Ladies in Black: #straya in 109mins (movie review)

I’m writing this in the dying hours of Australia Day 2019, hoping against hope that I’ll finish in time for it to qualify as an Australia/Invasion Day post. Because really, what’s more Australian than a celebration of the lively multicultural melting-pot of Sydney in the mid-1950’s?

Ladies in Black also contains traces of early Aussie feminism. If only there were some indigenous characters too… but I digress.

The “ladies in black” become so as they commence their shifts at a large department store in Sydney. The movie opens with one such shift.

From there, the narrative moves effortlessly between five employees and their families. The analyst in me can’t help seeing each of them as an archetype of mid-1900’s Australia:

  • Miss Cartwright, the aging manager (played by Noni Hazlehurst), represents the preceding era of limited opportunities for women.
  • Magda, the “reffo” (affectionate slang for refugee–played by Julia Ormond), represents the skill, colour, and culture brought to Australia by those who needed the safety of our shores. Timely.
  • Patty, the married one (played by Alison McGirr), represents something of a typical Australian struggle for domestic normalcy while being too young to know what you want in life.
  • Fay, the single one (played by Rachael Taylor) represents the struggle to overcome disadvantage–and the merging of multiple cultures.
  • Lisa, the young one (played by Angourie Rice), represents bright-eyed, innocent hope that women could finally take on the world–at least once their fathers can be persuaded to sign their university applications.

I’m being reductive, of course, because the characters who carry these themes are authentic and believable. Their stories overlap and coalesce beautifully, and the supporting cast deliver strong performances too (especially Luke Pegler, who plays Fay’s husband, Frank).

I love that the ‘vibe of the thing’ is so very Australian without being embarrassing. And that it demonstrates the wealth of experience and flavour we add to Australia when we open our hearts–and our borders–to people who aren’t safe in the countries they call home.

A reminder as worthy of our time as remembrance that Australia doesn’t belong to white people, and never has. Especially today yesterday.

4 stars.

“Gorgon” is a marvellous word

2019 seems to be the year for unflinching honesty in blogging, if the bloggers I know are any indication.

My next personal post is still incubating (writing about what children don’t owe their parents isn’t easy), but if you’re hungry for powerful truth-telling, Alyssa Brugman’s daily posts should hit the spot in the meantime. Today’s post, Gorgon V is the latest instalment in a series about her mother, but it’s worth starting back in December.

Alyssa’s a phenomenal writer and an excellent human. She’s also introduced me to the word “gorgon”, which means “a fierce, frightening, or repulsive woman”.

A word worth filing away, for sure.

The movie worth a thousand memes. Or not.

In the quiet moment between opening the app and scrolling to what I wanted to watch, Netflix pounced. The Bird Box trailer was underway before I even knew what was happening.

It was intriguing enough to earn a place on my watch list, but that’s where it would have stayed if it hadn’t been for all the memes and hype and “Bird Box challenges”.

Instead, Bird Box became the second movie I watched in 2019, and because I’m on a review kick, I’m writing about it.

Well played, Netflix.

Spoiler warning: this movie spoils itself, so I don’t need to provide a spoiler warning. Seriously, the way it flashes back to more people being alive tells you almost everything you’d prefer not to know. Thriller? Not so much.

Horror? Bird Box isn’t a solid performer in this category either. People do some shocking things under the influence of a nefarious “entity” that takes over the world, but there isn’t a great deal of heart-palpitating awfulness beyond the opening scenes.

To manage expectations, this movie really should have been marketed as a drama.

Implausible plot lines and continuity issues aside: big-name actors, lesser-known actors, and brand-new child actors turn in a very solid set of performances that almost redeem an otherwise disappointing production. (The kids are very young and very amazing, especially towards the end of the movie.)

But what is Bird Box supposed to be about? The nature of the “entity” is never fully revealed nor resolved, and the birds (which provide warning when it’s nearby) don’t make a lot of sense of allegorically, so if the movie has an intended meaning, it’s too ambiguous to be constructive.

