Historical inaccuracies throughout history

Alright, I’m at the AGO (the Art Gallery of Ontario for those many people who wouldn’t Google it) during my trip to Toronto (more on that… eventually) checking out the art. The building itself is quite pretty and it has a pretty decent collection – though I am a little miffed that they make you pay extra for special exhibitions. That’s pretty bullshit. Anyway, the stuff I do see is great, but as I wander through the gallery the thing that jumps out at me is some of the cultural anachronisms I keep on seeing in the art from certain time periods.

Y’see, a lot of those post-Renaissance painters (and a few of contemporary Renaissance painters as well) had the habit of painting their subjects in the arms, armour and general regalia that they were used to seeing. It’s why a painting of some Gothic king bears a striking resemblance to Henry Tudor and why the Greek soldiers in another painting bear a closer similarity to the modern Swiss Guard than to what we’re pretty certain hoplites actually looked like. I’m making these up for the drama, but I reckon if you know your way around a painting you know exactly what I’m talking about.

What really got me laughing though was this painting right here.

Pieter Claessens the Elder (15th century), published without permission from anyone I'd probably need to get permission from.
Artist was Pieter Claessens the Elder (16th century), hanging in the AGO. Published without permission from anyone I’d probably need to get it from (please don’t sue).

Magnificent right? Right. Nah. Not my favourite painting in the gallery, colour’s a bit flat for my taste and I’m a bit more partial towards Impressionism and Cubism. But what got me is what the painting is supposed to depict. Namely, that white kid in the middle is supposed to be Moses (as in the Biblical “Let my people go!” Moses) breaking a crown in Pharaoh’s court (as in ancient Egypt, pyramids and mummies).

Does that look like Ancient Egypt to you? It sure as hell doesn’t look like ancient Egypt to me. I mean, aside from the fact that almost the entire court could be described at our most generous as ‘a little tanned’ (except for the one black kid, of course), the dress, throne, and background has more in common with how we’d picture the Medici family dining room than anything a bloke named Ramses would get within a thousand years of. Put bluntly, that is not ancient Egypt and it boggles the modern mind that anyone would ever think that it is.

But it shouldn’t. 2004’s King Arthur (the one with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley) was an attempt at a historically accurate-ish retelling of the classic tale, and it too leaned heavily on the ‘ish.’ The Last Samurai; Dancing with Wolves; Alexander; Troy; Robin Hood; The Patriot; fucking Pirates of the Caribbean. Even the fantastical films, the ones where we know they’re just making shit up, these still inform our views of time periods throughout history.

On a more recent note the past two years have seen some pretty heavy controversy regarding the casting of white actors into the roles of non-white characters, most prominently in abysmal blockbuster flops Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Apparently we’re still casting Moses and his mates as white guys (the costumes are still pretty atrocious as well). The more things change the more they stay the same, aye?

I should have a bit more of a point to this… right. Recognise your own biases, do some proper research when writing or copying a particular time period and for the love of god don’t make everyone white. Good? Good.

Talk soon.

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

The orc’s in the detail: Or why I did not love Warcraft.

So I went and saw Warcraft a couple of days ago. Got really drunk afterwards and had a particularly nasty hangover the next day. Don’t normally get headaches like that. This has nothing to do with the film, of course. I just felt like sharing.

Anyway, I got a pair of mates together and went and saw Warcraft. Both of them had played a fair bit of the games and had a firm grasp of the lore. Me? Never played a Warcraft game in my life. No, wait, I think I tried to play a bit of one campaign mission of Warcraft II or III back in highschool, but didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on so jumped out pretty quick. Soaked in a bit of lore from spending so much time immersed in nerd culture, but it doesn’t really go beyond: Alliance equals humans and dwarves and shit, generally the good guys; and Horde equals orcs and wolves and shit, generally the bad guys. So I went in relatively clean. They went in dirty. What did I think?

Honestly, it was a bit shit.

I mean, not especially shit. Not terrible. But a bit shit. Unimpressive. Not particularly good. And that’s a bit of a shame. Everytime we get a film adaptation of a video game franchise (and they’re always franchises) there’s a bit of hope around. I’m not entirely sure what we’re hoping for anymore. We’ve got mainstream acceptance (every man and his grandmum are playing some video game or another) and we’ve pretty well established that games are an artistic medium (or at least the people that fought against this are either dead or proven to not have a clue what they’re talking about). Maybe it’s because a film adaptation has always been the benchmark of success for an intellectual property, vindication for fans of the book or comic or cartoon or boardgame. A statement that, yes, this thing you love is worth spending two hundred million dollars on and a theatrical release. Maybe we just hope that this movie about something we love won’t be shit.

Maybe that was why I didn’t love this film. I’m not a fan of the Warcraft games. The two blokes I went with, they’re fans of the Warcraft games. They enjoyed it more than me. My mate Jordan (one of the gismos over at Evade Gismo) absolutely loved it, to his great surprise. He did not want to see it ’til I told him I convinced him, told him that if it succeeded I wanted to see it work and if it failed I wanted to see the trainwreck. I was curious, I think he was concerned about them butchering the source material. He thought it was excellent. Loved it. I thought it was a bit shit.

