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December 30, 2001
The Same Hue of Blue, again and again

New York City, November 1998. The Whitney Museum have a major Mark Rothko retrospective. Thumbnail verdict: el crapola.

Rothko had a great idea: anti-art. Anti-representation. He looked over centuries of slow development in technique and subject matter in painting, and then went in the opposite direction.

No more fruit in a bowl, no more sunflowers, no more curvaceous Dutch women. Just a huge canvas covered in the same hue of blue.

What's it supposed to be? Nothing. What's it supposed to mean? Nothing.

It could just be me, but I think this is a great idea for a painting.

But it's a great idea for one painting.

Which isn't what Rothko thought. He found that he could sell Big Blue Paintings, so he did more of them. A lot more of them. Eventually he tinkered with them a little bit and added Big Black Paintings to his output, and, even more daringly, Big Black Paintings With One Horizontal Splotch Of Red Somewhere In The Middle.

In other words, all Rothko ever did was sequels. Lots of sequels. And the Whitney had collected a vast number of them, and so many that they needed two entire floors of the gallery to display them. I spent a few moments looking at the first one, and, if you'll excuse the expression, got the picture.

I walked over to look at the next one, and it was the same thing, apart from being ever so slightly taller. Yawn. I started walking quicker and quicker. By the time I headed for the exit, I was running. Too many other things to do.

One of which was the Jackson Pollock retrospective at MOMA. This was great, in part because they had collected everything he'd done, including all the early, tentative work. (And by "tentative" what I mean is "awful.") The first two rooms were early Jackson Pollock, filled with his attempts to paint things like animals and people. All of these were embarrassingly bad: in any conventional sense, Pollock couldn't paint. But, to the benefit of the exhibition as a whole, all of this stuff was on display.

So when you arrive in the third room, it all changes. You can see that Pollock has realised his limitations and has decided to try something else. Like Rothko, he ditched any attempt at representation (wise move) and struggled to find a form that worked for him. So we see him trying to figure out how to evoke the painted equivalent of motion, energy, ritual. They're not the best paintings ever, but compared to what you've just seen, they're going somewhere.

And in the room after that are two small paintings. They're his first attempts at the drip painting style. They explode with colour and energy. And compared to what you've just seen, they're simply incredible.

As soon as Pollock dripped paint on a canvas, it worked. And what he did from then on was experiment, and in ever wilder ways. The last few rooms of the exhibition were taken up with these paintings, and they were all different, and all fascinating. Someone described these as "energy made visible," and that seems exactly right. I was also very pleased to see, as an Australian, that one of the best paintings of all was Blue Poles, bought by the Whitlam Government for a vast sum of money in the early seventies.

The upshot of all is this is that you get a feeling of someone who knew he had a talent, but who had to search to find it, and who got very little guidance along the way. And the exhibition was fascinating, because it allowed you to follow the journey that Pollock went on: where he started, where he ended up, where his ideas took him. And unlike Rothko, there were no damn sequels, earning Pollock a much higher score on my Respect-O-Meter.

I guess I just hate sequels.

A later discovery, and something to try for yourself

The next time you're in the National Gallery in Canberra, try this. Stand in front of Blue Poles, and let your eyes relax. Ignore the people around you. Keep looking at the painting, but don't focus on any one part of it. Eventually you will start to discern another pattern: a 3D image of Gough Whitlam.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 04:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
Bootlegging the Bard

Shakespeare never authorised the publication of any of his plays or any of his sonnets. According to the Copyright Act, this would mean that every copy of his work that has been published and made available for sale is illegal. Of course, vast quantities of his work are available everywhere, which makes him the most bootlegged artist in history.

Surely this deserves an award of some kind. Perhaps Napster could sponsor a commemorative plaque?

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
January 20, 2002
A Passage to India

Earlier today I went down to the Astor to see David Lean's film of A Passage to India. I was surprised to discover that it was released in 1984, the same year as the Apple Macintosh, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. and William Gibson's Neuromancer.

I have a hazy memory of Forster's book being on the syllabus of a politics and literature course I took at university, which meant that I never read the book and, until today, had never seen the film. This now seems a somewhat wasted opportunity, because the film was fascinating. And there was a great deal of discussion about A Passage to India in the course, none of which I was able to follow. Oh well. I'm sure I was reading something equally interesting, such as a comic book.

The silliest thing in the film is Alec Guinness in brownface. That's the only thing that really dates it, and the only thing that a 2002 audience smirked at. Casting Guinness in this role just seemed unnecessary and unconvincing: all the other Indian characters are played by Indians, and they're all superb.

The film also has a tremendous sense of imagery, which is obvious from the very first shot. Once the credits finish we see a crowd of umbrellas in a London street on a rainy night, and a large model of a P & O liner that offers cruises to India and China. Out of the crowd steps a young Judy Davis, who looks at the model of the ship, and smiles. The next shot is in daylight, and features a ticket being written out on P & O stationary in the name of Miss Adela Quested. The ticket seller looks up, and again we see Judy Davis. Within thirty seconds, we know who this person is, where she is and where she's going. It's very clear, rapid, effective storytelling.

The film's strong visual sense gets across a great deal of information about India, but the film's sonic sense doesn't do likewise. A large number of my own memories of India have to do with what the place sounded like, and presumably this is because India sounds like nothing else on Earth. Sadly, A Passage to India doesn't make much of an effort to convey this, which I found strangely displeasing.

Likewise with the music, which I found fairly unimpressive. It was just the standard variety of Sweeping Hollywood Emotive, which could be just as easily transported to a film about explorers on the North Pole, or a love story between two postmen, or a pastoral tragedy about a farmer in desperate correspondence with a woman who travels around San Diego on a pogo stick. So the film does a splendid job of showing us what India looks like, while inhabiting a kind of sonic vacuum. It's a curious mix.

It's also obvious that Forster is sympathetic to the Indian independence movement. He portrays most of the English characters as being on the arrogant-but-dim side, an approach which I enjoyed immensely. And I was in the mood to appreciate this, having just seen Eddie Izzard's astounding concert film Dress to Kill.

One of Izzard's routines concerns the clever strategy that European powers employed to gain colonial possessions, which essentially revolves around the "cunning use of flags." Eddie then stages an imaginary conversation between an English imperialist arriving in India and a local representative. The Indian man quite politely asks the Englishman to leave, because India is already the home of five hundred million Indians, who therefore have a substantial claim to the running of their own country. But the Englishman is not so easily dissuaded, and asks the question that the Indian has no answer for: "but do you have a flag?" And when he gets a negative answer, he adds: "no flag, no country ... according to the rules that I've just made up."

Eddie Izzard and E.M. Forster: both Englishmen, and both believers in the idea that people are quite capable of running their own country without help from any other Englishmen. That's the funny thing about the English way of running an empire: its central value was politeness.

