Others Palin Comparison

Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing one of my childhood idols, Michael Palin, live on stage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney. My sister Jodie (also a fan) joined me for the show.

Palin was in town mainly to promote his latest project, Erebus, a book about the titular ship’s role in one of the British Empire’s most successful exploratory voyages. For the first half of the show, he brought the real, historical characters of Erebus to life with the perfect balance of wit and analysis. I had never heard of the ship’s voyage to Antarctica, which saw the discovery that it was, in fact, a continent. He then elaborated about the tragedy that befell the ship and its crew during its attempt to navigate the North-West Passage. The tale was incredibly fascinating and Palin’s passion for history, geography and real human stories was evident. He was incredibly thorough.

The second half of Palin’s show was more reflective and autobiographical, covering his time on programmes The Complete and Utter History of Britain and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, films like A Fish Called Wanda and his various documentary projects and series, including a recent trip to North Korea.

The humorous highlight of the evening was something that I never thought that I would witness in person: a live rendition of The Lumberjack Song. Ending the show, Palin performed the entire piece, with the audience joining in as his Mountie chorus. He even sang part of the song in German separately, as he recounted the time that he and the Pythons had to translate and learn many of their sketches for shows in the country. It was brilliant.

Having seen Cleese and Idle on stage in Sydney back in 2016, the chance to watch Palin on stage this time was a fantastic second Monty Python fix for me. As someone who grew up with their comedy—fortunately introduced by older family members—it was deeply satisfying and nostalgic. Many people my age whom I’ve met, if they’re at all aware of Monty Python, are often dismissive of their style and deliberate absurdity. They simply don’t get it. I have long considered Monty Python to have been an indispensable part of my development and life education. Like the somewhat different shows Seinfeld and The Simpsons, Monty Python’s productions taught me from a young age that nothing is off limits. Things that are taken for granted or never questioned in daily life, such as social customs, history or religion (especially) can be put under the microscope and mocked freely.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Monty Python was the catalyst for my atheist awakening in primary school. It took things that I thought about religion from an early age and gave me the vocabulary to express myself effectively. Palin explained during his show that much of the group’s comedy came from their university education and love for history and literature. For viewers, Monty Python was as much a lesson in language as it was silly sketch comedy.

Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin used their combined talent and knowledge to give us a new way to look and laugh at the world. Certainly much of the satirical content that they produced back then would be deemed unacceptable if it were written today. This is fascinating to consider. We accept quite readily that humanity is on a path of linear progress. Is that the case with our sense of humour?

I’m not sure that we’ll ever see another comedy troupe like Monty Python again—certainly not with the same level of universal popularity and influence, given our fragmented media landscape. Opportunities such as Palin’s live show, however, let us relive that excellence.

Almost 20: ‘The Matrix’

The other day, I was flicking around our local iTunes library on the Apple TV. I put on one of my absolute favourite films: The Matrix. I only watched about 15 minutes’ worth, skimming here and there, but as it played, something occurred to me: the movie was released in the year 1999.

The Matrix is almost 20 years old.

I took greater notice of the special effects, the stunts and cinematography and you know what? It still holds up today. The Matrix truly set the standard at the time for Hollywood film-making (leading into the start of the new millennium), capitalising on fear about the seemingly inevitable Y2K bug. The idea of being a prisoner of some false reality was certainly a theme at the end of the nineties, as evident in other films such as The Truman Show (another personal favourite of mine).

Sure, some of the devices in the film look quite old these days, such as the famous falling Nokia 8110 and beige CRT displays, but that doesn’t matter at all. It all contributes to the aesthetic (along with the subtle green hue) of the film.

All of this also made me reflect on another major reason why I love The Matrix. It’s not just the look, the story, the effects and the soundtrack… it’s the setting. The Wachowskis decided on Sydney as the filming location, which gives it a completely different feeling from just about any other American sci-fi or action movie. The architecture is distinctive (take Harry Seidler’s prominent Australia Square Tower in a few shots), the phone boxes are different and the streetscape in general lends a different feel to the neo-noir aesthetic.

