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February 2006

February 28, 2006

The Perth Writer's Festival: Or, Listening to the Sound of One Hand Clapping

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I attended a Perth Writer's Festival lecture on Saturday morning. Reluctantly. I hadn't slept so well, it was real fucking hot, and I had a media pass to Cronenberg's latest: A History of Violence. I'd heard good things. But, no--the heat could be suffered, the film caught up on later, and sleep reclaimed that evening. No biggie. There were war correspondents to listen and pose questions to, followed by "Australia's leading public intellectual" Robert Manne, and, later still, novelist Frank Moorhouse speaking on anti-terror laws.
Let's do it. Let's dialogue. Let's share ideas. Okay?
I got edgy when I scoped the crowd--75% women, the average age about 65, give or take. Where were the motherfuckers reading Bukowski and Maupassant? Pitchfork and Rousseau? Eh? Their hair was consistently grey, short, washed and conditioned. Which is fine--hygiene's important.
Their jewellery was... respectable, eschewing tawdry, and the talcum powder delicately applied that morning ensured 'pits as dry as a bone. I felt my sweat-stained 'pits and asked Paddy if my eyes were blood-shot.
They were.

The lecture got off to a bad start. Billed as two war correspondents shooting the shit, one cancelled and was replaced by an affable curiosity from Perth--an aid worker who had spent extensive time in Afghanistan. Not a war correspondent, then.
And so, it was on... each guest mouthed platitudes and anecdotes, received, to my horror, as wisdom. Worse, as ideas. When the journalist--or was it the aid worker?--began offering this pearl: "I don't believe in the dichotomy of good and evil. I think there are shades..." the crowd began nodding knowingly, apparently appreciative of a great illuminative glow. If you squinted you could see its wings...
Yawn.
So let's hear the audience's questions: "How did you feel..." Ahhh, shit. Question after question designed to yield the personal minutiae experienced when either of them were writing their book, or questions designed to reinforce their deeply held belief that nobody should ever be killed, ever, and that the US is evil (they're the exception to that whole good/evil dichotomy rule thing).
Yawn.
The journalist had spent time in Indonesia, experiencing first hand the violent convulsions inspired by despotic rule. The aid worker had spent time in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban. But get this: no-one thought to ask him anything about the Taliban (were we right to go in? I say yes to Afghanistan, no to Iraq, and say that both wars were prosecuted terribly); commensurately, no-one thought to question the journalist about despotic regimes, and the legitimacy of deposing them. As we turn to Iran, I would have thought a more rigorous discussion about the interference of a nation's sovereignty, theocratic fascism, and the hypocrisy of our own often opaque turns of democracy would have been... pertinent?
There were no ideas. There were no bruised paradigms. There were no open minds (a strict anti-war--"No Imperialism!"--Bush bad--middle-class-couched rhetoric is not open-mindedness). But there was coloured water--or was it cordial?--and a free copy of The Monthly, a very good publication.
And so, Paddy and I did the only thing we could. We left, bitched, ate 'burgers, bitched some more, and then began talking about just what the fuck to do here. We decided to begin our own magazine. Then we went home and watched old episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
That motherfucker is funny.

P.S. & yes, I had a question, but I wasn't picked. So it goes...

Afterword
I have just discovered a quote from Pauline Kael (a critic introduced to me by Paddy) which tidily sums up the lecture:
"I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses 'art' films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood 'product,' finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism"

Indeed.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:02 PM | Comments (6)

February 4, 2006

Capote

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I have just watched Capote, and a few things are on my mind. Firstly, Jon Stewart's comments to Phillip Seymour Hoffman after he had watched the film: "Phillip, I'm not usually prone to hyperbole, but... you are the best damn actor in the world right now". This may well be true, or it may not, but the Oscar should be his....
The other thing? Well, Capote himself. I have read most of his work, what little of it there is: lush, superficial portraits which said as much about Capote's celebration of celebrity as it did about the subjects--Louis Armstrong, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando. There is also an equally lush collection of shorts, some of them exceptional ("Dazzle") & his sparkly novella of the holes in the high-life, the cinematic version of which would cement Audrey Hepburn's star. There is also his last published work, the unfinished Answered Prayers--immaculate prose, perhaps his shiniest yet; but the words were employed as a bitter and final self-advertisement, and the few friends he had remaining were betrayed. It was an unfinished work in every sense.
And, of course, there was his great fraud, the novel that would establish him as the US's most famous author--In Cold Blood. I say fraud, not as a test of the book's veracity (a calculated portrait of the killing of a family of four in deepest Kansas, and the killers that would later hang for it) but the way in which Capote sold it--as the first "non-fiction novel". It is how Capote chose to call the book, and most critics followed. Capote himself said to George Plimpton in 1966 (the year of the book's publication): "It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the 'nonfiction novel'". Well, that's true, but few pointed out that it had been done before--by Mark Twain (Roughing It) or Stephen Crane (Maggie); Daniel Defoe, even, over 200 years prior. But still, despite Capote's boasts, the piece was widely hailed a masterpiece, and it is the best thing he ever wrote.
Capote watches Tru write the thing, and the film paints a highly questionable man, pursuing questionable ends. Admittedly, it's a portrait consistent with my view of him--one which comes with reading most of his work, studying Plimpton's anecdotal biography (Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintences and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career), and reading the acerbic criticisms of his contemporaries--Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer especially. That view is this--Capote was a gifted raconteur, eloquent writer, egomaniac, alcoholic, professional liar and cheat. He squandered his talent with personal excess, and was a terrible friend. His legacy should be stronger than it is.
The film suggests most of this, and paints a man with a flexible morality--if a moral structure at all. Capote was intent on greatness, and ignored much, and trampled many, in his attempts to attain it. In this film we see his friend Harper Lee as a quiet moral advisor, tending to Capote's cruel calculations. We are then reminded of Lee's great work--To Kill a Mockingbird, and are reminded of its message of moral fortitude. We see it lacking in Capote, as he ignores his friends and manipulates one of the killers, Perry Smith, in an effort to extract the information he needs. At one point, after Capote has established Smith's trust, and removed his personal diary from his possession, Capote reads from it to Lee, mocking its author. It's a cruel exercise.
In another scene, we hear Capote refer to Smith as a "goldmine" as Capote vaingloriously anticipates his writerly success. We are asked what the moral boundaries of reportage are, and are reminded of the ethical difficulties when those moral responsibilities preclude, or interfere with, artistic ones.
Capote eventually realises his betrayal of Smith--but he also realises that without this act, his book may never have been written. Is Capote, as a writer, obliged to perform as moral authority? Perhaps not, but he is as a human. We're led to believe that human responsibilities and artistic ambition are often in conflict, but that they should be much better negotiated than Capote's effort.
Finally, as I think of Capote's last days--wild, sad days soaked in drink and with few friends by him--I'm also inclined to read the importance of friendship as a soft and slight sub-text to this excellent film.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 3:48 PM