As a result, they lost the lot. But at least the process produced some great stories.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
January 27, 2002
Myst: the Masterpiece Edition

Reviewing a computer game is not something I've done before, so here's a review of a computer game.

It's been six years since I first played Myst. I have clear, and largely positive, memories of it. I didn't like the ending, but the journey towards it was wonderful.

When you start the game, you enter a beautiful world. It looks and feels totally unique. Generally, you then have one of two reactions: you get frustrated at the total lack of things to shoot at and leave in disgust. Or you become enchanted with the beauty of the place, and want to stay there forever.

John Holt's definition of intelligence is not how we react when we know what to do, but how we react when we don't know what to do. So you arrive on the island, and you wander around, trying to figure out what you have to do. This is Myst's first puzzle, and in many ways it's the best one. And it's an interesting exercise in self-knowledge, too: how will you react to being in a beautiful place, but not knowing what you can do there?

The standard criticism of Myst is that it's a slide show. As far as criticisms go, this one is accurate, because Myst really is a slide show. But it's a slide show with stunning sound effects and music, and that makes an enormous difference. If you walk to an exposed place the wind gets louder, and when you're close to water you can hear it gently lapping. In 1993, when the game came out, this had never been done before, and it just seemed extraordinary. Since then there have been any number of games with incredible graphics, and poor sound effects and dreadful music.

Given the choice between that and Myst, I'll take Myst. And the reason for that is that it changes what you have to do: instead of running around in a constant state of anxiety about getting shot, your mind can relax a little, and you can explore your surroundings, and try different things out. It takes time to adjust to this approach, but once you've made the leap it's hard to imagine going back.

Second time around I got annoyed at a few of the minor details of the interface, which isn't very intuitive and which fails to provide quicker alternatives once you've discovered how something works. For example, there are many occasions when you have to use the map on the main island to rotate the tower, and then enter and climb it.

To do this involves hitting a panel, which produces a short cut scene, which you always have to sit through. This rapidly becomes annoying: the game isn't intuitive enough to be able to sense that it doesn't have to show you every last little thing: that you've understood the mechanism and wish to get to a known destination more quickly.

So it's not a great game to play again, because you start to notice the incredible atmosphere a lot less, and notice the annoying interface a lot more. A hell of a lot more.

In the course of the game you visit four different ages, each of which contain two pages of a book that have to be picked up. Incredibly, the makers of the game decided that you can only have one of these pages at any given time. This is an obvious question, but why is this so? (Somewhere along the line I became intensely irritated with this, and hatched the theory that the game's makers are very physically weak people. And because they weren't strong enough to carry around two big, heavy pieces of paper they decided that no one else should be allowed to either.)

One of the ages, Channelwood, can only be accessed through a time-delay puzzle, which is one of the trickiest in the game. In any well-designed game, once you've solved a problem, you won't be obliged to solve it again. Not so with Myst, sadly: you have to repeat things that you've already demonstrated you can do. This gets tedious, especially when the puzzle itself isn't that good. This is especially true of the Mazerunner problem, the worst in the game.

And, of course, you have to return to each age twice, to pick up the other piece of paper that the game wouldn't let you pick up the first time you saw it. This is a flagrant contradiction of the second by-law of the Hacker Attitude: no one should ever have to solve the same problem twice. Perhaps this could be modified to include a specific Myst subsection: no one should ever have to do that stupid goddamn Mazerunner problem twice.

I'm not really sure what the Masterpiece Edition adds to the game, apart from a help screen, which gives a great deal of information, including, if you need it, complete solutions to the puzzles. It's probably not a bad compromise, because in the original incarnation some people got completely stuck within a few minutes. But there have been no other updates, which seems something of a wasted opportunity. Some of the cut scenes are now showing their age badly. In some ways it's amusing to look at a video in a postage stamp-sized window, but I find that the comic value of eyestrain has diminished over the years.

What has became clearer over time is Myst's philosophy, its attitude to things. The central metaphor of Myst is the creation of worlds by the writing of books. And as far as these things go, that's a pretty cool metaphor. On these islands, paper is power: you travel between different worlds by finding and opening books, and your overriding mission in the game is to bring back pages from different worlds. There's something in that which has a deep, enduring appeal.

So: eight long years after it came out, is Myst still worth playing? Yes, and for the same reason that it's still worth watching Casablanca sixty years after it was made: they're both classics.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
January 31, 2002
Billy Bragg: Still Suitable for Miners

In retrospect, I'm not sure why I bothered reading this. Andrew Collins, the author, is mainly interested in charting developments in British socialism from the late 70s onwards. He doesn't seem to be particularly interested in any other topic, including (and perhaps especially) Billy Bragg's music. He's certainly a weird choice for writing a biography about a musician.

There is almost nothing here about what Billy goes through to write a song or record an album. They just suddenly appear, with Collins dutifully recording what chart position they got to. There are pages and pages and pages about Red Wedge - which is of zero interest to anyone outside England - and nothing about, say, the development of Bill's guitar playing or singing.

That, to me, seems a wasted opportunity, especially given how good a songwriter Billy is. This is the guy who gave the world "Levi Stubbs' Tears," one of the greatest songs ever written. Collins calls it a "wonderfully sad song," which is about the only musical discussion in the book. The only other thing he can tell you is when it was released as a single and what chart position it got to. He misses the point, repeatedly, and at great length.

Collins also has a very noisy writing style. In addition to being earnestly politically correct, he's constantly quoting bits and pieces of popular songs. Initially this seemed cute, but he does it so much that it rapidly becomes infantile. Collins tries very, very hard to show off how much he knows and how many songs he's heard. My interest in this started out low and soon dropped to zero. I just wanted him to tell me, in a calm, interesting way, about Billy Bragg.

So the most engaging parts of the book were about those parts of Billy's life I knew nothing of: having his father die when he was still a teenager, going off to live in a sleepy country town with his first band during the heyday of punk, how being in the army changed him. But these sections were over way too soon and then it was back to the history of British politics from 1977 to the present, with a particular focus on Thatcher, Kinnock, Blair and Billy Bragg. There's so much of this that Collins just runs out of room. As a result he only devotes a measly six pages to the Mermaid Avenue album. He then finishes on an embarrassingly hagiographic tone, with several pages of quotes about what a great bloke Billy is. This entire section is unnecessary.

Not highly recommended. Better to listen to the songs, or to see Billy playing live.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 12:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 3, 2002
Four feet of head

Went with Cheek to the Archibald Prize exhibition the other night, and found myself standing in a room with thirty portraits.

Something I never noticed before about portraiture is that the eye level of the painting makes a difference. If the subject's eyes were, say, seven or more feet above the floor, I had to control sudden attacks of fear and a desire to run away. This is one of the drawbacks of having a vivid imagination. But if the subject's eyes were below my own eye level the painting somehow seemed insubstantial, as if it were - forgive the pun - beneath me. Strange.

