'm more interested in checking up on where I used to be than where I am now, despite the new pictures looking like they're better quality than the Australian ones (and the taunts about growing up in a tip).
The Google camera car went up my street last summer. In fact, it went up my street twice:

I've talked before about how Street View's illusion of the present masks a preserved version of the recent past, already decaying and proving less and less true to reality. Now we can see street corners that exist simultaneously in two time zones at once.
For most Britons, the illusory, alternate-reality nature of Street View is immediately visible in the high streets. The economic downturn has worsened in the time between the photos being taken and appearing on the web. Google's Britain is a brighter, nostalgic land with fewer boarded-up shopfronts, where Woolworths, MFI, Zavvi, and other chain stores are still in business.

Back in Australia, the emerging anomalies are more poignant. On the main street of the town of Marysville in Victoria, the season abruptly changes from summer to winter for a few metres; then just as suddenly, the sky clears, the ground dries up again, and the trees regain their leaves. Of course, neither version is true: we know the town was all but obliterated by fire last month.

(Crossposted at Boring Like A Drill.)
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Friday, March 20, 2009

2009 Miles Franklin longlist announced

The longlist for this year's $42,000 prize has been recently announced.

It is:

Addition by Toni Jordan (Text Publishing)
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Penguin Books)
Breath by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton)
Fugitive Blue by Claire Thomas (Allen & Unwin)
Ice by Louis Nowra (Allen & Unwin)
One Foot Wrong by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)
The Devil's Eye by Ian Townsend (Harper Collins)
The Pages by Murray Bail (Text Publishing)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
Wanting by Richard Flanagan (Alfred A Knopf)

It's a big feather in the cap for Allen & Unwin, with five books shortlisted, and a down feather for Text with two. What are Allen & Unwin doing right (if you think making the shortlist is a good thing for authors and books…)?

This year's judges are Professor Robert Dixon, Professor Morag Fraser AM, Lesley McKay, Regina Sutton and Murray Waldren.

The Miles Franklin Award honours the memory of Australian author Miles Franklin by awarding a prize for "the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases".

The shortlist will be announced on 16 April 2009.

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Sentimental Education

When I was growing up I walked past this object all the time, for years, without realising what it was. As a small kid I simply thought it was a triangular, walled-off space and never thought about it being a work of art. I just wondered why that area was walled off, why there was no way in, and what was inside (I was too short to see over it).
Later on, I figured out that it was art: I'd found the plaque nearby which said it was 'Untitled' by Donald Judd. It was 'modern art' - minimalist and blank - but it still intrigued me because it was still extremely difficult to see what, if anything, was inside its walls (I was a late bloomer). Its featureless sides frustrated small kids' attempts to climb it.
For a while I thought that was the point of the sculpture: to zone off an area you couldn't see into. Finally attaining normal height put paid to that delusion, although the thickness of the walls still inhibit an easy view into the centre.
In any case, I grew up thinking of it as just one amongst many pieces of ugly public art scattered around Adelaide. It wasn't until much later that I understood the size of Judd's reputation and how unusual it was to have regular contact with a site-specific outdoor work by him. I assumed he had stuff like this scattered all over the world. I still can't see it without thinking it's bigger than it really is.
It doesn't surprise me to hear the work described as "controversial for Adelaide" although I never heard that when living there. Adelaideans tend to be pretty reticent. Unusually, the controversy seems to have been less about the art, and more to do with the artist visiting Don Dunstan's Adelaide being an American:
In the last phases of the Vietnam war, anti-American sentiment ran high and both the exhibition and Judd’s sculpture commission caused a public outcry in Adelaide. Local academics joined with students, political groups and the media to denounce this “American imperialism” and “servility to things foreign” through protests and a debate which continued into 1975.
(Crossposted at Boring Like A Drill.)
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture: From Dallas to SBS

The Henry Mayer Memorial Lecture is an annual address, hosted by Media International Australia (MIA) and the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Queensland. It seeks to honour the legacy of Henry Mayer the founding editor of MIA, especially his role in establishing media studies as a credible and significant field of research in Australia. The presenter this year, Professor Ien Ang, was asked to offer a personal reflection on her 30 year career as a media and cultural researcher.

