I love how these year-end pieces are all so different. You'll find that these are, too...
Before I sat down to write what books or films I appreciated in 2007, I read a theatre review in the New York Times. A friend had done a play reading and her picture accompanied the article. Her acting was wonderful, the reviewer proclaimed, but the production was a liberal harangue, a sermon to the converted without a word for the plutocrats.
Not a word for the plutocrats!
Despite my friend’s glorious acting, who knows, I might have hated this production—chin falling to chest as I slipped from boredom into dreams and snored. Since menopause, I can’t stay awake when I don’t really want to. Still, the breezy review got me to wondering.
Do we write for the plutocrats and hope they hear?
Do we sing to the choir about the joys, pain, and wonder of our common life?
What do I want from a story as a writer and as audience?
As usual, the advertisements in the Times took up more space than the reviews and articles. Two thirds of this particular page was an overt assault on my pocketbook. Indeed, given product placement within so many texts, it’s almost impossible to enjoy artistic experiences without imbibing vast quantities of mercantilist manipulation.
It is striking that we have such a high tolerance for all the spend-money sermons, for the lying on the mountaintop and at the crossroads about how and where and when and with whom we can be happy beyond our wildest dreams. It is, however, not all that surprising that we allow so much of our time, space, and energy to be taken up with commercialism. Advertising is such a spectacular achievement, because it successfully employs all the wonderful and delightful techniques of every kind of storyteller and artist. With a minute or less to charm us, the best visual magicians, yarn spinners, word wizard, musicians, and actors conjure legends and myths and fun, and then promise these grand experiences to us with a purchase. Publicity is speculative art, offering us the future, a grand and pleasurable future at that.
All too often I have heard folks chant the absolute power of commercialism—commodity culture is the way of the world, the way of the future, a product of human nature. No one can buy a way out, so might as well buy in!
While doing research for my latest novel, I came across a Hopi proverb:
The one who tells the stories rules the world.
I hear more complaints about art hitting us over the head with a message than I do about ADs battering our spirits with art or PR sucking on the sacred and spiritual for profane power. Advertising, publicity, and public relations have persuaded us that they are indispensable without a word about the plutocrats. We recognize the lies. However, despite media savvy and the best intentions, we believe in the PR enterprise and try to buy our way to that happy, glamorous tomorrow. Study after study finds that beyond a certain level of basic comfort, things just don’t make us happy. Stories do. We can’t live without them.
Commodity cultural is empty calories for the soul. It gets its power from storytellers and artists. I often forget this and lament the declining significance of storytellers and Story. Submerged in or battered by 3000 ADs a day, I can lose track of what I think. I forget that commodity culture is propped up by a web of delicious myths that we enjoy because they are good stories well told. It’s mythology we crave, the sense of wonder at ourselves, at the Universe, and the pleasure of shared experiences, not all the junk and gadgets. Once the commodity is out of its dazzling package, the magic aura of its story quickly fades. But as speculative art, publicity keeps us buying for a tomorrow that never comes.
I don’t watch TV, because I can’t bear ADs and publicity sucking up the days of my life. At fifty-five, every minute is particularly precious. The tomorrow-that-never-comes doesn’t look nearly as good as the moment I am in. It’s a struggle to hold on to my moments. I am not paranoid. PR people are hunting me down everywhere! If we get to the Multiplex early for the best seats, we must now suffer these most commercial of fictions.
In 2007 here are the short shorts that struck me:
The National Guard had a nostalgic music video about the sacrifices we have to make for freedom (perhaps even sacrificing freedom itself). Their jingle wouldn’t let go of my brain. Sign up and be a patriot and revolutionary, like those brave men who heard the call in 1776. A Navy AD boasted of science fictional weapons for a real-life video game war. Episode One would be: The Drones Fight Terrorism. For cast info, we were exhorted to check with recruitment. Coke used brilliant animation, dramatic serendipity, and delightful shapeshifting (that drew gasps from my movie theatre audience) as we went inside a coke machine, to a world as lush and vibrant as Middle Earth, Narnia, and Oz, to produce the bottle of refreshment that after great adventures tumbled out the slot. Take a sip for an SF and F ride!
What do I want from Story?
In addition to powerful technique and narrative craft, beyond startling images and tenacious tunes, I want what Walter Benjamin calls the wisdom of the storyteller. This is not information or explanation, but experience transformed into insight. In these hard times, I read hungrily, hoping some word wizard, who doesn’t know me from shadows and smoke, will understand my particular joy and torment. As I watch a film, I pray that someone other than me has been where I am before. I sit down in the theatre, desperate for an artist to discover what’s been hiding in plain view. I want somebody to notice what I have seen and also show me what I have missed. I’ve got a Jones for dropping the skin I’m in and running around in one so different from my own, I can hardly believe what’s happening. A good story has irreducible magic and offers a unique pleasure for each listener, reader, or viewer.
