Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brigitte Fontaine + Grace Jones

I've been listening to this song a lot lately. It's French avant-garde artist Brigitte Fontaine with Grace Jones, singing 'Dancefloor', from the album L'un N'empeche pas L'autre. It marks the second collaboration between the two artists. The first was with a song called 'Soufi'. With thanks to Universal Record

Brigitte Fontaine - Dancefloor (feat Grace Jones) by polydorfrance

RIP Farley Granger 1925-2011

Arabian Nights

Richard F. Burton began to rework and organise his translation of The Arabian Nights, or The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, as it is subtitled, in 1884. Published in sixteen volumes over the next three years, this collection of cautionary, instructive romances and supernatural adventures garnered the kind of critical and financial success that had thus far eluded the Victorian adventurer, linguist and traveller. The Arabian Nights is unlike most fantastical writing in that time has not dimmed its gem-like brilliance. On a par with Ovid’s Metamorphosis it is one of the great works of the imagination, a masterpiece that continues to influence and beguile. 
Coming from Persian, Indian, Chinese and Arabic oral traditions, the tales had been in circulation for centuries before they were written down in fourteenth century Syria. The first European edition, translated by Antoine Galland and based on the Syrian manuscript, appeared in twelve volumes between 1703 and 1713. It was an instant best seller, inspiring many more translations and versions across the continent. When Edward Lane’s English translation appeared in 1841, Richard Burton was twenty years old and about to sail to India with a commission in the Bombay Army. Over the course of his life, Burton grew ever more fascinated with the Orient and the customs of Islamic countries; it was thus inevitable that he would eventually turn his attentions on The Arabian Nights. It proved to be a union that benefited him and art and literature.
Long considered by Arabic scholars to be a form of plebeian entertainment, The Arabian Nights is a crowd pleaser from start to finish. Conceived and collated during the height of Islamic civilisation, the tales are full of romance, mischief and ribaldry. With nary a paragraph break, the Burton translation is a headlong read; the pace is relentless. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the reader breathlessly tumbles from one story to the next. At the end of each adventure, we are briefly returned to the everyday, before being plunged into the ever-shifting maelstrom once again.
The books’ structure is deceptively simple. Most of the tales are told by Shahrazad to her husband King Shahryar, whose custom it is to slay his wives after the first night. To stay the tyrant’s hand, wily Shahrazad weaves a complex series of never-ending tales within tales, like a set of interlocking puzzle boxes, withholding the ending until the following night. Every story is crowded with such an array of chthonic beasts, fearsome genies, terrifying magicians, beautiful enchantresses, porcelain-skinned princes and princesses, spellbound kingdoms, hideous apparitions and dazzling riches beyond compare that the reader, like King Shahryar, is soon lost in a labyrinth that defies and confounds the imagination. Each tale is a drug whose antidote is the next tale. The end result of all this story telling is that Shahrazad will cure the king’s mania for despatching his wives, and free the kingdom from the terror of having its young women systematically annihilated.
To a modern Western sensibility many of the tales will, undoubtedly, seem sexist, racist and sensationalistic, emphasising as they do the violent and the sexual. It has even been said that the Nights have long contributed to Western misconceptions about the East; be that as it may, such reductive terms commit a dire injustice against these ingenious tales. On closer inspection the stories reveal a more complex world view, full of ambiguity and contradiction. 
Vividly brought to life in the Burton translation by a honey-tongued eloquence, the tales are in fact a catalogue detailing the diversity of Islamic cultural mores, from Spain to India and beyond, even as they are an outpouring of pre and post-Islamic misdeed and misbehaviour. In the unexpurgated version, many of the tales pivot on sexual innuendo, which often echoes Shahrazad and King Shahryar’s battle of wits. If the sexual content comes as a surprise, it’s worth remembering that Burton also translated the Kama Sutra, the treatise on sexuality, The Perfumed Garden of Sheikh Nefzaoui, and made a roughshod study of Eastern pederastic and homosexual practices. 
Because many of the stories come from the pre-Islamic Persian period, and have been subsequently grafted onto an early to mid-Islamic sensibility, the world that lies between these pages is often a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and sexual practices. In many of the stories, Jews, Christians and Muslims live and pray side by side. In ‘The Second Kalandar’s Tale’, for instance, a Muslim princess uses Hebrew enchantments to battle a shape-shifting genie. In ‘The Porter and Three Ladies’, as in many other tales, wine is merrily consumed in astounding quantities by both sexes, often with disastrous results. 
Perhaps what will most disturb modern readers is the portrayal of black people. In many of the stories blacks are portrayed as unbridled and animalistic; their physical appearance is often derided and their customs ridiculed. In fact, a black cook ‘of loathsome aspect’ sets the Nights in motion when he seduces King Shahryar’s queen. Conversely, however, black people are just as likely to be court eunuchs, as honourable grandees or powerful kings and queens. As one commentator on the tales states, the negative images of black people in the stories ‘need to be examined in the context of the Nights, and not as if they are expressions of modern western values’. For interested parties, there is also a handsomely produced Norton’s edition of the tales, edited by Husain Haddawy, which manages to avoid Burton’s racist overtones. 
Similarly, the portrayal of women is constantly shifting and covers a spectrum of behaviour. It goes without saying that all the female characters are identified, first and foremost, through their sexuality. However, like Monica Belluci, they are sex with brains. No flippertygibbets here, or at least very few. Even when they are men’s vassals, by and large, the women of the Nights keep their own counsel, lie with strangers when they choose; and, depending on the mood or circumstance, they can be silly, alluring, deceptive, infinitely wise and pragmatic. For their part, the boys live up to expectations by being brave and heroic, yet they think nothing of giving in to self-pity, weeping and lamenting, or taking their pleasure with a handy cucumber when need be. 
Beyond this, what makes the tales so enduring is the eerie animism of cult worship, where nothing and no one is what they seem, and the very air is alive and teeming with inexplicable possibility. As in ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, the poor and the destitute, the outcast, must first descend into the chthonic underground to confront their worst fears before fulfilling a preordained destiny. Each tale is a mock epic, an archetypal journey into the unconscious that represents life itself. It is this that gives the collection its hallucinogenic quality, as if the entire book is an opium-induced dream on the verge of turning into a Freudian nightmare. Add to this Burton’s sublimely oscillating language and his informative, often highly amusing notes to the text and you have what is known as an enduring classic.
Now behold these cadences from ‘Julnar the Sea-Born’ and allow yourself to float on the breath of a May wind: ‘There was once in days of yore and in ages and times long gone before, in Ajam-land, a King Shahriman height, whose abiding place was Khorasan…’

