Friday, January 30, 2009

Patient Zero: Finding out who caused the Global Financial Crisis

If there's one thing wrong with the Global Financial Crisis it is the lack of a good bad guy; someone everyone can focus their blame on. A patsy if you will. If the GFC were a disease, we would be searching for patient zero - the first carrier; and to be honest, the media really have dropped the ball here.

Some "lefty" commentators have sought to blame the CEOs of investment banks, such as Merrill Lynch's John Thain (why wouldn't he deserve a $10m bonus?), or even the US Government (especially that superlative President George Bush). But really do you understand what went wrong? Mortgage back securities? Derivatives? Currency exchange swaps? Sounds like journalistic gobbledygook to me, and let's be honest when it come to finding a good easy-to-blame patsy, invoking economic theory ain't gonna do it. The main problem is such arguments focus on "what" caused the GFC. "What!?" Who cares about "What"? You think you can stick a "what" on a wanted poster? Nope, that dog won't hunt; we need a "who".

So let's work it through CSI style.

Australians at the moment are losing jobs because,
Chinese companies don't want to buy so much of our iron ore because,
American stores aren't buying as much of the stuff that gets made in China out of our iron ore because,
Americans have not been buying as much of the stuff from the American stores that gets made in China out of our iron ore because,
Americans have been losing their jobs because,
Americans have not been buying as much of the stuff from the American stores that gets made in China out of our iron ore because,
Americans' loans have been too big to allow them to buy the stuff from the American stores that gets made in China out of our iron ore because,
American banks have been giving out bad loans to Americans who work in stores that sell stuff to Americans that gets made in China out of our iron ore because,
The American Government looked the other way while the banks gave out bad loans to Americans who work in the stores selling the stuff that is made in China out of our iron ore.

So there you go. Now as I said most "lefty", "tree-hugger", "kumbaya-round-the-campfire" type of commentators have been looking at the US Government - say former President Bush and asked why he looked the other way while the banks gave out these bad loans. Or other pinko-probably-had-pictures-of-Che-Guevara-on-their-university-dorm-room-wall types blame the American banks for giving out the bad loans and bundling them up as "mortgage securities" and calling it risk management.

But c'mon it doesn't take an Andrew Bolt or Janet Albrechtsen to see that there was nothing wrong with the loans so long as the mortgage holder tightened his or her belt, kept his or her job, and went without those "luxury" items the lower classes always seem to be buying. You know what I'm talking about. Stuff like clothes and food. Yep. Greed, plain and simple. Just another case of them trying to get above their station. You know it, I know it, heck, John Thain sure as hell knows it.

And remember as well, up until the arse fell out of the world last year, things weren't too bad. OK unemployment was rising in America, but let's be honest only those not up to scratch would have been getting the sack. So why shouldn't banks give out the loans?

And it's not like the debt crisis just happened. Things like this, don't just happen. World War Two didn't just "happen". There had to be one loan that tipped the scales. One final mortgage that just didn't get repaid that caused say Lehmann Brothers (that great, bold bastion of all that is good about capitalism) to go bankrupt.

All we have to do is find the person who stopped repaying the loan that was this final straw.

Now the "lefties" (those Rudd-loving, Julia Gillard is the greatest types) would want to find the boss who sacked this guy who had the loan that required about 60% of his income to repay. Tut, tut, tut I say. Times were good last year (well not 'good', but let's not quibble over statistics like unemplyoment rates or anything); so long as you were prepared to do an honest day's work for a dishonest day's pay you would have nothing to worry about.

Now obviously this guy was American. And I'm going to say he lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania, because during the VP Debates Joe Biden went on and on about how life was tough growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, so I'm thinking given Biden is a left-wing Democrat, no doubt the town is full of like minded dead-beats who think they deserve to own a home even though they don't work in an office, or didn't go to university.

I'm betting he has three kids, a wife who works part time at the local A&P (I have no idea if Scranton has an A&P , but they get mentioned a lot in American films set in the suburbs, so I'm guessing she works at one). I'm also betting they live on West 64 Street (I don't know if Scranton has a West 64 Street, but American movies are always talking about streets with numbers and points of the compass so I think it's a good chance). No doubt he (let's call him Bob) worked at the local mill (I don't know if Scranton has a mill, or what actually gets done at a mill, but Bob would've worked there).

The problem though I'm betting was that Bob didn't work very well at the mill. No doubt he was late to work once or twice (well maybe not, but hey, there's no need to bring in the truth at this point). Heck he probably had to go do some service in Iraq because like a fool he joined the national guard because he felt kinda patriotic.

Whatever Bob, talk to the hand, cos I ain't listening. Times are tough (for slackers anyway), and so you're gone. Hit the bricks, here's your severance pay - try not to blow it all on 'luxuries' (c'mon you know what I'm talking about).

And so there you have it; Bob Jackson (yep Bob Jackson sounds like a good blue collar doesn't want to pay his bills kinda name) goes along to his local bank, says he can't pay his loan which means Lehmann Brothers (that great big, bold bastion of all that is good about capitalism) which has bought a percentage of the loan as part of a high-interest (supposedly low-risk) derivative goes under, and as sure as the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, Australians start losing their jobs.

So there you have it world: Bob Jackson of 28 West 64 Street, Scranton, Pennsylvania is responsible for the whole Global Financial Crisis.

Whew! Glad we got that sorted out. Problem solved. Now, let me just get back to working on that Middle-East thing...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Changing Tastes in Movies, or the Change in Movies?

When writing about the nominations for this year's Best Picture Oscar, I wrote about how there seems to be a lack of adult dramas that Hollywood used to do well; instead everything seems to be more targeted towards teens - comic book movies etc.

I decided to have a look at the breakdown of films over the last 20 odd years to see if anything stands out.

Box Office mojo breakdown the films released in the USA according to their rating - G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. Now NC-17 doesn't really count because so few get released with that rating (basically because many theatres refuse to show those films), so I won't both with that.

The USA rating of R is equivalent to the Australian M or MA ratings. The PG-13 is what it says "PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED—Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13". So PG is actually less adult than PG-13. The PG-13 came in in 1984 when the gap between PG and R seemed to be getting too wide.

So here's the breakdown of the 4 ratings. In each graph the Blue Line shows the percentage of movies in that year that were released with that rating. The red line shows the percent of the year's box office receipts accounted for by that rating.

Here's G Rating:

It only accounts for between around 2 and 6.5% of all movies released each year. Not a lot has changed - some years a few more, some years a few less. Generally as well the movies account for a slightly higher percentage of the box office

When we look at the PG rated films however, we do see a distinct pattern. From accounting for 20-25% of all films released in the USA in the late 1980s, to over the last decade accounting for only around 10-15%. In terms of box office, the red line is very similar to the blue line - but as with the G rated films, again the box office accounts for a greater percentage than the amount of films.



With the PG-13 Rated films though, we really start seeing a big change. The drop in PG rated (more kid friendly) films shown above is inversely replicated here. From accounting for 20-30% of all films release din the USA in the late 1980s, PG-13 films now account for around 35% of all films.

But the real difference is the amount of box office that these rated films account for. in the late 1980s the box office of PG-13 rated films was around the same as the amount of films. As the 1990s went on and into the 2000s there has been a boom in the box office receipts of PG-13 films.

Something has obviously happened. Not only are more of these films being made, they are becoming much, much more popular.

How have R rated - the more adult films fared? Not too well. The number of films with an R rating have not dropped all that much - basically they still account for around 50% of all films released in the USA. But check out the drop in popularity. From accounting for just over 51% in 1987 to a mere 20% last year. It's the only rating where box office is always lower than the number of films.


So why?

Well here's a list of the to eleven grossing PG-13 films last year:

1 The Dark Knight
2 Iron Man
3 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
4 Hancock
5 Twilight
6 Quantum of Solace
7 Mamma Mia!
8 The Incredible Hulk
9 Get Smart
10 Four Christmases
11 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Yep The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Quantum of Solace are OK for 13 year olds, in fact OK for any kid in reality - remember R means that anyone under 17 should be accompanied by an adult, meaning PG-13 don't need adults there at all, just a sense that parents have advised their kids...