It wasn’t trainwreck bad, and I could see why my mates really enjoyed it. There’s the bones of a pretty awesome, epic film experience. And the orcs look fuckin’ amazing. Really great. Like, I was expecting some proper uncanny valley shit but these guys and girls fit into the world so well and so easily. But the movie still fails to deliver, for big and small reasons.

Too many characters with too many names that are bloody hard to keep track of with pretty bloody atrocious characterisation. I mean, yeah, Duracell the orc is noble and all that. I couldn’t remember his name by the end of it, and his scenes are full of grand sacrifice for no discernable cause or consequence. Seriously the guy goes and {probably a massive spoiler} and nothing changes. Not a fucking thing. Orc Gamora makes no fucking sense. She’s loyal to the orcs. No, she’s loyal to the humans. No she’s loyal to both. But she’s killing orcs right now. But she’ll kill humans later. But she’ll be sad about it. Why the fuck is she hell was she loyal to the orcs at all though? They were the ones who chained her up and have been treating her like shit her whole life ’cause she’s got smaller teeth or something. I think they’re trying to push the whole this is just orc culture and society and what she’s used to, but she sure is happy to push all of that aside as soon as Queen Only-Other-Lady-With-A-Speaking-Role gives her a blanket. Then there’s that Aussie actor who plays Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings playing Ragnar Lothbrok right down to the way he stands. I wonder it it’s because there was so little characterisation in the script and directions that he had no choice but to pull out a bit of Ragnar, because the director is a big Ragnar fan so put that characterisation into the script and directions or because he just really likes playing Ragnar so is bringing it to his other roles. Probably a mixture of the three.

You’ll notice at this point I’m not using the actual character names. That is because I’m struggling to remember most of them and I cannot be arsed to look them up.

I’m not even sure if the king of the humans gets a name. He just seems to be called “the king,” or the more familial “our king.” Awful hair though. Seriously, he’s got the kind of stupid fucking hair you’d see in period pieces or medieval fantasy around the seventies and eighties, along with electro-synth soundtracks. Because kids love electro-synth. The orc leader Goldan (I think that might actually be his real name) is pretty cool. Spends the film all hunched and menacing and evil wizardy until near the end when he goes all King Bumi on us. Cauldron the mage get’s some of the worst lines in the film and he hams them up pretty bad. Medieve doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially given how bloody obvious it is that he’s {probably another spoiler}.

And those are just my issues with the characters. I mean, there’s nothing really terrible about them. I don’t hate anyone. But, they’re just a bit shit. And so you just don’t care about any of their noble sacrifices and meaningless deaths. ‘Cause yeah, some of them die.

The story suffers because it tries to take too much from the video games. Or is too much like a video game. Or takes the wrong things from video games. Like, there’s this opening scene where a dwarf gives Ragnar a flintlock pistol. Ragnar’s all “WTF’s this?” and the dwarf is like “This is the tits. We call it boom stick (title’s a work in progress)” and then a messenger arrives to tell Ragnar to get back to Stormwind. This is all to set up a fucking joke, where Ragnar shoots an orc and is surprised by how powerful his new toy is. That’s fucking all. The same effect could have been achieved by showing Ragnar tucking a musket into his belt before going to kill some orcs. Bam. Done. I just made a two hour goddamn movie a few precious minutes shorter. Because here’s the thing, shit like that is necessary in video games. It’s a tutorial level. Here’s your new weapon, here’s how it works, here’s a training level where you can try it out. But this does not translate well to film. It’s unnecessary and it breaks the flow of the film. Some shit needs to be explained. “Soldier knows how to use a boomstick” does not.

Fuck, I can go on and on. How do I explain this a little more simply?

Alright, you know how I said the orcs look amazing? All the CGI does. Real spectacular, lots of detail, the horde looks like it’s made up of individuals and the magic looks great. Real awesome job Visual FX guys and gals. But the practical effects? The practical effects look like shit. Stone walls look like painted wood and I’ve seen swords and armour homemade by cosplayers that looked better than half the costumes and props being used. Apparently the whole budget went into the computer animation, while the practical designers were given twenty bucks and told to make do.

What this film does right, it does really well. Like the orcs. But what it does wrong? I can spend a long time going through all it does wrong. Too long. Ask me later if you really want me to through all of it.

Couple of suggestions though for if you’re planning on making your own epic fantasy story (based on a video game or otherwise).

First, diversity matters. If there’s no reason for a character to not be a female, there’s no reason for a character to not be female. Now, I’m not talking about turning Ragnar or Cauldron into a lady. Nobody needs the hate mail that’d come from that. But there’s these two other Stormwind commanders, black clean-shaven guy and white bearded guy, who get basically no lines and are just there because even Ragnar can’t kill the entire hoard himself. There’s no reason why these both need to be dudes. One of them could very easily have been a lady. It doesn’t affect the story at all, and earns you a tonne of goodwill. Fuck, it might earn you a lot more money and positive social media attention as well. There’s little that Tumblr loves more than supporting female characters, and suddenly this random background lady becomes the star of a thousand AUs, theories and in depth character discussions.

Second, maybe think about where you start your story. Maybe start with something more personal rather than epic. I mean, yeah, epic is great and all, but Lord of the Rings waited until midway through the second film before expanding the scope from “these nine guys against fifty” to “a few thousand versus a lot more thousand.” Establish your world, establish your characters, tell a more personal story. Then threaten the end of the world.

