Un/funny girl

I took part in a flash writing competition. A genre was decided, and certain items had to be included, all to be presented in a predetermined setting. Participants got a few hours to come up with a story under 1000 words.

Say no to quips and japes of ye olden days past.

Quoth nay to quips and japes of ye olden days past.

My group got comedy. While I came up with a story, or a draft, I’m not sure it was funny. Or not in the way I wanted it to be. Given almost every thing was provided bar the actual plot, I struggled. It felt forced and unnatural, as I crammed attempts at humour into something I hadn’t imagined.

Partly, I blamed the location – a school. Not such an inherently comedic place for me, I’ll be honest, unless tragi-comic. Or funny in a sad way. But that’s an exaggeration too. I had a situation comedy. I don’t think the situation I created was hilarious, but it at least it included the elements required and was the right length. It was a story. It attempted something. But of all the writing competitions and requirements I have attempted only this felt too constrained.

In the end, my lil story probably suffered from trying too hard within too short a time. A few more drafts, perhaps, and I might have made the next round.

What is it about comedy?

Ages ago, I watched Felicity Ward Live at the BBC (ABC iView if you’re in Australia and so inclined). Her show was full of jokes and witticisms, which worked, while her narrative arc was confused and jumpy, or it was initially. But it was also the point of her show. The magic of stand up is repetition (of ideas, gestures, and phrases) and the call backs to unrelated points. For an hour of comedy about anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome, amongst other issues, it was funny. And I could see her ‘working out.’ I didn’t mind that I could work backwards from her act to see how she pieced it together. It was satisfying.

Ward’s beats, meandering anecdotes, accents and explanations were well crafted. When it was jumpy and energetic it was a deliberate choice, when it wasn’t, it was also deliberate. The audience ‘fell’ for it, to quote Ward.

My judges were much like this: not amused.

My judges were much like this: not amused.

This is not just a long-winded attempt to say her routine was well-timed, although it was also that. Not every piece of it worked as well it each other bit, but it all contributed to the story she was telling about herself. It was odd and gross, and heartbreaking, a bit. But the funny won.

I had a few hours to come up with an attempt at humour. I am struck by the hours of writing and rehearsal to get a comedy routine like Ward’s polished and shiny. And thus, ever, am I dumbfounded at claims that comedy writing is easy or unworthy compared to other kinds of writing.

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Passing Strange & another quarrel

Ok, so I went and saw another ‘super’ origin story where an emotionally flawed, but brilliant and successful middle-aged white American man hits a roadblock in life and collapses in a heap. After the inciting incident, he seeks redemption/healing and discovers a calling that’s bigger than himself, but apparently still all about him.

That the titular hero trails conceit in a broken wake of consumerist fantasy Bond-lite fast living as a commentary on the emptiness of the American Dream can be argued, but this is conveyed in speedy vignettes and one liners rather than as fleshed out scenes. And thus can be skipped over as the rest of the film endorses almost all his life choices.

Dr Strange, not the white knight you are looking for. Unless you want a narcissist with over achievement issues.

Dr Strange, not the white knight you’re looking for. Unless you want a narcissist with over achievement issues.

And yet Dr Strange wasn’t horrible. There was drama, action, and attempts at comedy. I don’t want to hate films, mainly because they take so much work to create – just watch the full credits. So I don’t hate this. Most of it worked, even if I question the basis of some of the mystical dualistic assumptions.

The film fulfilled its purpose and I was distracted from much about real life and was entertained enough. The effects were interesting and the Doctor Who time loop solution when Strange basically faced a giant Satan was clever.

And yet, such films go out of their way to invite the likes of me to ponder unanswerables, like wouldn’t it be great if girlfriend type characters weren’t just like convenience stores, full of helpful stuff (such as surgery skills and interpreting emotions), and always available (for aiding secret business at the super hero’s beck and call).

In the end, this film has the same criticisms as most of the Marvel and DC scripts…they are straitjacketed by their own comic heritage, given their genesis in much more colonialist, localised and sexist times. And I say that in full awareness of the current backlash against globalisation and ‘PC’ agendas.

