Culture Points for January 2016: The White Tiger, Joy, The Hateful Eight, Bloc Party, Pandora, The Big Short, The X-Files, Hottest 100, The Danish Girl

Culture Points is a new regular feature for that will discuss films seen, books read, TV watched, music heard, technology played with and art experienced. This page will continue to be updated throughout the month. Narrative and plot points will be discussed but spoilers will be kept to a minimum.

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The Hateful Eight commemorative program and The White Tiger.

Like a White Tiger…

Towards the end of last year and into 2016 my reading attention was held barely by The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 epistolary novel told through the guise of an Indian ‘entrepreneur’ writing a series of late night letters to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Although a comfortably nimble 350 pages (with pleasantly large font) and breezy in style and tone, this at times very funny exploration of race and class in India during its late 2000s giant business leap forward has a tiring effect. The narrator, our supposed hero of the working class, under-developed Indian interior (“the Darkness”) is so caustic and determinably unlikable that even as he goes about his ingenious social ladder climbing, from sweetmaker to chauffeur to business confidante and, eventually, CEO, it’s difficult to retain any affection for him. As the sly but likable underdog becomes a charmless parvenu we grow to hate him, which could well have been Adiga’s goal all along, but I expect more from Booker Prize winners than drawn out demonstrations of the powerful’s willingness to destroy the weak. Much is made in The White Tiger of India’s landed classes looking to emulate the departed British, with their nice cars, live-in servants and predilection for “English Liquor”, the ironic name they call Scotch. The point being made is that sooner or later we all begin to resemble our enemies: the upper castes took on the role of the colonials with red hot fervour and now the functionaries raised up to wash their feet and go to jail for their motoring indiscretions are not too far behind.

Joy Division

It took me a while to hit the cinemas in 2016, despite receiving 16 (sixteen) film vouchers from various loved ones. Normally I would be living at the Orpheum through the Christmas/New Year season but, a paucity of attractive fare due to Star Wars swallowing up All The Moneys combined with the easy appeal of the Big Bash League meant it wasn’t until 12 January that I experienced Joy and then on 17 January made peace with The Hateful Eight (that’s a pieces of eight gag…). Joy brings together seasoned collaborators David O Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper for their third film in just over three years. Despite all the acclaim and awards, Silver Linings Playbook was only slightly above the standard of predictable TV movies  and, while significantly better, American Hustle still lacked an oomph in the machinations to make it a truly brilliant heist film (think of the classic twists and turns in True Romance, Point Break, The Usual Suspects, A Fish Called Wanda and the Oceans franchise; even Now You See It and Matchstick Men packed a more powerful punch). With Joy, there are no delusions of suspense. In 1988, Francis Ford Coppola produced a biopic of the post-War automaker titled Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Russell could easily have paid homage by labelling this offering Joy: The Mom and Her Mop. So quotidian is the story of a struggling suburban single mother’s homemade creative floor cleaning exploits that one wonders how it could possibly be wrung out to 124 minutes but Lawrence does her patented misery thing so well, Bradley Cooper is so handsomely watchable as a TV shopping auteur, Robert de Niro is very funny as Joy’s feckless and philandering father and there are some cracking supporting performances from Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini (remember her?) that the time passes enjoyably. And kudos to J.Law: four Academy Award nominations (and one win) by the age of 25. I’d had none by that age.

Room For One More?

