Monday, July 25, 2005

MIFF to date

Due to a comination of a nasty cold that I don't seem to be able to shake, and the general malaise of post-work procrastination (ever since I finished up at Express Media at the end of June, I don't seem to be able to get anything done: a result, I suspect, of going from an over-worked and over-regimented lifestyle to one with almost no demands on my time at all. The last few weeks I've been finding it difficult to do even simple things, let alone meet deadlines and schedule my day productively...) I've missed several of the film's at the Melbourne International Film Festival that I'd intended to see to date.

This isn't entirely a bad thing, mind you. As I splashed out and bought a festival passport (entitling me to see everything bar opening and closing night) I booked a ridiculous number of films, sometimes as many as five or six sessions in one day. I've actually seen only one-three films a day. So, by today (day six of the festival) I've only seen seven films. By most people's standards of course, seven films in six days is rather a lot...

I've also seen David Page's superb, hilarious, and moving Page 8 at The Malthouse, and urge you all to go and see it. It's deft, brilliant, and simply stunning.

I have two equally-placed MIFF highlights to date.

The first is the South African film Forgiveness (dir. Ian Gabriel, 2004, 112 minutes), a complex debut feature that examines the aftermath of South Africa's Truth and Reconcilation Commission. An ex-policeman visits the family of a young man who he killed, provoking anger and grief, and a lust for vengeance. A deeply moving, meditative, and cathartic film whose sun-bleached imagery balances out its emotional punch.

Equally good, equally important, although an uncomfortable viewing experience, is the remarkable, beautiful and harrowing feature film Mysterious Skin by American director Gregg Araki. Based on the novel by Scott Heim, this novel unflinchingly explores the emotional damage caused by childhood sexual abuse. Its protagonists are two teenage boys, the emotionally-crippled Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believes that what happened between him and his baseball coach when he was an eight year old boy was the only loving relationship he has ever known; and the awkward, isolated Brian (Brady Corbet), who thinks that the reason he cannot recall a particular stretch of time when he was a child, and the nightmares he now suffers, are because he was abducted by aliens. Only by helping each other confront the past can these boys begin to find healing. Despite its difficult subject matter this is a poetic and dreamlike film. It is also deeply disturbing, and remarkably powerful, and Araki's best best work to date. That conservatives are trying to have it banned is repellent.

I'll list my MIFF disappointments to date in my next post; right now I have to go write a letter to the OFLC and the Attorney General...

Friday, July 22, 2005


Former child star David Page speaks with Richard Watts about families, theatre and gay tradesmen.

By the age of 13, ‘little Davey Page’ had already recorded two top 10 chart hits and appeared on Countdown. It seemed as if the young Aboriginal boy from Brisbane was destined to be Australia’s answer to the Jackson Five, until his voice broke, ending his showbiz career. Perhaps surprisingly, Page is not at all bitter today about his brief 70’s career as a child star.

"I didn’t find the transition difficult, because I pushed all that stuff out my memory," he laughs. "I forgot about it. Okay, I found it difficult trying to work out what I wanted to do next, but the child star thing made me realise that I love music, and I had to do it. I had to perform."

Today Page is a well-respected composer for theatre and television and as an actor has appeared in productions including Reg Livermore’s Big Sister and the film Oscar and Lucinda, directed by Gillian Armstrong. He is currently starring in the autobiographical one-man show Page 8 at the Malthouse Theatre, which he co-wrote with playwright Louis Nowra.

Page jokes that as he and his co-writer were developing the script for Page 8, he worried that Nowra was spying on him.

"Louis was clever enough to trigger me into talking about different subjects and different times of my life, but after a couple of months, you know, I said to him, I’m not just talking about myself here. This show is about my family, and I don’t want to hang out too much dirty laundry. Then I made sure that there was a confidentiality clause in the contract."

