Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Scrap the NDIS: A Response to the Productivity Commission's Inquiry.

Below is the text of my submission to the Productivity Commission's Inquiry into Disability Funding. I encourage you to submit your views as well.

The Productivity Commission’s (PC) Interim Report proposing a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is an abject failure. It does nothing to solve the long term structural problems of the disability sector. Instead, it has chosen to placate the chief lobby group who advocates for a NDIS, and does nothing to critically examine the many failures of the proposed scheme. It seems almost utopian superficially, and has far too many flaws upon closer inspection to be adopted at all. This makes the interim report a waste of time energy and resources. Thankfully, the PC stated the obvious though when it highlighted the need for disability sector needs reform, but that is pointing out the obvious. What it does not need is a half baked scheme that will not work in practical terms: the sector has too many of those already. Instead of adopting a ham fisted policy that is an empty box which has been nicely gift wrapped by the Every Australian Counts organisation, the PC needs to start from scratch and this time get its policy recommendations right.

If a NDIS it must be implemented by a stage based incremental approach. Spend time getting therapy right, then move on to equipment, then respite, and so on. The universal approach marketed to the community is foolhardy, and frankly stupid. Moreover, it shows absolutely no knowledge of basic guidelines for policy implementation. Such ignorance gives carers and people disabilities hope for something that will never come to satisfactory fruition. This will do more harm than good. It is for this reason I strongly believe that an NDIS should be scrapped entirely.

The PC will note that when I submitted my thoughts before the interim report that I was indeed very supportive of the NDIS in a theoretical sense, but upon further investigation I have come to conclusion that an NDIS is nothing more than an elaborate theory designed to placate a noisy interest group crying out for reform. The NDIS has been designed solely as a public relations exercise so that major stakeholders can partake in mutual back starching. Its chief supporters have not demonstrated anything more than a basic understanding of the processes needed to implement this policy when combined with the need to survive and thrive in the maze that is the disability sector. The main beneficiaries of an NDIS are the service providers: the very organisations who are in charge of pushing through a NDIS. This is not surprising in the slightest given that they have the most to gain should the policy eventuate.

The PC interim report has developed a rather monolithic and simplistic three tiered criteria. I have issues with these criteria, because although I fit into the criteria quite snugly (as I have Cerebral Palsy), there is lots of grey area. I have trouble seeing where people with vision and hearing impairments fit in for example. What about those who have a mental illness? Further, are those with behavioural impairments (such as autism) going to be included? The report does not answer these questions. I have a feeling the people who fit into those last two categories will be left hanging yet again.

The greatest challenge for a NDIS to succeed is to actually get the program legislated and through parliament. Without this process the words contained within the report are a waste of everyone’s time. There are claims that an NDIS has ‘bipartisan support’. It does not. It actually makes me wonder if anyone championing a NDIS has even thought about the political struggle it will take to get this through. As pointed out in Sydney Morning Herald on March 1st ‘The Productivity Commission is proposing the most important social reform since Medicare without a plan to fund it…’

Many advocates have pointed out it is not the PC’s job to examine the political consequences of the policy. I disagree, but let’s say that they are right. This places a greater onus on the stakeholders who have a vested interest in the NDIS to sell the political advantages of the policy. Given the Australian political climate at this time, it will be a very tough, and I believe impossible, policy to sell.

The key sections of the report’s overview demonstrate why:

First, the Commission is proposing a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to be overseen by a new organisation, the National Disability Insurance Agency. This would provide disability-related services and supports to the community at large, but with a particular emphasis on funded supports for people with significant disabilities and their carers.

Second, the Commission is proposing a National Injury Insurance Scheme (NIIS) to address catastrophic injuries from accidents, such as quadriplegia, acquired brain injuries, severe burns and multiple amputations. The scheme would comprise a coherent set of state-based, no-fault arrangements for providing lifetime care and support, building on existing schemes. It would have the same basic goals as the NDIS, but would be funded differently…

The Commission has concentrated on two models, based on hypothecation from new or higher taxes, or from general revenue using a specific legislated formula. Most tax bases are ill-suited to hypothecation because they are either too small relative to the demands of the NDIS or involve significant inefficiencies. The Commission has ruled out all state and territory government taxes. At the Australian Government level, only taxes on consumption or personal income would be suitable.

