Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) – The wealthy person who employs a coterie of hangers-on to prop up their illusions is a familiar figure in film: what’s novel about Stephen Frears’ movie is that it presents these relationships as loving rather than parasitical. Like Hugh Grant’s character, Frears has become the self-effacing facilitator of star performances; Grant gives a career-best performance as the husband who subordinates his life to his wife’s delusions. The film takes its time orienting us: it’s not clear how the relationships function. This complicates our response to Meryl Streep as Jenkins: there’s something monstrous about the way she commandeers the lives of the people around her, the way she feels entitled to flattering attention. At the same time, straining for the notes, her singing exposes her physical frailty (Streep’s recent roles have all explored mortality): we understand why people are protective of her, even as we grimace at the sounds she produces. ***
La La Land (2016) – More than other movie genres, the musical depends on stars – on their talent, their electrifying presence. Like Robert Wise’s West Side Story, Damien Chazelle’s film is a directorial showcase that feels a bit hollow because of the humans at its centre. Chazelle’s camera is almost sentient, another character: it takes us by the elbow, directing our gaze, while carefully choreographed points of interest pop up, like the animatronics on a theme park ride. At one point it leaps into a swimming pool. But the tour guide is more engaging than the view. When Ryan Gosling tells Emma Stone that she should “write something as interesting as you are,” he seems to be talking about someone else; when Stone gives up on her dream and moves home, it seems a realistic acceptance of her limitations. The bad grace with which Gosling accepts his paying gigs is deeply unattractive, especially when his precious private expression is a simple, sentimental piano figure. (He’s the second Chazelle hero in a row to want to be a ‘jazz genius’.) I was left wondering if Chazelle made his people so ordinary so that his direction could be the star. **
Moana (2016) – The set up – a young tribal leader butts heads with her father because she wants to do things differently – feels like a retread of How To Train Your Dragon, but fortunately the film wastes little time in launching its heroine upon her quest. The movie takes advantage of the quest narrative’s freedom to go anywhere, and the adversaries Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) encounters are pleasantly random, from a marauding horde of coconuts (which have a Miyazaki feel) to a gold-encrusted crab. There’s a cute meta moment kidding Disney’s princess formula, and this represents a satisfying renovation of that formula: this story does not make an issue of the heroine’s gender, nor does it saddle her with a prince. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs communicate context and character with typical precision; the singing voices are strong without that cloying Broadway calculation of effect. The heart of the movie is in Moana’s interactions with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a braggart in the Gaston tradition: in the close confines of the boat, their interactions play out with a theatrical crispness, like actors on a stage. Another worthy entry in Disney’s current hot streak. ***
New York, New York (1977) – In outline, this is very similar to La La Land, and there are sequences – like Liza Minnelli fighting her way through a crowd at Robert De Niro’s gig, or the jazz club he opens at the end – that were clearly an influence on the later film. The effect, however, is completely different. Partly, it’s the improvisatory approach: driven by the actors, the scenes take forever getting anywhere. Sometimes, as in the scene where Minnelli and De Niro both try to direct their big band, this pays dividends; more often, as with De Niro’s interminable attempts to pick Minnelli up at the outset, it’s a drag. Crucially, though, both stars suggest artistic temperament, and talent that demands expression; what Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters in La La Land so singularly lack. That being said, it’s not really a satisfying movie: muddy, with the visual imagination mainly confined to the stylised sets. De Niro’s come-ons are not as charming as they’re meant to be, and there’s a curious break in Minnelli’s performance. In the big band era, she sings controlled, carefully phrased standards; when she gets to the Kander and Ebb stuff she’s bombastic, all fortissimo, arms flailing. She’s a completely different singer, with no hint of one in the other. **
