Shakespeare’s writing secret

Many successful writers have a trait in common: tenacious productivity.


In the forward to Charlie Martz and Other Stories: the Unpublished Stories of Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard recalls his renowned father’s writing routine.

This was in the time before Elmore was able to devote himself to novel-writing full-time. Rising at 5am, Elmore set a rule for himself: fill two pages of writing before going to work at his day job producing copy at a Detroit advertising agency.

Astonishingly, the writer of Rum Punch (Jackie Brown), Get Shorty, and Out of Sight – which were all adapted into screenplays – kept up this stringent quotidian routine for almost 10 years.

So disciplined was Leonard during his morning ritual that he didn’t permit himself to turn on the water for his coffee until he had filled a page with his hand-written script.

I have been thinking somewhat about writers and their routines lately.

When I started blogging earlier this year I did so with the aim of producing one post per week. Alas, I’ve fallen short of that modest aspiration.

So how do writers – real writers – do it? By what elusive alchemy, what kind of graft enables productive, successful writers to link words into phrases, paragraphs, chapters and books that touch emotions, transport, engage, or at least entertain?

With some it obviously comes very naturally. JK Rowling has no problem cranking out sentence after virtuoso sentence. (I haven’t read the Harry Potter series, but have found the Robert Galbraith books to be enormously addictive).

Other writers overcome formidable hurdles to tell their stories.

Consider the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The French magazine editor wrote a single, slender novel, but it’s a masterpiece.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was written after Bauby suffered a massive stroke. Following his emergence from a three-week coma, Bauby was left with “Locked-in” syndrome. Speechless, immobile and bed-ridden, the only part of his body he had control over was his left eyelid.

Yet using a convoluted and laborious system, Bauby was able to communicate with the outside world, and write his book. With the help of an assistant reciting the alphabet while taking dictation, Bauby would blink when the letter he wished to use was uttered.

Imagine the force of will required to write a sentence or paragraph – let alone a whole novel – in this style. It must have taken incredible concentration, fortitude and rigour, as well as skill, for Bauby to persist in this manner.

The result, though, is a treasure – an amazing story beautifully told, every sentence a lovely bagatelle.

Fact: I am not going to reach that standard (even with most of my faculties intact) – few do, including scribes such as Leonard, whose stock-in-trade was meticulously structured plots, well-drawn characters, and snappy dialogue.

There is a useful lesson for us workaday bob-a-job writers to keep in mind: don’t let perfection – or the pursuit of it – get in the way of tapping out a good yarn.

“If we make writing mystical, we place it out of our control, we give ourselves another reason not to do it,” says novelist Laura Lippman.

“If we hold our ideas to the standard of blinding love at first sight, then they will be few and far between.”

Ideas, she means.

It’s advice that nicely complements that given by Dr Nick Baylis, a specialist in positive psychology from Cambridge University.

Baylis says that to combat the paralysing effects of perfectionism, a powerful principle to keep in mind is that the more fully formed attempts we make at any task (not just writing), then the greater the probability of scoring a recognised success.

In basketball parlance: you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.

The idea is not so much that quantity trumps quality; it’s more that quantity could, and just might (and probably will) – inevitably, inexorably, or simply hopefully – lead to quality of some sort.

Theorising about, studying, discussing, benchmarking – these are no substitute for actually making, for doing.

Baylis quotes Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, whose analysis of accomplished lives demonstrates that the basic rule is consistent across all disciplines, and applies at any age of life.

Simonton provides the example of William Shakespeare, who penned Hamlet one year, Troilus and Cressida the next, and close to 40 major works in all. About a quarter of these are celebrated as part of the Western Canon of great works; others have slipped into obscurity and are rarely performed.

The Bard didn’t know which of his plays would succeed and which would eventually fade, and it wasn’t a concern; productivity was king. The Globe Theatre required material, and he was the content provider. So he sat his backside down, pulled out his quill and filled parchment on demand. 1

“History shows how every high achiever relies on this same brand of tenacious productivity to eventually make progress,” Baylis says. “Their most prized accomplishments are invariably surrounded by a vast number of missed shots.”

To overcome perfectionism’s pernicious influence, we should aim to be as productive as possible, not as perfect as possible. 2

Think: by producing a lot of stuff, you might just come up with the occasional pearl.

“Productivity,” says Baylis, the author of Learning from Wonderful Lives, “brings a profound pleasure.”

One has a sense that this was certainly the case with Leonard, who according to his son, could get lost in his writing regardless of what was going on around him.

His was a writing style that evolved over time, and with considerable practice.

By the time he’d earned the title of “master crime writer” – at least a few decades into his career – Leonard had developed his famous “10 rules of writing”. 3

It took trial and error for him to hone these, and to find his self-styled voice.

When he was ready to make run into full-time novel writing, Leonard had accumulated about 7,300 hours of practice in his early-morning sessions alone.

Old “Dutch” Leonard didn’t have truck with flowery prose. He didn’t sit around waiting for the writing muses to visit; he just got it done. And in at least one major category Leonard even out-Shakespeared the Bard: 45 major works to 37.



  1. Interestingly, Shakespeare didn’t often get distracted by his Twitter feed, and wasn’t overly concerned with how his productions trended on Facebook. His Instagram regularly went neglected, and his LinkedIn profile was an afterthought at best.
  2. Perhaps there is a corollary between Baylis’s “Shakespeare principle” and Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that success at the highest levels of anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.
  3. According to Leonard, writers should never start their stories with descriptions of the weather, only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue, and stay away from adverbs to modify “said”. He didn’t like exclamation marks, and advised against detailed descriptions of characters. His most important rule: If it sounded like writing, Leonard rewrote it.

















































































Neglected gems #1

They might be short on budget, star power, special effects and kudos, but these films still deliver.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
The first feature from Wes (Rushmore [1998]) Anderson, Bottle Rocket is the very funny tale of two likeable losers, Dignan and Anthony (real life brothers Owen and Luke Wilson), who think that in order to experience adventure and excitement, they must become embroiled in a life of crime and danger. The film’s strength is its gentle humour and Anderson’s genuine affection for its characters. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese is a fan of Anderson’s work: “Wes Anderson … has a very special kind of talent”, said Scorsese. “He knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness. This kind of sensibility is rare in movies.”

Trees Lounge (Steve Buscemi, 1996)
Taking a break from the bit parts and walk ons that have constituted the bulk of his career, Steve Buscemi is front and centre in Trees Lounge, a slice of life drama set in New Jersey that the fast talking actor wrote and directed. Buscemi is Tommy, a barfly and screwup who spends his considerable spare time drinking at the Trees or when things really hit rock bottom, driving his uncle’s ice-cream truck. Funny in a bittersweet way, it’s an original and rewarding addition to the Buscemi canon.

