Wednesday, March 11, 2009


This story has proved harder to write than I imagined. As if there were an emerging and fading voice in my head I couldn't quite tune into, and am still searching for amid the static: an appropriate enough problem for a piece I first conceived of with the somewhat saccharine phrase, 'the magic of radio'.

It's taken me a while to realize what I am really trying to tune into is my youth. That what I am connecting with is not technology, but longing - and with it a feeling of timelessness that is both premonition and memory at once, as if the boy beheld the man and the man is keeping the boy in sight through some long and mutual telescope of sound.

If I'm honest I'd go even further and tell you radio is our most spiritual 'medium'. That there's something about radio's emanating nature, its radio-active aura, which unites it with our sense of another world, and certainly another time. Something caught up in its delivery to us, floating from place to place.

I guess it's hard, though, to tune into my feelings for radio as a line into the divine when all you are hearing is a loud-mouthed DJ laughing like a drain, followed by an old Billy Joel song and an advertisement about premature orgasms during the morning traffic report (that's an ad that takes place during those reports, by the way, not an issue of over-excitement with traffic flow - though as Billy Joel once put it, you just may be the lunatic we're looking for).

Maybe in the end I'm confusing nostalgia with spirituality, a common enough affliction today when the only church most people have is their past. Maybe I'm just another twentieth century cave man who can't put his thumbs to a Black Berry, still enraptured by radio's formerly central place as a hearth in the home - and, more importantly, in the car.

Maybe all I am talking about in the end is the way radio connects so immediately with an unconscious moment when the right song or conversation comes along. Not magic, but chance: or 'synchronicity'.

Whatever those wavelengths, radio is most certainly about voices. And while there are many radio-inspired inspired films from Oliver Stone's shock jock tale, Talk Radio (1988), to Woody Allen's recreation of the days of the 1940s serials in Radio Days (1987), and Christopher Petit's post-punk, existential English road story, Radio On (1979), I'd argue the most evocative and true depiction (if that's not a contradiction in terms) is Jean Cocteau's Orpheé (1950), a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

In Cocteau's version, Orpheus is a French poet with writer's block. He witnesses the death of a young poet in a road accident and becomes enmeshed in a surreal set of circumstances. They culminate in a dark-haired aristocrat revealing herself to be Death, before she pulls the dead poet through a mirror into the afterlife. Orpheus faints, then awakes in the middle of nowhere, unsure of what he has experienced and what he has dreamt. Returning home he ignores his pregnant wife and becomes obsessed with messages crackling from a radio inside a car parked in his garage. The messages - elusive and sometimes nonsensical - seem to be coming from the dead poet. Re-inspired, Orpheus jots them down, publishing them as his own. After all, he argues, "Who can say what poetry is and what isn't?"

You see something of this same energy in bio-pics like Walk the Line where the young Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) has his ear to what was then called the wireless, being seduced by similarly far-off sounds. As if the aural poetry of country music and gospel is leading him away from the flood-plagued cotton farm of his Arkansas childhood and on into a crucial place at Sun Studios and the birth of rock 'n' roll, and even further into his own mythical realm as 'The Man in Black'.

Martin Scorcese's documentary No Direction Home begins with a similar reflection on the young Bob Dylan, detailing the way "50,000 watt stations coming out through the atmosphere" would deliver the sounds of Hank Snow, Johnny Ray and Muddy Waters to a boy in the icy boondocks of Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan also talks about finding an old 78 slab of vinyl on a record player at the house his family moved into, a discovery that had "mystical overtones" for him as a child. This moment and the influence of radio are conflated in Dylan's memories as a siren-call: "I had ambitions to set out to find like an odyssey," he says, "[to] set out to find this home that I'd left a while back and couldn't remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there and encountering what I encountered along the way... the sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else, like I wasn't even born to the right parents maybe."

With those feelings in mind, its hardly surprising so many iconic figures have begun migrating back to the radio to work as DJs, putting together their own programs and playing the music they love: notably Bob Dylan with the 'Theme Time Radio Hour' on XM Satellite Radio and Lou Reed with his 'New York Shuffle' on Sirius Satellite Network. Figures as varied as Alice Cooper, Steve Earle, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, Steven Van Zandt and a host of others have joined them, reveling in the satellite radio broadcast revolution in the USA.

Hearing about these artists playing at being DJ seems to re-affirm radio as the ultimate machine for poetic experience and transformation to this very day. As if radio's gifts of song alongside any-time, any-place can still catch us unawares and transport us.

Which is how I came to write this story, I guess. The radio on in my car, Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' on the airwaves, the decades peeling away in my mind till I find myself at age 21 again, behind the wheel of my very first car, swinging through the curves of the old Pacific Highway near Swansea, this very same song streaming ecstatically along with the promise of the road as the singer calls to me through my radio: "To be born again, in another world... in another time, in another place, and another face."

