Sunday, September 13, 2009
Oh what immaculate, complicated, not-quite-clean-fun Inglourious Basterds is. Whatever issues you might have with Tarantino's ego or his purported film-geek immaturity (more on that in a second), this thing fucking sings. Playing with material that's both enormously complicated and already wrung-dry-for-Oscars, Tarantino turns the movie into nothing but a show of what movies can do: plotting roundabouts, violence, monologues, title cards. The film is about nothing but movies, really, about how fucking lovely characters entering a frame are, about the delight of tension, about an audience's need for tension, about montage, about slow fades to re-establish the same figure from a slightly different angle; about bullets to the face, about preposterous not-in-real-life borrowing from history; about digressions for the sake of introducing characters, about super-imposition, about voiceover, about in-jokes, about misguided love; about slow-motion, about action that's cut too quick for the eye. To paraphrase Scorsese on Sam Fuller, if you don't like this, you probably don't, in some fundamental way, like cinema.
There's two dozen things I love about this film, and about about half a dozen that don't sit well at all with me. Yep, some of the violence is tough-going, brutal and unnecessary. I'm tempted to say "that's the point", but that's glib and obvious. But it's kinda the point anyway. Plus Eli Roth isn't improving as actor. I'll think of the other four later.
But back to the pros, from which let me select one thing to praise: Quentin knows how to write long multi-character dialogue scenes. The scene in the underground tavern should be shown in film classes from tomorrow to eternity - its slow-build premise, its secondary support/relief characters, its promise of release, its withheld knowledge. I wanted to applaud by the end of it. Oh, and by the way, next time you hear some hack talk about Tarantino's admittedly violent films as raw meat for the baying idiot filmgoing hounds, show them this scene, then make them sit through the entire film. Twice. If Quentin really wanted to sell out and make uberviolence for the multiplex, would the film really be loaded up with such endless talk? At points in the film, the would-be showdown and resolve is ruthlessly sidetracked for yet more digression. It's cruel, but brilliantly done. And it's not easy-going either. This is "sell-out" the way that Miles going electric was supposedly selling-out. It's an easy talking point to spout until you're faced with something as unyielding as Live-Evil or as vapourous as "He Loved Him Madly". At that point, silence reigns.
One more point: I'm now officially sick to death of critics (and myself, for I've done it too, and recently as well) using "the film is only about film" line of criticism. These critics apparently quake and thirst and practically fucking shake and shudder for "real life", which is why, of course, their love involves being alone in the dark. Film critics (and I'd know people) practically gave up real life long ago, and carry a guilty conscience on this one. It's guilt which makes them moralise about other people's (other artists) duty to serve some utterly dubious notion of "the real" instead of paying homage to Tarantino's mirror-show as they should be. On your knees! Praise art, or damn art, but loudly!
They want real life? Plenty out there guys. And plenty of other films too. Not all work serves a purpose beyond its own existence and assertion, and if it's art for art's sake we're coming to, so fucking be it. The film geeks and critics alone know how powerful work like this is, about its absence of morality, its power of influence. "Real life" is the watering down of sensibility. And people who get paid to sit in the dark shouldn't be telling honest working people ("real life", tee-hee) how to appraise works of semi-genius like Inglourious Basterds. Write it up honestly, or feed the homeless. Or make your own work, you fuckers.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Dear Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs,
To all 88 of you brave and goodly soldiers playing semi-finals this weekend on the hallowed turf of the MCG, please remember to acquit yourselves with grace and suitable conduct. Conduct your sporting affairs like demented warlords, yet remain gentlemen the entire time. Be firm yet fair, passionate yet self-aware. And most importantly, please don't be completely egotistical fuckwits and follow the above example of Alan "Crime Lord" Didak when you luck one through the big sticks. The opposition supporters on the receiving end of your hubris will not forget it, and most of your fans will simply be embarrassed for you. It really is the most conceited, asinine, American act imaginable.