Unsurprisingly, a quick google for “Bird Box meaning” offers many possibilities but no definitive answers. If it’s about the unknowns of parenting, its message is all but worthless (and you don’t have to look too hard to find psychologists and parent groups condemning this interpretation). If it’s about racism, I can’t see how. If it’s about social media, what are the birds? If it’s about mental health, who are the ‘healthy’ ones? But hey, at least it’s easy to come up with theories and extrapolate from them. (Hello, future high school curricula.)

The best theory I can come up with is that it’s about Trumpism. The “entity” is the unstoppable advance of fake news, fake facts and fake science. When sane people see this for what it is, they want to kill themselves immediately (understandable if a little extreme). When insane people see it, they’re totally accepting and think everyone else should be too (so the infected but non-suicidal people represent Trumplings). And the birds represent fragile truth and the fading hope that it will make a difference.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

3 stars.

The Favourite (movie review)

Queen Anne, I found out after watching this completely accurate and not even slightly absurd historical comedy-drama, knighted my middlenamesake, Sir Isaac Newton, in 1705. True story.

Unfortunately, neither Sir Isaac nor his rumoured gayness feature in The Favourite. Queen Anne and her rumoured lesbianism feature prominently, however. Because there’s nothing like a same-sex love triangle to spice up an already fiendishly intriguing chapter in the English monarchy, amirite?

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are as excellent as you’d expect (especially Rachel as the rather badass Sarah Churchill), but Olivia Colman, who I’d only seen in a few “meh”-grade comedy roles until this movie, delivers a profoundly deep, complex and compelling Queen Anne. As the Queen’s backstory unfolds while her health and relationships unravel, Colman’s adept transitions between the comical and the pathetic are flawless. I suspect various upcoming awards panels will agree.

I loved the collective girl-power of the three leading women, especially their brilliantly written, perfectly delivered patriarchy-smashing humour. Your mileage may vary, unless you’re a feminist, which everybody should be, so… shrug

Interestingly, the movie was directed by a man. It’s excellent to see increasing representation of powerful women in popular culture (MOAR PLZ), but I can’t help thinking that it would be even better if women were directing more of it. (At least the original writer, Deborah Davis, is a woman. I’m looking forward to hearing more about how her late-90s script finally came to fruition.)

The Favourite‘s soundtrack is unusual and contributes significantly to the unsettling dissonance that permeates much of the film. Repeating beats, for example, continue between scenes where you instinctively expect the music to resolve or shift. It’s weird.

Then there are the dizzying ultra-wide-angle shots (including several fisheye sequences), which do a marvellous job of showing off the intricate set design but might give you a headache. The photographer in me enjoyed these immensely–it’s difficult to manage such a wide field of view effectively, and the DOP composed each shot masterfully–but the tracking speed, distortion and sheer number of wide-angle scenes were a bit off-putting overall. Or maybe I was just too close to the screen.

Historically, with the possible exception of the lesbianism, the arc of the story is remarkably accurate. You’ll find yourself googling things afterwards and being pleasantly surprised by the writers’ attention to detail. (You might not be pleasantly surprised by the way the movie ends, though. I wasn’t.)

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of gleeful anachronisms. My personal favourite: the integration of “f##k” and “c##t” into the vernacular of early 1700s English aristocrats. Winning.

You’ll love The Favourite if you have a high tolerance for absurd humour and mild arthouse-ishness while enjoying uncouth swearing, white historical drama, and comedic social commentary.

4.5 stars.

So, this is Christmas

My family despised Christmas.

There were no decorations. No gifts. No special meals. No happy memories.

Aside from knowing that the rest of the world was having more fun than us (not something I would dare mention within earshot of my parents), Christmas Day was no different to any other day.

At least once, my parents sent anti-Christmas cards, condemning their friends’ misguided efforts to honour Jesus’ birth with a rebadged pagan festival.

