Irrational irritations and other unnecessary issues (8/12/2015)

So it’s December in Vancouver (and the rest of the world that uses the Gregorian Calendar for that matter) and apparently that means rain. Quite a bit of it in fact. Funnily enough I’d be willing to make the claim that it’s a bit similar in Australia, except the rain would be part of a tropical storm in the worst cases and a spectacular thunderstorm after a scorcher of a day in the best. Vancouver doesn’t seem to get thunderstorms. I miss them quite a lot. Ah well, not here to talk about thunderstorms. No, umbrellas are the topic today.

More accurately people who use umbrellas but have the spacial awareness of a three year old driving a ute (pick-up truck for my non-Aussie readers). Y’know, the kind of people who just don’t seem to give a shit exactly where they’re swinging their temporary shelters, and the potentially eye-taking spikes that hold the whole thing together, making you wish they handed out goggles (“they do nothing”) whenever you left cover and turning a walk down the street into a Matrix scene where you’re performing amazing contortions in order to avoid these people’s twirling hexagons of doom. In slow motion of course.

And getting past these people is no easy feat. Unsurprisingly the kind people who have no idea where their umbrellas are swinging are also the kind of people who have two speeds: so slow they couldn’t even get next door in any time-frame that could be referred to as “soon”; and stationary. So staying behind them is never an option for us busy, go-getting millennials. But try and overtake them at your peril, because they always seem to choose the moment you’re right beside them to suddenly veer towards you while laughing raucously, sending the sharpest point of the six or seven they’re carrying into your unprotected ear. Your poor, soft, fragile ear. The bastards.

And don’t expect it to be any safer when their umbrellas are down. No, that simply means there’s more power behind their thrust and swing. If it’s a long umbrella, probably gives them more reach as well. And since they’re not limited by the need to keep the thin synthetic membrane stretched across four to nine spears between them and the rain, they have much more freedom to include their umbrella in grand expressive movements that are a danger to everyone within two metres. No, you’re never safe from these people, not as long as they’re permitted to carry such deadly instruments.

Now, I know these aren’t bad people. Simply unaware. And some people have a valid excuse, they’re tired or sick or thought they were in fact carrying rather large novelty candy canes. But please, when you’ve got your umbrella up this season try and be a bit more aware of the people around you. Try not to stab anyone in their poor, fragile ears.

Let’s make a movie. Maybe.

Krieg and Maya drawings Edited

Did you hear they’re making a Borderlands movie? Yeah, they’re making a Borderlands movie. Well, at least they’re starting to workshop or pre-produce or whatever it is they do with the intention of eventually getting around to making a Borderlands movie. Great. Fantastic. I should be excited about this, right? I mean, I’m a fan of the franchise. Love the heroes, the not-quite-heroes, the anti-heroes, the villains and the general supporting cast. Love the crude, violent humour. Love the world and lore. It’s all good fun. Why wouldn’t I be excited to see all of this get the big screen experience? Is it ’cause of the long history of video game movies being shit? Probably a little. A lot. But not entirely. But a lot.

I mean, you look back through that history of movie adaptations and it is not particularly heartening. At best, you’ve got movies that are fun swashbucklers if not exactly memorable like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. At worst you’ve got Super Mario Bros (’nuff said). That’s not even getting into all the movies based on fighting games like Street Fighter, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Mortal Kombat- you know what, let’s just stop there before this gets out of hand. Point is fans of games that have been turned into movies are as likely to turn up to the theatre with a sense of apathy or dread (a feeling of “so how are they gonna fuck this up?” if you will) as they are excitement.

This isn’t all that surprising given the games chosen. Many video games have the barest of stories and are better remembered for their mechanics and gameplay. The plot of the Super Mario Bros games is not taken particularly seriously. It’s simply an excuse for the player to guide Mario through each of the levels, getting high and murdering turtles on the way. The video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is remembered less for its story then for its excellent platforming and time reversal mechanic (shit I can’t even remember the story, is it the same as the movie?) Max Payne similarly earned its place in living memory as the game that introduced us to bullet-time mechanics, rather than its plot that was “pretty good for a video game” back when that phrase had more (loaded) meaning. Let’s not even get started on the flimsy plots most fighting games use to justify their one on one brawls.

Something important about many video games that those trying to adapt them don’t seem to understand is that it is not always the plots that are important, but the lore of the game world. Game plots are often simple things, simple spins on the old hero’s journey or some such. But the worlds in which these stories take place are rich and full and often relayed over dozens of hours of gameplay, through codexes, indexes, documents, audio logs, snatches of conversation and offhand remarks. It’s a depth that cannot be easily related in a ninety to hundred-twenty minute feature film. Attempts to do so simply come off as (at best) shallow and (at worst) the boring parts of otherwise exciting action films. But it is completely unnecessary.