I sit and watch a British actor play a US surgeon against a character who was originally Asian played by a British white woman with a supporting ‘minority’ cast and I am conflicted about that. Yay for Tilda! Boo for Tilda. And I’m conflicted about whether we need the bread and circuses of Hollywood more than ever or not at all. As an individual there is very little I can do against the political and societal systems that leave me vulnerable and devalue my humanity. And when, like many, I want to escape them through cinema, I am reminded of them. But can I blame Hollywood, since it is a part of the world and also thrives on this?

Real mystical document.

Real mystical document.

So yes, the film industry demonstrates the worst excesses of globalisation, but also the best. The fact that countless millions of people across the same week or month can experience the same story and be entertained across cultures and languages is frankly pretty cool. That it employs millions of people to tell stories is my jam. That Dr Strange turned out to be a commentary on the dangers of religious fanaticism was interesting.

However.

The fact that the entire film industry maintains gendered pay disparities, and complex accounting mysteries is concerning. That it standardises measures of beauty that are impossible for basically everyone is problematic, and that it misses the stories of entire populations is worse, all while exploiting vulnerable youth, underpaying creators, and often messing up the environment it works in.

So yeah…

And this happens while churning out the same types of movies with similar men as the same type of hero in a one-dimensional, mostly mono-cultural conga line of celebratory machismo. I’m not surprised.

But Dr Strange wasn’t going to change anything. It never could. Even if it portrayed the Ancient One as Asian, even if Dr Strange was a woman. As I said, it is still bound by its past and to jettison that is to present something that is not the Marvel its readers know and love. But not all movie goers are comics readers. I guess I will continue to wait for Marvel 2.0, or iMarvel 3000 or Marvel Redux.

Or something. Note to self: just watch the film.

Dr Strange: not as mystically weird as I wanted, and heroically familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of myth. Not the worst Marvel film, but not the greatest. Like Inception, with glowy lights and colourful costumes.

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…don’t hurry the journey at all…

Beyond my family there are a few people who directly informed my life and who saw, or lit, the spark of promise in me. Special first off honour goes to Margaret Muller, my high school English teacher, for whom I strove to tame my wild run on sentences across essays and stories. Thank you for believing I could make it at the next level. And I did.

Bendigo. Hasnt changed much.

The next level: seat of learning in Bendigo. 

University was the place I dreamt of ever since I had learned such places existed. However, whereas I imagined ancient, monumental buildings, and darkened timber libraries, there was Bendigo. A collection of oddly shaped brown brick 1970s and 80s towers sitting on a hill in the outer suburbs of a regional Victorian town. It turned out it delivered exactly what I never knew I wanted from a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities. There was the sweep of historical traditions, literature and philosophy.  The course made my narrow life wide with the magic of possibility. Finally, there were people who understood the things I was interested in.

Despite a degree or two, I can’t adequately convey the importance of Dr Roger Sworder to my intellectual growth. He founded and defended the course I studied. He introduced myriad students to The Odyssey, to Greek philosophers beyond Plato and Aristotle, and to a way of reading a text that influences me still. And I hope, for always.

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His lecture delivery was magnetic. His stage presence held a restive student audience captive like none other, whether he was declaiming Constantine Cavafy or the Myth of Er, in his Oxford accent, or expounding the attributes of Parmenides.

Towards the end of my degree he was the first and only person to demand I attempt the Honours year. It was this act of trust, perhaps, out of many others, that lives with me most.

Dr Sworder supervised my Honours thesis with much patience and goodwill across a steaming hot summer in his little office crammed with books, but no computer, with its westerly window.

Sadly, it wasn’t my best work. In my grief for my mother, and inexperience, it never could be, but if I disappointed him, he never revealed it.  After that I occasionally encountered Dr Sworder during my first attempt at a MA, and then whenever I could attend his public events and speeches.  I was honoured to have him request a copy of my newspaper review of his 2003 Worner Lecture.

Life went on. I moved. He retired and I read his books and articles.

And now he has died.

I told one of my friends once that what we had taken part in wasn’t a degree, it was an initiation into an understanding of the cultural legacy of the Western world. We didn’t just parse The Odyssey, Dr Sworder immersed us in its symbolic meaning. He enriched the world. But such bald statements do not convey the profundity of the experience. And I am bereft not only because someone I admire has died, but because so many missed out. We precious few. We graduates.

Now, more than ever, we need intellectuals and writers such as Dr Sworder. I know this because he argued this best.