In 2007, these films offered me magic that didn’t fade:
Das Leben der Anderen—The Lives of Others
Children of Men
Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone
These are all horror films. I used to think I wasn’t a fan of horror. I cover my eyes at graphic violence. Like Greek tragedy, a lot of scare-you-to-death horror is cathartic, purging an audience of the desire for transgressive action. Scare-you-to-death horror like tragedy is a communal ritual to celebrate shared values. Look at the consequences for stepping out of line and tremble—if a giant of a character bucks the Fates (status quo) he’ll marry his mother and she’ll hang herself; he’ll loose a plague on the city and his children will murder one another or get buried alive; he’ll pluck out his eyes and wander through his elder years, a broken spirit with a shattered heart. Characters get what they deserve in tragedy—the order of things is not challenged.
Scare you-to-wonder horror is something else.
The endings are open. The order of things is contingent on our collective actions, not the Fates. Our destiny, our possibilities are not written in character flaws—instead we are characters of history, of social constructions, and history ain’t over yet! Despite disagreements I might have with artistic choices, I stood up from viewing the films listed above invigorated by the exchange of experiences. These were speculative, communal rituals, celebrating what might be.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck crafts a scary tribute to the power of Story in Lives of Others. Spying on fellow East German citizens for the Stasi (as we in the audience spy on “fictions” in the dark of a theatre), a secret policeman is transformed by what he witnesses. Indeed he takes action in a story that he should passively observe.
Michael Moore’s Sicko had me belly-laughing with anger and guffawing with rage.
Nappy-headed vulnerability in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men made me worry about ships in the mist coming to rescue us from homelands where we are made refugees.
In When The Levees Broke: A requiem in four acts, Spike Lee shows what horror has been going down in plain sight. Katrina is a blinding spotlight.
George Clooney is in another “liberal harangue” on the plutocrats, but the script and directing of Michael Clayton are so compelling and Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton do such fine acting, I didn’t fall asleep. Tragic character flaws prove not to be immutable.
Guillermo Del Toro is a master of unresolved tension. In Pan’s Labyrinth, he eschews a cathartic resolution for his political fable/horror fairy tale. Coming of age in fascism is certainly surreal. The young heroine does not passively accept the horror thrust on her. She conjures other possibilities. Imagination is resistance. Del Toro does not break apart the facts, magic, and truth. As the film ends, the life and death questions of the story continue to haunt us.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Michael Clayton, The Lives of Others, and all of the films I appreciated, if the characters defy the monsters and hold to their heart, to their deepest, evolving values, they might lose everything or even die, but they still offer hope for the future. Working with difficult, troubling, messy hope, the characters don’t have to become the monsters to defeat them. Indeed, they transform the world.
These films, these storytellers sing to the choir about the joys, pain, and wonder of our common life. They remind me of what I think and believe. They do not create scare-you-to-death celebrations of the Fates and the way it is. Indeed these narratives interrupt the barrage of PR fictions that call for passive consumption and spiritual death. Watching Children of Men or When the Levees Broke or Sicko, I am not exhorted to postpone joy to a tomorrow-that-never-comes. I am not presented with dazzling craft emptied of meaning. These filmmakers share wisdom, counsel. Like the great Ifa masters of the West African Yoruba, they are diviners who do not rely on oracular powers to engage the future, but instead offer a story—rich and full and irreducible, an exchange of experiences. The pleasure comes as I find my particular interpretation, my own bridge to the spirit world.
 We encounter on average over 3000 ADs a day according to Sut Jhally of The Media Education Foundation.
 I covered my eyes frequently in Pan’s Labyrinth.
 For instance, I wouldn’t make a film as graphically violent as Pan’s Labyrinth, nor would I create an underworld benevolent King and Queen.
There’s been serious illness in my family, so this year my reading has been restricted to books I’ve been sent to review, and to which I turned in relief at the distraction. Some of these reviews appeared in G, an Australian green lifestyle magazine that targets the pale green market, “those searching for a lifestyle that won’t cost the earth,” to quote the cover.
Quixotic, this, to turn to environmental writing as release from everyday life. So it proved. The dominant theme tended towards ecological gloominess, through which a few feeble rays of hope did their best to glimmer. My reading certainly took me away from my personal problems to global issues of water, whaling, warming and worse.
These reviews are more or less as I sent them for publication. I’d like to be able to go back to the books and re-read and revise what I’m writing for this blog, but the publisher asked that the books be returned. I’ve never been asked to return review books before and I’m still puzzled about it. Do they resell them on E-Bay?
First book: Andrew Darby, Harpoon. Into the heart of whaling, Allen and Unwin, 2007.
A book titled Harpoon! is one the reviewer holds at arm’s length for a few moments, terrified to open the covers to expose the horrors within. I was right. Part memoir, part science, part political analysis, Harpoon is a disturbingly detailed account of the savage history of whaling.
Andrew Darby brings his expertise as conservationist, whale-watcher and journalist to his impassioned analysis of everything that’s wrong with human-whale relationships. He details the cruel exploitation, the political machinations, the pseudo-scientific justifications, and the economic pressures behind the resurgence in whaling today.
