Dior and I (Documentary)

dior-489501_1920

Like most things I seem to read or watch these days, the documentary Dior and I (2015) had come in and out of my focus over the last few years. A Saturday night with the tv to myself seemed like a good opportunity to finally view it. Written and directed by Frédéric Tcheng, the doco is centred on the designer fashion label Christian Dior.  The famous fashion house is preparing for it’s first haute couture collection under the direction of Belgian designer Raf Simons. It covers the six weeks from the day Simons begins to the day of the runway showcase.

The best documentaries not only educate about the things you previously knew nothing about, but they also offer great insight on their subject. My understanding and appreciation of high fashion before watching this documentary could best be described as limited, and I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it. But I found it fascinating! A little bit like other fashion documentaries I’ve watched in recent years, for example, The First Monday In May (2016) about preparations for the MET Costume Gala in New York, and The September Issue (2009) about the development of Vogue’s most important issue of the year (both excellent and well worth viewing),  this left we with a deep appreciation for the complexities and genius involved in the creative process.

The documentary begins with slow motion archival footage of Christian Dior himself, accompanied by a voice over reading from his diaries about his reflections on his first haute couture collection for his own fashion house. He speaks to the enormous pressure he is under and his anxieties resulting from this, dwelling on the way in which the process leaves him feeling like the weight of the responsibility in splitting him in two halves and he has to work his way back to a whole, rather than remain his fragmented self. At one stage during the documentary Simons comments that he has been reading Dior’s early writings, but had to put it down because it was becoming “too weird”. We soon see why, as Simons’ own journey reflects that of Dior’s, who becomes a ghostly presence, both figuratively (to Simons at least) and literally (to some of the dress-makers, who comment on the building being haunted) throughout the entire film.

In some ways, Simons’ job is equally as hard as Dior’s. He has to create designs that stay true to Dior’s brand and style, but somehow make them original and unique. He has to be an absolute expert in pastiche and appropriation. Simons is an interesting man – calm, confident, extremely focused, but not overly conceited. He is likeable and generous to those around him, giving huge credit to the dress-makers and those who work behind the scenes to make his creations come to life. Yet, he’s also driven and to him the work must come above everything else. His battle with his bosses at Dior over this exact point convey his honest artistry. He revisits past collections and fabrics to come up with the ideas for his collection, but it is the dress makers who have to take these ideas from sketches and turn them into clothes. There is nothing more absorbing than seeing professionals at the top of their game working their magic and the dress makers are extraordinarily talented people who have skills well beyond simply sewing or hemming. I loved the way director Tcheng spent time with them – revealing them to be such ordinary people with such extraordinary abilities, who have such a monumental task. So too those in charge of bringing Simons’ fabrics to life. At one stage he visits a modern art gallery, choosing a new modern artist’s work as the basis for a fabric which will be at the heart of his collection. In order to create their graffiti-like colours and patterns, the fabric makers are forced to think outside the box and revisit fabric making techniques that haven;t been employed for decades. They mention how difficult and challenging it will be, and Simons only compels them to rise to the occasion. He will accept nothing less than the best to make his vision a reality. Under Tcheng’s careful hand, the tension slowly but gently builds over the course of the six weeks until the climax of the showcase, when the pressure and enormity of the creative endeavour finally hit Simons hard. It is in this moment of vulnerability we can see how powerful creativity can be.

This type of documentary isn’t going to change the world, and in hindsight, the level of importance placed on this world is a bit absurd. When one of the dress-makers is unable to be at the first viewing because she has to travel to New York for a fitting, it’s revealed that the fitting is for a single dress that was commissioned for 350, 000 euro. The catwalk show is a cameo line up of Hollywood and fashion elites, and one imagines that the amount of money spent on the building hire and flowers for the setting of the show is probably worth as much as the collection itself. This world is occupied by the most wealthy and privileged people in history. It doesn’t raise awareness of the big and important issues, and in many ways it is contrived and indulgent. That said, sometimes it is so nice to see the creation of a beautiful piece of work and understand just how much has gone into it.

Advertisements

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ (TV Special)

Every now and again something comes to my attention that I find difficult to ignore. I’d seen so much written about Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s 2017 stand-up comedy show ‘Nanette’ that when I realised Netflix had picked it up as a special, after it was filmed at the Sydney Opera House last year, I had to check it out for myself as soon as it was released last week. The show won the Barry Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the best comedy show at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.

Gadsby’s staging is familiar for a comedy show – a stool, a mic on a stand and a glass of water. So too is the beginning of her stand-up routine. She begins her 100 minute set in the usual way – self deprecating humour about her lesbianism, her butch appearance, growing up in Tasmania and her family’s reactions about her coming out. She effectively lulls us into a false sense of security – just another funny stand-up show, right? Wrong. This is a narrative about one woman’s identity in a world that continues to work against her.

