Zac and the Dragon

Zac and the Dragon
Originally uploaded by Walteradyar
The rather elaborate entrance to the main prayer hall, Phuoc Hue Temple, Wetherill Park, Sydney.

The Celluloid Closet

One of the biggest influences on me as a young man (and a lifelong film enthusiast) was Vito Russo's extraordinary masterpiece The Celluloid Closet. It was really a kind of dream book - a detailed examination of homosexuality as it appeared throughout the history of popular American film. Russo was the first (and certainly the greatest) to collect together in one exhaustive text the sad sissies, the suicidal closet-cases, the murderous bull-dykes and the awkward and unlikely drag queens that have populated film since the medium was invented.
For me it was a revelation - I realised that I was not the only one who had spent a lifetime carefully watching out for hints and suggestions that something queer was happening in the background of those Saturday night blockbusters on TV.
Russo's magnum opus is even more amazing when you consider that it was the biggest and ultimately the final thing he ever did - he was one of the generation of geniuses lost to AIDS.
There is, of course, some criticism contained in the book that might seem a little overdone to a contemporary audience. We have to remember that Russo was righteously angry because he had seen the very worst of oppression of gay and lesbian people, and to him the often dismissive and cruel treatment of homosexuality by Hollywood stood only to rub salt into the wounds of a deeply wronged community.
He lived to witness a brief period of fascination with homosexuality and gay liberation that began to filter through Hollywood and onto TV. But ultimately Russo still decried the stereotypical representation of gay and lesbian people, and he was uncomfortable at the best of times with representations of drag and effeminacy, as were many of his 1970s gay liberation cohort.
I still think The Celluloid Closet is one of the most fascinating and comprehensive histories of film ever produced, and certainly the most readable. A documentary was also made of the book after Russo died, and this is well worth seeing.
Russo hoped to see a day in which the sexual outlaw could also be the hero, and I'm not at all sure that that day has come. I often wonder what he would make of the endless (mostly) gay characters we witness now in film and television who serve as witty neuters and constant "best friends" to glamorous female leads? Or perhaps re-reading Russo has filled me with a little of the good old-fashioned indignationand energy for justice that he so embodied.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

As I've mentioned before, one of the joys of growing up in rural North Queensland in the 70s was that the local TV stations endlessly repeated old Hollywood movies. From about 11am on a Saturday you could be guaranteed back-to-back blockbusters from the 40s, 50s and 60s, and I was a devoted fan. It was during these days that I cultivated my passion for Ginger Rogers and Esther Williams, Doris Day and Jayne Mansfield.
One of the movies that used to roll around as regular as clockwork was the 1957 classic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a mild-as-milk sex comedy that had been a huge hit on broadway, starring Tony Randall and the aforementioned Miss Mansfield.
Watching it now, it seems almost designed to appeal to a young, gay child. It is camp with a capital C, and contains lots of not-so-sophisticated in-jokes and sassy hints. There is an element, too, of good old fashioned slapstick, again with a buffoonish sexual entendre - exploding popcorn, puffing pipes, bubbling water coolers and whatnot.
But what is most appealing is the larger-than-life Jayne Mansfield, a truly divine creature who squeaks and sighs her way around the screen, looking constantly adorable, and probably every red-blooded 1950s man's idea of an irresistable woman. She has tremendous presence, and you can see how she managed to inspire generations of drag queens - and continues to do so today. The first scene in which she appears, dressed in a fake leopard-skin suit and big sunglasses, leading a dyed poodle on a chain, is iconic - it is exactly the appearance every drag queen has attempted to emulate ever since, with hips swinging wildly and pouts aplenty.
The movie is actually a bit of a dogs breakfast - a kind of commentary on the rise of youth culture, with plenty of side-swipes at the worlds of advertising and television. It is a 1950s museum piece, and all the more fascinating for that.
Joan Blondell is outrageous as the pseudo-dyke assistant to Jayne Mansfield, a mannish girl-friday who at one stage acknowledges "that AC/DC thrill." Of course, she is redeemed by the end, unconvincingly married off to one of the advertising executives.
I found the whole film interesting, as well, because it so obviously shows the influence of Brechtian theatrical devices which were by now influencing mainstream film production. The breaking of the fourth wall, with the breaking of character and the device of characters directing the audience directly are all, somewhat surprisingly, present in this movie. Indeed, the whole thing could be read as an indictiment of capitalist consumer culture, with the good main characters returning to simpler lives as farmers and primary producers. The whole thing could have been written by Herr Brecht himself.
There is something touching about seeing the exquisitely beautiful Jayne Mansfield at the very height of her career, and knowing she will die so early, and in such tragic conditions.
This is a wonderful film, and the perfect thing to fill up these awful long, hot summer days.

