Friday, December 15, 2023

Rate and Review

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, December 16, 2023

David, we’d like to hear from you. How did we go? Please take a moment to share your experience. On a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely) how likely are you to recommend us to your family, friends and colleagues? 

How annoying is the internet’s insatiable lust for feedback? I ask this rhetorically. I’m not inviting you to answer on a scale of 1 (mildly irritating) to 10 (a clear sign that our civilisation is going down the tubes). There’s not much you can do these days, from going to the doctor to buying a whipper snipper, that you won’t be asked to rate and review afterwards. And if you get the whipper snipper delivered, expect a separate email from Australia Post inviting you to rate and review your “delivery experience.”

Even as a professional critic, I find it tricky to compose a telling review of a postal delivery. Don’t get me wrong, I like my postie, and I like it when she puts a parcel on my doorstep. But exactly how many stars out of 10 should I give her for doing that? 

Anything less than a 10 would imply, falsely and harshly, that she could somehow have delivered the parcel better. But if the accurate placement of a package on a doorstep rates a 10, what would a 4 be? Leaving the package a metre shy of the porch, partly concealed in a hedge? And what ungodly act of postal dereliction would warrant a 1? 

Also, I hate to break this to the marketing people at Australia Post, but even if I feel that a given letter or parcel has been delivered impeccably, that doesn’t mean I will be urging my “family and friends” to get things mailed to them too. The topic of postal efficiency rarely crops up in my day-to-day conversations, and I don’t want to be the guy who keeps raising it.

Recently, I bought some Old Spice deodorant from a prominent online retailer. I would hesitate to call this an “experience,” let alone an experience I want to commemorate or “share”. But if you saw my email Inbox, you’d think my whole life revolved around armpit hygiene. Was the deodorant as described? Did it arrive promptly? David, we’re still awaiting your feedback on the Old Spice experience. Based on your recent purchases, we have a recommendation for you: more Old Spice! 

When I buy something, that generally means I like it. If the item is not as described – if it’s a box of nails instead of a stick of deodorant – the vendor can safely assume they’ll be hearing from me. Otherwise, paying for something and then getting it doesn’t strike me as an experience that calls for comment or celebration. Even in kindergarten, you had to do something a bit more spectacular than that to earn five gold stars. 

Anyway, the giving of the stars is just the beginning, in the field of online criticism. Next you’ll be asked to describe “your most important reasons” for giving that many stars. Suddenly you have to come up with an original work of prose: 150 words, for free, on the merits of a bag of dried orange peel. 

A few weeks ago I went to the football. The next day I got an email grilling me about every conceivable aspect of my game-day experience, including the half-time promotions. On a scale of 1 to 7, how “satisfied” was I with the experience of watching a couple of random contestants from the crowd trying to catch bombs in a giant novelty KFC bucket? 

I was also (and I’m not making this up) invited to rate the “spirit and desire to win” of the home team, and the level of “enthusiasm and elation when tries were scored.” Here I sternly selected the “prefer not to answer” option. I like player elation as much as the next person, but I want it to be organic. I don’t want footballers getting hauled over the coals because I’ve given them 1 out of 7 for enthusiasm. 

I want my views to matter, but I don’t want them to matter that much. Some things can’t be quantified on a numerical scale – things like team spirit, and the smell of Old Spice, and watching a sunset with a friend, family member or colleague. Prefer not to answer? It’s more that I would prefer not to be asked in the first place.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

60 Years of JFK Conspiracy Theory

60 years ago this week, a nasty loner with a cheap rifle changed the course of history. At 12:30 on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, as his open-topped limousine moved through an echoey, wedge-shaped city park called Dealey Plaza. 

Most witnesses heard three shots. One witness saw a gunman aim and fire the third from an upper window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Before police could seal the building off, a 24-year-old Depository employee – an ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald – left via the front door ... [

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Martin Amis 1949 - 2023

When Martin Amis died in May, I caught the announcement at the tail end of a TV news crawl. Hoping I’d misread the flash, I Googled Amis’s name. The top search result offered the standard précis of his Wikipedia entry. “Martin Amis,” it began, “is an English novelist …” 

The present tense was heartening. Maybe I’d been seeing things. Then I clicked through to the full wiki, which began: “Martin Amis was an English novelist …” 

So it was true. Wikipedia had absorbed the news and moved on, but Google’s webcrawler was still in denial. I therefore had one last chance to think of Amis as a living presence, before watching him vanish for good into the past tense ... [read more]

Thursday, July 20, 2023


Name one facet of Australian culture that has unquestionably improved over the last fifty years. Movies? TV? Popular music? Literary fiction? 

You could argue, if you wanted to, that some or all of these things are better than they used to be. But in each case the claim would be debatable, as such claims generally are. Cultural judgments are nearly always a matter of opinion, not of objective fact. 

But I think there’s one element of our culture that is measurably, and irrefutably, better than it’s ever been. Food. What serious human being would claim that food was better fifty years ago than it is now?
[read more]

Monday, June 5, 2023


As a rule, it’s a bad sign when multiple documentaries and podcasts about you come out simultaneously. A single documentary can be cause for celebration. Two or three at once is rarely a reason to break out the champagne. More than three and you’re really in strife. 

