Friday, November 14, 2014

Shirt Fronts and Coat Tails

Not being terribly familiar with Australian Rules Football, when I first heard Mr Abbott say that he intended to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin, I had a slightly different image come to mind.

The picture that I saw was of an aggressor taking hold of his target’s “shirtfront”, possibly with both hands, drawing him in close and delivering a stern talking to. It’s a common enough standover tactic, and works to intimidate an individual with the implied threat of violence, without having to actually be violent.

As I soon discovered however, the phrase has long been used in the AFL to describe a physical clash which can be both reckless and dangerous. Given the fallout from Mr Abbott’s utterance, perhaps this is the more accurate definition after all.

Nevertheless, even the most ardent critic of Mr Abbott must surely realise that he was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. In effect, Mr Abbott was saying that he intended to demand Mr Putin’s attention, whether Putin wanted to give it or not, for long enough to express his extreme displeasure with the state of affairs.

It should not have been a surprise to anyone that Mr Abbott would use a sporting metaphor, given his athletic proclivities. In any case, he is far from being alone in employing such figures of speech. Indeed, sporting metaphors are to be found throughout not only politics, but also the corporate world.

There is constant talk of “crash tackling” an opponent, “destroying” a competitor, “blowing out of the water” rival companies, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s a manner of speaking so commonplace that it usually passes without comment.

But not in Tony Abbott’s case.

Of course, the almost universal condemnation of Mr Abbott’s choice of metaphor portrayed a picture of a man who opens his mouth only to jam both his feet into it. The more extreme critics suggested that he is not fit to be in politics, let alone run the country.

The worst of them carried on as if the metaphor was intended literally, and gave the appearance of salivating over the prospect of the volunteer life saver going 12 rounds with the KGB hard-man.

Then, when Abbott and Putin finally had fifteen minutes together on the sidelines at APEC this week, it was widely reported that the “shirtfront” had failed to materialise.

But it’s time for the armchair critics and the professional commentariat to get a grip. There was never going to be a bout of jelly wrestling for the photographers; the metaphorical shirtfront was always going to be a personally delivered verbal message.

And that’s exactly what took place.

I’m quite certain that Vladamir Putin doesn’t often have the leaders of smaller countries coming up to him to personally demand an apology, request compensation and offer advice on how to run Russia. That’s just not something that would happen everyday... or even, let’s see, ever.

I’m sure that Putin is much more accustomed to people snapping to attention and carrying out his every order as if their lives depend on it. Because, most likely, they do.

But instead of being able to carelessly bat Mr Abbott’s concerns aside, Mr Putin had to listen to an Antipodean upstart lecturing him about not seeking to reinstate the past glories of the Soviet Union, or for that matter the Tsars of the old Russian Empire.

I hope it pissed him off.

I am equally certain that Tony Abbott knows full well that Vladimir Putin is highly unlikely to take his advice, or to give the requested apology. I suspect that Mr Abbott believed that he had an obligation to speak for the dead of MH17, as well as for the living breathing Australians who want to see Putin held to account for his actions.

Obviously, Mr Putin did not pull the trigger himself, and the MH17 disaster was an unintended consequence of his regional politics. But he is clearly in a position to provide much greater assistance to the investigators of this terrible crime. His only problem is that any transparency might reveal too much about his role in propelling the rebellion in the Eastern Ukraine.

So far, it looks like Tony Abbott is the only one prepared to grab Putin by the lapels, metaphorically of course, and give him a few choice words. At least the only one prepared to do it in public.

And then there has been the wild hysteria about the Russian “fleet” steaming “towards Australia.” Television reports in particular were lurid in their assessment of what it all meant, speaking of “elevated tensions.”

So what if a handful of Russian Navy vessels are steaming along our east coast? So long as they stay in international waters there is no problem. They are only there, coinciding with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, in an attempt to remind the world that Russia is a powerful nation. It’s a bit like the village hoon doing blockies in his Monaro, showing off to the locals.

So long as he keeps to the speed limit, nobody will get hurt...

Anybody suggesting that the Russian navy flotilla represents some kind of threat is hyperventilating. And to claim that it is a direct response to the “shirtfront” remark is myopic and moronic.

Sure, Putin and his navy want to remind us that they are tough guys. But the message is not for us alone; it is a message for the whole world. And it is also a message for Putin’s constituents in Russia, where his “strongman” image has made him remarkably popular.

It’s nothing more than the schoolyard bully parading around to remind everybody not to mess with him.

While others might lower their eyes, Tony Abbott has instead gone up to the bully, tugged on his coat tails, and said, “You’re not fooling us.”

There’s a lot about Tony Abbott’s government that I find disappointing, and many of his policies with which I disagree. I even agree that the “shirtfront” comment was ill-considered, and the way it was delivered was awkward and embarrassing.

