Saturday, April 9, 2016

Did David Bowie call Australia “a fucking craphole of a country”?

David Bowie - Postcards from Sailor - Edition 23

Fans of David Bowie have known for years about his double life on the internet, posting on official fan forums and communicating using the alias Sailor. Renown for being among the first stars to chat openly with fans via his pioneering site/server BowieNet, Bowie has long been rumoured to have frequented other Bowie fan sites as well – Teenage Wildlife, Bowie Wonderland and Bowie Station – answering questions and sharing opinions via the same handle.

Between 1998 and 2004 Bowie spent so much time interacting with fans that some publicly wished he’d get offline and go back into the studio. “I remember when ever he posted suddenly hundreds of replies would end up in the thread,” says user Swebby. “There would be page after page of stuff the moment he just said two words or more.” So far, two books have been made of these postings.

Dispensing with the elevated personae by which he was best known, Bowie wasn’t afraid to express himself robustly as Sailor, especially when it came to one topic: how much he hated Australia.

In 2004, months after his last Australian tour, Australian fan Adam lamented on Teenage Wildlife that Bowie didn’t release the entire 35 hours of the Outside/Inside sessions.

Sailor replied with a post entitled ‘Whining kangaroo eater!’:

So do you ask every rock legend to sort through 35 hours of material or just the ones who recently had heart surgery? Have you no shame? I came to your fucking craphole of a country to perform, but that's not enough. No sir, let's all ask the old man to walk on fuckin water and bend over backwards because we're the fans. Whatever, girlfriend!

When fellow Teenage Wildlife user Ziggfried suggested other fans post the question that Bowie would least like to answer, Sailor leapt in again:

…every time someone gets on my case about touring in Australia I want to smack them. Any country that produced both Paul Hogan, Yahoo Serious, and the Crocodile Hunter is one that I generally try to stay away from.

A complete list of Sailor’s contributions to Teenage Wildlife can be found here. Unfortunately Bowie’s extensive posts at BowieNet were lost when the site closed down in 2006 but many gems, such as Bowie’s response to the passing of mime artist Marcel Marceau – “no last words?” – have been immortalised by fans.

Since first arriving in Australia on his Isolar II World Tour in 1978 (Isolar, an anagram of Sailor), Bowie has publicly professed his love for the country. He shot the pioneering Let’s Dance and China Girl film clips here and owned an apartment in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay in which he sporadically lived between 1983 and 1992.

In an online chat in 1999, Bowie’s wife Imam mentioned that she’d never visited Australia and that “David has always promised to take me”. Later that year in another online chat Bowie explained his long absence as nothing personal: “I just haven't been asked to tour there in eleven years.

Bowie berated Australia for its racial intolerance in a 1983 interview, he said: “as much as I love this country, it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa…there’s unbelievable intolerance."

While Aboriginal Australia and the outback fascinated Bowie, it seems Australian culture (and Sydney’s escalating property prices) didn’t impress him much. Perhaps these conflicting feelings, growing stronger as he grew older, only make Bowie more Australian than he realised he was?

Sail on Sailor.

REVIEW: Gods of Egypt and the Australian film industry

Some are more sequel than others

Should you be wondering where public funding of the Australian film industry has gone, besides the $6 million into a film discouraging asylum seekers, you couldn’t much worse than watch new blockbuster Gods of Egypt. A US$140 million behemoth of CGI and ceaseless bombast filmed in Australia after the uncommon generosity of the New South Wales government who agreed to foot 46% of the bill via tax credits.

Whether the $75 million in generated income promised by the government when they chose to offer tax credits to the swords-and-sandals epic eventuates remains to be seen. What turns up on the screen is far from what anyone would consider an ‘Australian’ film.

The last few months have seen a concerted negative buzz build around Gods of Egypt even before its much-vaunted pre-Super Bowl trailer debut. It seems director Alex Proyas missed the backlashes against Ridley Scott’s whitewashed casting of his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Darren Aronofsky’s all-white Noah. Kevin Reynolds’ Biblical mystery Risen, also out this week, similarly trades realistic skin tones for an all-white, mostly American, cast.