Susan and David.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I couldn't help but agree with him. We were both fans of the much-derided Sky Blue Sky, which Larry in particular felt was unfairly labelled a middle of the road record. That was all bullshit, he figured. It was OK that Tweedy and co. were cooling down a little, and it was better than a feigned attempt at regaining summerteeth's ebullience, or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's anguish and noise. You've gotta be honest to yourself, he said. But then Larry always said that. He told me this was what had gotten him into trouble so often, and with so many people. Still, he said, I never compromised, not once. But now that I'm hearing this rather-too-cutely-titled Wilco (The Album), he says, I'm thinking there is such a thing as a middle of the road, and I don't doubt Jeff is plonked right down in the middle of it. If this is them being honest, do they mind if I go and buy that new Dirty Projectors record I've been hearing so much about? Once more I concured, and not just because Larry had repped for me when it came time for my panel interview at the Ocean Way Golf Club, whose back nine we currently found ourselves negotiating. I concured because I too never compromised and I too thought the new one sucked a little. How weak and polite, I thought. How unexuberant and dull. A Feist collaboration? Sure, the opener "Wilco (The Song)" was catchy in its own way, but in that jingly-jangly inane way the Macarena and Agadoo were. We sure as hell weren't talking about the stirring melodicism of "Pot Kettle Black" or "Misunderstood". I pitched that idea at Larry after he'd skied a Titleist deep into the rough. Damn Fucking Straight, he cursed. This new one's vanilla through and fucking through, he said. I frankly can't even bring myself to play it again, and you know what a fan of those bastards I was in my younger years. And having said that, off he marched down the fairway in search of his Titleist.
(something from the very recent vaults - apologies to the friend who's already suffered through it once...the review, that is, not the record...)
The initital idea behind Stuff White People Like is pretty clever, if you enjoy the sort of snark and knowingness that ultimately renders you unable to enjoy your own life. But we're all very clever nowadays, so there you go; we love knowledge=power, even if it results in the kind of self-awareness that has us knowingly consuming steaming piles of cultural shit, whittling away post-show blues with caustic cliche-spotting superiority. Hard is hard, but everything else will either pass the time or take our punches. We're lazy, really.
David has indeed dipped into this well from time, and had others guide him there on others. I'm right up the alley readerwise of SWPL. Apparently my tastes and predilictions are both rare in my particular environment and crushingly obvious and generic in the wider world. And honestly, some of the shit SWPL rips into deserves it, but after a dozen or so rounds of you're-not-specialness, this idea plays out with deadly force. Read through the entire site/book and you'll soon enough come up against harder, fiercer, sadder truth: everything's been cordoned off as generic, as obvious. A lot of this boils down to supposed notions of "hipsterdom", a truly noxious notion that's been picked up and used as a weapon by everyone from Armond White to, gee, every second poster on Metafilter / The A.V. Club et al. The knowingness (that again) with which it's deployed doesn't make it any more palatable.
Hipsterdom is the web's there's-too-much-out-there fear (inevitable, considering the nature of the beast) experienced as constant ear-shredding feedback, the idea that somebody else's niche interest is a secret joke on you. That the niche's are smaller and harder to find these days is beside the point - all you need is attitude and a chip on your shoulder, and soon enough everything from Merzbow to Spike Jonze to literally-anything-that's-in-the-entire-world is made solely to make you feel out of it.
SWPL, now cited and used as an example by various idiot journalists, is the endgame of this affair. Both the in and the out, the hipster and his mark, melt like Roger Rabbit in dip (allusion not too obscure, not to hipsterish, I hope). Everything is a big fucking laff.
It's love that won't speak its name in public. It's cowardice. It's very self-conscious fun. It's waiting to make you the crowd. It's there to flatter you. It doesn't really believe in quality, or evne in the idea of belief. It believes, then, in the reflection of popularity, cultural guesswork, and back-row spitballs. Christ, it's really saddening and infuriating and not worth all these words.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Oh how the would-be mighty have invisibly fallen - a couple of days and no new posts, and after such an initial burst of activity! Excuses? Well, the introduction to Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamophoses isn't going to read itself, is it? Still, there's raw copy waiting for discreet editing before it reaches you, rest assured. The world needs my thoughts on Generation Kill and John Cheever's short story "Goodbye, My Brother", and have them it will! Soon. For now, however, I need* to watch a shitload of Jacques Rivette films, polish off some short stories and work up some "hilarious"** rants about things that annoy me***. Back soon.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Well, Susan and David were pleased to see John Bailey bursting the bubble on Melbourne's coffee pretensions in last week's The Age:
Melbourne: you don't know coffee. I know it comes as tough news. Earlier this year Lord Mayor Robert Doyle made the outrageous claim that our bean culture was overrated. The city's acclaimed cafes went into defence mode, but those at the frontline still admit that there's a gap between our notion of the city as a macchiato mecca and the reality you're faced with when the brown stuff in a cup arrives at your table.At the mo, we can really only rely on 2 joints for our daily caffeine fix: Seven Seeds and Auction Rooms, both in North Melbourne (also out of the finals series). But we hope to be proved wrong on this - put us on to your good brown liquidy thing now...
