Lynden Barber on unspectacular acting



Alfred Molina (source: Circus Theatricals).

There’s a great piece about film acting up at New Matilda at the moment by Lynden Barber.

He mentions the wonderful character actor Alfred Molina as an example of a screen actor who often “perfectly embodies a character.”

Good films — and sometimes even mediocre ones — are full of great acting that goes unnoticed. That’s why they’re great — we’re not meant to notice the craft behind them. Genuine performances don’t have tickets on themselves. Sadly, this means they often pass uncelebrated.

For instance I can’t recall anyone ever writing that Alfred Molina, who plays the father of Carey Mulligan’s schoolgirl heroine in An Education, is one of the greatest British film and TV actors currently working — which he so clearly is. Incredibly, I’ve never read a single interview or profile of the man, whose long line of screen credits stretches back as far as a 1981 appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not once has he been nominated for an Academy Award.

Yet there is a very good reason he keeps on getting so much work. Molina is one of those actors — and oddly we call them character actors, as if there were any other kind — that most viewers recognise, but whose name is known by few outside of a small circle of film critics and screen industry professionals.

There are shades here of the hilarious conversation between Ben Stiller and R0bert Downey Jr about the craft of playing handicapped characters in Tropic Thunder.

The perils of contrarianism: Gladwell and the Freakonomicists versus Pinker, Krugman and the entire scientific community



Malcolm Gladwell at TED

The New York Times currently carries two reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, one by Janet Maslin and one by Stephen Pinker. Both offer back-handed criticism of this much-imitated writer and his occasional tendency to warp the reality he portrays in order to gain maximum narrative leverage. I think these reviews have something in common with the backlash against Superfreakonomics. They might even signal a change in critical sentiment about the modern style of non-fiction writing. Continue reading

Bejmain Genocchio on Avital Oz in the New York Times



Avital Oz's “Linkage” (1982), left, and “Black Sun” (1980), from Benjamin Genocchio's review of his retrospective in the New York Times, courtesy of Art Sites.

Australian visual art audiences will no doubt be pleased to see art Australian critic Benjamin Genocchio writing for thew New York Times.

In a recent article, Genocchio reviews the work of noted minimalist Avital Oz, a former protege of Sol Le Witt. It’s typical of Genocchio’s stylish yet understated prose, which makes him one of our best art writers.

For those interested in Genocchio as a critic and writer, the ABC’s Ally Moore interviewed him last year (click forward to 19 minutes in the sound file). The interview canvasses resale royalty rights and why Genocchio thinks that any droit de suite will only benefit the estates of the top few artists. His most recent book is Dollar Dreaming, about the Australian Aboriginal visual art market.

Art Monthly Australia’s “Arts of Sound” issue



The cover of Art Monthly Australia's november 2009 issue



The glossy art mag Art Monthly Australia has its latest issue out, devoted to Australian sound art. It’s guest edited by noted US arts writer Douglas Khan (who is doing a speaking tour of Australia in support of the edition) and has been ably coordinated by curator Sarah Last. As Sarah explains in her editorial:

A major aspect of recent media arts theory has been the emphasis on the need for media arts to be considered within its interdisciplinary intercultural contexts, rather than the traditional modernist functions and methodologies applied to historicisation and canonisation in art history. Douglas Kahn has been an international leader in contextualising auditory practices within 20th century arts theory, and more recently an underlying thesis of his work has been … one that rewrites the history of communication. With such a sustained and rigorous focus, together with the respect Kahn’s writings have already demonstrated for Australian practitioners, it is entirely fitting that we utilised Kahn’s influence as a guest editor. Far from being a parochial editorial process, this publication amplifies many distinctly different viewpoints from Australian and New Zealand writers and artists.

Without blowing my own trumpet too loudly, I have an article in the issue, looking at the work of Australian sound artists and experimental composers Joel Stern, Lloyd Barrett, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras. Here’s a taste of what I’ve written:

In a series of interviews conducted with the artists during 2009, a picture emerges of a small, inter-connected and vibrant Australian artistic community, fertile with cross-collaboration amongst artists significantly engaged with the work of their peers.