Ang approached the lecture by drawing connections between the apparently disparate poles of her first book, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, and her most recent book, co-authored with Gay Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy, The SBS Story: The Challenge of Cultural Diversity. While at first glance the US television programme Dallas (1978-91) is emblematic of cultural homogeneity in the form of US cultural imperialism, and SBS has always been committed to its opposite, Ang pointed out that both have their origins in the same era, around 1980, a time when major changes were occurring in broadcast television in Western countries with a public service tradition.

Here, Ang noted that a programme like Dallas offered a kind of defacto cosmopolitanism to populations in those countries where public broadcasters like the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK were firmly focused on presenting their interpretation of 'the nation' to their audiences. As a migrant to the Netherlands from Indonesia at the time, Ang related how she experienced Dutch television's articulation of its nation as exclusionary, while Dallas offered a more global perspective to her as a trans-national individual.

Ang argued that her experience as a migrant in a Western country was not an uncommon one at the time and, even now that she lives in Australia, the question of who comprises the imagined nation of both public and commercial broadcasters remains an important one. She made particular mention of Australian television's fairly complacent Anglo-Celtic nationalism, citing the example of the priorities evident in many nightly news broadcasts, where news from overseas is rarely presented as if Australians have much stake in it.

It is this common context of immigration and Western nationalism, combined with a degree of 'luck' and 'happy confluence', to which Malcolm Fraser's government responded in a unique way, by sanctioning the establishment of a public broadcaster which was self-consciously worldly: SBS.

Here, Ang's argument is not one about 'quality' television news; she is not championing an elitist argument about taste. Rather she is taking issue with parochialism . The nuance of her argument is perhaps best illustrated in a distinction she makes about her earlier interest articulated in Watching Dallas.

Ang's interest in writing about the popularity of Dallas arose from her own enjoyment of the programme amid its 'facile dismissal' by 'elitist' commentators at the time. While the popularity of Dallas might have been enough for many to denigrate the programme and belittle those who enjoyed it, for Ang its popularity was precisely its point of interest. In her words she 'took popularity seriously'.

Throughout her study of people who liked to watch Dallas, Ang identified a shift in the reception of US television, specifically an ironic viewing mode characterised by 'cynical knowingness'. This mode offered a way for the 'hip' to relate to popular culture in a way that afforded them Cultural Capital. It is this viewing mode that became the hallmark of the 1990s when one could revel in 'loving great trash', to watch without fear of judgement.

In her presentation, Ang said that it was the ability to enjoy popular culture without fear of judgement that the scholarly discipline of Cultural Studies has both reflected and facilitated. Here, as an aside, she observed that one of the outcomes of revaluing popular culture has been that "high" culture is now the 'problematically ostracised category'. At the time of her research for Watching Dallas, however, Ang viewed the 'facile dismissal' of Dallas as evidence of a 'lack of empathy for difference', a willful 'othering' of others, which as a migrant she was always 'deeply suspicious' of.

Here the common thread linking Watching Dallas to The SBS Story becomes clear: the imperial cosmopolitanism of Dallas and the multi-cultural cosmopolitanism of SBS both offer an anchor, an oasis of inclusion, an extension of empathy, to disparate populations living within nations from any number of origins.

Ang concluded her talk with some more comments about SBS. She discussed the 'debilitating' and often 'bitter controversies' that have raged around the idea of SBS between those from 'grassroots' ethnic communities who are interested in programming in their own language, and the 'Anglo-elite' who have charged SBS with 'dumbing down' its programming, particularly following its recent commercialisation. Amongst other trends at SBS she noted the shift in their mode of address away from one of cosmopolitanism towards prioritising the national.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beautiful Fighting Bodies

We all read a couple of months ago about how Mickey Rourke, star of The Wrestler and 2009 Academy Award nominee, was “lost” to A-list Hollywood for more than ten years. So profound was his fall, so seemingly permanent his failed career, that he has now risen from the dead, and his comeback in this movie was feted by many critics as more of a “resurrection”.