I didn’t hate this film. It’s not terrible. It’s just a bit shit.

And I’m just throwing it out there: Ragnar is the brother of the Queen. A white guy with a Northern European accent is the brother of black woman who speaks the Queen’s English. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, I am saying the exact opposite in fact. They obviously had an interesting (possibly heartbreaking) family life, and went from a small village on the borders of the kingdom (if I recall the film correctly, which I’ve already acknowledged I probably don’t) to become the commander of the King’s armies and the mother of his children respectively. That sounds like some Game of Thrones level shit right there. I would watch that. I would watch the hell out of that.

Geopolitics and character development: Some thoughts from CA:CW

Captain America Mission Accomplished - Edited 30:5:16Alright, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best analogies for Bush-era post 9/11 American geopolitics I’ve seen in pop-culture in a long time. Seriously mate, it’s so good that I can’t help but wonder if it’s intentional. I mean, not whether the analogies to the great questions facing American and NATO foreign policy over the last fifteen years were intentional or not. They obviously are. But how good it is, well, have you ever met Yanks who are that self-aware? Nah mate, even the smart ones have got blind spots in certain areas. Not they’re fault, it just comes with being the biggest, toughest kid on the playground for so long, helped along by constantly telling yourself about how righteous your causes are. Like Captain America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the simple analogies. The Avengers as a group are NATO (and its close affiliates) and Captain America is, as you might’ve guessed, the United States of America.

The Avengers exist as an organisation to defend and retaliate against existential threats, both defined (Loki and his army in the first film) and undefined (whatever the fuck Hydra became after Winter Soldier). And let me be very clear, they are happy to retaliate. Tony Stark makes that very clear when he has a chat with Loki The Avengers (“because if we can’t protect the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it!”) Their intervention in Sokovia at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron seems more like a preemptive strike. While we learn in The Avengers that the ‘Avengers Initiative’ was initially scrapped before the events of the film because of the unreliability of some of the proposed members (*cough*Iron Man*cough*), but its founding members are brought together to fight a powerful foreign threat. Once the enemy is defeated, they more or less go their separate ways. Without having a specific threat that requires a unified front, they drift off and deal with their own problems in their own theatres (huh!) of interest. Awfully similar to NATO when you think about it.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded largely to deal with the existential threat posed by the USSR (which maintained an edge in conventional weapons even if it was outgunned nuclear-wise) that no single member could have handled alone. The fall of the Soviet Union at the turn of the nineties saw the Alliance’s continued role in international affairs come into question (and it still does). NATO members have come together over the two and a half decades since to do the odd bit of dirty work (an air campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia) but even then they’ve often been flying their own individual banners, flying the banners of some other international institution (the UN) or working bilaterally. You could argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was a NATO affair, but you could also argue it wasn’t just as easily. NATO has, however, seen something of a renewed raison d’etre as the world tries to deal with cross-border terrorism, the continued consequences of the Arab Spring, a resurgent Russia and ascendant China. Like the Avengers getting back together to clean up Hydra after the events of CA: The Winter Soldier.

Now, it’s not an exact parallel. I’m not even all that keen on calling it a close parallel. But it is the most easily digestible one, it being the only big, well-known military alliance still floating around. And while memberships comparisons aren’t perfect (because of the number of Avengers and that some are more better compared to countries outside the NATO alliance), it’s still the easiest matchup. Particularly Iron Man and Captain America.

Iron Man is plagued by guilt. Understandably so, but still. Someone give the guy a hug and help him deal with the PTSD. I’m looking at you Sam Wilson. And Pepper. And, y’know what? Tony’s not that big of an arsehole. He’s dealing with some serious emotional baggage and none of you are helping. Anyway, Tony Stark is plagued by PTSD from barely surviving as he saved New York city from the kneejerk reaction of our own leaders and the alien invasion that caused it (forget almost getting stuck in space, Loki threw him out a fucking window). In his desire to protect people he builds Ultron, the killer robot that wants to wipe out humanity, which gets a bunch more people killed in Sokovia. He’s able to see the full consequences of his sins and is continually reminded of them, alongside his own mortality.

A similar… let’s call it a zeitgeist… a similar zeitgeist can be seen in the politics of France, Germany and a part of the UK. That feeling that they barely survived two world wars, and the trauma of what happened during those wars. That guilt that comes from seeing the continued repercussions or colonial ambitions and imperial carelessness. Consider Tony’s guilt over Ultron and then think about Anglo-French guild over Sykes-Picot, English guilt about the partition of India and Germany’s guilt over the Second World War. Both Tony and old Europe then put their faith in higher institutions. Tony’s faith in his own judgement was shaken in Iron Man 2 where his commitment to Randian self belief (seriously America, why is Ayn Rand still a thing?) almost ends in disaster and the death of the person he cares about most, and it’s broken into a million bloody pieces during Age of Ultron when he, y’know, builds the bloke that almost ends the world. What we see with Tony in Civil War is him making a fairly mature, considered and diplomatic choice. Deciding to put his support behind international laws, regulations, institutions and, most importantly, oversight. And this has been a big part of European politics for the past few decades. Franco-German political faith and muscle has been put behind the European Union and United Nations Security Council. They’ve been all about establishing institutions that set boundaries on their own power and that of others, creating an international order and following it. Or at least claiming they do. This is international politics after all. All’s fair and all that. But for the sake of argument let’s claim they always practice what they preach. Point is Tony sees institutional oversight as the best answer to avoid causing collateral damage, same way that France, Germany and the UK do.

