Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Angels on pinheads

I've been living and working back in Melbourne now for four months. It was going to be three ... but then I've never been especially good at estimating the amount of time something will take.

Since I have been back, I have interrupted the lives of some wonderful, dear friends. We have sung and danced around the messy details of our mid-life crises and I have often wondered where in the journey of my life I would 'be' now if it hadn't been for the Fag, Interrupted-esque sojourn in the harbour city for seven years. But as James Goldman, in his The Lion In Winter script, puts it: "'What if ...' is a game for scholars. What if Angels sat on pinheads?"

I am constantly moved and provoked by the (in)different circumstances of many of the people I knew almost a decade ago. One of my dearest (and most reliable) co-bar-propper-upper-ers is now on heart medication and rarely drinks. For he and I, it's recently become something like an arduous garden-path kind of a walk to our local for two ... or more. I think about calling him and asking him out to the pub a little less often - especially now that it appears to be a matter of life or death. For him, in any case.

And some of the people I have known in this lifetime are achieving truly wonderful things ... and like a ratty little mongrel puppy, I yap and nip at their heels - celebrating their deserved success: like this extraordinarily beautiful work.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

DVD Review: United 93

My introduction to United Airlines Flight 93 was in the early hours of September 12, 2001. Not owning a television, I was following the unfurling, hypnotic spectacle on the internet. ('September 11' would later be acknowledged as being the first major international event to have been communicated to the world in real time via the 'net.) I was plugged in to a large number of websites - one of which belonged to United Airlines. At some point during the fiasco, having refreshed their site in my browser, there was a stark, simple message on the company's homepage: "United Airlines regret to announce that we appear to have lost another aircraft." (United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane hijacked, had already been flown into the World Trade Center's South Tower.)

My introduction to the Paul Greengrass film - United 93 - was as a result of the, then, Sydney Film Festival Artistic Director Lynden Barber's decision to include it in his program for the 2006 festival. I was the Events Manager for Barber's final festival (an hypnotic and terrifying ordeal in its own right) and I had taken the opportunity to sneak in and watch this film. About 15 minutes into it, my mobile phone, silently, announced that I was needed somewhere. We had a huge number of Festival Sponsor post-screening functions immediately following the film - and there was the entirely necessary corporate sponsorship banner positioning to be attended to. Almost gratefully, I slid from the theatre. I had missed the beginning and I was going to miss the end ... and until the other night when I saw the film for the first time, I didn't realise just how grateful I should have been.

The post-United 93 screening functions were, as you might imagine, dire affairs. Ghostly white and subdued, corporate Sydney wandered dazed and undone into their little roped-off exclusion zones - truly stunned by what they had witnessed. I had imagined they would be, and had arranged for the lights to be dimmed in the holding pens I had any control over and encouraged the event staff who bothered to listen to be mindful of what our cheque-signers had just witnessed. I adored Lynden Barber's festival ... and especially his inclusion of this film. The State Theatre, where it screened, had just had a new 'rock concert' sound rig installed ... and United 93's momentous and almost impossibly layered soundtrack (Martin Cantwell's Sound Editing and John Powell's Original Score) gave it a paint-and-wall-paper stripping run for its money.


One of Greengrass's masterstrokes is the casting. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) once said that "casting is 65 percent of directing", and in the case of United 93 I would, possibly rather magnaminously suggest, that the casting is almost 90 percent of the work's cinematic torque. The flight crew (pilots and cabin attendants) are all played by real crew - some of whom work for United Airlines. On the ground, the Civilian and US Military Air Traffic Controllers are played by real air traffic controllers – and in some cases, the people who were actually working on the morning of September 11. The passengers are played by relative unknowns, and it is this choice that ensures the film demands an immediate and instinctive respect. There is, not at any time, any "Acting" going on. Yes, there is knowledge and technique … there is commitment and passion … but ultimately, it is the anonymity of these actors that powers their presence in this work in precious and commanding ways. Many Directors and Casting Directors choose this casting path to walk – but very few have succeeded in matching the power of the unreservedly adventurous and uncluttered energy with the material that Greengrass manages to inspire in this work and from his brilliant cast.

The editing by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse is astonishing and entirely worthy of their Oscar™ nomination … even though they lost - inexplicably - to Thelma Schoonmaker's work on Martin Scorsese's chronically over-rated, sentimental favourite The Departed. Greengrass, too, was nominated for the Oscar™ for Best Achievement in Directing, capitulating too, to Mr Scorsese.