- Mark Mordue

* This essay first appeared at ABC on 18th December, 2008, 12.30pm.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Where Fools Rush In

In an age of sound byte opinions and digitally rapid-fire news we are wildly quick to make our judgement calls on almost any subject from Britney Spears' mental health to the Gaza Strip invasion. The culture of blogging and a look-at-me glibness that seems to reward the loudest and quickest mouths on the block only adds to this feeling of disposable and trivial involvement delivered with maximum and immediate impact.

The idea we have the time, let alone a desire to think deeply about anything seems to be an anachronism we are dispensing with. Yet the popular success of the recent film Doubt throws this into question - and seems to me to have the same ethical significance now as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (which used the Salem witch-hunts of 1692 as its metaphor) did in the aftermath of McCarthyism in early 1950s America.

It certainly must have taken quite some convincing of the powers-that-be in Hollywood to go with a drama about a priest and a nun in conflict with each other over the direction of the Catholic faith and the well-being of a young school boy in their care during a gusty and grey autumn in the Bronx of 1964. No guns blaring, no significant special affects, no comic skits or lightweight patter, not even a clear and easily digestible conclusion to send people home feeling good.

And yet Doubt has gathered such critical momentum it played a significant role at this year's Academy Awards - with nominations for Best Actress for Meryl Streep and Best Supporting Actor for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as well as seeing Viola Davis (as a worried mother) and Amy Adams (a young nun) competing for the Best Supporting Actress honour.

Hoffman's priest is a lover of life: enjoying a glass of red wine and a cigarette, a side of raw and bloody beef, an extravagant and almost provocative three sugars in his tea. Along with these earthly pleasures he has a philosophical association with the groundswell of the Vatican II movement under Pope Paul VI in the early '60s, which sought to make the Catholic Church a more user-friendly and humane institution.

Streep's nun is a stoic recalcitrant who thinks 'Frosty the Snowman' is a pagan anthem. She detests biros as a sign of declining penmanship and runs her high school with ferocious discipline. Outwardly she represents a gloomy authoritarian hangover from the 1950s, but there's a tartly humorous side to her take on the world that slowly becomes available to us. "Everyone's afraid of you," a young sister tells her. You can almost taste Meryl Streep's smile when she replies, "Of course."

What is at heart a personal and institutional power struggle masked in the ideological currents of Catholic theology and educational practice (and with it some proto-feminist intimations as well) becomes something darker and deeper as the nun suspects the priest of inappropriate relations with the young black boy at her school. And yet despite the almost clichéd motor of a paedophile plot it's not clear if the priest is guilty - and even more ambiguously if such a 'guilty' relationship is utterly shameful, or part of a much more complex scenario involving issues of sexuality, bullying, race, class and other hidden forms of abuse.

The film's title resonates throughout every moment, turning our beliefs into presumptions. It ultimately asks us to consider the part that doubt can, or should play in how one speaks and acts. As Hoffman asks from the pulpit when Doubt opens, "What do you do when you're not sure?"

John Patrick Shanley wrote, directed and adapted the film from his stage play of the same name. These antecedents are obvious and Hoffman and Street eat up the screen in some overtly stagey if nonetheless superb bursts of plot-shaking dialogue. Shanley has meanwhile been open about the real inspiration behind the substance of the film: post 9/11 New York and the USA of this era more generally, when anyone who doubted or questioned the direction the country was headed in risked being ostracized and isolated.

And yet if events since 9/11 have taught us anything it is to be suspicious of fundamentalism, extremism and absolutism in all its forms, as well as any cheers (or hisses) that come too easily from abroad or at home. There's an old saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. It would pay to have it inscribed as a motto on the level of our civic debate these days.

It's this sophisticated broadening of thought - and emotions - that makes Doubt so richly involving as an experience, whether you have an interest in Catholicism or indeed an aversion to anything religious at all. The real drama it contains is its focus on our morality and how we come to determine its active nature in ourselves. How dreadful to think that our convictions can grow in the shallowest of soils and be nothing more than weeds.

Of course there comes a point where endless nuances and vacillations can immobilize us. One of the ironies of Doubt as it develops is the way in which the best possible actions are in fact committed on the basis of what is known, if for somewhat mixed and uncertain results. We do our best. What Doubt asks of us is to think about the tension between what we claim to know and how shaded the world can be in practice, and find some greater faith in its complexities - rather than annihilate ambiguity in order to reward our certainties.

- Mark Mordue

* This article was first published online at ABC, 23rd February 2009, 09.30am.