- The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
- Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000)
- The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
- Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
- Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
- Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
- Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
- Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
- Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, 2006)
- Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
- Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
- Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)
- The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
- Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
- Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
- Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
- Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
- Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
- The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
- Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
- Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
- Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
- Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2009)
- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
- District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)
- WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
- Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
- Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
- Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
- Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)
- No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
- Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
- The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
- Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
- The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
- Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-4)
- Win Win (Tom McCarthy, 2011)
- Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004)
- Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
- Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
- Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
- Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013)
- There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
- Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
- Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
- Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
- Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
- The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
- The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
- Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)
- Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2012)
- Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
- Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)
- Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
- Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
- Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)
- The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
- Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
- Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005)
- Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
- Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)
- Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)
- Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
- Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2011)
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
- Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
- American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)
- Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
- Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
- Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)
- Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
- Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
- Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
- Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
- Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
- Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)
- Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
- Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
- The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
- The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)
- 13 Going On 30 (Gary Winick, 2004)
- Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
- Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)
- Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007)
- Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)
- Pain and Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)
- A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)
- Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
- V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006)
- Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)
- Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (2016) – The opening half hour of director Zack Snyder’s restored cut comprises sequences in three different genres: a disaster movie evoking the dust and confusion of 9/11, a war film set in the African desert, and a horror film complete with women held captive in a basement dungeon – which begs the question of what this movie intends to be. The answer is a salute to Christopher Nolan – specifically The Dark Knight – with its dark palette, its deliberate pace in setting up its various players, and its preoccupation with whether Batman has the right to be Batman. Up until the two hour mark it’s pretty absorbing on those terms, but the last hour is a total miscalculation, from the anticlimactic, vaguely homoerotic tussle between the two heroes (Batman carries Superman over the threshold and flings him on a bed of rubble) to the way Snyder jettisons two hours of careful storytelling in favour of a monster that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie to the completely unnecessary (and temporary) death of a major character so the movie can end on a note of bogus gravity (not one funeral, but two). Very disappointing. **
The BFG (2016) – Steven Spielberg’s special grasp on childhood was never universal, but rooted in the American suburbs. When he tries – as in Hook – to adapt English stories, he produces a twee sense of unreality. This is not as bad as that misfire, but neither is it good. Indebted visually to the Harry Potter franchise (a nocturnal world of warm lights and deep shadows), it sands off the rough edges of the Roald Dahl original (the giants are more comic bumblers than monsters) even as it skimps on the magic (we see the BFG at work only once). The use of motion capture for Mark Rylance’s BFG seems gratuitous: the giant’s kindly face is human – that of an ideal grandfather – and the digital manipulation adds little in expressiveness. Ruby Barnhill is a good, idiosyncratic child actor: her Sophie is officious, as if in training to take over her orphanage, and almost without physical fear. The best sequence builds to a fart joke involving the Queen. **
Creed (2015) – Director Ryan Coogler makes excellent use of long takes: the first shot begins in the corridor of a juvenile prison and then moves to the canteen, where a fight is taking place. It’s a strategy that Coogler uses again and again, usually from the perspective of Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who doesn’t feel at home anywhere – who enters every space feeling like a stranger. It’s a terrific passport into this world, climaxing with the first big fight, a beautifully choreographed single shot with the camera moving like a third fighter. It gives the human interactions too an appealing, low-key rhythm. Creed is as savvy a reboot of a beloved classic as The Force Awakens; like that movie, much of the impact here comes from the way it pairs a new protagonist with his aged predecessor, hitting familiar beats while ceding centre stage to a black actor. These movies are expanding the definition of pop heroism (much as Stallone did in the 70s), changing how it looks and its point of view. ***
99 Homes (2014) – This story of how a man, evicted from his home by a predatory real estate agent, learns to take advantage of people in the same situation has its weaknesses: from the opening of the film, which contrasts one such eviction with Andrew Garfield’s honest work as a builder, it’s schematic – a bit pat. The protagonist’s family exists mainly to bear frightened witness to his moral slide, leaving the film basically a two-hander, and Garfield’s eventual crisis of conscience feels a bit arbitrary. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani gets at our emotional investment in the places where we live, however: the evictions are true violations. The film’s main originality is in Michael Shannon’s performance as the devil agent: with his e-cigarette, he’s contained, his emotions pulled inside so as not to expend any more energy than necessary. His evictions are not marked by any special cruelty; neither does he seem to derive much pleasure from the fruits of his work, the mistresses and mansions. Shannon dries out the villainy, turns it into an almost impersonal (market) force. ***