A few years ago, Lance Armstrong got the multiple documentary treatment. More recently it happened to Elizabeth Holmes, and the late Jeffrey Epstein, and the organisers of the hilariously disastrous Fyre festival. 

Now it’s the season of the Hillsong documentary ...
[read more]

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Read the Room: A Mantra for Moral Hacks

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, May 6, 2023

When Barry Humphries died in April, the ABC kicked off the 7pm news with his obituary. It was a generally fitting tribute. Nevertheless, I braced myself for the part where it would be made clear that as illustrious as the decedent’s achievements had been, a couple of things he said late in his life did not meet the exacting moral standards of the national broadcaster. 

The reprimand was duly delivered at the obituary’s end, courtesy of a young comedian who gravely told the camera that it was a pity that Humphries, in his declining years, had “lost his ability to read the room.”

What exactly does it mean to “read the room”? People seem to think it’s an awfully clever thing to say. And they’re beginning to aim this directive not just at public figures like Humphries, but at the rest of us too. We’re all expected to read the room now. So how do we go about doing it? 

First, notice that we’re talking about the room. The definite article seems important. Nobody has accused Humphries of forgetting how to read a room. Comedians prize the ability to read the rooms they perform in. To lose that knack would indeed be a calamity.

But unless they’re abject hacks, comedians don’t read a room so they can overhaul their entire act on the spot, and tell the room exactly what it wants to hear. All good performers give audiences part of what they want, but push back against them too. Only by challenging an audience can you make it think, and maybe even change a few minds.

The injunction to read the room is more sweeping, and less negotiable. It implies that the whole world is one big room now. There are no walls any more, no discrete theatres or intimate audiences. Apparently we’re now meant to gauge the mood of the entire planet before venturing a joke or opinion about anything.

This sounds tricky. But the people who instruct us to read the room don’t see it as a problem. According to them, there’s only ever one opinion in this giant global room that’s acceptable – which happens to be the opinion they hold themselves.

So to read the room correctly, all we need to do is find out what these helpful wowsers think, then repeat their views. On the off chance we disagree with them, we’re always perfectly free to say nothing.

In other words, read the room, then heed it. Soothe it, flatter it, obey it. Toe the line. Lick your finger, hold it up, establish which way the wind is blowing, and adjust your verbal output accordingly.

This is a pretty presumptuous demand to make of anyone. It’s an astounding demand to make of an artist, and doubly astounding when the people making it purport to be artists themselves. 

And it’s triply outrageous to pretend that Humphries, when he committed his recent sins against orthodoxy, did so because he’d lost touch with the room-reading instincts that had previously been the cornerstone of his comedy. 

In truth, Humphries did not at any point “lose his ability” to echo orthodox opinion. He never wasted a minute of his adult life trying to do that. His whole career was based on being a minority of one. 

One of his earliest conceptual works was the chundering trick. He would board a bus holding a paper bag that he’d pre-emptively filled with custard and pineapple chunks. He would then noisily pretend to regurgitate into the bag. Then he would produce a spoon from his pocket and proceed to eat the custard and pineapple. 

Born into an age of stifling conformity (sound familiar?), Humphries spent his career bridling against Australian groupthink and complacency. Sometimes he retaliated gently, with characters like Edna and Sandy Stone. With characters like Sir Les Patterson he lashed out more savagely. 

In the 1970s he created a dodgy union official named Lance Boyle. “While performing him,” Humphries recalled, “it was amusing to scan the stalls” for scandalised left-wingers. “Their poor little pinched faces always fell most entertainingly when they realised that the odious operator on the boards was one of their own.”

That’s how Barry Humphries read a room. He actively devoted himself to making people’s faces fall. And this was an audience that had paid good money to come and see him! 

But it’s crucial to note that his audience didn’t respond by walking out, or ceasing to attend his shows. Audiences were less brittle in those days. They wanted to feel the frisson that comes when an artist irritates and amuses you simultaneously. 

Frisson is French for shiver, from the Latin frictio, meaning friction. Certain modern comedians seem to be afraid of friction. But friction between a comedian and a room generates surprise, enlightenment, and real laughter, as opposed to the kind of dutiful titters you hear in, say, a lecture hall.

There’s a performance by Bill Burr that’s legendary among stand-up comedians. Burr was headlining a comedy showcase in front of a drunken Philadelphia crowd, which had booed all the preceding acts off the stage. 

So Burr came on and improvised a blistering eleven-minute rant about what a pointless hellhole Philadelphia was. “I hate you people, and I hate this f—ing city,” he said, among other things. Having read the room, he told it to go fuck itself. 

By the end of his tirade, some people were laughing, and some were still booing. Burr didn’t care either way, because he’d said what he wanted to say. 

Read the room? Read a book. The whole history of worthwhile art was made by cussed individuals who followed the promptings of their own talents, and scorned the values of their time.

Did Vincent van Gogh read the room? If he had, he probably would’ve sold more than a single painting in his lifetime. But his paintings would have looked more like everybody else’s, and less like van Goghs.