Say Anything. (Cameron Crowe, 1989)
The last and best of the John Cusack teen films, with The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985) and Better Off Dead (Savage Steve Holland, 1985) also worth a look by fans of the genre. In this superbly penned Cameron Crowe film, Cusack plays Lloyd Dobler, a likeable kickboxer who falls for the class brain and beauty. Say Anything. is an endearing film full of keenly observed characters and some winning dialogue.

Liebestraum (Mike Figgis, 1991)
Before Mike Figgis went all experimental with Timecode (2000) and The Loss of Sexual Innocence (1999), his raison d’être was making striking, sumptuous films populated by beautiful thespians. Liebestraum is certainly of that ilk. Kind of a neo-noir working across two timezones, it’s the story of a brace of affairs, a stately building and the connection between them.

The Boxer (Jim Sheridan, 1997)
From Knute-Rockne All-American through Rocky and on to The Replacements, the classic sports film formula has been one of teams or individuals using the arena as a place of redemption. The Boxer, though, is a searing drama set amid ‘the Troubles’ of Northern Ireland that both re-defines and avoids the clichés of the genre. Danny Flynn (Daniel Day Lewis) is a talented boxer who has spent the better part of his adult life in jail. Upon release his attempts to build a new life in the ring and outside it are thwarted by the same forces he protected by serving hard time. Delivering his lines as convincingly as his uppercuts, Day Lewis’ performance as a pugilist is the best since Robert De Niro’s as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980).

The Final Combat (Luc Besson, 1983)
Occasionally turning up at odd hours on television, The Final Combat was made by Luc Besson before he went on to make the familiar The Big Blue (1988), Nikita (1990) and The Professional (1994). Reminiscent of Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) (there’s even a gyrocopter) the film is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where some unknown catastrophe has caused the destruction of society as we know it, fish to fall from the sky and all the characters to lose their voices. While there’s music and incidental noise, there’s no dialogue. Shot in black and white and featuring the work of Besson regulars, including the charismatic Jean Reno as a villain (The Brute), The Final Combat is an intriguing late night delight.

Mediterraneo (Gabriele Salvatores, 1991)
Not a whole lot happens in Mediterraneo, a calmly paced, lyrical film directed by Gabriele Salvatores that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It’s the story of an Italian army unit that’s sent to guard a picturesque Greek island during World War 2. But cut off from their superiors and with their radio destroyed, the bumbling unit settle gradually into daily life, spending their time with the pulchritudinous prostitute Vasilissa (Vanna Barba), playing soccer, or in the case of the lieutenant, painting the local chapel. It’s an easy film to watch. Predicated on character and atmosphere, the beautiful setting plays as big as role as any of actors.

Bound (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1996)
A moody heist film with a sapphic flavour from the Wachhowski brothers, the team that also delivered The Matrix (1999), Bound is an engaging neo-noir that’s as stylish as it is unpredictable. Vioilet (Jennifer Tilly) is your classic femme fatale just waiting for a chance to betray the coarse Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Corky (Gina Gershon) is the insouciant ex-con who gets dragged into a complex web.

Big Night (Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci, 1995)
Set in ’50s suburban New Jersey, Big Night is the story of two brothers, Primo (Tony Shaloub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who directed with Campbell Scott) and their attempts to run a restaurant that is culinary-wise ahead of its time. As might be expected, the food is an integral and evocative component of the movie, which is also served well by a jumping soundtrack, some sterling acting, a witty script and an unconventionally moderate pace. The final scene is a truly inspired piece of filmmaking.

Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
A prison yarn for the most part, Down by Law is the quirky (what would you expect from Jim Jarmusch?) tale of three jailbirds. Jack (Tom Waits) is a hip but low-rent DJ, Zack (John Lurie) a smooth pimp and Roberto (Roberto Benigni), a poetry-reading Italian immigrant convicted of murder, find themselves trapped in the same cell in a Louisiana Bayou prison. Neither prison time nor the film move particularly quickly but gradually layers are added and the whole mood of the picture alters. Worth a viewing for the “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” scene.

The unkindest cut: directors and audiences

Filmmakers don’t always get their own way.

Having helmed such critically and commercial successes as Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down and Alien, it seems remarkable now that director Ridley Scott didn’t have things all his own way with Blade Runner (1982).

After all, we are talking about an artist who has earned a formidable reputation as a creator of big-canvas filmic epics such as Gladiator. And it’s a given he now has the prestige and the power to hold sway on any project he undertakes.

Yet early in his career while he was still establishing his name in feature film directing, Scott reluctantly made changes to a film many regard as one of the finest of the 1980s.

Even today, 30 years after it was made, the film’s look and tone depicting a dystopian future in a dark, menacing and polyglot LA, still seems futuristic (and bleak).

After the film was shown to test audiences, however, the producers of the project were unsatisfied with the manner in which it was received.

Too confusing, test audiences groused.

The end result was that a couple of changes were ordered.

The original ending, for instance, didn’t gel with Scott’s vision, a key scene was omitted while the voiceover supplied by Deckert (Harrison Ford) was also not to Scott’s liking. The film was released, met with a mediocre response and subsequently earned wider appreciation in arthouses and upon its release to video.

It was only much later, after Scott had underscored his considerable reputation as both a stylist and maker of commercially successfully movies that he was able to finally release Blade Runner in the manner he originally intended for it to be seen.

The director’s cut, as the name implies, is a version of the film the director, rather than the studio, the producers or anyone else, wished it to be made.

Of course, long before Blade Runner Director’s Cut was released, various versions of films were available.

Sometimes different version of a films are released in different countries to meet certain rating standards, scenes are added or lost for television and so on. For instance, the Australian version of On Any Given Sunday had about 10 less minutes of gridiron footage than the US version.

And by 1992, a full 10 years had passed since Blade Runner had originally been released, time for a whole new audience to have grown up, ready to join admirers of the original.

So as much as Scott’s new cut represented the unveiling of an artist’s uncorrupted vision, it was doubtless a whole new revenue stream for a product that didn’t reach its potential upon release.

That would appear to be the category in which most directors’ cuts fall. Consider the example of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Special Edition, James Cameron’s director’s cuts of Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day and the anniversary editions of the George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy.

It’s hard to imagine these titans of film not getting their way when their movies were first made. Rather, the cuts of their films are akin to an “added extras” version of a car.

Sure viewers get a longer movie, but is that necessarily better? Is more more?

Often, sadly, no.

Take the example of T2: Judgement Day, Director’s Cut. Quite a few scenes run longer and several new ones have been woven into the fabric of the film. True, some add to our understanding of the characters.  The downside is a compelling film is slowed down somewhat.

The same could be said for the Director’s cut of Aliens, which seems lugubrious when compared to the viscerally exciting original. We gain little from the additions and those gains (for instance, learning Ripley had a daughter who died) are offset by the deleterious effect on pacing.

The latter cut of Blade Runner, however, is imbued with a whole different complexion following the changes made. Though the differences between the two versions are quite subtle, clearly we’re talking about two quite different films.

Doubtless such would also be the case in those cut made by directors who were sacked from films they were working on – that is, if they ever had the chance to make them.