The show explores David’s colourful, sometimes turbulent life from child star to the present day. Family videos that helped trigger his childhood memories during the four months it took to write the script are inter-woven with monologues, songs, and even a floorshow, as well as some truly terrible 70’s fashions. David’s younger brother Stephen, the Artistic Director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival, directs the production.

"He’s a bossy little bitch," Page says of Stephen, grinning. "We have these little fights and he’s like, ‘Well you direct it’, but at the end of the day, we know what we both have to do. He’s blood, what can you say? He allows me freedom, he trusts my creative energy, and likewise with him. If we do have fights the grudge will probably last for 10 minutes, because we’ve had all that life practise of making up."

Throughout Page 8, Page presents not only his own stories, but also those of his extended family. While there is considerable humour on display, there is also tragedy, including his Auntie Tess and Uncle George’s slow descent into dementia. David describes the show as an emotional roller-coaster ride. "People like to be touched by all of those emotions," he says, "and I think that as a performer you have a license to take them there."

He also takes his audience through his life as a gay man, which included a stint working as a concreter during his late teens. "I was brought up in that suburban, straight, working class life, and you’d go to the pub and have a drink with the boys, and the drunker they got the more honest they were getting. They would never talk to the guy that they’d been friends with from school like this, but they were telling me all their inner secrets, these married men with kids. You almost feel sorry for them, but then they get drunk and they want to fuck you," Page laughs conspiratorially. "It’s really tongue in cheek, that part of the show. I was a bit of a slut when I was 18."

Page 8 at the Malthouse Theatre, Southbank until 14 August. Bookings on 9685 5111.


'Horatio, stay young.' (c) Lyndal Walker 2005

Richard Watts speaks to artist Lyndal Walker about portraiture, masculinity and half-naked boys.

While working for a London photographic agency for a year, Lyndal Walker says she was struck by how disposable and commodified youth and beauty have become. "These 17-18 year old boys would come in, and we’d see four or five of them a day because guys have to work harder than girls to get work. The casting agent would look them up and down, then look at their folio, and within a couple of minutes they’d be sent back on the tube, see you later. These are our most beautiful young men, and this is how we value them!"

Walker’s personal revelations about the disposable nature of male beauty, coupled with a lifelong interest in transience, which has become one of the central themes in her work, have informed her latest exhibition. Stay Young, which opened on Thursday at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, comprises a series of photographs displaying young men clad only in their underwear.

The models, who Walker joking describes as "sulky art boys," appear at first glance to be confidant, sometimes even arrogant despite their lack of dress, although on closer examination the photographs reveals subtle signs of nervousness and vulnerability.

"I’ve been noticing their hands in a lot of the portraits," she explains. "There’s this tension in their hands or their ankles, although what’s most revealing is that they’re in their bedrooms, and you can see all their personal stuff. That’s the most exposing thing about this series. It’s not really about what they’re wearing or not wearing."

The models weren’t the only people nervous about posing, with Walker having to overcome her own qualms about photographing half-naked young men prior to the initial shoots. Indeed for many years Walker has struggled with the idea of portraits altogether.

"I was always about still life and interiors. I felt very uncomfortable about portraiture, although that really was just a confidence thing that has changed subsequently," she says, while admitting that she still finds it daunting asking people to pose for her. "It really is this weird thing to do, to ring people up and go ‘Ah, you don’t know me, but…’

Once she began shooting Stay Young, Walker says that the relationship between herself and her models became one of the most rewarding parts of the project.

"The whole experience of taking photos of someone in their undies became a really interesting thing. After the whole history of the representation of women I didn’t want these portraits to be in any way nasty or playing with power. That strange relationship between artist and model, it is a weird power relationship. I didn’t want there to be anything exploitative or sadistic in this series."

She says the experience also made her reconsider the work of other photographers she admires. "In looking at photographs that are by men of women, particularly of nude or semi-nude women, I’ve always had this sense that they’ve had sex. It wasn’t conscious but I kind of assumed an intimacy between them. That’s something that’s been really interesting for me in taking these photographs, because it’s not been an erotic experience at all."