The Childhood of a Leader (2015) – Directors from Bertolucci to Haneke have tried to locate the origins of fascism in the nursery, and unfortunately this is no The Conformist or The White Ribbon. The line it draws between domestic and political tyranny is too pat, its depiction of the miserable, withholding rich a cliché. From the stilted discussions of the Versailles treaty to the way the camera occasionally lingers on extras moving awkwardly in the background, the woodenness here seems at least partly intentional – as if director Brady Corbet is mocking his own historical pageantry – but it’s hard to tell to what extent, or what purpose. Tom Sweet is certainly a singular child actor, with his weird air of preoccupation and his long blonde hair (people keep mistaking him for a girl): the movie’s most effective moments follow him as he roams like a feral cat through his family’s big cold mansion. Still, like the story he learns to read in French, this is only ever an exercise. **
Demolition (2015) – With his blackouts and his good, fast cutting, Jean-Marc Vallée has a gift for dissociation, and this starts well, sketching a whole marriage in the space of a car ride, nailing the weird moments of clarity following trauma. But then Jake Gyllenhaal’s grieving husband starts writing a series of confessional letters to a vending machine company, and the stupid conceits pile on: from Gyllenhaal’s tic of disassembling things to Naomi Watts’ manic pixie dream girl to, I kid you not, a merry-go-round in need of repair. Vallée’s informal framing – he goes for obstructed views and a slightly shaky camera so that we seem to catch things accidentally, as bystanders – at least has the virtue of soft-pedalling this stuff. With his self-satisfaction, the smirk that breaks out at odd moments, Gyllenhaal certainly makes a convincing Wall Street type, but his man-child clowning is not as charming as it’s meant to be. **
Heart of a Dog (2015) – Paying tribute to her mother, her dog, and her famous husband, Laurie Anderson’s words are funny and wise (she’s especially sharp on the selfishness of grief, the way we impose our own preoccupations on the memories of those we’ve lost). Her tone as performer is bewitching and complex, serene on the surface but studded with moments of gnomic humour. Unfortunately, Anderson’s images don’t match the power of her words and delivery. Too often they’re merely illustrative – like an avant-garde slideshow – or clichés like the sky glimpsed through branches or droplets of water running down glass. She achieves some nice effects with surveillance footage, however, and the videos of her dog at the piano are a hoot. ***
Julieta (2016) – Leave it to Pedro Almodóvar to turn an Alice Munro adaptation into a series of quotations from Hitchcock: Eve Marie Saint flirting with Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Tippi Hedren arriving in a seaside town, Rossy de Palma’s homage to Mrs. Danvers. Attempting a different register, telling a story with different stakes – a mother who pines after a daughter who has cut all contact with her – Almodóvar can’t help tricking it up with bits of old thrillers. Sometimes he’s too predictable: his good taste in furnishings, for example – a book of Cecil Beaton photographs here, a Francis Bacon there – feels less like a proud parading of influences this time than a spread in a lifestyle magazine. But this doesn’t get in the way of the feelings at the film’s centre: this remains a simple story, well told. ***
Aquarius (2016) – Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film opens with a party sequence that rivals the famous one in Fanny and Alexander for warmth and the precise way it sketches family relationships. With the assured, steady way he moves the camera, his zooms, his attention to faces and feet, his gift for fixing images with pop songs, Filho suggests a less hectic Scorsese, in a way that seems related to the warm Brazilian pop he favours (as opposed to Scorsese’s love of Phil Spector). This is not only a stylistic triumph, however: like Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, this presents a complex portrait of a woman in her 60s (the marvellous Sonia Braga) – her instinctive solitude, her sexuality, her prickly relationships with family. It’s a social panorama of fast-changing Recife: Braga’s Clara is a member of the ruling class, and the movie does not shy away from the way she takes her privilege as her due. It’s also a profound meditation on the way that memory collects in places and things. I suspect it’s a masterpiece. ****
Certain Women (2016) – Spare, sad, somewhat inert, with closed-off, frostbitten people in the style of Alice Munro or E. Annie Proulx, this is one of those realist works where the silences are supposed to communicate volumes. It’s divided into three segments, and doesn’t catch until the third, where a Montana stablehand (Lily Gladstone) awkwardly woos a visiting teacher (Kristen Stewart). Gladstone’s unfamiliar face is more expressive in this context than those of her more famous co-stars (the other segments are built around Laura Dern and Michelle Williams). The details of her work with horses have a beauty and specificity that counter director Kelly Reichardt’s depressive tendencies (Reichardt even allows a few moments of humour). The movie opens up visually too: where characters in the first two segments are isolated in ugly rooms or have their frames invaded by other people’s feet or Kindles, here the images take in the immense beauty of the Montana landscape. It’s a shame it’s only one-third of the film. ***
Lo and Behold (2016) – Werner Herzog’s obsession – in his documentaries as in his fiction films – is with eccentric visionaries, regarded with a gaze so steady that it can sometimes feel cruel. In this exploration of the origins and potential of the Internet, he finds plenty of eccentrics in the world of tech, but from the first scientist he interviews – a man who goofs a moonwalk down a campus corridor before launching into an excited description of the first computer to computer conversation – the people here are eloquent and self-aware enough that it doesn’t feel exploitative. Many of them end up sounding like mystics. Herzog cites statistics about the huge volume of data we produce daily: it’s an area that’s already beyond human comprehension. He acknowledges this with the film’s magpie structure: ten chapters exploring it from different angles, from robots’ superior capacity for learning to the hazards posed by solar flares. It’s a fascinating movie. ****
Mustang (2015) – Flooded throughout with soft, golden light, with its five heroines lying about indolently – as if drugged by their youth and beauty – creating in their self-absorption a private universe, this in many ways resembles a Sofia Coppola movie. The difference is that these sisters are literally prisoners in their home in rural Turkey, after their free-spirited horsing around offends the mores of their community. We see everything from the perspective of the youngest sister, and in some ways the film is limited by its child’s point of view. The grandmother who confines them (Nihal Koldaş, in a fine performance) is an ambiguous figure – she seems to pull on her headscarf more to placate her neighbours than from any sense of piety – but such subtleties are passed over in what becomes a fairly straightforward escape story – a fairy tale, complete with an evil uncle and a nice young man who comes to the rescue. ***
“And here it is worth noticing a rather curious fact, and that is that the school story is a thing peculiar to England. So far as I know, there are extremely few school stories in foreign languages. The reason, obviously, is that in England education is mainly a matter of status. The most definite dividing line between the petite bourgeoisie and the working class is that the former pay for their education, and within the bourgeoisie there is another unbridgeable gap between the ‘public’ school and the ‘private’ school. It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colours, but they yearn after it, day-dream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch. The question is, who are these people?”
