Week 187 – strange tales and celestial cities

The kids enjoyed a sunny Monday morning piloting a boat(!) and finding glowing autumnal vegetables (red peppers, aubergines, marrows etc.) under the leaves in the Veg Out Gardens. One plot-owner has recently installed a new sculpture of the Eiffel Tower!

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In the evening I went to see a Werner Herzog double bill at the 1930s Astor cinema (recently saved from closure by a big cinema chain, and mercifully unmodernised so far!). Both films were made in the early 1970s, and the film copies that were projected dated from then. The depth of colour and texture of the first was wonderful (give me analogue over digital any day!), until the final two reels, which had got very wet at some stage, and danced with red and purple fog! The second film hadn’t deteriorated quite so dramatically, but the colours had faded – some scenes appeared in varying shades of magenta.

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The first movie was one of Herzog’s earliest (1972) and best known – ’Aguirre: The Wrath of God’. It is a tale of folly and madness, set in the impenetrable swampy jungles of Peru. In the C16th, a band of determined but ill-prepared Spanish conquistadores set out on a doomed quest to find the fabled ‘El Dorado’. Floating on a makeshift raft, they gradually succumb to sickness and starvation (and the poisoned arrows of the natives), driven ever onwards by their crazed mutineer leader, the monstrous Klaus Kinski (who apparently inhabited the role to a terrifying extent!). It was deeply chilling, particularly because it was so understated. ’Acocalpyse Now’ clearly owed a huge debt to ‘Aguirre’, but with added bags of bombast!

The second film was ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’, which told the (true) story of a mysterious 16-year-old boy who suddenly appeared on the streets of a small German town in the late 1800s, filthy and barely able to walk or speak, clutching a mysterious letter that hinted at possibly noble ancestry (it transpired that he had been imprisoned in a cellar, with no human contact for his entire life). Initially treated as a freak, he was later taken in by a kindly benefactor, who taught him to talk and function in society (which he managed to, in an off-kilter way). It was a strange and unsettling movie.

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The rest of the weekdays passed slowly as I wasn’t feeling well, and the kids were particularly boisterous (I even had an extra day full of Maisie as her childcare was closed – joy!). But on Friday night I mustered up some energy to go out for a meal out with Sam and Claire-Anne. We went to ‘Kong BBQ’, a bustling Japanese/Korean fusion cafe in Richmond. The food and the service were top-notch – even the wine we chose was perfect! Every dish was delicious, but stand-outs were the sticky soy bbq pork ribs, caramelised tofu with char-grilled courgette, clam and green-bean rice, wood-roasted salmon with crispy skin and kimchi, and an astonishing desert of pineapple yakitori with lemon meringue topping, mango sauce and peanut brittle!

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On Saturday we caught the tram into town to catch up on some art exhibitions. On our way we passed the Moscow Circus site – and spotted a guy on top of the roof of the Big Top – he was walking a tight-rope which had been slung between the peaked domes!

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Our first art stop was at the Magnet Gallery where the Photomarathon Exhibition is still on. I wanted Maisie to see the photo I took of her displayed in an art gallery. She was very excited! We went on to the RMIT gallery, which was hosting a wonderful touring exhibition of Aboriginal desert art. ‘Streets of Papunya’ brought together paintings made over the last 40 years by a now-famous community of artists based in a small town north of Alice Springs. They were beautifully and intricately patterned story-maps. Maisie and I studied a few, picking out the lines of rivers, water holes, people and animal tracks. Many of the artists used white paint (apparently this is unusual now), using it to create delicate lace-like tracery over bright ochre and blue backgrounds.

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Our third stop was at the Melbourne University gallery. They were showing ‘Field Work 2006-2016’ a two-part video piece by Australian artist, Susan Norrie. The first film (made in 2006) followed a group of shrimp fishermen in East Java – wading through the river mud with their nets ensnaring the shrimp, carrying them home, weighing them and boiling them up ready to take to market. The second film was made in the same area in 2016, which has been devastated by the outpourings of the mud volcano (natural gas drilling triggered the eruption in 2006 – 40,000 people have so far been displaced, and it continues to spew toxic black mud). The film showed a surreal landscape of black sludge, dotted with a few dredgers and diggers precariously balanced on rafts, all engaged in the rather hopeless task of pushing the mud around. The kids were quite intrigued by both films.

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There was also an exhibition of textile-based art. We’d rather exhausted the kids appetite for art by this point, so we whisked round. A spider-web map of Australia woven directly on the gallery wall caught Maisie’s eye, as did a selection of pink-themed works (pictured!). I liked a piece of black cloth lying on the gallery floor – it was nothing to look at, but the gallery attendant told me that it was all about the ironing – the artist had spent hours ironing it completely smooth!

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In the evening I met up with Bianca (a friend from gamelan who I recently found out shares my passion for the music of Messiaen!) for a double-bill of contemporary classical concerts. The first was an imaginative programme of music on the theme of ‘Heavenly Cities’, performed by the MSO. First off was Oliver Knussen’s atmospheric ‘The Way to Castle Yonder’, a suite of orchestral interludes from his delightful children’s opera ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop’ (which I loved as a child). Of the two recent Australian compositions, my favourite was ‘Sky Jammer’ by young composer Michael Bakrncev, an astringent nightmare of tower-blocks, with some very effective orchestration. The two main pieces were Messiaen’s ‘Couleurs de la Cite Celeste’ with its brittle, sparkling palate of glockenspiels, clarinets, brass and gongs, and Heiner Goebbels intriguing ‘Surrogate Cities: Suite for Sampler and Orchestra’ which mashed together muffled electronic beats, sounds of trains, underground tunnels and Jewish cantors with eerie film-score orchestrations framed in baroque dance rhythms and structures (a movement featuring an elegantly angular ground bass was my favourite).

The second concert was a performance of ‘Visions de l’Amen’ – Messiaen’s two-piano meditation on belief (via nature and sensuality). The two piano parts are very distinct – one is regal, full of dense portentous chords and epic melodies played in parallel octaves, the other is manic – moving frantically between angry low rumbles and the skittering high notes of Messiaen’s trademark bird-calls. Bianca explained afterwards that the parts are meant to equate to the male and female character! The most magical moments were the quietest – particularly the ethereal series of high floating chords that denoted Christ praying. I was surprised how lushly romantic (almost Rachmaninov-like!) some of the movements were. It was an excellent performance by the two female Japanese pianists, but there was none of Aimard’s visceral intensity – it felt decorative, rather than profound.

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On Sunday afternoon I went to have my hair cut (for the first time in Australia). Maisie was keen to take a ‘before’ photo (above!). I was in the salon for 3 hours(!) but I think my kindly young stylist did a good job.

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In the evening I went to the St Kilda Film Festival, which is, as last year, based in the town hall at the end of our road. The programme was a disparate collection of 6 short films from around the world. One (‘Remembering The Pentagons’) was more of an artwork – shaky saturated images of Iranian mosques and gardens accompanying a poetic telling of the film-makers cradled but distressing childhood, another (‘Discontinuity’) messed with continuity and dialogue in a scene about a couple meeting up after an extended work-related period apart. There were a lot of cats that kept appearing and disappearing – it had an X-Files sub-theme! The funniest film was a 5-minute French Canadian piece (each shot a 5-second vignette) following a guy’s emotional break-down and recovery after he splits up with his girlfriend. My favourite film was a British thriller entitled ‘L’Assenza’. Stephen Mangan plays a man who is shocked to spot his double in a crowd scene of a 1960s Italian film noir. He becomes obsessed with the film, and every time he watches it, ‘his’ character is doing something slightly different. It was pretty creepy!

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