But Rourke was never lost or dead to the cosmetic surgery community. What do I mean by community? Recipients, fans, scholars, researchers, practitioners, voyeurs—all those who are fascinated by cosmetic surgery and have a love, or a hate, or (more often) a love/hate relationship with it. This relationship usually includes knowing and discussing who’s had what “work” done, whether it is considered “good”, “bad”, or “too much”, and whether it has helped or hindered his/her career. It’s a kind of celebrity-spotting meets stand-around-and-stare-at-a-car-crash sort of passion (see

Rourke has been one of the bad boys of the cosmetic surgery world for over a decade. He’s probably had face-lifts, implants, peels, fillers, botox, etc., all in the name of beauty. So to cast him as a broken-down, verging on a heart-attack, ageing pro-wrestler may seem strange, even bizarre. And yet as I watched the movie I felt almost punch-drunk by the absolute appropriateness of it, not merely because Rourke had a former career as a professional boxer, but because he looks like someone who has physically suffered, repeatedly, for a long time. His lips, swollen with silicon or some other filler, his eyes, “lifted” until they are small and closed, his skin, stretched as if contorted by scarring, are utterly believable as the features of someone who has fought and taken blows all his life.

The wrestler’s body might endure contusions, swellings, breaks and bruises. The cosmetic surgery recipient’s body might endure contusions, swellings, breaks and bruises. Both are bodies on display, bodies performing, bodies designed for being in public. And both are bodies subject to vicious, often violent, scrutiny. The parallels between professional fighting and cosmetic surgery are horrifying if you allow the analogies free rein. During the gruesome staple gun scene I kept thinking about abdominoplasty (“tummy tuck”) stapling. And I loved the scenes where Randy attended the tanning and hairdressing salons—ironically making himself beautiful so he could be subjected to attack—the brown skin and white hair made him look like an inflated Donatella Versace.

I think Rourke’s is a face of our times. It’s beautiful, ruined, extreme, hopeful, expensive, and abused. It shows an incredible history. Where will this famous face go from here? I can’t wait to see how he is cast from now on.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dance Massive

"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! - There is nothing like dancing after all. - I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."

"Certainly, Sir; - and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. - Every savage can dance."

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It's not surprising that Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, a product of a literate, aristocratic and above all language-centred society, should feel discomfort with dancing. In his snooty dismissal of its value to civilised life is an unspoken fear: he quite rightly suspects that there is an innate quality in dance that subverts the realities which language seeks to legislate - the ordered layers of the class system, for example, or the rational syntax of an ordered (colonial) society in which everyone knows his or her place, itself rigidly predetermined by race and birth.

Although we're a long way from 19th century England, dance still holds that subversive possibility. Partly it's the inescapable eroticism of dance, its insistence on the physical reality of the human body. Dance imbricates the certainties of language with its own language of gestural ambiguities. No matter how pure and effortless a movement might seem to be, those watching are still aware of the dancer's weight landing on a stage, the heaviness of a body in tension with its dynamic flight. Even more insistently than in the theatre, the metaphor of dance grounds itself on literal fact: the body on stage performs, and the body off-stage watches, responds, and generates the multiple narratives that individual imagination brings to performance.

This might seem to be the absolute basis of performance, the irreducible earth from which all else grows. But a lot of contemporary dance seems to zero in on even these assumptions, holding up the relationship between performer and audience to relentless and fascinating scrutiny. Inert - a collaboration between dancer /choreographers Simon Ellis and Shannon Bott, designer Scott Mitchell, sound designer David Corbet and videographer Cormac Lally - is a radical example.

Inert is performed by two dancers for an audience of two, which is interesting enough as a proposition. My curiosity was piqued still further when I was asked for my height (why could they possibly need that detail?) I confess to feeling slightly nervous beforehand as I waited in the anteroom with my co-audient at North Melbourne Town Hall, knowing already that this would probably be a uniquely naked experience. After all, when you are part of an audience, you are - or at least, you feel that you are - invisible. As John Berger points out, the gaze is a powerful authority. What happens to that authority, that entitled sense of selfhood, when the artwork looks back, and it can't be looking at anyone except you?

