Friday, December 16, 2022

Christmas Carols

Is early December a reasonable time to start singing Christmas carols? We seem to agree it’s about right. You can hardly leave it much later, if you want to get your school carols night in before the end of term.

We also seem to agree that candles are an essential part of the carolling experience, despite the fact that candles, at this time of year, don’t take full effect until it’s about time for young kids to go to bed. Hence, every televised Aussie carols event will feature a mandatory crowd shot of toddlers crashing out to Away in a Manger while their parents carol on, wielding child-safe candles with something that looks like a surgical dog collar around the flame ... [read more]

On Proust

Around 20 years ago, I went to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris to see Marcel Proust’s bed. The mission was less frivolous than it sounds. Proust’s bed isn’t any old bed. He didn’t just sleep in it. He wrote millions of words while lying in it. It was his office, his workstation. 

In 1909, at the age of 38, he hit the sack more or less permanently to write the great novel he’d always believed was in him. He lined the walls of his Paris apartment with cork to keep out the street noise. He wrote by night and slept by day. The novel would be called A la recherche du temps perdu: In Search of Lost Time. It took him 13 years to complete. The finished work ran to 3000 pages, or 1.25 million words ... [read more]

Monday, September 19, 2022

She Did Not Change

In 1977, the English poet Philip Larkin was commissioned to write a short poem to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. Larkin wrote:

In times when nothing stood

But worsened, or grew strange,

There was one constant good: 

She did not change.

The penultimate line was the result of a late alteration. Originally Larkin had written, “We had one constant good.” At the last moment he crossed out “We had” and wrote “There was" ... [read more

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Steve Martin's Last Bow

When the magicians Penn and Teller toured Australia in June, I had the privilege of catching one of their shows at the Opera House. Here were two supreme masters of their art performing at the height of their powers. Watching them work was an unmitigated treat – a chance to sit back and revel in what the great Aussie critic Robert Hughes called “the spectacle of skill.”

Penn and Teller are no longer young. Penn is 67 and Teller 74. But at no point in their show did they seem past their prime. When rock stars of that age go on tour, you can’t help wishing you’d seen them forty years ago. In Penn and Teller’s field, advanced age is irrelevant. Or rather, it’s relevant in a good way. You can’t be as technically assured as they are without having plenty of years under your belt. Making things look that effortless takes a lifetime of effort. 

Similar levels of maturity and craft are on display in Only Murders in the Building, the second series of which is currently rolling out on Disney+ ... [read more]

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Now a Minor Motion Picture

“Now a major motion picture,” says the cover of the new edition of Where the Crawdads Sing, the Delia Owens novel that has sold 12 million copies since its publication in 2018. Has anyone ever admitted to turning a book into a minor motion picture? Or just a motion picture full stop, leaving it to the public to supply the appropriate adjective?

Anyway, what is “major” supposed to mean in these cases? Is it just another word for costly? Or is it meant to assure us that the picture in question is a substantial artistic event? Alas, the word is now out that Crawdads isn’t that kind of major movie ... [read more]

Sunday, June 26, 2022

To Infinity and Beyond

I had an odd experience at the press preview of Lightyear, Pixar’s keenly awaited Toy Story spin-off. Lightyear is a kids’ movie, but everybody at the press screening was an adult. With no kids there, I found it weirdly hard to tell if I was liking the film or not. In the row behind me there was a famous entertainment reporter with a very distinctive belly-laugh. He seemed to like Lightyear a lot.  

Did I, though? I could see the film was visually brilliant. Computer animation keeps getting better and better. But was the story any good? Did it have enough heart? I’m really not sure. I can only say I’d have liked the movie more if I’d had a kid watching it with me, especially if that kid had liked it too ... [read more]

Sunday, May 29, 2022


Until 2010, the Texan psychologist BrenĂ© Brown was an obscure professor, working in what academic researchers call “the field of shame”. Then she gave a Ted Talk called “The Power of Vulnerability,” which became one of the five most-viewed Ted Talks of all time. She’s published six books since then, all of them best-sellers. Her latest, Atlas of the Heart, came out last year. Now she’s made a five-part docuseries of the same name, which is currently streaming on Binge. 

Self-help is a fantastically lucrative industry. According to Forbes magazine, Americans spend more than $US10 billion a year on self-improvement paraphernalia. Brown is one of the genre’s rising stars, and the blurb for her series suggests she’s invented a radical new form of entertainment: the binge-worthy “interactive” TV show that’s also thoroughly good for you. 

