The film festival that never ends

Last weekend saw my Mubi film previewing job come to an end. The streaming company had paid me a small amount of money to look for technical imperfections in a total of 358 films over the past four years.

At one stage I had a larger role with Mubi, creating English subtitles for English language films. But for the most part I was a member of a community of around 30 amateur previewers. Last week my contact notified me that they'd decided to move the preview tasks inhouse.

Diva

Mubi offers a variety of arthouse, classic and experimental films. You may have seen the Mubi icon on the menu of your smart TV or Apple or other streaming box. I have been a subscriber since 2011, when I owned an early streaming device called Boxee.

What I like most about Mubi is the way they curate and present one film each day and give subscribers a month to watch it. In this way they school their subscribers in film appreciation and provide the perfect antidote to many people's experience of Netflix - thousands of films available but nothing worth watching.

This Boys Life

Mubi is like a film festival that never ends. I've been a subscriber to the Sydney Film Festival since 2004, and I deliberately opt for the 'set menu' of about 33 films chosen by curators. I make a point of seeing them all and have not missed one since 2008.

Labyrinth of Cinema

I was first introduced to arthouse films back in the 1980s by a friend who was a graduate of the directors course at the Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). He'd also trained as a sculptor at the Sydney School of Art and was much inspired by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's philosophy of film as 'sculpting in time'.

For many viewers, the problem with Tarkovsky is that they could not understand what was going on in his films. For me, understanding a film is always a work in progress.

Honouring infamy

Yesterday I enjoyed a day trip to Bathurst, three and a half hours west of Sydney across the Blue Mountains. It is an old gold mining town that is currently experiencing rapid population growth.

Like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, the wealth from gold mining gave Bathurst a legacy of impressive buildings, and today there is no shortage of cultural institutions.

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I visited the Regional Art Gallery, the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, and the Bathurst Rail Museum, which was opened only last year. The city once had a railway workforce of 500, including former prime minister Ben Chifley, who was an engine driver.

But because it was Anzac Day, the focal point was the Bathurst Town Square, where the war memorials are situated. There was the main memorial tower, which is famous for its bells. Yesterday they were peeling with identifiable tunes in an extended concert performance.

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But of more immediate interest to me was the Boer War Memorial. That is because, while on the train from Sydney, I had read a Peter FitzSimons opinion article in the Sun-Herald newspaper. It concerned local war criminal Peter Handcock, who is disgraced but controversially honoured there.

Strangely it reminded me of my 2018 trip to Stalin's home town of Gori in Georgia, where they honour his infamy.

Handcock was executed with Anglo-Australian Lieutenant Harry 'Breaker' Morant, after being court-martialled and convicted of committing murder while on active duty in 1902. Lord Kitchener unveiled the memorial in 1910, but apparently agreed to do so only after Handcock's name was removed from the list of heroes.

Disgraced lieutenant deserves no honour - The Sun-Herald 25 Apr 21

However Handcock's name was restored in 1964 after lobbying from his son. Yesterday the memorial was adorned with flowers, perhaps put there by his great grandson, who maintains a website to tell the family's side of the story.

Breaker Morant was brought to prominence a few years later by Bruce Beresford's 1980 Australian war drama film Breaker Morant. Beresford told film critic Father Peter Malone in 1999 that he had 'never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty'. He expressed dismay and said he was 'amazed' that so many people mistakenly thought the film was about 'poor Australians who were framed by the Brits'.

FitzSimons has attempted to demythologise Breaker Morant through his 2020 book Breaker Morant. I hope that Bathurst locals can quietly lay aside attempts to lionise Handcock and instead focus their energies on paying tribute to their real hero Ben Chifley.

Photographs out of focus

At the weekend I visited two exhibitions of blurry photographs. On Saturday it was Stuart Spence's 'Truro' at Nanda\Hobbs gallery in inner-Sydney Chippendale (first photo), and on Sunday I saw Bill Henson's travelling exhibition 'The light fades but the gods remain' at the Newcastle Regional Gallery (second).

Stuart Spence Dancer

The aesthetic which refers to deliberately out-of-focus images is known as 'bokeh'. I don't know much about the theory but I do know that I have a deeper response to a photo that is off focus or off colour or imperfect in some other way.

Perhaps we relate better to imperfect photos than perfect photos if we are aware that we are imperfect ourselves. Or it could be that the blurriness represents a state of unconsciousness in which our own unconscious feels at home. Whatever it is, I find imperfect images more deeply satisfying than those that are perfect.