The images comprising the series have the snapshot aesthetic of amateur porn, a look that Walker says she was deliberately aspiring for, given that the snapshot evokes an immediate sense of intimacy. "If it looks like a snapshot it’s too close to home, quite literally, and we have to engage with it at a more personal level," the artist clarifies. "Are these snapshots? What’s going on? How do I feel about looking at semi-nude boys, and is that different to looking at semi-nude girls? With these works I definitely want to raise all those questions."

Stay Young at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George Street Fitzroy, from 22 July – 3 September.

T: 03 9417 1549E INFO@CCP.ORG.AU
Opening Hours: Wednesday - Saturday 11am - 6pm

Monday, July 11, 2005


Richard Watts speaks with performer Marina Prior about the musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate.

Kiss Me, Kate is one of the classics of musical theatre. First staged in 1948, it employs the timeless device of a play-within-a-play – a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – to explore the tempestuous relationship between a theatre director and his estranged actress wife. Melbourne has not seen a professional production of Kiss Me, Kate since 1952. A recent revival, already acclaimed in the West End and Broadway, and starring Marina Prior opens in two weeks at the Arts Centre.

"I think both The Taming of the Shrew and Kiss Me, Kate are essentially love stories about two flawed people who are meant to be with each other, but are having trouble connecting," says Prior, when asked if this classic period piece is still relevant for modern audiences. "Two people who are meant to be together and who are frustrating the hell out of the audience because they’re not. That’s not a story that dates."

Ironically, two of the three authors of Kiss Me, Kate, veteran comedy writers Sam and Bella Spewack, were estranged at the time they started working on the script, and stayed together thereafter. The third writer was the composer Cole Porter, who had not had a hit in 10 years prior to working on Kiss Me, Kate.

Porter was both married and gay, and Marina Prior believes it was this conflict between how he lived and who he loved that imbued the musical with such passion.

"I think his own circumstances had to inform his creative output, absolutely," she explains. "Certainly Cole Porter captured unrequited yearning beautifully in ‘So In Love.’ That is a magnificent, dramatic song."

Prior is no stranger to drama herself, having starred opposite the late Richard Harris in the musical Camelot at a young age. "I was 20 years old and he was about 60, and he was…temperamental," she says carefully. "He prided himself on being difficult. I was this quivering little girl who’d been in the industry for 18 months and I guess he was a bully, but that was actually a fantastic thing for me in the end, because that pushed me to my limit. I discovered a strength that I didn’t know I had and it taught me so much. I will never be intimidated by anyone again. Never."

Prior went on to star in the classics of musical theatre both old and new, including Phantom of the Opera, Annie Get Your Gun, Les Miserables, and The Merry Widow. She says that performing is in her DNA.

"Singing is such an essential expression of who I am. When I’m performing I feel that I’m doing what I was born to do. The discipline that’s required, and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now – I started when I was four, of course," she jokes: "the discipline required to keep focussed and positive in this industry, that’s something that you have to work at."

Judging by her passion and her discipline, Marina Prior will be gracing Australia’s stages for many years to come.

Kiss Me, Kate opens at the State Theatre, The Arts Centre on Wed 20th July. Bookings through Ticketmaster7.


Richard Watts speaks with lesbian playwright Alana Valentine about euthanasia, spirituality, and her play Savage Grace.

"Some of the most intellectually engaged and religiously opinionated people I know are gays and lesbians, because we’re huge consumers of cultural product and we’re often the target of religious lies," Alana Valentine explains, when asked why she chose to make the two characters in her play Savage Grace gay men. "I felt that the kind of plays which we’re served up in festivals usually draw an audience through a bit of beefcake or cheesecake, but honestly, I think that a lot of gay and lesbian people are incredibly keen to engage with much bigger ideas. Besides, I live in Sydney, what don’t I know about gay men?" she adds, laughing.