Arrival (2016) – Like The Martian, this concentrates on process – it’s about the effort to understand the language of a recently arrived race of aliens – but it has the sense of mystery and grandeur that Ridley Scott’s movie lacked. Often the process is not very clear – after a big build-up, Amy Adams looking fearful on her long ascent into the aliens’ spaceship, her first encounter with the aliens is weirdly truncated, as if we wouldn’t find it interesting, and there’s far too much staring at whiteboards. It turns out the alien encounters are only a background to Adams’ private drama of bereavement: like Interstellar, Denis Villeneuve’s film neglects the cosmic possibilities of the situation to concentrate on individual feelings. This is yet another space story that dwells on the death of a loved one – in this case Adams’ daughter. It has become a lazy way to imbue space with human emotion. The mood carries you along, though: the camera raked up on a diagonal, watching the skies even inside; the mute elegance of the ships, hovering like mysterious Apple products in the sky; the way the film plays with the perception of time. **½
Elle (2016) – The plot outline – a woman (Isabelle Huppert) with good reason to distrust the police attempts to discover on her own the identity of the masked man who raped and continues to stalk her – doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of what Paul Verhoeven is up to here. Yes, it’s a thriller with the requisite twists and the heroine alone in her house at night, but it’s also a harsh comedy about sex in middle age (Huppert meets with a lover whose disregard for her feelings is almost as total as her rapist’s), a portrait of her extended family, and a profound meditation on the roles we play with our sexual partners, and how trauma figures in the imagination of survivors. The movie opens formally, the sudden sound of broken glass like a bell announcing the action: it’s both ferocious and controlled. The sex – whether rape, consensual, or somewhere in between – packs real, transgressive heat, disrupting the categories. Huppert’s Michèle insists on her own individual responses; she resists any sort of label. It’s an extraordinary performance. This is Verhoeven’s masterpiece. ****
Hell or High Water (2016) – The depressed small town setting – the oil rigs and empty shops, the bleached pastel colours, the gas station revealed in a casual pan to the right to be perched above an infinite plain – is so potent that, like the bayou in True Detective, it overmasters the story that Taylor Sheridan has contrived in the foreground. (Director David Mackenzie may overdo the ironic use of billboards – the robber brothers driving past signs that read DEBT and FAST MONEY.) It’s a problem when a film’s bystanders are more compelling than its protagonists; the waitresses and loitering old men are originals, the wily, slow-moving sheriff (Jeff Bridges) and the volatile jailbird brother (Ben Foster) definite types. It’s the sort of film that might have starred Bill Paxton back in the 90s: one reason for its wide acclaim is that this kind of small-scale crime drama is now a rare breed. It does become more affecting as it goes along, the bond between the brothers deepening, and the final heist and its aftermath are tense and exciting. ***
Showgirls (1995) – From the first, long shot following the heroine onto the highway, Paul Verhoeven uses his camera to explore tacky environments, from expertly choreographed tours of a casino floor and its dressing rooms to the hot pink inferno of a strip bar. Elizabeth Berkley gives one of those compelling bad performances that end up succeeding in spite of themselves: she’s both emotionally thin and totally committed, in a way that makes sense of her scattershot character. Her performance comes together in her dancing, which seems to come from the same place as her sudden fits of rage: she approaches the stage like a warrior, every muscle tensed, moving in violent spasms. She ends up a literal Amazon, going to war with her breasts exposed. Like Nomi, the film is rarely what you expect: it introduces hackneyed elements like ‘art’ versus ‘selling out’, or the lesbian villainess (Gina Gershon), only to take them in surprising directions. Richly deserves its cult status. ***
45 Years (2015) – Like François Ozon’s Under the Sand, this is a gay director’s tribute to a great actress; like Ozon, Andrew Haigh is fascinated with Charlotte Rampling’s economy, her reserve, her face. The camera looks on as Rampling’s character tries to process her husband’s mounting obsession with a long-dead girlfriend, as she seeks refuge in their cosy routine. Rampling’s native elegance comes under increasing stress, and Haigh watches fascinated as that mask flickers – at what she can communicate with small movements of her eyes and mouth. The film is likewise economical: it’s a week in the life of a long-married couple, shopping trips and walking the dog and conversations at the kitchen table. The green English landscapes have a slight blue chill. Haigh places nothing between his star and us, and Rampling convinces us that this week has transformed her sense of herself and her marriage. ****