All that is left to say is that I am intellectually who I am, in part, due to Dr Sworder and his course.  He and his colleagues in Bendigo shaped my interests and although it is many years since I was an undergrad, these interests remain. Thus, I can argue Enheduanna of Ur deserves the same level of sophisticated attention he brought to Plato and Parmenides.

Therefore, I am glad I met him. I am glad for his teaching and supervision. I am forever in his debt for Dr Sworder’s influence.

And I can’t stop crying.

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Gettin’ schooled

Some minor spoilers ahead…

As best as I can tell, the enthusiasm ahead of the debut of Doctor Who spin-off Class (ABC iView and ABC2 in Australia) has been cautious, perhaps doubtful. Many (me included) would prefer more Who, than new. Or a return to Torchwood, rather than what could be considered Torchwood Senior High, the Angst Years.

Having watched the first two episodes, I appreciate the self-awareness of the main characters, and the reflexivity of the writing. The program immediately identifies where it sits alongside others, what with the first episode’s ‘prom night’ shenanigans. Without direct references to Buffy, anyone familiar with that program would immediately see similarities. Even the premise: of Coal Hill Academy with an oddly high body count of the missing and deceased, is basically your Sunnydale High circa 1997.

Except, rather than have one obvious leader, Class is a cast full of  intelligent Willow and caring Xander types with a reluctant Watcher Rupert Giles as teacher Ms Quill. This makes it interesting, so while there is a ‘posh’ Prince he is too new to lead – and that would be too typical as well. While, as the only adult really in on the situation, Ms Quill’s power is modified by her complicated relationship to the Prince. So she is not a leader either. Class is more than a title then, it’s a motto. They may ‘win’ by working together. But what kid actually enjoys class group work projects?

Ye olde study of the bunghole of time.

Ye olde study of the bunghole of time.

The first Big Bad is defeated, perhaps too easily, given they wiped out the population of an entire planet. And the program is gruesome in a way Buffy wasn’t. For all the vampires there wasn’t much actual blood. There is more blood in Class so far, thus English Prom Night looks more like Carrie with Aliens. And more shadows, but these aren’t infected.

However, this isn’t 1997. These students have the technology, for starters. While Buffy took a series to defeat a demon robot, things happen more quickly at Coal Hill.  And the reason is the Torchwood scenario stuff comes through not a ‘rift’ but a ‘bunghole’ and they must defeat them or convince them to stand down, go away or return home. Fast.

In the space of two episodes they encountered at least three sorts of aliens and others who will obviously lead into an arc. They’ve witnessed murder, been injured, had stories of genocide related, and generally had a really traumatising time in a more visceral way than most Doctor Who episodes of late. Speaking of which, yes, they met The Doctor, who conveniently turned up to provide their mission statement and improve the lighting. Look for the call back to Clara too. Gone, but not quite forgotten.

These kids were never going to carouse like it was 1899 anyway. Too high functioning.

These kids were never going to carouse like it was 1899 any way. Too stressed & high functioning.

So yeah, we’ve seen this before, a group of smart kids who are pop culture clever in the midst of growing emotionally through what they identify as PTSD. There are less puns than Buffy, but more inclusivity. Class wears this on its sleeve, so it’s diverse in terms of species (alien and human), in terms of sexuality, ability, and cultural background. There are jokes about Nigerian parents amid peer grief counselling and when the new kid from ‘Sheffield’ admits he is an alien this is amusingly accepted immediately, because obvious.

And kudos to the camera people, the opening shots of the first episode were well done.

It makes me nostalgic for the best of Torchwood, and Buffy. But we’ll see, hopefully Class will evolve into its own thing.

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There was only one catch?

These days, I’m reminded of Yossarian.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”
― Joseph Heller, Catch 22

No one is trying to kill me, but everyone seems like a target, and things certainly seem personal. The sounds bites are immediate, and in my hand on my phone. Along with the name calling and criticisms, and the insults exchanged for opinions and facts. Pixelated hate spat out in a second as a game with nothing at stake, because after all the entire world is an ugly “locker room” and they are only “words.”

Like Yossarian, I am damned as a whinging feminazi if I try to respond, and damned for condoning it if I don’t.

But it must be ok? It’s just some men complaining of “concessions” fought for by generations of women? Right?

Do I bother to assert their attribution of their suffering to feminism is wrong?

