Thursday, January 31, 2008

Perfect Skin

Studio Sessions by Peter Brew-Bevan
(Murdoch Books, Sydney. 2007)

When Shoot arrived at my door my first response was to see if the bathroom scales were working. Unfortunately the battery was gone and I was too lazy to go buy another. Suffice to say Shoot is still just about the largest and heaviest book I have ever held in my hands, with The Holy Bible coming a rather poor second.

Art books tend towards the physically lavish, of course, and this collection of celebrity portraits by the Australian photographer Peter Brew-Bevan does not shy away from gravitas with gloss. Featuring images commissioned mostly for the likes of Sunday Life and The (Sydney) Magazine, the book’s immaculate conception takes you behind the finished images to witness proof sheets and facsimile pages from Brew-Bevan’s working journal.

Photographers might find Brew-Bevan’s notes on lighting, make-up and styling of technical value, though amid the sketches and scrawls I formed the impression he was not giving away too many trade secrets. In the meanwhile his diary entries on meeting the stars are banal to the point of soporific. To a large extent this renders the conceit of opening up his working process and taking us behind-the-scenes rather meaningless, especially in such a weighty coffee-table book – rather like embossing a Post-it note with gold trimming.

Asked how he would describe his work in a Q&A session that opens Shoot, Brew-Bevan says, “Since I am forever in the pursuit of creating something of beauty, whether it is a portrait of an 80 year old man or the newest Hollywood darling, my work has always been described as beautiful. My work has also been described as timeless, graceful, unique, honourable, masterful in its use of light, elegant, almost effortless… I would simply describe my work as my passion.”

There’s certainly no chance of the word ‘modest’ slipping into that list. Influences as varied as Rembrandt, Albert Watson, Michel Gondry and William Blake are freely cited, as if merely dropping those names marries you into their company. Born in Adelaide in 1969, much is also made of Brew-Bevan’s degree in Fine Arts by both himself and one of his portrait subjects, the actor Barry Otto, whose introduction graces Shoot.

The influence of classical painting – of highly stylised poses and well-placed objects that cater to a more theatrical vision – is obvious. Standouts include a weary and contemptuous looking Tim Freedman from The Whitlams amid a set of deserted chairs; and a close-up of the actor Brendan Cowell with purple writing across his face that says, “I am an Australian male. I believe in fear, pies, and low self esteem. Please hold me, please hold me.”

If the collection had focussed entirely on such local figures – Abbie Cornish, Akira Isogawa, George Gregan, Delta Goodrem and Ian Thorpe are among those photographed – it might have helped cohere the book around people who are forging a contemporary Australian identity. Instead Brew-Bevan sprinkles a few international stars among his predominantly Australian subjects: a Mikhail Baryshnikov here, a Jamie Oliver there. The binding theme becomes ‘celebrity’, which Brew-Bevan describes as “the new religion.”

The Dame Edna Everage (not photographed here) joke that “celebrity is the new non-entity” might be more meaningfully applied. A part of the problem for Brew-Bevan is his high aesthetic, the unremitting perfection of it, the glow of worship. Brew-Bevan is certainly frank about his interests in producing commercial work, and something he calls “beauty”, much of which seems dreadfully close to advertising. His dedication to this leaves you feeling curiously empty after seeing so many of his images, as if one has glided across the surface without ever really becoming involved.

It would nonetheless be unfair to simply slam Brew-Bevan’s work. There’s an accomplished smoothness to his photos that cannot be denied, and his pride in capturing depth of skin tones is justified. Many of the images have a quality so intense you feel as if you could reach through the photo and touch the person. Every now and then there is also a truly startling work, but it is often when Brew-Bevan is at his simplest and most direct.

A proof sheet shot of actress Kate Beahan lounging around in a field of grass in jeans and back singlet, sun flaring out behind her, is so striking and easy it seems to come out of nowhere and get left behind again and forgotten. Amid so much brash celebrity and processed ‘beauty’ it’s also ironic that the standout shot in the book is of the Egyptian feminist and author Dr Nawal El Saadawi. An elderly woman, she is caught looking sideways from the darkness of a leather chair, her white hair and quiet smile charged with energy. Truth and beauty - you get both sometimes.