– George Orwell, “Boys’ Weeklies”
One reason why Harry Potter never appealed to me much as a fantasy is that Hogwarts and the Sydney boarding school I attended have a common ancestor – the English public school. (The other is Rowling’s tendency to domesticate magic with eccentric schoolmasters and alliterated spell names.) Reading the first few Potter books, the world of team sports and house rivalries was intensely familiar. By transposing her posh school to a realm of magic, Rowling successfully renewed the genre that George Orwell describes in his essay “Boys’ Weeklies”: the school story. The august institution with its old stone buildings and extensive grounds; the expensive shopping expeditions that inaugurate each school year; the snobbery and emphasis on sport; all of this has been revived for new generations to find “wildly thrilling and romantic.” It’s also so disconnected from reality that it’s harmless; the same cannot be said of schools like mine, which peddle the same fantasy in the real world.
Harry’s situation and mine were not dissimilar – I wasn’t an orphan, but I came as an outsider to the school world. My mother was determined that I should have a private school education. (In Australia, public schools (in the English sense) are called private.) She learned to value this from her parents, who worked overtime to put her elder brother through Newington College. My grandparents didn’t value their daughter’s education as highly; she went to the local school and started work at the end of Year 10. Her fierce aspiration for me stemmed partly from a sense of missed opportunity. My father couldn’t see the value in it and refused to pay for it. I sat a series of scholarship exams and went to interviews; I remember Mum talking up my precocious reading habits for the benefit of the panels. Finally I won a scholarship to a school in North Sydney – the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, or Shore, as it’s more commonly known.
The school imports English anachronisms wholesale, from the straw boaters that are the most conspicuous part of its uniform to the Latin motto and coat of arms to the culture of being addressed solely by one’s surname. It’s an attempt to create a sense of tradition and august history – as much as is possible in the shallow soil of colonial history. The tone is captured perfectly by the first few verses of the school song, with its strong whiff of Henry Newbolt and Kipling and the attendant imperial racism:
Here’s to the Shore boy who loves the school,
Be he scholard, or dullard, or wit, or fool,
If he never allows his love to cool
Tradit lampada vitai.
Here’s to the fellow who works like a black,
At his books, in the field, or at three-quarter back,
May it never be ours such workers to lack –
Tradunt lampada vitai.
Here’s to the Shore boy who never says die,
Though his oar may be sprung, or his bowling awry,
Five lengths to make up, or four goals to a try –
Tradit lampada vitai.
And here’s to the fellow, who, facing the foe,
Shows the stuff that is reaped from the seed that we sow,
For the Queen’s and the Old School’s honour aglow –
Tradit lampada vitai.
Though the second verse is now omitted, Shore’s values have not changed all that much since it was penned in the late nineteenth century. (It was the work of E. I. Robson, the first headmaster.) The “scholard” may be glimpsed “at his books,” but overwhelmingly, the imagery is that of competitive sports. It’s for this reason that Shore owns its rowing sheds at Gladesville, its playing fields at Northbridge. Too much thought is seen as unhealthy, and furtive, like self-abuse. The school seeks to perpetuate an English ideal of boyhood dating from the Victorian era – to turn out young men like large dogs: athletic, good-natured, and slightly stupid. As Newbolt had it, it’s “Play up! play up! and play the game!”
This sports bias is certainly reflected in Australian culture more generally; what sets Shore (and its brother schools in the GPS organisation) apart is the way it employs sport in the service of a program of snobbery and social differentiation. The standard path for a Shore boy upon leaving school is a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney – he generally doesn’t attain the marks necessary for Medicine or Law – and then a career in finance, probably as a merchant banker. Given the fees involved – tuition fees begin at $24,740 in Year 7 and go up from there – only families from this kind of wealthy background can afford to send their sons to Shore. It thus becomes a loop of privilege, wealth begetting wealth, the school acting as guarantor of the younger generation’s moneyed future.
This privilege is immediately visible in the school grounds. The school perches on a hill above North Sydney station; walking along the main driveway, a perfectly manicured lawn tapers away to a magnificent view of the Harbour Bridge and Lavender Bay. There is a red brick chapel, trimmed with ivy, for history; the driveway is lined with a specially cultivated yellow rose, the Holtermann’s Gold. One of the functions of all this physical beauty is as showroom: prospective parents taken on a stroll throughout the grounds can see immediately what they are paying for. The school has a particular genius for raising money and is constantly squeezing its alumni – known sentimentally as Old Boys – for cash to fund its latest building project. (Shore acquired the nursing home next door – which it had been eyeing for years – for $35.2 million in 2009.) The State and Federal governments assist it with funding worth thousands of dollars per student to supplement school fees, and generous tax arrangements that wave through donations to the Building Trust as tax deductions.
I’ve always found Rowling’s treatment of the Dursleys – Harry Potter’s petit bourgeois adoptive family – rather snobbish and cruel. The conception of them as physically coarse and the ritualised humiliation that they undergo at the outset of each of the Potter books goes beyond redress for their abuse of Harry; they are mocked because they do not participate in the rarefied world of Hogwarts, because they are creatures of the suburbs. Rowling’s contemptuous word “Muggle” expresses this perfectly. I identify with the Dursleys; I feel protective of them. This is probably because I felt like a Muggle at school.
