The show within a show

In a week of TV viewing, we’re presented with everything from vampire slaying to backyard makeovers; everything that is except watching TV itself. Outside of Gogglebox, that’s an activity largely restricted to cartoon shows.

In the animated world, “the show within the show” reflects the way audiences engage with the media while satirising it for laughs.

On 70s program Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the superhero show The Brown Hornet was used to distil the moral message of each episode into easily digestible nuggets for both the kids on the show (Fat Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth et al) and the viewing audience.

But writers of contemporary programs know their audiences are too savvy and cynical to buy into such warm and fuzzy messages.

Their characters are more likely to watch programs that reflect the kind of society television has forged and manipulated.

South Parks’s talk show Jesus and Pals, for instance, is forced at one stage to compete in a ratings war with wildlife program Huntin’and Killin’. When Jesus’s message looks threatened by Huntin’ and Killin’s growing popularity, His show fights back with a trashy, Jerry Springer-style makeover, complete with an all-in-brawl that ends when Jesus calls for everyone to shut the f… up.

The show that does the best job of featuring television as a powerful force in the lives of its characters is The Simpsons.

Indeed, watching TV is a defining activity for Bart, Lisa, Marge and, especially, Homer.

In the opening sequence, the family races home from various activities to spend quality time in front of the box. It sets the tone for what is to come.

Now the longest-running American sitcom, The Simpsons is frequently scathing about its own medium, often depicting television as a negative influence, or simply a waste of time.

In one episode, Marge, the moral centre of the family, campaigns to water down the extreme violence of The Itchy and Scratchy Show (the bellicose cat and mouse duo who appear on Krusty the Clown’s program – which makes it a show within a show within a show).

When Marge succeeds, the children of Springfield, now freed from their TV trammels, actually leave their lounge rooms to go outside and play.

TV in the world of The Simpsons is a strictly lowbrow affair. In one episode we see bartender Moe competing on a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-like quiz show called Me Wantee!, where literal wheelbarrows full of cash are up for grabs.

The local reality TV show, Bad Cops, highlights the incompetence of Springfield’s finest.

“Subject is hatless, I repeat, hatless,” advises Police Chief Wiggum in an APB as an offender speeds away.

In sending up their characters, the writers of The Simpsons also send up their audience.

In one episode, Homer is given 24 hours to live after swallowing a piece of poisonous Japanese fish. He decides to pack as much life as possible into what he thinks is his last day alive.

Later given a reprieve, he vows never to waste another moment. Yet in the final image, there he is, lounging in an armchair, munching a packet of pork rinds as he stares, fascinated, at his flickering TV. Just like us.


This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Good Weekend. I wrote it with input from Derek Agnew.





Justified left


Don’t you think it’s time some order was restored to our footpaths?

“Golf,” renowned perambulator Mark Twain once remarked, “is a good walk spoiled.”

Twain’s disdain was focused on the game of birdies, albatrosses and bogeys. It’s fair to say the pastime did not rate highly in his regard.

Were Samuel Clemens alive today, however, I feel confident it’s not golf he’d be railing against for the disruption of his jaunts, ambles and constitutionals.

Rather, the monographer would doubtless be aghast at the frank paucity of manners and consideration displayed on our city footpaths.

A lunchtime stretch of the legs has become an obstacle-course negotiation.

Admittedly, I work in one of the city’s busiest and less salubrious locales, and in recent times foot traffic has increased considerably.

Indeed, it’s a jungle out there, full of pitfalls and minor predators.

Generally, if I can, I try to stick to the left, using our helpful road rules as a rough guide.

But I’ve discovered to my chagrin and consternation that often times I am not in the majority with this way of thinking.

One of the most common offences is committed by young students, strolling at an ever-so-leisurely pace, four or five abreast. They’re not going anywhere quickly, and neither are you. Time’s winged chariot is racing near, children. Tarry not.

Packs of young male office workers get my goat. In their too-tight suits, they strut, slink, or hurtle along in a contest to see either who can hold up the most pedestrians, or knock them out of the way, depending on the day.

Tourists choosing the most opportune time and place – here, in the middle of the footpath will do – to consult maps; pettifoggers dragging along steamer trunks full of homework; thousand-yard starers; high-heel totterers; distracted shufflers; general lollygaggers; graffiti-photographing Instagrammers; nicotine-addicted office rubes smoking in large groups;  and insistent right-side adherents. Collectively they are the scourge of our footpaths.

In a recent trip to Sydney I noticed the train stations have signs advising folks to stick to the left on stairs and ramps.

That’s a great start, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Let’s place those signs all over the city, and enforce guidelines around proper prescribed pavement practice (the Four Ps).

And I propose a citizens’ action group to enforce the codes of behaviour: the Walking with Purpose Collective will issue infraction notices, generally acting as stewards of sensible ambulatory behaviour.

It’s time, as Mr Twain would inarguably agree, to take a stand. To walk the walk.

The 10 essential assassin movies

The American blog“Killing’s a helluva thing,” says the eponymous character (Clint Eastwood) in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “You take away everything a man has, and everything he’s gonna have.”

As they are depicted in movies, professional killers – hitmen, mechanics, assets, cleaners; there are many names – can roughly be divided into two types.

There are those who revel in their lethal skills and the bounty it can yield – think Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, who sadistically asks his victims to flip a coin to determine their fate.

And then there are those who are greatly perturbed by the terrible impact of their deadly adroitness.

Jack (George Clooney) in The American is haunted by the innocent lives he’s taken, and a sense that his own days are surely numbered.

Although they usually work alone (accommodating others can have serious consequences for career and well-being), a common trope of the assassin genre is the notion of the guild – that, like printers or jewellers, cold-blooded killers belong to union-like collectives that boast rich histories, mores, and even apprenticeship systems.

Indeed, Assassins Creed and Ninja Assassin both suggest killers have been trained and mentored in hitman schools for centuries.1

Yet the apotheosis of this idea must be John Wick, in which assassins observe a clearly defined set of rules and even have their own currency, which is good for everything from after-deed clean-ups (aka “dinner reservations”), to chi chi hotel accommodation, and (of course) weaponry.

Though the weapon of choice for any pro killer worth his or her salt is a firearm – a rifle for long-distance targets, a pistol for closer work – the mark of a top-drawer assassin is the ability to improvise, to turn anything – a rolled-up magazine, a car door, a piece of luggage, an electrical cord, a curtain rope, even a pen or pencil – into an implement of lethal force and ultimate consequences.