An overwhelming majority of the paintings were of other artists, or of people closely related to the art world, such as gallery owners and art critics. This seemed unnecessarily self-referential, and it also meant that I particularly appreciated the paintings that were exceptions to this, especially those of Peter Carey, Lee Lin Shin and Roy and HG.

The scariest painting was of silverchair's Daniel Johns. It was a bit more than four feet high, and it only shows Daniel Johns' head. So you're looking at a four foot high head. According to ancient tradition, that's a hell of a lot of head. I found the most comfortable distance to look at it was from about half a mile away. I asked the security staff to move the painting out to St. Kilda Road for just this reason, and they were astonishingly unhelpful.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 12:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 5, 2002
The shocking truth about novels

... is that I'm reading a new one, and possibly for the first time since I lived down beside Torquay, more than two years ago. It feels good to be back.

When I left school, what I really wanted to do was write music, but that seemed too scary, or too hard, so instead I decided to educate myself and read all the world's great novels. For several years, from about the age of 19, that's more or less all I did. It nearly drove me crazy.

Time passed on; I went to university and came out the other side with a renewed interest in never reading anything ever again.

But more time passed, and eventually I got interested in reading again. But not so much in novels: I became far more interested with biographies, and books about ideas: science, history, language, even a few things about computing and the net. I wanted information about the world, and how it got to be this way. Novels weren't helping very much, so I more or less gave up on them.

What got me interested in Christopher Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, I'm embarrassed to say, is the blurb on the back: "Terrorism - it's the new rock `n' roll."

I read the first dozen pages with suspicion: do I wish to get emotionally involved with these characters, with this story? Those 12 pages have now turned into 200, and I'm reeling. This thing is making me want to have another go at my own novel.

What I love about Brookmyre's novel is that I recognise the world he's writing about. I love that a lot. And I get most of the cultural references, and I love how he uses the language and imagery of Quake and Doom. And I'm not going to say anything more, about this or any other topic, until I've finished reading it.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 7, 2002
Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill

London in the winter: December 1989 to early February 1990. I had vague plans to scoot around Europe and spend a few minutes in as many places as I could, but these plans were thwarted by getting sick and not being strong enough to leave London. I'd already been to a few shows before coming down with the flu, and while I was recuperating I decided to ditch the Eurail Pass and spend my money seeing more theatre. I saw something like forty shows in a month. It was an incredible education and an incredible time.

One of the things I went to was Raging Bull, which was an evening of stand-up comedy at the Boulevard Theatre in Soho. My memories of this evening are spectacularly one-sided. There were perhaps half a dozen comedians on that night, and I don't remember anything about any of them. Except one: the compere. A normal-looking guy, wearing normal-looking jeans, and whose name, of course, was Eddie Izzard.

He'd just started out on his comic career, and a lot of his material was more peculiar than hilarious, but he had that hard-to-define something. He was comprehensively unlike any other comedian, and he stood out as a mosquito would to a ladybird, if they were both sitting on the same grape.

He told long, outrageously absurd stories, and made stunningly implausible claims about his place in history. One of these was that he'd rewritten the speech that Neil Armstrong made when he landed on the moon. "Neil's first draft," he said, "was hopeless. It was 'one small step for a man, piece of piss for a frog.'"

It wasn't the world's greatest joke, but it scored huge points in the unpredictability stakes. But then his entire act scored massive points in the unpredictability stakes. There was no way of guessing what he would say or do next. I found myself sitting there in the dark thinking "who is this guy?"

Eleven years later, I had the chance to find out. Eddie Izzard came to Melbourne to play the Comedy Festival. "Great," I thought, "he's that fantastic comic from Raging Bull. No one will have heard of him, and he's playing in a big venue, so I'll have no problems getting half-price tickets on the day of the show."

As they say in the classics ... wrong. Not even close. Thanks for playing, and congratulations on your score of zero.

What I'd failed to notice is that in the eleven-year interim Eddie Izzard had gone from Soho obscurity to being one of the best stand-up comedians in the world. I wasn't the only person in Australia to have heard of him. English people were taking twenty-eight hour flights to Melbourne to see him in a small venue, or just to see him anywhere at all. By the time I got my act together to buy a ticket, they'd all gone. I got to see him do ten astounding minutes at the end of the Moosehead Awards at the Town Hall, but that left me wanting a hell of a lot more.

Recently I was given the video of Dress to Kill. Recorded in San Francisco in 2000, it's one of the greatest concert films any stand-up has ever made. The promise that I saw all those years ago, the something, has been realised. It's taken a definite shape, a clear form, and now sparkles around the stages of the world in dazzling fashion.

And today is Eddie Izzard's fortieth birthday. So I just wanted to say this: Eddie, if you're out there, thanks for a great night at Raging Bull, all those years ago ...

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 08:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away

I loved this so much that I'm at a loss to find words to intelligently discuss it, or adequately discuss it, or even discuss it at all. In view of this loss, here are some adjectives instead: superb. Fantastic. Wonderful.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 14, 2002
Bill Bailey at the Athenaeum Theatre, February 13, 2002


Well, mainly yeah.

Bill comes out and shambles his charming way through his opening bit, and then continues on. Parts of the show were stunning, and some parts were good, but I came away feeling mysteriously unsatisfied. Bill has talent in many different areas: he's a very good and very surreal comedian, he has a very relaxed manner on stage, and he's a great musician. He's one of a minuscule number of comedians who can score huge laughs by showing off at the piano.

But I found that all these different talents kept going in different directions: they didn't add up to anything in particular by the end. I just found that frustrating.

Still, there was a great deal to like in his show, and a great deal to like about him. He describes himself as a "relaxed empiricist," which immediately differentiates him from every other comedian out there. To his great credit, he picked obscure targets. At one point he talked about Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which I greatly appreciated. Other highlights were the takeoff of Billy Bragg, and the freeform jazz version of the fox hunt's bugle call.

He's very definitely worth seeing: don't be put off by my mysteriously unsatisfied feeling - which, I realise, I can't even explain properly.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 01:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 18, 2002
The great cultural void

Taught a drama class on Saturday, and rediscovered that teenagers are very easily shocked. I revealed that (a) I've never seen Mary Poppins, and (b) I don't have a television. They were scandalised. Some were visibly upset. There was crying and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I was fine with that, but there was also agitated murmuring, and open doubts regarding my sanity.

Humph, I said, to them, wishing I had a more articulate response, and eventually I had to say Humph again, but a bit more loudly. Owing to them being readily shocked, two Humphs was enough to quieten their agitated souls, and we returned to some kind of drama activity.

Anyway - what's the big deal with Mary Poppins? Isn't it just Dick Van Dyke doing an outrageously bad Cockney accent and some hokey songs?