* * * * *
Shore was a useful education in class. I felt coarse there – physically, the fat kid in an environment that prized the athlete, but also socially, grubby and poor. This was relative – we were all, broadly speaking, well off – but I became intensely aware of the distinctions. I lived with my mother and brother in a duplex that she bought with her divorce settlement money in Lane Cove, a leafy, comfortable suburb in Sydney’s northwest. Most of my classmates came from the glamorous harbourside suburbs that stretch from Neutral Bay to Manly, or the genteel upper North Shore. Their houses were large; their parents drove luxury cars; in winter they went skiing. It came down to money and the ability to spend it and beyond any specific manifestation it set a tone: confident expectation, competitive flaunting and Protestant self-satisfaction in wealth. They were like shining faucets, secure in the vast reservoirs behind them, ready at any moment to turn on in a flood.
That had been my world too while my parents were married; now Mum went to work as a carer and a cleaner. She came home exhausted from this hard physical work and sank into a deep armchair in front of the television. Most of my classmates’ mothers were the sorts of leisured women who pour their energies into the organisation of school functions; they had the physical refinement that results from extensive pampering. Mum was a brash, rather vulgar woman; she had long red fingernails and wore every piece of jewellery she owned at once, so that her hands and arms were a clamour of rings and bangles. (Her nails chipped as she scrubbed at her clients’ baths and toilets, and she repaired them furiously, gluing the fragments back on.) The gap between her and the other mothers was glaring: I began to be embarrassed by her. In that world divorce was looked at askance: it denoted instability, a sense that you couldn’t be trusted. My family embarrassed me; we were tainted, not up to standard. I was learning to be a snob.
Putting on the school uniform, I clothed myself for this world: the polished black shoes; the grey woollen trousers and blazer; the white collared shirt; the blue tie with narrow white stripes; the straw boater. (The boater was hard and glazed; on hot days, the glaze melted and ran down my forehead.) The uniform served a dual purpose; on the school grounds it served to efface our individual differences, but on the bus there and back it telegraphed our difference, our special identity as Shore boys. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed at the sheer number of uniforms we needed to own: there were special uniforms for our P.E. classes, for cricket, for rugby, for our drill as military cadets, for the chapel choir. This was obviously good business – there was a shop on school grounds selling Shore merchandise – but it also created a world. For every activity, there was an appropriate uniform in some way employing the school colours, blue and white. In everything there was a form to be observed.
This sense of order was seductive, and its pull was so strong that some boys never escaped it. Among the teachers there were a number of Old Boys: some were also boarding house masters, living with their successors in a state of perpetual adolescence. They left the school only long enough to get their degrees; many were confirmed, semi-closeted bachelors. Something in the place’s atmosphere encouraged this sort of stasis. Partly it was the all-male environment, a sort of gentlemen’s club in short pants; partly it was the sprawling school grounds, which encouraged a sense of self-sufficiency, of separation. It was a world apart. The glamour of its setting also played a role, and the school’s honoured place in the charmed, small world of the North Shore. There were some boys who, on leaving, could not think of any better place to be.
One school could not house and educate all the scions of Sydney’s wealthy; Shore is part of a network of boys’ schools called the GPS, or Greater Public Schools. (They are “public” in the British sense.) Comparison with these peers – many of them located on the North Shore – is an important part of one’s identity as a Shore Boy. It’s a given that Sydney Grammar boys are more intelligent; in Shore’s scale of values that doesn’t matter so much because they’re hopeless at sport. Riverview and St Joseph’s are Catholic and to be looked down on for that reason. Much like the Quidditch matches at Hogwarts, these rivalries were played out in sporting contests. Every year, the whole school was bussed out to Penrith to watch the Head of the River, a series of rowing races on the Nepean River. The rugby finals were almost as momentous. For weeks beforehand, special assemblies were held to rehearse our chants – known as “war cries” – from the sidelines: “We’re beating you again,” shouted to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”.
All of this would be unimportant and faintly ridiculous if the school were not also such a site of power. It’s no accident that both Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott attended GPS schools. The former Treasurer Joe Hockey represented the electorate of North Sydney, where Shore is located. John Howard sent both his sons to the school. All these men are good friends of entrenched privilege. This is their world; these are their people. In our current Prime Minister’s suave self-regard, in his sportive approach to public speaking, it’s not hard to discern the Sydney Grammar debater, the winner of the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition. Whether they come to this world as insiders, or are catapulted into it by their own exceptional qualities or the hard work of their parents, places like Shore have a chilling effect on empathy. In the first instance it’s limited by experience: within the confines of the North Shore (or the elite universities that are the next stop in these young men’s careers) they are unlikely to encounter anyone outside their charmed circle of wealth. In the second, the lucky few who move upward are contemptuous of those who do not make the leap: it is evidence of some personal failing. In both cases, the men consider themselves exemplary and set things up to suit themselves and people like them. Schools like Shore encourage habits of mind that the powerful carry into public life. This proximity to power – its hand in shaping elites – is part of Shore’s glamour: it’s included in the price tag. It’s as potent as anything that emanated from Harry Potter’s wand.