John Wick
Little did we know that existing alongside our own quotidian world there is another milieu: that of the hired heavy hand, of whom there are legions from which to choose. Yet the crème de la crème is John Wick, a man, we are told, of singular focus, commitment and sheer will. A man who has mastered the tricky art of gun fu, who leaves his marks behind in piles, and whose grief for his recently deceased wife is matched only by his anger at the loss of his car (a ‘69 Mustang, sweet rides being another hitman movie calling card) and dog. Here is the assassin film recalibrated.

The Bourne Identity
Most decent films in this genre portray private contractors at work, exhibiting their elite particular set of skills for a specific price. In this film, we see the government version, in this case physically and cognitively enhanced, and boasting advanced linguistic, tactical, fighting and survival skills. A mystery even to himself, Jason Bourne is also damaged, a victim of the Treadstone program that created him, unleashed him, and now must suffer the consequences as it tries to rein him in.

Leon the Professional
He appears from nowhere, stepping stealthily from the shadows, and has but one rule: “no women, no kids”. On a diet of milk, intense abdominal training and the occasional Hollywood musical, New York’s peripatetic trigger man for the mafia doesn’t know he’s looking for his own family and for roots until he reluctantly opens his door to the last survivor of a bent cop’s (Gary Oldman in a memorable performance) mad, sanguinary free-for-all. A slow-building classic.

The American
In this moody, atmospheric film, there is no escaping “the life” for old-school assassin and gunsmith Jack (George Clooney). Like heist flicks, films centred on hitmen often have at their core a “last job”, one final pay-day before fading off into the dappled light. The trick for these assassin protagonists is in avoiding being the career-ending big score for a rival. Will Jack escape and find love with beautiful whore Clara? And how did the Swedes find him, tucked away there in the Umbrian mountains?

John Wick Chapter 2
Taking place only days after the original, we discover in this arty sequel that the world of the assassins is considerably more substantial than we might have imagined; it has its own (stridently analogue) accounts department; a Roman version of the Intercontinental Hotel; and is headed by the mysterious High Table. As for the titular character, well, he exudes what Esquire writer George Frasier coined “duende” – a combination of charisma, aptitude and panache.

The Mechanic
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) believes in planning; for him, each hit represents an “assignment”, and the method of elimination is only revealed through rigorous study and meticulous preparation. As is inscribed on the pistol of his mentor: amat victoria curum (victory loves preparation.) In this tight remake of Charles Bronson’s signature film, Bishop is pretty good at winging it too, when necessary.

As an ageing contract killer who has lost his nerve, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a teary, faltering mess struggling after all this time with his profession’s occupational hazards. He’s also a bit of a jerk – equal parts vain, annoying and self-loathing. Yet just beneath the surface is a charming, urbane soul (and of course, a crack shot). Maybe – just maybe – he and everyman adman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) can help each other out. A neglected little gem, boasting an arresting against-the-tide performance from Brosnan in the early days after his time playing that other suave killer.

La Femme Nikita
Some might argue that the career of iconoclastic director Luc Besson has been more pothole than road. But he had a brilliant idea that formed the genesis of this now (admittedly somewhat aged) classic. What if a teenage criminal was given the choice between a lethal injection or joining an elite unit of French government killers? And what if that teenager was a girl (Besson’s future wife Anne Parillaud) who Besson forced to shoot some scenes 28 times, only to use the first in the final version? Well, add Jean Reno as Victor the Cleaner and Tcheky Karyo as the first of many morally compromised bastards and you’d have yourself a cool (and hugely influential) yarn.

The Day of the Jackal
All that I really recall about this film are the black Citroens, the gun cleverly concealed in crutches, and the brilliant disguises of the titular hero played by Edward Fox. That’s enough, non?

Originally this musing was going to chart the 10 essential assassin films, but I came up one short. Certainly there are plenty of decent flicks to consider: the Kill Bills come readily to mind, The Specialist (exploding tea cups and Rod Steiger chewing scenery anyone?), Assassins (another Stallone vehicle), The Assassin, American Assassin, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hana, The Equalizer, Ghost Dog, Mr and Mrs Smith, Columbiana, Point Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank, two decent versions of Payback – but none that I felt like watching right now.

I suppose, yes, I could be persuaded otherwise. I mean, let’s not argue about it. There’s no need for violence. Wait, put that down …


  1. The notion that assassins belong to clans also hints to the word’s origin. “Assassin” with a capital A refers to a member of a secret order of Muslim fanatics who terrorised and killed Crusaders. The name derives from the Arabic word hashshash or “hasish eater” (originally referring to members of an Ismaili sect who took the drug before attacking their enemies).


Get yourself sat, Matt

Catching the bus is no joy ride.

You can pretty much tell what kind of bus driver you’re going to have from the time you get on board. If you’re greeting to the man (it’s usually a man) sitting in the big chair is returned, you’ve probably encountered one of the vast majority of these essential professionals: even-tempered souls who will very likely transport you to your destination without incident. Some of these might even wait for you if they see you heading towards the bus stop.

If your “Good morning” is met with a grunt, you’ve come across that selection of drivers who probably see their vocation as akin to the transportation of toxic waste: irksome but necessary.

Then there are those who don’t respond at all. Beware this small sample, and make your way to your seat as quickly as possible. The driver won’t wait for you (and secretly I wonder if there’s a competition among these thousand-yard starers to see who can take down the most passengers in a day), or perhaps they’re simply in a hurry. It’s best not to ask.

Of all the methods of facilitating getting from A to B, doing so via bus must surely be one of the least glamorous, for all concerned.

For suburban passengers, the convenience of having a stop outside your door is countered by the fact few routes seem to run in a straight line anywhere, very likely skipping down several side streets, stop every 100 metres, seldom run on the weekend, are usually late but sometimes frustratingly early (and of course don’t stop at all in this instance if no passengers are waiting), and frequently don’t run at all. Coordination with other forms of public transport is ad hoc.

Some routes seem to have little logic; from Box Hill in Melbourne’s east, buses issue forth to Altona, Mordialloc and Chadstone. If you so desire you can catch a bus from St Kilda to Sunshine, and from Hampton to Berwick.

It’s rare to ride a bus where at least one piece of equipment isn’t faulty or out of commission. There’s a very good chance the AC has stopped working. Early in the morning or late in the night, you’re usually riding in the dark, which makes it harder to read, and on those occasions, underlines the interminable time this form of public transport can grindingly consume.

For drivers, the hassle of dealing with traffic and misbehaving passengers is a constant. Little wonder they often look frazzled.