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While I was at Nanda\Hobbs, Spence was giving a talk to a group of architecture students. He quoted Miles Davis' answer when he was asked how long it had taken him to learn the trumpet. 'Thirty years to learn it, and the rest of my life to forget it'.

For Spence, photos are 'acts of forgetting, of shutting down the monkey mind and allowing whatever the hell looks after this stuff, do what it needs to do'.

I find that as I walk around a city or some other location, the photos take themselves. Without much effort, I make images that have a deep resonance which either I can't or don't want to explain.

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On my walk after seeing the Henson exhibition, I took a photo of Wal Young House, the headquarters of the Newcastle District Bowling Association. Obviously I experienced beauty and significance in what for many would be an unremarkable 1960s building.

I think I also had an unconscious fear that it would be demolished before too long, and taking the photo was an act of love or solidarity. Sure enough, when I got home I googled Wal Young House and found a Newcastle Herald report of a proposal to put a modern indoor sports complex in its place.

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It takes a lot of work to achieve the artistry of a Stuart Spence or Jim Henson photograph. If I had the patience, I would probably exaggerate the colours rather than blur my Wal Young House photo. But I rarely have the commitment to give myself to such a task.

But I did about ten years ago, when I was bored on a flight back from Vietnam. The result was an image that has endured, of my fleeting acquaintance with an old woman carrying a load on her shoulders.

The joy of abstract art

Yesterday I took another trip to Canberra and found myself in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

For a third time I visited 'Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now', one of my favourite exhibitions for some time. But I gave most of my attention to the NGA's current blockbuster 'Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London'.

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I don't enjoy the crowds - and often predictability - of blockbusters. But I saw it yesterday because I was there, and nobody passes up an easy opportunity to witness such a big event.

The Italian Renaissance painting was beautiful but didn't speak to me. The Grand Tour - the right of passage where wealthy young Englishmen would tour Continental Europe - seemed grotesque. But I very much liked some of the other parts of the exhibition including 'France and the rise of modern art'.

This section took me back to the Saturday morning art classes I did as a child at what is now the Albury TAFE. I have retained much of what I learned about this period from the teacher Mrs Smith, including the characteristics of the works of painters featured here, such as Monet, Gauguin and Cézanne (above).

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These painters departed from realistic depiction of landscapes and other objects in favour of more abstract forms, including broad brushstrokes and geometric shapes. I was fascinated by cacti as a child and Mrs Smith guided me to use broad brushstrokes to paint a Mexican desert landscape that currently hangs behind my bed (pictured).

The progression from realism to abstract in that show provided a good background for the Australian Women Artists' work in the next room (including Dorrit Black's cubist painting The Bridge from 1930, below).

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The works here held particular meaning for me, articulated here in a section of the exhibition notes:

'Abstract work is a great joy... If you can empty your mind of chatter, and just live with the work for a few minutes, you find this enormous release into a mode of thought that is beyond speech.'

Sexual empathy

Recently I was asked what I thought about consent, in light of the rape allegations that the Federal Government is being forced to confront.

It is difficult to answer this without preaching, and preachers on this subject often fall into hypocrisy.

But having said this, I have strong views about consent in sexual relations that I don't mind sharing.

Specifically I believe that the most important aspect of having sex is our reading of how the other person is feeling - at every moment of the encounter - and our physical and emotional response to this.

Indeed this sense of the other is integral to the pleasure we get from sex. If that's not the case for you, my advice is that it could be better to use a sex robot or a sex toy instead of a real person.

You may wonder where I get this from. It's straight from the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, which gives priority to respecting the person.

My view is that if we don't do this, we become utilitarian and start to think pragmatically about the sex act. We might consider that society is going to be better off if we lay aside that isolated consent transgression and hope that the other person gets over it. That is perhaps how the Government is playing the current allegations.

But while I believe the Catholic Church gets it right on uncompromising respect for the person, I think its leaders got catastrophically lost along the way when they decided that human reproduction had to be the basis of the Church's sexual ethics. That is, you can't have sex unless you're making babies.

To my mind, this does not sit easily with their more important principle of respect for the person, which has made its own contribution towards western society's valuing of sexual consent.

Old school ties

After being re-introduced by a mutual friend, I spent a very satisfying three hours on Friday visiting a fellow student from primary school. We've lived in the same part of Sydney for 30 years but hadn't seen each other in 40.

It made me think about our lost opportunities for meaningful human connection, but also the well-intentioned but unwanted attempts of third parties to have us reconnect with our contemporaries.