One interesting example might be a director’s cut of American History X prepared by the controversial Tony Kaye.

Kaye’s original vision for the film was wildly different from that of the producers and star Edward Norton, whom Kaye later referred to as “lice.”

In an artistic battle fought out in the Hollywood press, the studio claimed Kaye’s original cut was too short. Kaye countered by spending more than $US one million editing the film and taking out advertisements outlining his stand.

It didn’t wash, and his relationship with Norton deteriorated.

“Norton’s ego and narcissism kind of manoeuvred it (the structure of the film) totally to his wants, really,” Kaye says. “Not so much through the shooting, because I got everything that I needed to get, but when it came to the editing process, he manoeuvred himself into the cutting room and really caused me considerable grief.”

So disenchanted did he become with the editing process that Kaye wanted to remove his name from the credits and replace it with Alan Smithee, the sobriquet customarily used when directors no longer want to be associated with a project.

When that wasn’t allowed, Kaye tried to get his name replaced with that of Humpty Dumpty, also to no avail. For Kaye, this act summarised his relationship with the producers, with Norton and with Hollywood.

“Actually when I pulled the word Humpty Dumpty out of the air, I didn’t realise that Humpty Dumpty is basically a metaphor for mankind,” Kaye says. “And to me, that’s not far away from this whole scenario, because truth and honesty and integrity and respect are not words that any of these people live by. And I think Hollywood right now, maybe it’s always been like this, but it’s really lost a sense of what reality is.

“And I believe that when you make a film or when you put a story in pictures and sound on a screen in a theatre, it has to be real. And if the filmmakers have lost the notion of what reality is and authenticity is, then that work can never ever be good. Because they’ve lost the intuitive sense of how to judge the work.”


Final say in the editing process is obviously the most important factor in determining how closely the film that’s released resembles what the director originally had in mind.

Historically it wasn’t unusual for the bean counters on a project to insist on changes, and Orson Welles was one auteur who constantly fought (and lost) artistic battles over his projects.

Even as long ago as when Welles was making films, a potentially powerful element was already part of the editing process: that of the test audience.

Australian director Richard Franklin (FX2, Psycho 2, Hotel Sorrento) describes Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as “probably the major casualty of audience testing in film history.”

(See Franklin’s seminal article, Cinema Papers 95, October 1993).

One test audience member wrote on their card, “As bad if not worse than Citizen Kane.”

Another wrote, “Audiences want a laff,” and this response was given three times the weighting of another comment (saying) “possibly the greatest piece of cinema ever.”

A test audience wanted the song Over the Rainbow cut from The Wizard of Oz (1939) because it was considered the scene it appeared in slowed down the film too much.

Supposedly a group selected to represent a film’s target demographic, a test audience can give a serious high five or thumbs down to characters, plot elements, music, or denouement of a movie.

A test screening audience didn’t like that Samuel L. Jackson’s’ sartorially resplendent character in Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight was rubbed out before the final credits rolled.

So even though earlier scenes had shown Jackson taking enough lead to kill his character several times over, the actors were ordered back to the set and new scenes showing Jackson’s character bravely surviving were shot.

A test audiences was also responsible for having Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction killed off.

In essence, test audiences members are no longer regarded as people who get to experience a finished piece of art, but rather consumers, who like diners in a restaurant, are able to send back what has been served to them if it’s not to their liking.

In Franklin’s opinion, studios using test audience results to ride roughshod over directors “is about power and not about art.”

He considers allowing people who don’t understand the movie-making process to give their opinion on how a picture might be changed is like asking folks in off the street to try some amateur brain surgery.

On the other hand, Franklin is in favour of using previewing that has meaning to him.

“That can be as simple as showing it to two or three trusted friends or as complex as screening it for an audience of 50 people in which half are known to me and half are not,” explains Franklin, who has even been known to stop the projector and ask questions during a screening.

“But never do I use the anonymous process. That is, someone has to give me a reason why someone won’t put their name on the form. If I don’t understand their comment or I think they’ve got a point, I actually follow them up and talk to them.”

Would Franklin make changes to his films based on comments from audience members?

“Of course, why would you have a screening otherwise?” Franklin says. “You don’t so it to make changes, you do it to learn about how your ideas are communicating. And sometimes you can achieve that best by just showing it to one friend.”


Australian director Phillip Noyce (The Bone Collector, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) is one director not necessarily in favour of the testing process as it used in the US.

“In the past 10 years, the studios used the test screening process as a baseball bat to knock the filmmakers over the head and beat them into homogeneity,” Noyce told The Age.

“Now it’s arguable, at least until recently, that a few hundred teenagers in the Valley in Los Angeles have as much power as the studio heads do in terms of finally affecting the movies that actually appear on screen.

“The test-screening process in America has been taken to the nth degree – and that’s n for nitwit.”

For directors without control over the final cut – and in a very competitive business it would seem there are many who fall into that category – the testing process could loom as a potentially intrusive element in the creative process.

Sure, filmmakers must be accustomed to their art form being a collaborative one, with an often eclectic group contributing to the end product. But when a test audience via a studio demands changes be made, it could hardly be considered a constructive element. Not for the director, anyway.

“It’s much easier to embrace the whole testing process when you know that you ultimately control the final cut on your movies,” director Ron Howard (Parenthood, Backdraft) once explained.

“But it’s frightening if you’re in a position where you’re going to show the movie at a preview and somebody else is going to take the results of that preview and re-cut the film based on that, maybe consulting you or maybe not. That’s terrifying.”


It’s easy to understand why a studio would want to control as much of the filmmaking process as possible, of course. So much money is invested in major Hollywood productions that the failure of even a single big-budget feature can have a devastating impact on a studio’s bottom line.

Little wonder, then, that every tool at a studio’s disposal is utilised to make a film “work”.

Would audiences have flocked to Pretty Woman in the numbers they did had Richard Gere and Julia Roberts parted at the end of the film before a test audience effectively changed the conclusion? We’ll never know.

On the other hand, countless changes to films have been made at the behest of test audiences that we’ll also likely never know about, for better or worse.

So is there some way to avoid Noyce’s description of the Hollywood process, where the testing system has an unhealthy presence?

How about director’s cuts for every director unhappy with the version that hits our screens?

Didn’t think so.

Perhaps the emergence of DVDs will go some way to helping viewers understand the difficulty directors (and studios) face in editing films.

When in 1996 final cut was taken away from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (aka Sydney) and the film re-edited, the director was a virtual unknown.

But having since enjoyed a measure of critical and commercial success with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, a director’s cut DVD of Hard Eight is now available, showing the film as it was originally meant to be seen.

Yet perhaps the onus for taking clout away from those California teenagers Noyce was referring to belongs to us.

Every time we stay away from a piece of formulaic, derivative dross, and on every occasion we embrace those films that defy convention, mess with the standard template and resist categorisation, we have a say in the type of films that will be made in the future.


This article first appeared in issue no. 127/128 Autumn/winter 2001 of Metro magazine.