I’ve mentioned previously that one of the best video game movies, Crank (and its sequel Crank: High Voltage), was one not actually based on a video game but rather embraced the logic of video game mechanics, structure and pace. Another great example would be Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. or whatever the fuck they ended up calling it), whose main narrative conceit (every time Tom Cruise’s character died the day reset) bears a striking similarity to the respawn experience of most gamers. Part of what makes these films great fun is that they don’t spend too much time explaining those mechanics. There’s a bit of world building. News reports at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow that explain the alien invasion and the exoskeletons worn by the human soldiers fighting them, an initial mention of the Angel of Verdun, high hopes for the human counter-attack. A movie within a movie at the start of Crank explaining who he is, who his enemy is and what they’ve done to him, with some clarification not long afterwards. Then they just run with it, allowing the actions of the protagonists and their responses to the changing plots to explain all the implications. Same as a game does after the opening cinematics. Well, most games.

I’ll admit this might be easier said than done. Not being a movie maker myself this is all entirely uneducated opinion. Certain games would find it a smaller task then others. The Assassin’s Creed games for example, who’ve had a movie in the works for some time now that is due for release December next year, is set more or less in the real world. You don’t have to provide an audience unfamiliar with the games much more than a date and place name for them to be able to have a rough idea of social structure, norms, local architecture, system of government and climate. The Assassin’s Order (do they call it a brotherhood? Seems a bit sexist if they call it a brotherhood), the Templars (or the somehow more ridiculously named Abstergo Industries) and the Animus technology don’t need much more than a brief explanation, an exposition heavy conversation or two, before the audience can jump to the appropriate conclusions (Assassins mostly good, Templars mostly bad, blah blah blah shades of grey, blah blah stab that guy).

The world of, say, the Mass Effect games (apparently with a movie in development… maybe? Not sure? Perhaps?) where someone is adapting a hundred odd hours across three games (books, an anime) into a film or two would be a different matter.  Seriously, there is a fuck-ton (a metric fuck-ton, in fact) of back story, history and explanation in the universe of the Mass Effect franchise. Don’t believe me? Regular conversations with your crew members includes information on the Council, Citadel, Citadel Space, Human Alliance, the Human-Batarian conflicts, the Batarians, the Asari, Asari biology, the Asari Matriarchy, the Turians, the Turian military, the Turian-Human First Contact War, the Salarians, Salarian spies, the Krogans, the Krogan Rebellions, the Rachni Wars, the Geth, the Geth-Quarian conflicts, the Quarians, the Quarian fleet, the Quarian immune system, and this all before getting into the really important stuff like Element Zero, the titular Mass Effect, Biotics, the Reapers (overall villains of the piece), Protheans, Cerberus and the supporting cast’s varied back stories. Yeah, metric. This doesn’t mean that all this information is strictly necessary for a good Mass Effect film but, well, for anyone in the audience who hasn’t played the games a lot of it is.

I’d claim Borderlands occupies a space closer to the middle of the spectrum. The stories of the main games (ignoring the more complex Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale just now) are pretty simple. Four Vault Hunters, mercenaries and treasure hunters, arrive on a dangerous planet called Pandora to find a Vault, kill whatever’s inside and loot the riches believed to be held within. The second game throws in the downfall of the Hyperion corporation and defeating the fantastically psychotic villain Handsome Jack, the Pre-Sequel throws in saving Pandora’s inhabited moon from destruction, but otherwise that is the ultimate goal of the games. Open a Vault and steal the shit inside. But there’s still a ton of backstory to the world and people that we barely even hear about. The corporations and their ongoing conflicts. Dahl’s failed mining operations on Pandora and its moon, responsible for so much of the dangerous flora, fauna, bandits, cannibals and mutants. The Eridians, the alien races that built the Vaults. How did Doctor Zed lose his medical licence? Did Doctor Zed ever have a licence? Who died when Janey Springs got her (“real sexy Athena”) scar? The Sirens, no more than a half-dozen women at a time with glowing blue tattoos and near magical powers somehow linked to the Vaults and Eridians. There’s a lot of information barely skimmed over, but that’s fine because that information is never revealed unless it’s necessary or entertaining. Much of the world we explore in these games is wrapped in mystery, teased in “Echos” (audilogs) and revealed at plot or comically appropriate times. Sometimes there’s no context provided at all. Sometimes you just gotta go and shoot someone in the face.

This is helped by its ‘Space Western’ setting. We’re used to westerns filled with men and women with barely alluded to secret pasts, silent protagonists, corrupt officials who bought their way into power, bandit gangs, warring factions and more or less neutral mercenaries on one side or another looking to make their fortunes through bounties and contracts. The world(s) seen in Borderlands could make for a great movie as long as they don’t spend to much time trying to explain it, because you don’t have to. It would simply join a long list of past movies, ranging from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (and the other films in the ‘Man with no name’ trilogy) to The Magnificent Seven. That’s if the guys making the film follow the style and standard the games set.

And that segues badly into my next concern. I guess we’ll call it style. Borderlands is cartoonishly violent and cartoonishly animated. The characters and enemies are unrealistically and exaggeratingly designed and proportions, as is the wildlife, towns, vehicles and landscape. Legend goes that at the start of development Borderlands was supposed to be a far more realistic, gritty and dramatic (as can be seen in the original trailer). But they didn’t have enough money, so instead went with what is now the series’ signature cel shaded look. This allowed it to be a lot lighter in tone, and a lot more violent. Seriously, even for a video game Borderlands is bloody. By the time you get to the end of the campaign in one of the three main games you’ve probably got a kill count in the thousands (many of whom have been incinerated, disintegrated, melted or otherwise exploded), and have witnessed scenes of torture and defilement (and have probably participated once or twice). But because you’re dismembering wave after wave of highly stylised, colourful and (important here) inhuman enemies it becomes fun and funny instead of, y’know, psychopathic.

