Thursday, December 30, 2010

That's not a mining boom...

Apparently there’s a mining boom going on. It’s pretty hard to tell from the inside; we’re all still just digging a hole and selling some of the stuff that comes out of it. It’s easy to tell when there’s a tourism boom going on: every shop suddenly sells fluffy koala toys, you need a phrase book to read the street signs and you have to check whether someone speaks English before you ask for directions (there’s a deep irony to the fact that someone will travel all the way here from downtown Beijing to buy a fluffy toy that was probably made in a factory three blocks from their house). Banking and finance booms are easy to spot too: wait two years and see if the country goes broke. It's not so obvious with mining though: since we’re good enough to dig holes a long way from everything so the noise doesn’t upset the chooks and the dust can’t blow all over your washing, nobody really notices much when mining is doing well.
There are a few subtle signs you can see if you look closely, like our pay packets doubling every ten minutes, and the government blathering about a ‘two-speed economy’. I’ve figured out what this means now: people in non-mining states can’t find work, and people in mining states get to pay thirty bucks for a soggy burger and a lukewarm cappuccino that tastes of dishwater.
It’s not just about overpriced soapy coffee though. Mining booms also mean a lot of long-term employees on older mines leaving for the bigger money and the ten minutes on/three years off roster at the new smegite mine they’re opening up round Koolyanobbing, or Sweatyanoboff or wherever it is. Nice work if you can get it, but good times for mining companies can mean tricky times for mine workers. In the bad times everyone’s happy to leave us alone out here to savour the pristine beauty of muddy salt flats, and the deep spiritual connection you feel with the land when you’re digging a ute full of rock samples out of an axle-deep bog. But along comes that mining boom and suddenly everyone wants a piece of the action. People abandon their day jobs, their comfy city life and apparently their senses and head for the nearest mine site, hoping to get a piece of the action before our Chinese friends figure out how to make cars out of bamboo and pandas instead of iron (the Koreans are a jump ahead of them here; Hyundai bodies are made exclusively from 100% recycled reality TV stars). Once upon a time you could be sure the bloke helping you service a bore pump had done the job before. Along comes mining boom and its “Worked on this model before mate?” “Um, no, we didn’t have many bore pumps at the coffee shop.” Didn’t matter when they hired him though, because a mining boom is accompanied by something called a ‘skills shortage’, which means a lot of people getting jobs they’re not qualified to do. Where I come from that’s called the IT department.
It won’t last though. Eventually there’s so much iron ore stockpiled in China that it starts to affect compasses in Alaska; they shut the factories down for a while and iron ore drops to five bucks a ton overnight. India loses interest in gold, or the Swiss banks decide to sell a few tons they, um, found a few years back, and suddenly we’re back to the bad old days of gold costing less per ounce than cabbage. The exploration teams turn up one morning to find the field office is now a plant nursery and would they all mind handing over their company mobiles please. Drilling companies fold faster than an origami teacher, house prices in mining states finally come within reach of the average millionaire and all the geologists with mortgages start looking very, very nervous.
But that’s fine by us. The coffee shop guy shorted out the bore pump last time. Those things aren’t cheap.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where the bloody hell Qatar ya?

So maybe you heard: we missed out on the World Cup. And like me you're asking yourself: how did that happen? We're a nice, stable democracy, we've got the track record with major events, there's plenty of space, a decent bag of ready-to-go stadiums and a climate that can't be beat. Yet instead of sports-mad, democratic, tourist-friendly Australia, it went to a nation run by a dangerous ex-KGB nutjob who somehow got voted Dictator-For-Life, and another country best described as a burning, oil-soaked sandpit. What happened?

Personally, I can't see how our pitch could have failed. Facilities, PR campaigns and infrastructure aside, our video presentation should have done it for us (haven't seen it? Take a look). Julia put on her best performance since trying to push that 'Moving Forward' slogan. There were desert shots, pics of Ayers Rock, beach vistas, bikini hotties posing next to cartoon kanga, even a quick glimpse of Thorpie before cutting to Cathy Freeman going for a jog. Top the whole thing off with Paul Hogan playing Max Max (hard not to imagine Mel playing Croc Dundee after that) and you've got our bid to convince the world's most powerful sporting body to let us run the show in twelve years time.

But we lost.

Seriously, what happened? Was Thorpie not on screen long enough? Should we have let Hugh Jackman wear his Wolverine sideburns? Did they want more bikinis? Wait, come back! We've got lots more bikinis! We'll get Lara Bingle back to swear on camera again! Were there not enough didgeridoos? Tell us, please! WHATEVER IT WAS, WE CAN CHANGE!

At least, we might if anyone gave a damn.

I didn't even know we were bidding for this thing until about a week before the vote. I mean 'vote'. You'd think I'd have heard something: I watch SBS most nights. And apparently we put $45 million into it. Not sure who paid for that oh wait yes I am it was me, you and every other taxpayer. I dunno, at that price you'd think we would have got a receipt or something. Still, not a bad deal really: two dollars or thereabouts from every man, woman and child in the country. And in return for this sum we got one vote. That means each vote cost us...hang on...$45 million. Bargain!

The money wasn't completely wasted though. It got Mark Arbib out of the country for a few days. In case you don't remember, he was one of the chaps who knifed Kevin Rudd, the guy we all voted in as PM. That's probably what got him on the bid team: they thought if things went bad for us, he could tap Qatar on the shoulder, tell them the party no longer has faith in their ability to run things, and would they mind stepping aside for this lovely lady here? But nope; when we actually wanted him to give democracy a good solid knee to the groin, he just stood back and grimaced while he clapped the winners.

Cue hand-wringing and cries of 'unfair!' from across this wide brown land. None of us knew we were bidding, none of us gave a damn whether we got the world cup or not, but when countries that aren't Australia win it, suddenly we give a damn.
And that's all this was of course. With the exception of Frank Lowy, Mark Arbib and the couple of thousand people nationwide who actually bother turning up to their local soccer games each week, nobody wants the world cup. Really, what would we get? A bunch of rectangular stadiums that we can't use afterwards? English soccer hooligans chanting 'Swing low sweet chariot' while they set fire to our policemen? VUVUZELAS? Nobody actually wants any of this stuff!
But that's not the point. It isn't not losing the world cup bid we're cranky about. It's losing, full stop.

We're a competitive bunch here in Australia. It doesn't matter whether it's hosting a sporting event, inventing a sickly sweet dessertseeing a local lass saintified or proving that our spin bowlers are the biggest philandering douchebags up to but excluding Tiger, we just want to win. I suspect if we'd gone over there to bid for the right to host a nuclear waste dump, people would be cranky if we lost. Sure, Qatar's got the second-highest per-capita income in the world after Liechtenstein. Who cares, we got Thorpie! And yes, maybe Russia does have world-class organised crime syndicates, ready to deliver quality building materials on time and under budget. Australia's got powerful organised crime syndicates too. And if I only learned one thing from watching Underbelly, it's that the commodity our criminals are best at delivering is tits. Given the choice of being delivered a cement mixer full of watery grey glop or a really top-shelf set of boobies, I'm going with the breastier of the two.

Apparently that's not enough for these FIFA types. Maybe they really like runny cement, I dunno. It hardly matters. Their job isn't to make sure it's fair. Their job is to see that the world cup happens somewhere every four years. That, as far as I can tell, is just about it. And I'm guessing there's enough blank space at the bottom of their job descriptions to pencil in "...and get really, REALLY rich doing it."
This poses a problem for Australia. We're not toooo keen on handing out bribes these days. Hell, we don't even tip in restaurants. Not to say we haven't tried bribes in the pastA bunch of blokes who sold grain to Iraq got caught slipping fifties into the odd wheat sack a few years back; next thing you know their company's tanking and most of them are on the news, running away from courthouses with their jackets over their heads. It's not like that in other countries; while I've never been there, I'm guessing the odd bribe is just politeness in Russia. And Qatar? Well, up until about 1975, half the oil money that country made went straight into the boot of the king's gold-plated Rolls Royce(s). The only reason the king got the sack is because his son wanted a slice of the gold Rollers and slung dad out back in 1995 (he was smart enough to cut back on the boot-stuffing, but I'm guessing he's not short of a palace or two). With a system of government like that I'm guessing nobody's going to pay much attention if the odd diamond-crusted Ferrari gets popped in the post addressed to Sepp Blatter c/o FIFA.