- Mark Mordue

Thursday, January 24, 2008


You know the old Oscar Wilde saying, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’? The meaning behind it seems to get grimmer and more perverse as we continue to watch train wrecks like Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears careen along in their lives – and into ours. The more voyeuristic our culture gets the less compassionate we become as a society. It takes a death to soften us again, to wake us back up. It takes a death to remind us of the human stuff buried at the core of our entertainment machine.

And yet as soon as I read of Heath Ledger’s death my feelings for his loss went far deeper than usual. The morning here in Sydney was a little overcast when I took in the news, before the clouds broke with sun, covered over again, then broke with light at last in the afternoon. The day seemed to taking on his spirit, as it were, all the while the information kept filtering through online.

Inevitably I started thinking about the deaths of other people ‘just like him’ and how they marked significant days in my life. Moments when a distant event on the cultural map and how you simply feel about someone famous becomes personal and connected: Kurt Cobain and his suicide; Jeff Buckley and his drowning; River Phoenix’s drug overdose; Michael Hutchence’s lonesome, ambiguous farewell in a Double Bay hotel room; the similarly shadowy end of David McComb of The Triffids, whose greatly under-estimated music was recently revived and celebrated in ‘A Secret in the Shape of a Song’ at the Festival of Sydney.

Isn’t that a fine title, ‘A Secret in the Shape of a Song’? Isn’t that what all these people were to us, even if they weren’t musicians – living songs, human poems?

“I have a public life, a private life and a secret life,” the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said. “And of my secret life I have not revealed a word.” I’ve always taken that to mean there is a mysterious and unknowable core in people that cannot be easily known or given away or summed up. Maybe our families or closest friends or lovers glimpse it. Artists more than most suffer nonetheless from an illusion of familiarity, a fake intimacy, particularly in these highly mediated times. The kind of tick-a-box pop psychology that people swallow whole from self affirmation books these days makes this phenomenon even worse – glib summaries accepted as insights on someone’s soul. It’s the bedrock of the modern celebrity interview and I’m sad to say I’ve been sucked into its maw like many other jobbing journalists.

Ledger was known to hate this stuff. I actually interviewed him once on the phone. It was well over a decade ago, when he was making the move from Perth to Sydney, a hot young talent on the go – or so I was so told back then. I didn’t really give a damn. I resented being forced to talk to some guy who was barely more than a teenager, a kid who had done nothing to warrant a conversation for a magazine story other than be good looking and have some hype behind him. As it turned out he was equally embarrassed about doing the interview so prematurely, even apologetic. Sorry you got pressured into this. Let’s have a drink some time. Yeah sure, sure...

He seemed like a nice guy, like someone straining to be real. That’s what I remember anyway.

You look back over someone’s career at times like these, rake over the coals. It’s hard to miss certain qualities: Ledger’s pained smile and interior gaze, as if you can sense him watching the world and turning it over hesitantly in his mind (a quality the camera loved); his ability to suggest an ironic view of his own good looks (the Errol Flynn raised eyebrow and lithe skip he used in more fun or light weight leading roles for A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You), the shadows of hurt and confusion and repression he summoned up in his greatest roles: the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and the junkie in Candy.

There was the off-screen stuff too of course. Notably the reticent and sometimes weird or rude behaviour he exhibited with journalists and at public events – peeling an orange obsessively throughout an interview, giggling non-stop while presenting an award – along with a larger feeling that all the attention was like a rock he’d like top crawl out from under. That hunched slouch of his whenever he hit the red carpet. The hurt and anger he felt at not being able to drift around unbothered by paparazzi on the streets of Sydney any more. I’m going back to New York, man, where people will leave me alone. I feel driven out of Sydney…

It’s not clear yet whether Ledger killed himself - or if the more likely conclusion will be ‘death by misadventure’. All that’s known so far is that his relationship with his fiancee Michelle Williams ended last year, that he’d been suffering from pneumonia, taking pills for anxiety, using Ambien tablets to help fall asleep, and talking about his relationship to death and his two year old daughter Matilda in a recent interview: “I feel good about dying now because I feel I’m alive in her. But at the same hand, you don’t want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life.”