The violence would already need to be toned down to get an MA-15 rating over in Oz (an R rating in the US, I’d guess to be the nearest equivalent) and be turned down even further to get the M or PG-13 rating that studios are known for demanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. There’s more to these games than simple violence, and video games kill, maim and explode more nameless and named goons than all but the bloodiest films. But the excessive violence is a strong part of the aesthetic, since a large part of the humour is its satire of the traditional notions of the Wild West where the law was on the side of whomever brought the most firepower to the table, and settlers had to deal with the threat of bandits, mercenaries, road agents, soldiers and the Native population they inevitably crossed. Again, however, we don’t need a triple-digit body-count to achieve that aesthetic. What it does need is a great deal of absurdity.

So the problem I’m getting at is not reducing the violent nature of a game for a movie adaptation then, but in trying to ground the film too much in reality. Video games are, in their need to be fun or deliver gameplay, completely unrealistic. Real people, for example, cannot survive multiple gunshots, duck behind a chest-high wall and pop up again a couple moments later good as new. Real people get at least a little winded when they parkour their way to the top of a castle. Real people aren’t usually assaulted by gorillas hurling barrels. Fun shit, but not very believable. The danger than comes when you try to ground something that is by its nature ridiculous and unreal closer to reality and believability. Turns a perfectly good game about jumping on angry brown fungi with legs and anthropomorphic turtles in order to rescue a princess from (hopefully) the next castle into whatever the fuck the Super Mario Bros. movie was about. It’s still pretty bonkers, but it’s not the kind of bonkers you really want. It points out its own ridiculousness instead of rolling with it and insults the fans of the original property by changing the things it doesn’t think an audience will buy into something it thinks the audience will. Which is stupid. But hey, y’know, that was the nineties. We made a lot of weird stuff in the nineties.

Far more likely these days is that it will in the best case turn into yet another generic action movie with some vaguely supernatural (see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) or science fiction (Doom) elements. A formulaic and familiar show with a familiar name. Nice to look at, but none to memorable. That’s probably the thing that worries me the most, is seeing such a vibrant and colourful franchise watered down til it loses what made it so remarkable in the first place. This doesn’t just happen to video game movies, and there are far more examples from other mediums (I reckon my fellow nerds would make the claim that until recently comic book adaptations were the worst offenders). The hyper-ridiculous Tank Girl was supposed to be even more hyper-ridiculous were it not for a meddling studio. One of the great complaints about X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the film’s treatment of character Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool (but don’t worry, the new movie ought to fix that). It is known for great movies to have surpassed the works they’re based on (I heard that even the author of the original book Fight Club preferred the movie’s ending to his own), but this is more exception than rule.

Would someone making a Borderlands film be comfortable with a character like Tiny Tina? She arguably uses the second most sexualised language (the first being Mad Moxxi), is extremely talented at violence and casual about torturing those who’ve done her wrong. She’s also, like, twelve or thirteen, and brings with her all the immaturity you’d expect from someone who was forced to adapt after being broken at a young age on a planet filled with cannibals and monsters. She’s also the centre of some of the game’s most touching and heartbreaking moments (like when we find out what happened to her parents or the her dealing with the trauma of losing another important father figure in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC). Doctor Zed, Scooter, Doctor Patricia Tanis. They’re all insane, broken, violent people, the last of whom is attracted to furniture. And these are your friends. Let’s not even get into the characters you aren’t supposed to like. Like Claptrap. Let’s not talk about Claptrap. Can you imagine a film that includes the odd yet beautiful relationship between the Psycho Krieg and the canon asexual (but not confirmed aromantic) Maya. Hell, can you even imagine a film where one of the main female characters ends up getting together with one of the main female supporting cast-members like Athena and Janey Springs at the end of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? If that’s too much for a big-budget blockbuster, it’s unlikely they’d get away with all the actual crazy shit.

There is also the habit of producers to assume that people won’t be able to relate to characters unless they’re all conventionally attractive white folk. Because we as a varied group of peoples and cultures can’t possibly relate to people who, y’know, actually look like us (hey, I’m only a conventionally attractive-ish white guy, I’m allowed to make the point). Point being that the titular Prince of Persia in the movie, and the princess he was after, were played by white actors. Point being that it happens all the fucking time. Shit, they even do it in reboots these days (I’d go gay for Benedict Cumberpatch, but did they really have to make him fucking Khan?) or to the goddamn Bible (that’s an odd bit a blasphemy right there). Admittedly while all six of the female playable characters are pretty white women (something that I’m hoping will change in future games), but there is still a diverse cast of different colours, genders, sexualities and body shapes. I can’t imagine too much of that whitewashing happening in these circumstances, can’t see Roland, Brick, Mordecai or Salvador being turned into a bunch of generic white dudes. I can, however, see a character like Ellie (the digital embodiment of body confidence) being ignored or downsized in favour of someone or something more, well, conventionally attractive.