At the other end of the good clean fun spectrum is the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino. Like most males of my vintage I’ve grown up to the sound of ear-splitting screams, witty banter about hamburgers, Christoph Waltz’ distinctive annunciation and Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell. I’m a big fan of QT’s work, especially his stylistic use of expressionistic violence, universe building and exposition-as-a-character dynamic. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue might be addictive but no screenwriter has a truer ear for the spoken word than Quentin Tarantino, whose crafting of conversations feels so natural and mesmeric. If Sorkin is addictive like crack cocaine, Tarantino’s is euphoric like, um, lines of cocaine. A week before its official release, The Hateful Eight started screening at select Australian locales in 70mm film, with an Overture and an Intermission. The total running length of this experience is just under 3.5 hours and you also receive a commemorative glossy magazine for your $25 outlay. Part mystery, part western, part comedy, The Hateful Eight brings together a clutch of ~1870s stock characters — the antebellum racist old general (Bruce Dern), the untamed Calamity Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh — as a boy-cum-teen I remember JJL being in a lot of films and all them being really good, and she being really good in them — I’m so glad she’s back working and nominated for an Oscar), the lost causer (Walton Goggins), the hangman (Tim Roth), the escaped African American (Samuel L Jackson), the bounty hunter (Kurt Russell), the cowboy (Michael Madsen) et cetera — to ride out a snow storm in an isolated lodge in the grim wintry mountains of premodern Wyoming (is there another kind?). There’s not much to the plot; you certainly don’t need a notepad and pen like with Pulp Fiction, or even to be paying close attention to names and places like in the superb Inglourious Basterds. In fact, there isn’t even the overarching morality tale — or point — of Django Unchained. This is pure entertainment. And magnificent as this film is, it is far too long, though that may be a function of this extended version, which was as much a visual assault on the senses — lots of whites and blacks, light falling in cracks, the occasional splash of colour (a telltale red jellybean, for instance) to show that some good still exists in the shadowy Wild West (an interesting parallel to the prenominate White Tiger) — as it was an exercise in storytelling. It will be interesting to see the digital version, which is 20 minutes leaner, and compare. Incidentally, seeing The Hateful Eight in a packed cinema with similar film aficionados was wholly satisfying. There was an inescapable feeling that we were sharing an artistic endeavour, a contract with the filmmakers, to foster and promote film for film’s sake. We paid a premium to be there but the dollar-for-dollar return was more than commensurate. Thumbing through the program during the overture, sitting rapt through the opening three chapters; which includes a particularly hilarious piece of Samuel L Jackson Raconteuring™; letting the house lights flood the theatre with rare abruptness, unlike the gradual illumination that accompanies final credits; rushing to concession stand to fill up on (more) junk food and chat theories (mid-film!) with friends and strangers; and then retaking your seat to enjoy more of the film. Having an intermission is so rare that it itself is an experience, like when a particularly fleeting global sporting carnival — Olympics, World Cups, Major League Baseball — comes to town. You don’t just go for the action on the field or on the screen, you go because in these rarified environments we create the bonds of friendships that keep us pushing on through the monotony of life with memories worth reflecting on. Go see The Hateful Eight, and see it while you can with all the trimmings.


I called on my friends Trent and Jerome to provide rankings of QT’s eight canon films (sans Four Rooms and Death Proof):

Patrick Trent Jerome
1 Django Unchained Reservoir Dogs Pulp Fiction
2 Reservoir Dogs Pulp Fiction Inglourious Basterds
3 Pulp Fiction Inglourious Basterds The Hateful Eight
4 Kill Bill 1 Kill Bill 1 Django Unchained
5 Inglourious Basterds Django Unchained Kill Bill 1
6 The Hateful Eight The Hateful Eight Kill Bill 2
7 Kill Bill 2 Jackie Brown (Reservoir Dogs — unseen)
8 Jackie Brown Kill Bill 2 (Jackie Brown — unseen)

Writer’s Bloc

On 7 January 2016, I saw Bloc Party at the Enmore and wrote a full review of the gig; here’s a taster:

The show was outstanding. After opening up with unknown The Good News off Hymns (always clever to stick in a newie on top when everyone is still amped up or filing in), the Party to moved through crowd faves Hunting For Witches and Positive Tension, sandwiching another debutant called Virtue. Soon we were being nourished by the Less Than Zero-inspired Weekend In The City effort Song For Clay (Disappear Here) and BP’s original breakout hit Banquet. It was delicious fare and it was being savoured by a raucous crowd that included a couple of one-man moshpits and even some sustained crowdsurfing, which is becoming rarer and rarer at all but the most agricultural hard rock gigs.

Pandora’s Boxed In

Over the first two weeks of 2016 I have been doing some work in a small Sydney office that plays Pandora all day every day. This is first time I have been exposed to Pandora for longer than the obligatory 30-minute toe-dip on its local launch day in late 2012. Not only that, this is the first time I have been in a white-collar open plan working environment with music played over speakers, essentially filling the office with noise. It is possible the office manager is somehow doing Pandora wrong; s/he is definitely not paying for it, as evidenced by the sporadic ads for Serial’s second season and Bose headphones. If there is a different listening experience between paid and unpaid Pandora, please let me know, but so far I can only report a lack of gratitude towards the Greek Goddess of Musical Gifts. The problem is it’s all so samey. If I were to give the office station a name I would call it Vanilla FM. Every song is a 2000s minor key dirge sung by a dude worried he’ll die alone. I never realised how many songs The Fray had released until I started working here. The style never changes: seemingly content in the knowledge that everyone in the office loves learning how to save a life, Pandora never mixes it up. Snow Patrol, The Killers, Razorlight, OneRepublic — these bands are like codeine: you get a slight buzz if you listen once in a while but nothing could be more pathetic than developing an addiction. I like Coldplay as much as the next unmarried 34-year-old but if I hear Yellow one more time I am going to turn that colour with jaundice. The song selection is just so narrow, or maybe the office manager is thrusting an eager thumb towards a heart/star like icon every time s/he hears Chris Martin that s/he should seriously consider her own conscious uncoupling. It has really given me an appreciation for the alacrity required to program music for an actual radio show; one that will play an eclectic enough set of music to appease the broadest possible audience; to keep them entertained and enriched with songs they know well or only recently, and introduce them to the latest sounds and forgotten gems.