I suspect those who live in rural and regional areas might think of buses more affectionately than city folk, providing as they do an essential form of transportation in places where others don’t run at all.

My own relationship with bus travel has become far more intimate than I imagined it ever would. Having lost the use of my mostly reliable Magna sedan a while back – and taken some time to come to grips with the price of used cars – I’ve gradually (but not warmly) learned to accept (but not embrace) its usefulness.

I guess I should stop my grousing and either buy a car for those five to 10-minute trips to the local train station, or accept the reality of bus travel. And the truth is, we need our buses to take us where trains and trams can’t go.

Alas, the bus hasn’t earned the cachet of other transport modes.

For instance, its place in pop culture has never captured the romance of other forms of mass transit, such as submarines (The Hunt for Red October, Das Boat) ships (Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic); motorbikes (Easy Rider, The Great Escape); balloons (Around the World in Eighty Days); cars (any Bond film) or trains (Some Like it Hot, Murder on the Orient Express).

Planes, Buses and Automobiles lacks a certain something. Ditto for Throw Momma from the Bus or Runaway Bus – although of course, that’s basically what Speed is. And Speed is admirable, if not awesome.

The Italian Job (original version) made the bus pivotal (bad pun intended) to its plot.

Yet when I think of the bus on screen, it’s not in the depiction of a grand cross-continental journey, but rather the prosaic and the everyday: the bad jokes and casual racism of On the Buses, Otto’s suspect driving and social skills in The Simpsons, or Principal Rooney forced to ensure a bus ride with his students at the conclusion of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not by choice, but because it’s the only option. That’s how it rolls.

There is no Laburnum

They have no official status, but they exist anyway. They are Melbourne’s secret suburbs.

Recently I met someone who claimed to reside in Laburnum. Laburnum? He was having me on, surely. Having spent some of my formative years living in a beautiful rambling house at 42 Laburnum St, within easy walk of Laburnum Train Station and the Laburnum shops (Mum and Dad had also briefly considered sending my brother and me to Laburnum Primary School) I recognised this claim for what it was: a bald-faced lie. A deception. An inaccuracy.

As anyone familiar with the area knows, there is no Laburnum: that part of Melbourne falls within Blackburn, in the City Of Whitehorse.

If you glance at a Melways (a hardcopy version, preferably) you’ll notice that official suburbs are listed in capital letters. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Look a little closer and you might observe that some places are printed in lower case. Rather than official ‘burbs with their own postcodes, these areas are pockets, precincts, neighbourhoods and localities that for various reasons have had a different, individual moniker bestowed upon them.

Some of these are semi-official titles thought up, it seems, by some rather unimaginative government apparatchiks or construction company marketers. I’d put Beacon Cove, NewQuay, Waterfront City, Digital Harbour, Victoria Harbour, Batmans Hill, Kensington Banks and Yarra’s Edge into this category.

Other locality sobriquets are merely geographically descriptive. Epping North, Macleod West and Ascot Vale West fit in to this sub-group. Given how big some of these areas are, it makes sense to informally subdivide them.

Indeed, other locales seem to evolve in spread-out suburbs, where a modicum of differentiation is helpful. Bellevue, Deepdene and Greythorn in Balwyn; and Newlands and Merlynston in Coburg North could be examples of this.

There are a bunch of pockets based around train stations that are not named for suburbs. Hartwell, Jolimont, Newmarket, Syndal, Westgarth.  (I’d always just assumed these were all official stand-alone suburbs), Glenferrie, Merlynston, Macaulay, Rushall and Anstey are examples.

Mont Albert (originally just plain old Mount Albert) was a train station before it was a locality and then later earned official suburb status.

Part of Frankston, Karingal, meaning “happy home” or “happy camp” in an aboriginal dialect, was given its name in the 1960s when land in the area began to be developed, largely as an AV Jennings housing estate.

Merlynston had similar commercial origins. When in 1919 Donald Bain bought the 31 hectares known as Station Heights Estate west of Coburg North railway station, he subdivided it into housing blocks and renamed it after his daughter Merlyn. The station was subsequently renamed too.

Some Melbourne places seemed to have been unofficially sub-classified in an attempt to lift exclusivity; to redefine by their difference. Perhaps Gardiner (Glen Iris), South Kingsville, Glengala (Sunshine West), Westbreen, Westgarthton and Regent (Preston) come into this category. The name “Regent” simply exudes exclusivity, even if the locale itself may not.

Others have names derived from natural features; consider Mt Cooper and Coonans Hill.

So is there any harm in telling folks that you live in an area that doesn’t really exist – in saying Paisley when you mean Altona North, or Darling when Malvern East is more accurate?

Well, if mail or emergency services not being able to reach your abode isn’t an issue, then possibly not.

For many years before it was finally made official in 1999, the area south of Richmond Station bound by Swan St and Punt Rd was known and referred to as Cremorne.

We are talking about a small realm of some historical and cultural significance, home to the sprawling Cremorne Gardens established in the 1850s. Referred to as a “pleasure garden” (what we might call an amusement park), the area housed a menagerie of exotic animals, a bowling alley, cyclorama, and offered balloon rides.

Here was the official departure point for Burke and Wills’ infamously ill-fated journey. Cremorne existed as an entity long before the powers that be acceded to acknowledge it.

Perhaps by 2099 it might be Laburnum’s turn. By the way, did I mention that I grew up there?

































The 10 most enjoyable films of 2016

Not necessarily the best movies of the past 12 months, the following list of flicks are the ones that kept me most entertained. The list is roughly in order.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years
My introduction to the Beatles’ music was through hearing them on radio on family car trips in the 1970s and later through compilation tapes. Even as I grew to love the tunes, I don’t think I ever really understood the phenomenon of Beatlemania – 200,000 fans turned out to see the band in Adelaide in the early 1960s – or even the impact of the music itself until this clever (admittedly somewhat hagiographic) documentary. Assembled from concert footage, still photographs and a combination of archival and new interviews, here is a film that enthrals and informs. Good job Ron Howard.

Rosalie Blum
A sad-sack mummy’s boy hairdresser, a hard-smoking middle-aged grocery store owner, her drop-out niece and a slew of fringe-dweller associates doesn’t sound like the most encouraging cast of characters. Yet it all comes together in this cleverly crafted and beautifully executed small-town French dramedy.

The Accountant
This surprising shoot-’em-up could be described as “John Wick meets Rainman“, or as my buddy Derek Agnew puts it, “autistic Batman”. As strange as that sounds, it absolutely works.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The best film of the long-running franchise hands down. Highlights were Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as an ambitious Imperial higher-up, the toughest blind swordsman since Zatoichi, and the most fearsome Darth Vader yet (even if James Earl Jones’ voice sounds a little off in a young villain).

