Sunday, November 30, 2008

Melbourne Sojourn: Conference Day One

This is the second post in a short series about my trip to Melbourne last week to attend a conference, Television and the National, hosted by La Trobe University at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Conference on Television and the National

Melbourne 19th - 21st November, 2008

What an excellent conference! I'm not sure if I'm channeling novelty factor with this statement, since it's been a long time between conference drinks for me... But, no! I will be assertive: this conference rocked. Sam puts it down to the fact that the Ladeez organised the conference and points particularly to Sue Turnbull who sat in each session generously chortling away (amidst the pain of being mid-ginormous-tattoo application) and offering interesting questions and comments. There is much merit to this argument, there was a spirit of generosity in the air and not more than a little bit of fizzy excitement about being TV nerds together.

If one was inclined to make comparisons, one might say it was a small conference, but from my perspective it made the whole experience far more manageable than the onslaught of people and sessions of much larger conferences I've attended. I think that you could have spoken to everyone in attendance at Television and the National if you put your mind to it and weren't too shy in the face of the rather star heavy composition of the delegates (I wonder what it would be like to be au fait with people quoting you while you sat in the audience?).

The other factor worth mentioning is that the conference had a variety of textures. It wasn't simply one paper after another. It began with a day on comedy, which feeds into the ARC funded work being undertaken by Sue Turnbull and Felicity Collins into the history and role of Australian screen comedy. There were key note speeches, a special guest presentation, a book launch, and plenary sessions that brought all of the delegates together, as well as a number of parallel sessions to round out the three day event.

On the first day I was particularly taken with Sue Turnbull's paper: 'It's like they threw a panther in the air and caught it in embroidery': Australian Television Comedy in Translation. The quote in the title is from Kath & Kim and so Turnbull gave an insightful analysis of the failure of the US version of Kath & Kim. She noted that it wasn't inevitable that the adaptation failed in view of the successful adaptation of The Office by the same creative team. Much of the problem with the US Kath & Kim derives from the bodies of the various performers: Selma Blair just can't push her flat stomach out enough to come anywhere near Gina Riley's embodiment of Kim. As well, much of the joke in the Australian Kath & Kim is down to the fact that this mother and daughter duo are played by women who are around the same age. Someone noted in question time that Australian television comedy draws much more from a theatrical/vaudeville tradition than US television comedy. When thinking about Kath & Kim that argument made sense to me. I also have a theory about the success of the US version of The Office, which wasn't successful straight away. I think, perhaps, that the US version built in popularity because Steve Carrell also appeared in a number of successful film comedies that almost certainly sparked more interest in him: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and, especially, The 40 year Old Virgin.

Brett Mills presented the first key note of the conference: Comedy/Nation: Which Came First? It focussed on British self-understandings of themselves as funny and sought to interrogate that in view of the quite exclusive set of programs that are deemed British both in the UK and abroad. We were all in fits of laughter as Mills showed excerpts from Welsh comedies that weren't incorporated into the 'British'. Alas the programmes aren't even on YouTube, because you know I would have embedded a bit of Boyd Clack if I could.

The last session on the first day was a bit exciting for me as Robyn Butler of The Librarians gave a presentation and took questions. It wasn't so much her work with The Librarians that interested me so much as the excerpt she showed us from Very Small Business which she also co-wrote and starred in. It was a scene where Don Angel was in a therapy session with a psychologist. I got to ask about the creative reasoning for including the therapy sessions. She really gave me the best answer I could have hoped for: so detailed and thoughtful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Melbourne Sojourn: Brisbane

This is the first post in a short series about my trip to Melbourne last week to attend a conference, Television and the National, hosted by La Trobe University at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Before getting into the conference proper, I feel the need to talk a bit about what was going on in Brisbane last week too. Then I'll finish off with some things I did in Melbourne, which are not about the conference.

I left for Melbourne last Tuesday morning the 18th of November. Leaving on Tuesday meant that I could go and see Laura's paper which she delivered on Monday evening: 'Warming the imagination with scenes of the past': Time Travel romances about Jane Austen.

It's always a thrill to see someone you know from outside of academe talking about the research they do within academe. You get to see them in full, passionate scholar mode talking about something they really know and care about. I am not especially knowledgeable about the works of Jane Austen, I could only marvel at Laura's command of a whole range of literature, to which she casually referred throughout her presentation. Where I could get some purchase, if you will, was in her discussion of all the time travel fan-fiction that has proliferated around Austen and her works. I enjoyed Laura's identification of this sub-genre of Austen-derived fiction and I appreciated that while some of the novels she discussed are obviously fairly untenable, she takes seriously the phenomenon--and those who participate in it--as an expression of a broader cultural moment.

