Monthly Archives: August 2011

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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It’s all in the delivery

In ‘Autoluminescent’, a documentary about the late musician Rowland S. Howard, there’s some great live footage of The Birthday Party, with a young Nick Cave writhing on the ground and Rowland, bent over his guitar with the sweat dripping from his face, sending out enough feedback to beach a pod of whales.

When I watch that scene, I can almost smell the testosterone funk of Australian rock in the 80s.

The more delicate parts of the doco involved Rowland talking about singing and songwriting. It’s interesting the language people use when they talk about singing. People talk about ‘delivery’, as if a singer is a midwife bringing songs into the world.

At only 16 – remarkably – Rowland wrote the song ‘Shivers’ and he says in ‘Autoluminescent’ that he intended it to be a wry commentary on teenage love-angst. Its beginning, ‘I’ve been contemplating suicide but it doesn’t really suit my style” is a pretty strong hint that at the time of writing, Rowland’s tongue was firmly in cheek. Yet the chorus, “And my baby’s so vain, she is almost a mirror and the sound of her name, it sends another shiver, down my spine” is just too sophisticated, tender and anthemic to sit quietly with irony – especially when Nick Cave bears down on it with all the drama of youth. When Rowland sings ‘Shivers’ and when Nick sings it, their delivery is so different the song takes on completely different qualities. So it’s no wonder that Rowland, as the song’s writer, thought that Nick Cave’s rendition was somewhat amiss and that Nick, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks that Rowland should have recorded it.

Here are the two different versions. See what you think.

In ‘Autoluminescent’, Rowland talked about his delight on forming his own band and being able to deliver his own material, rather than write songs for Nick Cave’s voice and sensibility. Warming to the theme of how a song’s intention can get distorted, he mentioned Bryan Ferry’s version of ‘You are my sunshine’ and how Bryan had restored that song’s lyrical intent as a song of mourning. ‘Please don’t take my sunshine away.’ It’s about a person’s lover dying but somehow along the way the song’s sadness had been lost. In the repetition of the word ‘sunshine’ it had acquired a nasty veneer of campfire chirpiness. Here’s the Bryan Ferry version of the song:

And the beautiful version by that master of delivery, Johnny Cash.  If you’re feeling particularly mawkish, search out the YouTube clip of Johnny and June Carter performing the song together.

Rowland’s mention of Bryan Ferry and song delivery made me remember a gem I discovered somehow a while back (let’s face it, I was probably cyber stalking Bryan Ferry). This clip is from a 70s TV show in the days of Bryan’s flirtation with jazz standards. Upon seeing this, I wanted to cover this song with my band, chiefly on account of the way Bryan Ferry sings the line ‘Oh how the ghost of you clings’…but luckily a fellow band member considered the song too sentimental for words and vetoed the idea.

The song, ‘These  Foolish Things’ was written in 1936 by Eric Maschwitz, under his pen name Holt Marvell. Supposedly Eric wrote it over the course of one Sunday morning, when he was pining for his lover, a Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong, who had gone to England. As my friend S. pointed out, this may well be the only video clip in which an ashtray has a starring role.

Compare Bryan Ferry’s delivery with that of Billie Holiday. With the softly swinging instrumentation, I think Lady Day manages to make this song sound like she’s missing her lover while enjoying taking up every inch of the bed she finally has all to herself:

And one last comparison to shed some light on the fine art of song delivery. It’s another big, melancholic love song sung by two of my favourite musicians. Which do I prefer? Don’t make me choose between the children.  Oh, alright then, I prefer the more restrained and rhythmic instrumentation of the David Bowie version. I give you Nina Simone and David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’. (Ironically, if Nina Simone sang ‘Don’t you know you’re life itself?’ to you directly, it might just kill you.)

David Bowie:

Nina Simone:

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