If I do explain their bad experiences are due to the patriarchal dividend, they can’t believe me. They can’t see that the system that oppresses women, also fails the men who are poor, less educated, or people of colour, or of differing ability, and sexual orientation. It fails across the globe. But all I see is their claim it is all women’s fault. Furthermore, any individual woman’s failings undermines the entire premise of feminism.

It’s always been all about Eve (of destruction).

How convenient it is for some to forget the entire world is a place where men have been for thousands of years, and remain, the “gold standard.” From marriage contracts, office temperatures to sport coverage, to reviews of novels, to how weather events with men’s names are taken more seriously than ones with women’s names .

How easy it was to feel the jibes thrown at my prime minister were also directed at me: “deliberately barren”.

How easy it has been.

“You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated, or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Corruption depresses you.”

But it’s not just that I’m taking population trends personally.

Oh no.

When I was visible: 

I wonder if he remembers the delight he took in demanding to know whether I was “frigid” at age 12. I never asked to be followed after netball one evening, aged 16, because I wore my skirt. I didn’t request the bullying from a class room full of boys when during high school I repeated a year. My mother never knew her boyfriend felt entitled enough to invite me, a teen, into a threesome. I made sure I was never alone with him and felt the relief when they broke up. After a university colleague was murdered by a man with schizophrenia, I endured my own schizophrenic stalker. On campus, I felt cornered into laughing at your jokes at the expense of ‘festy’ women because if I didn’t then I was one of them. I was patient as male students and later fellow employees repeated my comments and recommendations, and were rewarded. You didn’t bother to ask my name when you wanted to take me back to your place. I arched my eyebrows as you addressed the men around me when I asked a question. I did not consent to that nightclub kiss. I didn’t ask you, you who have not done my job, to explain my work as I was speaking. I never requested, passing pedestrians, your leers, recommendations on smiling more, and suggestions on not eating something because I “might get fat”.

Now I am invisible: 

I don’t want your grudgingly granted concessions. I don’t need your labels. I don’t want to need your systems of recognition and achievement that keeps everyone but you, out.

I don’t want your locker room.

I want a clean slate.

We begin again and when we do, we are equal.

This means we may be different, but we agree our differences aren’t used as weapons. Your strength doesn’t dominate, it supports, while our skills and abilities aren’t weaknesses, but co-create this world. We complement and compliment. Each of us is celebrated. No one is owned, threatened, invaded or degraded. I am for me, my body is for me, what I do and how I dress is for me. And your life and body is for you. We believe each other when we speak. We ask for consent. We listen and hear. We are encouraged. I am not understood only in the context to my relationship with others, my roles or body and neither are you. We see each other as fully human. We are human. We are never a means to an end.

Don’t believe we need this? Believe Joseph Heller.

“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused, or abandoned….When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere.”
― Joseph Heller, Catch 22

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Review: De ga ga and state of the art

The Edgar Degas exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is almost at an end. I  have been thinking about it a bit, because while I was excited to attend, I didn’t connect as I have to other ‘blockbuster’ exhibits. I wondered if it was me or Degas.

Faux mythology, a tableaux of actors on set between scenes.

Faux mythology: a tableaux of actors on set between scenes.

Degas could be seen as a kind of proto-ethnographer, depicting in detail the private worlds of ballet dancers, everyday women and also, horses and horse racing. That may do the ‘art’ in his works an injustice, even as it highlights his observational skills. His dancers and nudes are going about their business of living. They look like candid ‘shots’.  They aren’t ‘sexy’ even if they are in various stages of undress. That’s not to say they aren’t posing, or that Degas is not watching. Perhaps we are too used to this, with our Instagrams and FBs. Candid is no big deal. Observing a moment in time, and rendering it from memory might be more of a thing, but that’s the process, not the product.

 

Momento Mori: murdered child ballerina, entombed in her glass case, face to the light.

A murdered child ballerina as art. Entombed in a glass case, face to the light, no member of the public can meet, or perhaps deserves to meet, her eternal gaze.

The Romantic and Impressionist artists and poets sank into their despair by way of a kind of luxuriant antique drama, especially when they were sick and starving. Degas is not Romantic and not an Impressionist. He shows the sadness of the real without the cloak of myth. He paints the effect of absinthe on its drinkers, not through a fog of it.