Smells of my childhood

I'm one of those people who lives through the nose. I just love delicious smelling things. I love perfumes and incense, air-fresheners, pot-pourri and Febreze. I could spend all day at the Men's Perfume wall at Myer, and I can talk about colognes the way some bores can talk about wine. When a new men's fragrance is released I always run to get a tester and to see if it's going to be "me" or not. It almost always is.
What can I say? I'm an addict. I simply don't understand people who can't stand perfume - you might as well say you don't like food, or don't like reading. People who can exist in such states are simply incomprehensible to me. A world without beautiful, extravagantly artificial, smells would not be worth living in. I always ache for the courts of Heian Japan, when the concubines would sit around having incense smelling parties (when they weren't having moon viewing parties, or peony observing parties).
These days, of course, I get my olfactory kicks from the more expensive design houses. But I have to confess that I still love - and yearn for - the more down-market aromas of my childhood.
In a really primal way I adore the smell of Johnson & Johnson's baby powder. Poor little babies are forbidden to go near it these days, of course.
My grandmother and her sisters always smelled of Tame hair conditioner and, when going to town, Cedel hairspray. More glamorous occasions called for liberal doses of Tabu, 4711 or any of the Yardley range. My mother's generation preferred Charlie, or later the canned delights of Impulse or Australis.
And of course, we must never underestimate the influence of Avon, with its delicious scents bottled in the most extraordinary containers - boys with balloons, fan-wielding geisha and small green frogs.
Men, of course, gloried in the accumulated haze of Old Spice, Brut 33 and Blue Stratos.
Smelling any of these things is enough to plunge me all the way back to the nursery, and I secretly hope the production of them will go on forever - though I fear that Tame long ago disappeared.

Friends With Money

Once a year I spend a full day at the Sydney Film Festival. This is really a magical day. I just head down to the State Theatre and buy tickets to all the sessions that are on that day. I never have any idea of what I will see - I just settle into my seat and wait to see what unfolds. I have seen some extraordinary films this way, things I would never have gone to see had I attempted to select sessions based on my tastes and interests. This kind of exquisite randomness is a great contributor to the feeling of elation I always have by the end of the day.
And using this method I have discovered three of my favourite films: a quirky Belgian exploration of masculinity and male fragility called La Moustache; a moving documentary about blind Tibetan teenagers called Blindsight; and one of the most doggedly peculiar films ever to have emerged from Hollywood, Friends With Money.
Ostensibly a story about a group of female friends approaching middle age, Friends With Money is really an angst-ridden cry of rage at the tremendous boredom and ennui that surrounds middle-class, privileged life. It is dark, clever and at times genuinely disturbing. And the thing about it is, there is not one single bad performance - the ensemble cast seems to have made a mutual decision to abandon any sort of vanity, and each actor seems to compete against the other as to who can appear the most grotesque and the least sympathetic.
I simply cannot single out one particular performance, because I think it would be unfair - each actress shines in her role, and the brilliant script affords each almost equal emphasis, though Jennifer Aniston probably serves as the central character, the sexy but hopeless pot head who finds herself more and more reliant on her successful, middle-class and increasingly wealthy friends.
The script is tremendously brave, and I simply can't believe that any studio was willing to take a gamble on such a peculiar and, in every way, "small" film. Certainly the gamble didn't pay off, because the film sunk without a trace soon after its release.
But I am confident that in years to come it will be aclaimed by film critics and academics as a masterpiece, principally of the scriptwriters art, but also as a vehicle for some very fine acting.
And I love how it breaks all the narrative rules for a Hollywood film - the glamorous heroine is stupid, venal and seeks out exploitative sexual relationships. The successful career women (and Frances McDormand shines here) are neurotic bitches who neglect their personal hygiene, and, ultimately, the only genuinely happy people are those with plenty of money.
Counter-cultural in the extreme, Friends With Money is a masterpiece, and deserves to be better known.

