Cultural round-up: October

So apologies over the recent blog silence. Between legislation (work) and my break from work (five days in Port Douglas) there has not been much time. And given the non-stop legislation drafting action which has been my life since mid September, there is not a whole lot on the culture front to report. But we will do our best here.


The Deep Field James Bradley I hadn’t reread this book since it was first published over ten years ago and it was interesting to read it with a consideration of what has transpired in those ten years. Small details of small details of the novel – the newscaster crying as atomic bombs are about to hit the city – are eerie in their prescience when one thinks about the impact on the world and the viewing audience of 9/11. I also found the novel fascinating again in the sense that in the last 10 years I completed my PhD which had ideas about memory and the constructed nature of the past – ideas which are played with throughout the novel. Despite being so different in period and setting, one can clearly see the auteurist links with The Resurrectionist, particularly having only read it a few months ago. For me, the book is suffused with a sense of longing, but some of its darker tone is alleviated by the spark of hope which travels through the book, the sense that renewal – be it of the beach or of the lives of individuals – is possible. Well worth re-reading.

The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold While I haven’t read the book before, it was interesting to read having cried through the film on a plane earlier this year. The novel did not make me cry as much as the film did, in fact I am not sure whether it made me cry at all. I was struck though by how much like the film the book is, despite the fact that some of the events get moved around. Anyway, it is an immensely readable book, and I actually found the whole Heaven construct more digestible in the book than in the film. It is clearly primarily a narrative device, a way of telling the story which makes it more compelling and engaging in many ways than telling it from a different point of view. I enjoyed it a lot and read it in no time flat.


Spartacus Stanley Kubrick As a giant Kubrick fan and also having only last year finished writing a thesis on constructions of history and how they are influenced by the present in which they are produced, I was very excited to see this. Sadly, I was rather disappointed. Clearly this is one of the lesser of Kubrick’s films – perhaps influenced by the fact that he came in to it late and had less auteurial control than he did over most his films. It is sad to say, but the parts of the film which were most entertaining was the homoerotic undertones and the shiny presence of young Tony Curtis (and coincidentally we watched it the week he died). Otherwise, it does not rise much above the more plodding of Roman dramas.



Who made Heaven?

It is interesting how three different things can all at the same time present interesting and challenging notions about the nature of Heaven (and Hell). I have just finished reading both The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. In addition, I have just finished watching Supernatural season 5. In all of these, ideas about the afterlife are very strong, different, and really not entirely in line with Christian orthodoxy.

In all of them there is a sense of Heaven as a construct. In The Lovely Bones it is really a literary device, a construct to tell the story in the way it is told. What we see of  “heaven” is also constructed to be a place to hang out until the dead person comes to some sort of resolution. While this is the most traditional view of heaven in some senses, Christian symbology is totally missing – there is no God, no angels, no sense of redemption – really it is a fun place to hang out and from which to check out the world .

In contrast, Supernatural does have angels – although God has gone AWOL. Angels are not kind and loving – they are totally fiery old testament types. Heaven itself is also something of a construct – tailored to the individual, it is a constant re-run of the best moments of your life. While Supernatural engages with traditional Christianity, it does it in a reality where the Archangel Gabriel pretends to be someone else so he can have an affair with Kali, and the other Gods get together to discuss the annoyingness of the Christian apocalypse. This play with ideas where Heaven is never really on your side, even if Hell is definitely against you problematises uncritical religious devotion – even if God does exist, we really do need to question his motives.

Surface Detail pre-supposes a post-Christian universe, but one in which familiar notions of Heaven and Hell persist among varying different cultures. The notion that one will be punished in Hell if one is a wrong-doer is made real as virtual reality technology and devices which allow you to store you soul for “re-vention” have come into being. The truly terrible thing about these Hells is that the hideous tortures that people undergo there are software – created by someone on the outside. In this universe the Heavens are multitudinous – all constructed, mostly without religious overtones. They are places where one’s digital construct goes to live after bodily death – for ever, or until one fades away.

These notions of Heaven and Hell are not entirely post-Christian – Surface Detail provides a pretty clear critique of this aspect of current religions while Supernatural definitely questions and challenges it, interestingly without deviating far from Christian mythology. In fact, in both it is the use of a very literal interpretation of Hell and angels and the like which creates the critique and the questions. What I find particularly interesting is the way that these works are able to utilise the construct of a Heaven and hell without accepting the religiosity which goes with it. Supernatural uses the constructions as primarily as part of its narrative – it isn’t a religious critique first and foremost. Similarly, The Lovely Bones seems to use the notion of Heaven without engaging at all with any Christian (or other religious) iconography at all. Surface Detail uses the ideas to demonstrate their socially constructed role at certain developmental phases of cultures as well as exposing the evil emptiness at the heart of the use of Hell.