Did Lenny Bruce read the room? Even when the room was full of undercover cops who were itching for an excuse to arrest him, Bruce followed his conscience, and let the profanities fly. Today’s comedians can say anything they like on stage precisely because courageous individuals like Bruce refused to obey the stultifying verbal restrictions of their era. 

Did Miles Davis read the room? Hardly. He was well known for turning his back to it while he played. 

Did the Beatles read the room? If they had, they’d never have moved beyond playing “She Loves You” to theatres full of screaming teens. Instead they quit touring, and made studio masterpieces like Sergeant Pepper’s and Abbey Road

A few days after Barry Humphries died, Jerry Springer fell off the twig too. Now there’s a man you could never accuse of failing to read the room. Springer gave the American public what it wanted; and America became a much worse place as a result.

Barry Humphries was a kamikaze contrarian. He rigged things so that no fan, however devoted, could possibly endorse everything he ever said or did. But to honour his dissident spirit, I think Australia should be the first English-speaking nation to stop saying “read the room.” 

It’s a dictum for moral hacks – a philistine import from the same country that gave the world Jerry Springer. It’s a recipe for dud art, a mantra for people who are afraid to think for themselves, and want the rest of us to stop thinking too.

In memory of the dangerously original Barry Humphries, let’s laugh this sinister, contemptible cliché out of existence. 

Heartburn at 40

Last October, the Daily Mail ran a story with this lengthy yet cryptic headline: “When Harry Met Salad! Olivia Wilde LEANS INTO bombshell revelations about collapse of her relationship by sharing vinaigrette recipe from Nora Ephron’s book about divorce from cheating ex-husband.” 

There was a lot happening in that headline. To make sense of it, and to get every nuance of the Harry-met-salad joke, you had to be familiar with a backstory that spanned four decades and involved five different celebrities, living and dead. 

The backstory was this ... [read more

Alone Australia

In 1848, an unfortunate American named Phineas Gage had a nasty accident while overseeing the construction of a railroad in Vermont. Gage was packing explosive into a rock with a pointed metre-long rod called a tamping iron when a stray spark caused the charge to blow prematurely. Shooting out of the rock like a javelin fired by a rocket launcher, the rod speared into Gage’s face, passed through the left frontal lobe of his brain, flew out the top of his skull, and landed point-first in the earth 25 metres away. 

Gage survived the accident, but his personality was drastically altered by the damage to his frontal lobe. This was a stroke of luck for the era’s brain scientists. Long before the days of fMRI, Gage’s injury offered valuable information about which parts of the brain did what. It would have been grossly unethical for medical researchers to obtain this information by ramming a metal rod through somebody’s head. But since that had happened to Gage already, scientists made the most of his misfortune ... [read more]

Cocaine Bear

This seems to be a season for films with bluntly informative titles – titles that tell you precisely what you’ll be getting for the price of your ticket. At one end of the spectrum of respectability you have Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a solid contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscars. 

At the other end of the spectrum you have Cocaine Bear. Released too late to be eligible for this year’s Oscars, Cocaine Bear isn’t the kind of movie that people give awards to anyway. On the other hand, the film deserves high praise for delivering, riotously, on the promise of its title. It’s everything you could wish for in a movie about a giant bear that goes on a killing rampage after snorting a ton of cocaine ... [read more]

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


My late friend Clive James was a prolific emailer. One of the trickiest things about corresponding with the great man was trying to recommend books to him that he hadn’t already read. It was like walking a tightrope, which you could fall off in two ways. 

One way was to recommend a book so well-known that you would look like a rube for thinking anyone hadn’t read it. The other danger lay in recommending something that was obscure for good reason – i.e., because it was tripe. 

I once thought I’d found the ideal needle-threading recommendation for him: Open, the 2009 autobiography of Andre Agassi. For starters, the book was freakishly good ...

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Creepy Dolls

When the first trailer for the film M3GAN dropped in October last year, it achieved the highest honour that any modern content-creator can aspire to. It went viral, thanks to a five-second sequence in which M3GAN, the expressionless robot doll of the title, performed a very capable and therefore very eerie dance. Reaction videos proliferated. M3GAN memes multiplied. Within a month, TikTok videos with the M3GAN hashtag had racked up 300 million views.

M3GAN is short for Model 3 Generative Android. In the film, her name is pronounced the American way, to rhyme with beggin’ rather than vegan. Whether the film will make a bigger splash than its own trailer remains to be seen. Philosophically, it has interesting things to say about the perils of artificial intelligence. More primally, it taps into a theme that’s been freaking people out since the dawn of cinema: the theme of the creepy doll ... [READ MORE]

Satire with Guts

Whoever decided to release Triangle of Sadness at Christmas time in Australia must have a sense of humour as wicked as that of the movie itself. Written and directed by the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, Triangle is a bracing movie, but it isn’t your standard holiday fare. When it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it won the Palme d’Or, and got an eight-minute standing ovation. It also prompted some audience walkouts, for reasons we’ll get to.

I knew I was going to love the film after an early scene set at a fashion parade ... [READ MORE]