The work of the four artists examined here shows a spectrum of sonic practice. Anthony Pateras, for instance, is primarily engaged in compositional practice from a western art music perspective; in contrast, Joel Stern and Lloyd Barrett are much more interested in the sonic textures of their experimental practice; Robin Fox sit somewhere in between. Even so, there are some important commonalities amongst these four artists’ work. All the artists examined here cite a strong commitment to performance in their practice. In varying degrees, all had significant contact with the principles of western classical music before becoming interested in different types of sonic expression. Finally, it can be argued that all share a commitment to what might be termed “pragmatic experimentation” – an artistic experimentation which moves their work beyond what Robin Fox calls the “game of nomenclature” that tends to arbitrarily divide music (whether it be experimental or classical), from art (whether it is sonic or visual), to a practice which draws on both traditions in novel ways.


Why don’t Australians like Australian films?

It’s the debate that just won’t die. Australian films continue to draw just a few percent of total Australian box offices, and the local industry continues to scratch its head and wonder why.

On October 22nd, Metro Screen held a sold-out forum on the issue, chaired by Andrew Urban and featuring a panel of distinguished panelists including Margaret Pomeranz, Tony Ginnane, Troy Lum, Rachel Ward and the new boss of Screen Australia, Ruth Harley.

The debate swirled around many of the same-old, same-old standards of the “what’s wrong with Australian film” issue, which has been debated extensively in the press and the industry by critics and commentators like Jim Schembri, Luke Buckmaster and Lyndon Barber.

Does “Australian film” have a branding issue? Are Australian scripts and movies too depressing, mundane and dull? Are the marketing budgets unrealistic? Does cultural imperialism mean Hollywood is a natural advantage? Should we abandon “telling stories” and instead concentrate on “creating myths”? Do Austraolian film-makers and funding bodies even understand their audiences and why they go to see movies? And is it all about to change with the coming of digital delivery anyway?

One issue that came to my mind immediately was the uphill struggle most Australian cinema faces. Not only is it competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, but the small size of the Australian market means limited sources of capital investment, development funding and ultimately cinematic audiences.

There’s also no doubt that, structurally speaking, the market for film production in Australia is skewed towards blockbusters and against independent productions. That’s just an unsurprising fact of life; even though film has certain unique facets it is still hostage to the sorts of competitive advantages and economies of scale that make it easier to market and screen Transformers than an indie Australian drama.

Having said that, as a cultural economist I am constantly amazed at the lack of price differentiation in cinema. If audiences aren’t going to see Australian films, why not drop the price? It seems insane to me that we expect audiences to pay the same to see a Michael Bay special effects monster as for a $1 million Australian indie. Maybe it would not be more profitable in the long run to do this, but in the name of market share alone it seems to me a no-brainer. Maybe Australian dramas would sell at $9 or $7 or even $5. Of course, there are structural issues to do with distributors and exhibitors that would make this unlikely.

Ben Lewis’ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

Tonight ABC2 screened Ben Lewis‘ documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

It’s a compelling contemporary history of the bubble in contemporary art between 2003-2008 and the dumb money and savvy art world insiders who enabled it to happen.

This is both a vital piece of contemporary art journalism and a fine exploration of the darker side of the art world itself. Lewis argues that key dealers and galleries colluded to routinely bid up prices for hot contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst. Featuring important on-the-record interviews with leading dealers, collectors and critics, including Jim Chanos (though, unsurprisingly, not those at the centre of the art world rumours – Sotheby’s, Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian and Hirst himself).


Little magazines and literary modernism

There’s a great review essay in The Times by Stefan Collini on the role of literary magazines in the rise of modernism as an intellectual movement. I think it’s an interesting topic; indeed, small press and independent publishing has always interested  me and I have been writing recently for one of Australia’s premier little magazines, Meanjin Quarterly.

Cyril Connolly's Horizon is one of the best-known British literary magazines of the 1940s. It published writing by a who's-who of literary figures, including Auden, Eliot, Orwell, Russell, Bowles, Koestler and Greene.