Beyond the fact that it’s obviously different from the normal appearance of American films, The Matrix also shows places throughout Sydney that Australians were able to recognise, albeit from odd angles and obscured views. This makes the locations eerily familiar, although somewhat foreign and other-worldly. Perhaps more than for any other viewer, American or otherwise, Australians can experience the matrix as it is described by the characters Morpheus and Trinity: a dream world that seems like home but just doesn’t feel quite right.

The Matrix still influences so much of what we see in movies today, be it slow-motion ‘bullet time’ in action sequences, atypical musical scores or stories that question reality (think Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, let’s all be grateful that the Wachowskis dared to do something truly different, philosophical and brave, which set the standard for better American action cinema.

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds

This is something that I really meant to write about quickly last Sunday but ran out of time to do so…

The night before, I went to see Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds with my mother and sister at the Sydney Opera House. It really was the most unbelievable show. Murray, known more for his comedic film performances than classical music or literature, performed spoken-word pieces (and sang in sections) along to classical music by Bach, Ravel and Schubert. The spoken content came from American literary greats Hemingway, Twain and Whitman.

Not only was Murray absolutely captivating, Jan Vogler (cello), Mira Wang (violin) and Vanessa Perez (piano) played brilliantly and supplied a powerful soundtrack for the evening. There was no need for any advanced lighting or sets; they simply performed on an empty stage, commanding the audience’s attention with evocative excerpts on life, death, religion, relationships, race and more. Personally, I’ve never seen such a live performance that can take you from feeling contemplative (and even sad) to cackling with joy.

At the end of the show, Murray and co. performed an extended encore of semi-improvised material, which they had rehearsed but seemingly not planned to include in the show. Murray stated that with ‘the best room in town’, they should keep going. He then took a bunch of roses, which were presented to him as a gift, and proceeded to run through the aisles and hurl them at the audience.

I’ll never forget this performance. It was truly one of the greatest things that I’ve ever seen. The man is beyond talented.

For an impression of the show, click here to view the trailer. You’ll also find other performances on YouTube.

Australia vs. the Arts

I was browsing the Apple News app today when I came across this fantastic piece in The New York Times: ‘Is the Way Australia Funds the Arts a Recipe for Mediocrity?’.

Overall, the article explains how Australia lacks the funding and vision to encourage consumption of its own culture and artistic works. I couldn’t agree with this more and I’d love to go out on my own tangent here. (Make sure that you check out the full article though…)

Two major points stand out to me in the piece. The first is the matter of cultural cringe:

“Cultural cringe — in part, the tendency to overvalue the culture of Europe and North America and undervalue Australia’s own — lingers, many Australians in the arts argue. This, they say, plays into why the 28 majors, who mostly concentrate on traditional art forms and repertoire, are still so revered by those who manage government funding.

Professor Meyrick said that cultural cringe has lessened over the years, as Australia gained more confidence on the global stage. Yet this attitude is “still hard-wired into the administration of culture.”

I see evidence of this all the time. With friends and colleagues, discussions about television programmes and film always default to American productions. If mentioned shows are Australian, they’re almost always in the realm of reality TV. There is so much to be enjoyed on the government-funded free-to-air networks such as the ABC and SBS, with a multitude of home-grown drama, news, comedy and documentaries. Don’t even get me started on whether people go to theatres to see Australian plays. Such theatregoers do exist–I don’t wish to generalise–but it’s certainly not the norm.

Read on for the second point of note:

“Fundamental to the debate over funding is that Australia as a nation prioritizes sports over the arts. The last federal budget allocated nearly $75 million more to the Australian Sports Commission than to the Australia Council. According to a 2017 study by the broadband network N.B.N., Australians watch around 60 million hours of sports at home per week—about 2 and a half hours per person.