So I say we're reading the whole thing wrong. Far as I'm concerned, losing the world cup is the best way to win. No vuvuzelas, no hooligans, no paying jillions in bribes to soccer fat cats. Sure, no legions of Brazilian fangirls wearing nothing but green and gold body paint, but hey, we got the Internets, we can see that any time. We didn't want the thing. Not really. The only mistake we made was not realising it before we let Frank Lowy and Marky Mark head over there and embarrass us all.

Next time we make a play for a thing like this, I say we save the money. Because the thing that makes Australia the right place to host anything doesn't cost us a cent. Sure, Qatar's got more money, it's closer to everything, they've never had a turn before and they've promised to pack up the stadiums and post them to whichever country sends FIFA the most trinkets next, but that's not good enough as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, maybe Russia's got vodka, nukes and a prime minister who wrestles fighter jets shirtless, but I bet ours would too if we asked her. For future bids, we need to cut to the chase. And to make it as clear as possible, I've designed a table that should present everything the world needs to know about why Australia should win:

CountryAwesomeNot Awesome

Any questions?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dear Darth...

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
First email!

Dear Darth,
Glad you finally got yourself an email address. I’ve had one a while now, and I’ve found it really handy. You should too, especially with the trouble you have on the phone. No offence, but all that wheezing can be hard to work through, so this should really help.
So, how are things? I’m glad you’re keeping busy; I put you on the battle station project because I think you needed a focus after the whole thing with that girl. I know she was your ‘One True Love’, but you really should try to move on. It’s been a while now; perhaps it’s time to start dating again? Don’t let being half-machine put you off; lots of people live full and happy lives without most of their extremities.

Now, I hate to bring this up, but my personal cybernetic surgery took quite the beating after we worked on you. I know you were pretty upset when I told you about Padame(?), but it’s really no excuse to throw a Force-tantrum on my robo-doctor gear. That stuff's pretty expensive, so if you don't mind I'd really appreciate a cheque. Thanks.

Sincerely yours,

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re:First Email!

Darth, I'm sorry we couldn't get you a quieter mask, but you might remember you were rolling around in molten lava there when we found you. I realise breathing through a radiator grill sucks (ha ha), but everyone at the last quarterly meeting was a bit put off when you kept clearing your sinuses like that every time it was your turn to speak (don't deny it, I know it was on purpose). Those interstellar phone hookups are expensive, and I don’t like spending a million credits per minute to listen to a noise like a bantha sucking runny custard through its trunk. I know it’s not perfect, but I think my guys did a pretty good job bringing you back from the brink of death, so you're welcome.


PS one more thing. The battle station is looking good (I love what you've done with the tractor beam control stations: a thousand foot drop and no guardrails! Brilliant!), but I'm not sure we need a gun so big we can blow up planets. I know I'm a pitiless despotic monster but...yeah, blowing up planets. Not cool. Can we just back it off a notch? Maybe make it so it'll fry a continent but leave it intact? Be nice if we could drop in a mall and a condo for the stormtroopers once the dust settles.

PPS Is that an exhaust port I saw on the blueprint? You're going to stick a lid on that thing, right? Don't want anyone falling in ha ha

PPPS Send me a copy of the plans once you’ve made the changes. I’ve attached details of my preferred couriers. Great little Bothan company, very reliable.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Battle Station Launch
Dear Darth,
Well done! Pass on my congratulations to the crew. You should put on a celebration for everyone. Don’t let things get out of hand though; the last thing we need is a battle station full of drunk stormtroopers out looking for some action ha ha.
Also, we still need a name for the thing. I value your input, but I don't think "Death Ball" is really all that terrifying. "Evil Star" is quite good, but my PR office is telling me it'll cost me a few billion votes at the next sham election. Maybe we could combine them? What about "Evil Ball?"

Just one other thing while I think of it. This probably won't come up again, but should any hothead Jedis try to bring a violent end to my reign in future, feel free to step in straight away. I really appreciate you cutting off Windu's arms that day, don't get me wrong, but if you'd stepped up a little sooner I might not have ended up with a face like Yoda's scrotum (and yes, I do know what that looks like. You'd think someone who jumps around that much when he fights would wear something under those baggy hippie pants, but nooo). I was at the Imperial masquerade Ball last week (pun intended), and I got chatting with a very attractive little twi'lek ambassador. Really, you should have seen her: green skin, cleavage like Beggar's Canyon, just gorgeous. I know some people are put off by those head-tentacle things flailing about when they get their groove on, but I rather like that. Anyway, things were going great, we were really getting on, I was even thinking I might invite her back afterwards to check out the Imperial Tower ha ha. But when we unmasked at midnight, she took one look at me and suddenly there’s a diplomatic emergency she needs to attend to!
Anyway, yeah. Not blaming you for it, but a little quicker on the draw next time?


From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
URGENT: Couriers
I almost forgot. Seems my ‘preferred courier company’ are a little more sympathetic to the rebels than I’d like. Many Bothans are about to have a very bad day if you know what I mean.
You haven’t sent those plans yet, have you…?

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Urgent:Couriers
Right. Best we keep this between ourselves for now. See if you can’t find them yourself.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Re: Urgent: Couriers
Well…alright, yes. You can take a Star Destroyer.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Missing plans
Any luck?

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: A couple of leads
Tattooine again? What is it with that place? Sure, follow them, do whatever it takes. If they get a look at those plans they might find a weakness we missed. Lucky I spotted that exhaust port when I did.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Really? What are you doing there? Never mind; while you’re there, pick me up some of those nice fruit jellies they make. My secretary loves those and for the life of me I can’t think what else to get for her birthday.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Alderaan
I cannot believe this. Check your emails, I told you to get rid of that thing! What am I going to get my secretary now? And no, I don’t care how “cool” it looked, I’m not going to be much of an emperor if you blow up my subjects a billion at a time! And don’t go telling me it was Tarkin’s idea; the guy’s, what, five foot three? You’ve Force-choked your way through half my officer corps, you couldn’t give him a little Sithly persuasion too?
Please tell me this had nothing to do with a girl.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Leia Organa
Goddamit Darth. I don’t care if she looks a bit like your last girlfriend, oh that’s right your ONLY girlfriend. You’re old enough to be her father! Seriously, it’s just creepy. And what made you think she'd be impressed if you blew up her home planet? No wonder you're still flying solo. Now throw her in that cell block next to the garbage compactor, slap a termination order on her and find those plans!

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Millennium Falcon
Well, I guess those tractor beams just paid for themselves. Good work. And Obi Wan was there! He must be, what, a hundred and fifty by now? Can’t imagine he had much fight left in him. Now, if we can just find Yoda, that should wrap the whole Jedi thing up nicely. Unless you’ve got any kids you don’t know about ha ha.
And yes, whatever planet the rebels turn out to be on, you can use the giant laser on it. But then you get rid of that thing! Or people might start thinking you’re compensating for something…

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Hi Darth. No, never heard of it. Just blow it up.

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Re: Yavin
I do NOT believe this. How did they get past the turbo lasers? How did they get past the fighters? WHY DIDN’T YOU USE THE TRACTOR BEAMS ON THEM? And how did they do it? That thing was perfect, I checked it myself! Other than that exhaust port, the thing was impregnable! And you fixed that weeks ago!