A large part of the problem comes down to simple economics. "There's a lot of cheapness," says Trenfield. "It's dollar driven. That will always be there."
He recently visited a cafe whose owner was raving about the quality of coffee they bought at a cut-rate price. Trenfield looked in the hopper and saw the kind of product that, in his experience, growers throw onto the street in New Guinea. It's more useful as road-fill.
Anyone who finds themselves behind a coffee machine seems to feel qualified in taking on the title of barista, but that's not enough, says Metcalf.
"If you go into a noodle place, they'll cook you noodles right in front of you, and it's served to you fresh. For some unknown reason we get this mentality that if we grind a shitload of coffee, just toss it in the machine, reheat milk, chuck it into the cup and throw a whole lot of sugar and chocolate powder and throw it out there, that you're going to be quite satisfied. From my point of view, I'm not satisfied with that."
While there is still a large number of coffee drinkers happy with what the experts would deem to be an ordinary cup, there is at the other end of the scale a more discerning, knowledgeable and growing crowd of coffee aficionados who take their brew very seriously.
Single origin coffee is hot stuff in Melbourne today - beans sourced from a single region, rather than blending diverse and possibly conflicting flavours. The notion is hardly new. "We started with single origin coffee in 1989," says Trenfield. "People would say 'isn't it just the same? Coffee's just coffee'. Well, wine is just wine. Red wine is the same as white wine, isn't it? No. It's not."
"This is not rocket science," says Metcalf. Peek behind the counter at any of Melbourne's more serious coffee houses and you might think differently. The machines scattered around South Melbourne's St Ali wouldn't be out of place in a mad scientist's lab. Forget a quick pick-me-up - some of these contraptions look like they could reanimate the dead. Increasingly, sophisticated gadgets with stellar price tags are putting coffee-making on the same level of esoteric eccentricity as molecular gastronomy.
St Ali last week launched its latest acquisition - the Slayer. Owner Salvatore Malatesta is obviously proud of the sleek, gleaming machine. There are only a handful of these hand-crafted beasts in existence so far, and Malatesta points out the serial number on his: 0001. The purchase set him back $32,000.
The Slayer is appropriately named, too. The first sip is like a kick in the head. The coffee in the cup looks like a rich, melty chocolate, but the flavour is so strong that it sends you spinning. I have to agree with Trenfield - coffee isn't just coffee.
Then there are the Japanese siphon bars, which have been all the rage in the past few years. You'd be hard pressed to guess that the transparent, tea-like substance they produce is coffee. They're the ghost of an espresso - no body at all, but with the purest, most subtle of flavours.
Others rave about the Clover, a high-tech cross between a plunger and a vacuum pot. With an $11,000 price tag, it's not surprising that there are perhaps half a dozen in the country. Don't expect many more to pop up: the popularity of the Clover ended when Starbucks bought the rights to the machine and removed it from circulation.
You'll find a Clover at Carlton's Seven Seeds, along with numerous other contraptions for the production of top-class coffee. "It's different in that it's a filter style, not an extraction," explains co-owner Bridget Amor. "It's generally consumed black. It's usually a higher end coffee so it's clean and it's flawless. You should appreciate it for what it is. But if a coffee's got faults, it's going to show in a filtered coffee. It's going to show everything."
The true appeal of the Clover - or the siphon, or the Slayer - is geared towards the "coffee geek". It's a term that comes up again and again to describe the growing culture of coffee connoisseurs who make their consumption a point of difference. They engage in vociferous online debates on internet forums, blog-damn their bad experiences and form cults around their favourite cafes.
