We Chose to Speak of War and Strife (2016)

John Simpson

John Simpson is the world affairs editor at the BBC. He has worked at the BBC as a journalist for his entire career and much of his work was as a foreign correspondent. He was once hunted by Robert Mugabe, avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre, bore witness to the Kosovo War, the first Gulf War and countless other pivotal world events.

This, his latest of several books which have detailed his life as a journalist, is more of a history of the evolution and role of the foreign correspondent. I first heard of the book in an interview between Simpson and Phillip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment was titled ‘The End of the Foreign Correspondent’ and in the interview Simpson posited that the role of foreign correspondent has all but been replaced by news services and freelance local journalists and implied his book was a sort of response.

This idea of an obituary to the profession is perhaps an angle which Simpson used to promote the book. Meanwhile, the back-cover blurb uses a different angle by name-dropping Hemingway (who only appears in the book tangentially in an anecdote), and also portrays the book as a series of hair-raising adventures.

In actuality, the book is neither an obituary to foreign correspondence or an auto-biographical tale of adventure though there are elements of each. Rather, Simpson has compiled an anthological history of the foreign correspondent. He has culled from history books, foreign correspondents auto-biographies, his own life, and his own auto-biographies.

I’ve a certain immediate and unfounded suspicion of Simpson based around generational difference and Australian/English colonial histories. I was interested in the subject but wary of both him and his book. As the structure of the book revealed itself to be neither searing indictment of modern corporate journalism or personal tales of adventure I was even more willing, perhaps even eager, to decry the book as little more than a lazy cash-grab copy-and-paste exploitative compilation of other journalist’s lives.

I do have small criticisms of the book but they do not relate to Simpson’s use of other writings. If anything, I applaud him for having curated such a diverse, interesting, and at times obtuse collection of writings on foreign correspondence. He is also humbly adept at backgrounding himself as a segue device between the various journalists.

In terms of criticisms the book does almost collapse under its own ambitions in the opening chapters. Simpson begins with a history of the origins of the foreign correspondent. He seems to be aware of the concentration required to keep track of the unfamiliar names, wars and monarchs involved in the first instances of foreign reporting. To keep the reader interested he intersplices elements of his own autobiography and the effect is that initially the book seems messy and self-absorbed.

Simpson also uses a wry, almost arch, tone of voice which is seemingly common to journalist biographies (including Edward Behr in the 60’s and Kim Barker in the 2000’s). I think the idea in using this tone is to avoid sensation but it often leads to anti-climax, detachment, boredom or even smugness.

Simpson also often misses the irony in romanticising the early decades of foreign correspondence and laughing at the many examples of its excess and drunken follies. After detailing the history of a profession that was often unnecessarily lavish Simpson ends the book decrying the extinction of the foreign correspondent. He posits that the living expenses of the foreign correspondent are seen as too expensive in the modern age.

I’m can’t speak to the veracity of Simpson’s assessment of the current state of foreign correspondence. In Kim Barker’s book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which details her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 2000’s, there is an underlying theme of budgetary constraints. That said she is often stubbornly reporting on Afghanistan while her editors are asking her to look for different subject matter or report within different countries.

Thirty fives years earlier Edward Behr in his autobiography (entitled ‘Bearings: A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines or, alternatively, ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’) which was published in the early 70’s, also ends his book with the budgetary worries and concerns as both Simpson and Barker.

I don’t think it’s necessary new or surprising that there is an effort to curtail spending on foreign correspondents. In the wake of the global financial crisis many industries have had to scale back from past excesses and autobiographies of the music, movie and tv stars similarly lament the contemporary states of their respective industries while also yearning for the golden era of endless expense accounts.

Ultimately, it’s hard to truly know how objective Simpson and his views on the modern state of journalism are. He continues to occupy one of the top spots at the BBC after having lived through the golden era of foreign correspondence. Is the foreign correspondent really dying out? Will the news industry learn to adapt? Or will it copy its entertainment cousins of music and movies and adapt cry poor while still living rich?

Thankfully these questions are not the real aim of this book. I do wish that Simpson had been more willing to predict the future of journalism or provide some sort of guidance to up and coming journalists. Instead he provides a loving curation of the many chapters of the profession as lived and written by past heroes of foreign journalism such as Don McMullin, Martha Gellhorn, and Marie Colvin. The book cherishes and values the lives of these and many other individuals. Simpson celebrates their passion and work and grieves for those who were lost along the way. It is an invaluable resource as it acts as aa stepping stone towards dozens of other amazing journalist auto-biographies. A fatalist could call it the book an obituary to the profession. An optimist would view it as a sort of celebratory honour roll and call to arms.