“…like someone hit a piñata full of white men who suck at golf”

From writer/director Adam McKay, an auteur most closely associated with hilarious but silly Will Ferrell films comes The Big Short, my favourite oxymoronic film title of all time, at least until Fast 8 comes out.

An ambitious project that attempts to unravel the late 2000s financial crisis (remember when it was called ‘the credit crunch’?) and then reassemble it as an easily digestible, accessible narrative through the prism of several kooks and outsiders who, for various reasons, managed to forecast the collapse and bet against the banks.

The film employs several outstanding and novel techniques to speed up exposition, and this playful approach to the form of film is greatly appreciated in a picture that aspires to commercial, critical and Oscars success. The relaxed attitude towards film conventions McKay utilised in Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers is retained, refined and repurposed so that the end result is still hilarious but also caustically intellectual. Don’t expect to see the earnest hand wringing of Michael Moore’s documentaries, Too Big To Fail, Margin Call or even underappreciated early 2000s pump-and-dump expose Boiler Room. Smart, incisive and didactic — yes — but The Big Short is also raucously funny. My Mum, who admitted afterwards to not following all of the industry argot, and I laughed heartily throughout, and that is surely the only symptom of a good comedy that matters.

Christian Bale is such a curious actor. The Empire of the (Prodigal) Sun was a magnificent Batman — easily the best ever — and brilliant in The Prestige. He’s an Oscar winner for The Fighter, a title I haven’t seen because I have a different type of BFF (= Boxing Film Fatigue). Although it seems like he took an extended sabbatical from his days as a child star before a return to work, it was only three years between Empire and Treasure Island. He then continued to work steadily in a series of critical and/or commercial failures before emerging cleanly shaved, perfectly groomed, fit and toned and vice presidential in American Pyscho. Bale tends to star as Byronic Heroes on Red Bull, characters that are, as Lady Caroline Lamb described the poet, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. His prima donna antics on the set of the dreadful Terminator Salvation transformed him into an object a derision, the butt of jokes about celebrities so wrapped up in themselves they have lost touch with reality. If you are to judge your date by how nice s/he is to the wait staff, you can also judge your actors by how they treat the director of photography. With The Big Short, Bale is appearing in a bona fide comedy for the first time since Metroland in 1997, a film I had not heard of before researching this piece, but one described promisingly as “sexy and entertaining” by Variety magazine. In his Big Short role as an eccentric and one-eyed MD turned hedge fund investor with a reputation for exoticism and a penchant for Metallica, Bale is sensational. It’s a funny, physical role, one that he injects with pathos and verisimilitude, and he really brings to life the socially awkward San Jose loner that singlehandedly predicted that the collapse of the housing market, something that had never happened before. Bale is rightly nominated for Best Supporting Actor and his nod is telling because, while deserved, it speaks to the overall whiteness of the acting recognition this year. As widely covered, all 20 of the acting nominees across Best and Supporting, Actor and Actress, are white people. And The Big Short is a very white and, more specifically, very white male, and more specifically still, very heterosexual white male film. Don’t expect it to pass the Bechdel Test. White men caused the crisis and white men identified, predicted and profiteered from the crisis. White men lost their jobs because of the crisis. White men lost their savings. White men were morons giving out NINJA loans and white men were foolish to sign up for them. Morally sound white men lament the transgressions of morally repugnant white men. Some women do pop up throughout, to nag at the white men or to strip for the white men or to hinder the white men or to admit fault to the white men. The Big Short is a great film — it’s smart, witty, laugh-out-loud-funny — but it’s also the quintessential exegesis of the white male gaze in Hollywood.