Into the Inferno (2016) – The great thing about Werner Herzog’s documentaries is their discursive freedom: a film ostensibly about volcanos might take in a sudden side trip to a team of scientists sweeping up bones in the Ethiopian desert or a state-sanctioned tour of North Korea, and why not? His films have the restless, lateral quality of thought. Actually, the North Korean excursion makes perfect sense: the movie is as much about the belief systems various societies construct around volcanos’ naked power as it is the spectacular footage of that power in action. The geological processes volcanos expose and their destructive potential make our lives on the crust seem provisional, and Herzog zeroes in on the ways that people live with that knowledge. It’s as much a philosophical enquiry as a nature documentary, delivered with Herzog’s deadpan sense of humour. ****
The Jungle Book (2016) – The animals here live somewhere in the uncanny valley. It’s not the disconcerting impassivity of human actors altered by motion capture – the animals are expressive, especially the scarred Shere Khan. It’s hard to say what it is exactly – whether the weird volume of the animals’ precisely rendered fur, their slightly dead eyes, or the famous voices issuing from their snouts – but I spent most of the film with the sense that something wasn’t quite right. It follows most of the beats of the 1967 animation – including some things that don’t fit tonally, like the songs – but the approach is quite different. It’s darker and a lot more dynamic, particularly in the first half hour: it’s disappointing when, with the arrival of Bill Murray’s Baloo, the movie settles down into familiar Disney rhythms. (It even loses its nerve visually: suddenly the jungle is filled with pink flowers and cute animal sidekicks.) The best parts of the movie feature animals – like the elephants – that aren’t saddled with human personalities: they suggest the wildness that might have been. **
Midnight Special (2016) – With its preoccupation with parallel worlds and the exceptional children who can perceive them, Jeff Nichols’ movie resembles both Tomorrowland and Stranger Things, but I think it’s better than either. It has its own beautiful nighttime look, the lights of motels and highways and cars barely asserting themselves against the enclosing darkness. It’s a model, too, of integrating special effects into a realistic world: as in Close Encounters, the supernatural events occur to regular people in a small-town context, and have a special freshness and wonder for that reason. (It’s a world away from the routine DC/Marvel CGI destruction derbys.) Perhaps Michael Shannon’s particular brand of intensity is a little too familiar in Nichols’ distinctive South: Nichols could do with a change of personnel, with a lead actor less closemouthed and dour. But this has a warm spirituality that’s new in his work, and it’s enough to sustain the characters through the bittersweet ending. ****
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) – In some ways – the thwarted romance, the dogged lone detective – Juan J. Campanella’s film is very old fashioned, but his images are so powerful, the rhythm of his long takes so assured, that the familiar tropes never feel like clichés. It’s gorgeous, and the beauty has content: the red lamp that communicates how little has changed over decades; the single shot of a murder victim that instantly establishes why the hero is unable to let this particular case go; the social comedy of a tussle between prosecutors in the halls of justice; the bravura sequence at the stadium. It’s so rich visually that it’s easy to overlook the easy way Campanella moves between present and past, fact and fiction; he’s aided in this by his leads (Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil), who suggest the burden of years with a minimum of makeup. Perhaps the ending isn’t up to everything that’s preceded it, but this is a great movie. ****
The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent’s movie uses subjectivity brilliantly. It begins with Essie Davis floating in a blank, dream space, broken glass drifting past her like diamonds, and it never settles into a stable relationship with reality. At first our sympathies are all with Davis’ embattled mum, alone with a disturbed child (Noah Wiseman) who acts out violently one moment and clamours for her attention the next. He seems almost demonic, and as he screams and screams there’s nothing she can do to pacify him. The people around them – teachers, Davis’ sister, a supervisor at work – seem like unhelpful caricatures, but as Davis becomes increasingly disturbed, we realise that her perceptions may well be distortions. Suddenly, we fear for the boy more than the mother, while staying inside her point of view, inhabiting her madness. The movie may banalise the monster by relating it so explicitly to Davis’ bereavement – it’s too pat an explanation – but Kent denies us the out of believing it’s all in her mind, or even that it can be destroyed. ****