From: Palpatine, Emperor: []
To: Vader, Darth []
Re: Exhaust port
Goddamit Darth. Goddamit.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wall Street 2: Wake up, Money!

Caution: Wall Street 2 spoilers ahoy! Quick, grab the DVD, watch it and come back. It's cool, I'll wait.

Remember Wall Street? Greed is good, Michael Douglas in ugly '80s shirts puffing cigars the size of Manhattan and sneering contemptuously at the camera? Now THAT was a cool flick, right? It was powerful, well-executed and equally well-received, both for its storytelling and the underlying message. It's a slice of Hollywood history now, and is counted amongst the better films made by the actors involved.

The sequel came out recently. I might have paid to see it.

It wasn't a bad movie. Not really. It wasn't particularly good either. It felt like another sequel-for-dollars, a chance to make some bucks on the cachet of the original. Luckily they had Shia LaBeouf, unquestionably the most powerful character actor of the decade on board, delivering complex dialogue with absolute conviction.
Less luckily, I didn't particularly care for the story being told. It was a bare-bones romance tale at its heart, clumsily examining the effect of greed on personal relationships. Just to punch up the emotional payload a bit, Oliver Stone also heaped a steaming wheelbarrow load of mawkish father-son metaphors on the interactions between LaBeouf and...well, pretty much every other bloke on screen. None of them ever went anywhere, so it just left me wondering what the overall message of the film was meant to be ("'Be true to your father'? No, 'money changes everything'. Wait, um, 'Lays chips lead to suicide'? Uh...")

Shia LaBeouf''s Wall Street Guy character is implausibly paired with a (naturally) pretty girl who runs a not-for-profit environmental crusade website. She is, of course, Gordon Gekko's daughter, providing the tenuous emotional link to the earlier film. It seemed like an interesting setup, but rather than exploring the clash of values between Wall Street Guy and Enviro Girl, the story clumsily whitewashes over their contradictory value systems by having Wall Street Guy fight for investment bucks to fund a clean energy project (fusion, hurray!) Which totally makes sense, right? Because dozens of companies have made their fortune building fusion power plants (hint: no they haven't). For the first half of the film, Wall Street Guy stumbles through a weirdly rushed tale of corporate chicanery in the name of revenge, doing some clever financey stuff that ends up costing his mentor's nemesis millions. Enraged, Nemesis Guy wreaks a terrible revenge on Wall Street Guy by offering him a high paying job. And a motorbike.
I confess I spent the second half of the film imagining how much better it would have been with Transformers in it, but I did get the gist. Gordon Gekko came back, conned Wall Street Guy into handing over the hundred million dollar trust fund he gave his daughter (which she, of course, refused to touch, because she was a Complete Idiot), then buggered off with the cash and picked up where he left off, cigars and ugly shirts and all. Dispirited by the complete lack of robots in the movie, Gekko's daughter dumps Wall Street Guy and goes back to her teepee to weave blankets for orphaned badgers or something. She refuses to see him again, despite his strenuous efforts, and repeated assurances that Transformers 3 would be a way better movie. ("Seriously, Optiums Prime breakdances! And, uh, Mechatron is my father!")
Wall Street Guy fixes everything though. He sends Gordon Gekko videos of his unborn child (I tells ya, those ultrasounds creep me out. I always think of Alien). Gekko's heart melts at the sight of a flickery black and white cross section of a human foetus, and he comes back to talk to her. He happens to lob just as she is being hounded by Wall Street Guy again; the very moment she is making it clear they can never be together, Gekko meerkats into the frame. He says some stuff that didn't matter, then says how cool families are, and sorry about all that other stuff, and can we be friends? It's the climax of the film: Gekko retreats from his 'Greed is Good' mantra, admitting that family matter more to him. Wall Street Guy and Enviro girl reconcile and everyone lives happily ever after in a fusion-powered future.

So the apparent message in this movie is that it's not about money. You can survive jail, rebuild your fortune, see your enemies crushed beneath your chariot wheels, succeed in every way. But none of it is worth so much as the love of your grandchild. It's a powerful message, and one that compels Gordon Gekko to reconcile with his daughter.
But why did he come back to see her?

So he could give back the money.

And despite the lead couple's apparently irreconcilable differences, this one act brings them together where love and the impending birth of their child could not. Granted, it was an enormous sum, but to suggest that makes a difference is to say that money IS the only thing that matters to everyone; it's just our price that varies. Before she had the hundred mill back, she wouldn't even touch Wall Street Guy, but the moment she saw the cash? Bam, back in his arms. Granted, the money went to his pet fusion project, but nothing about him had changed. She walked away from him because, she claimed, her father would hurt them. She was right, but the way he hurt them was to steal a trust fund she had decided never to touch (wait, what?) Resuming her relationship with wall Street Guy because her father came back into their lives flew in the face of her own values. And common sense. It muddied the morality-over-money message that Stone was reprising from the first film.

Or maybe the message is that greed is good? Charlie Sheen's character in the original was torn between his blue-collar roots and the siren-call of high finance; the sequel's protagonist is Wall Street from his mousse-laden up-and-comer haircut to his thousand-dollar shoes. Michael Douglas paid for his greed in the first one with a lengthy jail sentence. This time round, stealing the hundred mill form his own daughter left him rich, powerful, popular and still part of her life. No consequences whatsoever for his actions. Maybe Oliver Stone's telling us that the system is so broken, that morality is now so compromised that even at the movies, the bad guy gets away with it. Maybe he's saying we all need to stand up and say "Enough, Wall Street! No more bonuses for crooked investment bankers! No more free rides for fat cats, no more bailing out the corporations with our taxes!"

Or maybe not.

I tried to see a message in this thing. I really tried. But when I walked out, I was convinced that Oliver Stone was simply saying "Look, I got a bunch of chimps and filmed them flinging bananas at each other. Gimme fifteen bucks and I'll let you sit in a sticky popcorn-strewn seat and watch it. And if you don't like it, go blog about it or something. I'm rich and you just gave me fifteen bucks, so who's laughing now, smart guy?"

And if you still think this guy was trying to stick it to The Man On Wall Street with this movie? Take a good look at the product placement. Every phone was a Blackberry. Every motorbike was a Ducati. Every beer was a Heineken, the whisky was always Johnny Walker Blue (and check the Chinese business delegation's reaction to receiving a bottle: "We will not agree to this deal!" "Wait, here is some Johnny Walker Blue!" <gasp> "Minion! Where is my checkbook?"), and the suicidal father-figure chose Lays chips as his final meal (and we don't just get a product shot, we get a voice-over announcing the brand! You can't BUY that kind of publicity. Oh wait, yes you can.). Now, I'm cool with product placement. I get a phone with my job, I don't eat chips, beer tastes like vat scrapings to me and I would still have bought a Ducati if they were twice the price and I had to fistfight the salesman for it, so pummeling my subconscious with product sightings is about as effective as hitting Mike Tyson with complex double entendres. But when it's so blatant that it distracts from Shia LaB's subtly nuanced performance, it's time to back it off a notch.
I dunno, maybe mister Stone needed a new wing on the mansion, or the carpet in the private jet was getting a bit threadbare. Whatever the reason, I hope the poor guy managed to scrape up enough coin from this film to cover these essentials. I'm just kinda peeved that he did it by banging loudly on my iMax glasses and shouting "Hey! HEY! Buy this stuff!" every three minutes twenty seconds.

But I showed him. I used a discount voucher and saw the movie for ten bucks. Who's laughing now, smart guy?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Observations, in no particular order

Compiled whilst tracking about a mine site one moonless evening with a laptop and an intermittent connection...