Here's the top ten PG-13 films from 1990:

1 Ghost
2 Dances with Wolves
3 Kindergarten Cop
4 Days of Thunder
5 Bird on a Wire
6 Edward Scissorhands
7 Arachnophobia
8 Awakenings
9 Look Who's Talking Too
10 Young Guns II

A lot more family friendly don't you think? Here's the R rated films from 1990, how many do you think would now get a PG-13 rating?
1 Pretty Woman
2 Total Recall
3 Die Hard 2: Die Harder
4 Presumed Innocent
5 Another 48 HRS.
6 The Godfather Part III
7 Flatliners
8 Misery
9 Hard to Kill
10 Goodfellas

I'd say only Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, Misery and possibly Another 48 Hours would be still R rated.

So is it people's tastes that have changed, or is it that what was popular then still is popular now, it's just that the lower end of the 1980s R rated are now getting PG-13 ratings?

Possibly, but note that the same number of R rated films are getting made. But they are not connecting with the audience like they used to. Perhaps the continual easing of what constitutes PG-13 has led to people viewing R rated films as being stronger in content and more "adult" than they were in the past?

To be honest I don't know if I have an answer, but any studio executive looking at these graphs would think only one thing - more PG-13 please, and less R.

OK maybe there will be the same number of R rated films, but the budgets will be less, the money spent on development for them will be less, the casts will be expected to take pay cuts, so better actors will do less of them (much better to do some easy money action stuff).

So this is good if you like comic books; bad if you like real drama.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Economic policy and the Opposition are strange bedfellows

Today in Crikey their Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane wrote an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop.

It's about the most sensible thing I've read this year (ok not a big call, but it'll take some beating). It certainly is the best opinion column I've read written by a member of the Canberra Press Gallery for some time. I recommend you giving it a read, but here are a few excerpts:

...in case you haven't noticed, just about every economist on the planet is calling for massive government spending to replace at least a small part of the huge gap in private demand left by the financial crisis. This spending will, at least for some Australians, mean the difference between having a job and not having a job. If we learned anything from the last recession it's that unemployment is a bastard of a problem to fix and pernicious in its effect on our social fabric.
...
But you seem determined to maintain the fiscal hairy-chestedness. As part of that, you like to maintain that when you were in Government, you were the height of fiscal responsibility.
That's complete bollocks and I'm sick of hearing it. The first two Howard Budgets were excellent.

...
But after that, you dropped the ball. Subsequent budgets got slacker and slacker, especially once the mining boom kicked in. After 2001, your budgets got downright bad as you shelled out money to buy votes. After 2004, you were shovelling money out the door so fast slow-moving people were getting buried under it.
...
You also completely abandoned the small government agenda. This was a profound betrayal, one that has left Australian with a legacy of middle class welfare and a handout mentality that will take years to undo -- if any politician has the guts to try to undo it.

This last point is especially true - consider the kerfuffle when Rudd decided to bring in a means test for the baby bonus, or the solar panels. Pretty much the default position at the moment accroding to the electorate is that for any scheme, incentives mean welfare for the middle class. Giving rebates for solar panels is all well and good, but there are better ways to make solar power economically attractive for households - a gross feed in tariff for one.

But as I say, give Keane's article a read; I pretty much could only add "ditto" to everything he writes.
***
Another good piece of opinion writing came via the always sensible Peter Martin. He links an article by 2008 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Paul Krugman, which again provides some excellent reading, this time on the value of the Obama fiscal stimulus package (which has a bit of commonality with what Rudd and Co are trying to do).

A few excerpts:
...write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.


The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This is some interesting advice, especially as it seems quite likely Rudd and Swan will bring in tax cuts earlier than they were planned. Personally I think it far better to concentrate on infrastructure projects, and bring in the tax cuts in the budget as planned - if people are saving their bonuses, they'll likely do the same with tax cuts, so let's let the government do some spending, and just make sure it's bloody good spending (I'm sure there are some roads and railways around the traps that could use a touch up, even if my long wished for Very Fast Train from Melbourne to Sydney won't happen).

Krugman goes on:
It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero.

Now obviously in Australia, interest rates have a way to go down yet - and the odds at the moment are that there is a 96% chance the Reserve Bank will cuts rates by a full one percent when they meet on February 4th. That would make the cash rate 3.25%. Last time it was that low? Well have you heard of Robert Menzies? (so much for "interest rates will always be lower under a Liberal Government" I guess...).

So given that, I again think the Government should focus on infrastructure and let the interest rates do some work - admittedly low interest rates take longer to kick start the economy than high interest rates do to strangle it.

That said, with inflation now going down fast at least the Government doesn't have to worry about a fiscal boost causing prices to rise, but that doesn't mean they need to throw money around blindly.

***
Here's a different bit of opinion from Joe Hockey on the Government providing cover for commercial property lending:

"It should not be the Government that starts lending money to the next Christopher Skase or Alan Bond as is being suggested here,'' Mr Hockey told Fairfax Radio.
"Mark my words: this is going to be Tricontinental, Western Australia Inc, State Bank of Victoria all over again.''


This is known as the "let's see how much hyperbole I can fit into one statement" line of attack.

Hockey should calm down and stop acting like a clown. He may be right, but his attempts to criticise the Government by going way over the top is a bad way for the Opposition Finance spokesperson to act. It shows he's learned nothing from his constant over-working of "union bosses" in 2007.

Show some reason Joe, show some caution, and maybe you'll get some credibility. Heck next he'll be comparing the Government's fiscal stimulus to the Nazi's economic policies... oh wait, no that was John Montgomery in today's The Australian:

the New Deal was not a success: the recession was deep and lasted 10 years. It was the tooling up for World War II that ended the Great Depression, and the return of growth in the private sector. The New Deal actually made things worse because it delayed the recovery in the private sector. Similar policies were followed under national socialism in Germany: the building of autobahns, canals, dams, railways, airports, organic farming around the cities. Money was also pumped into the car industry.

I didn't think Godwin's Law could apply to economics, but apparently it does.
***
Look, anyone with any basic level of IQ knows the Rudd Government can't be blamed for the financial crisis, or for China's economy stalling (though some conservative commentators would love to blame it all on Gillard's IR policy!), but they do deserve to be judged on how they handle the crisis. Australia unfortunately is a bit of a cork on the ocean; the Government really can't steer where we go - the international economic tide has us in its grip; but the Government can at least make sure the cork doesn't disintegrate. And my belief is that government spending will keep the cork together better than lots of tax cuts.

However, I say once again - politics is a tennis match. Just as it doesn't matter if you make a stack of unforced errors, if your opponent plays worse you'll still win the game, it doesn't matter if Rudd stuffs up the economy, if the electorate thinks Turnbull will stuff it up worse Rudd will still win the next election.

And when Turnbull keeps coming out saying such garbage as this today it's still seems pretty obvious he'd do worse:

"We've offered to sit down with Mr Rudd so many times I couldn't tell you how many," he said.
"From the moment I became Opposition Leader we've sought to have a bipartisan approach to this.
"No way, he makes these decisions, ignores the Reserve Bank, doesn't consult with the Opposition."


Poor Malcolm, no one cares what he thinks, and he wonders why. Maybe he should read Keane's letter to find out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

U2's "Get on Your Boots" and dodgy radio tapes

I have been a U2 fan for longer than I have been a fan of any band. Each new album is always guaranteed to get me down to JB HiFi and opening up my wallet (most other bands will merely see me downloading a few odd songs off itunes).

Their newest single, "Get On Your Boots", was played last week on Irish and English radio, and also released for download through itunes.

It's already Number 14 on the Australian itunes top downloads.

It's a catchy rock number that took me about 2 listens before I was hooked, and I'm now all a shiver with anticipation for the album (No Line on the Horizon).

One thing that has excited me is that according to U2's Official site this single is track Number 6 in the track listing.

For the last two albums, the first single has been Track 1; and given U2's penchant for putting all the best songs on the album at the start, that this is number 6 makes me think there's a lot more good stuff to come (speaking obviously as a hard-core U2 fan who will brook no criticism... well not too much at any rate).

The last album U2 album from which the first single was so late in the album track listing was Achtung Baby, and that album is still my favourite of theirs, so my expectations are now pretty high (not that it will ever be as good because... well I'm not 19 anymore, and music never matters as much as it does at that age).

When the first single off Achtung Baby, "The Fly" was played on the Triple J breakfast show I was listening to it on my Walkman while on a bus on the way to university. I had been counting down the days. I have a sneaking suspicion they played it twice - they definitely played the B-side track, "Alex Descends into Hell for a bottle of Milk Korova" - don't worry I haven't listened to it since either.

This time it was a bit different. Yesterday I thought, "oh yeah, they were going to release a single... I wonder if it's on youtube." (it is).