From the film Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974

Shaun Tan wins The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Will the celebrations never cease? It seems to be the year of Shaun Tan. Hot on the heels of winning an Academy Award for his animated short film The Lost Thing, Shaun is now the recipient of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Administered by the Swedish Arts Council, this is the world’s largest prize for children’s literature. And it’s only the second time an Australian has won it. The first was the inimitable Sonya Hartnett.
The judges astutely describe Shaun Tan’s work as follows:
‘Shaun Tan is a masterly visual storyteller, pointing the way ahead to new possibilities for picture books. His pictorial worlds constitute a separate universe where nothing is self-evident and anything is possible. Memories of childhood and adolescence are fixed reference points, but the pictorial narrative is universal and touches everyone, regardless of age.
Behind a wealth of minutely detailed pictures, where civilization is criticized and history depicted through symbolism, there is a palpable warmth. People are always present, and Shaun Tan portrays both our searching and our alienation. He combines brilliant, magical narrative skill with deep humanism.’
The prize money amounts to an astounding $800 000. When Sonya Hartnett was the recipient a few years ago, I proposed marriage. Sadly, she turned me down. ‘I don’t think it’ll work,’ she said. ‘You’re a poof and I’m not.’ I suppose I will have to propose to Shaun as well, though his wife, the glacial Finnish beauty Inari Kiuru, might have something to say about that… 
But really it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Congratulations, Shaun. May you live long and prosper. Now I have to think of something nice to cook for when he and Inari come to watch a few episodes of our favourite TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
For those who live in Australia, The Lost Thing screens on ABC1, April 3 at 4.45 PM.