The Shining (1980) – The triumph of mood over indifferent storytelling. The people make little sense: Jack Nicholson’s facial tics are already so alarming in his job interview that there’s no way management would entrust him with the hotel over winter (especially given its history); the lack of any sane starting place makes his performance a little monotonous. But it’s fascinating how Stanley Kubrick turns the Gothic genre on its head: the supernatural occurrences are fuelled not by female hysteria (or even the boy’s psychic ability) but a frustrated male’s sense of entitlement. The rhythms are so beguiling that you begin to understand Jack’s fascination with the place: the silence around the dialogue, so that the conversations seem to take place outside of time; the camera’s stately movement through kitchens and corridors; the apparition in the bathtub inexorably drawing back its curtain. It seems right that the climax should take place in a maze: Kubrick’s movie is likewise a reverie that turns in on itself. ***
Starship Troopers (1997) – The riotously crass recruitment videos that open the movie suggest a satirical take on militarism that isn’t followed through: it rapidly becomes a story of glad submission to military discipline, and gun-toting heroism. That is, unless presenting the story entirely from the perspective of teenagers brainwashed by that culture isn’t the sharpest satirical cut of all: the joke is on us too in the audience for how readily we accept the same lies. It’s a slippery film, one moment depicting the army as a utopia where men and women shower together as equals, without sexual tension, dressing its officers in Nazi black the next, and mostly, director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in having it both ways. Despite the exploitative vibe, it’s strikingly good on the gender front: many space adventures could learn from its wide range of female characters, all with separate paths through the action. It is also (and hence its inclusion here) an excellent monster movie: the aliens are all sharp edges, all the better to pierce and slice through human flesh. ***
Videodrome (1983) – This is a period piece in a way David Cronenberg couldn’t have anticipated: it depends for its effects on the materiality of videocassettes, which pucker and boil like a nightmare of flesh. (The streaming culture we now inhabit expressly eliminates the physical: images are abstract transmissions.) Cronenberg doesn’t condescend to the sleazy TV environment: one of the movie’s pleasures is its dead-on reproduction of TV talk shows, ‘exotic’ soft-core porn and corporate floorshows. James Woods is the perfect emblem for this world, with his pockmarked face – handsome one moment and seedy the next – and his scenes with Deborah Harry anticipate the full-blown queasy romanticism of The Fly. Cronenberg’s draggy style – so uninflected that it can seem null when he tackles other genres – is perfect here: the horrors linger, all the more effective for being seen so steadily. ****
In the second season of Empire, there’s a fascinating storyline centring on Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a character who seems modelled on Frank Ocean, not just in terms of his sexuality, but his R&B aesthetic, his earnest, sometimes whiny tenor and his mellow, bohemian vibe. Jamal has come out as gay, and is celebrated (like Ocean) as a standard-bearer in a frequently homophobic culture. But then he has a fling with a fellow, female star played by Alicia Keys, and quickly discovers how pop heroism can be a sort of prison. A gay Hollywood mogul who has been advising him withdraws his support; a group of queer activists humiliate him in public with a version of his brother’s song “Drip Drop”. (“Flip flop,” they chant in a circle, clapping together bright pairs of thongs.) Because of their identification with Jamal, they feel they have the right to dictate the gender of his sexual partners.
It prompts the question of what an artist owes his audience. Frank Ocean has always been odd casting for the role of culture hero. A large part of the hype around his album Channel Orange was generated by his coming out as bisexual, but the actual queer content was minimal, three songs out of fourteen. (Admittedly, one of those three was the album’s standout, “Bad Religion”.) There is, of course, no gay quota Ocean is obliged to hit, no correct way to represent his experiences. But from Channel Orange on, there has been a gap between the figure he cuts in the culture and the music he makes. Like Sia, he has built a persona around privacy, a refusal to put out the way other pop stars do.
Compare Ocean to his peers Miguel and The Weeknd; Ocean beat the latter to the chorus “Can’t feel my face,” by several years in his song “Novacane,” but Ocean never goes for the pop jugular the way The Weeknd does. I think this is what Miguel meant when he said, “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.” Miguel sets out to entertain – lays in the hooks and the choruses – and Ocean gets all the plaudits. It’s something that Ocean cops to in another early track, “Songs for Women,” where a girlfriend prefers Drake to the new music he’s recording. Either he’s incapable of writing big hits, or he has no interest in doing so. There’s something recessive about Ocean; perhaps that’s why his mother is so emphatically against pot in an interlude on his new album Blonde.