A few years ago, I was annoyed by the old boys association of my Melbourne high school. They'd kept including me in invitations to their Sydney dinner events, even though I'd demonstrated my disinterest by never attending.

I was uncomfortable with the upmarket venues, the dress codes, and the culture surrounding the occasions. I indicated this when I grumpily replied to them saying that I didn't own a dinner suit and the cost of the evenings exceeded my budget. I disingenuously implied that I would attend if they changed their tune, not expecting them to do so.

Subsequently I was floored when they began holding dinners at a lowbrow club in the city with minimum dress standards. I was impressed but nevertheless have not considered attending.

A year or so later I asked to be removed from the main mailing list of the association, explaining that receiving their newsletter was for me an occasion of 'retraumatisation'.

I didn't give any detail. They responded cordially and stopped sending the communications. I did not wish to enter into dialogue with them but simply remind them that school provided a mixed or negative experience for some.

I hoped that they would be challenged to consider my view that it was more likely than not that the old boys association - as it has traditionally operated - was most likely to reinforce rather than atone for that.

My high school was an elite all boys institution. Fairly or unfairly, I associate such institutions with the kind of entitled sexist alcohol-fueled exuberance that the Federal Government is currently being forced to face up to with the rape allegations.

I always felt alienated by that culture. That is why I have become increasingly selective when I revisit those times by meeting up with old school friends. Nevertheless it's worth the effort, as I discovered on Friday.

John Howard and the culture wars

Last week the ABC's Tom Switzer interviewed former Prime Minister John Howard ahead of today's 25th anniversary of his history-changing ascension to power in the 1996 Federal Election.

Listening to Howard's reflections, what struck me was his virulent opposition to an apology to the Stolen Generations. 'I didn't think one generation could apologise for the claimed misdeeds of an earlier generation.'

I've had a life-long curiosity about the 'claimed misdeeds'. As a child, I used to wonder about the Aboriginal people who vacated the land that became our farm outside Wodonga, less than 100 years before I was born.

I had one primary school teacher who taught us that there'd been tension between the original inhabitants of the land and the European settlers. But the prevailing attitude was that how the land got to be ours was not something we needed to be concerned about.

Over the years, education fed my curiosity and I came to regard the claimed misdeeds as a stain on our peace of mind about the land we inhabit, not unlike the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.

For now, I believe that the least we can do is to inform ourselves and support the acknowledgement of country that often takes place at the beginning of meetings and events.

I like to study the Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia, and currently I'm reading Henry Reynolds' Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and The Uluru Statement, which was published last month.

Reynolds, who is now 82, was a young historian when I was studying Australian history at Melbourne University. This was not long after his landmark book The Other Side of the Frontier was first published in 1981.

Reynolds' arguments were rebutted by Keith Windschuttle in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002), which is often credited with precipitating the 'history wars' and - by extension - the 'culture wars'.

Windschuttle was a contemporary of John Howard's at school. In 2006 Howard appointed him to the Board of the ABC, which is often recognised as Australia's premier cultural institution. Windschuttle's ideas have clearly fuelled Howard's skepticism regarding the earlier generation's 'claimed misdeeds' against the indigenous population. The culture wars - which are the major source of social and intellectual division in Australia today - have subsequently come to loom large in Howard's legacy.

Celebrating madness

There have always been euphemisms to describe people living with mental illness.

In a conversation a few days ago, a friend referred to a mutual acquaintance as being ‘on the spectrum’, as if he was not like the rest of us.

In the past, these people were called lunatics and ‘put away’ in an asylum. But more recently we have come to accept - and even celebrate - the reality that we are all mad or crazy to a degree.

Indeed the tag ‘Keep Newtown Weird’ has been used - with pride - to promote the part of Sydney where I live. My neighbourhood is a lunatic asylum!

The Scream

Yesterday the Guardian reported on an inscription - ‘Can only have been painted by a madman’ - on one of the versions of Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s famous work The Scream.

The article said that Munch is now thought to have made the marking himself after attending an 1895 meeting in which a medical student said the painting must be the work of someone who was mentally disturbed.

It quoted a curator’s belief that the inscription is ‘a combination of being ironic, but also showing his vulnerability’.

The tortured face of the person in the painting is one of the most iconic images of modern art. It is a famously eloquent depiction of the anxiety that is characteristic of the human condition.

Coincidentally, last week I watched British director Peter Watkins’ controversial 1974 docu-drama on Munch, which has been lauded as one of the best films about art of all time.