Given the difficulty of changing GST arrangements, the only realistic tax base for a new hypothecated tax would be personal income. Were the Australian Government to introduce a new disability insurance levy, it should be implemented by adding an increment to existing marginal tax rates, rather than involving different income thresholds or new complex tax schedules.

However, better still, the Commission favours an arrangement in which — according to a legislated formula — the Australian Government directs payments from consolidated revenue into a National Disability Insurance Premium Fund. This approach means that the Australian Government could use whatever is the most efficient tax financing arrangement at the time, or partly fund the NDIS from savings in spending elsewhere.

The Commission has not nominated a specific source of additional tax revenue or cuts in expenditure elsewhere. The reality is that the Australian Government will come under increasing fiscal pressure as a result of an ageing population (as shown by successive Intergenerational Reports), and the arrangements for financing the NDIS would need to be considered against that background

This arrangement would not be reliant on the vagaries of Commonwealth, and state and territory budgets. Because the scheme would commence in stages, not all the money would have to be funded by the government up front. The Commission considers that the funding of the scheme is manageable, taking into account a wealthy and growing economy, and the fact that Australian taxpayers only need to finance the additional amount of resources needed to fund a proper disability system….

In 2009-10, the Australian Government provided funding to the disability sector of around $1.7 billion, while state and territory governments provided funding of around $4.5 billion — or a total of $6.2 billion. The Commission’s preliminary estimate is that the amount needed to provide people with the necessary supports would be an additional $6.3 billion, roughly doubling existing funding.

Accordingly, the real (or net) cost of the NDIS would be around $6.3 billion a year. That could be funded through a combination of cuts in existing lower-priority expenditure and more taxes.
This is in circumstances where the Parliament remains politically deadlocked, relying on three conservative leaning independents in the House of Representatives to pass any piece of legislation. The PC has signed its own NDIS death warrant by taking the onus off the government to make any hard political and policy decisions. Where is the money going to come from? If the PC is relying on the Federal Government to make this kind of decision, it will be waiting a long time for it to be made.

There is a much better way to reform the disability sector. Why doesn’t the PC use this unique opportunity to recommend that the disability sector be nationalised? To take out the waste and the buck passing created by the two-tiered system of disability funding? This would save an enormous amount of costs created through needless bureaucracy. More importantly it could create uniform criteria for what constitutes funding under already existing arrangements without too many bureaucratic changes.

For example in Queensland alone the Federal Government provides its state counterpart with just under $2 million in respite funding, on top of the same amount supplied by the State. In most cases in order to be eligible for this funding a person with a disability and/or their carer must apply to a service provider whose funding is then contingent upon meeting requirements from both State and Federal Governments. People with disabilities who move interstate also have to reapply for the same funding that they have already received and are entitled to in other States and Territories. A national scheme would instantly eliminate this needless frustration.

The amount of funding required for a proposed NDIS would be better spent streamlining the existing system, rather than wasting time, energy and resources with a policy that has questionable and conditional support from all major political participants. The most sensible option for disability funding follows a similar structure to the Health Reforms undertaken by The Rudd and Gillard Governments. In principle, this model already has bipartisan support.

This would involve the Federal Government being responsible for all the funding for disability services and bypassing the needless bureaucracy of the State Governments. The funding would instead then be allocated to a Local Administrative Team (LAT) that would decide which people would be entitled to funding based upon set and established criteria.

A LAT would administer a local area of each Federal Electorate. A LAT committee could perhaps be modeled on the Regional Disability Councils instituted by the Queensland Government. The LATs could be comprised of carers, people with disabilities, representatives from service providers: all of whom would share unique knowledge of the local area’s needs, requirements and the resources that can be provided. To avoid favouritism an Appeals Tribunal could be set up in each Capital City.