Our Kind of Traitor
Adaptations of John Le Carre can get bogged down in the characters’ internal struggles and torments, expressed through interminable periods of waiting and anguish (for the audience). Yet this lively intrigue is expertly paced, and buoyed by great turns from Stellan Skarsgard as a whistleblower Russian mobster, and Damien Lewis as an MI6 operative bent on revenge.

The old maestro Clint Eastwood does it again in this telling of the day an airliner made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. It’s way more moving than that sounds. (Idea: I’d love to see directors sneak in a shot of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway into all future Tom Hanks movies, just for old times’ sake).

There is a small sub-genre of films (Music Box, High Crimes) where a character is made to look so guilty the audience thinks they can’t possibly be the culprit. Is the lovely Marion Cottilard really working for the Germans?

The Sweeney Paris
Gee it’s good to see the hangdog yet charismatic Jean Reno back on screen in this French (of course) police procedural, which features the best street gunfight since Heat. Zut alors!

The Secret Life of Pets
For this animated treat I found myself being that idiot who laughs loudest in the cinema. Enough said.

David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D
Part of the attraction was no doubt the free ticket and choctop, but my first trip to the Imax cinema was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Explanations and extras
Looking through this list, what stands out is the lack of depth, nuance and variety. I definitely was drawn to the escapist flick in 2016. And for this I do not apologise. Surely since the moment the Lumiere brothers showed footage of steam trains coming and going, the point of cinema is transport (no pun intended) rather than edification?

I have no doubt a good part of the enjoyment of the Beatles docco and Rosalie Blum was pleasant surprise – the sense of low expectations being easily exceeded.

The decision to see both movies resulted from sessions for other preferences being sold out, filled by the organised and well mobilised silver foxes of Cinema Como and Palace Balwyn, respectively.

After reading a glowing review on The Onion AV Club, I felt pretty let down by Midnight Special and its very silly cop-out ending. But the whole thing, really. Just dumb.

I had problems with Arrival too, the main ones being understanding how giant squid could build spaceships, and the deus ex machina of the aliens’ “gift”. What a come-down from Sicario for director Denis Villeneuve!

La La Land was quite good, but after it received a record number of Oscar nominations, I’m wondering if I missed something. Many of its tunes sounded like the forgettable filler in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And like the director’s previous film Whiplash, the conclusion was astonishingly discordant  with what came before.

I walked out on the creepy, exploitative The Witch.

Hell or High Water was a film I wanted to like more, but couldn’t (and didn’t).

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea were two films I didn’t get around to seeing before the Australia Day deadline.

I also heard Korean zombie epic Train to Busan was worth a look, too. The trailer makes it look like Snowpiercer meets World War Z. I probably won’t see that one. In 2017 I am going to be more discerning, I swear.

Same, same but different

Motion picture sequels don’t have to go through the motions.

Directors and writers who take over a movie series have two choices: they can continue to shepherd the franchise down the well-grooved path it’s been on – same tropes, characters, and narrative arc – or they can pursue a different route.

In the former category you could put Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Admittedly this is part seven in an epic series spread over 40 (Earth) years. So there’s an expectation that the storylines established in the first six parts will continue to unfold – and perhaps even satisfyingly conclude.

But still. As enjoyable as it was, JJ Abrams’ nifty effort was derivative in the extreme. So much so that it was basically a remake of the original Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), but with a female lead standing in for the young Luke Skywalker.

In the latter category could be placed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though set in the carefully circumscribed and increasingly self-referential Star Wars universe, it is a stand-alone off-shoot – something of a prequel to the George Lucas-directed 1977 film.

Like the original, Rogue One is a pastiche of a bunch of different influences, yet the action is considerably more propulsive, and the overall tone somewhat darker.

In a series that has had its share of misfires (Jar Jar Binks and little Anni Skywalker, for instance), it’s a stunning achievement.

The original Alien is admirable for its incredible production design, its masterful build-up of suspense, and for its ground-breaking use of special effects. (Who could forget the film’s signature scene of an extra-terrestrial bursting forth from its host?)

And yet I much prefer the visceral action of the James Cameron-helmed sequel, with its gung ho cadre of military specialists pitted against an icky foe.

Having made “tension” the defining feature of the original, the quintessential space creature feature, Aliens takes us on a thrilling head-long ride that barely lets up.

The Rocky series had taken far too many body blows by the time Creed stepped into the ring. Having stayed past its welcome, it was punchy, against the ropes even, and surely due for the figurative white towel to be tossed in.

However, with Sylvester Stallone relieved of directing and script duties, Creed is easily the best film in the series since the Oscar-winning original.

Featuring the most realistic depiction of the sweet science in the Rocky films, it boasts a charismatic lead in Michael B. Jordan, and a knock-out plot.

Can Adonis Creed fulfil his pugilistic destiny? Can trainer Rocky Balboa impart the essential ringside lessons to the son of his most worthy opponent while himself fighting the biggest foe of his life?

Boasting a stirring score and the essential training montage sequences, it’s a terrific yarn well executed.

Based on the books by Robert Ludlum, the Jason Bourne series appeared as if it had reached a logical end by the time credits rolled on The Bourne Ultimatum (with the best-forgotten Jason Bourne released a few years later).

No longer a complete enigma to himself, super-agent Jason Bourne had outlasted all the agents in the Treadstone program, discovered his true identity, and seemingly closed the door on a life of black ops, clandestine morally indefensible activities, and the ominous engagement of assets.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who had worked on the first few Bourne films, then put his hand up to deliver a side story.

In The Bourne Legacy, a frantic Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) must use all of his lethal training and enhancements to outwit and outfight a merciless government determined to erase all trace of him, going so far as to burn to the ground the Outcome program that provided Cross’s advanced capabilities.

In this intelligent actioner there is less emphasis on the protagonist’s inner journey and more on his determination to survive. And not only is it a worthy addition to the series, it seamlessly integrates into it.

Gilroy’s deft touch can also be seen on Rogue One, for which he served as co-writer.

Just like The Bourne Legacy, it involves the critical search for a MacGuffin.

Somehow it brilliantly references the universe from which it was generated – Darth Vader has never looked more lethal – without ever, er, forcing it.

Caught by a tag

Whatever happened to movie taglines?


Not so long ago in a cinema quite close by, I was leaving a Saturday night screening of a film (Midnight Special, an OK flick with a pretty ridiculous conclusion) when I happened to notice a poster for a forthcoming attraction.