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:

"When they gets to the place they've come to see - the Prado, say, or some old-world hill town in Tuscany, they just sits on the coach and views the 'ole thing comfortable on TV while eating honest grub, frozen up in Britain, and drinking wholesome Kia-ora, all off plastic trays like in aeroplanes. If they want a bit of local atmosphere, the driver can spray about with a garlic gun."

~ Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Bibelots - a chance arrangement

My cleaning lady came today, and when I came downstairs after she'd left I found that she'd taken it upon herself to dust some of my knick-knacks.
The were all sitting together beautifully on a tray next to the sink.
There appears to be some exquisite type of order at work in their arrangement. She has a distinct eye. Someone should make her a curator.

The Boston Strangler

When we grow up I think there is a repertoire of films, music, television shows and other pop-cultural phenomena that occured before our birth, or during our infancy, that nevertheless had a great influence on us through its impact on our parents. There are certain things I remember as being enormously important in the cultural makeup of our family that I couldn't possibly have consumed or understood myself. For me those things include movies such as A Clockwork Orange (which came out when I was 1)and Ode to Billy Joe (which my poor father still isn't willing to believe is all about homosexuality); the music of The Beach Boys and Peter Paul and Mary; and books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Portnoy's Complaint.
One of the films I always recall the adults discussing was The Boston Strangler. Among my parents' circle it was acclaimed as a fine film, uniquely terrifying and somehow definitively modern.
It's taken me until now to get around to actually watching it, and what a peculiar little film it turned out to be. No wonder it had such an impact on a generation.
Of course, it's almost impossible to get past its "look" - its laughable (but wonderfully hip) split-screen effects, and its grim vision of the seedier parts of Boston. Then there is the film's peculiar obsession with homosexuality - homosexual references and characters pop up several times in the film. Vito Russo cited the film as one of the first to realistically (and sympathetically) depict the vulnerable position of queers in a hostile society. It is all part of the veneer of pseudo-psychological sophistication that ultimately spoils the film, providing the premise for the ludicrous ending in which the vicious mass-murderer is exposed as a sad victim of society.
Despite the silly, and deeply unsatisfying, ending, the rest of the film is a polished thriller, quite violent and at times tastelessly titillating. Somehow one can never really suspend disbelief and go with the fact that the really quite handsome Tony Curtis is a violent brute, and Henry Fonda plods along wishing it were still the 1940s.
But it's slick and engaging, and if you're anything like me you will spend hours on the net afterward researching the real story of the Strangler. I recommend you watch it and spend a nostalgic evening immersed in the swinging - and slightly scary - 60s.

Theosophical Papers

It's probably no surprise to hear that I am a member of the Theosophical Society. Mainly I'm a member because of the amazing Adyar Library that the Society maintains here in Sydney. It is an invaluable resource, and filled with important material that I need to use to complete my PhD thesis.
I also worked for the society for years, and I find myself in complete agreement with the Society's objects:

  • First — To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
  • Second — To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.
  • Third — To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Now, you couldn't get a better charter than that.
And mostly it's because I just love the history and colour of the Society. It is immensely undervalued as a cultural force, and IMHO it and its founders have responsible for the shape of spiritual life in the West since about 1890. Madame Blavatsky, the Society's founder, is certainly one of the most remarkable women ever to have walked the earth, and I wait for the day when someone makes a really lush biopic about her amazing life.
Probably the first time I ever encountered the Society was when I was a very young man and read an obscure novel by Hermann Hesse - who was at that stage my literary hero - called Gertrude. The heroine of that novel was a Theosophist, and inspired by her I made my first terrified journey down to Blavatsky Lodge in Kent St. I soon joined the library, which held, back in those days, the only major collection of Buddhist books available to the curious. I made my way through the Buddhist section, and it was a remarkable literary journey, and one which shaped my life for many years to come.
Anyway, imagine my surprise when this afternoon I received a package from the society containing a whole pile of Theosophical Papers covering all kinds of matters Theosophical. I can't wait to get started. For the next few days I will be absorbed in Thought Forms, the Mahatmas and the Rod of Hermes (whatever that might be). It will be wonderful to be absorbed in the history of one of the most fascinating and history-changinging spiritual and social movements of the last three centuries.

Lu Dongbin

One of the most commonly appearing deities in the world of Chinese folk religion is Lu Dongbin, though he is almost completely unknown to non-Chinese.
Appearing in the guise of a handsome and refined Chinese gentleman with a sword and fly-whisk, Lu Dongbin is one of the Eight Taoist Immortals, whose image is famous for keeping spirits and demons at bay. In the rich world of Chinese popular symbolism, Lu Dongbin's magical sword is the ultimate weapon against supernatural influences, and so appears regularly on charms and talismans.
In many ways he is considered the leader of the Immortals, and certainly he is the most conventional and socially acclaimed of that motley, eccentric group, whose number includes drunkards, cripples and transsexuals.
Lu Dongbin is said to have travelled the earth for 4000 years slaying dragons, so he stands as the saviour of mankind, and ultimately the examplar of manhood.
These pics are of statues of Lu Dongbin on the shrine in the Taoist section of the Australian Chinese Buddhist Society in Bonnyrigg.

Books Read in 2009

I always have a dull, painful feeling that I'm never doing enough. Like many people, I labour under the burdensome thought that I am extraordinarily lazy, and that most other people in the world are achieving more than me. Nowhere is this sense of unease more acute than in the area of reading. You see, I pride myself on being the bookish sort, on being a well-read man. But I always worry that I'm really not devoting enough of my time to good old-fashioned reading.
Which is why, a couple of years ago, I began to keep a list of what I read every year. I don't mean what I almost finished, or what I picked up and consulted in the name of research or idleness. No, I mean a list of books I sat down and read, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Every sentence, every chapter, from beginning to end.
The results of these lists surprised me. If you had asked me how many books I actually finish in a year before I would have said, "Oh, 10 or 12." But year after year the list has been pretty consistent, showing somewhere between 50 and 60 books read and finished, and sometimes even enjoyed, in the course of 12 months.
Not surprisingly, those books I actually finished tended to be lighter fare than what I was supposed to be reading, and they normally demonstrate a careful determination to stay away from anything that is actually necessary to my life, work and research. When it comes to necessity, I'm afraid I am a skimmer - it was ever thus, alas, hence my lack of depth.
But here is the list of some of the books I read, in whole, in 2009. Not the whole list, because that would be a bore, and potentially embarrassing:

1. The Spare Room by Helen Garner
2. The Boat by Nam Le
3. Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick
4. The Healing Wisdom of Dr. P. P. Quimby by Mason A. Clarke
5. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
6. The Call of the Weird by Louis Theroux
7. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
8. What Would Barbra Do? by Emma Brockes
9. Excuses Begone by Wayne Dyer
10. The Elder Brother by Gregory Tillett
11. Londonistan by Melanie Phillips
12. Self-Help Nation by Tom Tiede
13. Doris Day by David Bret
14. Nothing is Too Good to be True by John Randolph Price
15. You Can Do It by Paul Hanna
16. Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
17. Discover Your Power-Packed Consciousness by Magda Neeld
18. Writing Creative Non-Fiction by Theodore A. Rees Cheney
19. Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
20. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
21. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
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