Even so, as the usher led me into the room where the performance took place, there was also an sense of immense privilege. Effectively, a dancer was to dance for me alone. It was like being the Sun King (if you can imagine the North Melbourne Town Hall as a kind of Versailles...oh, never mind...) This mixture of contradictory feelings, disempowerment and privilege, was made more complex still as we were each led to vertical metal slabs, perhaps two metres apart. These looked like nothing so much as operating tables, with footrests on which we were asked to stand. Then we were both given cushions to place behind our heads and headphones to cover our ears. From then on, we were uniquely alone: for the rest of the performance, I was aware of everybody in the room except my co-audience member.

The effect of all this preparation was twofold: I was wholly passive, my arms hanging down, my eyes directed forward. It seemed impossible to move (and there was no desire to, either). It was almost infantalising, like being in hospital. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the weight and shape of my own body, and of the dancer before me (Simon Ellis), who began his dance as an ambient electronic soundscape began to fill my ears. Mainly, as if my gaze was riveted in front of me, I watched Ellis, although I was aware of Shannon Bott dancing the same moves. It was almost as if it was discourteous not to watch "my" dancer all the time, although my gaze flickered across the room. For their part, the dancers performed solely for their chosen audient, except for one moment where each acknowledged the other, glancing across the room.

For the first few minutes I felt very exposed. I was sensitised to the weight of the smallest gesture - my own as well as the dancer's. Should I meet the dancer's eyes? Or was that presuming too far on a relationship that was, after all, between strangers? Was I trying too hard not to look self-conscious, too obviously breathing to relax myself? But after a while, I lost that self-consciousness and found a deeper awareness not mediated by shyness; I became absorbed in the dance itself. My sense of self-presence was subtly alienated and sharpened by the headphones, which provided a kind of privacy; and yet at the same time I was unable to forget the weight of my body, that I took up as much space as the dancers.

Then Ellis approached me, and there was a brief moment of something rather like terror - was he going to touch me? (Why should that be terrifying? Or was it pleasure? Or both?) But no, he grasped the slab and began to push it very slowly backwards, until I was aware that there was a screen above my face, less than a metre above me, and that images were flickering across it.

These were intimate images of Ellis: close-ups of his hands, filmed so you could see the grainy texture of the skin, or of his face, smiling at me (no, not smiling at me, smiling at the camera, at someone else, at some other time). They were accompanied by a voice whispering urgently into my ears, speaking obliquely of a relationship, all of it addressed to a "you", that might have been "me", although I knew it wasn't, it was someone else. But it was said to me all the same. This was, interestingly, the most intimate part of the performance: the filmed images permitted me a proper invisibility and distance, I suppose. And now my body was floating in space, in some other dimension, fully aware, fully relaxed. The words became more insistent, even a little hostile, and then I was looking at an image of feet hanging, two shiny black shoes suspended above a skirting board, and for a moment I thought, oh no, this is death, he has hanged himself; but then I realised it was an extreme slomo shot of Ellis jumping.

Finally, when the monologue had finished, Ellis slowly turned the slab to the vertical again. This time I was wholly aware of my changing centre of gravity, of the heaviness of my feet and the way the organs inside my body shifted. There was a brief dance, and then the lights went out. I wasn't sure if I should clap - one person clapping in an empty room can seem much louder than a whole auditorium - and was led out into the world. During the performance the skies had burst and big fat drops of rain were falling outside the window. I was so disoriented, a feeling that persisted for at least an hour, that I thought at first that the sound of the raindrops was another performance. Which perhaps it was. God's own installation.

What stays with me is the enormous tact of this performance: it was an act of radical destabilisation that was never anything but gentle. It demonstrated that intimacy is, more than anything else, the act of noticing details, of sharpening the gaze from the general to the acutely particular. When I walked out, I ruminated on the final words: This is not real. Of course it was real, in the same ways, and with the same contradictions, that the whole world is real, and the intimacy wasn't wholly false. But of course it was a fiction as well.

It's hard to think of a greater contrast to Inert than Chunky Move's spectacular Mortal Engine. Unusually for Gideon Obarzanek, who has been the among the most restlessly experimental minds attacking the question of spatial relationships between audience and performers, Mortal Engine is a straight proscenium arch show, with the audience front-on to a steeply raked stage, that is itself framed within the darkened space of a theatre. So far, one might think, so conventional.

