The Last Post

I have a small suitcase of letters from years gone by that I’ve dragged from one house to the next. They’re almost relics, these letters, written by hand and posted, in a letterbox! How quaint. One day I decided to put sentences from the various letters together, just out of curiosity, to see if the people who had written to me would make up a ‘composite friend’.

The resulting letter had its own strange and beautiful logic and although I knew who had written each line, the letter now seemed to have been written by the universe, to itself and to everyone who lived there. So it is with good stories and good art. They seem to have always belonged with you.

A year has passed to the day since I decided to join the world of online scribblers. It’s also the day that I call it a day. I could tizzy up my reasons for stopping but the reality is I’m getting too lazy to want to write it anymore. I figure it’s better to call time rather than post every six months or so like a stalker with chronic fatigue.

Strangely, the year of blogging ended with exactly the same weather conditions as it began. The rain started as I began writing my last post as if it was just popping in for a quick cuppa. Before I knew it, that rain had settled in with its feet up on the sofa and proceeded to turn on the TV. Then it just stayed the night. Unlike last year when the rain was this relentless, this year I was not doggedly (and dumbly) determined to get to a muddy bog of a music festival. Maybe I’ve learned something. But probably not…

Given this is The Last Post, I’m going to do a recap of some ‘Travels in my mind’ posts. It may be nostalgic indulgence but when was it anything else?

I wrote my first post about my annoying and unwelcome habit of needing to go to events that are sold out and difficult. ‘Travels in my mind’ began  with ‘Shine On, you crazy diamond’ in November 2010, when I shared the fab experience of driving to the inaccurately-named ‘Shine On’ festival in driving rain with my friend K. (who thankfully came to her senses and decided we should leave within minutes of our arrival). On the way home, we were attacked by birds.

The weather also played a significant role in ‘Man on plane, I am sorry’, December 2010,  in which I was returning from a visit to my Dad who lives in another state (physically, not metaphorically). I was on a plane which had been delayed due to storms and it was unsurprisingly, a rough flight. At some point during my visit Dad and I had had a conversation about what kind of funerals we would want – we like to keep the conversation light.  That conversation combined with the bumpy flight had made me quite skittish. I got into a weird and awkward conversation with a salesman sitting next to me, causing me to conclude that (a) sometimes I would rather eat my own arms than talk about work and (b) you shouldn’t talk to strangers if you can’t get away from them.

In February I visited Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, better known as MONA, and embraced its underground architecture and Scorpionic themes of sex and death. I loved the intensity and fun, and intense fun of it. But on a second visit not long ago I realised you never get that giddy first date feeling twice. While there were works I didn’t see the first time, some of which I found confronting and some moving, there was little from my first visit that I found compelling on second view. And on a rare sunny day in Hobart, with a wedding party on the grounds and a new admission fee generating the same old gallery demographic, MONA seemed already bereft of its rock ‘n’ roll patina. Possibly I just wasn’t in the mood. I preferred my friend G.‘s exhibition I went to on Saturday. She had made the most delicate drawings of her old Mum and Dad sleeping, drawings that were softly loving and made you ache with the inevitability of old age and its cousin, death.

For Valentine’s Day, I told a love story – a story of my longest first date. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was one of the most popular posts. Everyone loves a love story. (Or was it the KISS video? I admit, I watched that video a few more times than was healthy and had to get ‘I was made for loving you’ surgically removed.)

A friend asked me the other night what had been the most popular post. Right up there was the one about my visit to the Tutenkhamun exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. But as I explained to L., my blog must appear in search results when people are looking for information about the exhibition. My Tutenkhamun post continued to attract hits long past the date I posted it – and as I said to my friend, I feel a bit bad because my post about ‘What I’d learned from the Tutenkhamun exhibition’ was fairly glib. As King Tut’s family history featured some intensive interbreeding and he had a cleft palate and a club foot, I wrote that one thing I’d learned was not to horizontal folk-dance with the siblings. To all those students and foreign tourists searching for actual information, I can only apologise.