This system to me seems to be far more workable than the proposed NDIS. It would reduce short term costs by reducing bureaucracy, and ensure that all parties within the disability sector, and not just service providers or a noisy minority of carers, get access to valuable and desperately needed funds. If instituted correctly by policymakers with vision and a deep understanding of the disability sector, this reform would surpass a broken NDIS scheme and provide true actionable reform that was sadly lacking in the PC’s interim report.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Linkage Volume II, 2011

The good thing about Easter is that it has given me an excuse to hide, not talk to anyone and consume lots of media. This is pretty much as good as life can get at the moment.

thirtysomething is the quintessential Reagan Era TV Drama that created many of the archetypes that today’s TV writers have taken for granted. This is wholly and solely a relationship drama centred around seven interlinked middle class Americans dealing with very middle class problems. Six episodes into the first season, there are times when it shows its age (It was first shown in 1987), but the writing is superb, which I’ve come to expect from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, two of the architects behind my all time favourite teen drama My So Called Life. thirtysomething is essentially MSCL ten years earlier with the protagonists twenty years older. In other words, it’s the kind of shit I eat up and salivate over.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s third film is a return to form after the somewhat disappointing Marie Antoinette and establishes her as one of cinema's most interesting directors currently working. Many will be turned of by the film’s sluggish pace, but it allows the viewer to understand the emotional impotence of the main character Johnny, a successful Hollywood actor who is emotionally unfulfilled as he embarks on a 10 day journey with his estranged daughter. The film is both perplexing and rewarding all at once.

Through his twitter account I have discovered what a comic genius Albert Brooks truly is. Accordingly I watched Defending Your Life, a kind of existential black romantic comedy with smart and thoughtful dialogue. The film asks what kind of life is rewarding when Brooks dies and visits a weigh station of the afterlife where a quasi-judicial system determines whether he can proceed on, or return to earth. It is both laugh out loud funny and tremendously thought provoking.

My favourite post rock band Explosions In The Sky have just released their sixth album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Postcard From 1952 is my favourite track, and is possibly the best song this year.

Last week’s American Idol had the very patchy Haley Reinhart perform Adele’s Rollin’ in the Deep, It was a good performance, but it also reacquainted me with just how good Adele is. I’m proud to say I liked her in 2009, before everyone else jumped on her bandwagon.

Saturday, 23 April 2011


I have never understood religion. I don’t think I ever will. Particularly now my worldview has become far more cynical and clouded by the harsh reality of life. Pointless public holidays celebrating fake, supposed resurrections are meaningless. If anything it seems to be celebrating a communal denial of grief.

A few months ago I was lucky and knew nothing of grief. I thought I knew what it was like to be sad, but that too was somewhat fake. The pain was always temporary like a cut easily concealed with a band aid and repaired with time. Real grief creates a scar that remains no matter how many times I think it is gone, it always returns with greater force than before.

I try and intellectualise everything so I have tried to uncover how I can expedite my grief. I have just read a series of essays by Slate writer Meaghan O’Rourke on the subject and found that while my experiences are completely different our feelings are similar.
I have been in grief. I walk down the street; I answer my phone; I brush my hair; I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I don't feel normal. I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life.

Grief is common… We know it exists in our midst. But I am suddenly aware of how difficult it is for us to confront it. And to the degree that we do want to confront it, we do so in the form of self-help: We want to heal our grief. We want to achieve an emotional recovery. We want our grief to be teleological, and we've assigned it five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet as we've come to frame grief as a psychological process, we've also made it more private. [We] don't mourn in public anymore—we don't wear black, we don't beat our chests and wail. We may—I have done it—weep and rail privately, in the middle of the night. But we don't have the rituals of public mourning around which the individual experience of grief were once constellated.

I more than anyone else have expected that I would make a speedy recovery from my achingly terrible depression. It gets harder every day though. The closer I feel to returning to my ‘normal’ self, the more upset I become, because being myself started this depressive chain in the first place. I know I need to change things, but change what? I really have no idea. The things that used to excite me no longer do and it is hard to tell whether that is a cause or a symptom of my depression. I no longer feel like me, but rather just a shell with a hard layer. ‘Me’ as I used to know him may be lost forever…

Last night I saw a movie about grief not knowing its subject matter going in. It resonated with me because I recognised that the state of grief is all consuming, and all powerful. Grief is the cruelest disease because it tackles you violently at unsuspecting moments, just as you think you are about to break free. It eats you up and swallows your identity in its totality if you let it… and sometimes even when you can’t help it.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Creating Enemies Is Easy, Making Friends Is Much Harder

As mentioned previously I am going to try and make at least five new friends by the end of the year. I have only one stipulation: they have to be in roughly the same location. I have made some great friends online, but realise that most of my painful friendship experiences have come chiefly because of distance. It should be easy making new friends right?