 

*Edit 16/7 Kim Barker’s book was actually titled The Taliban Shuffle and adapted into a film with the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

 

 

 

 

The Hangover 3 (2013)

Todd Phillips

I’ve watched this film twice. It was ok first time around albeit confusing. Did anyone ever think this was a trilogy series? Want it to be? Need a third film to provide closure to events? NO! The first Hangover movie was a massive success. The second hangover movie was a copy of the first set in a different location and with a few tweaks but still a success, and an ok film. With that trend established it seemed safe to assume the third hangover movie would be more of the same.

But it’s not. Not at all. Same actors, same director and to an extent the same setup but much different result. No longer is there a hangover as plot device towards a reveal detective story. I don’t think this film even has a hangover in it and I liked that they broke from the formula but found myself guiltily missing and yearning for it a third time.

The second time I watched the film and without preconceptions I enjoyed it. It was easier to cast aside what I knew from the previous movies and watch this as a standalone story. I’m almost certain that once upon a time the script for this film was had a different title but that the easiest, or only way, to get it made was to overlay the character template of the hangover films. Either that and/or the director, Todd Phillips, wanted to showcase his action movie credentials so that he could branch out in the future. This second theory is semi-confirmed with his follow-up War Dogs where Phillips puts to work all the flashy bro-comedy action he seems to have rehearsed here. In the meantime, Hangover 3 has some good duel antagonist work from John Goodman and Ken Jeong and strong duel straight men in Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper to the crazy of Zach Galifianakis. It’s an ok watch but only if you can pretend it’s not a sequel to two unrelated films.

 

Hangover3-five-panel

The trilogy no one expected? Although this poster is pretty representative of it’s action over comedy tone.

 

 

 

HHhH (2010)

Laurent Binet

Heralded as one of the greatest works of historical fiction HHhH takes on the simple and yet immensely complicated task of detailing the assassination attempt of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS.

The book is many things under the one banner including a biography of the Reinhard Heydrich, a biography of the paratrooper assassins, a historical analysis of the development of the final solution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and an exploration of the act of writing historical fiction. Amongst all this content Laurent Binet also writes himself into the book as he muses on his role as researcher and author.

The books strength is in conveying large amounts of information and research in a smooth and continually interesting manner. Binet, in examining a different theatre of war than usual, goes to great lengths to detail the history of the German occupation of Moravia. He writes of the government in exile and the public figures who stayed and collaborated with the Germans. As part of his biography of Heydrich Binet also provides many insights into the inner workings of the upper Nazi echelon and the nature of their interactions.

The weakness of the book is it often feels too worried about itself. Binet constantly signposts what will happen next and why. That Binet as author includes himself in the book should and could serve as some sort of narrative to the reader but even this potential device is not allowed to exist independently or work properly as Binet feels the need to justify including himself. This level of self-awareness could still allow for the narrative of the researcher and the vast amount of time and effort spent gradually letting go of the story in writing but within the short length of the book it is biographical details about Binet himself which are lacking.

In the climax, when the climax is finally allowed to happen Binet is both too self-aware and intent upon sign-posting his intentions, his motivations and the motivations of his intentions. This leads from very early on to a feeling of anti-climax that, as I reader, I kept expecting would somehow be overcome. Instead the anti-climax is underlined and examined in the same clever way Binet examines much of his writing throughout the book and, I found, this led to a feeling of suffocation under the repeated waves of analysis, self-awareness and concern for the direction of the story.

Binet writes in the closing passages of the emotional investment and near trauma that he has taken on in researching and writing the book. I found this glimpse into his psyche promised so much of what seemed to be missing. I wish he had been allowed to write more about himself, even if it was indulgent perhaps even especially if it was indulgent.

I feel too that if Binet had been allowed another hundred pages to fully illustrate who he is and to also indulge in the personal and his own process of parsing and then writing on these atrocities then this book could have been more than a great work of historical research in the form of a novel. It could have shown how encompassing and dark was the cloud of the Nazi regime and how, even still, so many decades on it is so often impossible for us to comprehend this part of history. I would have happily read more of the guilt and trauma of Binet as he struggled to convey all of this.

But, too, perhaps this is my own worry that I’ll never be able to fully complete my comprehension of these events or the guilt I carry, as I think many of us do, that the fascination with the war and Hitler and the atrocities he committed is voyeuristic rather than academic.

And, so, ultimately undecided as I am this is another book that will remain in limbo on a shelf with few others that I want to read again soon and see how time and myself find it different on a second pass.