* * * * *
Shore is close to other sorts of power. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney sits at the head of the School Council. On its website Shore describes itself as “a Christian school based on Biblical foundations”. In practice this means the conservative strain of low Anglicanism endemic to Sydney, represented until recently by Archbishop Peter Jensen and his brother Phillip. These people defined themselves against the Episcopal churches celebrating same-sex unions in America and Rowan Williams’ tentative support of women bishops: they were for a literal reading of the Bible, prescriptions on sexual behaviour, and the church as a male space into which – like Shore School – women rarely intruded. (Both men who contested Jensen’s position when he retired likewise billed themselves as “evangelical conservatives”.) These are the foundations on which Shore’s Christian program are built.
This program runs in tandem to the rest of the curriculum, rather like one of the esoteric classes introduced in each new volume of Harry Potter. There are weekly chapel services and regular Christian Studies classes. For most of the boys in my year these were a routine to endure. The chapel services were scheduled immediately before lunch: we sat hungry in the pews, sweating in our grey wool, wondering where we’d end up on the handball courts. Only the Chaplain had the power to release us; if we didn’t attack the hymns with sufficient gusto he’d hold us into lunchtime, until he could extort from us at least a facsimile of religious fervour. There were attempts to engage us on our level, sermons built around Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”. But most of us were as immune to theology as restless young dogs; we could be made to sit still, but in our hearts we were already out bounding.
The Anglican social program was most bluntly advanced in our Christian Studies classes. The church’s positions on sexual behaviour were explained with crude metaphors and videos from America. Advising us to abstain from sex until marriage, the Chaplain asked us to think of our dicks as cars. Were they luxury vehicles that we washed and reserved for special trips, or Datsuns we drove down every back road? A video warned us of the failure rates of contraceptives, implying they were useless. The syllabus dwelled on the evil of homosexuality: God designed complementary male and female sexual organs, a key and a lock. What use are two keys or two locks? We heard horror stories about the loosening sphincters of gay men, how they required adult undergarments in later life. Another video – this time from the Exodus ex-gay moment – informed us that homosexuality was an illness that could be cured by prayer. All this had the full weight of the school behind it; the Chaplain spoke for the institution.
These messages had dangerous effects on those who sat outside the church’s norms, particularly if they took the Christian message seriously. A boy in the year below mine came out to the Chaplain, hoping he could be cured. When he emerged from the Chaplain’s intensive program of prayer still gay, the noxious brew of guilt and internalised homophobia landed him in hospital. I did not confide in the Chaplain, but I too spent time in hospital, in my case after a suicide attempt. Many of the boys in my circle of friends at school have since come out; at the time, we took cover by turning on another boy. When he reported it, I told my Year Master that I had simply told the truth, that he was a poof; my behaviour went unpunished. For all the cant about hating the sin but loving the sinner, homophobia was tolerated if not endorsed outright. This is the sort of thing protected by religious schools’ – zealously defended – exemptions from Anti-Discrimination legislation. Their freedom to practice religion trumps the welfare of the boys and girls in their care.
Shore also put a rather dubious emphasis on service; dubious because our service did not benefit anyone. Monday afternoons were reserved for cadet drill: we came to school in green fatigues and black boots. Our brass belt buckles had to be carefully polished. We lined up on the school oval in companies, so that our teachers – transformed, for the afternoon, into little Mountbattens – could inspect the state of our uniforms. Though classed as service, it was more an exercise in compliance with arbitrary forms of authority. After a year of this, we could, if we chose, escape into the Air Cadets (much the same, but with a light blue uniform) or shelving books in the school outcome (which at least had a concrete outcome). The position of prefect, likewise billed as one of service, was the occasion of a frantic season of politicking in Year 11. Candidates for the coveted blue tie amassed extra-curricular activities and attended leadership courses. This was a further function of our uniforms, to denote status: even the teachers attended assemblies in the plumage of their various degrees.
This ‘service’ and the Christian curriculum invested the school and its prosperity with a sense of inevitability – that God ordained it. This is another habit of mind that Old Boys carry into life, that they are not only wealthy but right and good. It consecrates self-interest; it permits them to act with perfect heartlessness. It lies behind the monstrous self-importance of the North Shore: the impatient jostling of its luxury cars; the loud, articulate voices that fill the restaurants at lunchtime; the casual racism; the gimlet gaze that places newcomers with unerring accuracy on the social and economic scale. Their religious education allows them to proceed through life with an unexamined conscience.
* * * * *
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ends with an epilogue in which we discover precisely what life holds for each of the characters. It reads – at least in part – as Rowling’s attempt to cauterise the story, forestalling questions about further Potter books. (L. Frank Baum, weary of Oz, tried something similar at the end of The Emerald City of Oz, making Oz “disappear from the knowledge of the rest of the world.”) And there is undeniable symmetry in closing the series with another first day of school. Yet there is something dispiriting in the epilogue’s tidy insularity, in which the hero marries his best friend’s sister and his best friend marries his other best friend. Nothing of importance has happened in the years since school (apart from the birth of a few children); the old resentments still hold (Draco scowling at them across the platform); there is no indication that the characters have met anyone new. One child is named after an old headmaster; he is already such an adept of Hogwarts ritual that his main anxiety is which house he will end up in.
Much as I dislike it, Rowling’s ending is astute about the hold that posh schools have on their alumni. Generations of the same family attend. Glossy magazines go out to Old Boys, soliciting donations. Brass plaques are affixed to benches. The boarding house master can be glimpsed in the photo of a rowing crew, twenty years old now. The closeted gay man, sad and inert, cannot permit himself happiness. The school’s standards and values can be hard to shake: even if you reject them consciously they continue to plague you, whispering that you are a failure, a sinner, a Muggle. That is why I have no appetite for school stories.