Not so. I hate social situations unless they are on a one to one basis. Almost all group social situations (more than three people) give me panic attacks, and have done since the age of 13.  I am good at intellectual wankery, just take a look at this blog if you need further proof. However, I am terrible at actually being vulnerable, lest I get hurt. If you are looking for any profound insight that does not come from my overgrown cognitive sphere I think you would be hard pressed to find it.

Why can’t there be an eHarmony type website just for friendship, rather than a fertile ground for sex preditors? I could fill out the test already. You must have at least two of these qualities:
  1. You must be able to answer all of the questions asked in the previous post
  2. You must be an open minded audiophile,
  3. You must know enough information to make an informed decision when voting,
  4. You must understand and accept my crippled limitations (Physical and emotional).
I don’t think that is too much to ask, surely?

If only it were that simple.

I can recite Australian Prime Ministers in ascending chronological order, I can discuss basically any philosophical theory put to me, I can critically analyse any film, TV show, album, or sporting event in several thousands of words, and I am most often too smart for my own good. Yet it is a sociological imposition to step out of my agoraphobic bounds and make new friends.

I hate life sometimes.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A Nation of Idiots?

I admit I am an arrogant, intellectual snob.

Checking my twitter feed last night I came across the most annoying tweet I have ever seen. The author and its contents shall remain nameless, except to say it was the most blatant excuse of bandwagon jumping I think I have ever seen. Said tweet took the most superficial angle of a particular subject, and then gave this angle as a reason for the author’s support of the issue.

This got me thinking:

Do I live in a country full of idiots?

You may think I have my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek, but I am sad to say that I do not. I live in a country full of stupid television personalities. A country where a great portion of the populace get their serious news information from unfunny comedians, and a barbie doll whose best skill is reading an autocue. When was the last time the population of this country had a serious discussion about anything? Yes I think I was nine.

How many people under forty actually read a newspaper on a daily basis? Listen to Radio National? Went to a party where exciting debates were had about serious issues? No I’m not talking about anything to do with this.

Is it too much to ask a person to have independent thoughts based on research and contemplation?

When was the last time you thought about something, did not know the answer and read a BOOK to ease your inquisitive mind?

Yes, I am a cynical old man trapped in a 27 year old body and with good reason. Unless proven otherwise, I don’t think much of my contemporaries. Why should I? The issues of importance to most are C grade celebrities, people who are famous for being famous, and the occasional dumb sport star. With trends like this is it any wonder the cultural and intellectual fabric of society has turn asunder?

So I’ve devised a test for you, which requires answers without the aid of the internet:

  1. Can you explain how global warming is caused? What are the benefits and drawbacks of a so called carbon tax?
  2. Name four American authors who published at least three books in the 19th century? Give a brief summary of their most famous works
  3. Who was the last Australian to win a Nobel Prize? Explain what their achievements were.
  4. Name an Australian Prime Minister who served in office before you were born? Explain three of their greatest policy achievements and why you chose them.
  5. Who was Charles Perkins and why was he important?
  6. Name an Australian playwright (except David Williamson)? Outline a plot of one of their plays.
  7. What was the most important development in Australian history that has contributed to the way you live? Explain your answer.

Can you think of these answers off the top of your head? If not, what does that tell you about our cultural and intellectual priorities? Now convince me that I do not live in a nation of idiots.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

'The Stillborn Dream'

If I were to put a title on the second half of 2010 it would be called The Stillborn Dream. I found my dream, planned it in both the metaphorical and literal senses and did everything but execute it. I was 11 days from executing it. I often wonder if I were more patient, more trusting, and more fearless whether I would have had the chance to act it out, at least for some period of time. My greatest regret in life is that I never got the chance to experience at least a second of it.

I said I would not talk about it, but I’ve come to realise that for better or worse I need to. It is the person that I am. Maybe I’m ‘overly emotional’, but it is better than having emotions suppressed. I know that it will take years, not weeks, to recover from The Stillborn Dream. I carry this pain around me with every single day. Some days I cry a lot. Because it is a death. It will be perhaps more painful than having any single person I know taken away from this Earth. It was my first real dream, my first tastes of freedom and love taken away all at once.