The film in question was The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. What a cool poster it was too, boasting an eye-catching colour and interesting font to complement a picture of the somewhat-less-than-heroic leads. What really caught my attention, however, were the words towards the bottom: “They’re not so nice”.

A tagline.

A phrase usually comprising of just a few pithy words, a tagline is a neat, punchy device that works with other advertising tools – trailer, interviews and print collateral – to sell a movie. A slogan.

Yet it had been years since I’d even noticed one. The last time I’d really paid any sort of attention to taglines was before I even knew what one was, back in the 1970s.

I heard, read and had ingrained in my impressionable psyche, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, far away” well before I had a chance to see George Lucas’s sci-fi mash-up epic.

In those long-ago days of yore taglines had time to work their magic. They could filter down from the marketing types who invented them all the way to dorky suburban sci-fi fans such as me. They could percolate, infiltrate and resonate.

In the time before the internet, even before video, it took years before films of note reached television.  (Compare this with the situation now, where movies of quite considerable stature often make their free-to-air debut on minor digital channels, and then might screen regularly there for a while.)

There were less big screens in the 70s. The big movie houses were mostly based in the city, and the suburban multiplex had yet to have its day. Most cinemas outside the CBD were stand-alone screens, or at best, doubles.

This meant if you wanted to see a popular film and not wait a good while, it had to be at the cinema. But the good news was you had time to do this, because if a film was decent, or popular, or both, it might stay on the big screen for months or longer.

Word of mouth was the most important form of recommendation, ahead of the judgements issued forth from the avuncular film critics of the day, such as Ivan Hutchinson or Bill Collins.

I remember my nine-year-old self thinking of the famous Star Wars (sorry, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) tagline: “Wow, if that was a long time ago, imagine what the technology is like now!”

Nowadays, many films might have just a week in the cinema, and even by that time, they are readily accessible on streaming services for those willing to chance the FBI knocking on their door. And courtesy of a global commentariat, we usually know a lot more about a film than a mere tagline can tell us.

I wonder if that’s why the most memorable movie taglines seem to date from the 70s and 80s.

“In space, no one can hear you scream”. That tagline worked a treat, its warning (a promise well kept as it turns out) drawing many to Ridley Scott’s dystopian creature feature Alien in 1979.

Ditto for “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” which ushered fans aplenty in to see Jaws 2.

And the same again for Poltergeist II’s “They’re back”.

“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” This said it all, really, about David Cronenberg’s icky The Fly, which really was rather gross. Here was a caution, but also a tease. “How bad could it be?” you might have wondered. A stunning performance made Jeff Goldblum’s career, and the film became a minor classic of the “mad scientist” genre.

It also brings to mind the taglines proposed by Dudley Moore’s character in Crazy People.

An advertising copywriter suffering a nervous breakdown (hence the film’s sensitive title), he decides the only way he can live with himself is to embrace a platform of extreme honesty.

This explains a tagline for a Jaguar car ad – “For men who’d like to receive hand-jobs from women they hardly know” – and for a horror film called The Freak: “This film won’t just scare you, it will f*ck you up for life.” The campaigns, of course, are wildly successful.

The best taglines are so effective they are forever associated with the films they were coined to promote. In the next category down are those that although funny and clever, you probably haven’t heard.

“Does for rock ‘n’ roll what The Sound of Music did for the hills.” It’s just silly enough to be the tagline for This is Spinal Tap.

Chicken Run’s “Escape or die frying” and Scott Pilgrim Saves the World‘s “An epic of epic epicness” are pretty cute.

“Love is in the hair” from Something About Mary is a strange one in that it requires knowledge of the film’s signature scene to make sense.

When a studio’s high brass aren’t impressed with a tagline, you won’t see it anywhere.

Now that I have become re-attuned to looking out for them, I’ve noticed that those that have received a tick of approval from the powers that be earn prominent positions on soon-to-be ancient artefacts such as posters and DVD covers.

Though, “The longer you wait the harder it gets” is an appropriate double entendre for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it perhaps doesn’t quite do the film’s genuine hilarity justice.

Before I saw the film, I hadn’t noticed “Action. Lights. Abduction” for the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar! It’s brilliant!

Another tagline that passed me by was one for Central Intelligence, which stars the diminutive Kevin Hart and huge, muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson: “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson”.

How typical. Those Americans are always talking about their johnsons.






























































Life sentence

Subject, verb, predicate – what makes one group of words sound better than another, have more resonance, greater meaning or deeper impact? This post explores the sentences that sustain us.

Every year the cultural cognoscenti gather to award the literary arts’ most prestigious baubles: the Nobel, the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin.

There is criteria by which the awarded tomes are judged, but also intangibles. No one can say definitively what made one book prove more alluring, dazzling or intriguing than another. Yet a consensus is reached, somehow.

It’s certainly not judged solely on technical merit – on the quality, say, of individual sentences. And that makes sense. Sentences are writing’s basic building blocks, and you don’t assess the quality of a skyscraper merely on the impressiveness of its stone, steel and glass.

Also, what metric or index could be applied to assess sentence quality? Trying to explain what makes one group of words more memorable, meaningful or powerful than any other is incredibly elusive. Most people when asked can’t say why something sticks in their mind, or why it sounds “nicer” to them. They just know.

“I’m not sure how to describe what makes a good sentence for me,” says graphic designer Frank Ameneiro, a prolific reader. “I just feel it.”

Frank really likes this quote from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered”.

There is considerable restraint in that group of words, and as much power in what’s left unwritten as what’s penned. It’s also skillful in the manner in which it evokes smells and sensations and a sense of wanton destruction. Why were they burning bridges? Why only a guess as to lachrymose eyes?

Still working the Bard angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are side characters in Hamlet that Tom Stoppard put centre stage) Jonathan Irwin, a senior sub-editor at The Sunday Times, references a line from Shakespeare, a snippet from The Tempest spoken by Prospero:

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

Jonathan says, “For me it sums up the beauty, wonder and sadness of human existence, whilst inspiring by its genius and eloquence. I find the thought of sleep being our before and after very comforting too. It also implies an atheism that reflects my own.”

Sentences, Jonathan says, are good for different reasons. Text needs context. A group of words in isolation, however appealing, often won’t have resonance.

“My favourite sentence is wonderful on its own,” he says. “But seen in the context of the whole speech by Prospero, it becomes more powerful … as it does seen in the context of the whole play … as it does seen in the context of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre. The Tempest is about a magician who creates characters, and was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and life, so the poignant parallels with him as a writer are clear.”