Every year, as 25 December approached, criticism of Christmas flowed freely. Mum and Dad were scathing about children being encouraged to believe in Santa, about Christmas trees, about Christmas carols, about Christmas being a special day for families to spend time together, and even about Jesus being “the reason for the season”.

Being a child, I accepted and absorbed all of this negativity, subduing my disappointment over the lack of gifts and joy by reminding myself that celebrating Christmas made God angry.

So, when it was recently suggested to me that I’d be especially affected by ongoing family estrangement at this time of year, I laughed. “I don’t have any reason to see this time of year as special,” I joked.

But the person I was joking with was my psychologist. And she knows that people like me (i.e. Australians who are white AF) have Christmas in their DNA, no matter what their childhood looked like.

We can argue about whether the modern Christmas fantasy is the result of shared mythology or clever marketing, but whether we like it or not, we’re wired to crave connection with family members at this time of year, and when it’s impossible due to dysfunction or distance, we can’t help but be affected.

I loved making Christmas 2018 special for my children, and thoroughly enjoyed a bunch of happy moments with Susan and our surprisingly well-adjusted blended family, but my psych was right.

Even though I was raised to hate Christmas, and even though I don’t miss the estranged members of my family at all, it’s difficult not to miss my loving, functional, completely imaginary family at Christmas.

If the same is true for you, don’t forget to take a moment to grieve for the family you never had.

Keep it brief, though. There’s beer to drink.

Same family, different life

In previous posts, I’ve commented that my brother and sister don’t necessarily share my perspective on our childhood. For example, despite being raised by the same parents in the same places, they wouldn’t describe both of our parents as abusive towards us, and they tend to push back when I apply words like that to our mother (who is widely regarded as the victim of our father, rather than his enabler and accomplice–I see her as both).

To be fair, I would only have described my upbringing as ‘quirky’, ‘strict’ or ‘unconventional’ until the last couple of years, when my eyes started to open to the control, violence and fear that permeated the first 18-odd years of my life. Earlier, words like abuse would have sounded unreasonable or extreme to my ears–even in relation to my obviously abusive father–so it’s not surprising that my siblings would use different semantics to me.

But it’s not about my eyes being more open than theirs. I’m beginning to understand that our different perspectives on childhood reflect our different experiences of childhood. Not just because I was the youngest (by 7+ years), but because each of us played a different role in our dysfunctional family.

Or, to put it another way: the three of us had three completely different childhoods.

I’m sure my brother and sister remember Dad joking about me being his last chance to ‘get it right’ as a parent, i.e. to finally raise a perfect child, and I suspect they would agree that he wasn’t really joking. But as children, we weren’t equipped to recognise and process the daily reality of this favouritism–the obsessive focus on me, the near-indifference towards them (especially towards my sister given she was ‘only’ a girl), the distinct forms of manipulation and control that were used on each of us. And in adulthood, we’ve all processed our dysfunctional upbringings in different ways, from complete denial to various forms of counselling.

So, all things considered, it’s not surprising that we don’t see eye-to-eye about our parents. But it can be distressing to receive incredulous responses from your siblings when you’re working through childhood trauma you can finally recognise, which is why this article in Psychology Today (“You Had a Toxic Parent, But Your Siblings Say They Didn’t”) was a salve for my soul–and that’s only a very slight overstatement.

It’s a very worthwhile read if you’re struggling to reconcile different perspectives on your childhood with siblings who are doubtful about what you’re saying. Or perhaps you’re the doubtful one–in which case you should read it, too.

(Side note: it was one of my siblings who shared this article with me–proving that sometimes, if you can keep the conversation going, a sense of mutual understanding and validation can be attained with your siblings.)

Overwhelming loveliness: when the nicest people are the most controlling

Do you know someone so overwhelmingly lovely that it’s unthinkable for anyone to say a bad word about them? Someone who goes out of their way to be selfless so consistently that you feel bad about yourself whenever you’re annoyed with them? Someone who is unfailingly considerate, to the point of near-martyrdom?

