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Sunday, December 24, 2023
Monday, December 18, 2023
Tasmania is a starkly beautiful island, much closer in nature to New Zealand than the continent of mainland Australia. The bush and the landscape "feel" the same, though much more sepia colored. There is a darkness there, too, darker than New Zealand, a shadow cast by a brutal history. I will never forget the chill that descended over me when I first explored the ruins of the prison at Port Arthur, where the worst of convicts met the worst of punishments. Chosen by the lieutenant governor, Sir George Arthur, for its site -- on a narrow isthmus, almost entirely surrounded by shark-infested waters -- it was a place where dreadful things happened on a daily basis. An aura of despair clings to the ruins; later, I was not surprised at all that a modern mass shooting was carried out there. Its history of violence has seeped into the stones.
A completely callous man, Sir George Arthur set out from the day he took office, in May 1824, to wage war against the indigenous people, the Aborigines of Tasmania. It was called the "Black War." His first move was to station small gangs of soldiers in remote parts of the island, to "protect" the settlers, which in effect meant lynching and shooting the Aboriginal men, and raping, then killing, the women. He even put a bounty on the heads of these unfortunate first owners of the land, first for live men, then for live women and children, and finally for the heads of dead Aboriginals.
And this astounding film depicts this dark history exactly, laying bare the brutality, cruelty and barbaric ignorance that marked the colonisation of the island by the British.
Clare (played superbly by Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irishwoman with an angelic singing voice, called "The Nightingale." The crime that landed her on the far side of the world is never described, but it must have been minor, as she had worked out her sentence long before this story starts. She has been allowed to marry Aidan, who is also Irish, so this film is in Gaelic as well as English, and it is heart-touching to hear Clare and her husband converse lovingly in that musical language.
They have a little baby, a hut, and a horse, and both, technically, should be free. Both should have been given their "tickets of leave" -- meaning that they would not be forced to keep on serving the local military detachment. But the lieutenant in charge -- Hawkins, played with barely restrained savagery by Sam Claflin -- refuses to give them these "papers." When Clare persists, he rapes her. She flees to her husband, but then Hawkins and two of his soldiers arrive in the hut, and in the ensuing fracas they murder her husband, and kill her baby. A gang rape follows, and Clare is left for dead.
Instead, she survives. Her body is mostly intact, but her mind is damaged. She is set on revenge.
Hawkins and the soldiers have left the outpost, however. With a small retinue of convicts, they are heading across the interior to Launceston, so that Hawkins can apply for a promotion. Clare is determined to follow and kill them, but to get across the island she needs a Black tracker. It is impossible, otherwise, though she dislikes the idea. The young man who is coopted (Mangana, played with remarkable passion and sensitivity by Baykall Ganambarr) is equally reluctant to be her guide. He has other priorities -- his father, brothers, and uncles have been murdered by the English, and he is set on his own mission of revenge. What tips the balance of the argument in Clare's favor is that she convinces him that she is Irish, not English, and that she hates the English as much as he does. As she tells him, they share a common history of colonisation and subjugation and misery.
And there is something more, a mythic connection -- he is Mangana, a blackbird, and she is Clare, the nightingale. The birds that will save them.
And so the slow chase unfolds, with occasional violent encounters.
This film is not an easy watch, but it is unfailingly gripping. There are moments that stand out: Clare suffers with her engorged breasts, and Mangana makes her a paste that the women of his tribe used to dry up milk, and performs a smoke ceremony to make her better. Mangana is staunchly grim -- until one of the few moments of kindness breaks down that barrier of stoicism. A liberal-minded farmer who shelters them for the night insists that Mangana sits at the supper table, and the Aboriginal is so overtaken with emotion that he sobs.They come across a party of settlers with captured warriors, who tell Mangana in the palawa kani language that all of his people are dead. Angered by the unintelligible conversation, the Englishmen shoot the captives, and then cut off their heads, and Mangana and Clare grasp their chance to run away and avoid being captured themselves. But now Mangana's spirit is as damaged and wrathful as hers.