Valentine has worked as a dramatist for 20 years, and was a founding member, together with playwrights Campion Descent and Alex Harding, of the Gay and Lesbian Arts Alliance. Her critically acclaimed play Run Rabbit Run tackled the grassroots rebellion against the Rupert Murdoch-controlled National Rugby League, while Savage Grace, which opened at Carlton’s La Mama Theatre on Wednesday night, tackles three topics guaranteed to inflame even the most sedate of dinner parties: sex, death and religion.

The play pairs up an unlikely couple: Robert, a religious ethicist, and Tex, a defiantly non-religious doctor who works with patients dying from AIDS-related illnesses; and explores their emotional and romantic struggles as they argue and challenge one another’s opposing moral and philosophical positions.
"The thing for me about this play is that you can never write a play about a subject, you have to write a play about people," Valentine stresses. "What happens with issues about euthanasia or religion is that they’re always discussed rationally, academically, and I really feel that what theatre can do is bring back a notion of love and faith into these arguments."

She says that Savage Grace is focused on the way the characters relate after they have had sex, rather than upon their physical relationship.

"The thing about the sex scene in this play, well in this case the post-sex scene, is that because these men have been intellectually combative the whole way through, we as an audience need to see a change in the way they deal with one another after they sleep together. They become really intimate and really vulnerable, because they put aside the cloak of words. The way in which they get together, and then the post-coital scene, reveals what they now think of each other and their relationship. What is interesting in this play, I think, is that the characters say quite unexpected things; the one you think will still be more sexually uptight is not, so again you have to do what you have to do in all theatre, which is surprise the audience, and have the characters surprise themselves."

Savage Grace is showing at La Mama Theatre, Carlton until 5th June. Bookings on or (03) 9347 6142.

Figuratively Speaking

Richard Watts talks with visual artist McLean Edwards about painting, prizes and childhood influences.

In the world of contemporary Australian art, where the conceptual and the abstract have elbowed the figurative and the representational out of the spotlight, Sydney’s McLean Edwards is proud to be considered unpopular.

"It seems to me that there’s a lot of personal investigation by artists of whatever the flavour of the month is. You don’t want to be caught up in a fashion, do you? It’s so didactic and arbitrary and utterly unengaging," Edwards says. "I find a lot of conceptually based work leaves me cold, but then I find a lot of figurative work is shit too," he adds, laughing.

The 33 year-old artist has his first solo Melbourne exhibition opening next week. The Revenge of Maggie Dubrovnik will comprise eight new paintings depicting young cricketers, a theme that is regularly repeated in Edwards’ work.

"I wouldn’t regard it as an obsession," he chuckles. "It’s a purely aesthetic thing. I just like the way cricket looks. Subjectively of course there are questions of identity in there as well. It gives my work a psychological hook, something that people can readily identify with."

Throughout our conversation (which is at one point interrupted when McLean’s cat stands on his telephone keypad: "She’s not called Trouble for nothing," the artist apologises afterwards once he is back on the line.) the Darwin-born painter is quick to defuse potentially explosive comments with a quick quip or a wry afterword. This sense of humour also informs his colourful, cartoon-like works, which are often described as offbeat and idiosyncratic.

"I’m pretty much a self-taught painter and was either too proud or too stupid to listen to anyone else," he says. "When a painting works – and for every one painting out there I destroy about a dozen or so more – I’d have to say the more idiosyncratic the better."

Having attended a boarding school that he describes as "a Catholic hellhole" as a child, Edwards says he turned to art as a refuge. "Mum and dad were diplomats and very far away. I was left to my own devices. I suppose in retrospect it must have been a very painful time, because there was very much an ‘I’ll show you’ sort of attitude in my conscious decision to become an artist at 12."

Edwards is now a successful figure in the rarefied world of commercial art galleries, as evidenced by the three salesroom records his work set in 2003, and last year he was a finalist in the much-derided yet still influential Archibald art prize.

