Culture Points for February 2016: Steve Jobs, Spotlight, The Revenant, The Price Of Salt & Carol, Genghis Khan by Miike Snow, Top 007 Music Videos

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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“I play the orchestra”

Danny Boyle has been one of my favourite filmmakers since Shallow Grave in 1994. Aaron Sorkin has been one of my favourite screenwriters since A Few Good Men in 1992. The two Oscar winners have now teamed up for Steve Jobs, the second recent film to tell the tale of the great man in the last few years, following the Ashton Kutcher starring TV-movie style jOBS, which was enjoyable enough if a little low rent: more iRiver than iPod, if you get my iDrift. There’s nothing cheap about the production values in Steve Jobs. The whole picture is set across three product launches in and around NorCal auditoria. There’s Sorkin’s trademark walk-and-talk through hallways, upon scaffolding, in elevators and amidst the capstans, curtains and costumes that populate backstage passageways. The dialogue is razorsharp, the performances and spellbinding — especially Seth Rogen as Woz — and the direction is inch perfect. In short: I loved this film.

The way Steve Jobs is constructed is interesting. We learn so much about the technocrat, from his post-natal double adoptions through his restless student career, the fabled garage days, founding Apple, fathering two very different Lisas, losing so much and finding even more as a revenant; all from just three long scenes shot in near real time. It takes supreme skill to draw vivid, nuanced and deep characters through conversations and only a handful of spartan flashbacks that I couldn’t but think both Sorkin and Boyle are at the absolute top of their game with Steve Jobs. I am a great admirer of films that play with form and storytelling techniques. Done poorly it can be disastrous but done well it can be majestic and cement the film’s place in cinema canon. Pulp Fiction wouldn’t be a classic without its anachronistic series of vignettes, Memento and The Prestige benefit from a series of interesting tricks with time and memory, Adaptation. is so beautifully unusual that it includes scenes purporting to depict how Adaptation. was adapted! On the flipside, Mulholland Dr. was incomprehensible, self-indulgent tosh; Synechdoche, New York went too far with its malleable form and function that the end result was a mish mash of vaguely connected clever ideas that don’t stitch together into anything resembling cohesion; and nobody understood Birdman, regardless of what they try to tell you. Steve Jobs, like the man, aims high, risks it all, and pulls it off.

It’s better than Slumdog Millionaire (Danny’s winner) and at the same level as The Social Network (Aaron’s source of victory). Their snubs for the Oscars were lost in the #OscarsSoWhite controversy but an oversight nonetheless.

The sublime early years of The West Wing coupled with Sorkin’s string of successful cinema pieces — Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball and now Steve Jobs — disguise that the great man is a little more hit and miss than you might think. In TV land, Sorkin debuted with the dreadful Sports Night, left Washington DC for the unwatchable Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and most recently disappointed with the terminally boring The Newsroom. Like Apple’s return from the Newton, it’s good to see Sorkin back in form.

Meanwhile, here is my ranking of Danny Boyle films:

  1. Trainspotting
  2. Steve Jobs
  3. The Beach
  4. Shallow Grave
  5. 127 Hours
  6. Slumdog Millionaire
  7. Sunshine
  8. 28 Days Later
  9. A Like Less Ordinary

(Unseen: Millions & Trance)

Spotlight Spot

Especially relevant to Australian audiences right now is Spotlight, a film revisiting child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Boston. Our most senior Catholic won’t board a flight to testify at a Royal Commission; 20 years ago in Boston, their archbishop was being similarly evasive, moving offending priests around overseeing a perpetuating omerta to keep heartbreaking infractions in the shadows. Until along came a spotlight.

Rather than tell this harrowing story from the perspective of the predated children and teenagers or as a procedural following the police, Spotlight takes us into the highfalutin world of transitional-era investigative journalism, namely the Boston Globe’s famed and largely autonomous unit, from which this film takes its name. By ‘transitional-era’ I am referring to 2001, when the internet was just starting to eat into print journalism’s traditional revenue streams, and that disruption does come into play in Spotlight. Indeed, because of classified revenues slipping, the Globe’s owners installed an outsider, a Jewish outsider for that matter, to run the paper, and his lack of awe for the Catholic Church is crucial to his drive to expose an institution that seeps into the cracks of every Boston sidewalk.