Marriage is not only – or even mostly – a declaration of love, especially when ambition and money are involved. It’s an alliance, a joining of powers. In the years since the Obamas moved into the White House, their only peers as an aspirational couple have been Jay Z and Beyoncé. Their relationship has been key to their pre-eminence: each partner magnifies the other’s glamour and significance. But where most famous couples, assuming they make their relationship public, take care to craft an image of togetherness, Beyoncé draws attention to marriage’s doubts and discontents. It has become a defining part of her persona; perhaps her great subject.
Her best albums explore this through different prisms. On B’Day (2006), money is both a metaphor for the dynamics of a relationship and a necessary strategic calculation when two wealthy people get together. “Upgrade U” offers a partnership that’s as much financial as romantic (“I’mma help you build up your account”); the litany of updates she wants to make to Jay’s wardrobe is both a metaphor for how relationships stretch people and a description of their luxurious lifestyle. In “Ring the Alarm”, infidelity is, literally, burglary, an occasion for sirens. (The album contains some of her best vocal performances, with the excitement of a musician testing the limits of her instrument, like the repeated “Yes!” that climaxes “Suga Mama”.) On Beyoncé (2013) it’s sex as physical act and emotional expression. It ranges from the playful sense of her body as bounty in “Blow” to the insecurity that lurks behind the limousine shenanigans in “Partition” (“I just want to be the girl you like/The kind of girl you like is right here with me”). On her latest, Lemonade, it’s the fallout from infidelity.
It’s impossible to say to what extent this music is autobiographical, and it doesn’t really matter. Like Janet Jackson and Madonna before her, Beyoncé has made certain biographical facts a key part of her persona. For Janet, it was the escape from the Jackson compound to Minneapolis depicted in the “Control” video; for Madonna, the death of her mother and her difficult relationship with her father. In Beyoncé’s case it’s a father who was also her manager and a husband who’s also her business partner. There’s a special excitement when a famous person opens up her life in this way: the ordinary conflicts assume a mythic size and sweep. At the same time the star is humanised, like us. Their songs and albums are not merely the latest items off the conveyor belt, but new chapters in an ongoing story.
When Beyoncé’s music lacks this personal element she subsides into dull professionalism, as in 4, a good-enough collection of songs that lacks the special jolt when pop music meshes with persona. Earlier in her career – the Destiny’s Child days – her main limitation was a rather narrow sense of entitlement, asserted but not enjoyed. That’s why “Bootylicious” was such a breakthrough: Beyoncé was as self-possessed as ever, but with a new capacity for humour and pleasure. The professionalism puts some people off: they see her as another former child performer dutifully hitting her marks. But that Virgo self-discipline and mania for order – this is the woman who famously archives every extant photo and bit of footage of herself – is fascinating in its intensity of expression, especially when it butts up against things it cannot control. Like feelings, or a straying husband.
Beyoncé makes interesting use of that treasure trove of images. On one hand there’s a sort of pettiness to the former child performer who makes so much of a talent show she lost, as she does on “***Flawless”. (She certainly won in the long run.) But then the footage she includes of her father in the Lemonade film makes personal the ambivalence expressed in “Daddy Lessons”: as a child, even family intimacy was performed for the cameras. In this she’s an emblematic figure for anyone who curates a self on social media and for the generation of kids growing up in semi-public on their parents’ Facebook pages.
Lemonade is far more concise than its predecessor, with a clear narrative arc from suspicion to anger to wary forgiveness. The “visual album” format seems intended, at least in part, to force us to experience it as a whole, not just a collection of tracks. The concision applies to the song lengths as well: most of the album’s twelve songs run under four minutes, without any of the interludes that stitched Beyoncé together. One of the most impressive things about it is its generosity: “6 Inch” is an empathetic tribute to the other woman’s beauty and industry (“She worth every dollar and she worth every minute”); “Love Drought” struggles to acknowledge the straying partner’s good intentions (“I’m trying to be fair/and you’re trying to be there, and to care”). It’s this emotional fullness that gives the moments of fury such punch: the contemptuous way she spits out “Try not to hurt yourself,” the sudden access of anger in the measured piano ballad “Sandcastles” (“Bitch, I scratched out your name and your face”). “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is the apogee; it’s an illustration of her collaborative approach to building music (chorus sung by Jack White; drum sample from Led Zeppelin) and a brilliant, mocking evisceration of male rhetoric. “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself,” Jack White sings on the first chorus: he’s every man who uses a woman’s identification with a relationship as a licence to get away with shit. When Beyoncé voices the same words in the second chorus, mixed so her voice is almost indistinguishable from White’s, it’s a reproach for the man’s failure to make that identification, for his selfish refusal to perceive them as a unit.
It will be interesting to see what the future of this marriage – this alliance – is. Beyoncé is certainly the prime mover now as an artist; Jay Z’s last good album is five years behind him, and that only with Kanye West to prod him along. Whatever happens, she is likely to make compelling music out of it.