Not that video games themselves aren’t guilty of some pretty heinous crimes turning colourful characters into bland cut-outs (compare what Overstrike was to what it became) or hypersexualising female characters (if I need to provide examples of this than you probably don’t care too much about this article anyway). ‘Tis why we need to guard our most interesting characters so carefully.

Alright, last thing I wanna do is ask a simple yet oft underestimated question. Who the bloody fuck is going to care? I mean I do, obviously, or I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing this. But it’d be more accurate to say that I care about this now.

Way, way back in 2012 I was in the car with my father and younger siblings. Think we were on our way to grandma’s house or something. Anyway, we saw a billboard advertising the imminent release of Max Payne 3. My dad, casually, turned to me and said, “I didn’t even know they made a Max Payne 2.” I was a bit taken aback by this, and replied with something along the lines of “Yeah, years ago.” He thought about it for a moment then asked if they still had Mark Wahlberg playing Max. No, Max Payne was a video game series and this was the third instalment. Oh, okay. My dad looked into the rearview mirror and asked if any of siblings knew that. None of them, including my younger gamer brother, did.

I care about a Borderlands film right now. I might not care in the however many years it takes for any Borderlands film to be made. Three or four years is a long time for video game franchise. Anything over five is a lifetime. The Max Payne film was released a whole seven years after the game. Same with the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time film. Few games have the kind of broad cultural longevity that an MMO like World of Warcraft have, which still has a large, solid fanbase after eleven years of life and is still relevant enough in the broader pop-culture as ‘The one MMO to rule them all’ (even earning an episode dedicated to it on South Park) that the movie due out middle next year will likely be a rousing success. Maybe. Probably. Will the Borderlands franchise still be relevant in the years it takes to write, make and release a film? Maybe. We’ll see. Point is that in four or five years you’ll have a bunch of young’uns entering the target demographic for this kind of film who’ll never have played a Borderlands game (maybe they’re aware that Borderlands 3 was released a little bit ago, but didn’t pick it up cause they didn’t have the time or interest to go through the first three games and assumed you’d have to). And studios won’t be able to rely on those of us who are and were fans of the series going to see it for nostalgias sake alone. We’ve had our heart broken way to many times before. It’s gonna have to look good, it’s gonna have to follow in the spirit and character of the games to get us in to see it.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that it is possible to make a good movie adaptation of a video game. And we want good adaptations of the things we love. We really, really do. So please, if you’re going to make those adaptations, please don’t fuck it up. Please.

View from across the ocean (6/5/2015)

Politics is weird. Been an interesting time keeping track of the Aussie news this past week or two. Did anyone hear about that piece of coal the government’s planning on giving to the royal family to celebrate the new princess? The really pretty one? Was that a joke? I think it was a joke. I’m not sure I can tell anymore. Here’s what the news looks like from where I’m at.

Leadership wise, PM Tony Abbott seems to have pulled the plug on possible leadership spills for the moment, though that could easily change from “probably still won’t make it to the next election, and wouldn’t win it even if he did” back to “seriously, why the hell hasn’t this guy been given the boot yet?” if the upcoming budget has even a whiff of the things that made the old one such a disaster. Far more interesting was the sudden and apparently bloodless change in the leadership of the Greens yesterday. Christine Milne (best known as the Tasmanian woman who took over after Bob Brown quit) sent out a message on Twitter (the Aussie Polly’s megaphone of choice for important and/or policy related announcements, because fuck traditional media and press conferences) announcing that she wouldn’t be contesting her place in the Senate (family reasons), and because of this had resigned from her position as leader of the Greens Party. A leadership ballot was held at 11:30 in the morning, same day yesterday, and some bloke named Richard Di Natale had won it by 12:30. Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlum were made co-deputy leaders (because for some reason the Greens need two deputies). Done and dusted and leaving those of us who care about such things blinking twice and thinking “the fuck just happened?” The new Greens Leadership certainly isn’t talking. It certainly seems quick and painless. Considering that everyone was expecting Adam Bandt to take the top job in the party, however, and the speed of the announcements and ballot, I couldn’t help but think of a line from that episode in The Simpsons when they go to Africa: “He took power in a bloodless coup. Only pillow-smothering.”

Mind you, all due respect to Dr Di Natale (he’s an old hand and Greens veteran) but, as best I can tell, lacks the kind of public awareness amongst the new, young Greens supporters that the very social media savvy Scott Ludlum, Adam Bandt and even Sarah Hanson-Young enjoys. So I wonder if the most popular question he’ll be asked after “what were the circumstances leading up to you taking over?” or “when was the rest of the party made aware of Senator Milne’s plans to resign the leadership?” may just be “so, who the hell are you again?”

Good luck to him. We need a strong third party to keep the two big players (bastards, if you will) in line and honest, and that hasn’t been the Greens so far with their protest party mentality. Hopefully the change in leadership will allow for a change in policy.