But I’m glad he told Putin what he thought of him. It was the Australian thing to do.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar Review

***No Spoilers***

It is not unusual for a masterpiece to have its flaws. In fact, some would say it comes with the territory. So it’s not a surprise that the science depicted in the new Chris Nolan film “Interstellar” has been subjected to a little criticism from those who know about such things, despite having the benefit of the advice of one of the most respected physicists on the planet.

Apparently, according to some experts, it would not be possible for any planet to orbit a black hole as closely as the film suggests without being ripped to pieces by the gravity. A spacecraft could not approach the superheated accretion disc without being vaporised. And so on.

But does any of that really matter? After all, most of the science in Interstellar is actually pretty good; dare I say it: light years ahead of most science fiction movies. And I’m not a scientist anyway, and I suspect, neither are you or most of the rest of the audience. I just want to see a good story that gives great entertainment, and maybe something to think about as well.

On that score, there’s plenty to chew on in Interstellar.

If you’re expecting a space opera, or an action flick, this is not the film for you. It takes all of the first act (about 45 minutes, because it’s a LONG movie) before the action even gets off the ground. Instead, the opening act establishes Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as a former NASA test pilot who is now a farmer in a post disaster world where food is in short supply and farmers are sorely needed.

Director Nolan lingers on this opening act to ram home the message of environmental destruction, but more importantly for this story, the bond Cooper has with the two children he is raising as a single father. The younger child, his daughter Murphy, is especially close to her father and it is this relationship which ultimately becomes the central theme of the film, as well as a pivotal part of the plot structure.

Given the importance of this relationship, it is understandable that Nolan has put so much effort into portraying the emotions involved, especially when Cooper must choose between staying with his family, or leaving them behind to pilot NASA’s last spaceship on a mission that could save all humanity.

When Cooper is reunited with a former colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he learns that a wormhole was discovered decades previously near the orbit of Saturn. (A wormhole, which is a genuine feature of physics as we understand it, links otherwise distant points in space and time.) In this case, it apparently leads to another galaxy where there may be a planet suitable for mankind to colonise, abandoning the ravaged Earth. Brand insists that Cooper should lead the mission to find a new home for all mankind.

The catch, of course, is that Cooper has no idea of when or if he can ever return.

This emotional tug of war between Cooper’s desire to fly the mission he was born to lead, and his love for his children, is not just a plot point; it is actually integral to the whole story, and leads to the events of the final act, which I will not reveal here.

Even so, the film suffers from what appears at first to be an unnecessarily heavy hand pushing the emotional point home over and over again. To some extent, the payoff at the end helps to explain this aspect of the narrative, but it takes a long time to get there.

Along the way, the film also bogs down in presenting some fairly clumsy philosophical ideas, to the point of becoming a little ponderous and self important.  That sensation is not helped by the imposing music score, which for much of the film is magnificent, but far too often intrusive to the point that you cannot hear the dialog. Maybe that was deliberate, so that the audience doesn’t receive all the exposition too quickly, but it becomes distracting and annoying at times.

It also doesn’t help that McConaughey spends the entire film mumbling throughout what is otherwise a great performance.

The bizarre robot which accompanies Cooper and his crew into space also takes a little getting used to. It is like nothing seen on film before, as far as I know, and doesn’t seem to me to be entirely consistent with the rest of the technology in the film. The machine moves around with a strange walking motion, and appears to do so even in the weightlessness of space, which didn’t look right to me. Nevertheless, the cheerful demeanour of the Artificial Intelligences (yes there’s more than one of them) in this film make an interesting contrast to the meltdown of the HAL 9000 computer in the Stanley Kubrick classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The music and the visual effects are deliberately evocative of “2001,” which in many ways is a nice touch. It’s no secret that Nolan was tremendously influenced by Kubrick’s film, and if you are looking for inspiration, you might as well look to the best. Inevitably, comparisons have been made, and for the most part it’s a fair call to suggest that Interstellar may be the best space movie since “2001.”

But Kubrick remains on his pedestal.

Interstellar keeps the story moving forward with some clever plot turns, and an un-advertised appearance by another major star, but is hampered by some sequences which slow the pace too much, prompting the viewer to question whether 169 minutes are really necessary to tell the tale.

The final act has caused some controversy, with some critics appearing to dislike the ending. Without disclosing details, I actually didn’t mind the ending. I feel that the most important loose ends were tied up, and while it might be all just a little bit too neat, let’s remember we are talking about a Hollywood movie, and the vast bulk of audiences like to leave the cinema with a sense of completion.

Besides, as I suggested before, the events of the final act help to explain the mysteries of the first, such as how and why the wormhole appeared in the first place.

Interstellar is a flawed masterpiece, great at moments, frustrating at others, but ultimately it’s worth the trip. Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but given the expectations which preceded its release, that would have been a very tall order.