After the class, which was in St. Kilda, I walked home to Fitzroy via the Candle Records extravaganza at the Corner Hotel in Richmond. This distance is something like walking from Sweden to the moon, except it's harder on the feet. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to walk the long way, which was via Sweden.

The Candle thing was good, and very good value: seven bands alternating on two stages, and all for the princely sum of $12. I liked The Mabels a lot, but I wish Darren Hanlon had been louder. What I heard was great, but I couldn't hear everything. I was amused that all the bands mentioned Chris Crouch by name, and usually with a large dose of obvious gratitutde. When I met Chris, half a decade ago, he was a mere slip of a thing: a Theatresports player who made completely unpredictable offers. And now he runs an empire. And it's a grass roots, community based kind of empire, which is the very best kind.

There's a lesson in there, somewhere, and I'm sure it's got nothing to do with whether or not you've seen Mary Poppins.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 19, 2002
Shakespeare In Love

Recently got to see this again on DVD. I loved it the first time I saw it, and see no reason to change my mind now.

One little thing about it is the effort it makes to provide a visual representation of the act of writing. Writing, to a cinema audience, is almost certainly the most boring activity imaginable. Paying good money to watch an actor scribbling a quill over a piece of parchment for two hours ... er, no thanks.

Shakespeare in Love tries to solve this by having lots of shots of crumpled up pieces of paper being thrown around the room. In one of the most telling shots in the whole film, one of these lands next to a skull. That's film symbolism: all is vanity, and everything winds up dead, but us folks at Shakespeare in Love have at least figured out a way of showing that, and we are glad.

That shot starts with a close-up of a skull. It's just sitting harmlessly on a shelf, with no paper to next it. For one tiny moment, nothing happens. And then the big excitement: a piece of crumpled up paper arrives from mid-air and lands next to it. That's the kind of thing that works for a cinema audience: action.

It might not be as exciting as, say, an alien invasion that turns into a massive car chase on top of an exploding volcano, with music by John Williams, but it's more than what anyone else has ever done at depicting the act of writing.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
April 13, 2002
Relocation, relocation, relocation

Reading Po Bronson's The Nudist on the Late Shift. The title reveals an awareness of marketing, but the book is actually about people in the computer industry, and what drives them. Bronson's good at conveying what Silicon Valley feels like, and why people are excited to be there. His skills in this area are so good that, for a moment, I considered moving to Silicon Valley and trying to find some venture capitalists.

Apparently that's what people do: they hatch a great new software idea, and move to Silicon Valley to find wealthy, adventurous people to bankroll them. So, for a brief moment, that's what I wanted to do, except my idea was to get rid of the middle man (the great new software idea) and just get the funding.

The book starts with this:

By car, by plane, they come. They just show up. They've given up their lives elsewhere to come here. They come for the tremendous opportunity, believing that in no other place in the world right now can one person accomplish so much with talent, initiative, and a good idea.

Reading this so soon after being in Sydney makes me wonder where I should be living. What I really want to do is write: songs, stories, jokes. What I've already done a lot of is travelling, and wandering, and moving house. I've done a lot of all that stuff. Always looking for greener mirages, for somewhere better, for something else.

For the first time in my life, I'm starting to think that the best place to get some writing done is where I am right now: at home, in Fitzroy, surrounded by a pile of books, with a guitar just nearby, and with a Melbourne sky outside threatening a long winter.

I've never felt this before. It's a profoundly weird feeling.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 06:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
April 21, 2002
Screaming in the audience

Four years ago, when I was in London, I was reading Mojo and Q and listening to the radio. It was The Verve's moment in the sun. Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet and Lucky Man were all on high rotation, Urban Songs topped the album charts, and The Verve were playing a headlining tour around the U.K.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that The Verve were on tour at the exact time as ... The Nerve. Okay: I guessing that this is what they were called, but they were The Verve's patently unofficial tribute band. And they seemed to be following The Verve around the country, perhaps hoping that Richard Ashcroft and the boys would all fall ill and they'd get called up to fill in. So if you happened to be in Birmingham, you could go and see The Verve at the National Entertainment Centre, or, for a fraction of the cost, you could go and see The Nerve at some sleazy pub down the road.

What got me angry about this was the stunning lack of respect. Look, I'm no fan of The Doors, or Abba, or Pink Floyd, but I can understand why these acts have tribute bands. The originals are no longer operating, owing to the death of the lead singer, or the collapse of the band, or because of the insurmountable obstacle that is Roger Waters. This sort of tribute band meets a tangible need, to satisfy people's desire for nostalgia, for youth, for happier, simpler times.

Which fails to explain The Nerve. What on earth were these people thinking? They're out on the road providing people with nostalgic memories of when The Verve were riding high with Bittersweet Symphony and Sonnet and Lucky Man. In other words, they're providing nostalgia for something that happened earlier on that day. And they were doing so with blithe cynicism. Can't afford to see the world's hottest band? Here, come and see us do virtually the same thing, but for a fraction of the cost and for absolutely none of the point.

Four years later, in two Australian theatres

Anyway. I was reminded of all this because tonight I saw two tribute shows to two famous comedians. Both were complete crap.

Play Wisty For Me was a tribute to Peter Cook, which also featured a lot of Dudley Moore. The actors playing these men were fine, I suppose, but the script was empty. The first scene was great: Pete and Dud come out on stage and shake hands, but Pete's so drunk he misses Dud altogether and ends up unconscious on the floor. Dud stands over him for a moment, and then says "you're drunk again. You've let me down again."

That was the first ten seconds, and nothing else in the next hour was as interesting. Bits and pieces of Cook's work had been cobbled together and were presented in random order. His offstage relationship with Moore went entirely unexplored, which created a vast, gaping hole in the show. If you didn't know who Peter Cook was, you'd come out of the show determined never to find out. Some countries have penalties for this kind of thing, and rightly so.

But even worse was Screaming In America, a play about the last six months of the life of Bill Hicks. "A play," mutters the actor playing Hicks, "only a play. My life doesn't even get a movie."

Bill Hicks' life story deserves a movie. And while we're waiting for that, this play does nothing to fill the gap. If anything, it makes the gap wider. Hicks had an amazing life, and occasionally the play hints at that. Could just be me, but that seems like an enormous waste of opportunity.

At the start of the play we see a young Australian girl writing a letter to Bill. She feels she can articulate her thoughts to him, because she thinks he'll be able to understand her. I don't have a problem with that. As a dramatic device, it's fine. But here's the rub: we also get to see the girl's father. Quite a lot of the girl's father. Frankly, way too much of the girl's father. And he's always complaining: about his health, about how difficult his life is, about ... the thermostat not working.