On that day back in 1991, I also rang up SAFM and voted for the song to be on their top 8 at 8 (or whatever the nightly countdown was called), and when the song was played (at number 1) I was there blank tape at the ready so I could record it.

When the song finished, the DJ announced in a monotone voice "press pause on tape recorder now". Which I did. He knew, I knew, we all knew that every one was taping it, as indeed kids have for ever.

Rather interestingly, when "Get on Your Boots" was played on Radio 1 in England, during the song your hear a quick "Radio 1", and the DJ, Chris Moyles cuts in at the end a bit earlier than he needs to. Why? Well as he tells his fellow DJ "I like to do that because of all the little gits who like to record it and stick it on the internet". The other DJ responds: "Home taping is killing music".

Yep, all those kids taping the songs of their favourite bands off the radio has killed music, just as it did when I taped "The Fly" back in 1991, because of course everyone just tapes the songs off the radio instead of buying the freaking album.

Ok illegal downloads of the actual album and songs may be taking a bite out of artists' take home pay, but songs from the radio? Yep, and I never buy a DVD because I can just tape the movie onto my VCR when it plays on TV - those adverts actually enhance the viewing experience.

So here is the song played on Radio 1, from youtube, which I have here just to annoy sanctimonious git DJs:

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Song a Year: 1985, Man Overboard

In 1985, I got serious about music. Every month meant buying another copy of Countdown Magazine (infinitely superior to Smash Hits - though I bought that as well), and Take 40 on Saturday and Sunday mornings was a must see, and the Top 8 at 8 on the local AM station was a must listen.

Music meant so much to me that I wrote an essay for English about responding to Pat Boone's criticism of Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" (apparently he thought it was satanic - you know the whole "dance into the fire" lyric). Now you have to be fairly well into music to get steamed up about Duran Duran, and I don't think I need to produce any further evidence to demonstrate the hold pop music had on my life.

It was also around this time that music started seeping into my subconscious. From this year my life began to have a soundtrack. I was on a bus in Perth going from the airport to an athletic competition (I was into athletics in high school) and playing in the bus was Cold Chisel's "Saturday Night". Why do I remember that? I don't know, but I do know that on the flight home one of the songs I heard on the in-flight music channel was Phil Collins "One More Night".

Music does this to you; it seeps into your life and produces memories like the smell of a madeleine biscuit in In Search of Lost Time. A song can remind you of a person; an album recalls a moment, a break-up a reunion.

For me 1985 was a year full of Madonna singing Crazy For You, George Michael being 1005 heterosexual while wearing fluorescent fingerless gloves in the video for "Wake Me Up Before you Go Go" - I played table tennis that year and I recall doing an impersonation of George one night while wearing my friends yellow fingerless gloves - the important thing is the eye movement right when you sing the lines "it's cold out there but it's warm in bed" (laughs were pretty easy at table tennis nights).

1985 was perhaps the only year where girls could write I love Morten on their pencil case; but A-ha gave them that ability. I was friends with a couple girls (who also played table tennis) who were absolutely devoted to Morten Harket and the other Norwegian lads, but who probably knew better and thus would react to my renaming him as Morten Carked-it with faux howls of disgust and a few laughs (yes, the laughs at table tennis were very easy to get).

But enough reminisces of my trying to charm girls with humour (they always go for the funny ones don't they?). 1985 was also for me the time I picked a band to be my band (no not U2, though they were there). Nope, for me the band to live and die by was Go West.

Yep.

Well look, in my defence "We Close Our Eyes" is a damn catchy song... and hell they did get voted Best New Band in the 1985 Countdown magazine readers poll.

And so while it was definitely my favourite song of the year, it's not the song I choose to be my song of the year for 1985. That pick goes to Aussie band, Do Re Mi, and their one hit (of sorts) Man Overboard.

There was something about the song that just got me. It was adult - the lyrics were pretty edgy for the mid-80s. The video was also intriguing. To this day I have no idea what the images have to do with the song, but it just got under my skin. The start of the video with the camera walking down a run down inner city street got the interest of me, the young country town boy. I wanted to know the street; I wanted to feel urban. I had reached a point in life where I knew without doubt my life was destined to occur outside the parameters of a little town. I wanted to live in a city teeming with every type of people.

I hadn't seen the video for well over a decade when a couple years ago I saw it on youtube, and it was amazing how the first minute of the video brought back the feelings I had back in 85. The fact that I now don't wish to live in "the big city" - or at least Sydney - and am comfortable in suburbia, rather than some bohemian inner city apartment is irrelevant. Music takes you straight back to where you were; and so I was taken back to 1985 to when I dreamt of being so many different things, that it was hard for me to watch the video without feeling some moments of regret, without sighing and wondering of what might have been had not a thousand separate moments that led me to where I am now not happened.

Oddly I had had a copy of the song for years, and while it always took me back to Year 9, it was the video that really brought the memories flashing through my brain. And for the first time I realised the scenes of the men drinking was taken on Anzac Day (at the 1:30min mark you can see a guy who is a Vietnam War veteran on account of the medals he has on his suit - still don't know what it has to do with the song).

The band also interested me. They and the song they were singing weren't the standard easy listening pop. These guys (especially Deborah Conway) looked 'arty' -they seemed like people who would laugh derisively at the fact I listened to AM radio; that I thought George Michael was straight; that I only had a mono speaker tape player to listen to music. They and their song were city; and I wanted to be them.

When I did get out of the country and got to go to uni in the city, I was lucky enough to be around when a few of my friends were going down to Elder Park where Deborah Conway was singing at a free concert (not sure why - it may have been Australia Day), and when she announced the start of this song, I have to say it felt pretty good to be able to feel like I was now one of those who could laugh derisively at country AM radio and mono speakers, if only because I was able to turn to my friends and say "I loved this song in Year 9", because let's be honest, it's a lot cooler than if I was making that statement after hearing "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go".


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flick of the Week: "When it comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be a consummate idiots."

This week's flick of the week, which also doubles as "Oscar is Always Right (except when it's wrong) Part IV", takes us from Tomorrow Never Dies with Michelle Yeoh to the amazing martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The year 2000, it might surprise you to find, was a pretty good year for movies. The Oscars voters that year had to choose from Gladiator, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Traffic, Chocolat and Erin Brockovich. Other big movies that year were Cast Away, The Contender, and The Perfect Storm.

It was a good year, especially when you compare it to this year's lot.

And I have to say I think the Academy made a great choice by picking Gladiator as Best Picture. It is an absolutely wonderful example of Hollywood doing well what Hollywood does well - it is a big epic blockbuster of a movie that was full of great acting, brilliant set pieces and a stack of geez-they-must-have-spent-a-tonne-of-money-making-this moments.

I loved it when I saw it, still love watching it on DVD, and I have no qualms about Russell Crowe winning Best Actor. Yes it's not his best work, but it was a great example of an actor carrying a film. He made it; no Crowe, no film. I don't think any other actor in Hollywood could have played the role - a guy who looks strong enough that he could be a gladiator, but also smart enough to be a general. He needed to be strong, but not buffed in a Brad Pitt/Eric Bana in a Troy kind of way.

Plus he needed to be able to win over the audience to the point they would have gone into battle with him - indeed, for him.

Crowe did this, and deserved his Oscar (should have been his second in a row...)

In any other year I would have been happy for the film to win the Best Picture and be viewed as the pinnacle of Hollywood. But in 2000 the greatest moment for me in a cinema occurred while spending two hours watching Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow play out one of the great unrequited love stories in film history against a backdrop of the greatest action scenes you could wish in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Apparently, director Ang Lee wanted to make the ultimate martial arts movie. I probably haven't seen enough of them to judge whether he succeeded, but it certainly is the one by which all others will now be judged - and it also led to a number of excellent films from China/Taiwan such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

The story involves a great warrior - Li MU Bai, played by Yun-Fat Chow, who has decided to give up fighting. He asks his close friend (with whom he is obviously in love) Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to give his sword (the Green Destiny) to their benefactor in Beijing. After doing so the sword is stolen by the young Jen Yu (played brilliantly by Ziyi Zhang in only her third role) who is the daughter of a high official, but who has secretly been trained in the ways of fighting by the female outlaw Jade Fox, whom Shu Lien has sworn to kill because she murdered his master.

Add to this the elements of love - Jen Yu is engaged to be married, but her true love is the outlaw Lo; and Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are also achingly in love with each other, and yet... and yet.. and yet!!!! they seem unable to tell each other.

