Unique portraits of poverty: Dempsey’s People

There’s a very charming exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra at the moment. It’s something like a latter-day Humans of New York, because the subjects are not the fabulous, fine and famous, but the ‘umble and poor.

Dempsey’s People features water colours of English street people from the first half of the nineteenth century. Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ work will know the kinds of people I mean – the street sweeper, the fishmonger, the beadle – even the muffin man. But neither the people nor the paintings are glossy and gentrified; they are presented in their poverty, and it’s very moving.

The genesis of the collection of 52 paintings is interesting – they were found abandoned almost – artist unknown – in 2004 in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, when the archive was being re-located. The process of researching the collection and then funding the exhibition has therefore been long.

What I like about the paintings is that they are light – I am guessing that Dempsey was doing quick studies of the subjects and completing them later on, perhaps at night? No electricity. But their clarity and detail are amazing.

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And the subject matter, of course – this man is a bill poster. We know and see lots of information and portraits of the wealthy, right throughout history. But the poor are either absent or mis-represented, and while this could also be the case here, they do feel real.

They are not brilliant pieces of art, but they give voice to people from this period who really haven’t been seen much – the blind, the disabled (many of the men were returned soldiers from Napoleonic Wars), the mentally ill. There are a few women portrayed in the collection – this woman helps the bathers at the seaside to get dressed.

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I particularly like this one of “Black Charley” in Norwich, apparently a freed slave set up in a shoe-making business.

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And Pember of Bath … and friend.

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This image of the Englishman John Rutherford comes from the collection of the National Library of New Zealand, Wellington and is the only “ring in” painting. Look up his story some time …

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If you are in or visiting Canberra before 22 October, take a look. It’s worthwhile. And if not, check out the images online. There’s lots of information there. They don’t know what will happen to the exhibition after it finishes in Canberra – perhaps back to Tasmania or touring if there is demand.

The copyright of these photographed images rests with the original image copyright holder.

 

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Their Finest – movie review

Their Finest (and the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans, from which this film is drawn) takes its title from one of three speeches given by Sir Winston Churchill after the withdrawal and evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in France during World War II.

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.” 

Their Finest is a 1940s period film about the role of propaganda, set within a story of people making a propaganda film. It explores how facts are manipulated to reach the end goal of validating the British government’s decisions and shoring up the public’s support for them, while at the same time making a film that tells a good story. It shows the political pressures that arise, the financial limits (and the seeming never-ending magic pudding of Ministry of War finances), and is set against the washed-out and dreary background of a London being bombed beyond recognition.

Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin Photo by Nicola Dove-Nicola Dove - © Nicola Dove

Sam Clafin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest (image Nicola Dove) 

Viewed through the lens of modern tenets of the role of women, the film can be viewed as feminist – the protagonist Catrin Cole (played by Gemma Artherton) has followed her socialist artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston), to London from Wales. She walks into a screen-writing job because all of the men are off fighting. She is to write the women’s perspectives into the script, “the slop” (!), and as she settles into it, she withstands Ellis’ pressure to leave her job and follow him to his next painting location – under the guise of them needing the money, which they do. But she also has found her passion and is not going to give it up. She’s already given up too much.

There are stars aplenty in the supporting roles here – the wonderful Helen McCrory is under-used as an actor’s agent, but still looks glamorous amidst the grey restaurant and hospital scenes; and Bill Nighy, again playing a version of the naughty pop-star figure that brought him to the public eye in Love Actually, steals almost every scene. A bit too much ham, although his scenes with Catrin are moving and genuine. Richard E Grant is subdued but strategic as a senior bureaucrat, and Jeremy Irons is the Secretary for War – very Anthony Eden in prep and presentation. Catrin is supported at work by screenwriter, Buckley (Sam Claflin).

The turning point of the entrance of the United States into World War II and Churchill’s exhortation of that country’s support becomes the focus of the film being produced within Their Finest – the Ministry of War wants a US presence in this film. Catrin and her co-writer Buckley have to find a way of introducing an American “hero” in their Dunkirk-based story, despite there being no US troops in the Dunkirk evacuation.  Never let the facts get in the way and all of that …

The background stories in Their Finest help to anchor the viewer – there’s more than enough to keep us interested. And the film they make is ultimately shown to be very effective in manipulating the public’s support for the Churchill government’s actions. However, the real value of Their Finest is in reminding us how and why this is done -and should be a warning in this re-emergent age of fake news.

The good Oils

I am standing in a dark cupboard – about the size, shape and build of a polling booth. A black curtain is pulled closed behind me. On either side of me at waist height are two plastic arms, elbows sticking out, attached to the wall.  Apparently they are meant to move and jostle me around, as if we were standing in the audience of The Antler hotel in Narrabeen in the late 1970s. But the elbows remain static in the dark, inversed Vs, props in some weird Halloween party. In front of me is a largish screen playing a video of a Midnight Oil gig, circa 1982 – and the elbows are irrelevant because I don’t need reminding what a Midnight Oil gig is like. I do remember.

The Making of Midnight Oil retrospective exhibition is in Canberra at the moment at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and is well worth the hour or so spent down memory lane. First mounted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in close consultation with Oils band members, the exhibits cover the life of this iconic Australian band, from its genesis as Farm, through to the early 2000s when they wound up shop. There is plenty of video content to see, as well as clothing, tshirts, album covers, 45s (!), and a stage set up complete with drum kit. The height of Peter Garrett’s microphone stand gives an idea of the size of the man but I suspect they would have needed more room on a real stage to accommodate him, his movement and dance style, and three guitarists as well.