You can see the sub-cultural appeal of places such as Seven Seeds or St Ali before you set foot in the door. Parked in the foyer or out the front are a fistful of fixies, the single-gear bikes that have inexplicably created a new class system for cyclists. Inside it's an equally mysterious mix of oddly-spectacled designers, asymmetrically coiffed temps and tattooed indie kids. Coffee is cool.
St Ali, Seven Seeds and the other specialty coffee houses of Melbourne can be loosely aligned with what's become known as the "third wave" of coffee. The term was coined by US luminary Trish R. Skeie. The first wave, according to Skeie, is all about consumption. The industrialisation of coffee as a product: Maxwell to Nescafe. The second wave follows the Italian migrant influence, with espresso machines producing a new appreciation for the texture and variety of a well-prepared coffee. The third wave turns to the bean itself, at its source, and looks for the best way of conveying its flavour.
Do the new high-tech coffee machines really make such a difference to consumers? "I think so, for the coffee geek world," says Amor. "But we have the everyday punter that will try filter coffee and most will either love it or hate it. And they try to compare it to espresso but you shouldn't. It's a completely different beverage."
Amor's position echoes that of other Melbourne third-wavers - different from but respectful towards their predecessors.
"I'm slightly nervous to call ourselves third wavers," says Malatesta.
"To dismiss the work of second wave specialty guys is a little bit silly. Coffee's a drug, and it's a drug with rituals belonging to a tribe. Dismissing an entire culture is a bit impolite and maybe a bit arrogant."
What do Melbourne's established coffee companies think of the new kids on the block?
"Well, they don't like us," says Malatesta. "The commercial roasters have the view that third wavers are a passing trend as opposed to a firm and established subculture that's growing. They tend to think that we're possibly wankers. However the ones who do take us seriously see us as a threat because they see us carving away at what were traditionally their accounts."
Trenfield isn't a big fan of whiz-bang machines. "The most important thing is the ingredient. It's the coffee. It's the human energy that happens all the way along the process.
"If you don't have a good coffee to start with, you can't make it good just because you've got a good barista. I'm sorry. You can have good coffee and make it lousy, but it doesn't go the other way. The barista can be the barista champion of the world but he ain't going to make a good coffee."
There will probably always be cafes that deliver less-than-five-star coffee. Amor takes a philosophical position - her establishment might be one of the city's best, but "it's what we do. Our food side of things is simple and where we specialise is the coffee. I guess a place that is really good at doing food and that's their passion, their coffee may suffer a little. But it just shows where your passion is."
Malatesta says that the increasing sophistication of Melbourne's coffee culture means that cafe owners can't just rely on the city's reputation for good brews any more. Even franchises such as Starbucks and Gloria Jean's have converted instant coffee drinkers to whole bean coffee.
Trenfield offers similar advice. "More people are experiencing coffee. Which means there are more people who are wanting to actually engage with the qualitative element of coffee. Even if it is a small number, at least that's happening. Sure there's a lot of competition, but what comes along with that is a group of people who are dedicated more to the quality end of things."
Metcalf provides a hint to Melbourne's cafe owners: customers need to be given more opportunities to taste high quality coffee. Some Melburnians know a good bean.
Not all, but some.
"Don't disregard those people," says Metcalf. "I tell you, 10 years ago when I started with basic espresso coffee I could have told people anything and they'd have believed it. These days I'm standing in a class of 10 people and six of them will be questioning the reasons why I'm presenting this way versus what they're doing. There's a huge difference in the consumer attitude towards coffee, which is good."M
THE ART OF THE BEAN
There's no One True Way to make a good coffee - different tastes appeal to different palates. But there are a few things to keep in mind when you're on the hunt for a caffeine fix.
■ Unless it's a specialty store, most cafes will only offer a single brand of coffee. It's a bit like a restaurant only stocking a single type of wine, but there you are. Learn which roasters suit you and keep an eye out for branding.
■ Unhappy coffee drinkers usually vote with their feet. If you spot numerous unfinished cups on tables, keep walking.