X-Files (files, files, files…)

For my 15th birthday my Mum gave me Songs In The Key Of X, music from and inspired by The X-Files. There’s a track on this compilation by Soul Coughing called Unmarked Helicopters. It’s a musical manifestation of Fox Mulder’s deep paranoia and the titular transportation was very much the 1990s symbol of government overreach and a conspiracy of the elite; still almost 20 years until the group descriptor ‘1 per center’ came into everyday parlance. Through my childhood and adolescence I didn’t retain much interest in science fiction, horror or fantasy — that would come a bit later (X is a gateway drug, after all) — but from the first strains of Mark Snow’s unforgettable theme I was hooked. His haunting, modulating tune, surely the greatest TV opener in history, was the leitmotif to my awkward years: bad skin, chronic virginity, paralysing lack of direction. It was an emotional time for me and my fringe. I was an outsider like many of the monsters Mulder and Scully would chase, though I couldn’t control electricity, need to feast on fat, shapeshift, heal the sick, read minds, worship the devil or predict the cause of someone’s death. In some ways I’m like Mulder: an outsider in a community that prized conformity, a loud person in world that wanted everyone to shut up and do what they were told, a basement dweller in a society that has been conditioned to crave the penthouse. But I’m also a bit like Scully, not least because that’s the family name on my Mum’s side, but also I’m a skeptical type that has never believed in smoke filled rooms, Extraterrestrial Biological Entities, voodoo, ghosts or government-created superviri. My love of The X-Files is borne from a love of creativity and creative storytelling. There’s was nothing like it on TV at the time. The 1990s was a very cynical time — sarcastic sitcoms like Seinfeld, Frasier, Roseanne and Friends ruled — and while the bogstandard procedurals like E/R, Law & Order and NYPD Blue accrued Emmys, they were mostly just more of the same male-dominated walk-and-talk, close-the-case, don’t-mess-with-the-formula that had thrived in TV-land since the 1950s. It was such a phenomenon in Australia that a dance remix of the themesong — featured above (and this YouTube video is ripped from Rage’s old Top 50 countdown for extra Australianness) — hit #2 on the charts and was a dancefloor staple. At the 1996 ARL semifinal between Cronulla and Western Suburbs at Parramatta Oval I saw a local high school perform an X-Files-inspired Rock Eisteddfod choreography that was as brilliant as it was surreal. We have Game of Thrones now, and that’s a great show for fan theories and stimulating the TV watching community’s collective conscious, but The X-Files was something else altogether. In an era without social media, catch-up TV, Reddit but with, and this was excruciatingly crucial, a cultural cringe towards television, this show aspired to more than mere ephemera. The X-Files has elements of procedural but it throws in so many unique storytelling techniques — the midseason cliffhanger, telling stories backwards, mixing humour with sincerity, pivoting from a continuous mythology to standalone monster of the week episodes with trust in the viewer’s intelligence that they will understand, casting Mimi Rogers — while also flipping the traditional sex paradigm of intuitive woman/sensible man completely on its head. Before The X-Files, strong female leads were seen as rarely as the Jersey Devil. Now we have Daenerys Targaryen, Carrie Mathison, Claire Underwood, a clutch of the Walking Dead and pretty much the entire cast of Orange Is The New Black (and then there are Gillian Anderson’s own future characterisations in Hannibal and the superb British show The Fall). At the end of The X-Files’ original 9-season run, the program’s website was adorned with a message from Chris Carter and the team that read “Thanks For Nine Great Years”. Thank you Chris!

One thing I been asked repeatedly in the lead-up to The X-Files returning for a 6-episode special event series is whether you should watch preceding nine seasons and two films, and the answer is sure, why not? Oh, you don’t have a spare 8,800 minutes? Okay. If you’re coming in fresh and you want to have an immersive Xperience that will essentially bring you up to date, here’s what you need to do: watch Seasons 1 through 5, then the first film (Fight The Future), then Seasons 6 and 7. Then go straight to 10. There’s a temptation to just watch the mythology episodes, and the Wikipedia page for all Episodes marks these instalments with a double dagger, but you really are missing out. Most of my favourite episodes are MOTWs, and these are the ones that tend to experiment more with technique, writing and staging; delving more deeply into the show’s unique creative well. But if these is too much and you really just want a quick primer before launching into Season 10, here’s my Top 10 X-Files To Study Before Season 10:

S01E01: Pilot
S01E08: Ice
S02E14: Die Hand Die Verletz
S02E20: Humbug
S02E25/S03E01/E02: Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip
S03E22: Quagmire
S04E02: Home
So4E17/E18: Tempus Fugit/Max
S05E05: The Post-Modern Prometheus
S07E22: Requiem

These aren’t necessarily my favourite episodes; just the ones that will prepare you for Season 10 and provide you with an overview of the original series. I’ll have more to say about the new season once I’ve had time to properly digest it!