Without explanation, Sophie Patrick put forward two nominations for this prosaic pantheon. They are two more from “Capital L” literature.

The first is from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

“This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

Although neither of these offerings are what could be described as pithy – compare “Jesus wept”, and “Call me Ishmael” ― they both offer astonishingly perceptive observations on the human condition in just a few simple lines.

They both have a certain something: cadence, flow, rhythm; call it what you will, both of these examples “sing” for want of a better expression. Sure, the sentiment they express could be conveyed more simply. But these are not sentences extracted from news stories, and their aim is not simply to pass on facts.

To return to the building analogy again: a nice sentence must have form as well as function. And while the former serves the latter, they both do matter.

Publisher James Weston has always liked this:

“Fame is fleeting, money has wings, popularity is yesterday’s child. The only thing that endures is strength of character.”

“Honestly, I have no idea where I read it,” James says. “It was in the front pages of a book – probably sport – that I read long ago, and it stuck with me.”

He has since discovered it was a derivation from a quote from Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the New-York Tribune in the mid-1800s: “Fame is vapour, popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures, and that is character.”

A couple of respondents to this article chose two samples of writing: one, like JW’s example, that means something to them, and inspires in moments when required – some words of wisdom. A maxim.

The other is an example of pretty prose that affects them in a way they can’t necessarily explain, in the same manner that great design might work its magic, even when you might not notice how.

Digital producer Finn Bradshaw provided two excellent examples, name-checking the great Dr J, non-fiction maestro David Halberstam, and the original gonzo scribe along the way.

“There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them’,”says Finn, quoting Halberstam on the high-flying hoopster’s work ethic.

From a purely “I like the sound of it” point of view, Finn gives us this from Hunter S. Thompson: “And that, I think, was the handle ― that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting ― on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark ―that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Perhaps it’s best not to try to analyse or deconstruct Thompson; one could go crazy attempting this. And you’d be ill-advised to attempt to mimic it. Thompson took his craft seriously (at least as seriously as his pharmacological experiments).

Yet his was an approach that was as self-styled as it was perspicacious. Your regular scribes should no more attempt imitation than a local ‘baller try to copy the balletic grace of Dr J on the hardwood. Best advice: master the basic moves first.

Like Finn, writer and owner of Resonance Communications Diana Elliott also puts forward two samples.

“From the time I visited Abu Simbel I’ve forever thought about the quote I heard there: ‘For you, the one for whom the sun rises every morning.’ It was the dedication by the egomaniac Ramesses I to his wife – well one of them – whom he loved the most, Nefertiti,” Diana recalls. “I always thought it was beautiful, and still do.”

The second sentence Diana nominates – “Planes are ships on borrowed time” –  is from her favourite book, Still, by Adam Thorpe.

“It’s a funny quote,” Diana says, “and one that I often think about when I board a plane!”

Sometimes a compelling word combination will stick in one’s consciousness in a way you can’t explain properly. It doesn’t need context; it might not even make much sense. But there it is.

Writer Melinda Sweetnam likes Top Gun’s “I feel the need, the need for speed.” It gets her going.

I encountered this while reading Murray Bail’s The Pages: “Hemmed in countries produce all manner of limps and missing limbs in their men.” There is a whole anthropology in that sentence, and yet it is offered with no further explanation or qualification. It is what it is. You deal with it as you will.

After much prompting, musician and teacher Angus Grant offered this, from liner notes by Julian Budden from The Operas of Verdi, vol 1.

“The instrumental palette is calculated to bring out all the velvet depths of the baritone voice-clarinets, horns, bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Flute, oboe and violins give an added sense of plangency to Gilda. The mood is cathartic, one of grief purged by weeping and transfigured into serene melody.”

Someone, somewhere must have done a collection of the best record liner notes. The combination of (usually) journalists writing about subject matter about which they’re passionate is often irresistible.

This quote from a recent newspaper article (Caroline James, The Age, April 16) about how life is changing for Australian circus families jumped out at me. It quotes Anna Gasser from Silvers Circus: “There were a few operators here in the 70s. It was tough. We only had our eldest son, three donkeys, two ponies and a midget, and did everything ourselves.”

You wonder how the midget and the Gasser boy like being including among the circus inventory. Still, I love the incongruous inclusion.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are wonderful sentences everywhere.

Using the examples of Finn and Diana, I’m offering two examples too.

For my “wise words” sample I like this from Seneca: “Count each day a separate life.”  When I’ve struggled to reconcile mistakes I’ve made, sometimes huge life-changing blunders, or if I fret about what’s coming, I come back to these words, or try to. What if today is all that there is? No past, no tomorrow, but only this moment?

As for word combinations that appeal, I could have chosen one of many from Stephen Marlowe, or Peter Robb, or Evelyn Waugh, or Elmore Leonard, but I went for this from Colin Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne:

“I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.”

It’s more than one sentence, of course. Indeed, it’s longer than a standard paragraph, but I like Harrison’s playful use of language, and his obvious reverence of it. I like its craft and heft, its rhythm and tone, its authority and acuity. I get drawn in by its sweep and scope, its roiling images and evocation of time and place. New York City as a character? It’s right there. And the idea that the narrator may not be upstanding and sincere; that’s there too.

The quest for a choice combination of words is one that doesn’t have to cease. I’ll keep looking and adding so long as I’m above ground, I suspect. By noticing what’s good in others’ writing, I hope I can improve my own.

And learning from wise words can’t hurt either. I love this simple philosophy found in The Sea, The Sea, from Iris Murdoch: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of them can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”

And one more from Seneca: “As long as you are alive, keep learning how to live.” That’s a good one.

Eat, drink, watch movie

Culinary films are not simply about what’s served on the plate. The relationship between cuisine, love and life, they tell us, is a somewhat complex one.


Films such as Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992) and Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994) do not simply evoke the old chestnuts that if oysters are served one may get lucky, or that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Rather these movies often tell us that the relationship between cuisine – especially fine cuisine – sex, love and life is far more complex and more pervasive.

As old man Chu says, “Eat, drink, man, woman are basic human desires you can’t live without.”

From Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) through to Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom, 2000) we’re informed that food can be a substitute for sex, an aphrodisiac or analogous with lovemaking.

In Big Night (Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott, 1995) the links between food, music and love are shown to be an intrinsic, inevitable and sometimes combative one in life.

Two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), are partners in a New Jersey restaurant in the 1950s. Primo is a purist. A gastronome. He takes care with exquisite food he prepares, buying only the best ingredients that are transformed adroitly into works of art.