Cyril Connolly's Horizon is one of the best-known British literary magazines of the 1940s. It published writing by a who's-who of literary figures, including Auden, Eliot, Orwell, Russell, Bowles, Koestler and Greene.

“The first function of a literary magazine is to introduce the work of new or little-known writers of talent.” There is an appealing modesty about this brisk declaration, even a kind of impersonality in subordinating editorial ego to the larger good; it seems likely to provoke a murmur of agreement, not least from new or little-known writers. But this is not, of course, the only way in which the function of such publications may be conceived. The editor of one of the many new literary periodicals established in the 1920s announced a no less definite sense of purpose in quite other terms: “I shall make its aim the maintenance of critical standards and the concentration of intelligent critical opinion”. The goals expressed in these two quotations are not necessarily in conflict: editors might, it is true, maintain “critical standards” in a practical way by identifying new literary talent. But the tendency is for the pursuit of these two purposes to result in periodicals of rather different types. One, often thought of as the classic “little magazine”, largely carries new poetry and fiction, mostly by as yet unrecognized writers, often exemplifying a style of writing that is self-consciously, even determinedly, insurgent and unfashionable. The other, committed to upholding the critical or reviewing function, is largely filled with essays and book reviews, taking in the literature of both the past and the present, as well as taking in more than literature; it aspires to shape intelligent opinion and to combat the slackness and puffery of mainstream literary journalism.

There’s much to unpick here, but I will merely add that literary magazines create a much-needed form of cultural capital. By unearthing and promoting younger and emerging writers, for instance, they act as a seed-bed for new talent across the whole literary sphere.

Peter Craven is wrong, dead wrong, about Australian theatre. Again.

The grand old man of Australian criticism, Fairfax’s bombastic and often self-indulgent Peter Craven, is at it again today with some typically inflammatory comments in today’s National Times about Australian theatre.

Half the trouble with Australian theatre is caused by talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays. Often they cut their teeth with student theatre and have been too narcissistic to grow up. It’s much easier to treat student actors like puppets and to improvise a text than it is to treat Judy Davis like that. Most cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings with classics make Joanna Murray-Smith look like Racine on a good day. But for every production such as Osage, there’s hand-me-down cardboard rubbish of the traditional kind.

Oh dear. Craven is one of the best known critics in Australia. He’s also one of the most reactionary.

There are so many non-sequiturs and errors of fact in even this one paragraph it’s tough to know where to start. Firstly, let’s give Craven the professional courtesy of acknowledging that he has picked up on a real trend in Australian theatre, away from realism and towards a bolder, artier, more hybrid and more design-intensive style.

But that’s hardly news. “Director’s theatre” is a serious movement in Europe and has  been going on for decades in Germany, as the many obituaries for Pina Bausch record.  It’s not surprising the style has spread to Australia, given the many tours by Bausch and other European directors and companies here, largely through the auspices of the various capital city arts festivals. In fact, about the only people who wouldn’t know about it are those who only go to see the state theatre companies. Peter Craven appears to be amongst this under-educated minority.

As for attacking “talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays” – this is not only raking over the coals of Craven’s obsession with the (finally receding) culture wars, it’s also frankly wrong. I would be very surprised if any talented directors thought they were “above realism”, but if they were – so what? Realism is a style, often a very stale style, and to claim one style of staging and producing theatre should be privileged above others is the sort of claim a critic makes when he realises he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I wonder if Craven would recognise truly authentically staged Attic theatre as “realism”? I hope not, because it wasn’t.  As for the crack about student theatre and actors as puppets, it reads like the remarks of someone who hasn’t seen  any fringe, student or independent theatre in a long time.

Peter Craven: wrong again, but no less eloquent as he rages against the dying of his once-impressive critical abilities.

Andy Bennett on the cultural sociology of popular music

Today, a quick look at Andy Bennett’s review article from late last year in the Journal of Sociology.  This paper, “Towards a cultural sociology of popular music” [Volume 44(4): 419–432] is an excellent resource for those (like me) looking to get their heads around the historical development of this debate:

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