-playing Scrabble can be more intense than watching footy. Especially if you use Scrabble's optional tackling rules
-doing IT means being happy with saying "Cool, it worked!" even though it totally shouldn't have.
-putting 'le' before any adjective makes the sentence sound French. Which is le weird.
-putting 'der,' 'die' or 'das' before the adjective just makes you sound angry, not German.
-IT is one of few jobs you 'do.' ("Me? I do IT.") Other jobs you're 'in' (the police), you 'practise' (doctoring), or 'am' ("I'm regular army'). The only other things you 'do' are drugs and time.
-Krispy Kreme: they're just donuts, people!
-Snoop Dogg has only one talent: dressing like a clown and looking sleazy behind white chicks in videos. Or is that two talents?
-since the election, I can't remember our government doing anything except not stop people smugglers and not fix bank collusion on interest rates. I tell a lie: they have also not stopped Japanese whaling.
-unlikely things I have laughed at lately: a flightless New Zealand parrot trying to mate with a zoologist's head, a giant zit getting squeezed ("Ew, it's like a brain!"), two inattentive girls almost leaving their heads behind when the roller coaster started ("Hey, why's that voice counting down?"), a joke about an eewee.
-Safri Duo: Played Alive. Hit this thing and tell me it doesn't make you wanna dance like an idiot.
-I think the wrestling is fake
-but you still wouldn't get me in the ring with a four hundred pound bloke in tights and makeup
-there is no such thing as Karma. The universe is NOT keeping score. Nor should we.
-things that have not made me laugh: Adam Sandler's latest film, two Avatar sequels, the Tea Party, any Adam Sandler film, not taking my camera out of the pocket before I washed my jacket.
-things that will make me buy Pentax again: the camera still worked.
-although the pictures looked a bit <drum roll> washed out.
-dancing to Safri Duo: Played Alive next to a lit building on a dark minesite means several dozen truckies, dirt bosses and drillers for an audience
-you can get an entire blog entry up in the time it takes a Cisco 3750 switch to reboot. Unless you go on too lo

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The world is a vampire...

...but not one of those sparkly ones with the '80s rock band haircut and a thing for unremarkable white trash goth chicks.

Don't panic. I'm not interested in jumping on the Twilight-bashing bandwagon that trundles noisily around the Internet every time a new movie gets released, the stars appear on Letterman or the guy who plays the werewolf takes his shirt off again. I've seen two of the movies (the first was watchable but not my thing, the second was as much fun as herpes) and I've cracked the cover on one of the books. I got no further than page five, but I'm more of a Cormack McCarthy kinda reader than a Stephenie Meyer guy. So that's more about preference.
What really interests me is how a thirty-something mum in a conservative corner of the United States managed to turn one of fiction's most terrifying monsters into an object of romantic fantasy. And not just a Hugh Grant kinda romantic hero with his "er, um, I rather, you know, ah, that is to say" waffle, but one they can really get weird about.

Seriously, women completely lose their luggage over this stuff. Some just read it and move on, but others start websites, get tattoos, stalk the actors and generally act like teenagers seeing Justin Bieber for the first time (and for the BieberHaters out there, he's no more or less annoying than Justin Timberlake, N-Sync, David Cassidy or Leif Garrett in their day. This too shall pass). There are T-shirts available in little girl sizes with logos like "Forget princess, I wanna be a vampire!" There are screaming hordes of women in their thirties wherever the stars of the movies make an appearance. Someone made women's underwear with pictures of Edward the Vampire's face printed on them as a gag, and was immediately deluged with requests to buy them. Call me conservative, but THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL.

But is it really about vampires?

Such is the pervasiveness of Bram Stokers original tale that people now know more vampire lore than they know their own national history. Everyone knows how to finish a vampire (stake through the heart), keep one at bay (crosses, garlic, running water) or kill their physical form (silver bullet). And if you're thinking "Wait, isn't that werewolves?" I think I just made my point. Since one of the earliest film versions in 1922 ("Nosferatu", an unauthorised rip of Stoker's book), we've been exposed to vampire mythology through hundreds of films. Dracula was famously played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, such that both were identified with the character most of their careers. The 1970s saw the Count Yorga films, a slightly different interpretation of vampires but still close to the original tale. Salem's Lot and The Lost Boys gave two different takes on the genre in the '80s (notably introducing the "hip young vampire" cliche), while Interview with the Vampire in the '90s brought us the idea of "Vampire as victim" with Tom Cruise's sympathetic portrayal. Woven through it have been innumerable other angles, including comedy ("Dracula: dead and loving it"), race ("Blacula"), gender ("Vampyres", about two lesbian vampires and no, it doesn't get any better than that), martial arts ("The legend of the Seven Golden Vampires") and action-adventure (Buffy and all her spin-offs). This overexposure has made vampires part of global culture, more familiar than any other character besides Elvis (though had he survived, no doubt he would have done a vampire film uh huh). Any fear we might have had of vampires faded long ago, powerless before Buffy's gag-a-minute dialogue, Leslie Nielsen's slapstick goofballery and the devastating tag-team power of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, turning the Monster into the Object Of Desire one smouldering look at a time. And if you still doubt that the vampire myth has been completely de-fanged? Just watch One, ONE Wonderful Episode of Sesame Street, ah, ah, ah.

Dracula wasn't the only monster brought to life by western literature. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the earliest horror tales that made its way into popular culture. Written by Shelley at just 19 years of age, it's now better known than anything her more famous (at the time) husband Percy ever wrote. In its day it was a tale that played on people's fears of the Industrial Revolution, and the first inkling of the fallibility of religion. It's called "The Modern Prometheus," a reference to the fashioning of the first woman from clay. The idea that Man could bring life to dead flesh horrified people, not just for squeamish reasons but because it called into question the very idea of God.
But what is it best known for now? Herman Munster, and Lurch, the butler in the Addams Family. Time and overexposure has turned fear and loathing into goofball cliche.

And Stoker's original Dracula was a story of equal power. The vampires didn't glow, didn't form happy, functional familes and get around in period costume, and they certainly didn't fall in love with misfit teens. What they DID do was treat humanity the way we treat cows or sheep; with a casual contempt for life and freedom. In Stoker's tale, the arrival of Dracula in London was a calamity, more akin to the coming of the Black Death than the appearance of a nice young chap with an eye for dull schoolgirls. The heroes of the story are the mortals who try to fight the menace in their midst, risking their lives to stop a monster they barely understand, and cannot hope to match. Yet anyone will tell you that this tale is the seed from which Twilight sprang, right?


Consider this simple plot:

A terrifying menace appears in distant lands. People are violently killed; survivors realise the menace must be stopped before it reaches civilisation. They race against time to prevent a catastrophe.

What's the story? There are a hundred answers or more: it neatly describes Alien, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, Life Force, The Swarm, Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain (or just about any other Michael Crichton story), Them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and countless others. It's a popular theme, and one that will no doubt stay with us as long as there are cinemas.

Now try this one:

A powerful but lonely man falls in love with an unremarkable but good-hearted woman. Circumstances force them apart, but the strength of his love for her sees him fight through all obstacles, defeat a rival for her affections and win her heart.

Sound familiar? It's Bridget Jones (and its sequel), it's Pretty Woman, Cinderella, Snow White, My Fair Lady, An Officer and a Gentlemen, Pride and Prejudice and probably every trashy romance novel ever written. It's no less popular a theme than the whole 'uh-oh, apocalypse' story above (though perhaps with a different audience), and has kept the Mills and Boon crew making pink-covered books for a long time.

You can see where this is going. Bram Stoker's Dracula fits squarely into the first category. The original Count Dracula is a malevolent evil, determined to reach the fertile feeding grounds of 19th-century London, where he and his kind can feed on humanity forever. There is no love around the vampire character, no romance; he is the darkness in a story with precious little light.