Who really knows what that all adds up to? That he was struggling to keep his head afloat, well yeah, clearly that’s there to be interpreted. That his relationship had ended and it hurt, that he loved his daughter madly, that he worked way too hard on his last role as The Joker in the new Batman film Dark Knight, that he was sleeping badly… It’s all there I guess, somewhere between the lines.

Skimming through news on the internet there are photos of him everywhere. It seems to increase the loneliness surrounding his departure, the sense of waste amid the prevalence of his curiously tired smile. No one should die when they’re 28, it’s too young. No father should leave a young daughter behind to wonder what he was like. But I don’t have any grand theories to paste over his death. Any instant insight or false intimacies to assume. Like I say, the guy brushed past me once in a nice phone conversation a long time ago. I loved his acting in a few fine films. I found his uneasiness with fame interesting, and, I guess, unnecessarily tormented when I saw him being interviewed on TV. Now I’m just sad he has left this world too soon; that his family and friends are in so much pain. That there was so much good work still left to do. Like Michael Hutchence, who Australians have a particularly sad affection for, Heath Ledger might be surprised to wake from his sleep and discover just how well loved he was at home today – and as he sleeps how we have been awoken to that love.

- Mark Mordue

Friday, January 11, 2008

Andrew Dominik: A Little Violence In Your Life

An interview with Andrew Dominik, the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Maybe it’s the chronic deafness he suffers from, as if the world is arriving intermittently or smudged at his ears. Maybe he’s just more like his subjects than he’d care to admit. Whatever it is, communicating with the Australian film director Andrew Dominik is about as sudden and temporary as a cat’s passing presence.

Dominik first made an impact back in late 2000 with his debut film Chopper, a criminal biopic that jumped with bogan black comedy and neon aggression. Apart from launching the comedian Eric Bana’s career as a dramatic actor, the movie was a tour de force for the director’s own edgy talents. Dominik’s suitors in Hollywood must have hoped for more of its amphetamine-like charge in whatever he did next, a Downunder Tarantino.

Instead the 40 year old director has returned with an epic cowboy movie of almost three hours length entitled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It was with-held from release by Warner Brothers for nearly two years since completion, meeting with highly mixed audience responses at test screenings which led to re-editing, more test screenings and a behind-the-scenes power struggle to bring the work to heel.

And yet the film itself seems to have resisted any capitulation to the Dream Factory’s demands – essentially a desire for more narrative shape like a Clint Eastwood movie, and less poetic dreaminess a la Terrence Malick – to stay within its own floating and eerie orbit no matter what was done.

Inevitably The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has polarized critical opinion across the world: many regard it as a moody Western masterpiece that echoes the mystical intensities of a cinema master like the aforementioned Malick; others describe the film as a plodding and overlong chore filled with unpleasant men scrabbling their way through the last gasps of maverick American life in the late nineteenth century.

Box office has been middling and the film already appears to be fading from cinemas. It may yet gain a second life through the next Academy Awards because two unquestionably great performances lay at its centre: as Jesse James, Brad Pitt revives his career as an actor in a single stroke, marrying the almost narcissistic grace of his body movements to a psychopathic chill and sadder intuitions that his way of life is coming to an end; as Robert Ford, Casey Affleck is his milk-faced admirer and eventual killer, a glassy eyed and thin-voiced Judas geared for betrayal from the very first slight he receives.

Trying to engage Dominik on why he has returned to a seemingly exhausted and unpopular genre like the Western produces a mix of irritation and boredom from the director. He couldn’t care less about industry antipathies to the genre – “I know film students don’t like to do them” - found no opposition to the project in its initial stages – “If you’re doing a Western with Brad Pitt involved everyone is interested” – and doesn’t really want to discuss ‘the history of the Western’ as film subject at all.

“I’ve been attracted not so much to Western movies as Western literature,” he emphasizes, a fact born out by scripts he is currently trying to develop for Cormac McCarthy’s hallucinogenic Western novel Cities of the Plain and Jim Thompson’s malevolently comic sheriff’s tale, Pop.1280.