There is much to shock in this very graphic film, but the shock is justified. It is utterly and absolutely authentic. All those terrible things really did happen. The Tasmanian natives were wiped out, completely. Their palawa kani language had to be reconstructed by the writers, as there has been no one to speak it for many generations now. Baykall Ganambarr is Yolngu, from the far north of the Northern Territory, meaning that the actor was emotionally almost as far from the scene of action as the fictional Clare was from her home in Ireland. That is a fact that I found starkly revealing in itself.
And the convicts were treated as badly, too, particularly the women. The soldiers were exactly as ignorant and dissolute as portrayed. Bernard Cornwell, in his Sharpe series, set in the Indian and Napoleonic Wars, is equally as unstinting in describing the soldiers of the time, but there are happy overtones in his tales. There were no happy overtones in Tasmania, Norfolk Island and New South Wales. The soldiers did not want to go there, and no one volunteered. Taken as a whole, and barring many exceptions, they were scum.
If you don't believe me, read "The Brutal History Behind Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale'."
Monday, December 11, 2023
I have been watching Swedish thriller series lately. "A Nearly Normal Family" wasn't bad, with some interesting camera work. It was the story of a family that was desperately trying to support their 19-year-old daughter, who had fallen for the glamor of an entrepreneur who was far too old for her. It was a slow story, but thought-provoking with its undercurrents of rape and drugs. Yes, definitely worth following -- so I followed it up with another Swedish series, "Quicksand" which was about -- guess what -- a family coping with a girl who had fallen for the glamor of a young man whose family was mega-rich, partly because the early part of the courtship took place on a luxury yacht. But then the drugs, rape, and various ways young people can harm each other started to sound and look just far too much like a clone of the first. Do Swedish teenagers all binge-drink, drug their minds, and rut like rabbits?
I turned it off and looked for another. And found the latest Julia Roberts outing, "Leave the World Behind."
Julia is showing her age, but hell, she is a great actress. Only someone really committed to her craft would allow the makeup department make her look so awful. But it surely suited the part -- of a woman who is successful in her trade of making people buy things they don't really want or need, and has become beyond cynical. As she says in the opening scene, "I fucking hate people."
So to get away from this ghastly Big Apple scene for a little, she rents an Air BnB that turns out to be a mansion somewhere near the beach in Long Island. Husband is amenable (though a little put out when the liquor cabinet turns out to be locked) and the two kids are fine with it too, as long as they have unlimited screen time.
But then Things Start Happening. This is a dystopian thriller where Hitchcock's "Birds" meets Adam McKay's "Don't Look Up," with overtones from Hugh Howey's amazing Wool, Shift, Dust series. It is also reminiscent of an old classic, E.M. Master's "The Machine Stops." Because the machine indeed does stop.
First, an oil tanker steams right up onto the beach where the family are picnicking. Then the TV goes on the fritz, right after flashing a warning of a total and critical emergency, nation-wide. Phones go off grid after briefly flashing a similar warning. Aircraft come crashing out of the air. Flamingoes blunder into their pool. The back yard is suddenly full of an immense herd of deer. Drones drop pamphlets declaring war on America. Self-driven cars run amok until they crash, in a great scene that is straight out of Howey.
During all this mayhem, two strangers have arrived at the door. They are the actual owners of the mansion, but have trouble convincing the family of that, plus the uncomfortable fact that they are all facing the same emergency.
It's a great movie, with a curiously satisfying ending. Watch it on Netflix -- but not if you are prone to vertigo. Some of the camera work is really, really strange.
But then, strangeness is totally appropriate.
Thursday, December 7, 2023
Capt. James R. Huntting was born in Bridgehampton, NY, on January
21, 1825, a son of Deacon Edward Huntting.