Ocean is often at his best with other performers. Two of the highlights on his solo debut, the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, are built around other people’s music. Ocean simply recorded new vocals over tracks by Coldplay and The Eagles. (Don Henley did not approve.) Kanye West uses Ocean in his own music as shading: the chorus that introduces a note of doubt to “No Church in the Wild”; the beautiful coda to “New Slaves” (a relief after its brutal paranoia); introducing Greek mythology to the middle section of “Wolves”. The song Ocean wrote for Beyoncé’s album 4, “I Miss You,” inspires an unusually understated vocal from her. He seems to have a calming effect on these dynamic personalities; to draw something yearning and lyrical from them.
Conversely, André 3000 works as a shot of adrenalin; he attacks his guest verses on Ocean’s albums with such rat-a-tat gusto (and his customary, playful sense of the ridiculous) that it shows up his host’s limitations. The becalmed mood Ocean creates is too little varied; when he tries for a straightforward celebration of the physical, like “Golden Girl” on Channel Orange, the Caribbean rhythm is rote, his details become vague, his vocals lack conviction. He seems to know this about himself: on the new album he expresses the ambition to be “less morose and more present”. When, a few bars later, he decides to “eat some shrooms, maybe have a good cry,” it sounds almost like self-parody: it’s the most Frank Ocean Frank Ocean lyric ever.
The new album makes Channel Orange, which has always been too subtle for me, sound like Max Martin. On Orange, the songs come equipped with hooks (the close cousin to the “Bennie and the Jets” riff on “Super Rich Kids”), choruses (the beautiful shift to falsetto on “Thinkin Bout You”), beats (the way the rhythms pile up on the chorus of “Lost”) and arrangements (the bass and keyboards rippling under “Sweet Life”). The album has scope: it’s an ambivalent portrait of West Coast luxury that recalls The Hissing of Summer Lawns; “Pyramids” links the ersatz monuments of Las Vegas with the real glories of African history; “Crack Rock” is an unsparing portrait of addiction.
Blonde is a more inward album in every sense. It seems to take its cue from “Pilot Jones,” a woozy, static song from Orange about a relationship built around drugs. The tempos here are uniformly mid; Ocean’s procedure is to lay a bed of keyboards or unobtrusive guitar with some minimal pulse and then to meander vocals over the top. Structurally, he prefers short refrains to full-fledged choruses; these repeated phrases (“I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me”) are as catchy as this album gets. The moments when Ocean varies the arrangements a little (the harmonies at the close of “Pink + White”; the squawking guitar solo on “Self Control”; the strummed bit of The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”) stick out more than they should, because the dynamic varies so little between songs. It’s Channel Orange deconstructed: most of these songs, with their wandering melodies and laconic delivery, feel more like drafts, or desultory noodling, than a finished work of art. Lyrically, too, it’s more narrowly personal: adolescence recalled, curiously downbeat parties, highs barely felt, male and female partners. It’s like someone invited you over and then got too high to play host.
Part of Ocean’s achievement is making a splash with such uningratiating music. He is a master of the well-timed Tumblr post, of the tactically delayed release, of surrounding himself with the right famous friends. If it seems strange that he went to so much trouble to draw attention to what amounts to a long, stoned shrug, he’s hardly the first artist to turn the role of brooding outsider into a sexy (and lucrative) attitude. Like Jamal Lyon, he doesn’t owe anything to anyone.
“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. 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 “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.
Like Harry, I came as an outsider to this privileged world. My mother was determined to send me to a private school. She learned to value this from her parents, who worked overtime to put her older brother through Newington College. Her own education was not a priority; she went to the local public school and left at the end of Year 10. I think her 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. So I sat a series of scholarship exams and went to interviews. 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 straw boaters 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.
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. 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, “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) 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’s 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.
* * * * *
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 chair 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. The gap between her and the other mothers was glaring: I began to be embarrassed by her. 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 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. There were 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 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. 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 held the seat of North Sydney. John Howard sent both his sons to the school. This is their world; these are their people. In our current Prime Minister’s suave self-regard, 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. 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. The lucky few who move upward are contemptuous of those who do not make the leap. 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 are 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 intrude. 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.