Yet while he’s a virtuoso in the kitchen, without his apron he’s often bereft of his formidable powers. He’s shy, unsure, and awkward around women. And compounded by the fact he’s speaking a second language, Primo is tongue-tired.

Secondo is something of an impresario, emcee and front-of-house man, a sharply dressed lothario who desperately wants his piece of the American dream to come true.

Unfortunately, the brothers’ restaurant is failing miserably. Few customers show up, and those that do either have no appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine, such as the couple who smoke over their meal, demand excessive amounts of flavour-masking cheese, and want a side order of pasta with risotto.

Meanwhile, down the street impresario Pascal’s (Ian Holm) restaurant jumps every night of the week.

Despite the fact he serves at best pedestrian food, the locals can’t get enough of it. There are waiters gliding all about and flaming meals presented to chockfull tables. Pascquale is everywhere, greeting guests, giving directions to staff, dispensing advice.

When Secondo asks Pasquale for money to keep his own modest restaurant going, the wealthy owner knocks him back, offering this nugget of wisdom: “Bite your teeth into the arse of life.”

It’s as if to say life itself is a meal that we prepare for ourselves and then consume as we like.

We can eat daintily, sparingly, blandly or suck the marrow from it every day.

But for Primo, food is life.

When describing a dish he is preparing for a feast, Primo says, “Timpano is pasta shaped liked a drum … and inside only the most important things.”

The use of the word “things” is key, bestowing upon the contents of his dishes far more significance than mere “ingredients”.

It’s when talking about food that Primo becomes most animated and most passionate.

After it is revealed to him that it is Pasquale who has organised for famous musician Louis Prima to attend a party at the restaurant, the big night of the title, he is incensed.

“Do you know what goes on in that man’s restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! The rape of cuisine!”

To a man for whom food is all, its mistreatment is akin to the most heinous, intrusive and violent of crimes.

As it becomes increasingly obvious that Louis Prima will not show up, the focus for the evening shifts to the food itself.

Indeed, one of the implications of the gradual transformation of things culinary-related into gastro porn has been the fetishising of the preparation, presentation and consumption of food.

Because the serving of food has been delayed by Prima’s no-show, the guests drink and dance up a storm, and the soiree becomes increasingly unruly.

Yet once the decision to eat is made, dish after succulent dish is paraded out and then presented to the guests.

The feast is so fantastic and tastes so good that it elicits tears and groans of pleasure and satisfaction from the restaurants occupants.

In the moments after the meal is concluded, the camera pans across a restaurant where the guests are too spent from the gorging of food to begin to speak to one another, almost as if it was an orgy that had just wound up and not a dinner.

“It was the best ever,” one guest says.

By serving food into which he has poured all his skill, devotion, and indeed life, Primo has communicated his credo: “To eat good food is to know God.”

By juxtaposing Primo’s preparation of food with that of the hastily prepared fare served by Pasquale, we can see the most glaring difference between the two.

To be sure, Primo takes care with his cooking – he’s an artist – and uses only the freshest of ingredients.

But by far the most important component of his cooking is love. He loves to cook, he’s passionate about food, and that emotion is evident in the meals he prepares.

The idea that food can somehow be a medium for love to be expressed is a powerful recurring theme in culinary-themed films.

So potent is the love Tita (Lumi Cavazos) feels for Pedro (Marco Leonardi) in Like Water for Chocolate that through some magical-realist alchemy, it actually physically passes into the food she’s preparing.

According to family tradition, Tita, one of three sisters, is forbidden to marry, and is slated to spend her life attending to the needs of her mother.

When she meets Pedro, however, it’s love at first sight for both. Not permitted to marry his true love, Pedro agrees to wed Tita’s disagreeable sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) simply so he can be close to Tita.

Tita, who has spent most of life mastering cooking skills at the side of old cook Nacha (Nada Carrassco) in the kitchen, is assigned to prepare the wedding feast.

As she slaves over the wedding cake, a lachrymose Tita cries tears of heartbreak into the dish.

When the guests at the wedding consume the cake they become overwhelmed with sorrow.

On another occasion Tita prepares a dish of quail cooked in rose petals prepared from flowers given to her by Pedro.

Tita cuts herself on one of the rose thorns and bleeds into the dish, which consequently infuses the intense passion she feels for Pedro into the meal.

Middle sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maille) consumes the food, which is so full of the ardour Tita feels for Pedro that it actually causes her to catch aflame.

Alive with passion, she absconds naked onto the waiting horse of a mounted guerrilla.

In Eat Drink Man Woman, restaurant master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is a widower and head of a household of three headstrong daughters whose respective love lives are in varying degrees of tumult.

The film opens with Chu preparing his family’s traditional Sunday meal.

Though they spend little time together, the family gathers once a week for a lavish banquet-sized meal that Chu spends hours preparing.

With painstaking precision he rolls dumplings, boils soups and plucks and smokes chickens until an oriental cornucopia is on hand.

Just as it is in the west, fast food is the flavour of the month in Taipei. In fact, Chu’s youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) actually has a mcjob flipping burgers and frying chips in a greasy spoon.

Yet the food that Chu prepares isn’t mere fuel but a way for him to express both his creativity to the outside world and his love for his daughters, from whom he’s becoming increasingly estranged.

Like Primo, Chu isn’t a great communicator. In fact, he’s gruff with his daughters, short of temper, and judgemental – so food is the medium through which he connects with them.

As one of the daughters says of the karaoke-addicted family next door: “We communicate by eating and they communicate by singing.”

Meanwhile, life seems to be becoming increasingly complex for Chu and his clan.

The oldest daughter, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) claims to be heartbroken from a romance that went sour a decade before. Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), the modern thinking middle daughter, is a frustrated chef who was forbidden from a life in the kitchen by Chu and instead has embarked on a career as a fast paced executive.

Jia-Ning spends most of her times thinking about boys.

Chu himself is frustrated by the fact he is losing his sense of taste, a serious affliction for a chef.

By the end of the film all the central characters’ lives are spun in different directions, each one using the occasion of the Sunday meal to make important announcements regarding decisions they’ve made about the path they will take.

When Chu ultimately stands to make a speech of his own, he says life is not like cooking. That is, in cooking all the ingredients are on hand and all necessary tools are at ready disposal. With the right skills and a good recipe, a successful meal can be made.

Life on the hand is unpredictable, whimsical, changeable, and that’s the way it should be. Food is not like life and it is not life. But good food is a part of life.