You might roll your eyes at their brave, sorrowful Facebook posts, and roll them again as others oblige with the reassurance that is so obviously demanded. Or maybe, despite the niggling feeling that something isn’t quite right, you offer your own words of encouragement. I mean, they’re just so lovely — surely it’s the least you can do?

You’re probably wondering if this person is too nice to be what they seem — surely it’s not possible for anyone to be that nice? — but no-one else seems to have similar doubts. So you keep them to yourself and carry on.

Maybe you’ve had to work with this person, and they’ve made trouble for others by doing something outside their area of responsibility without consulting the appropriate people. But, before you could figure out a constructive way to respond, they came to you, eager to explain. Their motives appeared to be selfless — beautiful, even. They probably apologised for doing what they did without discussing it with you first, and they almost certainly mentioned all the effort that was involved in doing it their way doing something that would be “helpful for everybody.”

You were still frustrated, with good reason, but now you had no choice but to appear grateful. The alternative was to be the asshole who made this hard-working, beautifully-motivated, lovely person desperately sad.

You probably couldn’t even blow off steam about what had happened, because no-one was willing to hear anything negative about their wonderful friend. So, you did your best to manage the damage that had been done, allowed the autonomy of the Very Lovely Troublemaker to go unchecked, and waited for it to happen all over again.

Maybe your significant other is one of these overwhelmingly lovely people. Maybe you feel uneasy or miserable around their olympic-level niceness, but can’t articulate why. The ways you’re being controlled and manipulated with a relentless cycle of generosity and guilt might be so ‘normal’ to you that you can’t even see what’s happening, especially if you’ve experienced emotional abuse in the past. It’s possible, for example, that childhood abuse has ‘programmed’ you to believe this is what you deserve.

Or perhaps you’re fully aware of your partner’s control-by-generosity, and you’ve accepted it. Perhaps you’ve decided their lack of insight into their own behaviour isn’t their fault, or that their motivations really are genuinely lovely, even when their actions are not. So you put up with it out of commitment, or obligation, or because the alternative would be too complicated, or because you know almost no-one will believe the truth about how things really play out behind closed doors (you’d be right about that, by the way).

Does any of this sound familiar? I’m sorry if it does, but here’s what I’ve discovered: it’s ok to distance yourself from the nicest people in your life. Sometimes, it’s necessary.

I wish I’d stumbled on a post like this before, say, early 2016. I wish I’d been able to recognise some of my own relationships in its vague hypotheticals. I wish I’d given myself permission to completely disconnect from some of the nicest, most controlling people in my life.

Instead, I’ve learned the following lessons the hard way:

  1. It’s not ok for overwhelming loveliness to be used against anyone as a weapon of guilt and manipulation. Not ever.

  2. Disconnecting from the control of ‘lovely’ people is likely to result in lost friendships. More of them than you might expect. It’s worth it, but don’t underestimate how painful these losses can be. Reach out to at least one true friend regularly. Find a good psychologist if you need one. It’s really important to take care of yourself.

  3. It’s normal to experience overwhelming unloveliness when the usual behaviour ceases to be effective in achieving control. The dark sides of ‘lovely’ people can be surprisingly awful, and the vindication you feel when they show their true colours might not be adequate compensation. Again: take care of yourself.

  4. Trying to understand the psychology of ‘lovely’ people is a monumental waste of time and energy. Is their behaviour deliberate or unconscious? Are they narcissistic or merely dysfunctional? You’ll probably never know. Respond consistently to their actions and stop second-guessing what might be motivating them. Nothing you say or do will change them, and you’ll be happier if you leave them to their own dysfunction.

  5. Your true friends will stand by you. There may not be many of them, and the friends who prove to be ‘true’ might not be the ones you’d expect, but they will be enough. You will make wonderful new friends, too. Be open to the unexpected.

Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but not all lovely people are controlling and manipulative. Many of them are as generous and thoughtful as they seem. I would never suggest treating selfless, caring people with baseless suspicion — but if their generosity is making you feel burdened, or uncomfortable, or controlled, maybe it’s time to start asking why.

Because in my experience, it’s the most controlling people who can also be the loveliest.

Acceptance is the new black

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty well-adjusted human, all things considered.

That’s what I would have told you 12 months ago, anyway. I’ve been on a bit of a journey of self-discovery since then, and no, that’s not code for “self-indulgent mid-life crisis.” Ask the trauma psychologist I’ve been seeing fortnightly (not that she’s allowed to tell you anything).

Confronting the parts of myself that are dysfunctional has been devastating at times, liberating at others. Exhausting, too–it’s hard work to reflect deeply on the ways you’re under the influence of your past, to regularly articulate your thoughts and feelings to a therapist, and to work steadily on the changes that are needed for a more functional future.

But the biggest challenge, I think, has been learning not to resist each new discovery about myself. If I hadn’t found a way to accept the Luke who materialised, piece by piece, during each psych visit–the real Luke, flawed and broken but growing and healing–I would either be deeply depressed, or still at square one, believing myself to be well-adjusted.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a hypochondriac, working up medical excuses for decades of bad habits and faulty decisions. That would be easier to deal with than this continuous loop of memories, reactions, therapy, research, reflection, and practice. But I’ve slowly learned to accept this new picture of myself, gaining knowledge along the way. And knowledge, they say, is power.

It started with panic attacks I could no longer pretend were anything else. They could be triggered just by seeing my mother’s car, or a car that looked like hers, and they would totally immobilise me. I had no choice but to accept that I was experiencing debilitating panic attacks and needed help. (On reflection, they had been happening for a while–racing heart, uncontrollable shaking, irrational thoughts–I just didn’t recognise them.)

It took a few weeks to find a psychologist who specialised in treating adults with childhood-related trauma (given interactions with my parents were my main triggers, I figured this would be a good place to start). She quickly formed the opinion that my symptoms were consistent with unresolved trauma from child abuse, and that I’d need significantly more sessions than Medicare would cover to get on top of it. She recommended applying for funding from NSW Victims Services.

I did, and it was granted, but it took some time for me to accept that my childhood was “abusive” (I wouldn’t have gone much further than “strange” or “volatile” previously). It took even longer to accept that seeking help as a “victim” was a reasonable course of action under the circumstances. (Even now, my sister is skeptical when I describe my childhood in these terms. Turns out her childhood was awful in different ways to mine–and that it’s not unusual for this to be the case.)

In time, as I progressed through therapy, it became necessary to accept that I’m dealing with C-PTSD. “Complex” PTSD is a form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder that’s brought on by sustained abuse over an extended period. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia’s C-PTSD article that should help explain my reluctance to accept this diagnosis:

Researchers concluded that C-PTSD is distinct from, but similar to PTSD, somatization disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder, with the main distinctions being that it distorts a person’s core identity, and involves significant emotional dysregulation.

Then there’s the fact that most of my significant decisions as an adult have been the result of subconscious self-sabotage. This realisation, when it finally sank in, knocked me around for days. Refusal to pursue academic success in any field? Choosing to work as a photographer because it was the opposite of what my parents had groomed me for? Starting a family with a controlling but superficially lovely woman? All of these, and many more, were subconscious attempts to give my abusive father no success to claim for himself.

It gets worse: in many cases, I have subconsciously set people up to be disappointed or angry with me, anticipating they will abuse me like he did, believing it’s what I deserve. I thought I was lazy, or unproductive due to obsessive perfectionism, or pathologically horrible (despite genuinely good intentions). The truth is much more awful.

Accepting that so many of my choices have been so destructive for so long has been tough, but so has accepting other people’s lack of acceptance. Whether they’ve spurned my lack of compliance with their rules (e.g. “marriage is forever, no exceptions”), or couldn’t deal with me describing my childhood as abusive, huge swathes of my pre-2016 network of family and friends–even my own brother–have quietly but definitively asserted that they would prefer not to acknowledge my existence any more than necessary. Although I had anticipated most of this (ditching the church and my marriage was always going to have consequences), the depth and extent of the judgement and rejection has been confronting enough to create moments of significant doubt, anxiety and depression.