This literary bent is at the very foundation of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Ford, which is based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name and features extended voice-overs from the book that give the film a strange, story-telling dimension: “There’s was a wandering existence. Men who choose to be outlaws cannot stay in one place for too long… Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot… Bob was certain the man had unriddled him… It was as if he were preparing a biography of the outlaw, or as if he were preparing an impersonation.”

The tone of these voice-overs is recitative and solemn, like something lifted from the Parables of the Bible. Dominik admits “one of the big attractions for me was to recreate this hermetically sealed foreign world with an incredibly rich language” and surprises me by comparing Jesse James to Jesus. This spiritual dimension to the film clearly impassions Dominik and he launches into a discussion of how “Jesse is aware of his own mortality. I always imagine him like a dying person who is trying to protect himself and yet also considering what’s beyond this life. If you’ve ever known someone who is dying, I think it’s a little like that.”

From the book and film’s giveaway title to this fatal spiritual flow within it, there’s little in the way of standard narrative surprises to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. For an American audience it could be no other way when the story of Jesse James’ killing is so mythically familiar to them. “Tragedy in the classical Greek sense if based on the idea that we know what is going to happen anyway,” argues Dominik.

As a result, atmosphere becomes as important as the story itself: there are numerous shots through rippled window glass as if we are looking on another world; blurry auras around the edges of certain scenes like something from a rotogravure pictorial that seems to announce a new chapter in the film; stop motion photography of clouds and windblown prairie grass, not to mention a wintry soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s the predominance of this atmosphere that many find insufferably abstract, though Dominik has sown a line of counter-argument into the script itself when he has a gang character say “poetry don’t work on whores”.

The coldness of the film’s look certainly adds to the death-charge Dominik was looking for, as well as a pronounced contrast to the classic John Ford desert images of Monument Valley that we associate with most Westerns. This is a world of wooded forests and chill winds and snow and ice and rain as well as encroaching town life.

Dominik is “not sure” how to explain his imagistic obsessions. “A film is an animal all by itself. The tone to the book gives you a feeling and you try to translate that into sounds and images,” he says. “The thing that surprised me when I last watched it was how much it’s a very relaxing sounding film. We were actually trying to create an aural atmosphere that was real and dreamy at the same time. We certainly spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what a soundtrack of the nineteenth century would sound like.”

“I also wanted a musicality to the film, to think of shots like notes on a score. So the pace is designed to lull you and relax you, and yet there’s this weird tension building,” he adds. To accentuate this ominous musicality, Dominik says “chunks of the film were cut to music, rather than music to film, so the music will play the film, it will play the weather and sound cold.”

Towards the end of the film Nick Cave even makes an appearance as a bar-room singer hammering out a version of ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ while an increasingly drunk and enraged Robert Ford looks on. Dominik says, “I’ve a fan of Nick’s forever, since the first time I saw The Birthday Party. In the circles I grew up in Melbourne what they were doing, the Southern Gothic influence of writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, it was very influential, and added to an idea of the West as a Biblical place.”

When it comes to living there, however, Dominik observes that “Americans have a gap between how they see themselves and how they actually are. American entertainment is really concerned with questions of morality, but America as a country is really just a business,” he laughs sardonically. The idea that films like Jesse James and other New Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and the HBO television series Deadwood might be seen as an artistic reaction to the violence in Iraq is nonetheless dismissed out of hand. “Filmmakers just like making Westerns,” he says irritably.

It’s possible to argue that Chopper was, in an odd way, a contemporary Australian Western. But whatever genre you try and push Dominik’s obsessions into, one thing is clear: he likes outlaws and he likes violence. Had he ever experienced much violence himself?

The question seems to throw him. “Only as a kid, but nothing special or unusual, I had a fairly safe, normal upbringing,” he says. “I’ve known violent criminals and spent time observing their behaviour… So, yes, once, with one of those people there was an incident.” Dominik pauses, changes gear, half excited, half annoyed. “It’s about drama. It’s storytelling! Someone needs to behave violently. And I think people like that are fascinating, they do extraordinary things that we don’t experience in a day-to-day way. That’s why we like to read about them and see them in films.” Then Dominik laughs again and gives me a final message: “Everybody needs a little violence in their lives sometimes - you know what I’m saying?”

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story was published in the South China Morning Post, January 11th 2008.