Then there’s the recent incident of the Australian Ambassador to France Stephen Brady’s long term partner, Peter Stephens, being asked to wait in the car instead of greeting Mr Abbott upon his arrival in Paris. Mr Brady was understandably upset and offered his resignation, which was rejected. There’s a few different theories, including one where it was simply a bit of protocol miscommunication. Someone reckoned that since the PM wasn’t arriving with his missus it would be incorrect for the Ambassador to meet him with his mister. Mr Abbott’s made clear he wasn’t aware of the request, believes Mr Brady to be a fine, distinguished public servant and overall top bloke, and that the snubbing happened at the junior official level. I groaned a bit at one particular quote: “I’m the Prime Minister and I don’t normally concern myself with trivia.” C’mon Mr Prime Minister, don’t start going all aloof with us again after you did so well skolling that beer.

We’re likely going to be hearing about a billion dollar cut to Australia’s foreign aid budget, a strategic and geopolitically unsound decision in my opinion, but hey, I don’t get to make those decisions and Joe Hockey’s pretty desperate for cash. Y’know, like all those African and South East Asian countries that are about to find it a lot harder to pay for health and education to help pull their large populations out of desperate poverty. Though it’s not like a lack of education and an endless cycle of poverty breeds resentment that can be radicalised against us, right? Right. Most of that money will be pulled from Indonesia, something that the Indonesians might take the wrong way. You may have heard that they executed two Australians recently, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, along with six others. Now, the deaths of these two men is something I am not really qualified to comment on and a lot of people have done a far better job of it. Suffice to say I am always against the death penalty and supported all attempts by the Australian government and public to prevent the executions from happening. Point at the moment though is that them in charge are going to have a hard time convincing the Indonesians (and a lot of Australians) that this isn’t a reprisal from killing two of our citizens. It’ll be interesting seeing how Julie Bishops handles it, especially cause she strikes me as having the stones to not even bother trying.

What I’m really interested in seeing, however, is the budget. Hockey and Matthias Cormann need to pull something special out of their arses or at least one of those is going to face a boot. Hearing a lot about cuts, but not a lot about revenue raising, so I’m not expecting much. They were supposed to get some help when the RBA dropped the cash rate to 2.0% but the market reacted poorly to the news, so that might not be as useful as people were expecting. And now the unemployment rate has risen slightly (SLIGHTLY!). Then they’re talking about adding the GST to software downloads (including Netflix), making something far more expensive for Australians than it should be more expensive, and reducing the value upon which an imported parcel can be hit with GST to less then its current level of $1000.00. That’ll be popular.

Meanwhile, internationally, the UK’s going to the polls and Angela Merkel’s got into a bit of trouble because it turns out she was helping the Yanks spy on their friends. What’s happing in Canada… heh.

Reflecting on the myth, I expect I’ll always be a Nationalist. It’s who I am.

Back when I was in high school I planned on getting a tattoo. Specifically I planned on getting the Southern Cross, the five stars that adorn the Australian (New Zealand, PNG and Samoan) flag. Probably on my shoulder. Maybe my calf. Not important. Anyway, at the time the idea behind the tattoo was to demonstrate that I was an Australian and, more importantly, proud of that fact. The Southern Cross had after all long been a symbol co-opted by Aussie culture (despite the fact it is visible across the Southern Hemisphere) from the flag flying above the Eureka Stockade to the plane flown by Charles Kingsford Smith on his record-breaking journeys. Then the Cronulla Riots happened.

To my great and continued shame in the weeks before the riot I supported what was going to happen. I’d heard that a pair of surf lifesavers had been beaten up by bunch of Lebs, and I wanted to hear that those bastards got their heads kicked in for harming an Australian icon. A ‘fight’ was planned. Rumours spread a small army of Lebanese youths were going to descend upon the beach so good, honest Aussies better turn up in force. Other rumours said it was going to be a fairly multicultural affair, with Greeks, Turks and even a few ‘good’ Lebs joining up with their white Australian brethren to beat the shit out of those who were violently refusing to assimilate into our culture, our way of life. I may not have participated but I didn’t have a problem with it happening, and for that I am sorry. I was a fuckwit. I strive to be less of one now.

It did turn out to be a multicultural affair, since there was a pretty multicultural range of victims. A few thousand white morons rocked up to Cronulla and proceeded to harass (at the very best) and violently attack (at the far too frequent worst) anybody who looked remotely brown or ethnic, including Greeks, Turks and Lebs, while a thin line of brave police threw themselves in front of the mob. Watching it on the news and hearing the stories afterward you couldn’t help but be horrified at the thought of a bunch of arseholes wearing the Australian flag attacking their fellow Australians in a misguided attempt at avenging the perceived wounding of an Australian icon. Shitheads looking for an excuse to attack folk they already considered un-Australian.

The anger, the resentment, the disillusionment, the isolation of the communities that had been attacked was visible and raw. It was not the first time that nationalism was used to excuse senseless violence, but it was the first time I’d seen it and its results from more than an academic perspective. For someone who’d always associated the national identity with their own, it was a hell of a learning experience.