The dance films ‘Pina’ and ‘The Black Swan’  inspired curiosity about the history of the pointe shoe and ballet, in the case of ‘The Black Swan’ (‘Shall we dance? Or just pointe?’, January) and my return to dance class (‘Minding the pees and queues’, August). Going to a performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater was just a visual feast that reminded me of the variety of permutations possible within human movement and all that is good about watching people move through space (‘An assault on the senses’, July).

There was the post about my sensitivity to people’s voices, inspired by the Southern Gothic baritone of Tony Joe White (‘Tony Joe White’s Sonic Boom’, May), in which I pondered whether a person’s voice is merely a product of anatomy or whether a voice reflects a person’s inner being. A Cat Power gig inspired a conversation about the evolution of stage fright and what it must be like to make music (and a living) while being scrutinised under the spotlight (‘A year of the Cat’, January).

In June, I was preparing to head to Bali and Cambodia.  A simple Google search: ‘music in Cambodia’ led to hours of reading about that country’s music scene now and in its 60s heyday. The contrast between the energetic spirit of contemporary bands in Cambodia with the silencing of musicians under the Khmer Rouge was so compelling that I decided to make a radio documentary while I was on holiday. Returning to Melbourne, I wrote another post about the trip, mostly about the first night of the Kampot River Music Festival and a motorbike ride through the hectic streets of Phnom Penh with Jan, German music producer and ex-soapie star (‘Holiday in Cambodia’, July).

A post about the differing recollections that my friend and I had about how an ex-housemate’s life was saved touched on the elusive nature of memory itself (‘Two of these things are true and one is a lie’, September). Yet the best things about writing ‘Travels in my mind’ has been the triggering of memories, however truthful they may be, and the perennial challenge we all share: trying to communicate something of our experience to someone else.

Thanks for reading; thanks to those who talked back. Your comments and encouragement have been so very welcome.

Yep, that’s all there is.

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That’s (home-made) entertainment

Early this week I woke up surprised to find that my white pillow slip had turned orange overnight. There was further surprise on getting up to discover that I had orange hair and could barely walk. I also had 90s dance floor fillers on constant rotation in my head: Britney Spears’ Toxic, Sing hallelujah! (Sing it! Sing ha-lay-lu-yah. Sing it!). ‘Dear god, please make it stop’ I thought as I hobbled towards the kitchen. Continue reading

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The tears, the ecstasy, the surrender…goodbye Melbourne Festival

Come tomorrow, another Melbourne Festival will be over. And as festival programs go into the recycling bin, all those memories of shows are either stowed away in the minds of those who saw them, or blow away into the ether. Here’s what I’m going to try to hang onto:

1. The strange experience of the Manganyar Seduction – a troupe of moustachioed men from the desert cities of Rajasthan, India, appearing and disappearing from behind the red velvet curtains of their individual boxes, stacked on top of each other four stories high, like the apartment block of a wild dream. Globes surrounding each box, in the way of a backstage mirror, lighting up when it was the inhabitant’s turn to draw aside his curtain and play his instrument or sing. The singers of the troupe sitting cross-legged yet bringing the whole of their bodies to their singing. I remembered a friend who plays Indian classical music telling me that in Indian culture, the voice is foremost in the hierarchy of instruments and all music – the raga repertoire – is taught through singing. When a number of the moustachioed Manganyar musicians sang simultaneously,  their arms imploring the very air to carry their message forth, the effect was…well, it was…let me tell it this way…The performance began simply and quietly with a man playing a lute. Somehow, sometime later, I found myself dabbing at the tears in my eyes, wondering where they had come from and how the music had managed to get past my mind’s defences to take hold of my heart and squeeze it in a way that was divine and kind of excruciating.

Later I discovered this was the normal response to the Manganyar musicians. “I’ve just come from seeing The Manganyar Seduction,” I said to a friend later that night. “Oh, I saw them last night…they made me cry!” she said. There were reports of two other weeping women. They made all the girls cry, apparently. And I thought I was special (sigh). “That’s the power of music,” said a  musician acquaintance when I told him of my experience of the Manganyars. He related going to see the late Pakistani musician, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and weeping the whole way through the performance from the moment the great singer opened his mouth. “I just had to surrender,” he said. With the word ‘surrender’ I had a vision of  floating down a river, with the powerful voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan both the sun on my face and the water beneath, holding me.