And Twilight? If you picked it as plot number two, help yourself to a prize from the second shelf. It's a teen romance film, about a powerful figure who devotes his life to protecting a fairly innocuous woman because (I am reliably informed), she smells nice and he can't read her mind. I've seen guys fall in love because the girl owns an X-Box, so I'm not about to criticise. The hero can be Snow White's prince, Elizabeth Bennett's rich gentleman-about-town (ever noticed nobody seems to have jobs in Jane Austen books?), the fighter pilot of An Officer And A Gentleman, Julia Roberts' billionaire businessman (oh look, Richard Gere again) or Bridget Jones' well-connected diplomat chap, it matters not: he simply needs to be strong and influential and willing to devote his valuable time and resources to the unlikely focus of his romantic desires. Perhaps the story's popularity reflects every woman's desire to be loved for simply being herself. Or maybe it reflects a desire to have a strong protector, or to be fought over by weirdly, implausibly, air-brushedly handsome guys. I dunno.

None of this really matters here, because the point I'm trying to make is that Twilight is Not A Vampire Film. There might be vampires in it, but that's incidental. It's a Lonely Hero/Girl Next Door tale, same as thousands that have gone before. Stephenie Meyer's master-stroke, inadvertent though it may have been, was to build on the portrayal of vampires as Romantic figures cursed by their immortality, and to weave it in with the simplest elements of every little girl's dream of being carried away by the handsome Prince/Knight/Lawyer/fighter pilot/other masculine figure. Decades of exposure drained the horror from vampires, and made them as good a hero figure as any, a concept unimaginable when the myth was first presented to our eyes. Anna Paquin and her many half-naked co-stars in True Blood have completed the emasculation, solidifying the idea of vampires as simply misguided, in need of nothing more than a good woman to set them straight.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it. People like these books, and more folks reading can hardly be a bad thing. I'm simply saying that sparkly Edward and his girl troubles are a long, looong way from the bleak castle in Romania where we first met a vampire.

And if it still doesn't seem strange? Imagine replacing the vampire in Twilight with the Scary Monsters of our own time. Putting Bella in the arms of Edward the Vampire is like putting her in the arms of Ridley Scott's Alien. Or if the species gap makes this seem a bit strange, try putting a zombie from 28 Days Later in the role of romantic hero. If Twilight's anything to go by, you'll only need to wait fifty years or so for the first zombie romance movie.

Monday, September 20, 2010

That's enough democracy, thank you

Apparently Winston Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst possible system of government, except for all the others." He was a persuasive chap, enough that he was able to convince most of Britain to put down their teacups and croquet mallets long enough to fight a six-year war. He couldn't pry enough people away from Facebook to do it again I suspect, but hopefully the other side will have the same problem, so we should be right.

Now that Australia finally has a government again (apparently the country was on cruise control for a while there), we can look back on the democratic free-for-all of the last few weeks and ask ourselves, "Wait, what?" Several questions pose themselves, such as how the hell the Labour mob can get 38% to the Liberals' 49%, yet still end up running the show. Or how two guys from electorates where NOT voting Liberal/National will see you taken behind the woodshed can side with Labour. And most of all, how often we seem to end up with 149 calm, rational, reasonably intelligent people in parliament and one screaming, ranting, poo-flinging nutbag with the deciding vote on everything. We should be allowed to take back our votes if we see our elected members acting like chimpanzees after they're elected. Maybe we could call it the Katter Clause.
When we vote, it's a bit like when we install stuff on our computers. There's a pretty picture, then a "Would you like to install this thingy?" message, then we click yes and we get this wall of text come at us with a "Do you agree?" message at the bottom. It's called a EULA, or End User Licence Agreement, and it tells us what we're agreeing to when we say yes (the EULA for Windows 7  gives Bill Gates ownership rights on one of your kidneys and a fairly solid claim on your soul I believe, but hey, have you seen the interface on that thing!? The colors, the patterns! Hell, I got two kidneys, sign me up!) Voting is a similar sort of thing; even though all you have to do at the ballot box is put a couple of ticks, you're agreeing to a process that's so complicated even the government had to phone the helpdesk after the last election.

Worryingly, there's nothing in that manual about what to do when we can't tell who's won. Last time it happened, everyone just sort of stood around looking at each other and glancing uncertainly at the big office in parliament. The previous prime minister still had his stuff in there, so everyone agreed to just wait a bit and see what happened, so he wouldn't have to go find a box to put it in. This time round they said they were following "unwritten constitutional conventions", which is NewSpeak for "making it up as we go along."

It's a bit odd that they haven't already covered this in the constitution (seriously, that thing is huge), especially since we've had hung state parliaments 1968, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2002 and 2008. We had a federal hung parliament in 1940, which was awesome timing; with the Japanese heading our way to get rid of all that democratic election nonsense, the government of the day didn't have time for any Oakeshotting at press conferences. They put something in place quick smart and got us back into the fight with not a moment to spare, barely getting troops to Singapore in time to join the surrender. We were (and still are) involved in a foreign war at the last election, but unless the Taliban have a half-dozen aircraft carriers in a cave near Kandahar, I'm guessing they won't be menacing Port Moresby any time soon.
Not being threatened with invasion gives us the luxury of deciding at our own pace. By which I mean the independents' pace, and you better believe our friends Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor hung on to the limelight as long as they could. Waiting for their answer was like watching some dunce on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire decide whether cupcakes were traditionally decorated with a) icing or b) rat poison. And they'd already Asked The Audience; that was what got us into this mess in the first place. They got there in the end though, and we seemed to get along just fine in the meantime, despite the apparent lack of a government.

So how the heck did we end up with a system like this? It can't happen in a lot of countries; our friends in the United States elect one person, who then gets a bunch of his mates to help him decide what to do. They don't even have to be voted for; he can choose ex-generals, academics or even former rivals. France does something similar, although their president has to pick a prime minister from the people who actually got elected. In both cases, there's a bloke at the top (and so far it's always been a bloke) who gets elected by the people, then chooses a crew to run the place. We can't really do that because (technically) we're run by the queen, and we don't get to vote for her. Might be interesting if we did; my guess is Her Majesty would be politely moved along to make way for Kylie.
So why don't we go with what the Yanks and the French do? The answers pretty simple: they had to go through a whole world of hurt to get to where they are now.

The United States has a constitution, same as us. After their argument with Britain in 1776, they had to find something to replace colonial oppression as a system of government. They threw something together straight away, but apparently it wasn't much good, so they got together in 1789 to try to fix it. A month later they realised it was just a mess, so they started again from scratch and wrote a whole new constitution. Theirs is pretty nice; they've still got the original handwritten version, with "We the people" in cool curly writing at the top. It covers everything from how old you have to be to be president right down to who's allowed to make coins. France did something similar; they got so sick of the king running the show that they cut his head off, then cut his family's heads off, then the king's mates' heads, the heads of people who thought cutting off heads was a bit rough, and a few more to round out the tally to somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000. This period of enlightenment came to be called The Terror; it was followed by a wonderful time in France's history in which they got power-slammed by every other country in Europe after Napoleon tried to wheel the head-cutting-off apparatus into a few other countries around the continent.

So when Australia came to build a system of government, we had a good look at the way everyone else had done it before we put quill to parchment. Nobody was keen to fight a war with the United Kingdom, though that was mainly to stop Mel Gibson making some awful movie about it a hundred years later. We weren't keen on the whole French cutting-heads-off thing either, mainly because we didn't have 40,000 people we could do without. So after a good look round, we realised that the strongest, most stable democracy around the place was the good old United Kingdom Of Great Britain.

Handily, we spoke a similar language to them back then. We also had a few ex-pats from the old country, busily expanding their prisons to make room for the next round of immigrants. Less conveniently, there wasn't anything resembling a clear constitution. The rules for running the UK were more like a first-year English essay, with lots of crossed-out bits and notes in the margin and flip-action doodles in the corners. Still, it had survived a civil war and a couple of slightly unhinged monarchs, so people still thought it was a fairly solid model. The states threw in a couple of bits pinched from the US constitution (notably equal numbers of senators from each state, which is why the whole country sometimes ends up getting run by space cadets and boy scouts from Tasmania). Minor changes aside, we're now run under the same cobbled-together patchwork system of government that's kept the UK rattling along noisily but relatively happily for the past few hundred years.