To his credit, Proyas and the production company Lionsgate apologised for their casting decisions: “We failed to live up to our own standards,” Proyas said in a press release. “I sincerely apologise to anyone offended by the decisions we made.” That was in November, so the diversity obsession that has seen forthcoming films cast African American actors in roles originally intended for white actors.   

Despite the shortlived #EgyptSoWhite tag (Chadwick Boseman’s dozen-odd lines as Thoth hardly buck this trend) it turns out it’s young, cheap and talented Australian actors who will be either wearing the shame of Gods of Egypt, or using it as a learning experience and moving swiftly on.

The film is set ‘before history’ in an Egypt in which gods walk among mortals. Bryan Brown’s Osiris bestows his crown to his chosen son, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Horus only to have the family black sheep turn up, Set (Gerard Butler), who -along with an army of CGI minions - wrests power and launches a tale of revenge in motion. Mortal teenager Bek (Brendon Thwaites) and love interest Zaya (Courtney Eaton) have a parallel story involving the afterlife. That the architect of destiny Geoffrey Rush’s sun god Ra rides a glass ship and battles the essence of chaos with a rod of light doesn't seem out of place says much about the balminess of this film.

While the story itself could be riveting in other hands, here it’s a series of CGI setpieces shot with restlessly vertiginous camerawork, frequent explosions and Marco Beltrami’s relentlessly bombastic score. Apparently Sydney’s Centennial Park stands in for the grand palace, but best of luck spotting it.

When a film reaches a budget this big and is aiming for middle America, it seems concessions to innovation must be made. In this case there is plenty of cleavage, but no nudity. Violence aplenty, but no blood, anger and passion, but no swearing or anything hinting at sex. It’s so boldly ‘family friendly’ that its sheer blandness becomes offensive. 
Like most big-budget international films Australia courts, Gods of Egypt is destined to be a critical failure and probable box office bomb. Along with similar stinkers I, Frankenstein, Knowing, The Matrix sequels or the Star Wars prequels, it’s another example of an iconic Australian city, in this case Sydney, standing in for somewhere else and providing a raft of film industry professionals leaving an expensive premiere with eyebrows raised and muttering "well, at least it kept some of us in work for a bit."

Expect it to happen again soon with the next raft of blockbusters brought to Australian film studios promising of hundreds of short-term insecure employment opportunities and little chance of attracting the burgeoning location tourism industry as happens with so many films and TV series.

In March Screen Australia announced the following films were due to be shooting at least part of their production in Australia: two Lego Movie sequels, the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, the next Thor and X-Men films, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Scott inadvertently spoke for all of these film’s directors when he promised his Alien sequel would feature “fairly formidable CGI”. Like the creators of Gods of Egypt no doubt, Scott promised the possibility of sequels to be shot in Australia, “if the film is successful”.

All major studios are looking to find a franchise that can pick up where Harry Potter and Hunger Games left off, and it seems Gods of Egypt will join the boldly-funded ranks of The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket, Eragon and Inkhart as films full of promise, twists on familiar material and a raft of new faces hoping for an illustrious start to their career.

While arts funding across the board has been subject to cuts from the government, film funding has been more savage than most. Screen Australia, the nation’s most notable funding body has $10.3 million taken from its budget over the next four years. The Thor and Alien sequels will be receiving nearly $50 million from the government in what has been one of the most explicit signs of valuing the foreign blockbuster over Australian stories. If Gods of Egypt is anything to go by, bean counting precedent set by the government seems to have carried all the way down to the very last pixel.

REVIEW: Risen aka Jesus as dudebro

Joe Manjón as Bartholomew and Joseph Fiennes as Clavius in 'Risen'
Kevin Reynolds, he of Waterworld and Red Dawn, brings all the humility and cultural sensitivity for which he is known to the story of Jesus’s forty days on the lam. 