When I saw this film in the cinema I really knew nothing about it except that it was supposed to be amazing. It started well enough; I was enjoying the story, was quickly drawn to Michelle Yeoh's character. And then the Green Destiny is stolen, Shu Lien catches the thief and they begin to fight... and they begin to fly. Watching them fight by running up walls, floating across rooftops, and generally defying gravity while also clashing swords left my my mouth open in wonder. I recall turing to my wife and saying "this is brilliant". It's not often you know half way through a film that you want to watch it again, but that was the case wit this one.

The year earlier The Matrix had messed around with "bullet time", and the effects were great - but they were obvious special effects with lots of CGI. In this movie, when the characters fly through the air, or run across water, or stand on the flimsiest branches, the effect is dazzling and yet completely real.

No matter how good are computer graphics, you generally know when something is faked because the characters are doing things that cannot be done (or cannot be filmed - such as the massive CGI shots of Rome in Gladiator), and so instead of thinking it's real, your brain knows it is all a computer (part of the reason why the Star Wars prequels lack emotion - there's too much CGI, and your brain doesn't believe it regardless of how good it looks - and thus you don't care as much).

In this film everything seems real - even that which is magical, perhaps because it is so magical.

And while the fight scenes are jaw droopingly amazing, it is the two love stories in the film that keep you coming back. The final scene between Mu Bai and Shu Lien is up there with greatest of tragic moments in film. Their love is as good as any tyou will see on screen - Zhivago and Lara, Rick and Ilsa, Maria and Tony in West Side Story, or Laura Jesson and Dr Harvey in Brief Encounter - and like all good romances in films, the two are destined not to end together (that is the difference between romance dramas and romantic comedies - romcoms are all about requited love - if When Harry Met Sally... was a drama, Harry would run to tell Sally on New Years Eve that he loves her only to be hit by a car on the way, and then for her to go to the hospital to tell him she has consumption and will be dead in two weeks).

The film also has an intelligent undercurrent theme on the position of women in society. Shu Lien is a great warrior herself and is the love of Mu Bai's life, but even she has been denied learning the full secrets of the Wudan way of fighting. Jen Yu wants to free herself from her arranged marriage. She is taught by Jade Fox who killed Mu Bai's master because he would not teach her the Wudan secrets - and so she stole them, and seeks vengeance on the world of men.

It makes for an incredibly layered film, and would have been my choice to be the first non-English language film to win Best Picture (though now I think of it, there may be some other films that I will pick as Best Picture in earlier years - perhaps Wings of Desire, Z or Rashamon).

My only advice is do not for the love of God watch this film in the English dubbed version. Acting is all about use of voice, watch this with the real voices and read the subtitles.



***
2000
Best Actress: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
Nominees: Juliete Binoche (Chocolat), Joan Allen (The Contender), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), Laura Linley (You Can Count on Me)

Should have won: Anyone else!

Geez. Can you believe all it took was for Julia Roberts to win an Oscar was to wear a push-up bra and slutty clothes? Talk about method acting! Julia freaking Roberts, Oscar winner...!? Now look, I don't want to diss Ms Roberts' acting prowess - she was great in Notting Hill playing a famous Hollywood actress. But hell, this is just about the worst choice ever in this category. I'm not even going to say why she was so bad in this - ok not bad, but you shouldn't get an Oscar just for just not embarrassing yourself.

Also if she hadn't won we all would have been spared her atrocious acceptance speech where she went on and on and on, thanked everyone in her life and anyone who had anything to do with the film except Erin Brockovich herslef, and she also expressed undying love for Benjamin Bratt...

Ok who to give it to then?

Juliette Binoch is delightful, but Chocolat is a desert (pardon the pun) and Best Actress should go to a main course.

Ellen Burstyn has been much lauded fro her role as the aging woman addicted to slimming pills, but to be honest I don't know if I think Requiem for a Dream is brilliant or a complete crock - and to be honest it's so damn depressing I know I'm not going to watch it again to find out.

So I'm going to give it to one of my favourite actresses, Joan Allen for her role as the Vice-Presidential contender with a past (or perhaps not) in The Contender. She is strong, sexy, smart and believable.

She also had to go up against two excellent actors in Jeff Bridges (playing the President) and Gary Oldman (a powerful Republican Senator)- and she had to be able to be more than just the woman in the room - she has to be able to match it with them, and in fact beat them - a tough ask, especially against Gary Oldman (who should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor - Jeff Bridges also was deserving of a nomination for Best Actor).

So she gets my nod (I'm betting her speech would have been better than Roberts's as well).

The following scene shows her meeting with Oldman to discuss the dossier which contains information about Allen's supposed gang-bang while she was in college.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tennis Fan's Tennis Player

Last night the match of the tournament in the men's singles was played at the Australian Open. Roger Federer and Marat Safin played a third round match, and Federer won in three sets, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6.

The score line disguises the closeness of the match, and treats Safin with some disservice, for the nerves Federer showed in the third set tie break highlighted that he knows, as well as anyone, that a win against Safin is never a given, even if he is no longer at his peak.

After the match, Safin, in his press conference stated that it would he his last time at the Australian Open. Such an announcement is a big loss to tennis.

The reason why it is such a loss was highlighted in last night's match. It was a match full of expectation, and though the scoreline did not live up to it, the tennis certainly did. Federer and Safin traded blows from the back of the court, used deft volleys, deadly serves, and insanely gifted "you can't be serious" shots from unwinnable positions that resulted in winners.

It was a match that tennis lovers the world over would have delighted in watching, and it is sad that it may be the last time we see these two go head-to-head in a best of 5 sets.

Safin and Federer for the most part of this decade have been the two most gifted tennis players. The two players with whom commentators would use the adjective "genius" - most likely with Safin also using the word "flawed" or "tortured".

Nadal is amazing - easily the best clay court player ever. But he does it with power and strength. Safin and Federer have that x factor that just puts them in a different category. Maybe it's a certain grace around the court; more likely it's that ability to see the angles that others cannot; the courage to try the impossible because of a self belief that nothing is impossible for them.

Safin only won two Grand Slams - the 2000 US Open and the 2005 Australian Open. He was only 20 when he slaughtered Pete Sampras to win the 2000 US crown, and that he was only able to win one more is a perfect case of underachieving, bad luck, and injuries.

But there is little point bemoaning what might have been - for 2 Grand Slams is still pretty bloody good. More importantly throughout his entire career you have been able to say of Safin, "if he's at his best, he's better than anyone". It's why last night's match was so anticipated - with Safin anything is possible. It's why Federer was so glad to win the tie break - he knew if Safin wins one set, he might catch fire, and then it's hold onto your hats time.

Last night Safin played an incredible cross court drop volley off of a stinging Federer forehand. Safin was not in the perfect position, but his shot was perfect... or nearly so. It was called out, and the replay showed it was so by only a few millimeters. It would be tempting to call it a symbolic shot of his entire career.

Since he became number one, I think Federer has only worried about three players - Leyton Hewitt (who won the first of 7 matches against Roger), Nadal and Safin.

Last year Federer seemed annoyed about losing to Djokovic in the semi finals - as though Djokovic wasn't worthy, and that Federer had a feeling it was more to do with his own ability than Djokovic. Whereas when he loses to Nadal and Safin (and Hewitt when he was at his best) he knows the other player is a deserved winner (not to say that Federer is a poor loser against others). And I have to say I feel the same way. Last year Federer just played badly against Djokivic - shots he normally hits for winners, were missing, or were being hit too short. But when you think of Federer losing to Safin or Nadal, most times you have seen Federer playing sparkling tennis (think last year's Wimbledon final or the 2005 Australian Open semi), and getting beaten as opposed to beating himself.

So with Safin's departure tennis loses something very special - a player who brought out the best in Federer, and who always kept you thinking that today might be the day we see the impossible. And while he didn't always succeed, you know he would always attempt it.

And tennis also loses a great role model of the game. He was no thug; no arrogant boor - despite his many broken racquets. In his press conferences he comes across as intelligent and respectful of other players. He also had a personality that made watching him play so much fun. You knew any moment he might either explode and play great tennis, or just explode.

Here's what he said after his loss last night:

Q. What memories will you take away from this tournament?

MARAT SAFIN: I had some ups and downs here. One disappointment. Another great year. One final against Roger. And then one title I took here beating also Roger and Hewitt. So I've been playing some great tennis. So just the whole thing, the whole setup. The beautiful city, great people.
The crowd is always friendly. Go around in the city and they just love tennis. They live with tennis. They really enjoy it and appreciate what you are doing. That's what makes it special. It's really very sports‑people living here. It's always nice to come here every year, year after year. Unfortunately, I doubt it's going to ever happen again.