Actually, there’s nothing very groundbreaking about the format of Brown’s show. She stands on a stage in front of a studio audience and imparts the lessons of her book, using slides and movie clips to illustrate her points. There’s a lot of talk about “relatable learnings” and going on journeys together. There’s a lot of thanking each other for sharing ... [READ MORE]

Depp v. Heard

I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about the Depp v. Heard case. But I know enough to know that I wish I knew less. When you stopped watching it long enough to start thinking about it, the trial was a terribly sad affair. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard might be glamorous movie stars, but they’re also real human beings. In court, they were obliged to revisit some of the most painful and exquisitely private moments of their lives. 

Given that there was a lawsuit in progress, these private matters were undoubtedly the jury’s business. My news feed kept telling me they were my business too. They weren’t, but my news feed was insistent ... [READ MORE]

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Bob Dylan: Overrated

Let’s begin with some clarifications. When I say Bob Dylan is over-rated, I’m not saying he’s no good at all. That would be an absurd claim. I’m not even saying I dislike his work. Some of my favourite songs are Dylan songs.

Nor do I doubt that Dylan’s influence has been profound. From Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen, all the great singer-songwriters have hailed him as a pioneer. 

If people were content to praise Dylan for his actual merits, I’d have no beef. What irks me is that Dylan stands at the epicentre of a tenacious mass delusion, which causes its victims to see qualities in his work that aren’t really there ... [READ MORE]

Monday, April 18, 2022

David Foster Wallace

It was a dark day for literature when David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46. Wallace was hands-down the most talented American writer of his generation. Arguably he was one of the most striking and original prose stylists of the past century. And yet he’s never really been a household name, unless you live in an unusually highbrow household. He had enormous gifts, but an equally enormous propensity to get in his own way. Maybe that’s why America’s Wallace industry has been busier since his death than it was during his life. The man himself is no longer around to impose his artistic standards, which were both fanatically strict and strangely self-sabotaging ... [READ MORE]

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Dropout

What is it about con artists that fascinates us? Right now our entertainment platforms are crammed with shows about real-life mountebanks and charlatans. 

On Netflix alone you have documentaries like The Tinder Swindler and The Puppet Master – both dealing with loathsome male grifters – and Bad Vegan, about a meat-hesitant female fraudster. There’s also the rambling mini-series Inventing Anna, which dramatises the exploits of the faux heiress Anna Sorokin.

And now on Disney+ there is The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as the enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the dodgy biotech start-up Theranos. Once feted as America’s first self-made female billionaire, Holmes was recently convicted of defrauding investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. When she’s sentenced later this year, she’ll face a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

The Dropout aims to “humanise” Holmes, which is easier said than done ... [READ MORE] 

Monday, February 28, 2022

The Batman

The advance word about Matt Reeves’s The Batman suggested the world was in for a pretty odd reboot. The film’s running time would be three hours. The hero would be played by the lugubrious Englishman Robert Pattinson, who revealed, in an interview, that The Batman was “a sad movie”, and that his character was “kind of a weirdo”, whom the writers had partly modelled on Kurt Cobain. 

As it turns out, Reeves’s movie is indeed odd. But it’s odd in an unsettling and haunting way. If American democracy continues its slide into decadence, future historians may well point to this film as a kind of watershed or omen: an ailing bat in the coal mine. After four years of Trump and two of Covid, even Batman seems ready to throw in the sponge. Surely a culture must be in terminal strife, when even its fictional superheroes can barely see the point of going on ... [READ MORE]

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Art of Clickbait

It’s not easy to say universally true things about the Internet. As our online experience becomes increasingly customised, increasingly tailored to our personal preferences and vices, it’s getting harder and harder to be confident that your version of the Internet will necessarily resemble mine. 

For example, is your online news feed as full of clickbait headlines as mine is? Or is mine so full of clickbait because the algorithm has worked out, correctly, that I can’t stop clicking on the stuff?

If I had no source of news besides my so-called news feed, I’d be able to tell you almost nothing important about what’s been going on in the world. On the other hand, I’ve become a big authority on the inane and the irrelevant. I can tell you who threw shade at Johnny Depp last week. I can tell you who called out Kanye.

And I can tell you a few secrets about the dark art of clickbaiting ... [READ MORE]