He was a well-known figure in his home town, partly because of his
commanding height (six feet, six inches), partly because of his full-lunged
voice (he could be heard from one end of the main street to the other), but
mostly because of the flamboyant stories told of his dash, strangth, and
According to the sea reminiscences of William M. Davis in Nimrod
of the Sea, Captain ‘Jim’ was perfectly unfazed when a man who had been
tangled up in a whaleline was brought on board more dead than alive:
‘… it was found that a portion of the hand including four
fingers had been torn away, and the foot sawed through at the ankle, leaving
only the great tendon and the heel suspended to the lacerated stump … Saved
from drowning, the man seemed likely to meet a more cruel death, unless some
one had the nerve to perform the necessary amputation … But Captain Jim was not
the man to let any one periash on [such] slight provication. He had his carving
knife, carpenter’s saw and a fish-hook. The injury was so frightful and the
poor fellow’s groans and cries so touching, that several of the crew fainted in
their endeavors to aid the captain in the opeation, and others sickened and
turned away from the sight. Unaided, the captain then lashed his screaming patient to the carpenter’s
bench, amputated the leg and dressed the hand.’
Though he went to sea first at the age of 16, little of Jim’s early
seafaring career is known, in contrast to his flamboyant record as
master. He first went out in command of the Nimrod, sailing in September
1848 and returning exactly two years later, and then took out the Jefferson
on two voyages, the first in November 1850, and the second in October 1853.
After getting home in March 1857, he took over the General Scott of
Fairhaven, sailing in October 1858, and returning in May 1862. His last command
was the Fanny of New Bedford, which he took out in September 1864, and
getting home to retire in April 1869.
He married Martha White, the daughter of Deacon John White, who had been born on May 15, 1828. She sailed with him, despite the certainty of grisly sights. On the Lexington, June 26, 1855, Eliza Brock noted that Capt. Manchester of the Coral ‘reports the loss of ship Jefferson of Sag Harbor, lost in Cape Elizabeth two days ago in the Fog ... all saved, Mrs. Hunting, Captain’s wife, was with him. So much bad news makes me feel sad.’ Unnecessary in this case, for the report was wrong: it was the Jefferson of New London, Captain James M. Williams (who carried his wife and family), that was lost.
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Friday, December 1, 2023
How come I have never heard of this wonderful film before?
An Indie production, Before Sunrise was filmed in Vienna in 1995. It tells the story of two kids, both 23 years old, who meet on a train. She is French, with excellent English, and he is a broke American, and they are both travelling on a Eurail pass.
She is heading back to Paris, where she is at the Sorbonne; he is heading for Vienna, to catch a plane back home. The plane leaves the next day.
She is seated close to a German couple who are having a massive fight. Tiring of it, she moves to another seat, across the aisle from the American boy. They get into conversation, find they both have crazy ideas about the world and life, find they are really compatible. So, the train arrives at Vienna, and he gets off. Then he has a thought. He rushes back on board, and talks her into spending the night walking about Vienna, and catching the train again in the morning.
And she agrees!
From then on it is a glorious discovery of Vienna. The camera does the wonderful old city proud. And its people, too. There are the two German students who are staging a play. One is the cow. And then there is the palm reader, who tells them they are strangers on a voyage of discovery. And there is the bar tender who falls for the American's romantic story, and gives them a bottle of wine. And of course they drink it in the park. And ride a gondola at Prater Park. And dance in the Vienna woods.
I did all that, aeons ago when I was that age, and I went to the opera, too. Vienna is intoxicating.
The film itself is even more so. As one prominent reviewer wrote, it is impossible to pick out one magical scene without doing an injustice to all the other magical scenes. The directing and minimalist script are just perfect. Believe it or not, it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And the ending is perfect, too. Apparently it is the first in a trilogy -- Before Sunset and Before Midnight being the next two. I am not sure I will watch them, as I most passionately do not want to risk spoiling the magic of this one.
Watch it. I saw it on Netflix. The best offering this year -- and there have been some good ones.