"A lot of artists grumble about the trustees of the Archibald prize, who are scions of industry or masters of the universe or whatever, interfering in the art world. What are they in, cement or something? Artists don’t go to the boardrooms of North Sydney and Melbourne and tell them what to do" McLean Edwards laughs, "but I suppose any opportunity for the arts has got to be positive."

McLean Edwards’ The Revenge of Maggie Dubrovnik, Silvershot Gallery, Level 3, 167 Flinders Lane, Melbourne from May 31 – June 12.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Fortunate Son

(Published in The Age, Sunday July 3 2005.)

The notion of family - and its destructive forces - intrigues Christos Tsiolkas and defines his writing. He speaks with Richard Watts.

Christos Tsiolkas says that he cannot remember the moment when he realised he wanted to be a writer, although apparently his mother does. "Mum told me about this a few years ago, after Loaded came out. I was 10 and we’d been visiting cousins in Northcote. We were waiting at the tram stop to get the tram back into the city when I apparently said to her ‘Mum, I want to be a writer, that’s what I want to do.’ She says she crossed herself," he laughs.

Family memories such as this cast a long shadow in Dead Europe, Tsiolkas’ latest novel. "I think that exploring family history is always going to be a
permanent part of the way I write and explore the world. Not in a family values kind of way; you could never say that about my work," Tsiolkas says wryly, "and in saying that I’m interested in notions of the family, don’t get me wrong: I’m also interested in notions of where the family can be really destructive, too."

Born in Melbourne in 1965, Tsiolkas believes that growing up in an traditional Greek family has been integral in shaping his view of the world, which has in turn shaped the structure of his new book. "One of the things I really loved about growing up the way I did was the notion of the extended family, and that it didn’t necessarily mean blood. It becomes perverted when it only means blood. When it only means blood then you get racism. Then you get exclusions. Then you get those horrors of ‘We’re not going to introduce this person to the family because he’s black or she’s Jewish or he’s gay.’

It is this concept of the monstrous family that coils at the dark heart of Dead Europe, a novel that sets out to explore anti-Semitism through paired narratives: the first written in the taut, first-person prose that Tsiolkas employed so effectively in his debut novel Loaded; the other, in alternating chapters, written in language evoking the atmosphere of fables and fairy tales, and describing a story of murder, myth and nightmare.

Tsiolkas says that he initially envisaged Dead Europe as a work of non-fiction inspired by the civil wars in Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s. "It was going to be me travelling through Europe and writing about that. Then I realised that the last fucking thing the world and Australia needs is another travelogue, and I abandoned that idea pretty quickly." When it came to rethinking the book as a work of fiction, it was his discovery of the suppressed Jewish history of the Balkans that sowed the real seeds of the story he would shape into Dead Europe over the next six years.

Initially cautious about writing about anti-Semitism, Tsiolkas says that ironically it was his upbringing in an Orthodox Christian family that gave him the courage to write the book. "Anti-Semitism was the first racism that I ever learned, but because I’m Gentile, I’m not Jewish, I asked myself, do I have the right to deal with this subject? That led me back to an engagement with a monotheistic god, which is the god of the Jews, and Muslims and the Christians. I realised that I have every right, especially as a gay person, to talk about some of the brutality occurring because of religious belief, and because I grew up in a religious family I feel a sense of legitimacy in being able to write about God."

Isaac, the contemporary narrator of Dead Europe, is like Tsiolkas, the gay son of Greek parents who migrated to Melbourne after the ravages of World War Two and the resulting civil war that plagued Greece throughout the 1940’s. It is through Isaac’s eyes that we explore the poisonous anti-Semitism that has long infected Europe. "As I was working on Dead Europe I realised the way religious belief and racism interact, and I don’t think that’s uniquely European. I think it manifests itself in particular ways in Europe, but it’s also here in Australia."