You don’t hear so much about either audience testing or director’s cuts of movies these days. Perhaps Hollywood has become so risk-averse that the kinds of films that might elicit an unfavourable response just can’t be made inside the studio system anymore. Ridley Scott continued to fiddle-faddle around with Blade Runner until he produced The Final Cut in 2007.  There is talk of a sequel in 2017 starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling.

My life as a MiHLF

Observations on life in a new demographic.

There is really no point denying it any longer, so I may as well fess up: I am a MiHLF. That’s right, a MiHLF, or Man in His Late Forties.

A month or so ago, before January 16, things felt different. Back then, when I was (at 46) still in my mid 40s, well, I was full of (relative) youthful exuberance, and loving life. Now I am acutely conscious that my next birthday of note is the big five-oh. You can’t argue with a number like that. A half-century on this planet is no small integer. Five decades. Two score and 10 years.

It’s not the only big milestone of note, either, with 2016 the 30th anniversary of my high school graduation. Thirty years – how is that even possible?

It’s funny (but not ha-ha funny) how the passage of a few weeks, or even days, changes one’s perspective. And it’s not that I feel bad – far from it. I am in a stable relationship, am buoyed by a close-knit family and group of friends, and am fortunate that it doesn’t take too much to keep me happy. A good workout, nice cup of tea, or an excellently crafted sentence to read will often do the trick. There is a roof over my head, and I don’t want for sustenance.

Still, I can’t deny that my entry into the (hardly exclusive) realm of the MiHLFs hasn’t been a little unsettling.

There are world leaders, corporate titans and successful sports coaches who are my age and younger. MiHLF musicians are conducting revival tours, playing in out-of-the-way venues and shamelessly topping up their superannuation with one more run through the old song list.

To some degree I agree with the adage that you’re as young as you feel. There are some individuals whose verve for life, dynamism and self-care has them acting and appearing far younger than their chronological age would suggest they should.

Others are old before their time: young fud-duds whose inflexible attitudes, unhealthy habits and perhaps life circumstances have taken a physical and psychological toll.

Yet aging needn’t be all bad. With age comes wisdom, even if the epiphanies we experience are often bitter sweet.

Age is an enemy in some ways but a friend in others,” says writer Mike Sager. “People who rely on their minds should get better and smarter with age.”

Of course, turning 47 wasn’t a complete surprise. It has been a case of “gradually then suddenly”, like a frog being boiled alive.

The signs have been evident for a while. The 5kg I pt on in my early 40s has stayed stubbornly adhered to my midsection, like the detritus of a conjoined twin. I’ve been wearing glasses for a while, but lately my eyes have been noticeably worse. My knees create their own sound effects, a cacophony of grinding noises known as crepitus (perhaps from the same Latin root as “decrepit”?)

My cholesterol has been creeping up for a while.

Grey hairs are becoming increasingly prominent, although evidently this is something of an optical illusion; hairs are either their natural colour or white, with the palette of grey determined by the number of whites in a particular patch. Still, I am starting to sport the fluffy George Negus “senior statesman” white-sideburns look.

As if to accompany this, I’ve developed a fondness for cardigans. Can sports coats with elbow patches be far behind?

Some years ago I determined that whatever levels of athleticism and rate of recovery I had enjoyed in previous decades had diminished (kind of a no-brainer that one), and that I had to respond accordingly. This has led to my patented 45-minute Warm-Up Routine, a series of exercises that enables me to have a decent sweat without tearing a calf or groin muscle. I do my “warm-up” and then go home in one piece. Clearly, however, things must be stepped up if that 5kg is to be dislodged.

The key, as all those ageing studies have told us, is to keep moving. Renowned long livers the Okinawans don’t even have a word for “retirement”. They just keep on keeping on in the form of manual labour on their farms or martial arts.

It’s important to differentiate here between the MiHLF and the MAMiL (middle-aged man in lycra). Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the efforts of my cycling contemporaries to be fit and spry – good on them. But sometimes those chaps have an air of desperation and obsession regarding their exertions – that if they ride hard or often enough and in the right suburban peloton wearing the best gear and riding an inordinately expensive bike – they can somehow, Rupert-Murdoch like, stave off the grim reaper for ever.

But, really, what’s with the completely matching lycra ensemble? Wearing a head-to-toe authentic Tour de France or manufacturer’s riding kit is the equivalent of me heading down to my local court to shoot hoops entirely in Boston Celtics gear. No one wants to see this, least of all me.

Then again, if the passing of years tells us anything it’s that we may as well wear what we like. Our time allotment on this planet is small, and time marches on inexorably.

We MiHLFs need to stick together.

Catchphrase and cunning plans

During a recent televised game of English soccer, a routine play was described thus: “They had a cunning plan.”

In fact there wasn’t anything especially crafty about the tactics on display – one player passed to another who immediately attempted to kick a straightforward goal. And this was precisely the commentator’s point.

In comedy Blackadder, when servant Baldrick declared to his master that he had a cunning plan, it invariably transpired the strategy he had in mind was nothing of the sort.

That the phrase would have been recognised by many soccer fans reflects both the show’s popularity and the tendency for our everyday language to absorb words and phrases from the texts we consume.

Our written culture has long influenced the way we communicate, phrases from books and plays seeping into the landscape of contemporary language, which changes constantly as new words and expressions are added and others fall out of use.

Take the expression “sour grapes,” which dates from the Aesop’s Fable about a fox, who, unable to reach a bunch of the fruit perched high on the vine, declares them not to his taste.

Outside of its profound historical and religious influence, the Bible has offered plenty to the texture of the way we speak.

Expressions such as, “woe is me,” “by the skin of your teeth,” “living off the fat of the land,” “no rest for the wicked,” “bite the dust,” “the writing is on the wall and “the powers that be” originate in the Good Book.

A slew of expressions either written or popularised by William Shakespeare have also filtered into our lingo.

“Laughing stock,” “sea change,” “bloody minded,” “cold comfort,” “foul play” and “good riddance” all featured in plays written by the Bard.

Though he was long gone by the time the expression “to steal one’s thunder” was coined, Shakespeare is also partly responsible for its genesis.

The story goes that John Dennis, something of a theatrical all-rounder who wrote and directed plays and managed theatre companies in the 1700s, invented a device that made a nifty stage thunder effect. It was used in a play Dennis wrote called Appius and Virginia.

The play, however, was not a success and was soon taken off in favour of a production of Macbeth, a sure-fire hit.

Dennis went to the opening night of the play and was shocked to hear his thunder machine being used.

He leapt to his feet and shouted, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”

Like many sayings that have stood the test of time, it has been refined and made punchier, but remained in use.

So will popular culture prove as prolific in its contribution to the spoken and written word?

It seems unlikely, at least in the long term.

In the first place, regardless of how powerful or popular a film, TV program, radio broadcast or even Internet site is, it’s not going to have the cachet or reach of the Bible or the works of that chap from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Of course, popular culture indubitably shapes the way we communicate, and you only have to listen to a bunch of schoolkids talking to, like, totally realise that, like, television so does have an influence.