But of course, Chunky Move is never that straightforward. Mortal Engine is in fact a continuation of Obarzanek's collaboration with the technical magician Frieder Weiß, who designed the interactive system that drives the light and sound in this show. The first fruit of their work was the solo dance Glow, a lyrical gem that evolved disturbing and beautiful choreographies of body and light. Glow, performed on a square mat in what was effectively a boxing ring, had a visceral intimacy and elegance of form that is here opened out, with phenomenal sensual success if not without a concomitant loss, into spectacle.

The radical alienation of Mortal Engine begins before the performance starts, in the low lighting of the auditorium. It is dark enough to fool the eyes, for individual faces to be thrown into relief by the yellow light against pools of blackness. In stark contrast to Inert, the audience is invisible, hidden in shadow. The dancers emerge from this shadow like primeval life forms creeping out of the id, falling down the steep face of the stage in their self-generated pools of light and shadow.

The show's dream-like feeling is underlined by a series of almost domestic sequences that punctuate the dance. A couple seem to be lying in a double bed (actually a vertical wall that rises from the foot of the set), turning in the blind, clumsy intimacy of sleep. The scenes seem like those infrared films taken of sleeping people, and carry a similar sense of voyeuristic invasiveness, except that as they move strange things happen - in one sequence they writhe away from gelatinous shadows, with an amplified noise like damp sticking plaster, and in another they are possessed by a field of electric energy, which explodes out of their bodies in a visible field.

Mortal Engine is, as its title indicates, a choreography of dualities - male and female, waking and dream, self and other, flesh and machine, light and shadow - moving in a constant state of flux and tension. Most of it is characterised by ambiguity: in this world, a dancer can "throw" light just as he or she throws a shadow. But at other times images evolve with a sinister directedness: near the beginning, a dancer is menaced by a many-legged shadow, a humanoid mass that swallows her and from which she fights free, only to be swallowed again. In another, a woman lies on top of a man, pinning down his every movement, his shadow blotted out by hers.

The vivifying sense of tension is missing in a sequence that is pure light show. It features spectacular sound-sensitive graphics but, without the complexity of the human body, they remain just a retinal explosion. It's frenetically brilliant, but lacks the visceral connection that otherwise dramatically emphasises the emotional textures - including the alienations - of Obarzanek's choreography. The danger of spectacle is, of course, that it remains merely spectacle.

There are sequences that are blindingly beautiful - dancers moving across the white stage as little flecks of shadow fall down from their gestures, like trails of confetti, or two dancers moving through grids of light that move chaotically where their bodies touch. And the final laser sequence, in which dancers control the lighting with their arms, carves the auditorium into strange fluid chambers defined by green light. After all this distancing, this ocular estrangement, we are fleetingly in a small room with the dancer, enclosed by rippling walls of darkness. It's deeply unsettling, at once intimate and alien. As if, as it almost seemed to be in the beginning, the dance emerges from our own dreaming.

Top: Simon Ellis in Inert. Photo: Nat Cursio; Bottom: Charmene Yap in Mortal Engine. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

Dance Massive:

Inert, choreographed and performed by Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis, designed by Scott Mitchell, sound by David Corbet, videography/editing by Cormac Lally. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 15.

Mortal Engine, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, interactive system design Frieder Weiss, laser and sound artist Robin Fox, set design by Richard Dinnen and Gideon Obarzanek, lighting by Damien Cooper. Dancers (rotating): Kristy Ayre / Sara Black / Amber Haines / Antony Hamilton / Marnie Palomares / Lee Serle / James Shannon / Adam Synnott / Charmene Yap. Chunky Move @ the Malthouse Theatre, closed.

Cross-posted to Theatre Notes

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Apologies for the absence

Welcome to a temporary Sarsaparilla!

Late last year it was felt that Sarsaparilla would benefit from a dust and polish, but in the process of getting out the Mr Sheen, the whole structure collapsed and it was discovered that the host server didn't like owning us. Picking up the pieces has taken longer than we thought, so this blog spot has been set aside as an interim measure.

Stick around, join in, have your say, and keep in touch. We'll let you know as soon as possible where Sarsaparilla proper will be living. Read more