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Stage set up

The first time I saw Midnight Oil was at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle. I was 16 (checking ID wasn’t much of a thing in 1979) in year 12, and had convinced my friend Melanie to come with me. I didn’t see much of her that night, but she knew where I was if she needed me. I didn’t move from my perch on a stool at stage right, mesmerised by the driving energy of the sound and, if I am honest, Rob Hirst’s biceps. Yes, Garrett’s presence was overpowering too, but it was the music that stayed (and stays) with me, and I straight away ordered Head Injuries from the CBS record club – a well-loved piece of vinyl that I retain today. By the time I moved to Sydney the following year (and eventually to North Bondi the following year ), they had taken off and were playing all over the place.

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Poster from gigs at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle, complete with surfing and steel-making visual references

The exhibition is very comprehensive – it tracks through the key pinch points of their career – the Oils on Water Triple J concert on Sydney Harbour (somewhere in the garage I have a cassette tape of this, recorded from the radio), endless tours in the US, travelling and touring through the Australian outback – unheard of in the 1980s, the Sydney Olympics and the Sorry suits – politics was never far away and it’s fair to say that it was not the sole province of Garrett. He’d have been given short shrift if the agenda were only his and this comes out in lyrics written by all of the band members.

The high points of the exhibit for me are the personal items on display – the guitars and drum sticks, the Casio keyboard used for song composition, and a tattered set list left over from a gig – perhaps kept by chance but encapsulating the band’s life-time output. And the handwritten lyric sheets – complete with copyright tags – are fabulous to see.

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Handwritten lyrics for Run by Night

The film of the making of the 10-1 album is also running on a loop, and features interviews with the brilliant Jim Moginie and producer Nick Launay and illustrates the technical brilliance and musical knowledge that sits behind the unique Oils sound.

The exhibit will be touring elsewhere in regional locations, which is great, but if you are in or around Canberra, I can recommend it.

The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition  is free and runs in Canberra until 14 May – http://www.tuggeranongarts.com/the-making-of-midnight-oil-2/

Do the sins of the fathers revisit the sons?

The Place Beyond the Pines is a mesmerising film; a long, convoluted story of cross generational responsibility, corruption, the break down of moral codes, the value of an education and the connections it can offer, and the importance of both apology and absolution before things can move on.

Told in two parts over a 17 year period, the credibility of the story line is sometimes stretched.  But mostly, this saga of the impact of fathers’ behaviour on their children’s lives is moving and powerful.

Ryan Gosling plays a heavily tattooed, carny motor bike rider, Luke, a drifter and a grifter, who is surprised when he learns that he is the father of a one year old son, conceived a year earlier when the carnival had been in Schenectady (New York State).  Wanting to do the right thing by the baby’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) and possibly yearning for some kind of stability himself, the almost illiterate “Handsome Luke” decides to stay in town to get to know his son and to try to provide for him and his mother.

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But in the year gone by, Romina has taken up with Kofi, and she lives with the baby and her own mother in Kofi’s house.  Luke is not welcome, despite Romina’s feelings for him, and his best efforts fall short of his aim of providing a stable income that can buy things for the baby.

Luke comes across the greasiest of grease monkeys, Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn.  They meet after Robin sees Luke riding his motorcycle at breakneck speed through the pine forest.  They race along together, reminiscent of the forest chase scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, with branches and leaves thwacking the cameras as they speed by.  But there are no special effects here.  Just full throttle speed, dare devil moves and a recklessness born from a tough-arsed attitude to life. Needless to say, Robin soon develops plans for Luke’s riding skills and those plans are on the wrong side of the law.

The subsequent story arc leads us to newby beat cop, Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper.  Handsome, clean, fit, Avery is injured in the line of duty and called a hero, then learns first hand how easily others’ corruption can trick you, catch you off guard, and reel you in.  Avery turns to his judge father for advice, for whom he has previously expressed some disdain.  Together they plot a way for Avery to take on the corruption head first, and he goes on to build a political career that leads in time all the way to the top.

The compare and contrast of the two story lines is simple – Avery has privilege and education versus Luke has poverty and homelessness, and all of the attendant social and emotional baggage in both stories is played out.  But when the two sons of these men meet up at school, the third act of the film (in itself a free-standing story) seems to be showing us just how the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on their children, despite their best efforts for this not to be the case.

Avery’s son, AJ is a selfish, manipulative thug, who only knows how to have a good time.  Jason, the son of Luke, has grown up without knowledge of his father (although Kofi does a good Darth Vader impression – “I am your father” – and it’s true – he was there when Jason was born and has stayed with Romina, and had another child with her).  Regardless, Jason goes looking for answers about his father, and after learning the story, the denouement sees him swapping his pushbike for a new motorbike. Although he’s never been on one before, his natural, inherited talent sees him through.  He heads off beyond the pines.

The establishing shots of Schenectady’s town hall clock surrounded by pine forests place the story and are used several times.  The pines are shown surrounding the town, and bad things happen in that pine forest – it’s almost primordial, reminiscent of when “monsters” lived in the deep, dark woods.  Avery refuses to go deep into the forest with a colleague due to his fear of what might happen to him in there. And later on he again ends up in the forest, in danger.

On taking responsibility for his actions, though, he is able to escape, and to move on in his life, both in terms of his relationship with AJ, in which is he absent much of the time, and also in relation to the actions that affected Luke.  This seems to break the nexus, and allows Jason to move on, beyond the pines.

The acting is strong in this film, and it’s possible to believe in the characters and their motivations, despite the convoluted storyline. The women’s roles are minor – this is about boys and their dads, is blood thicker than water, what do we inherit and what do we learn, what makes a good dad, and ultimately, at what time do we take responsibility for our actions, accept the past, shake off its consequences, and move on to the next phase.  Avery tries to protect Jason, but is the apology he offers the key that unlocks Jason’s future? Will it be bright and shiny beyond the pines?

Further info: http://focusfeatures.com/the_place_beyond_the_pines