The routine begins to turn when she starts to explain the dynamics of comedy – the way jokes work and how the relationship functions between the comedian and the audience. Jokes involve a set-up and a punch-line, a tension and a release. Gadsby reveals that she is quitting comedy, because she can no longer allow herself to be the punch line, and she’s tired of releasing the audience and letting us off the hook. She then follows a routine which involves increasing and longer periods of set-up and tension, still allowing for a punch line and the release of tension, until she can allow it no longer.

The piece evolves into a moving account of how for a person who was born different, made to feel ashamed of who she was by her family and the wider community, and over time has only received increasing abuse and persecution, that self-deprecation only continues that sense of shame and humiliation, and enforces to others that it’s ok to partake in that shame and humiliation. She explains the jokes she used earlier in the show, unlike a narrative, only involve the beginning and the middle – that the end is often left out for comedic effect. However, as Gadsby reveals the ending she left out of one particular joke she told earlier, the light of comedy is replaced by a shocking darkness. I remember doing a unit on comedy when I was at uni studying for my Masters in Literature, and one of the tenants of that course seemed to be that true comedy, and particularly satire, should be limitless and put everything on the table. Gadsby takes that idea by the horns and throws it out of the building. She proves that comedy can be incredibly damaging, and sometimes give permission to things that are not permissible. Gadsby also demonstrates her excellent understanding of art history (she has a degree in it) in furthering her points and ideas, particularly about how misogyny and mental illness are used in similar ways and given excuse in all sorts of art.

The performance is incredibly meta – it references itself continuously and Gadsby reflects on herself as a subject. It is incredibly clever, brilliant work. Less traditional comedy, than a lesson in how comedy works and functions. It also gives great voice to the marginalised and under represented. It is an angry, poignant, passionate, well argued, brave, fierce monologue about one woman’s destruction and rebuilding in a hostile world.

I had no idea what to expect when I started watching this. My husband and I were both blown away by it and found it incredibly confronting in so many ways. I laughed hysterically and I sobbed uncontrollably. I’m so pleased that Netflix is playing this show worldwide and that it is currently having a sold out run at a comedy theatre in Soho, New York. It is such a brilliant piece of work. It is so incredibly powerful. It is a show I would recommend to everyone as I think it genuinely has the possibility of opening up people’s eyes to what is right in front of them.

 

Saint Joan (Theatre)

With our son happily ensconced with his beloved baby sitter, hubby and I ducked into the city for a quick, but tasty meal at Ventuno before going to see Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Saint Joan. The play was written by George Bernard Shaw in 1923, only a few years after Joan of Arc was canonised by the Catholic Church. It is largely based on what is known of her life due to the substantial records that exist of her trial.

The stage is bare throughout, except for thick, black, circular curtains that adorn the space, visually setting the area for Joan’s life, trial and execution. As the play opens, it is 1431 and Joan stands as a silent figure in the centre of the stage, adorned in her armour, while men of the cloth and the law discuss her predicament around her. They are perplexed by her in so many ways and cannot decide her motivations nor, therefore, her fate. In amongst the loud voices of these men, Joan is given the space to tell her story, communicated effectively through flashback. As a young, poor farm girl, Joan hears voices in her head from Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine and the archangel Michael telling her it is her destiny to drive the British out of France. From here we learn of her incredible belief and tenacity as she frees her people, but becomes imprisoned herself. She also fights valiantly to keep her inquisitors and executioners at bay, but ultimately succumbs.

The performances are strong, with the men being played by a handful of STC regulars, with John Gaden (as the main inquisitor) a stand out. Sarah Snook in the title role though is excellent – conveying Joan’s vulnerability and naivety, but fierce strength and determination. She creates a Joan who is absolutely fascinating – was she a true visionary? A religious fanatic? Or seriously mentally ill? Her unwavering belief in her fate and the voices that guide her are breath taking, particularly during the scenes in which she casts her miracles. The fast, but deliberate pacing of the production adds to this, with the sound scape adding great tension at all the right moments, as with the use of silence, so beautifully utilised in conjunction with slow motion movements from the cast in the climactic scene.