On paper, it seems a good idea: a paranoid ruler fearing a religious uprising dispatches his brightest and most ambitious soldier to track down a resurrected ‘messiah’ and potential usurper. Hard political and social reality meets inexplicable spiritual miracle - give that to the Coens and you’ve got gold. Unfortunately, we have a film that some non-US reviewers are likely to dismiss with the phrase, “it will play well in middle America”. Good actors spout terrible lines and the filmmakers never overcome the difficulty of portraying religious satisfaction as anything other than smug and annoying.

Most of the budget is dispatched in the opening half hour as grisly crucifixions follow a bloody sword-and-sandals battle and some valiant thesping from a mostly British cast who wander around locations familiar from Game of Thrones as if that’s where they’d much rather be. Reynolds seems to be going for all the historical accuracy he can muster, but it’s not the lack of nudity, swearing or era-appropriate headgear that undercuts him. It’s skin tone.

Even if the Oscars diversity scandal weren’t playing out in the headlines, Risen would look notably and inexcusably whitewashed. The white-people-playing-Arabs-outcry over Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to have bypassed Reynolds who is presumably trying to make a film that will perhaps “play well in middle America”.

After the ‘don’t switch over to something else because you’re probably watching this on Netflix’-pace of the opening scenes, we have our story laid out by a nervous Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) who charges Joseph Fiennes’ centurion Clavius with the job of finding the body of a disappeared, or maybe…risen, Jesus, known in the film as Yeshua, because, y’know, accuracy.

To help, Pontius gives Clavius an aide in the form of Tom Felton’s Lucius. Yes, that’s Draco Malfoy playing a character called Lucius, which is about the most interesting aspect of an underwritten role in which his brow is rarely un-furrowed. 

Maori actor Cliff Curtis does an admirable job as Yeshua, surely one of the trickiest roles to portray on film. Reynolds renders Jesus as a modern day dudebro, gadding about Judea with his band of back-slapping disciples, forever grinning at each and laughing at nothing, presumably in a state of rapture.

Clavius and Lucius search for Yeshua with an army of centurions who act like Blackwater in Iraq - kicking in doors, terrifying families and being their own worst enemy. The film’s one female character, Mary Magdalene - a “woman of the street” - is introduced with a joke about how many centurions have slept with her (pretty much all of them, LOL), given one brief scene where she’s deemed mad and disappears to let the other disciples hang with their main man.

One key scene, in which Yeshua performs a ‘miracle’ to sate the faith of his disciples, depicts a man with a debilitating skin disease who is beaten up, spat on and cast out of a village for stealing food. Yeshua, sitting nearby and laughing about nothing with his disciples notices this, frowns, and ‘cures’ him with that most powerful of remedies, love. 

Noted thesp Joseph Finnes is almost upstaged by the mottling on his horse 
Curing doesn’t mean accepting him as he is, disfigured and wretched, or teaching him to love himself, or showing the villagers the errors of their ways, instead the man is transformed into a person who looks just like Yeshua, with flawless skin, clean robes and a sweet beard. 

Judging by the response of the largely Christian audience, Risen contains plenty of in-jokes for those who know their Bible. Even for those who don’t, scenes in which preaching disciples yet to publish their book mutter comedy gold like “that’s good, I might use that again” to break up shots of the Judean desert and Joseph Fiennes’ contemplative frown.

Judging by box office receipts, the Christian film market - like the Christian music industry - is huge, and relies more on repeating known stories and sentiments than artistry to get a return. If the trailer that played before the screening of Risen is anything to go by (a Jennifer Garner-starring family drama entitled Miracles From Heaven), it’s an industry in rude health that can withstand the damning reviews it attracts from non-religious reviewers.

With Risen, Kevin Reynolds has been blessed with a budget that can extend to British actors wanting a working holiday in Spain and Malta, and the hope must have been that their accents would lend gravitas to Paul Aiello’s story. What Reynolds has forgotten or is ignoring is that to break from that faithful demographic requires more than thesping Brits, a butchered story and some Mediterranean countryside. It requires humility and not pushing an Americanised monotheistic vision of how the world should be.