Q. That semifinal you played against Federer in 2005, people still talk about that as one of the great matches. How does that stick in your mind in terms of your career?

MARAT SAFIN: Well, just it was one of the greatest matches I ever played in my life probably. It's just for the fact that to play against Federer, against Roger, because he's the kind of player for my tennis, he's not really comfortable. He is not really comfortable tennis game for me.
I always struggled to play against him because he just doesn't give me any rhythm. He knows what to do in exact moment of the match. He knows what I'm going to do.
For me, to win that match in a semifinal was a huge thing. I never played any better. I wasn't any luckier in any other moments in the tennis court, so I could say that I was lucky; I played great tennis. He missed couple of shots that could change the match. He was very close to win it. He had a match point.

Q. You embraced Roger at the end. Was that partly because of what's happened at the tournament, or because you knew you were saying good‑bye as well?

MARAT SAFIN: Well, it's just we know each other for how many years? Since '94. We didn't play in the juniors, but we saw each other. We had some great matches. I was close a couple times. We grew up together. He started a little bit later than me.
I respect him as a tennis player, as a person. He's just very close ‑‑ let's put it this way: Very close colleague of mine.

Q. You also say he's the best you ever faced?

MARAT SAFIN: Probably, yeah. He's the most complete tennis player in the history of tennis, that's for sure. With all due respects to Agassi and Sampras and the rest of the gang.
But I never felt so uncomfortable against any of the players before.

Q. What would it take to change your mind about walking away from tennis?

MARAT SAFIN: Nothing. I've been already too many years. I want to change and do something else. I'm ready for that. It's been a nice trip. It's enough.

Q. Do you know what that something else is?

MARAT SAFIN: Yeah, but I'll keep it to myself for the moment. I would love to do that. I'm ready.

Sounds pretty content; and so should tennis lovers be as well. It was a nice trip he gave us.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Unpopular Oscars

The nominations for the 2008 Oscars were announced this morning, and regarding the nominations for Best Picture, the odds will be pretty short that you have not seen more than one of the five nominated films.

In fact the five films nominated are together the least popular group of nominations for 23 years.

A funny thing has happened to the Oscars in the last few years. Since the massive success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, the Oscars have gone decidedly indie. Since The Return of the King year, the cumulative US Box Office for each group of five films nominated for Best Picture has never been over $300 million. This is historically rather bizarre. The last time this had occurred before 2004 was way back in 1996 when The English Patient won, but Jerry Maguire was the biggest box office performer of the five nominated films.

In 2005, with the decidedly non-blockbuster group of Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck, and Capote, the cumulative Box Office of the Best Picture nominees was a mere $186.3 million.

This year's five films: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Frost/Nixon, have thus far only earned $186.7 million, but given movie ticket prices in the USA have increased around 12% since 2005, the Box Office of this year's five is worse than the 2005 group. Not only that, this year is the first time since at least 1982 that two of the films nominated for Best Picture (The Reader and Frost/Nixon) have earned less than $10m.

Here's the list of the cumulative box office earnings of the five Best Picture nominated films at the time of nomination from 2008 to 1986 with the highest grossing nominated film and its box office in brackets - and the eventual winner listed after (all data from the great Box Office Mojo website):

2008 - $186.7m, (Benjamin Button, $104.4). Winner??
2007 - $216.7m, (Juno, $87m). No Country for Old Men
2006 - $243.6m, (The Departed, $121.8m). The Departed
2005 - $186.3m, (Crash, $53.4m), Crash
2004 - $205.2m, (Ray, $73m). Million Dollar Baby
2003 - $637.9m, (The Return of the King, $338.3m). The Return of the King
2002 - $486.7m, (The Two Towers, $321.1m). Chicago
2001 - $484.3m, (The Fellowship of the Ring, $271.7m). A Beautiful Mind
2000 - $471.3m, (Gladiator, $186.6m). Gladiator
1999 - $521.0m, (The Sixth Sense,$278.4m). American Beauty
1998 - $301.9m, (Saving Private Ryan, $194.9m). Shakespeare in Love
1997 - $578.8m, (Titanic, $338.7m). Titanic
1996 - $209.9m, (Jerry Maguire, $121.5m). The English Patient
1995 - $332.6m, (Apollo 13, $172.1m). Braveheart
1994 - $468.3m, (Forrest Gump, $172.1m). Forrest Gump
1993 - $260.8m, (The Fugitive, $179.4m). Schindler's List
1992 - $252.3m, (A Few Good Men, $120.1m). Unforgiven
1991 - $393.7m, (Silence of the Lambs, $130.7m). Silence of the Lambs
1990 - $458.2m, (Ghost, $213.6m). Dances with Wolves
1989 - $188.5m, (Dead Poets Society, $95.9m). Driving Miss Daisy
1988 - $188.5m, (Rain Man, $96.9m). Rain Man
1987 - $221.5m, (Fatal Attraction, $142.3m). The Last Emperor
1986 - $119.4m, (Platoon, $39.3m). Platoon

The list shows a few things. Firstly, on the surface it seems that being the biggest box office performer is not a big advantage - after all only 9 times in the 22 years from 1986 to 2007 does the biggest box office performer win. But given that accounts for 41% of the time - more than double the expected amount given the one in five chance of the each nominee winning.

The other aspect (not shown admittedly) is that in each year, there is rarely more than one big box office nominee. In the 23 years, in only 6 years were there 2 films with a box office of over $100m, and never were there three such films.

So while it may seem that the last five years have seen a drop off in the general popularity of the Best Picture nominees, what is more the case is that the last five years have seen a lack of one big film that bumps up the cumulative box office. In 2002, for example, The Two Towers was obviously a huge film, but the other nominated films, Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Pianist and The Hours, were essentially dead at the box office - Chicago only picked up after the nomination - it made 40% of its money in the USA after getting put up for Best Picture.

So what is missing of the last few years is Hollywood rewarding itself by picking one film that demonstrates what Hollywood does well - think Jerry Maguire, Apollo 13, A Few Good Men, The Fugitive.

Perhaps the problem is that Hollywood doesn't do the big drama but audience friendly that well anymore. Why bother trying A Few Good Men, when you might end up with Lions For Lambs (US Box Office - $5m), and when you can put out another comic book adaptation with little risk. The Fantastic Four will never be recalled fondly by any critic, but it made $330m worldwide. So why wouldn't Hollywood crank out more of those rather than say a serious historical drama about an unsuccessful space mission - especially when Tom Hanks is no longer the box office draw he once was.

Basically unless it's got Will Smith in it, you're no going to see it

Here's the Top 10 Box Office from last year in the USA:
1 The Dark Knight $531,037,655
2 Iron Man $318,412,101
3 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull $317,101,119
4 Hancock $227,946,274
5 WALL-E $223,808,164
6 Kung Fu Panda $215,434,591
7 Twilight $184,871,145
8 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa $178,314,231
9 Quantum of Solace $168,054,668
10 Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! $154,529,439

Compare it to ten years earlier - 1998:

1 Saving Private Ryan $216,540,909
2 Armageddon $201,578,182
3 There's Something About Mary $176,484,651
4 A Bug's Life $162,798,565
5 The Waterboy $161,491,646
6 Doctor Dolittle $144,156,605
7 Rush Hour $141,186,864
8 Deep Impact $140,464,664
9 Godzilla $136,314,294
10 Patch Adams $135,026,902

A big change - in 2008, 4 animated films; 1 in 1998. In 2008, 2 based on comic books, plus Indy and Hancock which were comic book types; in 1998 none, though Godzilla is sort of. In 2008 no dramas; in 1998, three.

Ok back another 5 years to 1993:

1 Jurassic Park $357,067,947
2 Mrs. Doubtfire $219,195,243
3 The Fugitive $183,875,760
4 The Firm $158,348,367
5 Sleepless in Seattle $126,680,884
6 Indecent Proposal $106,614,059
7 In the Line of Fire $102,314,823
8 The Pelican Brief $100,768,056
9 Schindler's List $96,065,768
10 Cliffhanger $84,049,211

It's a different world. No animated films. No comic book films. Six of the films could be classed as dramas - The Fugitive and In the Line a Fire are more drama than action and the two comedies, Mrs Doubtfire and Sleepless in Seattle are much more dramatic than comedies done today. Mrs Doubtfire has morphed into Big Mommas House 2. And the last time a romcom made the top ten box office list was 2005 with Wedding Crashers (last year Sex and the City came 11th).