Yet the Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrase suggests that although many grabs from the big and small screen seize the popular imagination, most have an ephemeral existence, and are rarely used beyond a program’s run.

And that’s probably why you don’t hear folks exclaim, “She goes, she goes … she just goes,” “correctamundo,” or “schwing,” much these days. They are all horribly dated. Of their time.

Once a ubiquitous replacement for harsher language, even Homer Simpson’s “D’oh” looks like it might be going the way of the Fred Flintstone line, “Yabba-dabba-do!”

Seinfeld’s substitute for blah blah blah – “Yada, yada, yada” – has likewise fallen out of use.

Similarly, you don’t hear about folks working on their Penske files much these days. But perhaps this will change following the opening of a bar in Fitzroy named in honour of the show’s George Costanza character.

The word “muggle” from JK Rowling’s extraordinarily popular Harry Potter book series was added to the Oxford English Dictionary early in the new millennium. In the books a muggle means someone who can’t practice magic, but it can also be used to describe anyone who is accident- prone or unable to master a skill. But it has quickly fallen out of use.

Many expressions that do have a longer shelf life, say, “Go ahead, make my day,” “I’ll be back,” or “Missed it by that much,” are better described as quotes, and are usually executed in very poor imitations of Dirty Harry, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and secret agent Maxwell Smart, respectively.

Yet when we say, “one fell swoop,” or, “pound of flesh,” we don’t use a Scottish burr just because they originated in Macbeth. They’ve become a fully-fledged part of the language.

Perhaps it’s simply a case that if an expression is in use long enough, its origin is forgotten, and knowledge of it therefore unnecessary.

A case in point is the expression, “keeping up with the Joneses”, which was the title of a comic strip that was first published in New York in 1913. One doesn’t have to be familiar with its origins to understand that it means staying fashionable, keeping up to date with trends.

It seems there is no rhyme nor reason (a phrase first recorded by John Russell in The Boke of Nurture, circa 1460) for how language involves.

Predicting which phrases have legs (so to speak) is therefore problematic. Guesswork, at best.

The signature catchphrase from Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), “Show me the money,” a demand for employers to cough up large amounts of cash, looks like it might have durability.

Writer and director Cameron Crowe put it in the film after hearing a real-life football player use it.

In the movie the phrase was shouted by gridiron star Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jnr) to his agent, the eponymous character played by Tom Cruise.

Another phrase that originated in the arena of sports, “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” was coined in 1978 by sports broadcaster Dan Cook after the first of a seven-game basketball series.

Like the “stealing thunder” phrase, it’s been refined over the years to become simply, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

You also occasionally hear about an offer that can’t be refused – a Godfather offer – named for Marlon Brando’s menacing character in the 1970s gangster flick.

Should a character in that film have been silly enough not to accept a Don Corleone proposal, he would be rubbed out, whacked, clipped or be found swimming with the fishes.

And one doesn’t have to read the novel by Joseph Heller or seen the Mike Nichols (1970) film to know that “a Catch-22 situation” is a paradox or predicament in which seeming alternatives cancel each other out.

Yet another way for catchphrases to stick around is for them to be appropriated by other programs.

The expression “Cowabunga,” for instance, was coined on The Howdy Doody Show (1947–1960) and featured in Gidget, Sesame Street, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and most recently, The Simpsons.

As the Good Book says, there really is nothing new under the sun.


A version of this article first appeared in issue 32 of Australian Screen Education.

Non-human characters

It’s awards season once again, but there will be no gongs for the thespians who aren’t people.

Not all the characters we see in movies are flesh and blood.

In 2003’s Japanese Story, for instance, one of the more prominent parts was played by the Australian outback.

Menacing, disquieting, inscrutable, beautiful, the Pilbara was an intrinsic component of the movie.

While actor Toni Collette and the film itself earned praise and awards, it seemed almost unfair not to present the outback with its own Australian Film Institute gong.

This might, of course, create some logistical problems. What would the desert wear to the ceremony? What would it say in its acceptance speech?

(“I’d like to thank God …”).

Likewise, in Lawrence of Arabia, the shifting golden sands of the Middle East form as big part of the film’s fabric as the performance of Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif or indeed any of the human players.

Ubiquitous, enigmatic and unrelenting, the desert in the film is like a stalking villain that never lets up or gives in; survival requires a constant effort.

That film’s musical score is also such an indelible and recognisable part of the movie that it too is like an unseen character, albeit an important and evocative one.

As the score builds, accompanying a scene where Lawrence leads a caravan of camels across a seemingly unnavigable part of the desert, you can feel your throat becoming increasingly parched. Will they ever reach the other side?

You would expect song to play a key part in musicals – films like Singin’ in the Rain or Oklahoma would hardly make sense without them.

Yet there are other films, too where song plays a key role.

Imagine Saturday Night Fever without the pulsing disco tunes of the Bee Gees. The scene featuring John Travolta strutting along the pavement to the accompaniment of Stayin’ Alive is a defining moment of 70s pop culture.

Although the Coen brothers billed O Brother Where Art Thou as an adaptation of The Odyssey, (even giving Homer a screenwriting credit) it is really a series of comical vignettes that are tied together by an eclectic range of bluegrass tunes.

It is a film with a rather exaggerated, contrived (but humorous) plot. The pleasure to be derived from viewing it comes from its beautiful craftsmanship – the sumptuous cinematography and mise en scene – and the performances from its character actors.

Apart from George Clooney, who plays the excessively loquacious Ulysses Culpepper, I don’t think there’s a more important “character” than the music.

Indeed, it almost seems at times as if scenes were written to accompany the music rather than vice versa.

Many films are set in the urban environment where most of us live, and cities can also sometimes seem like characters, even playing major parts.

New York is as familiar to us as many Hollywood stars.

Its dangerous streets and ornate buildings, its parks and skyscrapers are used so often in film they are in danger of being typecast.

It’s a good thing it is such a versatile performer, sometimes sophisticated and alluring (Manhattan, Wall Street Moonstruck), sometimes dangerous and dishevelled (The French Connection, The King of New York).

The city saddled with playing desperate, depressed or just plain worn-out characters has got to be Detroit.

Once described as the place where the American Dream broke down in the rain and rusted, the Motor City is usually depicted as some kind of hell.

In 2002’s Narc, its grey, drab, joyless streets play a rather malevolent role. The human equivalent might be portrayed by Christopher Walken.

It is a ghoul, a dark-hearted thug from which its denizens are incapable of breaking free.

In Robocop, Detroit is depicted as something of a lawless playground for various pimps, thieves and other assorted criminals ripe for the intervention of the straight-laced cyborg policeman. Yet in 2002’s 8 Mile not even the gritty Motown streets can hold Eminem back from his rhyming’ destiny.

A city doesn’t have to be real to play a character, either.