This is a serious film about a serious subject matter but it is never exploitative or didactic. Whilst avoiding sentimentality, there is one scene that is overwrought, so much so that it elicited laughter from my fellow filmgoers despite the grave subject matter and subsequent Oscar nomination for the thespian involved. 

A Spotlight subplot involved the encroaching modernity on ye olde style newsrooms, similar to clash of cultures previously covered in the excellent US remake of State Of Play. Modern journos tied to their desk spending their day trawling social media for outrage — folks not too dissimilar to me — will marvel with childlike wonder at well-paid career hacks spending months knocking on doors, meeting contacts in cafes, delving through archives, perusing decades old documents — you know, journalising — all to write a set of stories months down the track. Spotlight is not just a tribute to journalists whose work shamed the Church, it is also a love letter to journalism itself.

There’s a fantastic scene where Liev Schrieber as editor Marty Baron crosses out a word when subbing a story and when reporter Mark Ruffalo raises his eyebrow he simply answers, “an adjective”. One for the purists there.

Still Revenant

A holdover from January — a revenant if you will — is The Revenant. Leo, more careworn than in The Aviator, and Tom Hardy, more indecipherable than in The Dark Knight Rises, costar as fur trappers in 1820s Montana: the former is a man of the land good guy that is left for dead by the latter after a seemingly un-bear-able ursine encounter. As with The Big Short, don’t expect this film to pass the Bechdel Test, though there is plenty of screentime dedicated to the beauty of the American west and the native cultures that enriched before the white man came and destroyed everything in his path, so there is at least some self-awareness.

Before seeing The Revenant, I commented to a friend that it had the same exhaustive feel as Intersteller. You kinda wish the candy stand cut out the middleman and sold straight saline drips instead of super salty popcorn to get you through the ordeal. Pleasantly, for me, not Leo’s battered, beaten, bruised, bitten drowned, frozen and malnourished persona, The Revenant is eminently watchable and somewhat life-affirming, presuming you like watching white men overcoming natives, bears, traitors, the weather and the French. No surprise then that it’s been a big hit in Germany.

And for those that can’t be bothered looking it up, a revenant is a person who returns after a long absence.

The Price of Carol

Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt was a revelation when first released under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. For weeks after its publication, Highsmith would receive swathes of correspondence from gay men and lesbian women expressing their gratitude for her writing a book in which same-sex attracted characters were not fatalistic tropes on a narrow path to suicide or heterosexual salvation. Rather, the blossoming love between these two disparate women is described using the same language as a heterosexual relationship: the nervous glances, the awkward first touches, the explosion of euphoria from a love that is not forlorn or unrequited.

The Price of Salt has now been reissued as Carol and I read the book in advance of seeing the Todd Haynes film, for which Australia’s Cate Blanchett as the bored well-to-do housewife and Veganism’s Rooney Mara as a self-made artisan have both been nominated for Oscars.

While a hardboiled fissure of tragedy and suspense still pervades both text and film, slithers of optimism seep through the cracks of the New York society, middle class artiste faux bohemia and midwest motel-land that form the backdrop to this unique yet familiar tale. Two people meet, they fall in love, that love is challenged — if this were boy meets girl why would anyone care? — but this is girl meets girl and this is Eisenhower’s America: epitases are not meant to be about finding a way for that love to prosper while the nuclear family flounders. To set this love in the 1950s would be bold. To write it then is extraordinary.

It is not just title that has changed as folio becomes film. The focus of the book is decidedly Mara’s Therese — it’s told in the third person but always from her perspective; no scene exists without her — yet the titular character takes the lead on the screen, meaning scenes the reader must create for themselves through implicit hints, explicit conversation and epistolary exposition are brought to life with the kind of vivid performances that are snipped into a vignette and then used to illustrate acting prowess after the nominee’s name is announced on the big night itself. This expansion of scope into Carol’s world means we see much more of her estranged husband Harge (China Beach S03E05 Independence Day’s Kyle Chandler), a truly awful beast that seems to embody every negative stock trait of 1950s privileged white oppressive man, even to the point of him getting soused and then slipping behind the wheel while his 5-year-old daughter cries in the backseat. While we hear a lot about Harge in the novel, his nastiness is captured only in fleeting glimpses, a symptom of cinema’s obsession with defining women through their interaction with men. Therese is an aspiring off-Broadway set designer in the novel but a talented junior photographer in the film. This brings up all sorts of metaphorical imagery and creating one’s own landscape and destiny —> being a witness to events rather than an agent of action. Perhaps the most telling difference from page to screen is Carol’s age. Though not made clear in either form, book Carol presents as mid-30s, whereas film Carol is every one of Cate Blanchett’s 46 trips around the sun. Therese is 21 in both, meaning there is an element of predation, at least that’s what my Mum thought.