The other big difference is the action films - Cliffhanger and even Jurassic Park, while stretching credibility, don't give the heroes super powers. They generally are bound by reality and gravity. In the last Indy film, Harrison Ford was as impervious to injury as any of the characters in the X-Men films - heck he survived an atomic bomb!

But it's hard to be too critical of Hollywood films - or of the choice for Best Picture. After all, this whole argument could have been rendered moot if the Academy had nominated the one comic book adaptation that actually deserves critical acclaim - The Dark Knight. Similarly, Wall-E has made numerous critics top 10 lists.

Had either of those films been nominated this year would have looked like a return to the days of Hollywood loving itself, instead of honouring small 'outsider' type films.

None of this has anything to do with quality per se. But it does mean that once again this year the Academy Awards will rate poorly. Who wants to stay up watching to see if one film you have never seen will beat four other films you have never seen?

The old person in me wishes for a return to Hollywood making good popular dramas, good 'real' action films, and for the best of those to be nominated for Best Picture. But the realist in me knows those days are gone (at least for a while), and thus given action now means comic book action, then let's find the best, and give that a go. And let's admit we're in a golden age of animated films and give them a go at the big prize.

The members of the Academy should realise that the awards only matter so long as people care about who wins them. The AFI Awards in Australia get little attention because hardly anyone has seen the films that are nominated. Now that might be because there aren't any films worth seeing that are also worth nominating, but the AFI effect could happen to the Oscars, even though the reasons may be different.

The films nominated for Best Picture no doubt are good. But so what? They're not Hollywood, and they're not being seen, so the net effect is less people caring about the Oscars - which means the nominations and wins will eventually mean less in box office boosts.

If Hollywood isn't making the types of films that in the past were box office successes and were worthy of nominating, then perhaps it's time those in Hollywood realised this and either made them again, or started looking at what is popular now and realising that perhaps it's time to acknowledge the Oscar worthiness.

You can't tell me taking out any two of the nominated five and replacing them with The Dark Knight and Wall-E, wouldn't pique your interest more, and have you thinking about actually staying up and watching to see who will win.

***
UPDATE: Last night I realised that I had forgotten to take inflation into account for the 1986 figures. Ticket prices have increased around 94% since 1986, meaning the 1986 nominated films' total of $119.4m would be about $231.7m today.

Thus this years' five nominated films are actually the worst performing lot of potential Best Pictures since... well since ever. Even the lowly total of 1984's lot of nominees (Amadeus, The Killing Fields, Places in the Heart, A Passage to India, and A Soldier's Story), of $103.5m would equate to around $221.8m in today's money.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So long and thanks for the memories

It's only a few hours before George W Bush will be nought but a painful memory. Dave Letterman has marked the end of the Bush presedency with a recap of his "great speeches".

So just watch and enjoy, and know that once Obama takes office, such easy laughs will be no more:



In years to come the young will ask, so seriously, who was President from 2000 to 2008?

For the record, my favourite Bushism is:
"And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it." --George W. Bush, interview on National Public Radio, Jan. 29, 2007

oh wait no this one:
"You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror." --George W. Bush, interview with CBS News' Katie Couric, Sept. 6, 2006

ok, maybe this one:
"It's in our country's interests to find those who would do harm to us and get them out of harm's way." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005

perhaps this:
"This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table." --George W. Bush, Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 22, 2005

no, I'll leave him with this one:
"But all in all, it's been a fabulous year for Laura and me." -George W. Bush, summing up his first year in office, Washington, D.C., Dec. 20, 2001

Newspoll: ALP 54-LNP 46

You have to feel for journalists sometimes. Their job is to tells the news but also to sell newspapers, or in the case online papers, to get a high hit count.

So when you get a Newspoll that once again has the ALP in front, once again has the ALP with a bigger lead then they had at the Nov 2007 election, and once again has Kevin Rudd as the most favoured PM by a massive margin, what are you to do?

Well if you're Samantha Maiden you come up with the following:

Coalition reels in Labor lead as Kevin Rudd takes break

THE Coalition has capitalised on Kevin Rudd's absence over the summer break, slashing Labor's commanding 18-point lead on a two-party-preferred basis to just eight points.

Twenty-four hours after returning to work from his three-week holiday, the Prime Minister's first Newspoll for the year shows satisfaction among voters with the way he is doing his job has dropped by seven points to 63per cent.

One in four voters are now dissatisfied with how Mr Rudd is doing his job, although unhappiness with Malcolm Turnbull, who has also been on holiday over the summer, remains higher, with 31per cent dissatisfied with the Opposition Leader's performance, according to Newspoll.

So to recap, the Coalition capitalised on Rudd taking a holiday by doing nothing, and this reaped huge benefits - Kevin Rudd now leads Turnbull as preferred PM 60-22; and the percentage of voters satisfied with Turnbull's performance went from 47% to 45%.

Not exactly the type of numbers that will have the ALP quaking in their boots.

But ok the two party preferred number is better. Yep a real eye opener that one - a 10 point narrowing! Except of course the ALP was always going to drop from having 59% support - hell even I called that one "idiotic".

Here's the last seven Newspoll results for the ALP:
55, 55, 54, 55, 55, 59, 54.
Take away the dopey 59%, and basically it's no change. But Samantha Maiden won't let that get in the way:

This is his [Turnbull's] strongest result since late November, and will boost confidence in the Coalition ranks after rumblings late last year over perceptions that Mr Turnbull's leadership style was sometimes autocratic.

So the Coalition will be rejoicing that they are now in a worse position than they were at the last election. They will be ecstatic that Turnbull's preferred PM rating is at historic lows, and their confidence will be boosted because Rudd's satisfaction rating is no longer at a record high; merely at a level better than any PM except those called Kevin Rudd.

If this is good, gee I hate for a bad result.

But let's be honest; it's an nothing poll. Neither Rudd nor Turnbull have done anything since mid-December. In fact were I cynical (moi?), I would suggest that this result means people like Turnbull when he goes on holiday, and they don't like it when Rudd is not at work.

And so now with the silly season over, both sides will prepare for the year's battle. Turnbull will no doubt keep saying the Government should cut taxes, stimulate the economy and also keep the budget in surplus (or if he wanted to be more sensible he could suggest Rudd go swimming without getting wet).

Rudd on the other hand will try to appear as though he can do anything to stop the impact of the rest of the world going down the toilet from hitting Australia. And failing that (which he probably will) he will try to persuade the voters that it was all the fault of the rest of the world going down the toilet.

Will they believe him? Probably. The key point though, will be whether they continue to believe he can do the job better than Turnbull.

Politics is a game of tennis, you only need to beat your opponent, and at the moment Rudd is up 2 sets to love.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

One Day is too long

Yesterday at the MCG, Australia and South Africa played a great One Day cricket match.

It was everything the game should be - good batting, bowling and fielding (with some bad examples of each thrown in). The match ebbed and flowed, and in the end South Africa won with 3 balls to spare.

And bugger all were there to watch it.

Only 39,371 people turned up to watch. By contrast, last week 62,148 people went along to watch the same two sides play a meaningless Twenty 20 game. To give the poor attendance further context, the attendance figures for the first three days of the Boxing Day Test Match at the same ground were 63,263, 42,814 and 42,079.

Now all of these figures have nothing to do with the standard of play. They have nothing to do with the players' feelings. They have nothing to do with what was on the line. The Twenty 20 game was (as is often the case) one-sided and the result was decided long before the last South African batsman was out.

But the people don't care. They like the Twenty 20 version of the game.

The players obviously care more about the one day game than the Twenty20 version - and I know this is true because last night as Nathan Bracken bowled his final over the commentators were unable to talk to him on his radio microphone. In the Twenty20 match, he was telling them what type of delivery he was going to bowl as he ran in to do so.

But so what? People like the Twenty20 version of the game.

William Goldman when writing about the success of Titanic versus the lack of success of The Postman rather pithily said that Titanic was a success because people wanted to see it; they didn't want to see The Postman. What he meant of course is that both were well made films, done by professionals with equal amounts of good and bad acting, editing, cinematography etc.

So too with cricket. Both Twenty20 and One Day cricket have good and bad batting, bowling and fielding, and also as many close matches as the other (I suspect). But people like the Twenty20 version.