Consider the metropolis of Dark City in the film of the same name, Gotham in Batman, the hamlet in Sleepy Hollow, or the unnamed city in Se7en.

None are in fact genuine cities, but if anything this only heightens their status as characters rather than mere living spaces. Their shadowy nooks, gothic spires and spooky lanes seem to be inhabited by a nasty sense of foreboding – as if the streets know something the human characters in the films are yet to learn.

The cinema landscape, in fact, features many non-flesh-and-blood characters in a range of guises.

A boat, a building and a computer played important roles in Titanic, Towering Inferno and 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively.

On the meteorological side, the ocean stole the thunder in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, The Perfect Storm, and White Squall.

Backdraft may have featured Robert De Niro, Billy Baldwin and Kurt Russell, but the real star of the film was its many fiery tongues of flame.

In Twister a series of powerful gusts was the headline act.

Of course for these films to achieve any sort of realism, the special effects have to be top shelf.

In the past few years computer-generated effects have come to play such an intrinsic component of filmmaking that in movies such as The Mummy or Matrix Reloaded they could be said to constitute a character all their own.

A character does not have to be corporeal.

In Serendipity, a sense of fate, of destiny, plays perhaps the main character (certainly the title role) in the romantic comedy.

The other side of fortune is bad luck, and in Intacto it is depicted as a palpable object that can be transferred from one person to another, like a disease, or a dread talisman.

One of the main characters in Final Destination is Death. Unlike the hooded Reaper of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, or the spectral figure of the Ingmar Bergman film, it has no human guise.

Rather it is an unseen force that is not assuaged until its intended victims are taken.

And there’s a very big upside to this cast of characters.

They don’t have managers, make unreasonable demands, stay out late partying, want to direct, or ask, “What’s my motivation?” There are no tantrums, no bad days.

They are method actors, and always in character.

10,000 miles from Graceland

If we are to believe Mojo Nixon, Elvis is everywhere, Elvis is everything, Elvis is everybody and Elvis is still the King. Of rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but also of kitsch.

Most people older than 25 are familiar with the image of the young, hip-shakin’ fresh-faced rocker who sang classics such as Blue Suede Shoes.

Perhaps even more might recognise the King from his performances in a succession of corny films made throughout the 60s that turn up occasionally on weekend afternoon TV.

Yet perhaps the enduring image is one of a corpulent, excellently coiffured cabaret performer bedecked in strange, jewel-encrusted white jumpsuits who belts out pop numbers with the backing of an enormous orchestra while alternatively executing karate moves and dispensing sweat-drenched souvenir scarves to his adoring acolytes.

On the one hand there remains today a legion of serious-minded followers dedicated to the preservation of Elvis Presley and his place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.

At the same time, perhaps more potent is the notion of Elvis that critic Greil Marcus, author of Dead Elvis – A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, describes as a collective joke.

Marcus notes that Elvis manifestations have grown more perverse and extreme since his death. Hence in True Romance Christian Slater is inspired by an image of the King to wreak havoc on a room full of mobsters, or elsewhere a raft of flying Elvises is shown jumping out of a plane in Honeymoon in Vegas.

Elvis has been depicted in The Simpsons (shooting a television) and The Twilight Zone.

There is a Mexican Elvis impersonator, El Vez, and at least one female one, Elvis Herselvis.

Stranger still must have been the one-man play, Him, written and performed by Christopher Walken in which Elvis fakes his death, undergoes a sex-change operation and ends up working as a waitress in a diner.

It is Elvis as pisstake, as punch line or fancy-dress costume.

As critic Terrence Rafferty has noted, Elvis was King in pre-ironic times, or at least a period in which irony wasn’t the sole measure of intelligence or artistic value.

Now it’s almost impossible, for non-fans anyway, to view Elvis without irony, or worse, contempt.

For the most part I’ve wanted it both ways, very much appreciating Elvis’ music but also delighting in his strange arcana – the King was a sleepwalker!

That’s why my reaction to a recent Elvis double bill was surprising.

I very much enjoyed the first flick, Viva Las Vegas. It’s silly, yes, but I found myself laughing with the movie more than at it, except in one or two scenes where for instance, love interest Rusty (Ann-Margaret) is shown riding her motor bike while standing.

And there was nary a titter from an obviously respectful audience that filled Melbourne’s Astor Theatre on closing night of the film’s run.

To see the King rehearsing and then performing his Vegas shows in Elvis: That’s the Way It Is is to witness the phenomenon just before the drugs and awful diet really kicked in and everything – career, life, body – went pear-shaped.

When the Big E, with his band and some seriously affroed backing singers cranked out Suspicious Minds I actually felt shivers down my spine, a feeling I haven’t felt at the movies since I don’t know when.

Of course, the movie finished and I left the building feeling confused but also grateful, thinking, Thank you, Elvis. Thank you very much.


This article first appeared in issue 28 of Australian Screen Education.



Christopher Walken and the bad seeds

Need a huckster, psychopath or gangster for your latest film project? Christopher Walken, 72, will likely take your call.

More than a few pretty boys wrestle for roles that yield large coin and kudos. Steve Buscemi has the market cornered in edgy screwiness, while Tom Cruise seems to have first dibs on anything science-fiction related. When Hollywood goes looking for pure, unalloyed malevolence, however, say a psychotic gangster, a bad seed or a 
huckster, Christopher Walken gets the call.

The ghostly complexion, the quaff brushed straight up that Walken says was famous before he was, and an unhinged demeanour, are attributes more naturally suited to villains. And it is in these parts where Walken, with his nasty looks and peerless hair, has plied his trade – and indeed flourished.

Part of Walken’s allure may be that his looks suggest an actor who doesn’t leave his character behind once bereft of costume and makeup, but rather is weird – and dangerous – all the time.

“Chris Walken could scare people just walking down the street,” director Abel Ferrara once said. “Two-year-old babies cry when he enters the room. The guy is scary. He works hard at it though.”

Born Ronald Walken, the son of German and Scottish immigrants who settled in New York and opened a bakery, Walken was encouraged by his mother towards performance from an early age. Schooled in the vaudevillian arts, he has utilised some of his soft-shoe skills in Pennies From Heaven and The Four Rules (aka Search And Destroy), while his crooning abilities and schtick get a show in Homeboy.

While his two brothers left song, dance and acting behind, Walken never seriously considered doing anything else, and made his Broadway debut at 16. It was while touring with West Side Story in 1963 that Walken met his wife of almost 50 years, casting agent Georgianne Thon.

Since then his career has been marked by output as much as excellence, and Walken hasn’t always demonstrated prudent judgement when it comes to choosing parts. Consequently he’s featured in as many low-rent, exclusive-to-video projects (All-American Murder, Prophecy II) as in features that are more worthy of his formidable talents. And judging by the number of theatre roles he’s played, (more than 50, as diverse as Iago in Othello and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire), Walken has used his prolific film output to fund more personal, board-treading projects.