Captain America, on the other hand, fears being tied down by UN oversight and their shifting agendas. He sees a threat, he takes it out. Done and dusted. And honestly, who better to do it than Steve Rogers? It’s an interesting case because Captain America in the films (and comic books, but we’re discussing the films here) is not a parallel to what the United States is, but the changing way it’s viewed itself.

To start with let’s consider Steve and the USA in isolation, away from the Avengers proper. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is the personification of the very best parts of America the superpower. Standing up to bullies, never backing away from a righteous fight, doing the right thing without thinking of the cost, making the greatest sacrifice for the good of the world. This is the America that won World War Two. Or at least won in all those great old movies about World War Two. The Winter Soldier is, in my mind, more of a 9/11 parable than The Avengers was (yes, in other MCU properties they treat the Chitauri invasion of NYC the same way we treat the attacks of September Eleven – “New York changed everything” – but, well, nah). Past sins coming back to roost (America’s involvement in the Middle East/SHIELD’s particularly shady dealings) and a complete failure by the intelligence community to detect the threat (Al Qaeda cells learning how to pilot planes/HYDRA infiltrating every level of SHIELD) sees the personification of the nation betrayed, and a problem that only America and a handful of its most loyal allies can fix (seriously, why does he not give the rest of the Avengers a call?) Which it does, through shock and awe and a complete dismemberment of the failed system for no other reason than “Because Cap says so.” It’s unsurprising that Captain America distrusts the idea of international oversight. In The Avengers the international Council that runs SHIELD decides to launch a nuclear missile at New York and then in Winter Soldier he discovers that HYDRA are the ones running SHIELD, and even if they weren’t are getting into some really shady shit.

But America does not exist in isolation and neither does the good Captain. In this case Steve Rogers is a personification of how America sees itself in the world. You gotta remember that Captain America isn’t actually the most powerful guy on the Avengers. The Hulk is (arguably) more powerful, who just gets stronger the more you try to kill him. Thor is the fucking warrior God of Thunder. Vision can fry people with his mind and swing Thor’s hammer (giving him access to the powers of the fucking warrior God of Thunder). Iron Man built a power generator that ends the need for fossil fuels while a hostage in a cave, and had gone toe to toe in his various suits with everyone in the first Avengers movie except Black Widow. Shit, I reckon if Natasha really wanted to she could kick Steve’s arse. And yet it is Steve Rogers who is given leadership of the Avengers. Why? Because he’s a better leader? Shit, Thor’s been leading his mates for centuries and learnt enough humility in his own first movie that he probably knows how to run a fight. Because he’s a better soldier? That hardly seems like something that Tony Stark would respect, and something that Black Widow would openly laugh at. Hawkeye too if we’re being perfectly honest. So why’s he in command?

Because he’s Captain America of course. He became what he is and does what he does not in pursuit of power, control or vengeance, but because it was the right thing to do and freedom needs protecting. So because everyone else can of course see this righteous initiative they give him command. Sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it? Thing is, I reckon that’s how Americans see themselves. I mean, sure, they’re not afraid to toot their own horns (“we have the most powerful military in the history of the world!” and all that). American exceptionalism is alive and well. But they don’t like to admit that the main reason everybody listens to them is because they’ve got the biggest guns and the biggest purse-strings. They don’t like admitting that they’re an empire (see: Niall Ferguson, Empire). No, the star spangled banner is a universal symbol of free people and free markets and that is why they run any organisation or alliance they choose to be part of.

I mean it’s not, but you can understand why they might think that way, right?

The analogies get cleaner or messier from there. Black Widow is the UK proper (where Iron Man is just parts of the UK), trying to strike some sort of balance between the two sides of the conflict. The United Kingdom has long tried to position itself as the bridge between the EU and the USA (special relationships? More like open relationships! That’s not nearly as funny as I hoped it would be) and in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Her Majesty’s government tried hard to convince the Americans to work within the United Nations, rather than unilaterally. Similarly Natasha tries to convince Steve to sign the Sokovia accords and stay out of the fight. In both instances there are feelings of, well betrayal seems too strong a word. Disappointment. There’s feelings of disappointment from the EU when the UK followed the Americans into Iraq and from Iron Man when she lets the Captain and Bucky escape in the quinjet. Hawkeye is probably Australia. Or maybe Falcon is. Maybe they both are. Someone’s Australia, the one country that’s always following the US into a fight. Black Panther is Africa and, well, I’m not opening that can of worms today. Let’s just say your fave is all sorts of problematic and leave it there for now.

Anyway, what does this all come down to? Long and short of it is, Captain America was wrong. Throughout the movie. He’s wrong.