Carol (2015) – Where Far from Heaven begins in the branches of a tree, looking down on suburbia, Todd Haynes’ new film opens on a grate and moves up to take in the big city: it’s a chillier, more urban film. The change in tone reflects the different characters of Haynes’ leading ladies: where Julianne Moore’s transparency laid bare her experience of the stultifying suburbs, Cate Blanchett’s gracious manner is so exaggerated that it draws attention to her performance of gender. The 50s story – from Mad Men to The Master – is basically a genre unto itself now, and Haynes is across the period details without offering up many stylistic flourishes. Stretches of the movie – particularly those depicting Rooney Mara’s life in the city – are quite bleak; this isn’t a film that’s out to seduce you. This extends to the love relationship at its centre. Phyllis Nagy’s script is clear-eyed about the imbalance of power between the two women: the gap in age and class leaves Mara’s Therese always the junior partner. It’s a thoughtful film that keeps you at arm’s length. ***
Room (2015) – The movie uses its extreme situation to explore basic questions of identity – how our sense of reality is shaped by the stories we’re told, the way we invest our environment with emotion. Five year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) misses his place of captivity when he escapes it, and it’s no wonder: in that tiny space he can endow each object with cosmic significance (director Lenny Abrahamson makes the shabby furniture seem totemic), meanings that are lost in the wider world’s jumble of places and things. You could argue that the movie oversimplifies the impact of trauma: Jack’s recovery is depicted as fairly straightforward, a matter of being surrounded by kindly adults. It doesn’t sentimentalise the central mother-son relationship, though: it is to some degree (even if unavoidably) unhealthy, and Brie Larson puts plenty of sour notes into her performance – her impatience with their unbroken intimacy, her readiness to use her son as a prop, her mania for control. ****
Spotlight (2015) – Forty years ago, All the President’s Men set the tone for most subsequent conspiracy stories: phone taps and telephoto lenses, inscrutable office buildings, late-night meetings in parking garages. Tom McCarthy’s film breaks with those paranoid atmospherics and in some ways is scarier for it: this conspiracy lays in plain sight, a sort of social compact in Catholic Boston, and the people responsible are not shady functionaries but pillars of the community. The tone is so straightforward that Mark Ruffalo’s big moment of outrage (he reprises his choked Larry Kramer from The Normal Heart) feels like grandstanding. McCarthy achieves something like the clarity of good journalism; he and the (uniformly excellent) players subordinate themselves, as reporters do, to the story. ****
Steve Jobs (2015) – This mostly plays to Aaron Sorkin’s strengths – the glamour of people who are good at what they do, his gift for synthesising large amounts of information and spitting it out as screwball repartee. Danny Boyle is a good match for him too: their motors both run fast. The (literally – it could be a play) three act structure is a welcome break with the biopic format, but it’s also somewhat repetitious: in the third act Sorkin has Jobs (Michael Fassbender) crack a joke about how everyone in his life picks on him ten minutes before each product launch. The bigger problem is that the conflicts don’t really develop – Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is still hanging out for a thank you 15 years after we meet him – and so a certain stasis sets in, as the characters keep having the same conversations. It’s a fascinating, ambivalent portrait of Jobs nonetheless – a man who liked to think of himself as an artist but reserved his greatest excitement for sales figures, the visionary who saw computers as an expansion of human capacities, but only on his terms. ***
The moments after meeting
when everything’s performance.
Each gesture chosen
with an actor’s tact,
on the small ground
where each passing minute
adds to the
sum of knowledge.
You, so far. Me.
The massive field of life
into something shapely,
like a story. I
gauging my effect,
this novel self
that somehow you elicit.
Time may alter
but not the premise,
not the promise
that you hold out
like a round of drinks.
A few deft strokes
and you’re done.
Joy (2015) – David O. Russell announces his intention to make a soap opera at the outset, and he follows through – the outsize characters with single traits, the way Russell arranges them in static groups, the recycled sets (most of the film takes place in a house and a garage). It’s not clear what he means to achieve with this approach, though, and the movie is like a soap in the worst sense: we’re stuck with people incapable of development or growth, locked by their creators’ skin-deep conception in an interminable loop of behaviour. The people around Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine are so unpleasant, and her response to them so mild, that her passivity becomes exasperating. When one of them rebukes her as not tough enough it seems an accurate description. The best part of the movie is set at a home shopping network: Russell never condescends to the medium, and Bradley Cooper’s network boss – who sees opportunity everywhere – is a capitalist mystic. Still, this movie takes forever getting nowhere. **
Magic Mike XXL (2015) – This is as stripped-down a quest narrative as Fury Road, and in its emphasis on female pleasure almost as feminist. Where the absence of story in George Miller’s film was about aerodynamics – building a chase with maximum forward momentum – here it’s about approximating the rhythms of friends on a road trip. We hang out with Mike (Channing Tatum) and his fellow dancers as they squabble in their tour van or sit by a beachside campfire. The bogus conflict between dancing and small-business respectability is gone: the spectre of aging hangs over these men, but the emphasis is on their intimacy and rapport. As on any good road trip, there are unexpected digressions, and it’s here that the movie’s different conception of stripping becomes apparent: it’s not self-aggrandising, men taking the stage, but in service of – a sort of tribute to – their female clients. These men are sexiest when pleasing women, and the movie makes the case that it’s a sort of vocation. ***
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – The real opposition in Star Wars was never between the Jedi and the Sith, or even the light and dark sides of the Force: it was between a technological superpower and a ragtag group of survivors. George Lucas’ failure to understand the dynamics of his own story wrecked his prequels, those deadly essays on intergalactic politics; J. J. Abrams’ ready grasp of them makes this the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Abrams is a great mimic: where his Super 8 tapped the suburbs’ capacity for terror and enchantment like prime late-70s Spielberg, here – as in the original trilogy – he captures the exhilaration of underdogs discovering their capacities. He’s aware of the politics of representation – the heroes here are a white woman, a black man and a Latino – without it once feeling token or humourless. Daisy Ridley is as fresh and determined as a young Keira Knightley, with the same disarming grin; Oscar Isaac is heir to Han Solo’s handsomeness and charm. The movie is dense with allusions to and variations on the original films: it’s an act of knowledge and love. ****
Tomorrowland (2015) – A real head-scratcher. The film is nostalgic for a world that never existed – Disney’s theme park imagining of the future in the 1950s and 60s as a gleaming technological utopia – without acknowledging the actual American imperium it reflected, or the anxieties and exclusions of that age. Writer/director Brad Bird rebukes our present for failing to maintain Disney’s sense of the future as benign, in the person of his heroine Casey (Britt Robertson), whose refusal to countenance any negative emotion makes her seem almost inhuman. Bird brings his trademark fluidity and punch to the set pieces, and the second hour, once Bird is done laying out his thesis about hope and despair, careens through disparate settings in a fairly entertaining way. But the parasitic relationship between Tomorrowland and our world – it seems to draw off our brightest and best without giving us anything in return – is never really explored, and the film’s ‘optimism’ is so strained, so pinched and ungenerous, that it’s more like a species of denial. **
Here’s a list of all the books I read in 2015. (r) indicates a repeat reading. (*) indicates a book that had an especial impact on me.