The book is more than powerful exposé. Darby writes lyrically about his personal encounters with whales. He strives to understand what inspires whalers, psychologically, to the thrill of the chase, and what impels their indifference to the suffering they cause.
Book 2: Karl-Erik Sveiby &
Treading Lightly is one of those books that at first glance could be exploiting the fashion for the Indigenous. An Australian Aboriginal painter talks business, and a professor of business follows the learning tracks of Aboriginal Ancestors.
Karl-Erik Sveiby is professor of knowledge management in
How did the two ever get to meet? Why, at an Australian business conference, of course, where Skuthorpe, a consultant for a wine company, interpreted his paintings for businessmen.
Sveiby asked Skuthorpe the word for knowledge in his language. ‘We don’t have a word for it’, Skuthorpe replied. ‘Our land is our knowledge, we walk on the knowledge, we dwell in the knowledge…we don’t need a word for knowledge, I guess.’
Together, the two men explored what it means to ‘dwell in knowledge’, where ancient tradition pervades all aspects of life, from story-telling to dance, art, ecology, and law.
Sveiby was impressed with the Aboriginal way of living sustainably with the land. He posed the questions: “How did the Aborigines do it? How did they organise for sustainability? What type of leadership did it require?’ What was their ‘recipe for success’ over tens of thousands of years? During this time, other cultures have risen then declined as their practices proved unsustainable.
Skuthorpe teaches Sveiby how to uncover various levels of meaning in Nhunggabarra stories. Consider the story of the Crane and the Crow. The Crane is an expert fisher. The Crow wants to share in the catch. The Crane asks the Crow to wait, but the Crow is impatient and steals a fish. They fight, until the Crow turns from white to black, and the Crane develops his distinctive voice.
The Crane wants to control the fish market, while the Crow asks to share. The story is about animal behaviour, individual and community, law, and custodianship of land and life. Skuthorpe tells the story in painting.
The authors re-interpret Nhunggabarra stories in the language of modern business, with headings for mission statement, core beliefs and values, economy, resources, and leadership. The worlds of traditional Aboriginal culture and modern business are linked in ingenious ways.
Book 3: Guy Pearse, High and Dry. John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future, Viking, 2007.
This book was published before the November 2007 change of Federal government in
Strange weather we’re having now. The scientific evidence for global climate change mounts daily, with water shortages, rising temperatures, extreme weather events and more species facing extinction.
Strange weather, stranger times. Why is it, Guy Pearse asks in High and Dry, that given the overwhelming scientific evidence, Australia, under John Howard, seems absolutely committed to doing the wrong thing? Instead of cutting greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050, as scientists demand,
Who wants this? Since the worst drought on record, the Stern Report, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, polls show the Australian public wants action to curb emissions. Many businesses also urge a major shift towards reduction. Yet these voices are not heard in
I read this book in increasing indignation. I remember the national conference Greenhouse 87, when CSIRO scientists showed climate change was a reality and urged immediate action. Then, the Australian government agreed, and sponsored a huge public awareness campaign, Greenhouse 88.
Pearse shows what went wrong in the past twenty years. As a Liberal Party member and former Howard government advisor, Pearse once worked within the political system he dissects. His research is based on extensive interviews with 56 people prominent in the policy debate. Members of the self-styled greenhouse mafia come over as chillingly complacent about their unfettered control over
Collectively, the lobbyists have been extraordinarily successful. In 2002,
In December 2007, at
Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Our year of seasonal eating. Faber and Faber 2007
In search of the ecologically sustainable life, novelist and science writer Barbara Kingsolver lived and worked for a year on a small farm in the
Kingsolver’s record of her food-centred year makes for warm and engaging reading. She pulls endless weeds, plucks countless chickens, learns cheese-making, and deals good-humouredly with a fifth of a ton of tomatoes.
As Kingsolver labours, she reflects on the meaning of food. From a recipe for gazpacho, she moves into the ten-thousand year history of agriculture. She spends a happy day picking cherries, then reflects on the skewed economics of corporate food production.
Kingsolver converts the reader through her enthusiasm for the good life of good food, sustainably produced.
Craig Madden and Amy Carmichael: Every Last Drop , Random House 2007.
Every Last Drop is a guide to saving water. What if each Australian saved 50,000 litres of water a year through simple changes in daily use? Shower with a bucket, harvest greywater, and compost gardens. This book provides comprehensive lists of such useful tips. Simple, but is it enough?
Craig Madden and Amy Carmichael link personal actions to the big-picture politics of water. Twenty percent of the water used in homes is flushed down the toilet. Where does this water come from? The authors examine water sources and their problems: the poor health of river basins, inadequate dams, and leaking infrastructure.
The coverage is balanced. Pros as well as cons are given for desalination projects. The section on agriculture makes compelling reading, with comprehensive statistics on water use in cotton, rice, pasture and grain production.
At last, this is a book I could read at a tough time in my life, yet come away from with ideas about what I could do at a personal level. I now have a rain-water tank that provides water for toilet and garden. I haven’t stopped global warming in its tracks, yet, but I’ve made one small change.