I have always been greedy for detail - and Barry Ackroyd's Cinematography re-defines the possibilities of the hand-held camera and strikes the perfect aviation-clinical look throughout the 'inflight' interiors. His colours and tones are bone-bearingly real, and his and Greengrass's camera becomes almost lascivious as it prowls the darkest and most unlikely corners of the entire, unravelling horror. From the chaos on the ground to the habitual inflight prattle, Greengrass is everywhere. He pins each and every minute detail of his formidable narrative to your every breath ... choking you with his drive, intention and pace. His virtuoso camera angles are a lesson in themselves and the camera's battle for stability and equilibrium in the post-hijack cabin of United Airlines Flight 93 is unrelentingly painful. That there is even the slightest semblance of hope for a different denoument is the mark of a truly great storyteller ... and a water-tight and skillful ensemble and crew.

From its simple, eerily familiar and almost routine beginning to the blistering mid-point where the tension can no longer be contained, United 93 is a masterful cinematic ante-mortem examination … and even though forensic investigators have contradicted the popular myth that the passengers managed to make it into the cockpit, the final few minutes of United 93 will connect so brutally with your heart that it may be almost impossible for you to stand it.

It was only through the wide-eyed wonder at what real and raw courage and determination looks like, that I could.


Donate to, and view, the Honour Flight 93 National Memorial and buy the DVD.

Image courtesy United 93.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Careful, it might not be about you

I had a telephone call from a very concerned friend tonight ... someone who thought I was being more than a little indiscreet writing about their relationship. The funny thing, from my point of view in any case, was that they had not even entered my mind when I was writing about the kinds of dysfunctional relationships others have in their lives.

It reminded me of a friend who asked me out to lunch when the relationship I was referring to with, let's call him W, was in its death-throes. I said I would see what W was doing (as one of a couple almost annoyingly does when you invite them to do something), and she said that the invitation to lunch was not actually being extended to him ... but to me and only me. My friend was not interested in having lunch with my boyfriend and I. He, I assumed, was to be the topic of conversation.

And I was right. My friend, let's call her B, had decided to cross the invisible line in the sand we all negotiate in our relationships with our friends. What right do we have to express an opinion about how healthy or otherwise we believe our loved ones' relationships to be? How can we be sure we know what we're talking about? After all, the only two people who 'live' a relationship are the ones who spend the majority of time together in it. Aren't they?

So what are we do with the uneasy feelings and observations we have about the lives of others who are dear to us? B decided it was time to tell me how uneasy she felt about my relationship. She felt that it was changing me in a negative way and that I had become unhealthily obsessed with keeping the relationship going, even though it was apparently obvious to everyone but me that it was doomed. The lunch was awkward and I remember defending my relationship, not only to her but to myself as well. The lunch achieved several things - one of which was for me to return to our home and reinvest ... in some kind of wonderfully noble attempt to prove her wrong. She wasn't 'wrong', of course. She was actually articulating something that I feared myself ... and for that reason, it changed our friendship forever.


Some years later I took the same risk with a very, very dear friend. I had information about her partner that made me feel incredibly uneasy. Our 'dinner' turned into her terrible, tearful flight from me. Years later, the honesty of my perception of the flaw in her relationship and the increased toll the dilemma was to take on her life were both acknowledged. It certainly didn't make me feel any better about having been the harbinger of doom ... but it did make me realise that we occasionally rely on our friends to tell us when we're dancing with the potential for great sadness and disillusionment. We also risk a significantly more sinister betrayal: that moment when a friend asks "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" or "Why didn't anyone warn me?" ... or "say something".

One of my friends who had actually fucked my boyfriend (with his partner ... yes, two of them at the same time) took it upon himself to confess their indiscretion to me. I was, strangely, extremely grateful for his honesty. I remember the wall building itself around my heart as he spoke.

Trust is loaded. Perhaps I don't trust easily. Perhaps I don't trust at all. Not even myself.

But that is another story.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Evolutionarily speaking

How do we evolve? Not as a species ... but as individuals? ... and how do we measure the extent to which we have evolved? If, in fact, we have. Or ever do. The habits of our lives are fascinating paradigms - within and without which, we know and sometimes observe ourselves. Living. Or not living. Existing. Or subsisting.

I am preparing myself for a major change in the habit of my life. My collision with the concept of mortality was extremely interesting. Punishing, in fact. I bought myself a little spiral notepad to write down all the aspects of my life that I want to examine in more detail ... and possibly change. Or not. The important thing is that I am going to rigorously interrogate every aspect of my life and its value (or lack of value) to me.