Shaun Tan and Inari Kiuru stand in front of Oscar at the Academy Awards

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Philip Treacy

I first heard about milliner Philip Treacy when Grace Jones raided his London store and walked out with all the hats in the shop. She's no fashion slouch and she knows a good hat when she sees it. So I quickly jumped online to see who this guy was. As a lover of hats myself, I have to say Treacy is about as good as they get. He's no mere hat maker. He creates sculpture for the head. The guy really understands silhouette and how to make a statement. So rather than getting a new hairdo, all you have to do is pop one of these miracles on your head and you're ready to set the town on fire, baby.

The first image is Isabella Blow in Treacy.

This highlights Treacy's love of drama.

This one is for when you want to be incognito at Heathrow Airport.

And this aerodynamic creation is by far my favourite, as worn by the inimitable Miss Grace Jones.

Literary Awards

It's that time of the year again. It seems every time I turn around, the shortlist for some literary award is being announced. This year is a bit of a windfall for me. Well, not me exactly, but for some of the talented authors I work with at Penguin Books. No less than five books I edited last year have been shortlisted. They are as follows, said the proud editor:

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature

The Three Loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds.
I've said it before and I will say it again: Cassandra Golds is an enchantress of the word. I feel incredibly privileged to work with her and I await her manuscripts with an eagerness that verges on the maniacal. Her books are so distinctive and surprising that you cannot mistake them for anyone else's. The Three Loves of Persimmon is a beguiling and wise love story set in a neverwhere city that may or may not be Paris/London of the Belle Epoque. Like all classic children's literature, it speaks to adults as well.

Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction

Children's Fiction
Night School, Isobelle Carmody, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Isobelle Carmody took her inspiration for this picture book from an old school her daughter attended in Prague. The story is mysterious and allusive, a dark fairy tale about innocence lost and experience gained over the course of one night.

The Boy and the Toy, Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Lucia Masciullo
I did not work on this picture book but the author is a friend and I've worked on her novels for over a decade. This is a delightful and cheeky story about unexpected friendship. It's beautifully illustrated by Lucia Masciullo, who is currently working on another picture book with the author.

Young Adult Novel
The Life of a Teenage Body-snatcher, Doug MacLeod
No praise is too high for the distinctive talents of Mr Doug MacLeod. People rave about Neil Gaiman but really Gaiman is a child scratching away in a basement compared to MacLeod's prodigious imagination and off-the-wall humour. Mixing a delightful charnel house sensibility with outrageous guffaws comes as naturally to him as breathing. And you can never predict where you will end up when you pick up one of his books. Body-snatcher is no exception. Adults will love it too. And it comes with a stunning cover by Polina Outkina.

Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett
Set in Europe during World War II, Midnight Zoo is the kind of fable that will appeal to children and adults alike. This is because Hartnett writes with crystalline clarity and an aching poetry that is unequalled. She is as distinctive as Flannery O'Connor in the way she approaches her subject matter. This gorgeously produced book proves that Harnett is not just a masterful stylist; she feels deeply for the dispossessed and the outcast as well. It's outrageous that the Miles Franklin Literary Awards ignored this sublime book while seeing fit to include some true mediocrities.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped

Certain films bring to mind an image, an actor’s face or gesture, a sequence, a unique point in time. Years later, when the viewer thinks about the experience of watching that film, it is captured in its entirety inside that moment. When I think about Robert Bresson’s 1956 masterpiece the first thing that comes to mind is the train whistle in the night. Sharp, shrill, fleeting, forlorn and even alarming, it ambushes the film’s monastic silence to sound a clarion call. This regular call to arms is nothing short of miraculous, like turning your face to the sun and bathing in the glory of being alive. 
Made eleven years after the war, Un condemne a mort s’est echappe is based on a memoir by Andre Devigny, a French resistance activist. In Bresson’s film, Devigny’s alter ago Fontaine is imprisoned by Nazis. It is 1943. Fontaine devotes his hours to planning an escape. On the day he is to die, he is given a cell mate. Should he kill the boy or risk being discovered by someone who might be a Gestapo informant? Such is the plot. 
Un condemne a mort s’est echappe is a film about confinement, the possibilities of space and the triumph of the will. Its essence comes from Bresson’s visual rigour, the deliberate pace, the attention to detail, and small exchanges as the men go about their often silent daily routine. Beyond the high wall, birds sing, children play, trolley bells are rung, the sun rises and sets, men are executed. (The soundtrack is rich and resonant, giving tantalising hints of life outside the prison.) Plots are hatched. The train keeps a strict schedule. A desperate chain of communication is set in motion as prisoners find ways to break their isolation and communicate through covert means with fellow man -- a device that is exploited for different purposes in Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950).  A way of keeping sane in an insane environment: death’s production line. 
Bresson, like Jean Pierre Melville, was a master of pure cinema. That is to say he understood film as innately visual. He knew that the image is more eloquent than the word. By keeping dialogue to a minimum and balancing the film’s formal properties (image, space, sound etc.), he elevates the core material to the level of pared-back allegory. As the narrative progresses, we realise that Fontaine is not escaping mere bricks-and-mortar. As he sits in the cell, his face turned to the light spilling in from the tiny window high in the wall, he resembles an ascetic bathed in the pure light of revelation. Fontaine seeks spiritual enlightenment. The cell is a symbol of the caged mind. The prison represents the corporeal world. 
The train whistle is the singular moment of inspiration that promises elevation. It says ‘Don’t wait. Now is the moment. Grab it while you can.’ The first time it is heard we are already thirty-six minutes into the narrative. After meticulous planning, Fontaine manages to leave his cell and roam the corridors in secret. The second time we hear the train whistle, it is 10.00 PM. Fontaine has climbed to the skylight that leads to the prison roof and ultimate freedom. In all, we hear the train whistle fourteen times. At the final, triumphal blast, it is 4.00 AM. Time is running out. Fontaine and the boy Jost, a metaphor for father and son, risk being caught if they do not make the final leap and climb the outer wall. Their ultimate escape is a dash into expanded awareness, an altered state. 
Made between Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951) and Pickpocket  (1959), and filmed in a luminous black and white that is no longer seen, Un condemne a mort s’est echappe possesses an austere beauty that is arresting. Francois Leterrier’s Fontaine does not give away much. His soulful eyes and unsmiling face remind us of the single-mindedness of saints in medieval icons. When asked why he persists with his plan, he answers: ‘To fight. To fight against the walls, against myself, my door.’ In other words, he has no alternative. He is as closed in on himself as his body is inside the prison. Even when he scales the wall and makes good his escape, Jost by his side, he is filled with trepidation. As they make their way through Lyon’s empty streets, the train shoots by, the screen goes black, and Mozart’s ‘Great Mass in C minor’ impregnates the soundtrack. Together with Melville’s L’armée des ombres (1969) Un condemne a mort s’est echappe is a turning point in cinema.

Melbourne Fashion Festival

The Melbourne Fashion Festival is in full swing at the moment, with activities all over town. One of the many wonderful things on offer is an exhibition called Man Style. One half of this show is about the suit and its evolution from mid eighteenth-century frock coat to present-day slickness. That's on at Federation Square. The other half is on at the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road and it's about the male peacock's attire. On display are some truly breathtaking Vivienne Westwood creations from the 1980s to a recent ratty tatty coat and pants I'd kill for. Worth checking out and it's free entry.

I was pleased to see that actress Melissa George is the face of this year's festival. Here she is looking glamorous.

And here she is looking harassed in the the superb supernatural thriller Triangle.