This production of the play has been reworked from Shaw’s original, quite significantly from what I have read. Scenes have been cut or spliced and diced together. What was originally a three hour show has been truncated to about 95 minutes. Shaw’s original play includes a famous preface and epilogue that have both been wiped, maybe controversially, but perhaps also necessarily. In his preface Shaw apparently stated that there were “no villains” in this story, and claimed that those who condemned Joan were acting in good faith and with the best of intentions. But history is awash with people who made atrocious decisions apparently in good faith, and here is where I felt director Imara Savage really pushes the play into the twenty first century. The discussions of the religious men speak so well to the failings and unaccountability of the Catholic Church in the current climate. When the men of the cloth discuss the power and hierarchy of the Church being more important than anything else, it echoes so much of the testimony we’ve seen from members of the clergy in the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse in Australia. Similarly, the fact that the men are held accountable for their actions by giving so much space, voice and final words to Joan (apparently not as prevalent as in the original text) reflects nicely on the themes of the #MeToo movement. In an increasingly secular society, it’s also a nice examination of the complexity of faith, both for the faithful and faithless.

The final scene – Joan’s burning – is bursting with visual and verbal metaphor which give an incredibly powerful and affecting finale. I doubt I’ll see a better piece of theatre this year.

In the Midst of Winter (Novel)

What better novel to start reading at the beginning of winter than one with “winter” in the title? My mum gave me In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende (2017) for Christmas, which I was quite pleased about. I know mum is a fan of Isabel Allende and I’ve always had her on my radar to read, but have never gotten around to it. This gave me the perfect excuse.

In the Midst of Winter revolves around three characters who are thrown together during one of New York’s worst snow storms. Richard is a reclusive university professor who lives on his own in a beautiful Brownstone in Brooklyn. During the snow storm he has a minor car accident in which he bumps into the back of a car driven by a young Guatemalan woman, Evelyn. Initially reluctant to take his details, she arrives unannounced on is doorstep sometime later with a major dilemma. Richard contacts his neighbour, a Chilean academic, Lucia, to try to help him navigate the difficult situation. What ensues is part road trip, part flashback as we witness the group try to find a solution to their predicament and simultaneously shed their skins and tell one another their life stories.

The premise of the novel is really interesting and I was hooked pretty quickly. However, I soon found myself completely torn between loving and disliking this in equal measure. On the one hand, Allende has a fantastic ability to tell a story, and she does lots of telling, rather than showing, which is usually poor practice in writing, but she pulls it off with aplomb. She tells the back stories of the three characters so convincingly, you would swear they were sitting opposite you explaining it themselves. Her style is very engaging – it’s romantic and tender, but also fierce and gripping. The themes she tackles could not be more relevant and were not lost on me in the same week that Trump launched his policy of family separation at the Mexican boarder. Each of Allende’s protagonists have a history in South America and their personal stories of life there are so incredibly compelling. The political turmoil, gang violence, murder and poverty are given a human face through the characters and this explains the dire circumstances that cause so many to flee to safer space. Even with the current political and socio-economic climate in the United States, it’s made clear that so many migrants really are running for their lives in so many ways, and the States really are their only option. Allende demands understanding, empathy and compassion from her reader and her writing acts as an antidote to the hard line policy so many governments (including Australia’s) take towards refugees. She slaps us in the face with the devastation of these people’s broken lives and why they risk everything to do what they do, in turn making us feel even more ashamed of our response.

What lets the book down is the present day road trip the three take. What should be edge-of-your-seat drama became somewhat silly to me and the decisions made did not reflect the characters we’d come to know in journeying through their backstories. The romance that blossoms between Richard and Lucia seemed to come out of nowhere and came across as very sappy, and quite frankly unnecessary. Offering the potential of romance for Richard and Lucia would have been more satisfying. Similarly, the ends are all neatly tied in a bow for Evelyn, which doesn’t reflect the gritty realism of her young life, so well shaped by Allende. Instead, Allende seems intent on giving her characters a happy ending, and while they do deserve it, it doesn’t reflect the serious nature of the book. As the novel is told in contrasting chapters involving the three in present day, then the snippets of flashbacks, I found myself bored with the present day and longing to be back in the past.

This was still an enjoyable book and a great story, but could have been so much better!

Hereditary (Film)

village-3187070_1920

A cold, rainy, melancholy winter’s day – what better way to spend it then seeing a creepy horror movie with your besties? The four of us decided that, based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews and feedback about how scary this film was, it was best to opt for a day time session. I’m glad we did.

Hereditary (2018), directed by Ar Aster, is a terrifying portrait of a family in crisis. The film opens on a house, then the workshop within it, showcasing miniature rooms and houses. The camera slowly pans across the room with a dark, dreadful score highlighting the darkness and evil lurking within, before zooming into one of the rooms to reveal a teenage boy being woken by his father and told to get up and get dressed. The boy is Peter, son of Annie, whose mother has just died. The family go to the funeral and we get the sense from all of them that Annie’s mother was not particularly well loved and will not be missed. Annie herself gives a scathing assessment of her mother at the funeral, while her daughter Charlie draws, eats chocolate and seems perplexed by the whole thing. Peter admits later that he isn’t really saddened by his grandmother’s passing, and father Steve just continues about his day, supporting Annie as best he can.