The reason is obvious - the time. Watching a whole one day game is a big effort - it's 100 overs (which is 10 more overs than you get to watch in a standard day of test cricket) - whereas the Twenty20 version is done and dusted in just over 3 hours.

The great things about footy (either AFL, Rugby, Soccer, NRL) is that it's done in a short time. You can do things in the morning, go watch the game in the afternoon, and still be able to do something that evening. Or conversely if it is a night game, you know you have the whole day before the match starts.

Test and One Day cricket on the other hand wipes out the whole day - even the day-night games. It's a big ask, and one that the public seem less likely to bother accepting - especially when everyone knows that no one really cares who wins, except when it comes to the World Cup.

One Day cricket came about to spice up the game and make it palatable to fans who found test cricket too boring. They did it by shortening the game from 5 days to 1 day. All Twenty20 has done is continued the process 100 overs to 40, or 8 hours to 3 hours.

And as much as I find the game pointless, I have to admit that when I went along to watch South Australia play a couple Twenty20 games in Adelaide this month, I thought they were a good night's entertainment. The games mattered - unlike the international version, the teams seem to actually care about losing - and the game was short enough that my 5 year old daughter was able to come along and not be bored, and in fact wants to go again.

The crucial aspect for the game is of course the Indian money for IPL. When a guy who can't get a game for his state Sheffield Shield team is able to earn a good living by getting drafted by an IPL team, you know the die is cast.

Look for more and more players to be professional Twenty20 players - I believe the real beneficiaries of this will be West Indian players, who in their teens will see that money can be made playing cricket rather than having to switch to playing basketball or baseball - and look also for the first players to retire from test cricket but keep playing Twenty20 much like soccer players now do. Indeed Matthew Hayden will be making a nice little earner for himself in India this year along with other 'retired' players like Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and Adam Gilchrist.

But they retired after long careers playing test cricket. I expect future players to forgo the bother of trying to get into a test team - especially if you can earn half a million playing in India. And why should we expect any different? Just look at the players who gave up playing the Grand Slam tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s so they could play professional tennis.

Sportsmen follow the money just like everyone else does. Would you stay teaching at a nice staid old private school if a new school down the road offered you twice the salary to work there? Would you care that the school doesn't have an "old school tie" and great alumni?

I doubt it. And were I a 14 year old cricket player, I would be thinking about how much I could earn in India (Test cricket would be great, but if I can't do that then...). And so I would work on being able to hit balls for six, learning how to manufacture runs with unorthodox shots. Building a solid back defence? Learning how to leave balls? Bugger that, grandpa. 40 runs off 20 balls is better than 50 runs off 100. Especially if the first will allow me to retire at 35, and the second might find me playing district cricket and maybe one or two shield games.

So what to do?

I'll come back to that another day, but Rule Number 1 for Cricket Australia is to make the players and Channel 9 treat Twenty 20 like a sport where the result matters. Exhibition games are just fads that lose the public's interest - so they need to ditch the players wearing microphones; it just screams "I don't give a stuff".

And if Cricket Australia wants the international games to be exhibitions then that is all well and good, but then they need to treat the domestic version more seriously - go the IPL route, or at least have all test players available to play.

Twenty20 can either be a version of cricket that prospers, or a fad that ultimately dies out, having also killed off the one day game as well.

At the moment Cricket Australia are treating it like a fad.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Dal Stivens, The Batting Wizard from the City

Late last year when the Victor Trumper Stand at the SCG was officially opened I went searching on the web for a copy of a short story my father (who was a primary school teacher) had read to me in Year 6. It was by Dal Stivens called "The Batting Wizard from the City". It's a lovely yarn set in the early 1900s somewhere out in the country and concerns a local cricket team that is a man short for a match that sees them going up against the feared "Demon" fast bowler. A young bloke from the city volunteers his services.

I couldn't find the story anywhere - in fact I struggled to find much at all about Dal Stivens - who won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for his novel A Horse of Air (actually its a sad indictment of Australian literature that I didn't even realise he had won the award - we really don't give our local authors any credit).

When I was back home over Christmas my Dad found a copy of the story in a long out of print collection of short stories edited by Colin Thiele. The title of the collection is Favourite Australian Stories, published by Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1963. The copy I scanned this story from was actually my Mum's school book - from the inside cover it seems she used the book for "English 2D".

And so while no doubt copyright is being trampled on, below is the full story. It reminds me in someways of a prose version of the classic baseball poem "Casey at the bat". It has that same wonderful evocation of the period - in this case, the golden age of cricket. A time when there was one batsmen who rose above all others in both ability and style - Victor Trumper.

Dal Stivens
THE BATTING WIZARD FROM THE CITY

We were sitting round glumly with our faces so long that our chins were resting on our navels, when a likely-looking young man came up and said a little hesitantly to the skipper:

"They tell me you are a man short for the match?"

The skipper didn't answer immediately. He was looking at the ground and digging a hole in the dust with the toe of his boot.

"I hear you are a man short?" the willowy young man asked again.

The skipper made his hole a little deeper before looking up to say: "No one is fooling you, brother."

The skipper looked down again at his boots and went on making the hole deeper.

"I'll play if you wish," said the willowy young man.

"Can you you bat?" said the skipper, not looking up. He had dug a big hole now and seemed very interested in it.

"A little," said the young fellow.

"Can you bowl?" The skipper was smoothing out the sides the hole.

"Not much," said the young chap. "

"Field?"

"A little," said the young bloke.

"A little is not very much," said the skipper. "Bat a little is not very much when the Demon is bowling."

When he said that name the players all went pale and the skipper's dog ran away and crawled under the tankstand. Even the skipper's tan went an over-milked coffee colour.

"Are you married?" asked the skipper of the young bloke.

"No," said the young cove.

"Have you got a mother somewhere tucked away?"

"No," said the young fellow.

"All right, I'll take you, but don't say I didn't warn you about the Demon".

As soon as the skipper uttered that word the players even a shade paler and the dog set up a howl.

"Don't use that name again," Stonewall implored the skipper. Stonewall was one of our openers.

"Who is this - this Demon?" asked the willowy young man. "Is he fast?"

The skipper's hole was nearly a foot deep and perfectly symmetrical. At the young man's words his foot gave a convulsive stammer and half of the side caved in,

"Fast?" asked the skipper. "Is he fast?" he asked, turning to his team, By way of reply they all groaned. "Have you ever seen the Melbourne Express?"

"Yes," said the young cove.

"Well, you ain't seen the Demon," said the skipper. "Have you ever seen one of them aeroplanes with its engines splitting your eardrums?"

"Yes," said the young fellow.

"Well, you ain't seen the Demon," said the skipper. "Have you ever seen a bullet?"

"No, I can't say that I have," said the young codger.

"If you ever have you've seen the Demon," said the skipper. "If you take a cricket ball, soak it in kerosene, set it alight, and fire it from a cannon you'll get some idea of the Demon's speed. The last time we played him his first ball went through my beard and set it afire, I had to hot-foot it to the creek over there and dive in, I tell you the Demon -"

"You may think we exaggerate," said Stonewall, putting in his oar, "but when he bowls there's a smell of burnt leather in the air. See that -"

And Stonewall shoved out his right hand and waved three twisted fingers under the young bloke's nose, "The Demon did that,"

"And bowling half pace, too," said the skipper.

The young bloke listened to all this without showing any concern, though you might have expected to see him go a bit pale.

"I'll play," he said. "I suppose you can always duck out of the way."

"If you do any ducking you want to do it out towards point," said the skipper. "The last time I ducked I bowled the umpire over."

We got the young bloke a pair of sandshoes and he put them on. They were two sizes too big but that didn't seem to matter much.

The skippers tossed and ours lost. You could see our blokes' colour come back like a fast sunset when the other mob decided to bat.

"Where d you like fielding?" the skipper asked the young bloke.

"Drive and in the gully," he said.

We knew then he came from the city.

"Gully, eh?" said the skipper. "Well, just as you like, but you'll have to fox in the creek. The bank is the boundary. And there are blackberries."

The young bloke just nodded. The skipper led us out and the match started. About the fifth ball the batsman cracked it down the gully. The ball went swinging out in a great red curve, heading straight for the creek like a married man for his home after the last beer. But the young bloke came racing from yards away in an attempt to cut it off. He was going like a Stawell Gift finalist, but it looked no go. Then somehow he swooped on the ball like an eaglehawk after a lamb, gathered it up and without checking his run, sped it back to the wicket-keeper,

"I never saw better on the Sydney Cricket Ground," said Stonewall.