*****

This past April 25th marked the centenary of Anzac day, one hundred years since thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, not even a year into the First World War, at a spot that we’d come to call Anzac Cove. Over the last century the mythology that has developed around Australia’s involvement during the eight month campaign has become a key part in defining the national culture, and I would argue that this mythology is the linchpin upon which most Australian nationalism is built. We don’t have the long histories of art, architecture and enlightenment that many other nations have. We are a young nation. We have our military history, our sport, our bushrangers and then a host of things to be ashamed of like the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy. When we have little in the way of widely and regularly discussed positive national mythology to start with, it should be no surprise that what we do have has been latched onto to by the national consciousness. Especially when they refuse to talk about the ‘fun’ parts of colonisation (I’d recommend John Birmingham’s Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney for that) and both pre and post-colonial Aboriginal culture (instead of, I shit you not, the literal bones left behind at a turn of the 19th century butcher’s shop that counted as the ‘Australian content’ of the high school ancient history syllabus).

The key word above is mythology, because make no mistake the popular memory of Anzac Day is far more taken by the stories and legends of the campaign than the actual history. Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded men until he was killed (he was one of many, but the only one whose name is commonly remembered). The incompetent English landing our brave lads on the wrong bloody beach. The incompetent English soldiers playing a game of football on another beach while our brave lads were butchered capturing Lone Pine (mind you there were plenty of English troops getting butchered at different beaches at the same time as well). The incompetent English officer who decided that the Light Brigade should empty their rifles for a good old fashioned bayonet charge at the Turkish machine guns (actually it was an Australian officer, but that doesn’t make for as good a movie). Aussie troops playing cricket between artillery shells on the rare bit of flat land. Two-up. Mateship. The Anzac Spirit. Humour in the face of adversity. Courage under fire. Service and sacrifice. Warrior larrikins. The baptism of blood from which our great nation was forged or united or whatever. Good stuff. Maybe. Depends.

That bloody waste of life attempting to take the Dardanelles from the Ottomans has become our origin myth, with the Anzacs standing besides the USA’s founding fathers and Civil War leaders, the UK’s Winston Churchill and (literally on the other side of the battlefield) modern Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as the referential arbiters of the national zeitgeist. We talk about the Anzac Spirit and what the Anzacs fought for with the same kind of conviction that Yank pundits bring to arguments about what Ben Franklin’s opinion on the gun control debate would be. Bringing up the Anzacs is a quick way to add credibility to a statement, argument or ideology. We make bold claims about what they fought for, what they would be ashamed of, what they would be proud of, their preference for lamb over tofu. There are few higher honours than associating ourselves (or our brands) with the Diggers of wars gone by, when we can get away with it. Can’t always, thank god and the law for that. This is of course failing to mention when some bastard on a bus (or train) decides to inform some poor family that the Anzacs fought specifically to keep out anyone not born on the British Isles.

Of course it’s not just the Gallipoli myth that’s used to justify or underpin Australian nationalism. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian during the Great War, arguably did more to construct the image of the noble Australian sheep-shearer-turned-warrior courteously gunning down Germans with one hand while refusing to salute with the other than any other correspondent at the time or since, and he believed that it would be the battlefields of Passchendaele and Fromelles that would become the great Mecca for Australians coming to pay respects to their honourable dead, not Gallipoli.

Others point out that far from uniting the nation in a baptism of blood the Great War actually did more to divide it, as the reasons for entering the war (loyalty to Britain, the mother country) and the (failed) referendums over conscription split the country along class, religious and ethnic lines (that can more or less be described as “English vs Irish”). It is far easier to claim that the battles of World War Two did far more to unite Australia than the First did. The Siege of Tobruk where the second round of Anzacs earned a reputation for ingenuity and attack dog enthusiasm for a good fight. The Fall of Singapore, which shifted the mentality of many Australians away from “still a far flung British colony” to a nation that couldn’t keep relying on mum and had to start looking out for itself. The Kokoda Track where the Japanese Army was beaten for the first time, by soldiers referred to as “Chocos” because it was expected they’d “melt like chocolate” upon contact with the enemy.

The debate over which conflict should take precedence in the country’s collective consciousness is one argued by nationalists and national leaders. I’ve always been partial to the Light Horse Brigade’s campaign against the Turks in the Middle East myself, particularly the Battle of Beersheba (called the Last Great Cavalry Charge for a reason). Keating tried to push Kokoda as the fight we should focus on during his tenure as Prime Minister. But when I hear pollies talking about which bloodbath we should remember most fondly I can’t help but remember a few of my old history (and geography) teachers, back in high school, who’d joke that since it was a Liberal PM (sorta) that won the First World War and a Labor PM that won the Second neither party wanted to admit the other war happened (I myself am a bigger fan of Billy Hughes than John Curtin, mostly cause I’m a sucker for anyone who takes the piss out of an American President at important negotiations deciding the fate of the world).

Even the brutal battle at Long Tan during the Vietnam War has entered the positive national mythology. Gallipoli is still king though, and that’s not likely gonna change any time soon.