The church’s positions on sexual behaviour were explained in our Christian Studies classes 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 reserved for special trips, or Datsuns we drove down every back road? A video from the Exodus ex-gay moment informed us that homosexuality was an illness that could be cured by prayer. We heard horror stories about the loosening sphincters of gay men, how they required adult undergarments in later life. All this had the full weight of the school behind it; the Chaplain spoke for the institution. (The same man, now a Canberra rector, recently spoke up for the opponents of marriage equality, accosting Bill Shorten after a church service.)
These messages had dangerous effects on those of us wrestling with our sexuality, particularly if we 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 didn’t 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, our behaviour went unpunished. This is the sort of culture protected by religious schools’ exemptions from Anti-Discrimination legislation. Their freedom to practice religion trumps the welfare of the boys and girls in their care.
Shore also put an emphasis on ‘service’. Monday afternoons were reserved for cadet drill: we came to school in green fatigues and black boots. 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 a 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 library (which at least had a concrete outcome). The position of prefect, likewise billed as one of service, occasioned a season of frantic 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 invests 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 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 the future holds for each of the characters. 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 love. 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’re a failure, a sinner, a Muggle. That is why I have no appetite for school stories.
Here’s the next installment of my decade by decade Top 50s. Today, the greatest movies of the 1950s.
- Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
- Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu, 1953)
- Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)
- Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)
- The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
- A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)
- The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
- Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
- 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
- Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, 1951)
- Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
- Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
- Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)
- A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
- The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)
- The Earrings of Madame de… (Max Ophüls, 1953)
- Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
- All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
- Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
- Forbidden Games (René Clément, 1952)
- A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
- The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
- Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
- I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953)
- All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
- From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
- Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956)
- Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953)
- On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
- The Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
- Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
- The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
- Baby Doll (Elia Kazan, 1956)
- Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
- Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
- The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
- The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
- The Men (Fred Zinnemann, 1950)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958)
- Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
- Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
- The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1952)
- Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
- Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
- Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)
Here’s the next installment of my decade by decade Top 50s. Today, the greatest movies of the 1960s.
- Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964)
- Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
- Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
- Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
- The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
- You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)
- Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
- Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
- The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
- The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)
- The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963)
- Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962)
- A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
- L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
- The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
- La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
- The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
- Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel, 1965)
- Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
- The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
- Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
- Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963)
- Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)
- Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
- Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
- The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
- Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
- True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)
- Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968)
- Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
- Long Day’s Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)
- Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
- In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)
- The Little Soldier (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
- Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
- Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)
- Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
- Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969)
- Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969)
- The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
- The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
- Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968)
- West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
Here’s the next installment of my decade by decade Top 50s. Today, the greatest movies of the 1970s.
- Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
- The Godfather Parts I and II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972/4)
- Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
- Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
- Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
- Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971)
- Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
- Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975)
- The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979)
- Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
- Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)
- McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
- The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979)
- Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
- Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
- Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)
- The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
- Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
- Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)
- 1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976)
- Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)
- The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973)
- Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975)
- All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
- The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
- Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
- The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
- Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)
- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974)
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978)
- Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
- The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975)
- Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
- The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979)
- The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
- Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
- The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978)
- THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)
- Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978)
- The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
- Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)
- 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)
- Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974)
- Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974)
- Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
- California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)
Here’s the next installment of my decade by decade Top 50s. Today, the greatest movies of the 1980s.
- E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
- Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)
- Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears, 1988)
- The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
- Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
- The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
- Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
- Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)
- Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
- Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)
- The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
- The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
- Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
- Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
- Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)
- Hairspray (John Waters, 1988)
- Parenthood (Ron Howard, 1989)
- Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)
- My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
- Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
- Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)
- An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
- Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
- Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989)
- Witness (Peter Weir, 1985)
- Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
- The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
- Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)
- Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
- A Passage to India (David Lean, 1984)
- Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
- Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988)
- Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
- Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
- Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
- Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)
- Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985)
- High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987)
- Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
- Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)
- The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
- Casualties of War (Brian De Palma, 1989)
- Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982)
- Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Paul Mazursky, 1986)
- Carmen (Francesco Rosi, 1984)
- Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982)
- The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
- Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983)