As time slowed ticked by I asked myself what this had to do with Bill Hicks. And the answer came in a flash: nothing. Nothing at all. I sat in that audience, wanting and willing to see what happened when Bill Hicks discovered he had pancreatic cancer and not long to live. Instead I got ten horrendous minutes of a girl's father complaining about a completely irrelevant thermostat. Wow. Oh, man. How "arty." How "challenging." How "edgy," how "out there."

No, wait. How pointless. How unnecessary. How boring.

Another enormously inadequate moment was towards the end, when Bill utters his last words. The actor did this sitting on the floor a few feet away from the front row. This meant that only the people in the first two rows could see what he was doing. I wasn't sitting in the first two rows, so I couldn't see the play's dramatic highpoint. Uh, great. Stagecraft, guys, stagecraft. Make sure the audience can see and hear everything. And while we're here, give them a reason to care about what's happening on the stage. So having an irrelevant character endlessly whinging may not be useful. Just a thought.

I spoke to the show's producer beforehand, and she said that the play was really about how people were using the net to mythologise Hicks. "They're ignoring his message," she said, "and focussing on the drug taking, the cowboy, the legend."

Just for the record, I think that's complete crap. The net also makes available the genuine article: a huge number of mp3s of Hicks in action. And if I have a choice between reading what's being written about him on message boards, or listening to the man himself, I'm going to take the second option. And I'm going to take it every single time. It's just what I would personally choose to do. This is one decision that I find absurdly easy, and, as a result, I question its value as a starting point for a play.

Anyway. I had a crappy night. I have the distinct feeling that the box office made a horrible mistake, and I somehow ended up in a sleazy, smoky pub watching the comic equivalent of The Nerve.


"Christianity's such a weird religion. The image you're brought up with is that eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God's infinite love." - Bill Hicks
     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 03:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
April 23, 2002
The last night of the Comedy Festival: Moosehead

I've been going to the Moosehead Awards for what seems like many years. If I can only go to one event in any given Comedy Festival, I always pick the Moosehead Awards above and beyond any other show. Part of this is sheer practicality: something like twenty comedians get up and do four or five minutes each, but they do so without the presence of television cameras.

Anarchy is often the result, and that's another one of the appeals of the night: the possibility, however slim, that genuine anarchy will suddenly appear and take a celebratory flight around the room.

The other attraction is the sheer scale of the thing. It's held in the main auditorium of the Melbourne Town Hall, which seats 1,500 people. Most comedy is performed in venues that seat about 10% of that number, and that makes for a big difference. When a comedian goes over a storm in front of 1,500 people, it's really, seriously, wildly impressive. That number of people can make an enormous amount of noise, and can show a devastating amount of appreciation. It's worth experiencing.

I should also admit something else: the Mooseheads, at least on occasion, have been a kind of religious event for me. Sunday's night show was good, but it certainly wasn't a religious experience. Twenty comics got up, and everyone was very good, and the audience went home happy.

But no one did anything anarchic. No one departed from their script. No one got up and orated.

I'm well aware that wanting comedians to orate is a completely unrealistic hope, but I still felt obscurely disappointed. A couple of years ago Anthony Morgan got up and produced that could only be described as an oration. It's still the greatest thing I've ever seen at the Mooseheads.

That year Anthony had made an artistic departure from his normal stand-up routine. His Comedy Festival show that year featured him doing stand-up to the accompaniment of a rock band, which had never been tried before, and which has never been tried since. Anthony can't sing, he can't dance, and the music was never in sync with the jokes. It was a profoundly weird experience to witness. He got uniformly bad reviews, and uniformly small houses. After three dispiriting weeks of that, he got up at the Mooseheads and said "oh, Melbourne ... you don't like change, do you?"

But before he said this he'd made an astonishing entrance. The previous act had left water all over the stage, and a stagehand was using a mop to clean it up when Anthony arrived on the stage. After the stagehand walked off, he offered Anthony, from the wings, the mop.

Anthony took it.

What he did then was to start mopping up an imaginary patch of water. He mopped with enormous, exaggerated care, and in extreme slow motion. Then he found another imaginary patch of water, and mopped that up. Then he became aware that there was imaginary water all the way from where he was standing to the microphone at centre stage. So he started clearing a "safe" path to it, still in slow motion, and taking only one tentative step at a time.

When he got to the mike he mopped that. Then he mopped the mike stand. Then he paused for a second and touched the mike stand with his hand. Then he mopped the hand that had touched the mike stand. Then he scratched his ear. He mopped his hand again, and for good measure he also mopped his ear.

What was really striking about this is that Anthony is a supremely verbal comedian. His ability at mime is roughly at the same level as his ability to sing or his ability to dance. And the extended mopping sequence was totally absorbing, because it was patently obvious that he had absolutely no idea where he was going with it.

Then he started speaking, and it became obvious that he wasn't too sure where he was going with that, either.

And that's the point. That's what I loved about what he was doing. He'd found himself on a vast stage, equipped only with a microphone, and carrying a mop. And he made something of it, right then and there.

It took him far longer than his allocated five minutes, but that was another wonderful thing about his performance: he was prepared to break any rule and any expectation and any time limit. He didn't care if the audience laughed. He just spoke what was on his mind, irrespective of the consequences. He orated. And towards the end of performance, he broke another rule, and attacked the other comedians who had played the Comedy Festvial that year. "They're all so middle class," he said. The implication being: they're all so safe.

So that's what I noticed at this year's Mooseheads: how middle class virtually every comedian was. And how free of genuine anarchy they were. Every performance was safe and warm and enjoyable, and I wanted something more.

I wanted chaos. I wanted the anarchic religious experience. I wanted the rollercoaster ride to an unknown, uncertain destination.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
May 8, 2002
Metaphorical pottery

Lunch today with Kirsty, though she didn't eat anything, and I had breakfast, owing to the fact that I'd just woken up.

OK. Fine. Let's just say I had breakfast with Kirsty, and leave it at that.

Kirsty's a potter. I asked her what she most likes about pottery, and this is what she said: "I like its humanity. Pottery can't be made on an assembly line. It can't be mass manufactured. It's been made by a real human being."

These are all very good reasons. But she also made an observation, and one that intrigued me: "people like to pick up pottery."

For some reason I can't get that out of my head. Partly that's because I immediately knew it was true. If I see an object that I like, or which I'm curious about, my first instinct is to pick it up and to look at it from all sides. Then there's the inevitable weighing up of the object, which involves passing it slowly from one hand to another, and looking generally thoughtful. (Another optical illusion, by the way: this process tends to look more philosophical than it actually is.)

So. What I want to do with whatever creativity I have is to write. It's a kind of metaphorical pottery.


Last night I saw From Hell and Quills. Quills bored me to tears, so I left half an hour or so before the ending. The acting was good and some of the actors were terrific - you've got to admire any film with both Michael Caine and Kate Winslet - but I just couldn't get interested in the Marquis de Sade's character.