Rumour has it that modelling sensation Andrej Pejic offered to lower his fee to appear at this year's festival, but he was snubbed by the organisers. Apparently he is too androgynous for our parochial tastes. Pejic was born in Broadmeadows, a down-at-heels suburb in Melbourne's north-west. Thanks to the fashion gods that live on Mount Olympus, he's risen out of the muck and made it big in Europe, appearing for Gaultier and Lagerfeld, among other luminaries. As someone who is enamored of the androgyne, I can't help but be impressed. Given where he comes from it's fair to say he's a lily in the shit of the world. Enjoy it while it lasts, Andrej!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann

A trusted friend recently told me about David Vann's first book Legend of a Suicide. It sounded like an interesting collection of short stories and Vann was obviously a man to watch out for. When I heard that Penguin Books was releasing his first novel, I placed an order and eagerly awaited its arrival. Normally there's a pile of books by the bedside. New additions go to the bottom of the stack to await their turn. Thanks to superlative reviews and word of mouth, however, Caribou Island jumped the queue. Given all of that, it pains me to say that I was rather disappointed.

It's not that Vann is a bad writer; quite the opposite. He has a clear and concise prose style. If you like incomplete sentences. It could also be said that he has a distinctive, easy-to-digest voice. He knows how to excavate troubling terrain and is not afraid to delve into ugly scenes. So why was I left feeling dissatisfied?

I believe it's because Vann does not allow for silences in his book. Everything is spelled out to the letter. There is nothing for the reader to think about and fill in, no itch to scratch, nothing to ponder. There is no suggestion, no invisible undercurrent, no oblique approach. The writing is straight and narrow as a highway across the Nullabor. The view uninterrupted. No mist masks the terrain. There is no mystery, no delving. The reader is in no doubt about what lies on the horizon.

By the time I hit page seventy, my brain went into a downward slide from which it never recovered. There was nothing for me to do, except allow my eyes to scan the page and wait for the end.

For the purposes of this discussion, you need only know that Caribou Island is about the disintegration of a family. Gary and Irene build a cabin on said island to save their marriage, not realising that the severe winter and isolation will exact a high price. Meanwhile, their daughter Rhoda is about to marry a leech called Jim. The conclusion brings these three family members together in the book's finest moment.

To give Vann his due, Jim and Gary are perfectly drawn. When we are in the presence of either man we are astounded by how delusional they are; the sheer selfishness and boorishness of human behaviour leaves us agape.  Jim is as chilling as the Alaskan landscape he inhabits; Gary as ungraspable as the mist that surrounds the island.

Troubled Irene, on the other hand, is let down by a myth-making process that is inappropriate for the character and her actions. In her last grand act, Irene becomes Diana the Huntress, haunting the forest with a crossbow on her shoulder and deadly intent in her heart. By the time she descends from the mountain she has ceased to be a human being. Rather she is Woman, a force of nature. A symbol of great and unending sufferance. That is why her horrific actions elicit no emotion. Only vague side-show horror and fascination.

The real emotion is in the last few pages. Rhoda gets out of her brother's boat and walks across the island towards her parents' cabin. And this is where Vann comes good. We are far ahead of Rhoda. We know what waits for her. As she innocently dreams and plans her wedding, we see that every action has a reaction. Some poor sod is always left behind to clean up the mess and live with the consequences. Vann's cleverness is in knowing when to cut. For once in his 293 page novel, he does not go there. He allows the reader to imagine what will happen when Rhoda's bubble bursts.