The first topic, interestingly enough, is the lack of a relationship in my life. Love. Skin-tingling intimacy ... and a perpetual state of arousal. Days in bed fucking. Kissing. Touching. Wanting for nothing ... except maybe the possibility to disappear further into each other than is biologically possible.

I started with this topic because it is the one by which most people judge me most harshly. Apparently, because I am a single man, I am "lonely" ... "sad and lonely" ... "bitter" ... "fat, sad, lonely and bitter" ... "lacking in self-esteem" ... chronically. But other people's judgment of me is almost entirely lame conceit in the face of the extent to which I am capable of judging myself. And have been, mercilessly, for a number of years.

Now it is time to change a few things.


I had a boyfriend once. He lived in Elsternwick and I lived in Balaclava. We met at a gay men's sauna. We fucked all night. And exchanged telephone numbers. I remember the beginning of this relationship as though it were yesterday. He, or I, would call ... and then we would both leave our homes at the same time and meet on Hotham Street. We would practically race the final few hundred metres of this hallowed turf towards each other. When I could be sure it was him walking toward me, my heart would skip a beat. A smile so wide and so wondrous would form of its own free will on my lips. In the distance, his body would change shape. As would mine. He would start running ... so would I. My visions of our embrace, our intimacy and our sex would force tempo changes in my pace and direction like nothing else ever could. Or ever has. I would find myself opening my arms to him ... collecting him, embracing him ... sweeping him and all his wonderful huggable, kissable, edible and almost impossibly desirable energy into my arms. We would overflow with joy ... and at the time, I was strong enough to experience it. Trust it ... and believe in the honesty and fairness of it. We exchanged the energy of love and we were both much stronger for it. This feeling, more than anything, is the one I miss more than any other.

Of course we moved in together. Of course it was lovely ... as you would expect having as much of everything good about someone and something is lovely. Right? Complete. Yes?

Over the years we share a beautiful apartment on Brighton Road, go on holidays together and bury his older brother. We would also acknowledge the anniversary of the death of his younger brother who had died before I had come onto the scene. He would mourn and I would hold him. He would lash out at the empty space around him and I would manage to fill some of it ... when appropriate, and nurse him into a sobbing almost-stillness. And eventually peace and silence ... where the mutual lack of understanding about the depth and extent of his pain and my share of it succumbed to something of another world - altogether.


I have always believed that relationships end the way they begin ... in fact, I guarantee it. The one thing I have observed about the end of relationships is that where they begin (in my case, a gay men's sauna) is where they will end. And one thing is certain ... they will end. I lost my boyfriend in the mist ... somewhere near, I have always imagined, where I had found him. One night, some weeks after our hideously acrimonious separation, he fronted up to a local pub where my friends and I were drinking and dancing. He professed undying love and remorse for his actions (fucking any of our mutual friends had been the final rule I had dared to make ... which he had, of course, broken). He was forcefully escorted out of the bar and on to the street (by a couple of my friends and the security staff) and warned to stay away from me. He did. And always has - ever since.


Coming back to Melbourne has, in the way similar to that of a sudden breeze flipping the pages of your newspaper over as you read it, ensured that certain chapters of my development ... my evolution ... have been held up for cheery reminiscence. I have scooted past our old apartment building on a couple of occasions in taxis, cars and on trams. I, like I am sure most of us do, select the happy memories to consider first. Our balcony garden and our huge, real Christmas Tree. Our holidays to Broken Hill, Rutherglen and Millawa. The Alpaca Farm.

But ultimately it is the pain of betrayal and loss which slowly rises to the surface ... and it is my conscious and worthwhile choice to never offer so much of my self, my time, my energy, support and love to any one ever again. Except possibly myself. I know people who are bound in loveless knots masquerading as relationships. I see compromised potential and sense discomfort that makes my heart sad and my head spin with boredom generated by the relentless saga of their sadness and frustration. I see rules being made and broken ... and I see expectations fallen short of - well short of. I hear tension and sadness in their voices and their life rhythms are corrupted by futile attempts to accept what others of us refuse to even acknowledge - the consolation prize. I watch dark clouds, not of their making or intention, hover over too much laughter and delight. I watch them defending themselves from their fears of lonliness by barricading themselves behind a wall of toilet-paper feebleness - built of false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Lies, fantasies and delusions.

Aloneness ... and the incomparable joy of individual freedom is the thing I value more than anything in the world. I always have. And I always will. I have known love ... and it was life-changing. So is compromise, but for entirely different reasons. I, for one, would prefer to live without one than to have to suffer the other.

There is, after all, a world of difference between being lonely and being alone.

Image The evolution of man