2. Konono No.1 is a band of musicians from Congo, who play electrified likembé (like an mbira or thumb piano), congas and drums made out of found bits and pieces. The electric likembé is slightly distorted, giving it a dirtier sound than the acoustic version. The percussion and bass sound (also provided by a likembé) provide a relentless groove, which voices and the likembés slice into. They sound like this:

There was something just a little bit perfect about a band with such an authentic and homemade groove playing under the fake stars of the Forum Theatre, with its fake Greco-Roman statues striking poses from the sidelines. The capacity crowd drew together an unlikely alliance of African/world music aficionados and people into noise or found sound, who were attracted by Konono No.1’s improvised, junkyard approach to music-making.

The rhythms made themselves at home and soon enough bodies were moving, including my own. As I scanned the crowd and said hellos, I realised that there were many people at the gig who I hadn’t seen for a while and that African music and dance was as much a part of the 90s for me as raves and riot grrrls. It belonged to my starry-eyed youth and the two-year London stint, riding the length of the Northern line of the Tube every Monday night for an African dance and drumming class in Stockwell. The dancing contingent was taught by Norman, whose body in motion, it has to be said, was well worth crossing town for.  For the return journey, even the unsettling light of The Tube couldn’t shake my good mood,  sated as I was, with thighs that felt as solid as tree trunks and polyrhythms clashing amiably in my head.

3. Alwan was not part of the Melbourne Festival but was my third experience of the potential of music to induce ecstatic trance within the festival’s duration. Alwan is a trio playing Middle-Eastern music and they play every Thursday night at Claypots, a bar/restaurant in St Kilda, which for the benefit of non-Melburnians, is on the south-side of the Yarra River and therefore, to me, a north-sider, might as well be on another planet. Take the south-side women, for example. The women who come to this gig are of a more bohemian bent than their other south-side sisters, so rather than having shoulder-length, straightened, blonde hair with honey highlights, they have long, wavy blonde hair with honey highlights. They wear long dresses  and kind of look like Stevie Nicks if she’s just come from the manicurist. They make every north-side girl feel like Virginia Woolf – cerebral, bookish, pallid and depressive.*

My friend, M., plays the darbukka, and the other two musicians between them play oud, accordion, darbukka, tambourine and those crazy horns of snake-charmers that are the hallmark of Middle-Eastern music as “exotic” to Western ears. The bar is fairly small and every time I go there, the gig begins sedately enough, with a few people sitting politely chatting. I always think ‘Tonight it’s going to be a fairly quiet one’ so by the end, I’m always surprised when people young and old, both men and women, are up dancing in the little space available to them, inches away from the musicians, among the spilled wine and the ground glass that has inevitably been swept off a table by the whirling long skirt of a Stevie Nicks lookalike somewhere along the line. The other night, there must have been some special fairy dust in the air because the south-side dancers were really going nuts and the musicians had to lean in close to each other to avoid getting knocked out.

As the drumming reached a crescendo while not one but two of the crazy snake-charmer horns blasted through the night air, one particularly enthusiastic south-side woman shimmied down her boyfriend’s body until her head was level with his groin. The north-side Virginia Woolfs quickly turned away, tssking and tittering nervously. But the couple putting on the soft-porn floorshow were not the only dancers who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. There was the young man who comes every week and belly dances. There was an older Turkish man who looked like a philosopher. There was the ubiquitous creepy drunk guy. There was a 50-ish sexy woman (long, blonde wavy hair) in tight jeans and tight facial skin (“Botox?”, the VWs speculated) and her beautiful daughter whose long hair emitted wafts of perfume as she danced. There was the guy on his haunches by the door, who’d spied the oud player’s darbukka and slyly began to join in on the drumming, much to M.’s chagrin. “He’s like the naughty kid who knows he’s meant to be in bed,” was  A.’s laser-accurate comment. After the gig, it was like Cinderella’s coach disappearing at midnight how quickly the ecstatic dancers disappeared, leaving only the musicians to laugh about what had just transpired and the bar staff to sweep up the broken glass. “It’s amazing,” M.’s girlfriend said. “I don’t know how he plays. Every week there’s some woman’s gyrating bum in his face.” Ah yes, the euphoria of music. You do just have to surrender.