He should’ve signed the Sokovia accords instead of being all about that personal responsibility. Strong institutions with strong regulations and strong oversight make everyone stronger. Tony recognises it. That’s why he signs the Accords without hesitation. But he also recognises the need for Captain America to be part of that. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth. But I don’t want to see you gone.” As angry as they get with the USA, countries like France and Germany don’t want to see them gone. But they understand the importance of convincing the Americans to work within an established order with (let’s be honest) self-imposed boundaries. They understand what happens when major powers are allowed to get away with whatever the fuck they want.

But Steve doesn’t see this. He distrusts anyone’s judgement but his own, believing “the safest hands are still our own.” Understandable considering that Hydra had found ways of controlling both him and his best friend. Understandable that a country which holds freedom and personal responsibility so highly, that everybody should have control over their own destiny, should try to embody this in the superhero that carries its name. And he’s wrong. Steve loses all credibility when he defends Bucky, and then when a legitimate threat is discovered nobody believes him. And at the end of it all? He still thinks he did the right thing.

America folks.

It’s taken most of the MCU to get here folks, but they did it. We’ve seen Captain America turn from a symbol of for the most idealistic version of what America might and could be, to a personification of what America has been for the last decade and a half.

God I love these films.

Next time, I might get into why the characterisation of Black Panther might be a bit racist.

Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

Bad behaviour for all the world to see: A thought on how social media might affect employment

So it was the end of my shift at work and I was taking a quick glance through Facebook while waiting something to eat. Between the obligatory pictures of people’s pet, distant parties, workout selfies and one awesome video of two kangaroos fighting in the middle of a school (with the usual “meanwhile, in Australia…” tag) were a whole heap of unusual posts and changes by one of my good mates. Strange stuff, like switching his gender from “he” to “she,” sharing a page about veganism, changing his profile pic and cover photo to something less than flattering and making it clear that he would no longer be shoving his thumb up his bum. This last one was quite clever, since it involved changing his employment status to “bum thumb” and then quitting it, thereby adding “Quit bum thumb” onto his timeline with a little comment. Now, the easy assumption to make is that his Facebook was taken over by someone that was not my mate. Maybe a tech-savvy enemy had broken through Facebook’s security to play havoc with his life. More likely he’d left his phone or computer unlocked and Facebook logged in and a cackling friend had gone to town. Where I come from both circumstances would be referred to as getting “hacked” so that’s the language I’m gonna use here. Now, he might not have been hacked. He might have become a transgender vegan since I last saw him a few days ago. I doubt it though. I mean transgender maybe, but vegan? No way, no how, no matter the preferred pronoun. I also can’t see him doing this to himself. So he must have been hacked. And that got me thinking.

One of the biggest issues that our generations moving forward are going to have to deal with is employers (current and prospective) going through our social media accounts and using that information to decide continued or prospective employment. It’s happening now, it’ll continue to happen, there’s nothing we can do about it. Except bitch and moan when an employer uses a picture from Facebook or Instagram of us passed out on the lawn surrounded by empty tequila bottles and a stolen hills hoist as an excuse to fire our drunken arses. Well, that and keep those pictures off the publicly viewable internet. If social media is an extension of an individual’s personality then companies have a right to base their decision upon whether or not that personality meets their standards, image and brand. On the other hand, do we as individuals not have the right to keep our personal and professional lives and views separate? But that’s a discussion for another time. What I began to wonder, and wonder if anyone else had begun to wonder, was if anyone had looked at a hacked account and decided that, no, this person isn’t for us?

Y’see, I spent a few years as a bank teller. Banks, you should know, care quite a bit about security and privacy. That meant not leaving personal information about clients lying where they could be seen (and preferably locking it away), not talking about our customers, changing our passwords regularly and, most importantly, logging out or locking our computers whenever we stepped away from them even if it was only one step. It meant that no one could access them when we weren’t looking, learn someone else’s personal details or deposit twenty grand that didn’t exist into their accounts. “Lock your computers” was a mantra amongst the management of most of the branches I worked at and failing to do so was a fast way to get in a lot of trouble. Fun times. And banks aren’t the only organisations concerned about security and privacy, just the one I was a low level customer service drone for.

Now companies and the people that handle employment are increasingly social media-savvy. Someone working for a corporate HR department would, looking through my friend’s Facebook page (and those of people like him) and guess, like I did, that he was hacked. That most likely he’d left his computer unlocked and his Facebook open and someone had taken the opportunity to take the piss. Now, let’s say this has happened obviously more than once. Might this HR person then conclude that (aside from not having mates who necessarily have their best interests at heart) this person has bad habits regarding their own security and privacy? Poor security awareness? Maybe. Maybe that otherwise harmless joke costs them an interview, under the assumption that bad personal habits make bad professional habits.

I’m not saying this does happen now. I’m not an employer, I’m not interviewing anyone, I’m not working for a company that seems to worry about employees social media accounts, I’m careful about what I post anyway. I can’t say I’ve heard about this happening to anyone yet so maybe I’m just, as I said, overthinking. But as social media comes to dominate more and more of our private and professional lives, we’re going to have to think about things like this. Because other people already are.

So, y’know, maybe next time you see your friend’s left his computer unlocked and Facebook open don’t declare their new found sexuality with a bunch of homophobic slurs. It might make them look bad in more ways than one.