There is so much more to this film, complication after complication, until it builds to it’s truly powerful, shocking and terrifying climax. What we are handed at the beginning of the film are a group of people who are obviously hurting and disconnected, but not because of the matriarch’s death. There are fractures below the surface and within the past that are slowly and delicately revealed, helped along by a second family tragedy that occurs fairly early on in the film. The opening sequence also hints at the fact that this is not a film about a haunted house, but about a haunted family and the inevitability of their plight. The undeniable power of secrets and family history is highlighted, as well as the vulnerabilities this creates. I enjoyed the homage this film seemed to pay to the 1970s horror movies and a move away from the straight supernatural to satanic ritual and the occult. The use of pace was effectively executed, with that unsettling feeling arriving almost immediately at the opening and gradually intensifying as the film continues. The set design is excellent and the visual metaphor of the tiny rooms and houses communicate an outside control over the family that we can barely begin to comprehend. The naturalistic lighting helps to keep us as uncertain as Peter and Charlie about what is real and what is a trick of the light, and the film’s final sequence uses the kind of light that should be comforting (wood burn fire, candles) to simply heighten our unease and despair. All the performances are great, including the two young actors, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), but it’s Toni Collette as Annie who absolutely steals the show. Like her performance in The Sixth Sense, she is a master at portraying mothers who are desperately trying to save their children from things they don’t understand. She is ferocious, empathetic and terrifying in equal doses.

Most horror movies of late have tended to be big on scares and the supernatural and light on actual plot. Often times an interesting premise will fall flat by the end because of the execution of the story, which becomes quite ridiculous. Hereditary is almost the opposite of this. Whilst it gives a continual sense of dread and unease, the plot takes precedence, which actually adds to the harrowing conclusion. We gasped and screamed out loud in some sections, and practically had a firm hold of each other’s hands for most of the film. From horror film lovers from way back, this was a fab way to spend a rainy day, or any sort of day for that matter.

Crime Fiction (Novels)

Work has been incredibly busy in the past few weeks with a tonne of marking, report writing and attendance at a 3 day conference in Melbourne. On top of this, trying to keep the family and household running at the same time hasn’t left me with a lot of time to dedicate to reading. I find, during these times, I tend to reach for things that are easy, accessible and fast paced. I don’t have a lot of brain power to waste so I don’t want to have to work too hard, but I also want something that is good enough to get lost in and take me away from thinking about all the things I have to do. So I went for a couple of new novels from two of my favourite Australian crime fiction writers.

I’ve loved Michael Robotham’s novels since I read Shatter (2008). Robotham’s crime fiction is smart, thrilling and focuses more on the psychological nature of crime and criminals. His recurring protagonist is a criminal psychologist called Joe O’Laughlin who is intelligent, measured and flawed. His marriage is in tatters and he has early onset Parkinson’s disease. I get the feeling that Robotham is slowly trying to write O’Laughlin out of his stories – it’s hard to sustain a character who is gradually losing his faculties. So, this novel, The Secrets She Keeps (2017), is a departure from O’Laughlin and a stand alone story focusing on two women, but interestingly introduces another criminal psychologist character in a minor role, whom I’m assuming will eventually fill the shoes of O’Laughlin when he’s written out. The novel is told alternatively through the voices of these two women – both are pregnant and both are harbouring life altering secrets that are about to have devastating consequences for each of them. It’s really hard to discuss the plot without giving too much away. I thought Robotham captured the voices of the two women quite well and it’s a good page turner, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I have many of his other books. I found the beginning slow, and I guessed one of the significant plot twists, but I was hooked by the second half and sped my way to the conclusion. One of the female protagonists was a little too bland and saccharine for me too. At times she came across as a little more caricature than I’m sure was intended. This meant there were occasions when I honestly felt like skipping her chapters, but couldn’t for fear of missing the revelation of an important plot point.

The story does attempt to tackle a lot of concerns around women that haven’t traditionally been found in crime fiction though. It examines women as victim and perpetrator, but not of the usual crimes. I liked the way in which Robotham interrogates the role of women in today’s society through this novel – the expectations, the pressures, the joys, the heartaches, the relationships and everything in between. For these reasons it slots perfectly into the new sub-genre of crime writing – domestic noir. He does this quite well. But it speaks about more than this too – it’s about family, envy and the debilitating poison of secrets. I like that it tried to bring to light the fact that some people who commit terrible crimes are in fact victims of crime themselves. He effectively asks the reader to empathise with the criminal, even more so than the victim, and despite my better judgement, while not condoning the actions, part of me understood and sympathised with them completely.