Toys Are Us

My first toy was a chubby plastic doll found on a smoldering rubbish heap when I was about seven years old. The doll was slightly smaller than an average child at birth and naked. His skin was a shiny coal black, with plump red lips and tight wooly curls on his head. He and I became fast friends, despite the fact that on the Aegean island where I was born parents had turned black people into a kind of bogeyman to control errant children. 'The black man is coming to eat you,' they said, and we all behaved and ate our fried squid. 
Unaware of the racism inherent in the term, I called my doll Sambo. His limbs were round, soft and pliable and he had a body from which the baby fat was yet to melt. At night we cuddled up and slept together. Far from being afraid he would stuff me with herbed rice and eat me for his dinner with carrots and potatoes on the side, I derived enormous comfort from his presence, and I confided my childish secrets to his perfectly formed shell-like ear. 
Years later in Australia, a well-meaning relative gave me a G I Joe action figure. I did not take to him. He was a hard, angular brute whose only interest was to wage war across the living room floor and backyard. He reminded me of the Zuni fetish doll that terrorizes Karen Black in the film Trilogy of Terror and I was determined to spay him of his violent tendencies. 
One day, I stripped G I Joe of his camouflage gear and, after inspecting his neutered groin, begged my mother to sew him a Superman costume. In the manner of uncomplaining migrant women, she sewed him a fitted costume with tights and cape. I provided the stylised S that emblazoned his chest. 
It was Oscar Wilde who observed that only superficial people believe looks don’t matter. That day proved him right. The minute G I Joe made his entrance in a spiffing new outfit, he lost his advocacy to violence and was ready to do good. Through a combination of will-power and imagination, I had transformed a killing machine into a force for truth, justice and, if not the American way, then my way.
Children often use toys in ways that are not intended by the manufacturer. They cut their hair, exchange one doll’s limbs for those of another. Flash Gordon will suddenly keep house with Yumi, Ken will move in with Gigantor, and so on. I know of one girl who had major altercations with her Barbie. Whenever an unpleasantry passed between them, the girl would rip the doll’s head off and insert a new one in its place. She then wrapped the doll in plastic and bury it. After the doll had incubated underground for a couple of weeks, the girl dug it up again and pretended that it was a brand-new friend who had nothing in common with its previous disagreeable incarnation. That is transformative alchemy at its most basic. It shows the fearsome logic that a child projects onto the material world. (It’s indicative of psychosis, too, but that’s beyond our jurisdiction.)
When we become bored or dissatisfied with toys, we apply will power and transform them into something that is more in tune with our own sensibility. Toys are fluid because, like the plastics they are often made of, they are the very idea of infinite transformation. Through imaginative play, we may turn the threatening and unappealing into objects that feed a need for adventure, love, comfort and security. 
Moreover, toys can be talismanic objects of transformation. When melded with a child’s pliable brain, toys gain pseudo-life, a kind of golem made of plastic (ask anyone who has ever used a blow-up sex doll). In this manner, children and even certain adults can turn a toy into a pseudo-human that allows them to play out unformed impulses and desires, even as they learn to preempt, challenge, and negotiate adult space. Such is the level of concentration during play that we loose ourselves for hours at a time. Via thought projection, we become the toy and vice versa. There is a sublimation of personality that transcends physical limitation, allowing us to dream of extraordinary potential. In this manner, the fearsome cannibal becomes a friend and the warmonger is resurrected as a saviour. Without being aware of it, we subvert the toy’s factory programming; thus fashioning its potential to personal taste.
Films such as Dolls, Puppetmaster and Child’s Play demonstrate that toys are also totemic objects of fear and veneration. Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist dummy come to life in Dead of Night is a good case in point. Symbolically representing outward manifestations of the id, the dolls in these films contain the potential for the good and evil we project into their hollow hearts, which is one reason why adults are often shocked by the sadistic use their little darlings make of favoured toys. When the end comes for a doll, it can be abrupt and final. 
At fourteen, I put a match to G I Joe/Superman to test his claims to invincibility. When he proved to be a mere synthetic man, I abandoned him to his fiery fate and never spared him another thought. I don’t know what happened to Sambo; nonetheless, his influence lives on. His obsidian eyes and dark skin taught me to accept and respect people whose physiognomy differs from mine and, to this day, I think of him with smiling fondness as I drift off to sleep...
Sambo looked a little like this chap, except that he was naked.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Eiko Ishioka

I've always loved the Japanese aesthetic. Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garcons, and costume designer Eiko Ishioka. This image belongs to the latter. She, you might know, is responsible for the way the vampires look in Coppola's Dracula; for Robert Downey's costume in Iron Man; for Jennifer Lopez's incredible dresses in The Cell, and for Grace Jones's amazing look for the recent Hurricane tour, to name just a few. This image is from Tarsem Singh's 2006 film The Fall. The fans open up to reveal the face beneath. Doesn't it make you want to pass out with bliss?