But I suspect the real reason we chose the same system is simple: we had to ask permission.

After we came up with a plan, we had to go up to Queen Victoria and ask her nicely if we could go play outside on our own. We hadn't lopped our monarch's head off, or booted him out at gunpoint, so legally we had to ask if it was okay to be a country. It seemed to work pretty well too; Queen Victoria gave us the nod, we came up with a nice flag and a suitably dreary national anthem and we were away. There was a pretty scary episode in 1975 (note the bit about the queen not wanting to get involved), but aside from that we've done pretty well under the current system. It's clunky, it's flawed, it's got holes in it big enough to drive Kevin Rudd's ego through, but it works.

And if it means we can avoid revolutions, guillotines, wars, and presidents who pronounce 'nuclear' as 'nucular', then it'll do me just fine. Bob Katter may be a bit special, but he's just one guy, and the other 149 people in there with him should be enough to keep him from declaring war on "the poof population". We're safe, we're successful, and we're blessedly free of any radical groups who might take advantage of our dodgy back-of-an-envelope constitution to take us down a less moderate path.

Democracy as we practise it in Australia may not be perfect, but if the state of the nation is any clue, then it's perfect for us.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I freakin' LOVE cheese Twisties!

You too, right? Hydrolysed vegetable protein, salt, MSG, yellow food colouring and whey powder! What's not to like? I tells ya, there's nothing like getting home from work and kickin' back in front of the TV with a big old bowl of whey powder. And hydrolysed vegetable protein! None of than plain vegetable protein here; they HYDROLYSE that bad boy! I go to a restaurant and they bring me my vegetable protein, I'm like, "Is it hydrolysed my good man?" And the waiter's like lolwut, and I'm like d00d, take it back and hydrolyse it! You too, right?

You don't....WHADDYA MEAN YOU DON'T LIKE TWISTIES!? Not even Chicken ones? But powder, man! Whey powder!

I like Twisties. This surprises some people; I'm fairly health conscious, I stay in shape, I watch what I eat and I'm smart enough to know that if the factory it comes from used to make fertiliser or WMDs, I probably shouldn't eat it. But when it comes to Twisties (and their spicy latino cousins Burger Rings), don't care, don't care, don't care. And those little 'fun sized' bags can go to hell; gimme the big old 100 gram bags, the ones so big you get yellow stains up to your elbow.

I've tried eating half a bag of Twisties. I swear, I've tried. But you get there and you think, "there's heaps left, just a few more". Then you stop again and roll the bag up and you realise there's more bag than Twisties there, so you think "bugger it", upend the bag and pour the last few straight down, possibly stopping to chew. On particularly hungry days I'll go so far as to lick the bag for that last big salty hit. Hey, don't judge me.

Apparently there are reasons we eat them this way. It goes something like this...

Food is supposed to satisfy hunger. You eat, it fills you up, you get back to whatever the heck you were doing. But with junk food it's different. The things that make us like them are the salt and fat (and sometimes a fair hit of sugar). Salt and fat are good, but they're usually minor ingredients in something that's mostly protein and carbohydrates and fibre. You get a steak, you splash a bit of sauce on it, you're good to go. Or fruit: when you eat a peach, it is ALL about the peach. Nature nailed it with those things; nothing you can do to make them better, short of having them lovingly sliced and fed to you by a dusky Polynesian beauty. But that says more about me than it does about peaches.
What was I...right, salt and fat. They make food taste better. Theoretically they satisfy cravings too, but this is where it gets tricky. You know when food has too much salt; it tastes awful. Too much fat? Makes it sickly and overly rich. Both of these can be countered; back off the salt a bit and rather than satisfying a craving, it actually makes you want more of the stuff. In the case of fat, you can make it more palatable by thinning it out with the latest enemy of the diet fraternity, carbohydrates. And what are most of our favourite snack foods based on? Potatoes and wheat, the carbohydratetest sources of carbs. Besides dusky Polynesian beauties.

So when you grab yourself a handful of potato chips, you get enough salt for your body to say "Hey, that's pretty nice! More please," a hit of fat mixed with just enough carbs to make it taste really good, and bugger all else. Processing takes out all those annoying vitamins and such, leaving you to savour the delicate texture of really well-hydrolysed vegetable protein. The end result, and curiously the point of the whole exercise is that no, you can't stop at one. A hundred grams of salty, fatty goodness later, you're thirsty, your fingers are yellow and you've poured a good six hundred calories down your neck, but the odds are you're just as hungry. And given that you probably just bought your bag of Cheetos at a train station vending machine, you're suddenly in front of the thing again, trying to decide between more Cheetos, an out-of-date Mars Bar and Baked-Not-Fried low fat pretzels (yeah, like that's gonna happen). Junk food industry: 1, self-restraint: 0.
It gets worse too. Apparently junk food can be as addictive as heroin. It's like cigarettes apparently: you get desensitised to the feel-good chemicals it gives you, so you need more to get the same rush. Eventually you're so desensitised that nothing short of a whole Polynesian tribe serving you crates of Cheezels on gold platters can shake your tail feathers.

Don't care, don't care, don't care. Did I mention that I freakin' LOVE cheese Twisties? Next time I'm waiting at the train station and those little yellow bags are calling me from behind the glass, well, it'd be rude not to go say hello. And I'm totally cool with having to run fifty km and eat nothing but peaches for the rest of the week to make up for bingeing on fifty grams of yellow-dyed MSG.

You too, right...?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Avatar Sucks

"Have you seen Avatar yet?"

Not "have you seen Avatar." Not "Are you going to see Avatar." But "have you seen it Yet." My movie buddy talked as if seeing it had all the inevitability of another Rocky sequel. He's a chap who thinks Adam Sandler's 'Click' is a thought-provoking insight into the human condition though, so I guess I shouldn't put too much weight on that.

Avatar had a huge weight of expectation on it. Most expensive movie in history, most CGI, most blue characters since the Smurf movie; these things raise anticipation to levels not seen since Paris Hilton burst onto the movie scene. But Avatar delivered. The queues stretched past the pimply usher texting on his iPhone, engulfed the people buying fairly-priced popcorn and healthy beverages at the candy bar, swamped the knot of three people waiting to see Jack Black's Year One and generally made everyone else feel like less of a person if they hadn't seen it yet. AVATAR! You gotta see this thing man, the dude is, like, eight foot tall! And he's blue! And it cost, like, five hundred million bucks so it must be awesooome!

It sucked.

You probably gleaned my stance from the title, but I need to say it again: Avatar sucks. You can paint the characters any colour, you can put them in a luminescent forest, you can show dragons duelling helicopters in an alien sky, but unless you can make people care about the outcome of the battle, then your movie is just a demonstration of your CGI skill.

How did it suck? Let me count the ways...

-Unobtanium. Yeah, don't even bother coming up with a clever/credible MacGuffin, just call that spade a spade so you can spend more time on the effects

Stupid coincidences. An entire planet to mine, and the only viable deposit of unobtanium is right underneath the aliens' Magic Faraway Tree. Spare me.

-Hey! It's just Dances With Wolves In Space! We all know it. Cameron admitted it himself. And there's nothing wrong with that. Sure, there are only seven basic plots in all storytelling (which is Avatar?), but so long as you tell your story in an interesting way, it's still a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately in this case, well...

-The climactic fist-fight. EVERY big budget action movie seems to end this way: villain and hero duking it out in a microcosm of the film's main conflict. This was one of the most contrived fights yet: the evil general climbing into a combat walker, surviving a hundreds-of-metres plummet from a burning ship and crashing to the ground a few metres from both the avatar hero and his unconscious human body. See 'Stupid coincidences'.