The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman called it a ‘work of genius’, but the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK tried to suppress its distribution. It is remarkable that the ostracism of Munch by Norwegian polite society seems to have persisted from his time until the late 20th century.

His legacy is the now widespread acceptance that it’s OK to externalise our tortured emotional and psychological state, in art and other forms of expression. Munch’s stubborn refusal to keep his mental anguish under wraps ensured that his work would continue strike a chord with subsequent generations of citizens of the modern world.

Making Google and Facebook pay would break the Internet

I’ve been following the Federal Government’s media bargaining code legislation, which could have a profound effect on the circulation of news in Australia and beyond.

It seems the Government is on the side of media organisations in wanting to force Google and Facebook to pay for the right to provide the public with links to content that is not theirs.

I found myself torn. On the one hand I was wanting to see Google and Facebook broken up. I didn’t want them to become more powerful than the governments which are meant to regulate them on behalf of all of us.

But on the other, I strongly believe in the right of all Internet users to freely link to the content of other users’ websites.

Having formed the opinion that Google and Facebook were destroying the Internet by their dominance, I was dismayed - but eventually heartened - to see the inventor of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee apparently siding with them, in opinion articles and his submission to the Australian Parliamentary Committee.

Likewise ‘father’ of the Internet Vint Cerf told the Committee (admittedly on behalf of his current employer Google): ‘Links are the cornerstones of open access to information online; requiring a search engine (or anyone else) to pay for them undermines one of the fundamental principles of the Internet as we know it today.’

They were affirming the basis upon which I developed the CathNews website in 1999, which still publishes links and synopses of news stories concerning the Catholic Church.

We would publish snippets of the article, with the idea that we were sending the reader to the original source and not ‘stealing’ the media organisation’s content. Of course the length of the snippets was the key factor in determining whether the content was being stolen.

I never imagined that the Australian Government might one day require us to pay to publish links to other websites.

Sometimes other Internet users would write to me to ask permission to link to our content and I would reply quite definitively that there was no need to seek permission to publish links, because that was what the internet was all about.

I remember Rupert Murdoch asserting at some point many years ago, that websites - like ours perhaps - were stealing his content. He did not acknowledge that they were also delivering him a broader audience. That remains the sticking point of his battle with Google and Facebook today.

Banks that listen to their customers

When I was a child, my father took his business from the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) and switched to CBC Bank (now NAB).

The Bank of New South Wales had obviously done something to incur his displeasure. But the reason - which I have never known - was less important than the reality that he had a choice and exercised it.

Loyalty to banks was a big thing. My grandfather - and probably his father - had banked with the Bank of New South Wales. I understand that in those days, banks were generally loyal to their customers.

My father’s exercise of choice could have something to do with the fact that I have accounts with 15 different banks and use many of them for different purposes. In Australia we are lucky that fees are easy to avoid if you have the time to be vigilant.

Until now my favourite bank has been the neobank 86 400. This is mainly because it is not one of the ‘Big 4’ banks, all of which had their predatory behaviour exposed by the banking Royal Commission.

Neobanks are startups with the potential to spoil the party of the Big 4. They have proper banking licences but no branches, and therefore can afford to charge almost no fees and be innovative.

They are more in touch with their customers, and 86 400 has even adopted some features I have suggested.

I told them I’d like to avoid the 3% fee most banks charge for foreign transactions (it adds 3% to the cost of items such as a subscription to the New York Times). They said they’d have to absorb what it cost them, but they did remove the charge a few months later.

The bad news is that NAB announced last month that it has acquired 86 400. NAB has tried to head off competition from neobanks with its comparatively nimble UBank division. Now the scene is set for it to close 86 400, rejuvenate Ubank and further reduce competition in the banking sector.

86 400 is currently my ‘main’ bank, so I am likely to move my activity elsewhere. The most interesting candidate in my suite of bank accounts is Bank Australia, which positions itself as an ethical bank that is owned by its customers rather than profit hungry shareholders. It commenced in 1957 as the CSIRO’s staff credit union.

So far my research suggests the ethics claim is justified. Moreover it seems they listen to their customers.

A few months ago I urged them to adopt Fitbit Pay, so that their Fitbit wearing customers can make tap and go payments with their watches. A few days ago they sent an email announcing their cards are now compatible with Fitbit Pay.

Now I will see if they will come at moving even closer to the nimble and innovative neobanks by absorbing the 3% foreign transaction charge.