Maybe I don’t want real as viewed by some man more than a hundred years ago?

The work that most caught my attention was his statue of the ballerina in her dress, but again, it wasn’t the piece itself, but her story and Degas’ too. She was 14 when she was murdered as a child prostitute and ballerina. She was also Degas’ first and last public exhibition of his sculpture such was the outcry.

Perhaps there is something in his pictures that makes the viewer feel complicit?  Even with the most famous paintings, seeing them in situ, as small and un-presupposing objects, doesn’t reduce them as much as it reduces the viewer?

Portrait of an artist. Not a nude, not a prostitute who is also a ballerina, but an artist as an artist.

Portrait of an artist. Not a nude, not a prostitute who is also a ballerina, but an artist as an artist. Where’s her exhibition?

 

He studied his subjects carefully, often repetitively, but for all the ballet and bouquets there is an underworld quality to his the work. It is social commentary.  His subjects are illuminated in the footlights and he (and we with him) are in the dark.

Degas’ paintings, sculptures and drawings are work, not poetry, not impressions; they demand serious consideration as art and as documents of a world where a man could make enough money to support his family, by depicting those would likely never possess the means nor power to achieve economic independence nor social mobility. I don’t know, after seeing all this, what to think of that.

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Beethoven/Turner (Overdrive)

There’s nothing like writing procrastination research- attending a free gig by three members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performing three movements by Beethoven, while in between Ronald Vermeulen, Director of Artistic Planning, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and John Payne, Senior Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria, chat enthusiastically about Beethoven and a William Turner painting they sit before but did not obscure.

There was art, there was music, there was me scribbling down everything I could, because that’s what I do.

I may have mentioned this before, but I used to play violin. By play, I mean attempt to learn. I wasn’t accomplished and my family had me practice in the disused shearers’ quarters. My parents may have been secretly relieved when I stopped. But watching this trio (Freya Franzen – violin, Christopher Cartlidge- viola and Racheal Tobin on cello), I was reminded of the physicality of playing. Listening to music on a device makes it too easy to imagine all music as disembodied. But people make it, and making is active. It is full of people moving: present tense. A bit like the painting is a record of movements made, by hand, by brush, by fingers: past tense.

And the rest, is silence.

And the rest, is silence.

This trio’s interpretation of Beethoven’s work tumbled down from doom into playfulness, with the notes chasing each other. First, the sweeter violin led the mellow viola, then the viola was echoed by the violin with the cello as a foundation. They flew through the air, notes crashed and sprang and leaped, like the waves on the rocks of the Turner painting, like the clouds in the Constable landscape, like swallows in spring through the poetically depicted ruinous castle. It was clever and I could hear what Vermeulen was saying about Beethoven following conventional classical musical expectations and then controverting then.

Before he could upend all musical history though, there were rules to be learned, and then broken. So too in art, Turner bothered to make his first rendition of the view accurate, even prosaic, as the x-ray much later revealed, before he changed it. He made the scene of the cliff more monumental, made the sea more wild. It’s like he made a perfect, accurate draft, and messed it up and by messing, made it better, I think. There’s a lot to be said for mess.

It probably wasn’t like that, but if it was, it is like the reverse of note taking. I couldn’t write a cogent essay straight off, as I listened. Instead, I made messy notes and got quotes in my bad hand writing. Then waited to organise my thoughts. But it doesn’t perhaps, have to be that way. Turner and Beethoven didn’t think so.

I need to remember too, to stop. Stop composing when I should be noticing. Stop cleaning when I should be messing. Stop note taking when I should just notice.

I need to stop composing when I should be listening. Stop cleaning when I should be messing. 

What appeals to me is that in music and painting, work must be done to discover the Ur-text – the most accurate and original version of the work. Time and decay, years of interpretation, yellowing vanish, fly marks on manuscript scores, all distort what the artist intended. So, there’s the picture and the picture underneath, or one version of the score, and one interpretation amongst many. I also like that while some of my stories are published, they may not be the definitive version.

Since I love reading into things as a critic, I feel affinity towards the conservator and the musicologist. However, if I misunderstand a text, nothing much is at stake, but with one flaw in their techniques and centuries of history and work is at risk. Messing with an artistic legacy is a big deal.

I need to get back to actively messing around with my stories.

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