-Forgettable dialogue. Some movie quotes are so deep in our culture that a lot of people don't even know where they came from anymore. Case in point: the only line I can remember from Avatar is the evil general bellowing "You are not in Kansas anymore!" And Wizard of Oz is two hundred and six years old in the time Avatar is set. The lead character's dialogue rarely stretches beyond "Hey!," Whua?", "Whoa!" and "How you doin'?". Oh, and the mawkish "I see you." As if you could fail to see someone in a forest where the fricken' ground lights up when you step on it (bet that makes hunting at night tricky). The heroes are so busy being tall, blue and self-righteous that they had no time for anything more than twentieth-century urban patois and mawkish conservationist platitudes ("This world is alive!")

Painfully contrived action scenes. There are plenty of these, but the deal-breaker is the final confrontation between man and alien. When they decide to blow up the alien spirit-tree or whatever that thing was, why does the SPACEGOING shuttle craft approach the site in atmosphere at a nice, slow dragon-vulnerable speed? Why not nuke it from orbit, lob missiles, use artillery; in short, do anything other than take on the aliens at their own game? Regardless of how cool the resultant battle might have looked, there was no reason whatsoever for the humans to fight it.

Unoriginal characters. They're not necessarily bad things. They let us codify secondary characters and focus on the main play. But when EVERY character is a straight rip from other movies, you have issues. The Na'vi tribal leader was played by Wes Studi, Hollywood's go-to guy for dignified native american roles (oh look, he was in 'Dances'). The strapping warrior Na'vi seemed to fall between two posts: his accent and manner fluctuated between Kunta Kinte and Wind-in-his-hair. The young Na'vi who first meets the hero just had to be the daughter of the chief and the priestess: she's feisty, attractive (handy that the aliens were good and breasty, to really nail that 15-24 male geek demographic) and makes it clear that he'll have to work hard to win her over. The corporation's representative was basically Carter Burke from Aliens, with all the interesting self-serving connivery cut out. All of them plod tiredly through the same old noble-natives-versus-corporate-greed routine we've seen so many times before, simply filling the empty space between CGI battles. The only character I cared about even briefly was the helicopter pilot who chose to fight with the good guys. She was the only one not on railroad tracks, who made her own decisions according to her conscience. Tragically, she was Vasquez from Aliens, right down to the sweaty man-singlet.

Transparent plot hooks. The moment the chief's daughter tells the hero that the giant scary dragon-thing is nigh-impossible to ride, and that the last person to do it "brought the clans together in a time of great sorrow," there is NO question as to whether the hero will ride it. His entrance on the beast loses all dramatic impact because you know it's going to happen (thank you, go away, hurry up and get to the climactic fist-fight with the evil general please). And using a paraplegic as the main character? From the moment he first runs in the avatar body ("This is great!") you know there's no chance that the closing scene would see him back in his human body because hey, this is America, and cripples can't be heroes, right? And just in case there might have been any doubt, they dispel it by trying and failing to move Sigourney Weaver's "soul" into her alien body. Hurray, there's hope for the hero yet!

That awful, awful romantic subplot. It's not a blockbuster without the lead male falling for the feisty yet vulnerable (and inevitably hot) female support character. And sure, love conquers all, but why, WHY does she fall for the guy she knows is an alien in a vat-grown body? ("You see? It is a demon in a false body!") The instant she bounds onto the screen, all flowing hair and jiggling furry boobs, there's no question that the hero will end up, um, completing his primary mission with her. At least in Titanic, Cameron was good enough to kill off DiCaprio afterwards.

Comparisons with Star Wars. Okay, if you even momentarily thought this was as ground-breaking as George Lucas' 1977 space epic, you hand in your nerd card, right now. Sure, Star Wars looks cliche now, but that's because so many films have followed where it led. Galactica, Buck Rogers, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Crash (for the most blatant example, try The Hoff With Lightsabre!): all of them cashed in on Star Wars' success. Yes, a big part of that was the special effects (which blew the budget out to a whopping ELEVEN MILLION BUCKS), and yes, the plot was almost a straight rip of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (watch the opening scene: you'll see where Lucas got his Star Destroyer entrance from). But the characters were real people, even when they weren't; you cared what happened to them. And thirty years later, despite three godawful prequel films, Star Wars is still held dear by millions. Even Ewoks couldn't change that. And what has Avatar brought to our culture?

Avatar porn.

That's pretty much it. There won't be a sequel, there won't be a sendup, there won't be re-enactment societies or cartoons or anything else, because if you take away the big cinema screen, there's nothing left of Avatar but a vague memory of a ten-foot-tall blue chick.
Look, if you liked it, that's great. But let's not pretend it was anything more than a CGI demonstration. Sure, wow us with colours and effects and awesome battles, but make us think, make us care, and please, PLEASE make us wonder how this thing is going to turn out.
It's our own fault of course. Every time I criticise Avatar, people tell me I should just turn my brain off and enjoy it. Huh? I LIKE listening to my brain. It tells me cool stuff like "Don't go out yet, you need pants," and "Kerosene may LOOK like Kool-Aid, buuut..." That's the issue here: If we keep paying to see films that don't engage us intellectually and emotionally, we'll just get more of the same. But if we save our hard-earned for the Hurt Lockers, the Inceptions, the countless other stories that are more memorable than the taste of the popcorn we ate watching them, then we'll get better films, we'll get films that fire our imaginations and inspire us long after the credits roll. I walked out of Star Wars wanting to be an X-Wing pilot. I walked out of Avatar wanting to punch James Cameron in the nose. An emotional reaction, sure, but probably not the one he intended. He had a chance to wrap the incredible technology and stunning effects around a believable, engaging story. Cameron could have followed up on his remarkable effort with Terminator and Aliens (no, not Titanic: even a giant boat can't make yet another Uptown Girl romance tale interesting). Instead, he went with the blandest, most cookie-cutter plot he could devise, to ensure nobody was distracted from the pretty colours. In this he was entirely successful.
If you don't believe me, try this: how many characters can you name from the movie? Do you remember the hero's name? The villainous general? Any of the Na'vi? Tragically, the only thing that stays with us from this movie is the hype, and a pair of ugly 3D glasses.

Of course, it's not the first time special effects were put before plot. Remember Independence Day?

Nah, neither do I.

UPDATE: Avatar sequel!
As if there wouldn't be a follow-up to a (financial) triumph like Avatar. A failure on my part to think otherwise, or to spend five minutes Googling . Apparently they're taking it underwater; maybe next an Ice Planet? Or possibly just the latest instalment in Cameron's numerous watery sojourns.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I heart Julia Gillard

So we have a female prime minister. And, with the exception of her hair colour, apparently that's the most significant thing about her. Nobody seems to mention her career as an IR lawyer, her place in the last guy's inner circle, her ability to stimulate the economy by building hundred thousand dollar schoolrooms for eight million bucks apiece. Nope, it's all about the boobs.
Seriously, what? We're asking whether she can run the country, not whether she can get away with wearing pearls and tan calf-high boots in a photo shoot (I dunno, is that cool?) Questions about kids, marriage, how she'd decorate the lodge: this is stuff for reality TV airheads, not the leader of the world's fourteenth largest economy. You can't advertise a job with "Men only need apply": why is the most important thing about our new PM something that you're not even allowed to mention in the employment pages?