While walking home I was reminded of something that Joyce Grenfell apparently said to Clive James: "those who regard themselves as gifted have fewer, not more, excuses for behaving badly."

The Marquis, it would seem, regarded himself as extraordinarily gifted, yet his "art" appears to amount to nothing more than demeaning and destroying anyone who tries to help him. Yawn.

To my surprise, I quite liked From Hell. Sure, after a few moments I wanted to stand up and yell "it's a lie!", but that passed away soon enough. What I was reacting to was the establishing shot of London, which actually makes the city look beautiful. (Uh ... what?) We see St. Paul's Cathedral in the middle of a spire-studded landscape, and the whole thing has been laid out to make London look as if it's on a hill. London is most definitely not on a hill. And it's not a terrifically beautiful city either, and I'm sure that's been the case for some time now.

There's another shot, much later in the film, which also features St. Paul's Cathedral. It's possibly the only scene in the film which was shot outdoors and in daylight. In it the cathedral towers majestically above the grime of the street. In the middle of the shot is a railway bridge, and as a train rumbles past it produces a dense cloud of black smoke, which largely obscures the view of the cathedral.

Oooh. Metaphor.


On Sunday I drove down to the beach and went on a three or four hour walk. I enjoyed myself so much I've been wondering why I don't do it far more often.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
June 2, 2002
Blue Velvet

The last time I saw Stig we spent most of our time discussing notebook protectors, obviously, because that's what we do. But when we took a break from that I revealed that I'd never seen Blue Velvet. He was shocked. He was aghast. It's one of his all-time favourite films, and he's filled notebook after notebook with observations and reactions to it. I suspect that Blue Velvet could be the reason why he needed a notebook protector in the first place. Indirectly, Blue Velvet could be the reason why I now have a notebook protector myself.

A month or two ago, when I was wondering what sort of tattoo I should get for my NoPro, people suggested images of all kinds. But not Stig. He suggested the tattoo could be three words: "see Blue Velvet".

So, a special message to Stig: yesterday, I finally saw Blue Velvet.

And in honour of Stig and his Special Edition Walsh NoPro, here's a quick review of it.

There are some great things in Blue Velvet, but there are moments that just seem embarrassing. About a third of the way in there's a scene in a diner with Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern. He's trying to tell her what happened the night before, when he broke into Isabella Rosselini's apartment. He gets as far as saying "it's a strange world," and then he starts crying. This seemed massively implausible. Every tear seemed utterly ridiculous.

The most startling scene in the film is the abrupt arrival of Dennis Hopper. The first few seconds that he's on the screen are astonishing. He's violent and unrestrained and unpredictable. Up to this moment all the other characters have seemed tame and well behaved, so he appears in wonderful contrast. The effectiveness of this scene is also increased because we see it from Kyle's perspective. He's watching it all from a closet, terrified of being discovered.

What David Lynch does well is provide moments of surrealistic contrast. He's a very visual director, but he's also got an excellent grasp of how music can be used to convey character. The evil characters all have a maudlin, embarrassing taste in music, and like to hear cheesy old pop songs while they wreak havoc. You end up leaving the cinema humming a Roy Orbison tune, the meaning and effect of which has just been radically altered.

As a general thing, Blue Velvet seemed in many ways like a rough draft of Twin Peaks. But on skating on thin ice here. I've never seen Twin Peaks either.

But I'm fairly confident what Stig's next email is going to be about.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 03:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
June 11, 2002
The future as a bowl of noodles: Blade Runner

In the old days of science fiction movies, in the fifties, say, the future was portrayed as clean and antiseptic and functional. Technology had won, and society had become well ordered and safe. And to demonstrate this, most of the actors had to stride around stark scenery wearing helmets. Shiny helmets, usually.

In the late seventies and early eighties, two films came along that went in a completely different direction: Alien and Blade Runner. In both cases the future was portrayed as a messier, dirtier version of now. Technology had certainly arrived, but it didn't always work, and it was indifferently maintained by people who obviously preferred to be somewhere else. Ridley Scott, who directed both, said that Alien was about "truck drivers in space."

Scott also brings his unique visual sense to Blade Runner, and the visuals are responsible for much of the film's enduring appeal. Two decades after it came out, it still looks amazing. It has atmosphere. It has atmosphere in bucketloads. And moving within it are interesting people and interesting robots. Sometimes they struggle to make sense of their world and their place in it, and sometimes they don't bother. Either way, there's a sense that they are able to accept it for whatever it is. And it's a world of individuals, not a seamless, helmet wearing society. That's what's really prescient about Blade Runner: it assumes that the world is not going to be perfect any time soon, or even any simpler.

Early in the film there's a great scene in which Harrison Ford, playing Deckard, is reading a newspaper on a crowded street. He's in Chinatown, it's raining, and night has fallen. It's always night in Blade Runner: the film opens with a panoramic view of a darkened Los Angeles, and daylight never comes. Just for a moment we have no idea why Deckard is reading a newspaper, or why he's doing so here, but then we realise he's waiting for a stool at a hawker street stall across the way.

When one becomes available, he's beckoned. He crosses the crowded street, using the newspaper to protect himself from the rain, and sits down. He orders something, and, as an afterthought, adds two words: "with noodles." Not long after they arrive, a sinister figure appears and requests his presence elsewhere. They get into a car. It lifts off. For a moment Deckard gazes out at the immensely complex cityscape spread out below him, and then he turns his attention to more mundane matters. He keeps eating his noodles.

This one tiny moment is one of my favourite film images. It presents a vision of the future, and it's one that seems plausible. Blade Runner's city of the future has dirty streets, with technology hovering overhead, and it's always raining. And out of the dense crowd come suspicious characters with unknown motives. And, above and beyond all this, there are still noodles.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 02:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
June 14, 2002
Childhood ambition: codebreaker

The last few days have been spent with my head down, trying to finish a song or two. I've decided that June 29 is a good day to make a song available here. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but I think it's time to experiment with having a clear deadline.


Took a break last night and went to the Astor to see two great films: Rabbit-Proof Fence and Enigma.

I enjoyed the hell out of Rabbit-Proof Fence. It's got a great story and great actors, and it makes you think. I was happy with that. It's the kind of film that Australia needs now, if only because it really does make you think. A personal highlight for me was Peter Gabriel's haunting music. As far as I know this is the first soundtrack he's done since Passion, the music for The Last Temptation of Christ, more than a decade ago. Passion is one of the greatest records I've ever heard, so I'm looking forward to spending more time with this new soundtrack.

Enigma is set in Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking headquarters during WWII. The film follows Tom Jericho, one a small number of brilliant, erratic people who were recruited, at least in part, through their ability to solve a particularly tough Times cryptic crossword. The film reminded me of the famous line in Raging Bull when Robert de Niro says, over and over again, "I could a been a contender." I came out of Enigma thinking "I could a been a codebreaker."

