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Newsletter 320

Published January 13, 2020
Sydney, as Turner might have painted it

Late again! I hope to get the newsletter back on a regular schedule soon but I’ve had a few unavoidable distractions at the beginning of this year.

At this moment nobody in Australia seems able to think about anything but the bushfires. And how could it be any different? Day after day we watch the carnage unfold as part of blanket news coverage. Day after day we see people who have lost everything put on a brave face and say: “That’s OK, at least we’ve got our lives. We can start all over again.”

If there is one cliché about the Australian character being confirmed by these fires, it’s this extraordinary resilience. At heart, people are philosophical about their misfortunes. It throws an even starker light on Scott Morrison’s grotesque behaviour when he went hunting for photo opportunities but turned his back on victims as soon as they began to ask him what he was doing to help the firefighters. Where people are stoical in the face of disaster Scummo has been capricious, opportunistic and inadequate. All spin and no substance, he sulks when things don’t work out in his favour, and resents being challenged. It’s pleasing to think the unsavoury images of his visit to Cobargo have been seen all over the world and will still be engraved on many voters’ minds when the next election rolls around.

This week’s art column is a more considered look at the Matisse & Picasso show at the National Gallery of Australia. The chief difficulty may lie in getting to Canberra while the city is engulfed in smoke. The NGA has had to close briefly because of the atmospheric conditions, and is now offering free entry to major exhibitions as a kind of sympathetic gesture to people who are – in the words of director, Nick Mitzevich – “seeking respite”.

Another favourite place for “seeking respite” is the movies, and there are several good options at present. Jojo Rabbit is an obvious recommendation. The Truth is worth seeing, and 1917 is one of the most harrowing war films I’ve ever encountered. It’s the long camera shots, the pauses, the silences and the skilful use of music that makes the movie so powerful.

Nevertheless my choice for review this week was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – a brilliant retelling of one of Hollywood’s oldest (there were 2 silent versions) and corniest stories. Gerwig has given us an up-tempo movie that takes the characters and their lives far more seriously than any previous version. There is an overt feminist message but it fits in neatly with the way the drama unfolds.

It will be good when life has returned to some sort of normality and I can discusss art and film without feeling it’s all a bit beside-the-point when so much of the country is in the process of being incinerated. It’ll be good to step outside without becoming instantly aware of the acrid smell of smoke. Life may be short and art long, but life has an unfortunate habit of forcing itself on one’s attention when art remains an optional extra.