In his previous novel The Jesus Man, Tsiolkas tried in part to address One Nation and the racist undercurrents of contemporary Australian culture. "I think my project, in terms of my writing, is to talk about racism, to be as ruthless as I can be about examining racism. You look at Loaded, you look at parts of Jump Cuts, they are dealing with racism, with the effects of racism and what it means to realise that you’re a racist yourself. I can’t imagine not writing about these kinds of things."

Audaciously in Dead Europe, Tsiolkas employs the trappings of genre fiction to help him explore the entrenched anti-Semitism that has stalked Europe through the centuries. "I wanted to write a ghost story," he says, "and part of that came with growing up with stories about vampires, particularly from my father, from the village he was born in, which is in central Greece, close to Albania. As a metaphor for blood libel and what racist hate does to people, I thought that the vampire was an interesting mythology to explore in this novel."
The form of vampirism he explores is also a metaphor for globalisation. "With the entry of Greece into the European Union, there are some benefits that have come to the Greek people; but alongside that comes a homogenisation of culture, a destruction of the soul," he says. "The vampire is a metaphor for the way globalisation works in terms of making us all the undead."

Having visited Greece twice while writing the novel, Tsiolkas explains that he became aware of an older Greek culture, one concerned with the enjoyment of life and extended notions of community rather than consumption and excess, that was slowly disappearing as a result of Greece becoming increasingly Westernised. In part Dead Europe is a threnody for this loss. It is also, he says, "a novel that explores what happened to a European peasant culture as it was brought screeching and howling into the modern age in a very short space of time through the catastrophes of the 20th century."

Although his past works have sometimes been criticised for their bleak and confronting outlook, Tsiolkas is resigned to the fact that he is unable to be optimistic about the world, given the times in which he lives. "After the continual punches in the face in recent years that were One Nation, John Howard, the war in Iraq, and the horrific, stark choice between extreme terrorism or extreme capitalism, I don’t know how to write a positive book," he laughs sadly. "All I can do is raise questions, and hopefully be a part of a cultural moment where we can talk about ways of going forward."

Tsiolkas has used these most recent years as a time to strengthen his craft.

Using the metaphor of writing as a trade, he explains that his first novel was written during an apprenticeship, and that in the 11 years since Loaded was published he has tried to develop his skills, his style, and the language he employs.

"I’ve learned to get pleasure in writing, to deal with questions of form and style, to test myself a bit if you like, in writing in different ways."

In the intervening years Tsiolkas has also tried his hand at screenplays, including the award-winning Saturn’s Return, based on his original short story, and the short film Thug.

He has also won acclaim for his work for the theatre, including the Melbourne Worker’s Theatre production of Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, co-written with a group of playwrights including Andrew Bovell and Patricia Cornelius.

While much of his work has been praised, Tsiolkas’ second novel The Jesus Man (published by Random House in 1999) was reviled by some critics. Although he acknowledges that the six years it took to write Dead Europe were in part due to the savaging this previous book received, Tsiolkas says that it was also due to the new novel being a difficult book to write. "The themes I’ve taken on are complex and I wanted to take the time to make Dead Europe the best book I could. Whether I have succeeded, of course, is up to the reader now."

Dead Europe is published by Random House. Non Parlo di Salo by Christos Tsiolkas and Spiro Economopoulos opens at the Trades Hall New Ballroom on July 13.


BORN: Melbourne 1965.

EDUCATED: Blackburn High School and Melbourne University.

PUBLICATIONS: Loaded (Random House, 1995); Jump Cuts (with Sasha Soldatow, Random House, 1996); The Jesus Man (Random House, 1999); The Devil's Playground (Currency Press, 2002); Dead Europe (Random House, 2005); numerous short stories and essays.

THEATRE: Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? (with Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves and Patricia Cornelius, 1999); Elektra AD (1999); Viewing Blue Poles (2000); Fever (with Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves and Patricia Cornelius, 2002); Dead Caucasians (2002); Non Parlo di Salo (with Spiro Economopoulos, 2005).

SCREENPLAYS: Thug (with Spiro Economopoulos, 1998) Saturn’s Return (2000).