While I went off to Melbourne, I hoped that Laura would enjoy her first visit to Brisbane. At the beginning of her paper she had mentioned being attacked by a goose at the St Lucia campus of UQ (perhaps it was this one), but who was to know that would be the least of her worries as storms hit Brisbane causing widespread flooding and destruction? On the Sunday before I left for Melbourne a storm had ripped through the suburbs uncomfortably close to me:

On the Friday morning I was away, I was listening to news that reported the suburb I lived in was under water. I got a bit worried, especially when I heard about Ithaca Creek spilling its banks and cars floating down the streets:

I made a call to the property manager and left a message asking for reassurance that I still had a home, but then I had to take a deep breath, accept I could do nothing, and go and give my paper.

Thankfully, miraculously, the only evidence of the storm I could see around my home when I returned was a tree branch on the ground and some mud where the water had flowed through underneath the house. Everything inside was warm and dry.

The view from the bridge I walk across on a daily basis to catch the bus and go shopping tells a more dramatic story:

My street is just on the other side of the right bank there, so you can see why I was worried from afar given the water seems to have come up over the ravine.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


In addition to missing bad tv lately, I've been continuing with my personal television history project where I'm catching up on the television canon as it has been ascribed by television critics and scholars.

In this vein, I've just finished watching both seasons of Lars von Trier's Riget (The Kingdom) a Danish television series from 1994 and 1997. While I have come across a scholarly article about this series, my desire to watch it in full was first sparked when I watched it intermittently at the time it originally screened on SBS. I recall being utterly fascinated by the idea of a kind of horror series where the doctors were evil. (I have since made choices at the Brisbane Film Festival based entirely upon my fascination with Riget). I also recall being somewhat confused about what was going on in Riget--a fact I would like to attribute to the late hour at which it screened.

I experienced a second wave of yearning to watch Riget after seeing Stephen King's much maligned adaptation of the series, Kingdom Hospital. (I actually went out and bought this after the frustration of yet another occasion of haphazard and late night scheduling by Channel Nine).

I liked Kingdom Hospital--quite a lot if you must know. I had no problem with King incorporating his hit-and-run accident into the story. Outside of Barthes-inflected scholarship I would argue that most people search relentlessly, ridiculously, for clues of the author in cultural artefacts. On the one hand I think, why complain when the author appeases such demands, on the other, the addition of this character lends a cohesiveness to the narrative which is completely missing from Riget (Terry Sawyer, in the review I linked to above, obviously didn't watch von Trier's production. Urgh! There's so much to take issue with in that review I don't know where to begin except to say that it's pretty nasty and ignorant).

Plus, I can't complain too much about anything starring Andrew McCarthy.

Anyway, back to Riget. Mostly I just wanted to show you the film clip of the theme song performed by The Shiver which was an extra on the DVD. I felt sure it would be on YouTube and so it was:

'Kingdom', The Shiver

Then I saw how many other clips of scenes I'd particularly enjoyed were also on YouTube.

This is the opening sequence, before the titles, of Riget. It doesn't have subtitles, but I love the atmosphere. You can get a sense of that without knowing the narration, but fyi it basically recounts how the land on which the hospital was built was first occupied by bleachers. The great swathes of hot cloth they handled created a permanent mist. But then the medical profession came along and superstition was repressed. Now the doctors are getting so arrogant, too arrogant, that the walls of the hospital are giving way to all that lies beneath.

The Bleachers

The charge of complacency is leveled at the medical profession throughout Riget (and The Kingdom). Watching Riget, I was reminded of a film by Aleksandr Sokurov, Moloch, which offered a portrait of Hitler as complacent, immature, mercurial, and willfully ignorant of the consequences of his actions. Von Trier presents a similiar portrait of consultant neurosurgeon Helmer and the hospital administration.

The Lodge

Operation Morning Breeze

Danish Scum!

Amidst all of this criticism of the medical profession are of course the spirits that are returning in protest:

Drusse and Bulder

I think the first series of Riget was far better than the second. There was a third series written, but never filmed, since up to 5 of the actors died before it could be made--if it was ever to be made. I wonder if much in the second series relied upon the production of a third series in order to be resolved. There was so much left unanswered, especially about the fate of Hook whom Helmer had turned into a zombie.