The skipper grunted. "He may be able to field, but can he bat?" he asked, "I've seen blokes who can field like they had a butterfly net, but I've never seen one that could bat. Not when the Demon bowls, anyway."

"I've asked you before not to use that name," said Stonewall. "It unnerves me."

"We talk to much," said the skipper. "We haven't got them out yet."

We got stuck into it then, though every wicket brought the Demon nearer. We hurled them down and we tossed them up. We got them past and we got them belted. We bent at the knees and we leaped in the air. We ran like hares and we crept like foxes. We chased them, we cut then off, we fumbled, we held. We bowled, we toiled, we boiled; we went cold and we went hot. And we got them out.

"Two hundred and twenty-five is fair enough. They got three hundred and two last time," Snowy, our best all-rounder, said to the skipper as he went off the field. "They might have got it today but for the new cove bringing off those two catches. I don't know how he got there."

"Catching two of them out doesn't get rid of the Demon," said the skipper. "Two hundred and twenty-five or twentyfive - it's all one when the Demon's in form."

When the skipper said that name the players went pale once more and the skipper's dog tucked his tail so far between his legs that its tip tickled his nose.

Stonewall and the skipper started putting on their pads as soon as they got off the field.

"Do you think they'll call me a cissy if I put on two pads?" Stonewall asked the skipper then.

"They'll call you something else - afterwards - if you don't," said the skipper.

The other mob were ready before you could say Jack Robinson. They went out on the field as full of spirits as a horse in a paddock of high oats. They started throwing the ball to each other, but the Demon clouted on it and set off at a fast lope for the wicket. Long before the others had got there he was measuring off his run of fifty yards and polishing the ball on his shirt and scowling and frowning.

The Demon was six feet two tall, his biceps were big as a sprinter's thighs and the muscles on his forearms as thick as axe-handles.

The skipper and Stonewall took so long walking out to the wicket that one of the other mob asked, "Is this a funeral?"

The Demon gave a nasty sort of laugh then.

The Demon could barely wait for the field to get set and twice he started his run, breathing in great snorts through his nose, and twice his skipper had to stop him. At last the field was set, Stonewall took block, and the Demon hurled himself forward. His mighty thighs lifted like the pistons on the Melbourne Express, his boots hammered the ground like a mob of wild horses, angry blasts of air whistled through his nostrils. At the crease he leaped high in the air, came down with a great thump and whirled his arm over. The ball left his hand like a red streak. The consensus of opinion afterwards was that it was on the off, but no one really saw it until it sped over the boundary, went through the blackberries with a crash, scaring out six rabbits and a black snake, and ended up in the middle of the creek.

The Demon trotted back the fifty yards for his next run up. He thudded on the crease, a cloud of dust sprang up, and the ball was nearly as fast as light. In almost the same split fraction of time it was past Stonewall's petrified bat and sweeping the middle stump out to the long stop.

The Demon's third ball was to Snowy, and it beat everybody and everything to finish in the creek.

The Demon's fourth ball hissed after it left his hand and split the off stump as though it had been clouted with a chopper.

At the end of the Demon's first over he had five wickets and our score was twelve - all byes. The five batsmen left were padded up and looking as happy as a line-up in a dentist's surgery, all except the young cove; but he was a stranger from the city.

Our blokes picked up ten runs from the other opening bowler, who was no Demon, and then the skipper faced the Demon again. His first ball was a red sputtering smear somewhere on the leg. The skipper's bat got in its flight somehow and it flew out to fine leg for four. The Demon flung the second short. It sailed high in the air and our blokes ran one while the wicket-keeper waited for it come down.

The Demon's next was like a streak of red lightning and the bloke's middle peg went flying out to the long stop, who caught it.

The willowy young bloke came in then.

"Middle and leg, please," he says to the umpire. "Middle and what?" says the umpire.

"Middle and leg, please."

"Never heard of it," says the umpire. "You can have middle or you can have leg. Which is it going to be?"

"Leg'll do," says the young cove, polite as you like.

The first ball to the young chap is a beauty, on the leg stump I'd say. The young bloke nonchalantly swings his bat across its flight and the next thing you know the ball has gone for four.

"Play a straight bat at those or you'll get out!" yelled the skipper at the young fellow.

"Sorry, but I always play them that way," says the young man, very polite.

"Always play them that way!" the skipper snarls. "Who the hell do you think you are? - Trumper?"

The next ball is short and flashes at the young fellow's head. .

"Duck!" yells the skipper.

Somehow the young bloke's bat is up there and the ball is flying to the fine-leg boundary.

"Sorry!" the young bloke says very politely to the skipper. "I forgot."

"You duck next time," says the skipper. "If you don't, you'll have half a ton of flowers on your chest." The next ball is dead on the wicket. The young bloke goes back and plays it defensively with an impeccable straight bat.

"That's the idea!" says the skipper.

The seventh ball is straight, perhaps a bit overpitched. The young bloke sweeps forward and the ball sizzles back like a bullet towards the Demon. The Demon yelps with fear, springs up in the air as if he was clutching at a gumtree limb that wasn't there, to let the ball pass underneath.

"Careful!" yells the skipper to the young cove. "You'll get out! Play him carefully."

"Sorry!" says the young bloke. "I forgot."

The Demon is madder than a bull with a bee-sting on his muzzle now. He snorts, he slathers, he scowls, he mutters. He digs holes now as he runs up. His arms swing over like the blades of a reaper and binder .

He leaps nearly six feet in the air and the ball sizzles towards the young bloke's head.

"Duck!" yells the skipper.

Don't ask me how it happens but the young bloke's bat is there and the ball streaks out past square leg for four.

"Didn't I tell you to duck?" yells the skipper.

"I'm sorry but I didn't have time," says the young bloke. "It was on me before I could do as you said."

The next over of the Demon's somehow finds the young bloke taking the strike, and again the skipper tells him what to do and when to duck, and again the willowy young bloke does it different and then apologizes to the skipper, and all the while the runs mount up and up. The young bloke hits six fours and two sixers off the Demon in the over, and the Demon and the rest of us can hardly believe our eyes. At the end of the over the Demon is frothing at the mouth, the skipper has decided to let the young bloke bat in his own way, and the rest of us are waking up to what we are seeing.

In the next over the willowy young man does everything to the Demon except hit him over the head with the bat. He jumps yards down the wicket and smashes the ball back past the Demon or belts it high over the boundary. He goes back on his stumps and hooks the ball off his eyebrows to the leg boundary. He does late cuts and he does pulls and he does glances. And the Demon, he bellows, he runs harder, he jumps higher at the crease, he swings his arm over faster. He boils in the sun, he sweats in bucketfuls, he gets glassy-eyed and he sways on his feet.

And the young bloke goes on. He drives, he cuts, he glances, he pulls, he hooks. It's a four off almost every ball and a sixer off every third.

In no time he has a hundred and then one hundred and fifty. The skipper, too, has got back his ruddy brown and he, too, belts the Demon a little. And both of them slather the other bowlers.

Before long we have passed the other mob and we know we have seen a wizard batsman. When he hits a lolly and gets out we cheer him madly. It is only later that we realize we don't know his name.

"What's your name?" the skipper asks. "You've got a future if you get some good coaching and learn not to hit across good-length balls on the leg stump."

"Smith's my name," says the young bloke.

"Mr Smith," says the skipper, "you've got a future. If you like I'll write to a bloke I know in Sydney - he's a secretary at one of the grade clubs. He might be able to give you a trial. You might have to start in the thirds, but we all have to start at the bottom."

"Much obliged to you," says the young fellow, very politely. "It's very kind of you, I do say."

"Mr Smith," says Stonewall. "I never saw anyone - not even on the Sydney Cricket Ground - play some shots better than you did today. I mean that. They were nearly in Trumper's class."

You could see the willowy young cove was embarrassed by Stonewall's talk because he kept looking down at the ground. But the funny thing was the queer sort of laugh he gave when the skipper snapped.

"Don't talk nonsense, Stonewall! No one's nearly in Trumper's class."

We wanted the young bloke to play again with us next week, but he said he had to go back to the city. We bought him a few rounds of drinks later at the pub, and some time during the evening he disappeared and we never saw him again.
***

The best true story I've ever read about Trumper is by Australian spinner Arthur Mailer about the day he first bowled to Trumper in Grade cricket. It's called "The Boy who killed the Dove", and is well worth a read.