*****

At university ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Nationalist’ became dirty words, usually shorthand for some reactive leader, party or ethnic group responsible for half the unspeakable acts of violence over the last century or two. The “great disease of the twentieth century” as one of my lecturers called it. After all, it was the actions of a handful of nationalists that lit the fuse that started the Great War, and nationalist pride that allowed it to detonate so spectacularly. Or it became shorthand for the very mockable ignorant jingoists who live in perpetual fear of societal collapse, y’know, the kind of folk who took Pauline Hanson’s warning of an Asian invasion seriously, or who recently piled onto streets around the country (with their swastika-wearing kin) because some jackass reckons that Halal Certifications are being used to funnel money to ISIS or some such shit. Fucken ‘Straya cunt. At one point during a course on religion and violence, when looking at religious nationalism, the tutor asked us to raise our hands if we identified as Australians, identified Australia as our homes. Two people did, and one of them promptly dropped it when he found out that not identifying with any nationality, being a “citizen of the world” so to speak, was an option.

I might sound cynical. I tend to sound cynical. It’s part of my sense of humour. I blame my parents for letting me watch too much Blackadder growing up (though you could argue there’s no such thing). The thing is I am a nationalist. I always have been and likely always will be. I was the guy in that class above that kept his hand up (I remember jokingly stating that the rest of them could “get the fuck out of my country”). There was a time when I tried different labels, like ‘patriot’ (which carries its own clichéd baggage), but the substance hasn’t changed. I identify as an Australian first and foremost, and embrace the heritage and history that comes with it. Good or bad. I still call Australia home an’ all that implies. Living across the world on another continent with a different culture, sports and traditions, I have embraced this identity more than ever. I’ve fallen back on my accent, old slang and old profanity more than I even did back home. I talk about it every chance I get. I love Canadian beer, but I use it as an excuse to talk about Australian beer more than anything else. Poutine’s alright, but you really wanna get a meat pie inta yah. Stuff baseball, cricket’s way better. Good god I miss Aussie coffee, as I keep telling people. And thunderstorms. You can bet that when Anzac Day rolled around, I was happy to talk to anyone who asked about what it meant, and meant to me.

Because I’m proud of what I am. There’s an argument against national pride that effectively amounts to “why be proud of an accident of birth?” The fact that I was born in Australia and not some other nation was random chance, why should it matter that was where I came from? Add to this the fact that I’m the son of immigrant parents (my dad was born in Iraq, mum was born in England, they both came to Australia when they were kids), so I don’t even have that strong a claim over Australian history and heritage. I don’t have a grandfather who was an Anzac or a great-great-grandfather who arrived on a convict ship. Definitely don’t have any First Australian in me. But I’ve never felt this argument had much credibility. I am proud of Australian culture and history because it was part of creating who I am today.

I like who I am today, or at least who I try to be. I hope I’m a good person, though that’s for others to judge. I definitely strive to be one. This is because of the people that raised me, my parents, family, teachers and friends. It is also because of the culture that raised me. Like so many kids growing up I sucked up the mythology around the Anzacs every chance I got, and loved every bit of it. Good or bad. The virtues I aspire to are, rightly or wrongly, tied into that mythology. Egalitarianism, giving everyone a ‘fair go’, mateship, generosity, determination, humour in the face of tragedy, grace in defeat, sacrifice. These are all ideas that are embodied somehow within the mythology of Anzac Day. The Anzac Spirit. They might not always be the best virtues to aspire to, but I aspire to them nonetheless.

Now I’m not saying that other countries and cultures don’t produce good, noble, virtuous people. Nor that our mythology has a monopoly on any of those things above. I’m definitely not saying that Australia and Australian nationalism hasn’t produced more than its share of cunts (see the story at the beginning). That would be fuckin’ stupid. I am simply saying that if I can be called a decent person (and as I said, I hope I can), I can be proud of the people, places and culture that made me that way. I can be proud of my identity.

About six months to a year after I raised my hand and got a few laughs telling everyone else to fuck off, a friend from that class brought it up in conversation. At the time, she said, she’d felt like she was closer to being an Italian than an Australian, identified more closely with her family’s heritage than with that of the country she’d grown up in. This changed after actually going to Italy and learning, explicitly, that she was not Italian. After that, she told me, if asked the question again she’d raise her hand. She’d come to the conclusion that she was an Aussie. It was not her whole identity, she was not a nationalist, just that she identified as Australian.

*****

National myths, especially the ‘origin stories’ as I’ve heard them called, are often problematic. They’re often bloody. There is the mythos around first the Revolution and then the Reign of Terror from which Modern France was born. The long, bloody civil war in China against the Kuomingtang and Japanese invasion that ended with the Communist victory. The US Civil War which divided the nation then sort of united it. Kemal Ataturk’s successful defence of the Dardanelles against the Entente invaders, as I mentioned above, and the rise of the Young Turks as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkey we know and love emerged.

It seems you need a “baptism of blood” to inspire a nation’s existence, self-worth, values and purpose. Dumping a bunch of crooks onto a beach (guarded by another bunch of crooks) and telling them to build a city, or a bunch of old white men convincing other old white men that maybe life would be easier if everyone on the continent shared in a common defence, immigration laws, currency and rail gauge doesn’t exactly excite the popular imagination the same way that a brutal assault on an easily defined ‘other’ for politically malleable reasons, full of daring do and a healthy dose of sacrifice. As I said, we haven’t got much else well-known history that isn’t a dark stain on our national soul.