*May contain traces of gross generalisation

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Photographic memory: the tale of Tuol Sleng

While visiting Cambodia a few months ago, I was asked by an interpreter, who usually worked as a tour guide, whether I had gone to Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison that is now a museum.

I told her I hadn’t – and was then stuck for words. Should I attempt to explain why I had not gone to one of her country’s major tourist sites? I didn’t want to offend her. “I don’t see the point of misery tourism” would have been the briefest, most accurate – and most graceless – response.  Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975.  Up to 15,000 Cambodians and some foreigners were taken there and tortured to extract “confessions”, before being killed either at the prison or at the Choeung Ek killing field, 17 kilometres from Phnom Penh. Continue reading

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Two of these things are true and one is a lie

It is memory that counts, that controls the rich mastery of the story, impels it along 

– Jorge Semprun

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you would have (hopefully) detected a thread running through the posts, although admittedly a thread barely visible to the naked eye.

Basically, the theme of this blog is the dance of memory and how, as I go about my life, I am simultaneously adding to my store of memories while drawing upon that store to make sense of, and enrich, my experience. I’ve been particularly honing in on my experience of the arts.

But in this post I want to look at memory front-on. I want to confront memory with its disingenuous nature because what’s really fascinating is how fragile and unstable memories are. Professor Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist whose expertise lies in investigating the fallibility of memories. She would likely turn Jorge Semprun’s statement around and say that it is the story that controls memory; that our memories are not objective facts but stories we have created around events.

A case in point: not long ago, a friend mentioned in passing “that time I saved T.” T. was a former housemate of mine and the incident my friend was referring to occurred about 15 years ago. My story and my friend’s matched in that we both remembered that T. had stopped breathing. What differed in our memories was who and what started T. breathing again.

So this is my memory, or rather my ‘story’ of what happened. I would love to be able to draw this because it is such a vivid visual story for me. I’d also like to colour-code the drawing according to what I would swear happened and what I think I have since made up about this incident. Unfortunately, the person who could draw this memory is my friend who has proved to be manifestly unreliable in the remembering department. Of course, you’ll have to trust me on that.

“That time I saved T.”

My friend said he had saved my former housemate by walking her around the backyard. It’s true that after  T., had stopped breathing, my friend and another housemate had walked T. around the backyard. But ‘if memory serves me correctly’ this was after I had revived T. by administering first aid in the form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This was the first and only time I’ve done this, so if this didn’t happen I won’t have time to write anything else in my life because I have to go back and question everything that I think happened. I’m still stunned that my friend had completely forgotten about me giving T. mouth-to-mouth as he had watched me do it. Or at least, that’s what I remember.

My friend had come over in the afternoon and I was making us some tea in the kitchen when one of my housemates rushed in and asked me to come quickly. “T. has stopped breathing.” T. was lying on her bed. I recall my first thought being that she was a pretty shade of eggshell blue that complemented the shade of her hair. With her red hair trailing behind her on the pillow, I thought that T. looked like that famous painting of Ophelia. But whether I truly had these thoughts at that time, or have added them since, I don’t know.

At that point, time slowed down and everything I did seemed to have an air of great deliberation.  It was like a video I saw once, of a monk walking through the streets of Tokyo (or was it New York?) He walked incredibly slowly among the rush of people, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other. It seemed time slowed to this pace. But I also recall thinking that I had to act quickly, or T. would either die or be brain-damaged from lack of oxygen.

I had learned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in Year 8, when I was 13 years old. It was taught as part of PE – physical education. It is physical, I’ll grant that. There’s no getting around the physicality of planting your mouth on someone you don’t find attractive and breathing your breath into them. It seems to me now that as I went through the steps one by one – the checking for breathing, making sure the airway was clear, pinching the nostrils – I also recalled the smell of the dummy we had “resuscitated” all those years before and the giggling of fellow 13-year-old girls as we “kissed” its rubber face. But did I really? I have no idea.

It seems I remembered the PE teacher’s shiny polyester shorts, his squat, muscular legs and boyish haircut. I also seem to recall his determinedly serious demeanour and repressed impatience with the dumb giggling of 13-year-olds. Is any of that true? I don’t know.