Reviewing the old school: Troy (2004)

Mate, there is so much wrong with this film. I think the worst part is that it could have been so much better if they’d actually used the source material properly. Y’know, with all the gods and magic and not trying to make us sympathise with Paris of Troy. Seriously, you read the Iliad? You know what we’d call that guy in the modern parlance? A date-rapist. Doesn’t matter that he had help from the Goddess of Love instead of roofies, he still fucks Helen without her conscious consent. That ain’t right.

I don’t get why they cut all the supernatural stuff out of the story. It certainly wouldn’t have made the movie any worse, and it certainly could’ve made the story a whole lot more interesting (imagine Sean Bean’s Odysseus having a D and M with Athena, the Goddess of Just War and Wisdom herself, on the beach beside his ship, or perhaps Ares, the God of War, stalking the battlefield with a leering smile at all the carnage). Could’ve been epic. And it’s not like we’d have a problem with the whole ‘Gods and goddesses interfering with the lives of mortals’ thing. I mean, The Mummy and it’s sequel came out five and three years before, respectively, and they did pretty well with the whole weird foreign supernatural thing. Hell, bloody Disney went and covered the same sort of ground as Troy, but including the divine intervention, with its animated film Hercules (and the great spin-off series about his high school years).

Maybe they were worried that if there was too much Deus Ex Machina going on we wouldn’t be able to take Brad Pitt’s flowing golden hair or Eric Bana’s tinted curls seriously. Maybe they were worried that they’d have to make Orlando Bloom the bad guy who dooms his whole city because he just couldn’t keep it in his pants when he met a hot girl who wasn’t interested. Maybe I’m giving the rest of the film too much credit and it would still be shit anyway.

Probably that last one, but the point still stands.

The acting isn’t great. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ham it up with that weird pseudo-English accent that non-English actors are expected to put on whenever they’re in a historical period earlier than the 1600s. While Brad Pitt never seems to take it seriously (understandably), Bana actually seemed to get better as the film went on and I think he was the right choice for Hector, noble and doomed and the only one with the common sense to say “let’s just give Helen back to the Greeks, Paris will get over it and even if he doesn’t it isn’t worth going to fucking war over.” There’s a lot of great actors in this film, and they do their damned best with the material. Special props to Brian Cox who plays the role of the villainous, prideful, megalomaniacal Agamemnon with a surprising amount of subtlety. Sean Bean’s Odysseus seems woefully underused. I mean, they don’t even kill him. How you can put Sean Bean in your movie and have him play the one character that everyone knows is gonna survive?

The direction and editing are an overlong mess. It’s a two and a half hour long film and not nearly enough of that is filled with the kind of character moments to actually make us care. Some of it just seems painfully unnecessary. Case in point, the film opens with a map of the Aegean. No voice over, no music, no intro credits. Just a fucking map on the screen for like thirty seconds to a minute. Maybe that minute could have been spent fleshing out Ajax a little more, so we actually give a shit when he dies. Patroclus’ character could’ve been fleshed out a little better as well. I think fantastically named director Wolfgang Petersen was trying to channel old classics, the grand Biblicals and biopics like Ben HurSpartacus and Julius Caesar but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and not nearly as epic as we’d come to expect by then.

For all its flaws, and it has a lot of flaws (a lot of flaws) I absolutely love this film. My mates and I can basically communicate in movie and television quotes. Simpsons make up the bulk of our source material, with the two Hot Shots! films, the two Airplane (Flying High!) films, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings trilogy filling out the rest of our situational conversations. Troy occupies a special place for us as being the soundtrack for some of our most (or, I suppose, least) memorable nights of drunken debauchery. Someone refusing another beer would be met with a bellow of “Drink you lazy whore! Poles are sobering!” (several of my friends being of Polish origin). Midway through the night you’d likely hear a cry that “The taxi waits for us, I say we make him wait a little longer!” Someone skoling back beer after beer would be cheered on with “The man wants to die!” There was more than one occasion where we’d take Achilles’ speech at the prow of his ship before hitting the beach of Troy and adjust the wording, to fit our school and desired outcome “…my brothers of the schooner… do you know what’s waiting on the other side of the bar? Immortality! Take it, it’s yours!” I watch this film and I’m not thinking about the acting or the plot or the story, the dramatic lines are triggering memories of long nights and close friends.

So yeah. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but I love it dearly. Still, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it and might sour you on a couple of great actors. Read the Iliad and Odyssey instead. They’re classics for a reason.

Not just a face on our money

It started with a conversation about replacing Alexander Hamilton on the US ten dollar bill. It was a bit of a laugh, bit of a joke. I confused Alexander Hamilton, arguably one of the most intelligent and influential men in American history, with Andrew Jackson, the nutjob who occupies the twenty dollar bill, mistrusted paper currency and declared one of his great regrets was never shooting his Vice President. Yeah, not a hundred percent on my American history. Probably comes from not being from (or even living in) the land of the free, home of the brave. Or something. (This was also before Lin Manuel Miranda went and conquered a fair bit of social media with his Broadway hit). Where was I? Right, the ten dollar bill.

The yanks are currently in the midst of plans to put a woman on their tenner, replacing or sharing the spot with Hamilton. Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery then helped found the underground railway, seems the likely candidate with the most votes and public support in a Treasury survey. Seems like a good choice. It’d seem like a better choice if they ditched Jackson off the twenty and put Tubman, or a woman like her, on that. But it’s the ten that’s apparently due for change, so if that’s where she ends up that’s where she ends up. Not my choice. Not my problem.