Oh well. Riget is definitely worth seeing, if only to glimpse the strangeness of Lars von Trier's imagination. I'll give the last word to the man himself:

Take the Good with the Evil.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bad TV

These past two weeks, I've been reminded as to why I try to avoid getting too attached to any programme that screens on Channel Nine.

I started watching Fringe, an X-Files-esque show--in the sense that it involves the investigation of unexplained or fringe phenomena--but it disappeared off the schedule and I have no idea where it went. It wasn't especially riveting television, but given that it was science fiction, that it starred Joshua Jackson (Dawson's Creek) and Lance Reddick (The Wire), and that JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost) was one of its creators, I was willing to give it more than a chance to grow on me.

There was something vaguely interesting emerging around the fate of John Scott (Mark Valley, Boston Legal), who we thought died in the first episode but, as we learned in the second, was still alive on some kind of life-support at the behest of an Evil Corporation. As well, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) was of some tangential interest to my thesis; he had been in a mental institution for years, before he was released into the care of his son, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), to offer his insights into the various strange phenomena under investigation by FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv).

While I concede that the word on the IMDb message boards was that Fringe was not so great (although this is contrary to its critical reception summarised at Wikipedia), this still doesn't mitigate my ongoing annoyance at Channel Nine for pulling programmes without sufficient warning or explanation. I would have continued to watch Fringe in the original time slot, but I really can't be bothered to guess where else it might appear in the schedule, if anywhere.

The problem of Channel Nine's mercurial programming practices saw me missing another new show that I've been giving some time to lately: The Mentalist starring Simon Baker (The Guardian). While Channel Nine did broadcast a number of announcements before they shifted this programme from one night to another, I still managed to miss this week's episode because the TV guide that I consult was printed and distributed before the station made its changes.

The thing is, that while I started watching The Mentalist because of Simon Baker, who really is a very fine actor and who I enjoyed so much in The Guardian--

--the character he plays in The Mentalist, Patrick Jane, is not nearly so interesting.

The Mentalist
is in the mould of recent dramas that feature a central male investigator who is maverick and in possession of a singular talent. This character type is usually extremely cocky about his talent, but he is afforded emotional depth by way of a personal tragedy in his past. In The Mentalist, Jane consults for law enforcement in California using acute observational abilities that were honed in a former life where he masqueraded as a television psychic. His wife and child were murdered by a killer who took offence at some comments he made in a television interview.

Other recent programmes in this vein include Life and Burn Notice. In Life the lead character was working as a police detective when he was framed by his partner and wrongfully imprisoned. He has since been vindicated and returned to work for the police, his life made comfortable by the multi-million dollar compensation payout he received in a law suit against the state. While he was in prison he got religion, but Zen Buddhism rather than any denomination of Christianity.

Burn Notice follows a similar trajectory: the central character is an intelligence officer disavowed by the US government; out of a job he applies his talents as an investigator to help others in trouble, all the while seeking to reinstate his good name by finding and punishing those who have worked against him.

I think much of the problem with these shows is that the attempt to invoke an emotional response from the audience for the central characters is done in such a paint-by-numbers fashion. On the one hand the character embodies wise-cracking, laddish masculinity--perhaps to appeal to the male audience--and on the other he is also drawn to have elements of the SNAG or 'new' masculinity--perhaps to appeal to the female audience. The trouble is that rather than achieving any complexity in the characterisation, it simply feels manipulative; shallow, sentimental and unconvincing.

In The Mentalist, for example, the moments of emotion are incongruous amid the innocuous banter and all-knowing arrogance of Patrick Jane. On the one hand Jane knows at the beginning of every murder case on which he consults who the killer is. There seems to be little purpose for any of the law enforcement agents with whom he works, except as a foil for Jane's brilliance of which he is fully aware. Then, when everything is resolved, he goes home to the empty house he once shared in idyll with his wife and child, to sleep on a single mattress placed on the floor beneath the bloody smiley calling card left by his family's killer.

I'm not against emotion in my television viewing. The depth of emotion is what I so enjoyed about The Guardian; Simon Baker's ability to convey the extent of Nick Fallin's deep-seated anger was extraordinary. And I think The Guardian is one of the few programmes to represent anger as the corrosive and silent force that it so often is.

Perhaps that's my difficulty with The Mentalist--and Life and Burn Notice too--is that the range of so-called emotions is so limited or rendered in such a cynical manner that I just don't believe these characters, never mind like them.

And it is in this frame of mind, that the hiccup in Channel Nine's scheduling of The Mentalist is reason enough for me to give up on it, even with a talent like Simon Baker in the starring role.