I do know that after I exhaled into T.’s lungs a couple of times, she started to breathe of her own accord and I felt relieved. I seem to also remember a sense of surprise and of hiding that surprise from my friend and my other housemate but most of all, from T. After all, who needed to know that until that point I didn’t know I remembered how to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Did T. really need to see my look of surprise that she was breathing?  And did I really feel this surprise at the time and hide it? I don’t know.

I do know that at the moment when T. began breathing, my focus widened and I became aware again of the others in the room – including my friend, who I think had been leaning against the frame of the door, watching me go through the steps of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I asked the two of them to get T. up and moving, while I called the emergency number to cancel the ambulance.

Cue my friend’s memory story, which starts here.

Meanwhile, back in my memory story, what happened next was that I went back to the kitchen and sat at the table while my friend and my other housemate walked T. around the backyard. I started to shake, as the adrenalin surging through my system no longer found an outlet in action, my brain began to compute what had just happened and my imagination caught a glimpse of the other potential outcome.

When my friend said “…that time when I saved T.”, I couldn’t help but find the disparity between our memories funny, albeit in a slightly discombobulating way. It was a concrete example of the fluidity of memory. At least I could rely on my memory for the basic outline of the incident, I thought. But then maybe at that very moment my friend was thinking: “I can’t believe she thinks she gave T. mouth-to-mouth. She’s probably elaborating on some distant memory of first aid she learned at school…”

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Minding the pees and queues

1.      One night last week I was talking to a friend about The Police’s album Zenyatta Mondatta, particularly how much I enjoyed Stewart Copeland’s drumming on that record. The next evening I played some tracks from that album before heading out to a party, the theme of which was ‘Greatest Hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.’ As I was waiting in the loo queue I got chatting to a guy dressed as a British bobby. ‘I’ve been trying to work out who you’ve come as,’ I said. ‘I’m The Police,’ he said.  Luckily for me, at that point the loo became vacant but before I could move, a woman shot past us and went in. ‘Damn!’ I exclaimed.  Much to my surprise, the Bobby chased her into the bathroom and escorted the apologetic queue jumper out to take her place in line.  He actually was English and it seems they take their queuing seriously. Despite feeling somewhat responsible for this act of party policing and a little embarrassed, part of me began to fantasize about having my very own Bobby to intervene when people neglect to mind their manners. On the train, when people are talking loudly on their phones as I’m trying to read, my Bobby could say something like: “Excuse me, I’m going to have to ask you to shut it. Would you mind awfully?” Come to think of it, though, I think if the Bobby had seen me – or rather “Nancy Sinatra” – karate kicking at a startled Eminem in a dance floor duel to some metal track later in the evening I might have been called over to ‘have a word’. Incidentally, the Bobby wasn’t the only police to turn up at the party. The real Police also dropped by with the obligatory noise complaint. I hope some wag took the opportunity to say “It’s The Police…I didn’t know they were back together.”

2.      A while back I embarked upon a half-hearted, short-lived and unsurprisingly unsuccessful campaign to make Tuesday night the new Saturday. I was reminded of this on Tuesday as I was putting on a glittery cocktail dress and gloves. How rare and exciting to be getting glammed-up on a Tuesday! My friend S. was making a short film and some friends and I had agreed to be extras in the “masquerade cocktail party” scene. Among other masked party-goers, we had to pretend to chat on the dance floor while swaying to a song by Cat Power. About seven or eight times. Whoever said film-making was dull? I have to say, my friend E. and I did a fine job of looking animated, listening to each other intently and aimlessly swaying, while telling each other about what we’d had for lunch that day, what we’d had for dinner the night before, and other riveting tales of meals of the recent past. All this was backdrop to the masked “heroine” sweeping through the crowd to her be-masked beloved to dance in his arms. I found our friend A.’s mask simultaneously scary and hilarious, so I had to avoid looking at her during filming but generally had no problem fulfilling the extra’s duty of being none-too-noticeable. OK, there was one scene in which the following things happened in quick succession:

a.      The camera knocked me in the back of the head

b.       A., with her scare-larious mask surreptitiously pecked me on the shoulder with her beak

c.       The make-up woman, (who was wearing a spectacular corset and long skirt) tripped over my boots and stumbled into me.

d.      I completely lost it and gave in to the giggles.