Now, I think it's a fine thing that we've got a woman as a PM. But for one reason, and one reason only. Reasons that are NOT important are as follows:

1) We should let a girl have a turn

Bollocks. We should let the smartest, most capable, most visionary person have a go. If it's about being fair, then (in no particular order) we should vote for a fat guy (check it out: we haven't yet), a thin woman, someone with glasses, someone with a limp, a one-armed Albanian, a dyslexic albino and whatever other excluded group we can find. Maybe even a Tasmanian, though I don't think we're quite ready for that yet. Giving people a go because it's "their turn" is a beautiful thing, if we're talking about the junior school gym team. Letting the unco kid flail about on the trampoline until he hurts himself is great for his self-esteem and makes us all a bit teary at our own generosity. But I'm guessing Julia's pretty much right for self-esteem. And if not I don't really give a bugger; we're all giving her money and a nice house in return for running the country, so hopefully that'll make up for her being picked last for soccer in grade five.
To make it a little more personal, try this: if you went to hospital to have your appendix out, what would you say if the surgeon was a veteran of some thousand appendectomies? "Oh no, bring me the new guy with the thick glasses and the trembling hands. Let him have a turn." I wouldn't do it to my appendix, and I certainly wouldn't do it to my country.

2) She understands women's issues

Which issues are those? Defence? Given that most of the people we sent overseas to get shot at in our various wars were blokes, I don't know that women can get a much better deal. It's probably not parenting either, since Prime Minister Gillard has chosen career over family. I heartily applaud this choice, not because I oppose families (marvelous things; I belonged to one once), but because I support her right to choose. Women I speak to are as passionate about the political issues of the day as any man, but few of them show any signs of gender divisiveness. The issues women complain about that men don't are things like the difficulty of finding clothes that fit or a mechanic they feel they can trust. I don't think we have a Federal Ministry of Sizes, nor a Register Of Trustworthy Mechanics, so I'm not sure they're affecting voting patterns too strongly. Angela Merckl, the German chancellor (like a PM, but with a nicer car) isn't worrying about gender issues so much as she's dealing with economic security, health care and not getting her country pummelled in another war. Iceland's PM, Johanna Siguradottir (try saying that after a brace of Absolut shots), the first openly gay head of state of the modern era, is too busy building volcano fences and trying to stay warm to think about equal pay for women. And our Julia actually opposed the whole paid parental leave before she got the top job.

Like everyone else, I cringed a little each time I saw Tony Abbott on TV, surrounded by every female figure he could scrape up, plus Bronwyn Bishop. It was transparent, it was embarrassing and it shouldn't have been necessary, but he had to show some girl-cred to claw back a few votes from Julia's growing band of sistahs yo. Personally I think any bloke who's raised three daughters has about as much understanding as a man can have of women's issues without surgery but nonetheless, at the close of polls, he had one penis too many for some voters.

3) Women are better leaders because they are less confrontational
Two words: Margaret Thatcher. She crushed the unions, gave Argentina a damn good thrashing and did everything short of mooning the Soviet Union when the Cold War was at its peak. Yet she was the longest-serving British PM for a couple of hundred years. Her gender had nothing to do with it; invasions, cold wars and recessions are pretty horrible whether or not you stand up to pee, and she dealt with them as well as any man in the job since Churchill toddled off. She was confrontational from start to finish; it might have made her seem less feminine but, regardless of your opinion of her actions, she certainly got stuff done. Bob Hawke might have seemed confrontational, but he tried to be everyone's friend, and behind the scenes he worked towards consensus as hard as he could. All it got him was a recession we had to have and Paul Keating's letter-opener stuck in his back when the lights went out.
Having said that, I'm hoping Julia won't be flipping off the Russians or getting us into another war. But, should we get into a spot of bother, then if she's any good as a PM (and she just might be if we give her a chance) she'll be acting in Australia's interests, not just Australian women's interests.

So why, after all of that, is it a good thing to have a woman in the job?

Someone had to be the first.

Now that we've got it out of the way, people won't look at the next female candidate as "the first". It'll be less about Women's Weekly photo shoots and awkward questions about her committed life partner, and more about whether she supports the mining tax, paid parental leave or whether Peter Garrett should open Parliament by leading the front bench in an a cappella rendition of Beds are Burning. And we'll vote based on whether we like their stance on unions, on the emissions trading scheme and on promises to send Bob Katter back to his home planet as soon as possible.
By treating candidates on their merits rather than their gender, we've instantly doubled the prime ministerial talent pool. And given some of the choices we've been offered over the last few decades (cough) Keating (cough) that has to be A Very Good Thing.

Mind the Africans...

"Hi, thanks for coming," said the agent. "There's a large African family living here, so...uh..."
Give or take a pause or two, that was roughly how the home open began. Actually, it began with my partner eyeing the house the way she eyes the cats' litter tray when they're feeling a bit squitty. She retreated to the safety of the car, leaving me to chat with the rather harried looking agent myself.
He wasn't kidding. Most of Mozambique appeared to be occupying the lounge. They seemed largely oblivious to the (tiny) handful of people who turned up, and it added something of a festive air to proceedings. Which was nice, because I like to think about the biggest investment of my life while listening to Yossou N'Dour at ninety decibels and weaving my way through a crowd of garishly dressed strangers. Not everyone ignored me though; on opening the door to one bedroom, I was confronted by a young lad holding a battered-looking acoustic guitar, standing beside another lad holding an equally battered-looking machete. Not sure if it was acoustic. Still, seen one machete-filled bedroom, seen 'em all, so I didn't feel the need to inspect the BIRs.
The third bedroom was less confrontationally occupied; the girl therein managed a smile as I entered. Would have introduced myself ("Hi, I'm Mick, I'll be evicting you 30 days after settlement,") but she was chatting on an iPhone worth more than the house. I'd seen more than enough by then, so I grabbed a brochure, took a quick look at the kitchen (mostly out of morbid curiosity) and got the hell out of there.

Buying a house, I've decided, is a Pain In The Arse. I want pants? I go to a pants shop. Shoes? Ditto. What I do NOT do is wait around until someone's selling a pair of shoes in a place I want to buy them, in a size that'll fit me, and at a price that'll let me sell the shoes to someone else when I outgrow them. Maybe after I've rented them out for a while, or extended them, with council permission.
I started looking October 2009, so it's been close to a year now. Have to take off a month or so at the start when I thought I was misreading the prices (seriously, how the hell can a house get MORE valuable the longer you live in it? Am I paying for your dust bunny collection, the half-hundredweight of leaves in the gutters?), then another month or so while I got used to real estate agent jargon which, I quickly discovered, is a language unto itself. For the uninitiated, here are a few of the trickier terms I had to learn in short order:

"Lived-in": thrashed
"Needs some TLC": completely thrashed
"Renovator's dream": anyone else's nightmare
"Sure to hold its value": overpriced
"Investor's delight": you wouldn't live here yourself
"Loads of potential": not redecorated since the 70s.

It was almost a relief to see the House Of Many Africans. The agent made no secret of the fact it needed knocking down, and the sooner the better. Although by the look of some of the walls I could have done it myself with a huff and a puff, If I had the slightest inclination to deal with the twin hells of real estate agents and builders, I might have thought about it too.
I've reached the point now where, after inspecting close to a hundred houses, I've decided there's something wrong with every house out there. EVERY house. If it's cheap, it's damp and dark. If it's in a good street, it's too small. If it's big and airy and well-located and comes with a spa, sauna and nine hole golf course, I'll need to sell both kidneys just to scratch up a deposit.
And that's just fine. When you buy a house, I think you need to decide what flaw you're willing to tolerate. That's how people end up buying on busy main roads: they find the right place and decide they can learn to love the sound of road train exhaust brakes at 2am. And that's why we end up in shoebox-sized townhouses on 'estates' with fifty other glassy-eyed broken-spirited homebuyers whose Australian Dream has been reduced to 150 square metres and a concrete balcony overlooking the car park.

Or, we can keep looking. Sure, the place I'm looking at now is on a main road, but there's a park beyond it. And yes, the grease on the kitchen cupboards is thick enough to support my weight, but mops are cheap, and my time is free. I'm lucky enough to have somewhere to live, and nobody relying on me to put a roof over their heads. My own Australian Dream is alive and well and just one more home open away.
A warning though: when you come round for the housewarming, there may be a large African family living there, so...uh...