 

*The featured image above is the edition I have. To date this is the most edition variants I have found of a book online.

 

hhhh7

Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton

A movie which falls flat even as it hints at what it could have been.

Eva Green is as always great even as she chews the hell out of the scenery and loves every second of it. As both actor and character Green dominates Johnny Depp who seems restrained and unsure of his choices. The basic story, based upon a 70’s TV show I’ve never seen, is ok and the fish out of water concept of a vampire waking up in the 1970’s is flimsy but fun even as the movie seems to seek to avoid period settings and the political spirit of the times.

This film could have been a lot of things. Even some simple editing changes may have been enough to fix it. I know characters are based upon tv source material but Chloe Grace Moretz’s character, as much as I love her and as fine as she is in this with what little she has, could have been edited out with little alteration to the story. The same could be said for Johnny Lee Miller who, too, is fine but seems to be given unnecessary screen time because… well… he’s Johnny Lee Miller.

A cameo from an old Alice Cooper breaks the suspension of disbelief while also acting as the only highlight in a film that in its third act becomes confusing and boring. This movie plays out as if perhaps in an earlier cut there was a longer running time which explained or justified some of the sub-plots. It is this kind of half commitment which is its biggest failing.

That said Eva Green is great even if it is a worry that she seems likely to become trapped in these schlocky genre films. She highlights too that this by now familiar Burton ensemble of Depp, Bonham-Carter, and Elfmen needs new life. After so many awful films over the last two decades I’ve no interest in seeing any film with Johnny Depp directed by Tim Burton. Green’s role in this film though hints at the possibility that Burton could regain a sort of relevance if he was to work with new people. He needs people that are actually thrilled and excited to be in his world. Who are fans rather than freinds, peers or ex-spouses.

eva

Born Standing Up (2007)

Steve Martin

An impressingly well-crafted autobiography which, though brief, is an almost perfect splicing of Martin’s upbringing, pivotal biographical moments, evolution as an artist, encounters with fledgling and established celebrities, and struggle with the heights of his fame.

Martin is modest throughout the book but even within his humble recollections it becomes evident just how formative and influential he has been on modern comedy. It is this evolution of his distinct style which is the most interesting aspect of the book. Much of his stand-up and movies seem dated now, I think, but given the context of this book it is possible to understand just how truly unique Martin’s comedy was in its time. Iyoung steve martinf his comedy seems dated now it is because his inventions have since been so often copied and built upon.

I am always interested in reading about the evolution of an artist but have never read anything which provides such a clear understanding of how the evolution occurred. From a young age Martin is interested in performing and this book meticulously plots the twists and turns of his interest in comedy, development of style, interest in ‘doing it new’ and the subsequent struggle and then rise to mega-stardom. Along the way he performs with member of The Eagles before they are The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac before they are Fleetwood Mac, and even meets and is complemented by Elvis.

I would say that a failing of the book is that at times it is too modest, too glib and refuses to ever truly revel in the achievements or success of its author. I could have read much more on Martin’s film work and encounters with the SNL cast. When he does write about the peak of his fame, performing stand-up to arena’s full of tens of thousands of fans, he is still analytical of his act rather than congratulatory of his success. I would have welcomed more detail but will settle for a book that is, like the author, continually entertaining.

stevemartin

The netflix and import tax – looming or dead in the water?

Below is a short article I wrote about the upcoming low value import tax in Australia. It is similar to the Netflix tax which calls for GST on digital services. It may sound a bit dry and in many ways it is but how the tax is handled could fundamentally change how Australian’s buy goods and services through online marketplaces such as Ebay and Amazon. When I originally wrote the article it was unclear as whether the bill would be passed. A senate hearing had recommended a delay. With only two weeks until the imposition date it is still unclear though both Ebay and Netflix are making preparations. Ebay had threatened to reduce activity in Australia if the bill was passed.

Netflix has announced a price rise to pass the cost of the tax onto consumers. Ebay has sent two emails to account users advising them that as of July 1 GST will be charged on any sales  by all users on Australia ebay unless the seller has an ABN. GST does not apply to businesses that have a turnover of less than $75,000 per year. Therefore the average ebay seller could apply for an ABN and not have GST imposed on goods that they sell. A minor inconvenience but worthwhile if you just happen to sell some second hand goods here and there on the platform.

The bill had also called for resellers such as Ebay to collect GST on goods sold to Australians from overseas sellers. Ebay argued it is a reseller and not responsible for collecting taxes within its platform. Foreign Ebay websites do not yet appear to carry any information for international users selling to Australia.