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)
June 18, 2002
Anything this good reminds me of Bob Dylan

Saw Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters at the Astor on Sunday night. I've always loved both films, and it was nice to touch base with them again.

Manhattan, especially, looks more and more like a film from an another world. The telephones are antiquated. The characters who write for a living all use typewriters, or pens. No one emails anyone. It's becoming a fascinating historical document, and it's only 23 years old.

Something I'd never noticed before is Woody's acting skill. For a man who started off writing television comedy, and then became a stand-up, he's convincing as an actor, and convincing as a romantic lead. The last scene of the film has him confronting 17 year old Muriel Hemingway, and it's her scene. Woody just has to stand there and listen to her express her long pent-up feelings towards him. Stand-up comedians tend do this kind of scene really badly, because they have a natural tendency is to make little jokes and avoid the emotional reality being thrown at them. But Woody doesn't do that. He listens to her, respectfully, and bows to her wishes. It's a great scene.

Hannah and Her Sisters is much more an ensemble piece, which is partly why it's a better film. We don't even see Woody for a few scenes. At the start we see Michael Caine focussing his attention on Barbara Hershey. Mia Farrow, as Hannah, also makes an early appearance. All these characters are immediately convincing and interesting, and we quickly realise that this is a more ambitious film than Manhattan. What I love about it is that Woody pulls it off. He creates a bigger world, and fills it with brilliant details, and takes the whole thing somewhere unexpected.

Hannah has a wonderful ending. Early in his film career, Woody just played for laughs, so his plotlines would swerve off in any direction. This approach often meant that he struggled to provide a satisfying end to his films. In the late seventies, with Annie Hall and Manhattan, he started making much more adult, relationship-based films. But these also proved difficult to end. This is because relationships tend to be ongoing, one way or another, but stories need to stop somewhere. Romantic films solve this problem by having the leads marry each other, and arthouse films end with one of the lovers leaving, or dying. Woody comes up something new, and it's magnificent. If you've never seen any of this man's films, start with Hannah and Her Sisters.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 10:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
June 30, 2002
Vale, Philip

I've recently read an intriguing book called Zen Computer, by Philip Toshio Sudo. Just as I finished it I discovered that Philip had died of cancer only a few days before, at the age of 42. He was also the author of the wonderful Zen Guitar, which I really enjoyed. He had an interesting way of writing. He'd collect quotations from various sources, and thread his own connections between them. And he'd do this in such a way as to illuminate his main interest, which was exploring life in the modern world from a Zen Buddhist perspective.

He was one of those rare writers who could accurately describe the world as you know it, but from an unexpected, unexplored angle. I like that, and I find it useful. It's also the sort of thing that I appreciate more as I've gotten older, perhaps because it becomes harder to summon the energy to find other ways of looking at things. Occasionally I found the quotations overshadowing his own writing, but perhaps that's because he had such superb taste in quotations. I was intrigued by his work, and I'm saddened that he's no longer with us.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
November 13, 2002
Ballet is not an art form

Today I was a distant, remote power figure.

It felt good. If at all possible, I'd like to be one again.

I was summoned to the National Theatre to be part of a three person panel to assess the dramatic skills of two groups of ballet students. Everyone there was a very good dancer, but their acting ability varied widely.

But, to be fair, my ability at being a distant, remote power figure also varied widely. My instructions were to "assess" the students. I was given various pieces of paper, and after we saw the first class do their monologues I was asked for my assessment.

"Well," I said, "some of these girls are very pretty. And yet - others are less so."

Apparently, this wasn't the answer they were looking for. Nor, indeed, was it even close. The other two members of the panel looked so aghast that I eventually thought about giving them a better answer.

I had a quick glance at one of the pieces of paper they'd given me. On it were words like "focus," "emotion" and "character."

As an experiment, I put together a sentence that featured the words "focus," "emotion" and "character." I even prefaced it with the words "just kidding," and this helped soothe the mood of the room.

But, really, I wasn't kidding. Ballet, to me, is all about what you look like. That's why I have no interest in it. Ballet dancers constantly conduct themselves as if they're on a catwalk, even if no catwalk is available. They seem to inhabit an imaginary, ongoing fashion show. It seems fairly natural to give them a score out of ten for their looks alone.

A lecturer I had at university said that ballet was the youngest of the main art forms. He said this as part of a discussion about semiotics, or semolina, or something. It was all I could do not to leap out of my chair, rush over to the lectern, and kill him. If ballet is an art form, I remember thinking, the world is doomed.

I know I'm getting irrational here, but as a distant, remote power figure, I feel it's my duty. Ballet dancers are very, very, very self-conscious, about their looks, their clothes, the way they move. Of course, to me, the way they move is utterly ridiculous. Even the simple act of walking is complicated to a fanciful strut. The spine is painfully straight, the shoulders are dead level, the head is balanced just so. The result is graceful pomposity. Ballet is the elaborate process of flowing about the stage, looking blonde. It takes years of intense training to become good at it, and all to accomplish an artistic goal that doesn't matter.

Today I was a distant, remote power figure. I arrived with an enormous, irrational bias, and left with it in pristine condition.

In other words, I was a distant, remote power figure with no idea about what I was doing.

Somehow, that just seemed right.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)
November 25, 2002
Michael Leunig in front of a thousand people

When I was a kid, I was embarrassed to live in Melbourne. For a long time it seemed an awkward city, uncool and unlovely. But even at the height of my embarrassment, I was always delighted with one local institution, the artist Michael Leunig. For all its failings, Melbourne produced the world's most endearing cartoonist.

He's ours. And no, you can't have him.

About six years ago I saw Leunig do a book launch at Gleebooks in Sydney. At the time he wasn't comfortable making public appearances, and certainly not public appearances in Sydney, a city he's not known for liking. He was so nervous that at one point he began hyperventilating. A hundred or so people watched in mounting concern as he stopped speaking and started gasping for breath. After what seemed an eternity he eventually recovered enough to keep going, but it was a primal thing to watch. What stood out was Leunig's determination to get through an experience he found terrifying, and the generous patience of the audience. The man is so loved that his audience were quite happy to wait for him. Forever, if need be.

Last night an audience ten times bigger packed into the Astor Theatre to pay tribute to their cartoonist. It was an enormous relief to see a relaxed Michael Leunig walk on stage. The man has come a long way, in every sense, and it was a pleasure to see him breathing normally in front of a vast, adoring audience.