Heaven and Hell are constructions, constructions which usually serve a purpose which relates to social control, In these works they are constructions as well – but constructions which serve a narrative purpose and which, in general, manage to reveal their own scaffolding.

Monthly cultural round up: March

During March I spent a lot of time on planes. And a bit in hotels. These things, strangely, underpinned quite an active month of cultural experiences.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte I read this entirely on planes and have already talked about some of my thoughts on it here. I must say I was quite amazed how readable it was, even if some of the characters drove me a little crazy. I do think though that Edgar is possibly one of the most undervalued male characters in literature ever though!

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri This was one of those books which one starts reading with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Again, very readable. What I found most interesting in it was the exploration of the way arranged marriage works and works out, or doesn’t, and its social meaning and constructions. It was also quite interesting to see some of the tensions in the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India as well as an exploration of the way events have a way of unfolding, when no one considers the consequences to anyone but themselves.

Rides a Dread Legion by Raymond E Feist More of the churn of the Feist machine, but I actually thought this was better written and more compelling than some of his later work. I still do wonder why Feist can’t just start anew with a whole bunch of new characters and a new universe rather than having to contort the history, gods and past of the original one in order to allow for new stories. And, god help me, the book even made me cry a little at the end. Full marks also must go to the inclusion of a strong female character who isn’t married to anyone – something not seen for a while.

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard A birthday gift from a friend who knows me just a little bit too well, I read this in three days (flights to Perth and back helped). It is the story of an American woman who meets and falls in love with a French man and ends up moving to Paris to live with him. The subtle and not-so-subtle cultural differences, and the growing love of food, make up most of the book. What I found really interesting was that sometimes I found myself identifying with her American point-of-view, and sometimes with the French. but a very readable, very enjoyable, honest and insightful book, especially if you have spent some time in or know either culture well.


District 9 I am not a huge fan of the mockumentary genre in general because I actually think that it is quite hard to tell the whole story within the mockumentary, and District 9 did suffer from a bit of a lack of discipline in that it was sometimes hard to tell what was “in” and what was “out” and why there was the transference between the two. So I found that a little distracting. The story was of course the standard one of the fate of becoming what you hate – very Lacanian really – and also about the assumptions we make which underline prejudice and how they are often our undoing. That being said, in general I really like the rather different take on alien first contact and the whole conception of the aliens. And I really liked the father-son combination of smart aliens. There was also something really moving about the older alien’s reaction to seeing the scientific experimentation, particularly when one obviously was not being guided by facial expressions.

The Lovely Bones This is not a film to see on a plane, not while they have the lights on anyway. I cried and cried and cried. It was very Heavenly Creatures style Peter Jackson and beautifully executed for it. While the notion of “heaven” was there, it wasn’t too overplayed, and was a device more than anything. The performances were fantastic though and it was the whole depiction of the parents which just killed me.

Couples Retreat This, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of film to see on a plane. Rather patchy is the best I could say. For some reason which is really quite difficult to articulate, I laughed myself stupid in the yoga section, and I rather liked the Guitar Hero-off but it was a standard paen to coupledom where all the couples end up staying together even when patently they shouldn’t. Especially in the case where the best argument for it is social utility and the prevention of loneliness.


The Pixies, Horden Pavilion This was a fabulous show. Playing Doolittle and accompanying B sides, they were tight and well rehearsed. One considers that perhaps it was better to see them now than 20 years ago as they were more professional but without losing the edgy guitar driven rock we love.


Two trips to Sydney and two exhibitions.

Take Your Time Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Contemporary Art I have also discussed this exhibition elsewhere. Previously viewed in January, we returned with small boys because we knew they would love it. As the programme says, Olafur Eliasson is an artist who transforms our experience of the space around us. The exhibition was an interesting experience in perception…and also lego.

Hymn to Beauty: the art of Utamaro Kitagawa Utamaro, Art Gallery of NSW This beautiful exhibition even has its own x-rated section. I love Japanese wood block prints and this is a lovely example of the floating world style. A small but very worthwhile exhibition.


Battlestar Galatica: The Plan This was a massive disappointment. So excited to see more BSG, and to fathom perhaps some of the unsolved mysteries, The Plan left one totally unsatisfied and just a little frustrated. It was lovely to see old the old faces again (except, noticeably, Lee), but please give us some content! Overall it seems that in the end they didn’t quite know how to end the series, and the small frustrations from the last couple of episodes (Starbuck is an Angel! The opera scenario was just a mundane incident!) really were in no way made any better by the Cylon back story. I am not sure I am in any way convinced that the Cylon plan was just “kill everyone”.


So that was March. School holidays and less travel likely to lead to a different skewing of culture for April.