Thing is it surprised me a bit that this was even an issue. I mean, it’s weird how scared yanks are of change, especially with regards to their currency. Seems like someone suggests getting rid of the penny, and they get accused of hating Lincoln or something. Fucked if I know why they’re still using paper while most proper nations have already made the switch to plastic notes (yeah, I know they technically use a cotton-composite or something, but it still won’t survive a trip through the washing machine, rain, or a particularly humid day). But, I mean, the USA has had at least a couple of great women in its history. You’d think they’d have put a few women on their money by now.

Maybe, though, I just can’t ever remember not having women on Aussie money. That was kinda where the above conversation ended for me, I began thinking of the people on our own colourful currency. Showing my own biases the names I thought of first were the old white men, but men worthy of respect for more than a few reasons. Banjo Patterson, obviously, on our ten. Sir John Monash, arguably Australia’s greatest general and also Jewish at a time when it was not good to be (though when has it ever?) on one side of the hundred. Reverend and Doctor John Flynn who established the Royal Flying Doctor service. I struggled a bit with the famous women on the notes. Dame Nellie Melba, the great soprano on the other side of the hundred, was easy enough to remember. Her name rolls out of the mind and off the tongue nicely. I have a lot more trouble remembering Mary Reibey’s name than her achievements, a convict turned extremely successful businesswoman with a role in establishing Aussie banking (making her an obvious choice to put on the twenty). I had to Google the others. Edith Cowan, philanthropist, Freemason and first woman in Parliament, her face now featured on the fifty. Mary Gilmore, a great far-left leaning poet and journalist, one who cared very much for her country.

I think I remember Flynn and Monash’s names first partly because they were amongst my heroes growing up. I wanted to join the RAAF for a long time and so great Australian pilots and military men occupied a lot of my attention. Mind you, given that I studied politics at Uni and worked in a bank for over four years I should probably have spent more time learning about Cowan and Reibey. And, hey, given my lousy attempts at writing I should have paid more attention to Patterson beyond the first verse of Waltzing Matilda and paid at least some attention to Gilmore. Fuckin’ hindsight, am I right?

Funny thing is the name that caught my attention the most as I read through the list of famous persons who have appeared on Aussie notes was none of the above notables. It was David Ngunaitponi, better known by the Anglicisation of his surname as David Unaipon. Now this guy, this guy, was one of my favourite people when I was a kid. I half remember making a poster and maybe giving a speech way back in the first half of primary school on his life and achievements. Intelligent and creative, he made a name for himself as a writer (the first Aboriginal to be published in English, including translating and writing down many indigenous stories and legends), a speaker and an inventor (most famous of which were his mechanical shears) at a time when he was often refused room and service because of his race. Shit, he made a name for himself as an intellectual at a time when the Australian Constitution considered him to be part of the native fauna. Unaipon was someone who believed in gradual assimilation into European-Australian society, but in balance with, rather than at the cost of, his own culture, people and heritage (at least that’s my reading of the guy, people who know him better please correct and educate me). The man drew designs for a helicopter (based on the flight of a boomerang) before World War One, back when aeroplanes were still made of sticks and paper held together with twine and hope, and spent much of his life trying to unlock the secrets of Perpetual Motion, Laws of Thermodynamics be damned. I fuckin’ love that. If he was born today I can imagine him trying to build faster-than-light propulsion, tinkering with an engine and muttering the highly articulate and classical-English equivalent of “Theory of Relativity my arse.”

It’s just, I dunno, good to be reading about his life. I mean, it’s like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years and both having a spare half-hour to catch up over a coffee. As you talk you begin to wonder why the hell you stopped talking, grew apart. Forgot how much you liked this person, how close you were, how important they were to you once upon a time.

Why did I forget about Mr Unaipon for so long? Institutional and personal racism most likely. I probably drifted away in high school, when it was pretty in vogue for young white males like myself to complain about all the ‘Abbo shit’ we were required to learn in the history curriculum. I got over it by the time the HSC rolled around, and complained about the heavily sanitised version of Aboriginal history and culture that we were taught instead (something that we as a people and a community need to demand is fixed). This isn’t helped by the level of anti-intellectualism that haunts Aussie society, our politics and media. A dislike of learning our own achievements outside of sports we play and the wars we’ve fought in. And that’s a shame, because Australians like Mr Unaipon have done things that have, without a doubt, made the world a better place. Will continue to do so, whether we care or not. It comes from how we view ourselves.

A hundred years ago Charles Bean, an otherwise excellent and apolitical war correspondent, lobbied against Sir John Monash (the guy I mentioned on the hundred) being given command of the Australian Imperial Force fighting in the closing years of the Great War. Monash was an urban, Jewish civil engineer who brought a keen scientific mind to making war, completely at odds with Bean’s view of the ideal Australian soldier being the hardy Anglo bushman, surviving on instinct, intuition and determination born from surviving the perilous outback.

We still have these views of ourselves, of what a proper Aussie should be. But maybe we need to expand this image a bit. A proper Aussie should be inventive. A proper Aussie should be educated. A proper Aussie should know how to translate this to the real world without sacrificing the creative dreamer within.