He even wrote and starred in a play about Elvis called Him, in which the King fakes his own death, undergoes a sex-change operation and ultimately works as a waitress in a diner.

Walken admits fear of unemployment plays on him more than any of the dark stuff he summons for his characters.

“I have been lucky,” he admits. “I have always been in work. Fear? That is my fear. When there is nothing left for me to do.” Judging from his recent output, he’s got very little to fret about. Since making his film debut in the mid 1960s, Walken has made more than 100 film and television appearances.

A random sampling of Walken’s work:

Suicide Kings (1998)
Avery Chasten (Henry Thomas) has a problem. Even though his family is rolling in money, he can’t pony up the ransom for the safe return of his kidnapped sister. So a plan is hatched. Avery and some of his resourceful friends decide to kidnap Charlie Barrett (Walken), a gangster kingpin, and try to force him to use his connections to raise the stake. It’s a strange premise, but then Suicide Kings is an odd melange of seemingly incongruous genres that combine to form a compelling whole. At times comedy, noir and violent crime film, it builds to an unpredictable conclusion that rivals The Usual Suspects in the, “I bet you didn’t see it coming” stakes. Walken is sublime. It matters little he’s done this sort of part before because the guy does it so very very well, and a highlight is a flashback scene depicting him as a superfly 70s ne’er-do-well. Denis Leary plays Lono Vecchio, a wise-cracking henchman with a predilection for hurting people with kitchen appliances and Jay Mohr (Go!) is excellent as Avery’s take-charge buddy Brett. Bottom line? Sure, it’s not without flaws (hey, it did go straight to video) but is nonetheless a suspenseful story revealed piece by searing piece, and a worthy addition to the Walken body of work.

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
If there is a film that underlines the strategy best employed in the negotiation of the Walken canon, it is this one. An essentially plotless paean to the beauty of Venice and to that of its male and female leads (Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson), it is less triumph than replacement of style over substance. Oh, the strategy? Don’t ask. DO NOT ASK. Don’t ask why Walken is cast as the Italian lead. Don’t ask about the ending or anything leading up to it. Most important: don’t ask about the use of Walken’s recurring “My father was a big man …” speech. Just embrace the whole damn creepy Walkenesque experience.

The King of New York (1990)
In the best known of director Abel Ferrara’s works, Walken plays Frank White, a gangster, who like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, sees himself as a public benefactor and legit businessman rather than a criminal. Of course The Don didn’t have the Asian element to dispose of, nor a posse of nubile female guards at his disposal. Also, White doesn’t pussy-foot around with a “just say no to drugs” policy. He and his entourage snort it, sell it and steal it. Ferrara has said he was never sure when, or even if, Walken was acting. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your level of Walken devotion, but nevertheless the film remains a brutal and visceral gangster flick that is spectacular to observe, and White a singularly unsavoury personage. Warning: this film contains David Caruso.

The Prophecy (1995)
To quote director Abel Ferrara, you only have to look at Walken to see he’s been through some heavy-duty shit. Whether he draws upon those experiences to get in character we don’t know (even Walken says he doesn’t understand some of what he does), suffice to say Walken does sinister very well. In The Prophecy (aka God’s Army), Walken plays the archangel Gabriel gone bad. So bad in fact, he’s instigated a war in heaven between factions of angels. You really have to see it to understand it. Four vastly inferior sequels were made.

The Dead Zone (1983)
As Johnny Smith, Walken is a man who recovers from a serious accident to find he possesses extraordinary powers. In his syndicated column for The Onion, the actor explained his motivation for the role thus: “When we filmed The Dead Zone, I ate over 800 hot dogs a day. It was necessary. My character needed to come across as intense as possible, and I found the inspiration for that intensity in my intense love for hot dogs. The director, David Cronenberg, said that he would never work with me again. I kept eating hotdogs when the cameras were rolling, and that seemed to bother him. I say f* him. He doesn’t even like hotdogs. I would like to end by emphasising once again that I really like to eat hot dogs. If any of you people disagree, I loathe you. I despise you. Not only that, but I also despise all of your loved ones. I want to see them torn to pieces by wild dogs. If I ever meet you in person, I’ll smash your brains in with a f*g bat. Then we’ll see who doesn’t like hot dogs.” As Ferrara says, the guy is a treasure.

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)
Despite the presence of interfering ghosts, this is not really a Walken project per se, rather an excellent film than features Walken in one of the supporting roles that has characterised his working life. As Kyril Montana (Whitely Streiber, Vanni Corso, Sgt Toomey, Caesar – who comes up with these names?) Walken is the menacing sheriff brought to bear on a farmer stealing water. In what is a lovely film about a community coming together, Walken is – typically – the only character not to lighten up.

The Deer Hunter (1978)
Long before Walken earned a reputation for being “out there”, he proved in this Oscar-winning performance he has no trouble playing damaged, tortured souls. Featuring a stellar cast that also includes Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter is a superb film simply to look at if nothing else. It tells of the lives of a group of young adults who belong to the same immigrant European community in Pennsylvania. A traditional wedding and hunting scene establishes the closeness of a group of men who are sent to a brutal war in Vietnam that alters their lives irrevocably for the worse. The film earned five Oscars, including Walken’s for Best Supporting Actor.

Touch (1997)
If not exactly rogue, neither is Walken’s Bill Hill a swell guy. Let’s just say he’s a salesman, an impresario, and whether it’s God via his drive-in church, or campervans from his lot, Hill can close a deal. So when he encounters a bona fide latter-day miracle worker in the person of Skeet Ulrich’s former monk, he recognises an opportunity when he sees it. Again, this is not Walken’s film, but he leaves enough trademark flourishes to mark his presence in what is an engaging treatise on the cult of personality.

Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Just because The Man With The Plan (Walken) tools around in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he isn’t to be feared, which is something Andy Garcia and his array of strange friends find out to their misfortune. Walken (“I’m a criminal. My word’s not worth dick.”) is a thoroughly immoral felon who employs henchman Mr Shhh (Buscemi) to exact revenge for a botched job. Apart from Walken, for whom this part was seemingly written, it’s worth checking out the film for Treat Williams, far removed from his straightlaced typecast, as Critical Bill, a whacko who beats up cadavers to stay in shape. Give it a name.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
He might only be in the film a mere five minutes or so of screen time, and Pulp Fiction is a movie crammed to the gills with dialogue, but Captain Koons is the role many best associate with Walken. To say more than the scene involves the concealment of a watch in a strange hiding place and a speech delivered with characteristic brio reveals too much. It gets the edge over Tony Scott’s True Romance for best cameo by Walken in a Quentin Tarrantino-associated film.