The hierarchy intrinsic to film-making does lend itself to comedy and I couldn’t help being reminded of the Ricky Gervais series Extras. One of my favourite scenes from Extras features Patrick Stewart (you may know him better as Captain Jean Luc Picard of Star Trek).

3.      I know that I’ve liked dancing since I was a child because my dear old Dad has often demonstrated (particularly to boyfriends) how I used to dance when I was a little girl. This involves a look of intense focus, a weird clodding gallop and one arm held aloft and kind of stuck to the side of the head. The thing is, even when Dad was bounding around the room making us both look foolish, I could always see the joy in this dance.  There’s a scene in Wim Wenders’ film about Pina Bausch, the seminal figure in modern dance, in which a dancer from Pina’s company Tanztheater Wuppertal, talks about the joy of dancing.  In fact, he talks about how Pina had asked him to come up with a movement to express this joy, or “allegria” in his mother tongue. It’s worth the price of admission alone, seeing him dance this movement and the ensemble choreography that Pina created with his movement at its basis. In recent weeks, I’ve gone back to dance class – and I’m loving it.  It’s a hybrid contemporary/jazz class involving the usual stuff – watching the teacher demonstrate choreography and the brain working to get the body to replicate the steps and shapes. It involves getting into small groups and the suspense of the count-in: “And Five-Six-Seven-Eight…” as you prepare to move with other bodies across the diagonal of the space. If the thought of any of that terrifies you, you’re probably still harbouring trauma from childhood ballet. In which case I recommend as therapy seeing “Pina”, or any of the films containing great dance scenes that I mentioned in a previous post. Or maybe just dance in your loungeroom like me as a kid, galloping along with one arm stuck to the side of your head. Or dancing like this guy:

PS: The soundtrack of ‘Pina’ is incredible. Here’s one track from Jun Miyake to throw yourself around to:

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The death of newspapers…greatly exaggerated?

Will newspapers die? When will newspapers die? And what will happen to news if and when newspapers die? These were questions posed by ‘Page One: Inside The New York Times’, questions which were in the main deliberated by The New York Times journalists working the Media desk.

I went to see this documentary with a fellow ex-journo. How nostalgic were we upon seeing the messy desks of newspaper folk? I remembered her desk as a feat of physics with towering stacks of paper that threatened to collapse and bury you until the next Ice Age if you didn’t tiptoe past. Watching this doco, I was pleased to see journalists still excelling at doing several things at once. I recalled how my cadetship consisted chiefly of learning how to hold a phone under my ear with my shoulder and note the conversation while eating a burger and smoking a cigarette. Those were the old days of ‘analogue journalism’.

For my dysfunctional attraction to the world of deadlines and excess, I blame my father. For most of his career he was a print journalist at The News, a long-defunct tabloid. It was an early victim of Australia’s media ownership laws or Rupert Murdoch’s ambition, whichever way you want to spin it. The News was Rupert’s first newspaper, inherited from his Dad, Sir Keith Murdoch, and the first building block of the News Ltd empire. Legally, one can’t own two or more of the same medium in one city, so in 1987 Rupert sold The News to buy Adelaide’s other newspaper The Advertiser, a broadsheet which once stood proudly as the patrician alternative to The News but has since become more tabloid in its approach. That’s a nice way of saying it’s now a rag. As for The News, it closed down in 1992.

Anyhoo, as a kid I’d go to visit my Dad at his office and be made a fuss of by a bunch of kindly drunks amid a fug of cigarette smoke and a symphony of clacking typewriters. Later, when I said I wanted to be a journalist, my Dad tried to talk me out of it by telling me I would likely become an alcoholic and lose my marriage but there was no better job. I was 16 and not Appalachian, so the marriage thing didn’t faze me.

