I’ve spent this last week in Sydney; for those who don’t know the city, it is one of the most beautiful contemporary cities in the world, blessed with an extraordinary naturally stunning location – the harbour. Dipping in and out of a culture regularly really gives you an objective perspective. Here, it remains, despite the seepage of the global recession spreading across the nation like a slow secret stain, a profoundly optimistic nation. In fact, one of the national newspapers had a survey in which they claimed optimism had never been higher and that the recession and the trauma of the bushfires had actually brought people together and reignited community spirit and values. Australia has always had the tradition of the ‘battler’ – the frontier man – and the psychology of facing adversity is set in the nation’s D.N.A. Having said that it is a lot easier to feel optimistic when the weather is beautiful practically every day and there’s a strange divide between the rural and the urban (with most of the nation’s population crowded into the Eastern coast cities) so in the privileged suburbs of Sydney it is easy to feel removed from the impact of the huge drought that has devastated the nation’s farming and river ways (except for the rising cost of fruit and noticeable deterioration of quality).
Culturally there appears to be less and less coverage in the national papers of local artists, writers and filmmakers with a rising noticeable ‘Americanisation’ of culture amongst the younger people. I guess it’s an evitable by-product of globalisation and the tyranny of distance falling away through immediate Internet access. However in the past one of the great advantages (and there are great disadvantages also) of this tyranny of distance was the eccentric and peculiarly Australian expressions of culture that was born out of originality as opposed to imported cultural values. I’m thinking of Nick Cave and some of the quirky films of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s etc.
The notable exception to the rule is the current and on-going blossoming of indigenous cultural expression – particularly on stage and screen. The current film tip that’s sweeping through the Australian gossip circles is that indigenous film maker Warwick Thornton’s movie ‘Samson and Delilah’ is tipped to be the next big Aussie movie – which would be fantastic and a great counterbalance to Luhrmann’s illusionary ‘Australia’.
This week I also saw the film of British playwright C.P. Taylor’s play ‘Good’ starring Viggo Mortensen. An apt depiction of moral complexity and one ‘good’ man’s slide into ethical compromise and finally betrayal it is compelling but somehow not satisfying. I suspect – given the current glut of three-dimensional Nazis movies – it’s because we are all now so immune to images of concentration camps (the final revelation for the protagonist – who, rather unbelievably, seems to have no idea of what the final solution entailed despite being an honorary member of the SS) that the emotional impact might be somewhat muted for a contemporary audience. The original play was first performed in 1981. That said, Mortensen is always worth seeing and his portrayal of an initially shy professor of literature (and Proust lover – who, as we know, was a Jew) and his transformation and convincing seduction into the Nazis Party is completely believable. An important reminder (especially in these current times) how evil is often incremental in execution and how the pressure to conform to social mores and constructs (no matter how extreme) is ultimately greater than enforced legislation. But what was so fantastic about the film was actually how the two central characters were so easily identifiable – I particularly enjoyed Jason Isaacs’s performance as a wry, world-weary secular Jewish psychologist swept up in an hysterical historical glitch he, himself, cannot take seriously until it’s tragically too late. I remember my great aunt telling me how she (as a young Jewish communist) had toured Germany in the 30’s playing table tennis and had stayed with German intellectuals (many of them Christian) who had considered Hitler a buffoon, and not to be taken seriously politically – many of them were either arrested or dead within the decade.