‘Are you okay?’ I don’t know the correct answer to this anymore. Is it no? Is it yes? The fact is that I am grieving for something that was never going to work in the first place. This leads me to some sort of identity crisis. If it was not going to work than why am I so upset? It seems silly, stupid even. I grieve for a number of reasons, but chiefly I mourn the life I will never get the chance to lead, the continuation of the greatest six months of my life.

Why am I writing about this right now? Because I have to recognise in a public forum that I am a combination of angry, sad, and yes awfully depressed. Why do it on a blog where anybody can read this? If you think less of me because of this, if I’m not employable in the future, or if you’re a girl who is both really hot and really smart and I like you, or if you're a friend, enemy, or troll, and you decide that I’m a fruit loop because I have said that god awful ‘D’ word, then bugger you.

I write this right now because I realise that every action that I have undertaken in the past four months and twenty two days is a result of both extreme anger and extreme sadness. I have become far more combative, temperamental and short tempered and this is unlikely to change in the short or medium terms. I have literally put my life on hold while I address the mountains of shit that I should have dealt with a long time ago. Of course this was all brought on by The Stillborn Dream, but not all because of it.

So while I’m working on my pop culture list. I also have the goal of making five new friends this year that I can actually see, hear and touch (once I am ready to come out of the house). I cannot help that stupid Queensland bureaucrats are halting my attempts at independence until at least July 29, but at least I can say that I am pissed off at the world, and cry lots more.

And try to move on, finally.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Cripple Smackdown!

So my latest article got published in two places today. I was always going to write an article like this. Not because I have it in for carers, nor because I feel that my opinion is more important than anyone else, merely because I disagree with most of the crap put out there surrounding the NDIS, and I have the opportunity to state my views.

I knew most people would disagree with me. So what? The NDIS may well get through, and if it does congrats to the people who believe in it. They are a very determined bunch. But there are better ways to reform the disability sector.  Nationalise the disability sector. Make the service providers impotent instead of giving them all the power, (as they seem to be controlling the debate). How? I don’t have all the answers yet. I am working on a submission to the Productivity Commission, which will be done by April 30 (and republished here) 

It is clear I have pissed a few people off. Good.

It is interesting that the whole debate around the articles has centered around 'The Carers Vs Me' (the headline by The Punch which I did not write does not help). It was more designed to pose questions and ask ‘Who Really Benefits?’ from this crusade. The service organisations certainly do because they will get the money from the Government to implement this fancy crippled pyramid scheme. The Government does, because they get the kudos for developing any semblance of a policy because that constitutes ‘progress’. The martyrs do because they will get patted on the back. But will people with disabilities and the unsung carers get what they need? Time will tell.

As for me, I doubt I will see any real benefits of any type of reform, because by the time something credible actually exists I will have already had to develop my own alternative. It may seem trite to say I’m not doing this for me. It would also be lying. I am just sick and tired of fighting for rights that should be automatic.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sidney Lumet: A Master Craftsman

The Japanese name some of their artists Living Treasures. Sidney Lumet is one of ours. He has made more great pictures than most directors have made pictures, and found time to make some clunkers on the side. Roger Ebert

Last night one of the greatest filmmakers in the medium’s history, Sidney Lumet died at age 86. Through sheer coincidence I have viewed four of his films this week: made in four different decades: 12 Angry Men (1957), Network (1976), The Verdict (1982) and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). All of these are stellar films, which represent the many types of filmmaker that Lumet was.

There have been a number of tributes to Lumet since his death but this obituary published in Vanity Fair encapsulates his considerable legacy best: 

If Woody Allen sketches Manhattan’s vibrant jostle with the neurotic twitch of comedy, Sidney Lumet threw the city, warts and all, into the sharp relief of full dramatic glory. Despite a naturalist’s eye, Lumet succeeded in the impressive feat of transforming the quotidian dramas of modest lives into complete artistic statements. Conscientious jurors and hapless bank robbers; an idealist cop and an alcoholic ambulance chaser; broken-down broadcasters and the jaded network execs who watch over them: in his hands, they embodied a vision of human life as an explosive force. Lumet was an artist with a distinctly American voice and an unforgettable moral vision that helped define the canon of the craft he loved.

