Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Last Five Years: The Musical as Emotional Realism

Virtually every year since this blog began I've chronicled my feelings on Valentine's Day. In recent years sadness has turned into frustration, as I've moved past the need to be in a relationship for its own sake. Instead, the source of the misery concentrated on February 14th has been my failure to form a suitable connection that leads to the emotional intimacy I need, even it is brief.

At the end of the last year, I watched the trailer of The Last Five Years and discovered that it would be released in the United States on Valentine's Day. From that moment on I resolved to track down the first copy I could find on the internet, and attempt to watch it on that horrible day. I downloaded the movie on Friday the 13th, because sadly there is not yet a release date for the movie to premiere in Australia. The next day I had my first wonderful Valentine's Day.

As a devotee of the musical I knew that this movie contained something special. For me, the beauty of The Last Five Years is that the movie subverts the conventional musical, both in plot, and in tone.

I adore the classic movie musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which were all about emotional uplift. Most of them followed the same basic plot pattern. Boy meets girl: cue the 'meet cute' song: girl crushes on boy: cue the longing ballad, an obstacle emerges: cue the song that restates the purpose of the protagonists' love affair, finally girl wins boy: 'LET'S PUT ON A SHOW'.  

The Last Five Years is not a musical about the boy and girl getting together. It is about the boy and the girl getting together, falling apart, reconciling briefly, then falling apart once more: forever. 

The Last Five Years is only about a single relationship (told entirely in song), between Cathy and Jamie. The story is told through alternate songs from each character. Cathy's perspective of the relationship is heard in reverse order, while Jamie's version is told in chronological order. The song are fractured and biased, with the true perspective of the entire relationship only becoming clear once the movie is finished. The genius of this structure lies in the fact that each characters' point of view only up matches once: for the duet in the middle of the movie.

Not only does the viewer understand why Cathy and Jamie fell in love, they also understand why their relationship was toxic for both of them. It tells the audience why they need the power of human connection to survive, but it also tells them the damage that this power can do. It demonstrates to me everything that I have been scared of for my last five years. I want the first blush of love, and the euphoria that it provides. But I am not prepared to feel the devastation that occurs when it all ends.

The Last Five Years perhaps represents the apex of musical sub-genre that I've become attracted to in recent times that does not conform to the traditional plot of a movie musical. Whether it be God Help the Girl or Begin Again, the three best musicals of the past 12 months tell its audience that a few delightful songs cannot cure emotional devastation. This conforms to my worldview wholeheartedly.

Yet, my favourite movie of all time, Singin' in the Rain, is the pure opposite of this archetype. Seeing Singin' in the Rain for the first time was a revolutionary experience. I saw the movie at the beginning of 2011, right in the middle of my darkest depressive episode. Gene Kelly's unbridled optimism in the midst of loneliness helped convince me that I could become well again.  That feeling ignited my passion for musicals. Seeing The Last Five Years for the first time both reminded me of, and surpassed, my experience of watching Singin' in the Rain four years earlier.

I can only speculate why this is so.

Perhaps it is because The Last Five Years was the kind of empathetic musical I was waiting for?
Perhaps it gave me an insight which allowed me to forgive myself for the horrible mistakes I've made?
Perhaps it normalised those mistakes?
Perhaps it represented kind of rational argument I needed to allow myself to fall in love again?
Perhaps it is telling me that I've moved on from the idealised version of love I've held on to?
Perhaps I can't explain why I connected to The Last Five Years at all?

Perhaps that is beauty of the movie?

Monday, 23 March 2015

Malcolm Fraser: The Lifelong Opposer

Malcolm Fraser, Australia's 22nd Prime Minister, who served between 1975 and 1983, died on Friday, just five months after his immediate predecessor Gough Whitlam. This seems fitting because Fraser and Whitlam became intertwined in each other's legacies as a result of The Dismissal. As a consequence, Fraser always seemed to suffer in comparison to the more charismatic Whitlam. Where Whitlam experienced fervour wherever he went, Fraser was met with quiet respect.

As I pointed out five years ago, perhaps Fraser's legacy was always going to be overlooked:
Academics and historians for a variety of reasons often neglect the period of the Fraser Government between 1975 and 1983. This is largely because nothing could possibly match the drama of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal from office, which immediately proceeded this era. Furthermore, the Fraser Government is largely seen as a non event retrospectively... particularly because he is wedged chronologically between two of the Labor Party’s most mythical figures in Whitlam and Hawke.
Over the past week commentator and historian George Megalogenis has continually noted that Fraser governed in a divisive era, and suffered as a result. I would argue that Fraser was not nearly divisive enough. Fraser's parliamentary career can really be split into two halves, his career prior to his Prime Ministership, and his career after he won Australia's highest office.

Fraser was elected as the member for Wannon in 1955, as Australia's youngest ever parliamentarian. Even though he remained on the backbench during the final decade of the Menzies Era, he would shape the Liberal Party for a generation thereafter. In 1971, Fraser sensationally resigned as Minister of Defense, and openly criticised his party leader, John Gorton, on the floor of parliament. Fraser said that he could no longer support a government led by Prime Minister Gorton. Fraser's speech precipitated events that would lead to Gorton's resignation a few weeks later.

This chain of events often remains neglected when commenting on the political life of Fraser. It suggests more about his political career, than the events of The Dismissal. It is one thing to challenge a political opponent and cause his demise, as Fraser did to Whitlam in 1975. It was however quite another for Fraser to challenge a sitting Prime Minister on the sacrosanct floor of parliament, when he served as a Minister of that government. Fraser's speech opposing Gorton should rank as one of the most Machiavellian acts in Australia's political history.

With the knowledge of that event in mind, it is therefore no surprise that Fraser chose to become the major antagonist in the dismissal of an elected government. In retrospect Fraser's tactics against Whitlam seem hasty given it is likely that Fraser and his government would have won the next election anyway if he waited until an election was called by Whitlam in late 1976 or early 1977.

Fraser's politics was not defined by what he supported, but rather what he was against: whether it be Gorton's leadership style, the incompetence of the Whitlam government, the racist policies of various international governments, or his eventual repudiation of the modern Liberal Party. This did not make Fraser a bad leader, but rather a limited one.

It also explains why the Fraser government squandered the opportunity to implement long lasting domestic reform, despite securing two enormous election victories in 1975 and 1977. It is very rare that a Prime Minister has two consecutive terms where he has control in both houses of parliament. The Fraser government had a five year period in which it could implement any policy reform it wanted, largely unchallenged. Yet the media are hard pressed to name a domestic policy that was created between 1975 and 1980 which remains a legacy today.

Even though Fraser won three consecutive elections, a feat that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon, his Prime Ministerial tenure almost seems like an after thought.

That is the reason why Malcolm Fraser was an average Prime Minister, rather than a great one.