After Rowbotham, I found myself delving into Jane Harper’s latest offering, Force of Nature (2017). I liked Harper’s debut, her critically acclaimed novel The Dry (2016), although I found some of the hype surrounding that novel ruined it for me a little. Force of Nature was a much more satisfying experience, as I came to it without expectation. In this novel, two groups of corporate colleagues go on a team building exercise over a weekend, hiking through dense Victorian National Park. The men’s team come out ahead of time, unscathed, but the women’s team take hours longer. When they do emerge, they are injured and one is missing. It’s obvious something has gone terribly wrong. Like Robotham, Harper bring back her central protagonist from The Dry, detective Aaron Falk, to investigate. Falk is actually a part of the financial investigation unit, and it’s revealed that the missing woman was about to deliver Falk and his partner secret documents from the corporation to prove their involvement in all sorts of shady dealings.

In The Dry, Harper used the barren, arid tinder box of a rural drought affected community to comment on the potential firestorm that exists in people under pressure with great effect. Here too she utilises the Australian wilderness to reflect on illusion versus reality. The story is told in alternating chapters, from the perspective of the women as they trek through the weekend’s catastrophes, and then Falk and his partner conducting the investigation. The bush, at once beautiful, peaceful and sublime, gradually reveals itself to be insurmountable and dangerous, wild and unpredictable, just like the women themselves. As the conflict between the women escalates, so too does the inclement weather, provoking all of nature to reveal it’s real ferocity. Like with The Secrets She Keeps, I found this novel a little slow paced until about a third of the way through when the hooks came thick and fast at the end of every chapter. There are plenty of interesting red herrings along the way and I found the final revelation quite unpredictable. But in the same way that there are problems with the two female characters in Robotham’s novel, the same issue lies here with Falk himself. He’s a good guy, with an added layer of complexity through his difficult past and relationship with his father, but ultimately he’s a tad beige. This didn’t matter so much in The Dry because he was playing someone who ultimately was trying to hide – from those around him as well as himself. The fact that most of what caused this was resolved in the previous novel meant that surely Harper could have begun to give him a bit more colour and life. Maybe in the next novel..?

Despite the difficulties with characterisation, I still thoroughly enjoyed these two books. They offered what I needed at the time, but also, like good crime fiction should, an insight into the human condition, even if it is the darkest parts.

Breath (Film)

wave-1246560_1920

Drowning in marking and with a stack of reports to write, I decided that procrastinating and going to the movies was a much better use of my time. I’m a big fan of Australian author Tim Winton and adored his 2008 novel Breath, so was keen to see how they had adapted it to the big screen.

The film, set in the mid 1970s, centres around two teenage boys, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), in a coming of age story which concerns itself with the seduction of risk. The boys direct their thirst for thrill towards the coast and become fixated on the lure of the ocean. When they meet Sando (Simon Baker), an older, carefree former surfing champion his world of surfing opens up to them, as well as the world of adult relationships.

In his directorial debut, Australian Baker does a fine job. Narrated by Winton himself, who plays an older Pikelet, reminiscing about his youth, we are reminded of the way in which adolescence can sometimes seem like another planet when reflecting from the vantage point of adulthood. There is little sense of looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses, but instead as a confusing complexity of difficult relationships and experiences that combine to create one continual learning curve. Ever distant from their own fathers, who struggle to connect with them, in Sando the boys find a father figure who is willing to teach them about life through their experiences in the ocean – that thinking things through is important; that fear is an unavoidable part of experience; and that myth making and wonder are what the ocean commands. The film manages to convey what was so beautiful about Winton’s novel in capturing the ocean as another character. The cinematography helps this along with such gorgeous visuals of the ocean in all it’s moods, constantly and simultaneously uplifting and threatening. The stunning WA coast is presented to showcase nature in all it’s glory, which makes some of the coastal scenes almost feel like documentary. The performances are all strong, but Elizabeth Debicki is excellent as Sando’s fierce, yet damaged and sorrowful wife. Her character mirrors the mystery and myth of the ocean the boys find themselves so drawn towards.

The narrative arc of the film is gentle and there are no real high points of action, so I think if you are less patient with your films, this one may frustrate you. For me it perfectly captured the beauty of the novel and Winton’s unwavering dedication to examining both the path to and experience of manhood.