But this tribute in itself does little to help define his filmic achievements. As pointed out above, Lumet had a volatile career critically, commercially and financially but he always took chances. Most of all he respected the intelligence of audience, never afraid to infuse stylistic and textual commentary in all of his films

Lumet was also a political filmmaker -- a committed liberal, obsessed with social justice (and injustice) and the ways in which the powerful conspired to oppress, exploit and distract the powerless, and the tendency of institutions to flout rules and laws they were supposed to uphold. But these subjects were always embedded in the stories themselves and carried by the characters and the narrative. The movies rarely became straightforward polemics because Lumet was always positioning the morality of his characters in relation to the world and showing where they diverged, and he was more likely to observe than to judge or sneer.

Consider the depth and range of Lumet’s filmography as described by Roger Ebert:

For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, 12 Angry Men was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 44 films: The Pawnbroker  (the Holocaust), Fail-Safe (accidental nuclear war), Serpico (police corruption), Dog Day Afternoon (homosexuality), Network (the decay of TV news), The Verdict (alcoholism and malpractice), Danie" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), Running on Empty (radical fugitives), and Critical Care (health care).
Because he works in many different genres and depends on story more than style, he is better known inside the business than out, but few directors are better at finding the right way to tell difficult stories; consider the development of Al Pacino's famous telephone call in Dog Day Afternoon." In Network, which is rarely thought of as a "director's picture," it is his unobtrusive skill that allows all those different notes and energy levels to exist within the same film. In other hands, the film might have whirled to pieces. In his, it became a touchstone.
Although he was not as widely known to the general public as directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Eastwood and Spike Lee, his films were at the center of our collective memories
12 Angry Men was Lumet’s first feature film as a director. A courtroom drama that involves no scenes with lawyers or a defendant, the film takes place in the jury room as 12 different men deliberate to decide the fate of one man. Each juror comes from a slighty different background and displays his own prejudces. The skill of Lumet as the director is the way he uses a kinetic style of direction as the plot’s tension rises, with the camera angles slowly intruding inwards as the story moves towards its conclusion.

Network is my favourite film of Lumet’s. Balancing comedy, drama and a kind of perverted romance its perhaps best known for Peter Finch’s mesmorising portrayal of Howard Beale, the stark raving news anchor. At its heart though, Network brilliantly dissects the relationship between the television industry and its audience. Correctly predicting the rise of reality television a good 25 years before it infested popular culture. Helped by Paddy Chayefsky's wonderful script, this film represented the apex of the political filmmaking along with All The President’s Men released the same year.
[Network is] a well-acted, intelligent film… that attacks not only television but also most of the other ills of the 1970s. We are asked to laugh at, be moved by, or get angry about such a long list of subjects: Sexism and ageism and revolutionary ripoffs and upper-middle-class anomie and capitalist exploitation and Neilsen ratings and psychics and that perennial standby, the failure to communicate.

The Verdict one could say is an amalgam of 12 Angry Men and Network, exploring themes of justice and redemption on one hand, and the need to rebel against powerful institutions on the other. Dominated by Paul Newman’s fantastic performance The Verdict is a meditation on the transformative power of justice, but also its sinister and corrupt underbelly. Lumet uses David Mamet’s script to perfection by allowing the audience to simultaneously love and hate Newman’s character of Frank Galvin

Galvin's redemption takes place within the framework of a courtroom thriller. The screenplay by David Mamet is a wonder of good dialogue, strongly seen characters and a structure that pays off in the big courtroom scene - as the genre requires. As a courtroom drama, "The Verdict" is superior work. But the director and the star of this film, Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman, seem to be going for something more; "The Verdict" is more a character study than a thriller, and the buried suspense in this movie is more about Galvin's own life than about his latest case.

Lumet’s final film Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is unquestionably the darkest of the four films, and perhaps his greatest triumph as a director. Melodramatic in scale the film taps into the themes of the three previous works, but connects them with the capitalistic attitudes of modern society, Lumet examines the importance of family, the nature of greed and assesses the morals of all the films characters without adding commentary or judgment. Lumet directs mesmerising performances from all in the process.