‘Page One’ is a real heroes and villains kind of documentary. The heroes are in the main  journalists from The New York Times, including the star of the show, David Carr, a former crack addict who knows how fortunate he is to be rebirthed as a media journalist at arguably the US’s finest newspaper. In one scene, he casually mauls a VICE co-editor who’s all uppity about the fact they’ve reported from Liberia, ‘while The New York Times might write an article about surfing’. In another scene at a conference about the future of the media, David Carr holds aloft a paper cut-out of Michael Wolff’s aggregated news blog, having removed the stories that have been sourced from traditional media such as The New York Times. It’s mostly holes.

The villains come in the form of all those circling around the dead and dying newspapers that are now all too commonplace across the United States. There is footage of Sam Zell from his days as the new owner of the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. A real estate mogul with no journalism experience, he’s sweet-talking his new journalist charges with a diatribe against the ‘journalistic arrogance’ of quality news gathering, basically saying that if they think they’re too good to write stories about puppies, ‘F*** you!’ ‘We should have a porn section!’ he declares. He’s the cartoon villain of every journalism traditionalist. It would be funny if not for the fact that less than a year after Zell’s takeover, the company was bankrupt and more than 4200 people had lost their jobs.

David Carr’s process of researching and writing his extensive article on the Tribune Company’s collapse, together with scenes from the daily meetings of senior editors make a compelling case for finding a sustainable model to keep the institutions of quality journalism afloat. As one Times editor described eloquently, the editors’ meeting is where their combined experience is brought to bear on each story. Is the story framed properly?  Are the sources the right sources? Are all the facts sound? This is the kind of vetting process that only happens in a well-resourced newsroom that values journalistic rigour.

‘Page One’ reveals a considerable generation gap between journalists of Generation X and beyond and Gen. Y. Young blogger-turned-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter bemoans his colleagues’ lack of use of Twitter while David Carr of the Old School jokes that Brian, with his one eye on his Twitter feed and the other scanning two computer screens, might just be a robot invented to destroy him. The meta example of how swiftly The New York Times is having to pivot to adapt to a new media landscape comes in the form of Wikileaks’ release of thousands of diplomatic cables. The New York Times was one of five newspapers worldwide who collaborated with Wikileaks on the simultaneous publication of the initial run of documents. As the Times’ media desk covers the story of Wikileaks’ role as media player, a broader and fascinating debate emerges within The New York Times as to whether Wikileaks should be regarded as an equal, as a fellow publisher and ‘partner’, or merely as just another news source. The thing is that the power dynamic between media and ‘source’ has shifted. Wikileaks, as the ‘source’, can publish with or without the newspaper’s involvement, i.e. it can now have a dual role as source and medium.

At the conclusion of the documentary, there was a panel discussion on the future of journalism. No one mentioned the documentary’s salience in view of the fact that sub-editing at the Fairfax papers The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald has been outsourced this year, with approximately 80 jobs lost. A young blogger somewhat gleefully predicted that newspapers would not survive beyond our lifetimes. Thankfully I can’t remember his name, nor that of his blog. Sophie Black, editor of Crikey, the online news service, said that Crikey was not only surviving but expanding despite operating under a subscriber-funded model. Yet, she said, seeing the resources of The New York Times  made her drool. Crikey delivers its daily news bulletin and website with a staff of seven plus a bank of freelancers. I can’t imagine they would have the time and resources that enabled David Carr to spend several weeks researching and writing his Tribune Company story.

Wanting The New York Times and news producers like it to survive is not based on inter-generational competitiveness, or misplaced nostalgia. In ‘Page One’, there are people across generations who care deeply about the work of sifting information, asking questions, researching, fact-checking and assimilating the gathered information – sometimes complex and often conflicting – into a fair and accurate account. This role of intermediary, of sorting the wheat from the chaff, is the service of journalism. This is why I don’t accept Julian Assange’s description of himself as a ‘journalist’, or view an aggregation of unchecked material found on the Internet as ‘journalism’. In the long run, it’s not important how the news is delivered but the quality of the news.  The question remains – and it’s an important one – how best to ensure the survival of news outlets that are committed to striving for journalism’s tarnished prize – as Carl Bernstein describes it: ‘the best available version of the truth’.

Page One was directed by Andrew Rossi. For Melburnians, Page One: Inside The New York Times is now showing at Cinema Nova.

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