The Hottest 100

The good people at Noisey, the music arm of hugely influential global media brand Vice asked me to write a column reflecting on the 2015 Triple J Hottest 100. Here’s a taster of that article — please do me the honour of giving Noisey all the clicks by going to their website to read the whole thing!

The key moment in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2015 came yesterday at 5:23pm (AEDT). This is when Veronica and Lewis hit play on “Loud Places” by Jamie xx & Romy.

The song polled at #31 and at the time was the 27th that featured exclusively female vocals, beating 2011’s previous record of 26. That record would be extended to 32 by the end of the countdown, and there were a further seven female/male duets for 39 of 100 tracks.

That’s not equality but it is a definite step in the right direction.

The Danish Girl. Or Boy.

Content Warning: Transplaining

Eddie Redmayne is one of the white thespians looking to win an Acting Oscar this year, his second in a row in fact, and it’s not just the paleness of his skin that has fired up the diversity crowd, but also the penisness of his person. Set in the 1920s, The Danish Girl sees Redmayne play a young married Copenhagen man who, after experimentation with crossdressing for art, gradually starts living his life as a woman. The film is very loosely based on the first person to undergo male-to-female surgery — what was once called a sex change but is now seen as being more nuanced — and it is an altogether enjoyable film, if far too long. I would have liked to see a few extra inches of film lobbed off too (I wholeheartedly apologise for this terrible joke). Eddie is great, if a little too nymphy at times, and Alicia Vikander is a revelation as his wife and supporter. After the woeful The Theory Of Everything, it’s the second role in a row in which Eddie plays a genius struggling to come to terms with challenging circumstances, ably supported by a long-suffering wife that seems to give up all her own dreams to stand by her man.

There is a terrific article on the Fairfax websites from a trans writer named Cerise Howard, examining The Danish Girl and other recent depictions of trans people in film and television, and I encourage its readership. It’s a much-needed insight into this complex issue; one that has emerged into the mainstream with a jarring suddenness for a lot of, dare I say, privileged people. That said, I am about to disagree with one of Howard’s tenets. A common comparison getting a run at the moment is Eddie’s transfacing to the minstrel show tradition of blackfacing, the process of a white actor using, say, boot polish to look like a black person. This portrayal would often be accompanied with nimisms and languid, limb-shaking movements and slurry, stammering speech, to create an altogether sub-human impression. It was a disgusting form of entertainment in America through the Colonial South, Civil War and Reconstruction Eras and up through Jim Crow. It has largely disappeared now, and actors who do it for some stupid reason or another often find future (credible) opportunities dry up. The difference between blackface and transface, however, is that the former was a component of an institutionalised system of behaviours to denigrate and destroy the dignity of African Americans. Blackface is a synecdoche for mankind’s shameful racist past. That is not true of nontrans people playing trans people, just like it is not true of straight actors playing gay characters, or vice versa. I am not a trans person so colour me a transplainer, but I did get my degree in Sociology so I have some authority to talk about the issue. I am also not heteronormative, and I know from experience that I didn’t find it offensive or morally wrong or tantamount to blackface to see Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderos gayface it up in Philadelphia, a film riddled with headshaking cliches, nor Campbell Scott in the tearjerking melodrama Longtime Companion, or Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. I don’t even know or care about Ryan Corr’s and Craig Stott’s sexualities: all I know is their performances in Holding The Man were funny and heartfelt and, ultimately, tragic. It wouldn’t be called acting if everyone was expected to play themselves. But the flipside of this argument is: if straight and nontrans actors can play gay or trans characters, will the inverse be true with the same frequency? You so rarely see openly gay actors, male or female, playing straight characters in any leading-role capacity. I think it is fair to say that if The Danish Girl intended to cast a trans actor in the titular character, it would not have secured $15 million in funding and gone on to claim several topline Academy Award nominations. This is where some action is required to achieve balance, but in the meantime I am not as fussed as others about this issue.

2 thoughts on “Culture Points for January 2016: The White Tiger, Joy, The Hateful Eight, Bloc Party, Pandora, The Big Short, The X-Files, Hottest 100, The Danish Girl

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