With these four films Lumet’s legacy as a premiere filmmaker is assured. With the loss of Lumet, the public loses yet another craftsman who both challenged and entertained audiences, such a rarity in modern cinema. Lumet was the bridge between the old style Hollywood pictures and 21st century cinematic art. For that alone he will be a great loss. Perhaps more importantly though, the world has lost an intelligent artisan. The final word as with the first, goes to Ebert:

He was a thoughtful director, who gathered the best collaborators he could find and channeled their resources into a focused vision….To say he lacked a noticeable visual style is a compliment. He reduced every scene to its necessary elements, and filmed them, he liked to say, "invisibly." You should not be thinking about the camera. He wanted you to think about the characters and the story.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Wonder Boys: Hormones and Extra Credit

She was a junkie of the written word. Lucky for me I manufactured her drug of choice.

Back in the year 2000 I was 16, lonely and desperate. It was the height of my pre Tom Cruise crush on Katie Holmes. Katie, and more specifically Joey Potter the character she played on Dawson's Creek, was the archetype of every girl I had a crush on to that point in my life: bookish, verbose: yet shy. Even though her smile was awkward, my horny teenaged self saw into her vulnerable eyes and fell in love instantly. It was for this reason and this alone I could not wait to see Wonder Boys. It was basically my dream to see Katie in a sexually aggressive role. Though I did wish she had a cripple fetish, rather than one for 50 year old English professors who wore pink dressing gowns.

My hormones at least knew the potential for a good movie. As my affection for Katie Holmes has diminished, Wonder Boys continues to be one of my favourite movies: simply because it’s a sardonic, intelligent portrait of relatable characters of smart people who make dumb decisions.

The plot is thus:

On the day his third wife leaves him and his literary agent arrives to pressure him to finish a novel seven years in the writing, Carnegie Mellon professor, Grady Tripp, also learns that his married mistress is pregnant. Seven years before, with his first novel, he was a wonder boy. So was his agent. Both now need something. Over the weekend, instead of making choices, he vacillates in a pot-induced haze. One of his students, James Leer, perhaps stirs paternal feelings in Grady and raises homo-erotic urges in the agent. Academic politics complicate things: Grady's mistress is the college chancellor, her husband chairs Grady's department, James has just shot the husband's dog. What to do?

It would take me years to realise this but the role of Grady Tripp is basically an amalgam of every academic I have come across since I started my university education 18 months after I first saw this film. As Roger Ebert points out in the review of the movie:

Wonder Boys is the most accurate movie about campus life that I can remember. It is accurate, not because it captures intellectual debate or campus politics, but because it knows two things: (1) Students come and go, but the faculty actually lives there, and (2) many faculty members stay stuck in graduate-student mode for decades.

It perfectly depicts the process of post graduate writing. The fact that you are so close to an intricate piece of writing that the author cannot see the forest through the trees. After Holmes’s character Hannah reads the draft of Grady's long awaited 1,200 page novel, she points to its considerable flaws. The dilemma of academic writing is perfectly encapsulated in this exchange:
Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices?
Grady Tripp: Yeah.
Hannah Green: And even though you're book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all. And I was just wondering if it might not be different if... if when you wrote you weren't always... under the influence.
Grady Tripp: Well... thank you for the thought, but shocking as it may sound, I am not the first writer to sip a little weed. Furthermore, it might surprise you to know that one book I wrote, as you say, "under the influence," just happened to win a little something called the Pen Award. Which, by the way, I accepted under the influence.

The other key element of academia is dealing with the students who think they know more than you do. In Wonder Boys this trait is personified by both James and Hannah. Not that this a bad thing, because I have been on both sides of the ledger. As a student I made it my arrogant mission to demonstrate that I had superior knowledge and intellect. Although my lecturers were always supportive of me, I never saw them as superiors, but rather peers. As an academic this intellectual tug of war led to some insecurity, lest some upstart invade my intellectual territory. The movie is the only one that I’ve seen that gets this balance exactly right.

At the same time though the great triumph of Wonder Boys is that it romantises both writing and academia. In an indirect way this movie sparked my love for the knowledge and started my quest to be part of the political intelligentsia. From that moment on the written word was my drug of choice and I became a junkie.