There was this commercial, years ago (I think it might have been on around the Centenary of Federation) where a kid goes up his dad and asks who the first President of the USA was. No problem, it was George Washington. Then the kid asks who the first Prime Minister of Australia was. Oh shit, dad flounders and tells the lad to go ask mum. Most of the rest of the commercial is scenes of senior Australians answering the question easily, (Sir) Edmund Barton. The point of the commercial, if I recall correctly, was to get people thinking about how much they knew about Australian history (beyond Don Bradman’s test average and the date the first ANZACs rushed onto the beaches of Gallipoli). In that same vein I’d like to ask us all to ask a few more questions.

Who’s the lady on the ten?

The guy on the hundred?

The lady on the twenty?

The bloke on the fifty?

Remember some of our national heroes.

Reviewing the old school: Young Einstein (1988)

I like the odd bit of alternate-history fiction. Usually the more serious stuff, where you take a particular historical conflict and basically go “then the aliens attacked” or “but actually there were magicians there too” or “suddenly, time travel!” Serious stuff. Young Einstein (written, directed by and starring Yahoo Serious – probably not the name he was born with) takes a more comedic route by asking its own grand question: what if, instead of Germany, Albert Einstein was born in Tasmania to Aussie apple farmers?

Well, for one, he still develops the Theory of Relativity in this version of reality, but its first application is to split a beer atom in order to carbonate his dad’s pint. Having succeeded in creating bubbly beer (something apparently impossible to do without causing a small atomic blast) Albert packs his bags and heads to Sydney via Uluru (dammit Jim he’s a physicist not a map-reader!) in order to patent his idea. He runs into (and falls in love with) the lovely Marie Curie (played with some fantastic expression by Odile Le Clezio) who has gone to study physics at the University of Sydney (USYD represent!) for some reason, has his idea stolen by foppish villain Preston Preston of the Perth Prestons (played by John Howard – the actor not the Prime Minister – who is wonderfully pompous, cowardly and greedy), invents rock’n’roll music, then uses rock’n’roll music to diffuse an atomic bomb (saving the lives of thousands, including an apparently still kicking Charles Darwin).

Yeah, you shouldn’t think about it too hard. Or at all. Very little of it makes a whole lot of sense. The plot doesn’t. A fair bit of the physics related dialogue doesn’t. But I like it. And if you don’t think about it too much you might like it as well.

As bonkers as it is, Young Einstein does have a colloquial charm. John Howard hams it up fantastically as Preston Preston in what I’d be willing to call one of his best and funniest roles. The idea that everyone would give so much of a fuck about putting bubbles into beer that the scientific community would give out a Nobel Prize for the effort is so bloody Australian it was probably born in New Zealand. Once he gets out of Tasmania, Yahoo’s young Einstein manages to mix the traditional Aussie stereotype of the self-reliant bushman out of his depth in the big city with the broader stereotype of socially-oblivious genius more easily than you’d expect. The plot might not make any fucking sense, but the fact that everyone seems to rather like the kid does.

Thing is, I can’t bring myself to recommend this film to anyone. It took me a little bit to decide why, mind you, but I can’t. Not to an Aussie audience, not to a foreign audience. The problem is it hasn’t aged well.

So much of the humour is, essentially, a piss-take of what people from outside Australia thought the country was like. Weird puppet Tasmanian devils that can take bites out of metal shovels, wallabies hopping around the Sydney Uni campus and (as mentioned above) indicating that a trip from Tassie to Sydney would require hopping on a train in the red centre. Thing is this may have been how people viewed us nearly thirty years ago but other people have done a better job of having a go at these stereotypes since then, and (if nothing else) the number of Australians traveling around the world (yours truly included) and people who have travelled to Oz has dispelled a lot of the more ridiculous of the myths made fun of in Young Einstein. A fair few of the jokes are winks and nudges at the Australian audience going “how funny is it that dumb-arse foreigners think this is what we were like!” Now we’d just point out that the rest of the world just thinks we’re a bunch of drunken, sports-mad brawlers with a talent for killing spiders and sharks in between smashing back tinnies.

As a result a lot of the humour falls flat. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the more noticeable cultural references aren’t all that recognisable (I might know that a shot of Einstein riding a horse down a steep slope is a reference to The Man from Snowy River but I doubt that any of my siblings would).

Honestly mate I watched this film for nostalgia purposes. I remember watching this film as a kid. There’s this point at the end where everything’s about to explode and everyone’s losing their shit. Einstein, calm as you like, takes a bite out of an apple and says “Just a moment Marie, I’m having an idea.” I love that calm thoughtfulness. The problem with the rest of the film might be that it’s too goofy. Everything from the high-pitched inflection of the narration to the costuming to the sound effects is played for the easiest kinds of laughs. But this one line, played perfectly straight, eating an apple, it embodies my own sense of humour and how I try and handle a stressful situation. Funny what sticks with you.

So yeah, I like this movie. Is it great? Not really. Should you watch it? Probably not. Hell, I wouldn’t even recommend a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. But if you do, remember to take it for what it is. It’s a relic of what we all thought you thought about us back in the day, true or not. And it’s a bit of clean, stupid fun.