I have been asked a few times by non-readers why the book is called The Price of Salt. It’s because Therese uses salt to refer to chemistry in a relationship: with Carol there is salt, with her capricious fiancee Richard there is none. What is the price of Carol’s salt? What is it’s cost?

There is a lot to like about both the book and the film. The former is more challenging to the reader but the latter is tighter. On balance you can probably get away with just seeing the film but you don’t want to risk that too often.

And, when watching, keep an eye out for Therese’s gorgeous beanie — Sandy Powell deserves a fourth Costume Design Oscar just for that careful accessory.

Genghis Can’t?

Miike Snow’s 2012 sophomore release Happy To You was an absolute cracker and I have been hanging out for a follow-up since the sublime Paddling Out hit #36 in the Hottest 100. The first single from the Swedish-American collective’s third album, iii, was the baroque pop instaclassic Heart Is Full and this was backed up by second cut Genghis Khan. The first time I heard GK I was singing along to the catchy chorus almost immediately, certainly before I fully digested how possessive and rapey the lyrics are:

I get a little bit Genghis Khan
I don’t want you to get it on
With nobody else but me
With nobody else but me

The point is, I definitely noticed the aggressive nature of this song, of the character narrating these dark lyrics in a major, upbeat key: it’s quite a contrast. Then there’s the hilarious, all singing, all dancing, James Bond-inspired music video:

It’s quite an diverse clutch of details: delightful tempo, disturbing lyrics, captor-and-possession imagery, delightful homosexual family outcome.

Now, consider this point of view:

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.36.57 PM

(I have seen the Triple J text line: it’s a dark, disturbing media split 50-50 between listeners saying whichever song is playing is fucking shit and is fucking rad. One time I was in the studio reading it while Montaigne was on air speaking quite eloquently about sexism in the music industry and the drivel that cavemen were texting in made me ashamed to be part of the same species. The speed, volume and overall unpleasantness of the text line mean it is not easy or enticing for Triple J presenters and producers to read every message, so it is more likely that Angela’s two contributions were missed, rather than ignored.)

Is Angela right to want Triple J to stop playing Genghis Khan? Or is there nothing wrong with art depicting a misogynist character? Similar sentiments are expressed in classics of the genre like Stan, I Will Possess Your Heart and Every Breath You Take. (And, yes, there are songs where women sing of possessing men against their will but, and yell this to yourself in case you are in any doubt, REVERSE SEXISM DOES NOT EXIST.)

One problem is that the lines between art and reality can become, comme on dit, blurred. You and me can tell the difference between the character in a song that is sexist and revolting, and the artist that is telling the story of said character; bringing them to life with complexities and nuances, as unsettling as that may be. But there are plenty of morons out there who can’t, and who use the mainstream success of said artists as justification or even inspiration for their own poor behaviour.

I tend to think these songs are okay, and that it is fine for Triple J to play them. I would be happy for Triple J to lead-in the song with a content note similar to its language warnings. When it comes to censorship, the bar has to be higher — much higher — than a character in a song expressing the trite sentiment ‘that if I can’t have you no-one can’.

Meanwhile, Genghis Khan isn’t the first music video inspired by the exploits of British superspy James Bond 007. Here are six more classics that, with the prenominate Goldfinger-inspired clip, form the The Top 007 Music Videos!

Millennium — Robbie Williams (1998):

Land Of A Thousand Words — Scissor Sisters (2006)

Eve Of Destruction — Screaming Jets

A View To A Kill — Duran Duran (1985) [And, yes, I know this is a Bond theme but it is too hard to pass up any clip with line, “Bon. Simon Le Bon”.]

My Gun — Rubens (2012)

Spy Hard — “Weird Al” Yankovic (1996)

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