Homeboy (1988)
In a film set in the scungy world of Palookaville boxing, Walken plays Wesley Pendergass, a singer-dancer, pugilistic hanger-on, schemer, small timer and general miscreant. Although the best line of the film (“Scrote? What is that, French?”) is not his own, Pendergass gets to say, “Ladies and germs … I wrote that myself,” used in the introduction to his nightclub gig as lead singer of Bernie Beamer and the Busted Hymens. Though action centres on Mickey Rourke as tomato can Johnny Walker, there remain plenty of Walken moments. We’re talking egregious monologues (“I want a dozen silk shirts the colour of the rainbow …”), shiftiness, ill-advised criminal activity, the Walken twitchiness and the hair. Always the hair. Downbeat as all getout, Homeboy has a real feel for the sport lacking in boxing films with far more cachet, and a great soundtrack by Eric Clapton.

Honourable mentions to: Biloxi Blues, Videodrome, At Close Range, Wayne’s World 2, Annie Hall, Seven Psychopaths.

This article first appeared over at The Urban Cinefile.

It’s time for a very Barry revolution

Barry White

In days of yore the naming of a child was an august and earnest affair; a time for no small amount of thoughtful consideration.

In some cultures, such as the Hellenic tradition, offspring were (and continue to be) routinely named after a respected family member. In this way, a nominative chain could be observed: Arthur, grandson of Arthur, and so on.

The practice among native American nations was to name a newborn for an observed phenomenon close to the birth. Sitting Bull, for instance, or Crazy Horse.

In more recent times, names that had gone out of fashion, such as Archie or Ruby, have enjoyed a strong revival.

Another recent trend, however, seems to be the flippant, seemingly off-hand bestowal of diminutives, nicknames or pet names for one’s offspring in place of a proper, dignified moniker.

In one recent Sunday paper magazine spread alone, a Rowdie, Birdie, Buster, Captain and Sugar were photographed with their respective culpable dads (it was a Father’s Day feature).

Admittedly “Captain” has a certain cachet about it. And, indeed, if there is such a thing as nominative determinism (the effect one’s name has on future success and even chosen occupation) then you expect this child might aspire to management roles. He could go far.

Buster sounds like he might be a lot of fun. Throw a stick and he’ll bring it back for you.

Clearly, though, none of the parents of these off-handedly dubbed children have thought too far ahead about the ramifications of such a casual approach. Though indubitably cutesy now, a dinky-twee sobriquet is going to have some drawbacks in the workaday world these delightfully named children are one day likely to occupy.

What happens when young Captain wants to pilot commercial aircraft or join the armed services, Sugar aspires to be a nutritionist, and Rowdie hopes to be a Mormon rector?

Let us stop this madness, I say, this naming-as-competition hipster foolishness. It serves us ill.

Rather than continue down this path of egregious appellation invention to goodness-knows where, I urge young parents to turn instead to the formidable font of what’s already available. It is a trough of plenty.

I am plumping for the return to prominence of a name you don’t hear much among the Buster-Birdie set these days: Barry.

Good old Barry. Bazza boy. Basil. Baz.

A name almost onomatopoeic in its capacity to evoke (masculinity, competence, even hirsuteness) Barry had its heyday in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Many a Barry has made his mark on the world.

In entertainment, Messrs Humphrey, Manilow, White and Gibb are nothing short of legends. Icons. Titans, even. At least one of them has written the songs the whole world sings.

Australian rules champions Barry Breen, Barry Cable, and Barry Round must surely be members of the Barry pantheon. One launched the wobbly punt to secure St Kilda’s only premiership, one was a pioneering exponent of handball and a trailblazer for aboriginal footballers (and Barrys) – thank you Barry Cable – and Mr Round (nominative determinism in action again) is the oldest Barry (and in fact player) to earn a prestigious Brownlow medal.

Barry Jones is considered perhaps the most erudite politician to have served, in Australian parliament. His grace, humanity and equanimity put contemporary politicians to shame.

Since the 1980s hard-nosed journalist Barrie Cassidy has cast a critical eye over the vicissitudes and vicious character assassinations associated with said milieu above.

What caused the sudden increase in popularity of the name in the early part of the 20th century?

Some sources suggest the name, which has Irish origins, is a derivation of any of the traditional monikers beginning with or including “bar”, such as Barnabas, Finbar or Bartholomew. It means “spear” or “fair haired”.

Perhaps the eponymous character from Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (written in 1844) played a part in the name’s rise in popularity throughout the Anglosphere in the early part of last century.

In the book, the villainous anti-hero Redmond Barry flees Ireland after a duel, becoming a soldier and card sharp before marrying the foolish countess of Lyndon and taking her name. After years of high living and poor behaviour, his life ends badly – poor, prematurely senile, and in prison.

According to website Name Origins, the US reached “peak Barry” in the mid 1960s – around the time actor Barry Pepper and US American football legend Barry Sanders were born.

In Australia that figure would be closer to the mid 1940s, which was when my Dad, Barry Dillon, was born (1943 in his case).

Never has a bigger-hearted person entered the world, I don’t think. The youngest of nine born on a Preston Housing Commission estate, Dad managed to provide for a family (including a future doctor and a professional athlete), and to always be available for his kin, even when he was working three jobs to try and get ahead.

Every year I grow in admiration for the manner in which he’s always conducted himself – a personal code based on commitment to work, helping others whenever possible, intellectual curiosity, and always doing what’s right (which means this may/may not be strictly by the book).

I once worked on a building site where there were four Barrys: my Dad (Barry the labourer), Barry the brickies’ labourer, Barry the plumber and Barry the sparky. I can’t imagine you’d find too many workplaces like that these days. “Barry” has gone the way of Albert, Cyril or Stanley; signifiers of decades long since past.

You do, however, very occasionally hear of a new Barry sighting.

In the TV series The Flash, the eponymous character’s daytime persona is Barry Allen. But then again the comic strip originally appeared in 1956, and the superhero’s alter ego’s name was Bartholomew.

There’s Baz Luhrmann, but he’s no spring chicken either, and in his case Baz is a nickname (he’s actually Mark).

Barry is also a nickname for US president Barack Obama.

Occasionally you hear the word dropped into conversation (as in, “That’s a bit of a Barry”), but in this instance it’s rhyming slang for “shocker” ( it rhymes with Barry Crocker, another famous singing Barry).

It’s a shame that a name associated with so many high achievers has sunk to such a level of ignominy. But it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the Barry cause. Not at all.

I’ve always associated the name Barry with resourcefulness and capability. Dad can sew on a button, darn socks and stitch a repair in a cardigan. He can dig a trench straighter than a machine, cut down a tree and extract the roots, change a nappy, immaculately iron a shirt, dance, build a house, renovate on a budget, and sharpen your knives. He’ll have the crossword and Sodoku finished before you know it, as well as a pile of books of assorted genre and quality.

He can find common ground across socio-economic and cultural boundaries, finesse a handful of rags into “eight no trumps”, and write a letter in beautiful copperplate writing of which he’s justifiably proud.

So, nominative determinism has me thinking. I’m wondering whether Barry White would have possessed the ineffable cool to pen his odes to l’amour were his name Buster? Could Birdie Breen have kicked that wobbly point in ’66? Would Sugar Cassidy have become a hard-nosed political scribe? Doubtful times three.

In Barry we trust.