The compere was Red Symons, another local creative force. Red asked for a Leunig treatment of a standard idea in comedy: a man walking down a street with a banana peel and manhole. Leunig was clearly unprepared for this request, but happily obliged. First he drew a nose, and then he chatted for a little bit, and then he drew an eye, and chatted for a little more. In between regular bits of chat, he eventually drew a little man wearing a cape, with a duck wandering about nearby and an angel looking down from above. The banana peel sat on the ground, largely hidden amongst a few strands of flowers. There was no punchline, no real point. Leunig simply provided us with a typical assembly of his characters, and it was enough.

No: it was more than enough. Along the way came a moment of magic. Having drawn his little man, Leunig went on to add a single tear to his face. As the pen marked the paper hundreds of people let out an audible sob.

As they say in the classics: imagine that. Imagine holding such power: to draw such a tiny thing, and provoke such a strong reaction.

But that's Michael Leunig's art. His is the poetry of the little person. His is the one gentle voice in a world of shouting. He started drawing tiny cartoons thirty years ago, and still he keeps at it. Slowly, the world turns towards him. Six years ago, a hundred people. Last night, a thousand. I was proud to be there, in the company of a great artist, shedding my own tear in tribute.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)
January 14, 2003
Fireworks in the dark

Goddang. I forgot to mention the really cool thing about using a Macintosh Classic. The screensaver, man, the screensaver. As they say in the classics: it's all about the screensaver. If I was writing something and got stuck a simple remedy was at hand. I just had to wait a few minutes for the screensaver to kick in and provide me with a surprisingly adequate amount of prehistoric digital entertainment.

The screen would abruptly go black and a little white dot would blast off in a rising arc. Just after it started falling it would explode with fireworks. Then the screen would go dark again, and the little white dot would reappear somewhere else and launch at a different angle. Over time, I came to love that screensaver. I wrote a lot of stuff about it, some of which was in rhyme. It's early days yet, but this could well be The Year Of Extensive Screensaver Discussion.

Except for one thing, and that thing is Sudsy: Sudnow Syndrome. Named after David Sudnow, author of Pilgrim in the Microworld, a book of some kind. A book I recently read, in fact, and a book that I strongly recommend avoiding. It's 227 pages long, and about five of these pages are about his life away from the computer screen. (Sudnow briefly talks about his son at the very start and at the very end of the book. These pages aren't great, but they're better than the rest of the book.)

227 pages, minus 5, adds up to a great deal of information about the book's real topic: Breakout. This is an early computer game designed by Atari, who went broke not long after Pilgrim in the Microworld was published in 1983. I doubt there's a connection, but I'm happy to imply one.

Breakout was a huge hit in the gaming world, partially because of its then revolutionary gameplay. At the bottom of the screen was a little paddle that you could move from side to side. Above this, close to the top of the screen, was a solid wall of bricks. A bouncy ball would appear on your paddle and travel upwards. It'd hit one of the bricks and bounce back down, so you'd try to move the paddle to hit the ball back up against the bricks. Every time the ball hit a brick it would disappear, and the idea was to completely clear the screen of bricks. If you missed the ball on its way back down the machine would snort at you and give you another chance. But you only got five chances: five misses and you lost the game.

In the first half of the book Sudnow describes nearly half a million games, all of which he loses. For a while I admired his determination, then I pitied him, then I found the whole thing embarrassing. Ultimately, of course, I wondered why I was still reading.

To his credit, Sudnow tries to do a great many things along the undiscovered path to Breakout enlightenment. His book is part reflection on the relationship between people and technology, part Inner Game of Tennis, part scientific treatise, part Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He's also fairly consistent, at least in the sense that everything he tries doesn't work.

But his book offers a salutory lesson: remember who you are writing for. There's a school of thought that says "write about anything that's interesting to you, as long as you can make it interesting to others." Sudnow certainly follows this advice, but only up to the comma. He completely forgets to make his topic interesting. After about ten pages it also becomes obvious that he's not really addressing a human audience: if anything, he's writing for an audience of Atari bricks. Which is all very well, I guess, but they're not conscious beings and they can't read.

"With my tongue hanging out, I was on that plane of being where not even the simplest sorts of analytical reasoning flourish, and with a handful of bricks before me it was pure id, no ego, pure electricity, no program. Oh, please, you Atari bricks." - Pilgrim in the Microworld, p.78

Over the last few weeks I've spent a lot of time looking at an antique screensaver on an old Macintosh. I wrote something like twenty-three thousand words about it, but I very much doubt you'll ever get to read any of them.

Trust me on this: that's a good thing.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 05:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
February 16, 2003
The cult of Laurie Anderson

Last night I went to see a New York based multimedia artist, and emerged from the show with my fashion sense safely unaltered.

Laurie Anderson appeared on stage wearing normal trousers, in stark contrast to some members of her audience, who were decked out in ridiculous trousers of all colours and hues. Almost the entire audience was middle class or wealthier, so the ridiculous trousers served to indicate the crazed anti-social nature of their wearers. To further add to the effect, many of the ridiculous trouser brigade sipped champagne and spoke in hushed voices.

Anderson uses a simple trick to keep the audience's attention, which is to talk over a pulse, or a drone, or some kind of flowing ambient sound. The overall effect is of a mother talking to her unborn child. It's hypnotic and incredibly effective, which is why some cults use a similar technique to indoctrinate people. Once the mind has become absorbed with making sense of a rhythm, it's very hard for the rational part of your brain to think "wait a minute: these people want me to wear baggy trousers and chant nonsense in public places."

Strangely, Anderson balances out the effectiveness of this trick by using her voice in a frustrating way. Apart from a couple of moments when she talks in different accents, she always speaks at the same volume, at the same tempo, and, most damning, in the same detached, neutral tone. It all adds up to an antiseptic delivery. She's a bit like a cult leader with a fluctuating interest in her followers.

After a time of being an unborn child I started getting impatient with the show. It's called "Happiness," but a more accurate title might be "Concentrate," which is what you have to do for nearly two hours.

Anderson spends the entire show standing behind a keyboard, which makes for an unimpressive visual spectacle. A couple of times the lights on the curtains behind her changed, which assumed a dramatic significance far in excess of what it deserved. About ten minutes after the show started I wanted her to grab the microphone and pace up and down the full length of the stage. I wanted her to wave her arms around and to talk louder and faster. I wanted more action and drama. I didn't get it.

But I also wanted her stories to make a clear start and move towards a clear ending. Instead they just floated from one fragment to another, without adding up to anything. Eventually she reincorporated something that sounded vaguely familiar from earlier in the evening, and stopped there. I was absurdly pleased that she didn't do an encore.

Along the way a couple of the things she said were really interesting: that we're afraid of silence, that technology is the great marketing coup of the twentieth century, that the Amish argue with each other in extreme slow motion. And I think there was something about the benefits of wearing baggy trousers and chanting nonsense, but I can't be sure. As I left the Concert Hall I glanced down at my trousers, and was relieved to find that they were the same old jeans I was wearing when I arrived. Others weren't so lucky.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 08:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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