By contrast, some Australians regard the arts with suspicion, said Christopher Tooher, executive director of the annual Sydney Festival. Fifteen years ago, he said, the newly elected head of the government in the state of New South Wales felt the need to reassure the public that he was ‘a footy man’, referring to Australian Rules football, the national sport, ‘not an opera man’.”

The nation’s obsession with sport (particularly domestic sports such as rugby league, cricket and Australian rules football) is tiresome. Not only does it take too much time as a regular segment on daily news programmes, it swallows up other important spheres of daily life.

Perhaps my clearest memory of this fixation on sport is my time as a student in primary and high school assemblies. There were other extra-curricular activities for kids, such as debating, drama, photography, film cultural exchanges and vocational training, however, all assemblies contained at least 15 minutes of monotonous sport reports, as athletic school heroes were paraded in front of the bored school population. I never felt personally affected by this (other than lapsing in attention), but I am sure that others who were also not that athletic felt completley insufficient, as they were forced to watch the latest swimming champion was placed on a glorious pedestal.

Later, during my tertiary education (and even today), I frequently heard people say, “Oh, such-and-such is just doing an arts / creative arts degree because she/he didn’t know what else to do”. In general, the arts discipline and other creative fields are regarded as paths to zero employment. Areas such as sport, STEM and business are the ultimate symbols of success. The greatest leaps forward in society have in fact almost always come from the arts, whether from philosophers, sociologists, playwrights or musicians.

What’s particularly sad to me is that this attitude towards the arts has become so dismal, that it has even made it into an international American newspaper. I wish the Australian mainstream would turn its gaze to the wonderful pool of artistic talent in this country, spurring not only demand for Australian content but also increased funding.

The Legend of Seinfeld

Last night was a night that I thought would never happen: I had the chance to see Jerry Seinfeld perform live at the ICC in Sydney. The absolute sitcom and stand-up legend himself, who had not performed in Australia in 19 years, decided to visit this continent and gift us with his unmatched observational comedy.

Jerry!

I went with my fiancée, Natasha, who also worships the man. It was the show Seinfeld that in fact brought us together. During my time at university, Natasha and I did not know each other, but had a mutual friend by the name of Myf. She suffered constantly through our coincidentally simultaneous Seinfeld references. We both preached incessantly about how it is and always will be the greatest television show to ever be made. (Nothing has had the same cultural resonance or influence, except for perhaps The Simpsons, although Jerry quit while on top.) Noticing this shared passion, Myf put in a good word for the other on both sides. The rest is history!

I would say that Natasha and I are quite well-known amongst family and friends for being Seinfeld nuts. The beauty of the show is that is instantly relatable to anyone – the banal and the mundane are dissected masterfully in the show. Jerry and co-creator Larry David struck the perfect recipe for critiquing and painfully over-analysing the minutiae of human existence. I would go so far as to say that watching the show since I was a young child went on to influence the way that I talk and view the world. Little things annoy me, and boy do other people get to hear about them.

Last night was the culmination of a lifetime of quotation, references, laughter and watching and rewatching TV re-runs and DVDs. Natasha and I knew that we would have a great time, but we weren’t sure what to expect from a him so late in his career. He could easily have rested on his laurels and pumped out old stuff.

Well, I was blown away and I’m pretty sure that the rest of the audience was too. The theatre was packed, the laughter was loud and there was even a second show to follow.

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Effortless performance

Not only did Jerry’s performance run for 90 minutes, but he did not stop for breath. Laugh after laugh delivered and nothing felt forced. Jerry delivered a show that was not only true to his 90s style and fame, but one that was also relevant to a world that is obsessed with smartphones, the Web and personal image. He did it all without being offensive, crude or political. I walked away incredibly impressed. I would have paid double for the ticket.

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Crowds pour in for the *second* show.

This is a man who has mastered his craft and continues to do brilliant things like the popular Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You can tell that he loves what he does.

So, I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to Mr Seinfeld for providing the absolute best, most timeless comedy on the planet, and for giving us all a night that we will not forget. Oh, and also, thank you for incidentally providing me with a future wife.

One happy Seinfeldian couple