■ Scan the space behind the counter - does the milk jug look like it's been squatting on the bench since Christmas? Does the person preparing your coffee watch it pour, or sit back and expect the machine to do the work? A wham-bam quick-as-lightning serve doesn't necessarily result in a better cup.
■ Finally, ask your barista about the coffee they serve. Better roasters will educate their clients on the subtleties of the product.
■ Here's a blind list of cafes our coffee cognoscenti recommend as safe bets: The serious players right now include Brother Baba Budan in the city and sister store Seven Seeds in Carlton, St Ali in South Melbourne, Liar Liar in Hawthorn, and Auction Rooms in North Melbourne. One source nominates Richmond's 7 Grams as a contender; Demi Tasse in Lonsdale Street and Wild Cafe in Elwood also score a vote each. The Dancing Goat on King Street has been scoring awards, no doubt in part due to it being co-owned by the Victorian Barista of the Year, Jesse Hyde. And one of the first cafes recommended by a coffee insider is well off the beaten track - Barclays in Heathmont.
After the earnestly enjoyable Spiderman series (ignoring the frenzied and unsatisfying third installment, the first two are all sunshine and clean lines - narrative, architectural - and pure heroism with nary a borrowed nihilistic streak in sight), some pure Raimi. He's such a joyous horror filmmaker, if that doesn't sound overly contradictory. Here is a moralistic tale buried in mud and bodily deposits, E.C. terror filtered through human sympathy. And it's wickedly good fun in a cinema, as the full row of Japanese schoolgirls who sat behind me during the film will attest. Easily Raimi's best film since Army of Darkness.
Public Enemies, Michael Mann (2009)
The Scorsese Syndrome - for anyone else a masterpiece, for Mann, merely decent. The problem here is his inability to make the Depp/Cottilard relationship resonate, which means the film's final third, played for tragic love, just...sits there. And the DV cinematography, which was so lustrous and sudden and swoonworthy on Miami Vice (and Collateral to a lesser extent), here is jerky and simply an aesthetic misstep. Still, when the gunfights kick up, always Mann's speciality, you understand his decision. The man captures the fleeting moment better than almost anyone else working in cinema.
The Magick Lantern Cycle, Kenneth Anger (1948-80)
A massive jumble, obviously, going from Anger's early Genetesque Fireworks to his ridiculous Lucifer Rising, all Egyptian codswallop and mystic portentousness. But what a creamy middle - the blissed out texture of the unfinished Puce Moment, the hallucinatory Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome, and the rightly famous Scorpio Rising. Though the last is a little longer than it needs to be. Still, across its varied moods and ideas, from non-narrative sexual worship to borrowed Crowleyisms, some kind of "history of the 20th century". Dirty secret: all of the good stuff was at the beginning. Sucks to be young, eh?
Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoff (2006)
Outsider schtick with little charm, and a stacked deck that's positively no fun to deal. Needs to be harder and meaner with the delusions and phoniness of art schools, and not merely self-pitying and sour. Plus Zwigoff stills knows fuck-all about narrative and tempo and basic filmic "feel". Bad Santa has its charms, but Ghost World is one of the decade's most overrated films, mockery of white blues bands notwithstanding. Still, there's always Crumb. Sometimes subjects really do all the work. Oh, and Sophia Myles is pretty gorgeous too.
Mr and Mrs Smith, Alfred Hitchcock (1941)
God, what oddness. Not necessarily Hitch's worst film, but his least distinctive, almost completely devoid of his usual visual/verbal wit and narrative force. When he unleashes an occasionally magnificent moving camera shot, it's almost totally unjustified. And for a screwball, this one plays out at about half the pace required. Still, there's Lombard, and a nicely insouciant opening ten minutes of silliness. But that's about it.
Exiled, Johnnie To (2006)
Only lasted half an hour on this one before our DVD trigger got itchy. He's close to worshipped on certain film blogs we've been known to frequent, but this one is recycled Woo with an extra dash of poseurishness and self-consciousness. Which, I think you'll agree, is already enough unbelievability for one night. Just rent Hard-Boiled if you haven't already seen it, and The Killer for the really transporting emotional moments (i.e. flat-out maniacal melodrama). Still, I won't judge To until I've seen his supposedly wonderful Sparrow.