Thankfully, between my real friends (whose friendship has always been unconditional), a bunch of new friends, and a new family, I’ve received more than enough acceptance to get through those moments.

There will, no doubt, be much more to accept as I work towards being the best possible version of myself. But I’m thankful for what I can already see, and determined to make the best of it all.

Just write. (With an AlphaSmart NEO. Maybe. If it helps.)

Have you been shaking your head at ads for these crippled laptops, with their tiny screens and their weird design and their breathtaking prices?

Well, it turns out they’re useful for something (the ads, that is): in the comments, ignorant people like me can learn about distraction-free writing devices like these, which apparently have a “cult following” among writers and have been around for the better part of two decades (only discontinued in 2013, still supported, and still available for cheap on eBay).

It won’t surprise you that after learning about these cute li’l word processors and telling myself I didn’t need one, I promptly ordered two and am typing this review on one (Susan might eventually try the other, when she’s done laughing at me).

I had been considering setting up a “writing laptop”–without access to any of my work laptop’s unfettered distractions–but the AlphaSmart NEO is much cheaper, and (probably) much better.

Much like a mechanical typewriter, it only displays a few lines of text at any one time, and editing is painful. This is a good thing. It forces you to keep writing. It saves you from the distraction of editing your first draft before it’s even finished.

The software is dead-easy to use, but offers enough features and settings to make the NEO adaptable to your personality and/or eyesight without getting confusing. If you’re a nerd, “NEO Manager” still runs on current Mac and PC operating systems, providing access to firmware updates and extra settings.

Because I’m a nerd, I used this to enable two-button powering on, to prevent accidental startup when the device is kicking around in my bag.

Speaking of which, the NEO starts up almost instantly, has a better-than-average close-enough-to-full-size keyboard and a solid build, and sits nicely on my lap (the stealth bomber design isn’t as strange as it looks in photos). Plus, I’ve heard it’s not unusual to get 12 months out of its AA batteries.

The only aspects I don’t rate are the green colour, the lack of an undo button (although I suppose this helps with Just Getting The Words Out), and the fact that it’s not manufactured anymore.

I’ll go ahead and seek help for my compulsion to join “cult followings” of niche tech now. (No I won’t.)

Ali’s Wedding vs. The Big Sick

Without realising the parallels between them, nor the fact that both movies were biopics written by their male stars about themselves, I added Ali’s Wedding and The Big Sick to my DVD collection in one 3-for-the-price-of-2 transaction. After watching The Big Sick a couple of months ago, Susan and I were finally in the mood for another rom-com recently, and despite the lingering sense of déjà vu, I think it’s safe to say Ali’s Wedding far exceeded our expectations.

Comparing these movies isn’t really fair, except that they were both:

  • autobiographical;
  • released in 2017;
  • written and performed by comedians whose parents emigrated from Asia to western countries;
  • preoccupied with the highs and lows of forbidden (or strongly discouraged) love.

Where Ali’s Wedding stands alone (aside from being set and produced in Australia rather than the USA, obviously) is the depth of its portrayal of an Australian Muslim family. According to Osamah Sami (who wrote and starred), it’s “the first Muslim rom-com”.

From the gently corrected misogyny of the men who came to his father for advice (his dad was the leader at their local mosque), to the community-wide gender roles and segregation (and the ways these are both challenged and respected), to the lewd but somehow endearing elderly polygamist (“temporary marriage”, anyone?), to the flashbacks to the horrors of Iraq and Iran, the bar has been set pretty high for this new genre of romantic comedy. It’s hilarious, warm, believable, honest, memorable, and… different. Unusual. Nice.

4 stars, and may there be many more dramas with this cultural backdrop.

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