In researching the issue I found the retail sectors were often basing their arguments on incorrect, exagerated or biased figures in arguing for the tax. On the other hand those against the tax such as EBay and the Australian Taxpayers alliance had vested self-interested and/or unclear motives.

The same arguments about protectionism of industry have risen before in respect to the CD industry and book publishing and each time it felt to me that the calls for protectionism were designed to protect retail sectors unwilling to adapt of change their business models. This is reflected to in that Angus Robertson are one of the very few Australian book chains to utilise Ebay as a point of sale. Meanwhile the vast majority of the Australian retail industry rely on poorly built web portals and for whatever reason chose not to also utilise marketplaces such as Ebay.

A tax may help Australia’s retail sector. Some sort of incentive to maximise web presence would probably be more useful.

 

 

Here is the original article with information correct on 12 May 2017:

A senate hearing report has recommended a delay on imposing GST on low value imports into Australia. The GST Low Value Goods bill calls for GST to be charged on all imports under $1000. The bill is currently set to be enacted on 1 July 2017 and focus primary on consumer goods purchased on online marketplaces such as EBay and Amazon.

The bill was introduced by former treasurer Joe Hockey in 2015. It has since been championed by the current Federal treasurer Scott Morrison.

Currently only imports of over $1000 in value are charged GST. These imports are assessed and charged by border forces.

The Senate Hearing Report found that projected revenue from GST on low value imports is expected to amount to $300 million over three years. According to the hearing this revenue would not meet the costs associated with border inspection of low value imports.

Other countries impose a similar GST on low value imports. Both Canada and B

#CHINA-ECONOMY-IMPORTS & EXPORTS-RISE (CN)

ritain charge GST and import duties.

Part of the criticism of the current bill is that it calls for online marketplaces to collect the GST on imports. EBay had stated that this may not be feasible and could lead restrictions on some sales to Australia.

Australian retail sectors have argued that the bill is necessary

and will help level the playing field and make Australian business more competitive against online marketplaces.

Leesa Lambert is a member of the board of the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) and owner of The Little Book Room in Carlton North.

“It’s necessary to help the local industry compete. Without GST on imports overseas marketplaces can offer a ten per cent discount relative to our price points. It’s an unfair advantage.”

Tom Bradford, it eh co-owner of Lulu’s record store and Cool Death Records.

“We don’t expect much to change. The bill could make us marginally more competitive against buying online but we’d still be more expensive. We’ve alway

s sought to make out point of difference our physical presence rather than price point.”

The Australian Taxpayers Alliance condemned the bill in an advertisement in The Australian as bad for Australian businesses and shoppers.

Representatives of the ATA and others undersigned did not reply for request to comment. The GST Low Value Import bill is expected to be enacted in its current form on 1 July 2017.

 

Tell it fast?

I’m currently writing a review of (Tom Cruise’s) The Mummy and a look at the state of Universals fledgling dark universe.

It’s been widely reported that The Mummy is a bad movie and it is on most fronts though it has the potential for a good (if not great) movie within it. One of the bigger problems I have with The Mummy is that the story is completely linear and the story time, as far as I could tell, is perhaps only 12-16 hours.

Linear story lines with short story times seem to be relatively common over the last year. Rogue One was a very straight ahead story and other than a flash back in it’s opening scene the events took place over the course of less than 12 hours. Wonder Woman uses a present day framing device to tell the story of the movie within flash back and also shows Diana’s upbringing through flashback but is otherwise also a very linear story with maybe 48 hours of total story time.

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between these films. The Mummy and Rogue One share the commonality of not being great films that probably should have been. Wonder Woman fares better though it’s third act suffers because of the usual poor CGI boss battle common to all DC films to date.

My theory is that all of these movies have sought to model themselves after Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s linear story with a scantmadmax 12 hours of story time. Mad Max worked because the action was so tactile, sensational and innovative. It was also a chase movie and didn’t ask for the audience to need  know or care to much about the titular or support characters.

By contrast the films above insist and rely upon empathy with the main characters, are trying to tell stories and to fit into bigger universes (Star Wars, DC, and Dark Universe respectively) and don’t provide enough or big enough action for such straightforward stories.

It’s a shame that these films were probably created under such heavy influence from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wonder what they could have been otherwise? I also wonder how many other films will try and fail with the same formula?

Perhaps the upcoming Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan will create a new trend. There is no running time released yet but the trailer hints at multiple character arcs and story lines and it seems safe to assume the movie will come close to the three hour mark. I don’t expect it will lead to superhero movies running to three hours but perhaps, hopefully, it will mean a return to less linear and longer style of story within big budget films and an end to trying to emulate a movie as unique as Mad Max.