As the film moves towards its conclusion, Chu announces he’s going to sell the family home and move elsewhere with his new young fiancé and her daughter.

One final gourmet meal will be consumed in the house, only this time it’s prepared by Jia-Chen.

Just like the elaborate meals created by her father, Jia-Chen’s banquet is one that demonstrates consummate skill in the kitchen at the same time as being filled with the love she has of the art itself and for her father.

As Chu sips at soup, he suggests it has too much ginger, instantly realising he’s regained his sense of taste.

Through her love and her food, Jia-Chen has given her father what is for him the most precious of gifts.

Chocolat continues the tradition established in earlier foody films of pitting the sensuous pleasures of food against the restrictive and ascetic practices of religious zealotry.

In this sense it revisits themes explored in Babette’s Feast, which is set in a strict Calvinist community on an isolated and tempest-swept coast of Denmark in the 19th century.

The religious leader of the sect is a charismatic and stern minister, who is also the father of two beautiful daughters: Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) and Philippa (Hanne Stebsgaard).

Though they each attract suitors – a distinguished army officer and an opera singer most notably – the sisters eschew earthly love, which their father preaches is an illusion and not worth very much.

Years pass and the sisters remain as pillars of the community, spinsters who spend their time attending to the needs of others.

One stormy night a cloaked figure knocks on the door of the sisters’ cottage.

After escaping from a suddenly violent and dangerous Paris, Babette becomes a volunteer housekeeper for the sisters, preparing the boiled fish and ale bread that constitutes their bland daily diet.

Babette has been in the service of the two sisters for 14 years when she suddenly announces she’s won a Paris lottery and wishes to use some of the proceeds to host a celebratory dinner.

The meal is supposed to be a modest repast to acknowledge the anniversary of the birth of the sisters’ father and religious leader of the community.

Babette, however, asks the sisters if the dinner can be a “proper” French meal, and in her hands it becomes a feast in honour of the art and potency of cuisine itself.

The sisters agree to Babette’s request but then become increasingly aghast at the exotic ingredients brought to the house in preparation for the meal. There’s a giant turtle for soup, plenty of wine, cages of quail, champagne.

As the date for the dinner approaches, the guests, who are local villagers, become concerned that the high style of the meal will detract from its original meaning.

Even worse, its elaborateness is so far removed from their normal simple, Spartan meals and abstemious lifestyle they feel it might be ungodly to actually enjoy what will be a feast for the senses. Eating the meal might even mean committing the sin of gluttony. They pledge not to utter a sound of appreciation.

On the day of the feast the aforementioned army officer, now a distinguished general, returns as a guest. Though everyone at the table obviously is enraptured by the food, he’s the only one who offers any praise.

So enamoured is he of the food that he compares it to a meal he long ago enjoyed at the famous Parisian eatery Cafe Anglais, whose renowned chef (a woman!) was said to have the extraordinary power of filling her dishes with the power of love.

Of course, it is revealed that Babette and this maestro are one in the same. And rather than regarding her cooking ability as a sin, the guests realise that she’s been accorded God-given artistic talents to produce sumptuous meals.

The townsfolk guests, who had been tetchy and argumentative before the feast, conclude it by holding hands and singing hymns.

Babette then reveals she spent her entire lottery windfall on the feast both as an expression of gratitude but also from a need to create artistically.

Chocolat opens with two cloaked figures battling a forbidding wind on their way to a rural French town, thus echoing the manner in which Babette entered into her frigid environment.

Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a peripatetic bohemian confectionary maker who combines an earthy sensualism with a plucky entrepreneurial spirit, has come to town to open a chocolaterie. Her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) is in tow.

Just like its culinary predecessors, Chocolat’s gaze dwells voyeuristically on the food Vianne mixes up in her shop. And like Primo, Chu and Babette she’s a genius in the kitchen, whipping up chocolate in various forms: biscuits, sweets, brownies, desserts, hot chocolate and more.

Unfortunately, just as it was for Babette, Vianne operates in a tough environment. The town is presided over by the rigidly sanctimonious Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who writes sermons for the local priest, and considers a store that profits from the sale of pleasure – even culinary pleasure – a blasphemy. This is especially the case for a shop that dares operate in Lent.

And yes, because Vianne has an intriguing lineage, her mother being a member of a rare South American indigenous race that possessed much arcane knowledge, her recipes have a special aphrodisiacal property.

So in a similar manner to Like Water For Chocolate’s Tita, Vianne has the ability, through her cooking, to transform lives.

Yet unlike Primo or Chu, Vianne combines her wonderful cooking skills with a warm personality. Yes, she can whip up chocolate masterpieces, but her cooking isn’t the only manner in which she engages the outside world.

In fact, Vianne’s shop is something of a beacon for lost causes and lonely souls. There’s a kleptomaniac battered wife (Lena Olin), a diabetic termagant (Judi Dench), who is estranged from her icy daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and grandson, and of course a whole raft of townsfolk who need matchmaking.

Vianne also does a line in divining customers’ favourite sweet treats.

There is of course the problem of the mayor and his strict ways, but Chocolat being a fairy-tale, there are no insurmountable impediments to a Hollywood ending.

The diabetic dies, but goes out with a party (shot in slomo!), Vianne finds love with a charismatic river rat (Johnny Depp) and even the stubborn mayor succumbs to the lure of the chocolate temptation.

Happy ever after indeed.

Of course most mainstream films conclude in this manner, with obstacles overcome and closure achieved. Like Water for Chocolate and Babette’s Feast are other examples.

Yet the ultimate fairy tale might just be the kinds of gastronomic TV shows served up by Jamie Oliver, Rachel Khoo, or Nigella Lawson, outrageously camera flirts all.

Nothing ever gets burnt or works out badly. No one ever fails to show up. Everyone is strikingly beautiful, and at the centre of the lifestyle is the magnificent food.

It’s just too perfect.

Far more satisfying is the conclusion of Big Night.

In the final scene, Primo and Secondo meet in the kitchen. They have fought the night before. The restaurant is finished.

Secondo makes an omelette for his brother and their waiter. They hug. Not a word is exchanged.

Throughout the film we have always seen Primo communicating through cooking.

This time it’s Secondo expressing himself through his simple culinary skills, and the emotion he’s communicating is love.


Many culinary-themed films have appeared since this article was first written. Burnt, No Reservations, Chef, and Ratatouille come quickly to mind. Interestingly, they are all about sublimely gifted cooks, but not just about food.

This article first appeared in issue 26/27 of Australian Screen Education.