A lot of my reading last year was prompted by my trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Truyen Kieu, Vietnam’s national poem, reflects the successive waves of invasion in that country’s history (the Americans were preceded by the French and Chinese) through the trials of a heroine who suffers repeatedly for love. The Master of Confessions is an ambivalent account of the trial of Duch, the man who ran the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. Thierry Cruvellier questions the potency of such partial justice – none of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were ever brought to trial, and many of its functionaries continue to serve in the government – and reserves much of his scorn for the ponderous, opaque processes of the international tribunal. Laura Jean McKay’s book of short stories Holiday in Cambodia is particularly good at evoking the uneasy place of Westerners in that country. I loved “Coming Up” especially, in which an aid worker’s visiting mother has a much better rapport with the local people than her anxious, well-intentioned daughter.
There’s no shortage of writing about the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, but Mark Harris finds a new way into the period by focusing on the moment of transition between Old and New Hollywood. In Pictures at a Revolution he looks at the five films nominated for Best Picture at the 1967 Oscars. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate are the recognised classics, but Harris is just as illuminating on the doomed, costly production of Doctor Dolittle and Stanley Kramer’s polite, drawing-room approach to race relations in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. (He also undermines the auteur myth by making clear how definitive the contributions of producers, screenwriters and actors were to these movies.) Five Came Back, about the Hollywood directors who went to work for the army propaganda unit during World War II, is even better. Whether William Wyler risking his life in bombing raids over Germany or John Huston inventing the syntax of filmed battle while faking combat footage in Italy, it gave me fresh perspectives on these famous men.
Closer to home, I read Elizabeth Harrower – who recently ended a 40-year silence with the publication of In Certain Circles and her short story collection – with an instant click of recognition. She’s wonderful at describing Sydney, particularly the sparkling suburbs clustered around the Harbour; her novel Down in the City moves with the rhythms of the changing weather. Her specialty is stifling relationships that read as duels: women who force the people around them into submission by sheer force of personality; violent, insecure men who take revenge on their wives for their disappointing lives. Often there’s no possibility of escape, and so the ending of In Certain Circles – in which Zoe Howard leaves her bad marriage – felt like the best sort of break with the past.
- Home by Marilynne Robinson
- Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (r)
- Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (translated Frank Davison)
- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
- Ariel by Sylvia Plath (r)
- Lila by Marilynne Robinson
- Southeast Asia: An Introductory History by Milton Osborne
- The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber
- Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
- The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier (translated Alex Gilly)
- Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay
- A River by Marc Martin
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
- Capital Misfits by J.Y.L. Koh (*)
- Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly by Karen Hitchcock
- Truyen Kieu by Nguyen Du (translated Michael Counsell)
- Sentenced to Life by Clive James
- Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
- I Don’t Like Koala by Sean Ferrell and Charles Santoso
- Home by Carson Ellis
- Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
- Small and Big by Karen Collum and Ben Wood
- Cronenberg on Cronenberg (edited Chris Rodley)
- The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling
- Caravan Fran by Cheryl Orsini
- Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower
- The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton
- Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht (translated John Willett)
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Underneath a Cow by Carol Ann Martin and Ben Wood
- Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman (r)
- Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag
- Wetlands by Charlotte Roche (translated Tim Mohr)
- The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood
- The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
- The Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty by Beatrice Alemagna
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Skunk with No Funk by Rebecca Young and Leila Rudge
- The Green Road by Anne Enright
- Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power by David Marr
- Perfect by Danny Parker and Freya Blackwood
- Five Came Back by Mark Harris (*)
- Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
- Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis
- In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (*)
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
- Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
- Eye to Eye by Graeme Base
- One by Sarah Crossan
- Poems of John Keats
- The Big Adventure of a Little Line by Serge Bloch (*)
- Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters by Ailsa Wild and Ben Wood
- Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (r)