As far as these baptisms go though, the Gallipoli campaign and the legend of Anzac isn’t too bad. Yes, they don’t really provide us with the cast iron legal foundations upon which our nation is built in the same way that The Revolution gave France “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”. But the mythology also doesn’t carry around the same sort of baggage that many other nations and cultures have to (or refuse to). Not like the problematic aftermath of the US Civil War, where the courage, bravery, sacrifice and determination of the Confederate soldiers defending goddamn slavery is still honoured by Americans on both sides of the line. And, while definitely not all angels, the Anzacs certainly don’t carry the weight (or have to live in denial) of a genocide round their necks like the Young Turks do with their treatment of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks and other ethnic groups. (Of course there is far, far too little official recognition of the Frontier Wars that plagued the Black Australia pre-and-immediately-post-Commonwealth during white settlement and expansion, something that needs to be fixed).

Both the strength and weakness of any mythology is that it is open to interpretation by the popular conscious. Anzac Day certainly has its problems, like the glorification of war, the often one-sided hagiography of our returned and fallen servicemen and women, the commercialisation of commemoration, and the militarisation of Australian culture far too frequently used to create, justify and enforce a dangerous attitude of ‘us versus them’. But we can also use it do great good as well. It’s taken us long enough to admit that there were probably a fair few Aboriginals in the ranks, and that when they returned they were probably treated almost universally like shit (taking us another fifty years before we stopped treating them as part of the local fauna), but whose general experience of army life was one of equality of pay and treatment. It’s a history that can push a simple message through the thick skulls of white Australia: if the Diggers didn’t have a problem with indigenous Australians, then how bloody dare you? Well, it should be simple. One day we’ll get there. Then one day it might not even be needed.

Deconstruction of the myth is a necessary thing, and there are many great examples floating around academia and journalism worth reading. But reconstruction should not be ruled out if it can be used to promote the best values of our culture. We learn from history, but we’re inspired by legends. We need to make sure we’re inspiring people in the right direction.

*****

The non-Australians I’ve met and know are frequently surprised by how we act on Anzac Day. Yes, there is commemoration, as should be expected of the day but there’s just as much celebration. We mark Anzac Day with drinking and gambling, going to the pub to play two-up, punctuated by moments of contemplation. So different to the sombre ceremonies and minute of silence on Remembrance Day. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. It might seem disrespectful, but isn’t a healthy irreverence one of those traits that we, ironically, revere about the legendary Anzac? We’re certainly quick to step in when someone comes off as overly disrespectful, and it keeps things in perspective. We celebrate the lives of those who went to war for us, still put the uniform and still go to war for us, rather than mourn the dead. It keeps the focus on those who fought for us and still fight for us, rather than on those we fought. War is hell, but peace is great, and most of us have been able to only enjoy the latter because a few have suffered through the former. Maybe it still sounds disrespectful, maybe I sound disrespectful, but I don’t believe that’s the intention. I think, at worst, it’s the only way we know how to do things.

Is that a problem? Maybe. I don’t think so. But I might be part of that problem.

*****

I know the dangers of nationalism. I know the problems its caused. The wars it’s started. I’m not trying to excuse it. Simply trying to explain my own.

I didn’t get that tattoo. There were more than a few marking the skin of those draped in Aussie flags slinging racial slurs and informing the world that the Anzacs fought for Cronulla Beach, that the Lebanese had no right to come and interfere with an imagined social order. The Southern Cross tattoo, at least in Sydney, found a secure place on the uniform of the angry, discriminating Bogan. I’m not saying that everyone who bears that icon is a racist, they’re not, I know plenty who aren’t, it would be ridiculous to make that claim. But in my mind and those of plenty of others including the members of my Middle Eastern, dark-skinned dad’s family, it became part of the stereotype of the ignorant, racist bastards that make their presence known every so often in the worst possible ways. It’s not the worst part (the violence and abuse that makes people feel like outsiders is), but the fact that they try and legitimise the behaviour, legitimise the hate, with a claim of defending Australian culture, the Australian way of life, leaves me angry.

Because I’m an Aussie nationalist. I love the positive parts of that heritage, accept the bad, apologise and promise to always do better. To accept everyone who looked at Australia, or even arrived without knowing better, and decided it seemed like a decent place to live.

A decent place to live, which we can be proud of. That might not be what the original Anzacs fought for, that might not be what our current Diggers fight for. But it’s something I ascribe to the myth. That’s what I drink to on Anzac Day.

Hope that makes sense.

Thoughts and prayers with those currently serving, and those that have in the past.

Quick note: this is not an academic article or an extensively researched piece of writing. Mostly I’m just working off memory. There’s probably more than a few factual errors, and there are a definitely a few half-truths. This is a personal opinion piece, and no disrespect was intended towards most of the folk (live or dead) I mentioned in this post that I didn’t refer to with profanely. I have a sarcastic way of writing and talking.